Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Carnegie Deli & America

I went to the Carnegie Deli recently to experience it before it shutters forever this New Year's Eve after 79 years in business. It's closing not because of the rent, but because the owner is tired of it all. Someone wants to buy the place and keep it going, but the owner is not interested. It's closing. Period. So I went.

If you've tried to get into the Carnegie you know it's almost impossible, thanks to the hordes of tourists mobbing at the door day and night. Tourists have always dined at the Carnegie--I did when I was a teenage tourist--but today the city suffers under mass tourism and there are many places--parks, museums--that are no longer enjoyable because of them.

So I got there at 8:00 in the morning, the moment it opened. Only a few diners were inside. It was quiet, the speakers playing light music from the 70s and 80s. Kenny Rogers, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond. Their images hang on the walls, in the famous sea of autographed head shots.

What will happen to all those head shots when Carnegie goes? What will happen to Larry Hagman, David Hasselhoff, Mr. T?

I couldn't bring myself to eat an overloaded pastrami sandwich at 8:00 in the morning, so I ordered eggs. A mistake. Nothing interesting happened. No Borscht Belt comedians were hanging out, cracking wise. Just the tourists, most of them looking tired and somewhat depressed.

As I was leaving, the place had already begun to crowd. A group of giddy young women took up a whole long table, every single one carrying those flowery quilted duffel bags you only see tourists carrying. They were loud. Bachelorettes. I left.

I decided to go to the Guggenheim just to use the golden toilet known as "America." I walked across Central Park, hoping that by the time I arrived at my destination my breakfast would have inspired a solid production. A shit in a golden toilet would be something. But this was not to be.

Again, I arrived early. I got to use the toilet right away, before the crowds showed up. The attendant informed us that people wait as long as two hours for the opportunity to evacuate into solid gold. Maybe they want to feel like Donald Trump. Maybe they want to make a statement, some sort of private protest. Or maybe they're just nihilists.

Does anyone prep for this experience by swallowing a handful of Just Another Rich Kid's gold pills so they can shit gold in the gold toilet?

I stepped inside and closed the door. Alone with the toilet, I snapped a few photos, then did what anyone does. A belly full of Carnegie Deli coffee went into "America." I can't say that I felt any better about the whole thing--the tourists, the loss of New York's character, hyper-gentrification, the presidential election, America, the way everything is going (down the shitter?). But I did feel like I'd accomplished some elemental mission, and it was still early in the day, after all. So there was that.


Scout said...

Here's something that Jeremiah and I agree on 100% - the loathsomeness of New York's ever-burgeoning tourist industry.

Of course, people have always been visiting the city, but never near so many as today. Some historians say it began during World War II, when soldiers and sailors had leave here - some theatre historians attribute the success of Oklahoma! to this; not that it's not a good show,. but such hokum would be laughed out of town after its first preview today (and probably by many more sophisticated New Yorkers even then). But it was mother's milk to homesick young men yearning to believe that they were about to die in defense of something truly good.

After WWII, when America truly began to own the entire world, prosperity induced a crazed boom in tourism; the middle classes could travel farther and spend more then ever before. And by the 70s, no one was content to merely visit that cabin in the woods a few hours away; no, it had to be Disneyland, Europe, New York City.

Sadly, it's not going to end in our lifetimes; too many people depend upon the tourist trade for their daily survival. But for those of us who don't depend upon these hordes of slack-jawed, slow-moving, herd-travelling, stopping-in-the-middle-of-the-sidewalk yokels - well, it can get you down from time to time, and inspire daydreams of a smaller NYC, with fewer and more intimate restaurants, smarter theatre, quiet museums, and a bit of peace from time to time.

Brian said...

Some food for thought from both Jeramiah and Scout. Hopefully we can find a way to live well in our new New York.

501bob said...

I remember my first job in the city, I was able to go to the top of the Empire State building on my lunch hour, no wait, no crowds. Sadly those days are long gone. So much has changed and not for the better, yes it's cleaner. I went to Ellis Island before the restoration, there was the dust of the past on everything. When you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, go to the basement storage area, it's open to the public, you will be amazed at what's there. I miss old New York..

James said...

For a little while, I worked with the Carnegie Deli - not in, but with. I had setup an account with them for our Midtown office. You'd call up and a (appropriately) very salty New Yorker would talk to me and look up our account, which was probably tacked to the wall on a piece of note paper. He simply seemed to know we were clients. I recall having a very large amount of hot pastrami delivered for an event - probably around 2007 - at our offices. Wouldn't you know, that was some of the finest eating I can remember? The Carnegie Deli is a gem, I thought! Naturally, these delicate treasures (as in the word "delicatessen") cannot always last. My impression is that the Carnegie was the last hold-out of what we pictured in our heads as being something out of "The Front" - semi-literate Woody Allen meeting his blacklisted ghost writers. An old waiter wishing "eat in good health!" when the plates are put down. Even The Stage had been hollowed out long before.

The problem is that Carnegie (named for the hall that was itself nearly torn down 57 years ago) is too close to the action now. West 57th Street has become the great shooting gallery for developers who don't care if you don't run into three book stores before entering your Subway station. They don't see any point in having a street of character - who demands that? They do not. Conformity, mild greed, passivity, lack of thought fill out the entropy, and suddenly West 57th Street has always been a path of enormous glass towers with uniformed attendants guarding hotel fronts and remarkably ugly piles of flats. Who would ever know that once it was kind of down-to-Earth, that even the Russian Tea Room used to have to advertise cocktails in its window, that the Great Northern was the big hotel for performing artists, that families ran shoe stores there and somebody's mother had an art gallery on the second floor? Who would know that in the old Carnegie tower a guy named Zeke Frank ran a recording studio and had discovered Carmen McRae? Just examples, of course.

Somehow, by fate of time, I never got to see the Sixth Avenue Deli - heralded as the greatest deli of them all. It's long been buried under sea of skyscraper during another siege of another avenue. And the names - the original Brass Rail, Top of the Sixes, Stork Club, Copa Cabana, Toots Shor, Astor Roof - weren't even marked on the sidewalk when I arrived. There was a Delmonico's, but I knew better. I do find myself fearing for the young who traffic New York now - remembering certain tattoo parlors, knowing there was a place that roasted a certain coffee while you waited and only cost $410 for a small cup. Ah, those were the days, weren't they?

All this is to say that memory may be even more important than pastrami, only now you have a walk a lot further to get to it.

Suomi.Rager said...

In Santa Fe, once the tourist season is over, the local talk-radio hosts tell their audience, "They're gone; it's safe to come out now."

Unknown said...

This was an excellent article you wrote Jeremiah! Really gives us insight on how you plan your daily travels for research around the city. I haven't been to the Carnegie since the early 80's because I remember it being touristy even then and for that reason it wasn't very appealing to me. In truth though I myself went there just to cross it off my bucket list (I did that also with Mama Leone's around that same time) I guess that made me a tourist then too. Anyway,that was in the days before the city's main industry became tourism as it is today. Even then the tourism had a more local feel... Jersey, Pennsylvania, Long Island, Connecticut, etc. New York doesn't even advertise to local visitors anymore. When was the last time anyone saw a local tv commercial advertising sightseeing New York by circling it on the "Circle line"?

Today's tourists are mostly hoards of wealthy global consumers who are finding less and less of these landmark businesses to clamor into. Now there's going to be one less for them. Carnegie Deli itself is going global as they close the brick and mortar business and launch their products for wholesale distribution. Seems like a smart idea for the owner who's Carnegie Deli name is already world renowned, but it's another big loss for the city.

Aimlessly said...

Sadly to say the great men that started that legacy would turn in their graves. Miltons Daughter has no clue of how to run the place and will never know. She handed it down for other to do her job. A soup man that only did that...soup. Messed with the ingredients and the whole cooking process. Sadly if you are a tourist you don't know the difference. All you know is to wait for a big sandwich to be put at your table and in front of your mouth. It went from home made fresh cut fries to frozen fries. It went from creating a scandal to get rid of staff that worked there for many years ranging from 10 to 19 years. Giving there all to not receive a letter or telephone call to at least tell them they will Never be called back. That's what it was all about. Family style, went out to be a how I can screw all of the employees over because every one knew her personal business but her. Mean while she was the borch bell who never new how to get passed the silver spoon.
Goodbye Carnegie Deli you were great at some point lets remember it thee original way you came to be rather than a hell hole and a tourist trap. To Marian, hope you are happy filling the 2 people beside you with all that money you took from other peoples mouths. They sure helped run Carnegie Deli off the Map. So long and goodbye.

Andrew Porter said...

We're getting the same sort of tourist overload here in Brooklyn Heights, mostly people who walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, then don't care about this area, just want to get back to "the City," aka civilization, as soon as possible. And who ask me where the nearest chain restaurant is, or, god help us, a place to buy tourist crap.
Thank the gods, we don't have that stuff here, mostly. Not yet, anyway.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

"The way everything is going down the shitter".

All that glitters is not gold. America glitters---but it's more from ostentatiousness than from substance.

That gold toilet symbolizes the "throw pearls to swine" social climate and culture that comprises capitalism and western societies.

Jim Rynne said...

Had my first meal at the Carnegie in 64 ,was nine years old,just moved here from Detroit my dad worked at the Buick dealer around the corner on Broadway. Was excited to go but got paralyzed when I saw it was communal seating. My mom didn't seem to mind so there we were. In those days all the waiters were all men with a wrap around apron and a shabby jacket. I ordered a corned beef and (gasp) milk! The waiter stopped writing stood straight up and announced to everyone within earshot "the kid wants a milk with his sandwich" which elesitted some gentle laughs and smiles around our table. The gentleman across from us in a magnificent dark blue cashmere jacket ( a spitting image of Humphery Bogarts father in Serena)smiles at me and told mom and I that the Carnegie was not a kosher establishment but the waiters were! We had a great conversation with this gentleman and communal seating never bothered me again,I think it's one of the things that made that place what it used to be. It certainly changed over the years the pictures and the kind of made up folklore but the food remained what it alllways was. Never had a bad meal there!

Jonah Falcon said...

Just watched my copy of Broadway Danny Rose yesterday.