Thursday, December 1, 2011

Langer's is My Candle on the Water

A real egg cream with foam that could serve as the top of a lemon meringue pie (I know an egg cream has no egg, but this was very close to how meringue looks). A small bowl of matzo ball soup where the gently seasoned soup and the matzo ball were both very much real and supported each other incredibly well. A large order of fries, true deli fries, crisp enough on the outside without being difficult, and soft enough on the inside to make you reach for more and more. A pastrami and chopped liver sandwich that I didn't even know had been one of my dreams come true, with blessed seeded rye bread featuring a snappy crust, chopped liver that tasted like it had been made by caring minds, hearts and hands, and pastrami that cures all ills. I'm serious. If you're feeling down, this pastrami can perk you right up. If you're a vegetarian, I wish you could convert just one day for this.

All this and pumpkin cheesecake is what I had at Langer's Deli, across from MacArthur Park, where Mom, Dad, Meridith and I had gone for Dad's birthday, for us to take a picture of him under the sign, because of the adult version of the Song That Doesn't End (Think of Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop and you'll understand the reference I'm getting at). Dad was still upstairs near the restrooms (You have to go up a few steep steps to get to them because this building has been here for decades and the management of Langer's will never change any part of it and rightly so), Mom and Meridith were at the counter getting a rye bread to take home, and I was just sitting at our booth, flooded equally with pure pleasure and happiness. In eight years of living in Southern California, I had never felt like this. The music playing overhead had turned to an instrumental version of Helen Reddy's Candle on the Water, which was much more pleasant than the original. This was one of the best days of my life, a most welcome rescue from eight years of soulless living, though not by our hand.

Israel is not the Promised Land. Langer's is. I've never been more proud of my heritage because of it. The pickles served with the sandwiches were the real deal, cold and crunchy, and very possibly imported from New York. Langer's is the one true New York deli in Los Angeles. Jerry's Deli, which we went to many times, is L.A.'s idea of what a New York deli is, which is a bad idea; very, very bad. It's why the matzo ball soup there is so lousy because they are working on assumptions, not reality. It's not enough to have matzo ball soup on the menu and posters of Broadway shows in frames hung throughout the restaurant. That's not all of what New York is. It's also about finding where you feel you belong and embracing it so tightly that it can't wriggle out of your grasp.

I know nothing about actually being in New York. My parents do, having lived there long before I was even an idle thought, growing up there, and I've had so much of it drilled into me (along with having a subscription to "The New Yorker" that will so far last until September 2014), that it's not a stretch to consider myself an Honorary New Yorker. I don't want to live there, but I like what it represents in food and culture and one day, in my travels to all the presidential libraries in the nation, I'll stop in New York City after going to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum upstate to gawk and genuflect at The Strand, which has "18 Miles of Books," as they so proudly state on their website. By the time I do this, I know it'll still be there. This kind of bookstore can only exist in New York City.

None of the interior of Langer's seems to have changed since 1947, though probably modernized where necessary, but out of view of the customers. It's tight seating, it sits squarely in a heavily Latino area, but it will not move. It has been here for decades and it will remain for decades more. I wouldn't be surprised if Langer's is still around in 2043. This is most important because it feels peaceful inside. This is a sanctuary for masterful pastrami, for all the dishes that make me proud to be Jewish, including kishka, which we ordered too.

What helped this day become great was not just the food. At MacArthur Park, it had been a view of a loft building, four floors, and you could see a bit into the lower-level lofts from ground level. I had Meridith take photos of it with her phone because it feels like there's something there for me to write. It may be a play, or a novel, and even though I don't know what it is yet, I think I will in a few weeks or a few months. I have time because of all the other books I want to write. I take my inspiration from locations first, and then fill out the rest. Nothing is more important to me than place.

The day also became one of the greatest of my life because of a waiter named Kevin, who has clearly been an employee of Langer's for years and years. He didn't say much, and didn't have to, because he had an instinct of what we wanted. He was patient, a little flummoxed by my sister's request for a pastrami and whitefish sandwich which couldn't be done, but he never showed it. There was a slight change in his voice, but that was it. No ridicule, nothing. When I ordered cheesecake, he came back after a few minutes and said that there was also pumpkin cheesecake. I immediately said "Pumpkin," and he sounded amused because I'm enthusiastic about pumpkin pie. It's my favorite. So to get pumpkin cheesecake is not only preferred, but rare, since I don't have cheesecake very often.

Kevin felt like the paintings on the walls next to and near our booth. The largest, by an "M. Welman" in 1968, was of a man working behind a deli counter, slicing pastrami, with a stack of rye bread near him, old ladies waiting in front of the corner, and one looking over the counter, making sure the man is slicing it right. I miss those pushy old ladies at Lox Haven in Margate, Florida. I prefer them to the stone figures in my current neighborhood, who merely glare and travel in packs, tut-tutting everything about the neighborhood that doesn't conform to their long-held standards. Those old ladies at Lox Haven were pushy, but it was because they knew what they wanted and they were tenacious in getting it. The ones I knew are probably long gone, but as much as I was miffed at their pushiness, I wish I had it now. I think it's because they were with me in solidarity. We were all Jewish, we knew that there was lox and whitefish in those cases and we were going to live as we were meant to.

The paintings one booth down from us, also by Welman, were of men slicing pastrami in the kitchen. Kevin seemed like he could have been one of them in that time, dignified, knowing the work had to be done, and taking pride in it. He wasn't an actor just slumming as a waiter, as so many seem to be in Greater Los Angeles. It looked like he makes the profession an artform. When we ordered our drinks and I ordered an egg cream, he misheard me and thought I ordered a cream soda like Mom and Meridith did. I told him, politely as I always am, that I ordered an egg cream, and he apologized in his low-key tone. No apology needed. I was in awe of him at the start, at his efficiency, at his careful managing of his tables, at his way of seemingly floating through the restaurant, because there were moments when he appeared and I wondered where in the heck he had come from.

I was right about chili cheese fries feeling disrespectful at Langer's. I had already made up my mind before we walked in, but after we did, I knew it wasn't possible. Not with tile flooring that reminded us of Publix's floors back in Florida. Not with walking past the counter seating where real people were eating, real Los Angeles denizens. Not with passing the revolving glass case of cheesecake and other cakes. Not with passing a vertical refrigerated double-door display case that had the Langer's logo across the top. Not with sitting down and being ushered into a universe of Jewish food that had eluded us in all the time we've lived in Southern California. Mom asked Dad later on how in the hell we could have gone to Jerry's Deli many times when this was here.

On the freeway back to Santa Clarita, on my mp3 player, I listened to the "Star Tunnel" music that's heard when entering Space Mountain in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World (, and decided that if there is an afterlife, that's what I want to hear on the way in. There also had better be a Langer's there too, just like this one. A little while ago, I had a slice of the rye bread we brought home, and that's the first thing I want when I get there.

In early October, I wrote about where I am in my head when I write and when I'm reading my writing, and editing ( I'm adding Langer's to that, because I'm going to spend a lot of time back at that booth, with that pastrami and chopped liver sandwich in front of me, with Kevin appearing out of nowhere, and that perfect egg cream. It's not possible for me to live at Langer's, so this is the next best thing.