The coat is full-length, made of real fur, and it comes with a matching hat, Russian-style. It’s in the style of those small hats that fit snuggly, and that are worn by every hot Russian spy in a James Bond movie. The make-up is extremely heavy. She has removed all her eyebrows, and drawn them back in a perfect arch with make-up pens. Her lips are of an intense red color that match the generous amount of blush that sits on top of an even more generous coat of foundation, and the eye-shadow is in a light shade of blue.
She looks oddly fashionable, but she must be at least 75, if not well into her 80s. Her looks radiate an old sense of fashion — fur, short hair dressed at a salon that seems to defy gravity, heavy make up, and a sense of entitlement.
“Cut it real thin. That’s it, that’s how I like it. Only here they do it the right way!” She talks with a slightly accented English.
I look at her in amazement, wondering if I’ve stepped into a New York from the 1950s. I also wonder if this what my grandmother would be like if she had migrated to the United States instead of Chile.
The Honduran man behind the counter runs his knife against the steel forth and back until he’s satisfied with the edge. He then removes from the display window a giant slab of smoked salmon from Nova Scotia, and starts cutting razor-thin slices off the fish. He carefully arranges them against a sheet of waxed paper, and cuts exactly 100 grams of thinly-sliced, premium smoked salmon.
There is a faint smell of smoke in the store, and I start wondering up and down the refrigerated display, admiring the bounty on offer: several kinds of smoked salmon (Scottish, Canadian, American and Chilean), smoked herring, preserved sardines, gefullte fisch, chicken-liver paste, and a generous selection of caviar from Russia and the United States. On the other side of the store, chocolates, rugelach, jars of capers and pickles, as well as bagels.
I can see the old lady is starting to salivate for her smoked salmon. She’s pursing her lips, and her tongue makes an occasional appearance, liking her lips in anticipation.
“Nobody cuts it like him. He’s just the best.”
The guy from Honduras continues to slice the salmon for her, but I can detect a faint smile on his face. The rest of the staff are openly smiling, and I can tell this is not the first time this scene has taken place. The old lady is a regular I am told, after she leaves, and goes through the same routine every time she visits. They are used to her patronizing attitude (she speaks to them as if they were children), but find her ways amusing in some strange sort of way.
Technically, I am not Jewish. My grandmother on my father’s side is Jewish, but since Judaism is traced through the mother’s line, I ended up outside the lineage. At any rate, my grandmother has always been an extremely secular jew, and I was raised in a Christian environment.
My grandmother, however, would sometimes try to remind me of my Jewish heritage. Every year, without fail, she would bring me flyers explaining the meaning of Yom Kippur and the Sabbath, yet we would always celebrate Christmas and never the Jewish holidays. I would listen to her stories growing up in Austria of the 1930s, what it was like to be a young Jew when Nazism was on the rise, and the amazing tale of how she and her family made it out of Europe. And we would occasionally eat foods that only now I recognize as coming from her Jewish repertoire — smoked fish, various beetroot preparations, fruit soups, and rugelach. But there was also bacon, smoked sausages and pate in our life.
As I look at the old lady ordering from the counter, I start placing her accent somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe. Poland maybe? Hungary?
The smoked fish is expensive, but i get a smoked salmon sandwich thinking of my grandmother. In another life, they would have migrated to the United States instead of Chile, the lady with the fur coat could have been my grandmother, haggling over smoked fish, and I’d be another another confused Jew in New York. But with bacon.
The store was Russ & Daughters, at 179 East Houston, New York. 212-475-4880.