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An excerpt from Deli Life

Jami Attenberg

I moved to my new apartment last fall, at a time when everyone around me was also making life-changing decisions. I left behind the Deli of Life and moved into the neighborhood of the Brothers Deli. It's actually only a block and a half away from my old apartment, but it might as well be Brooklyn. I haven't been to the Deli of Life since.

The Brothers Deli is a perfectly acceptable deli, clean, well-stocked, with several rows for foot traffic and display space. Everything fits nicely, and I never feel crowded in there. It reminds me of a solid one-bedroom apartment, the kind you pick when you first move in with your lover, and your joint incomes suddenly allow you a bit more luxury.

For a long time (I say a long time, but now that I think about it, it was only a month or so. But that's a long time in deli time), there was a counter girl at the Brothers Deli who was young and cute with short hair, but a little too feisty for her boss. I never knew what they were fighting about, but she and the manager were always going at it about something. They never seemed to care that they were fighting around the customers, or maybe I was exposed to more of it because I was a regular. They were brutal but short, these battles, both employee and manager speed-talking, using condescending tones. Was it the way she gave out change? How much sugar she put in the coffee? Did she resent him for watching over her shoulder as she counted change? I'll never know.

There is no room for insubordination behind the counter.

She had a slight accent that made me think she was from the Caribbean. She had a beauty mark on her cheek, and tan skin. She told me she lived in Harlem, and it took her a long time to get to work. She also told me once that she and her boyfriend had broken up, this last fact revealed on Valentine's Day.

She wished me a "Happy Valentine's Day," and I had grunted, "Yeah right, whatever." And then she spilled her guts, that they had split, but it didn't matter, we could still have a good day, couldn't we? I thought her optimism was sweet, while at the same time I sort of thought she might be an idiot (if you're smart, you'll get cynical after a breakup and then stay that way for the rest of your life). I liked her most of the time, except when she talked too much. I ended up feeling guilty for not talking as much as her, not interacting, not communicating.

She was so nice that she assumed I was sick when I was merely cranky, and for days after I was particularly miserable to her, she would continue to ask me if I was feeling better. I ultimately had to remind myself that there aren't too many perks to working in a deli. Customers who are kind, free coffee all day long, and the paycheck at the end of the week. Was it my responsibility to give back a little bit? She always remembered I wanted hazelnut coffee, and I never had to remind her how I took it. Mostly I was nice, I think. I hope.

I think I needed her to be nice to me more than I was willing to admit.

And then, suddenly, she was gone. Just when she and I had developed a nice rhythm, a good little coffee-and-chitchat relationship, she was banished, perhaps to a deli across town. I imagined that her boss had "had it with her lip," or something like that. How could she be so sweet and polite to me and then be fired? I wouldn't ask about her though. It's not like I knew her name or anything.


Jami Attenberg lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. She owns and operates Whatever Whenever. Deli Life was published in January 2003 by So New Media Press.

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