Woog’s World: A hole in the heart of Main Street
Updated 11:40 pm, Wednesday, August 10, 2016
There’s a hole in the heart of Main Street.
I’m not the first to say this. In fact, I’m not the 100th, or 1,000th. Many Westporters -- present and past -- have remarked on the metaphorical heart being ripped out of the center of downtown. Many more -- those who move here, from last week on -- will never know what they missed.
What’s missing is of course Oscar’s. Its official name is -- sorry, was -- Oscar’s Delicatessen. But like Elaine’s, or (thankfully) Gold’s, it does not need any other description. One word says it all.
Oscar’s closed on Aug. 1. Owner Lee Papageorge’s battle with lung cancer forced the end of the long-running, beloved institution that was far more than the sum of its bagel, nova and pastrami parts.
You could get those treats -- well, not anywhere, but certainly at Gold’s. (Though some fans insisted they tasted better at Oscar’s than anywhere else, with the possible exception of where they used to live in New York.)
What you could not get had nothing to do with deli food. It had everything to do with the environment and atmosphere that its owner -- probably without any design, but solely because of him -- created and nurtured.
You could meet friends at Oscar’s, and sit and talk. And talk and talk. Then talk some more. Groups met regularly -- after tennis, after dropping the kids off at school, after a 12-step meeting -- and, over breakfast, coffee or enormous sandwiches (with a pickle -- more on that later), they discussed the fate of the world. The state of their marriages. The Yankees and Mets, Giants and Jets. Lee let them linger and laugh, argue and agree. In fact, he loved that they did.
You could do that inside or out. Many groups had “regular” tables, though scoring one of the smaller ones outdoors was trickier. If you were lucky enough to sit there, you enjoyed a front-row seat on a remarkable parade of Westport life. It was people-watching (and conversation-eavesdropping) of the first order, and those tables were almost always full. From steamy summer days to cool autumn mornings and lazy spring afternoons, Oscar’s al fresco was the downtown place to be.
But you did not always have to sit together. Long before Starbucks became famous (infamous?) as a quasi-office for writers pecking away at laptops, consultants creating business plans and day traders day trading, Oscar’s was a haven for solitude.
I have no idea how many books were written near the back door. (On the deli’s last day in business, Lee’s daughters spread out a dozen or so, in which Oscar’s was mentioned.) I don’t have a clue how many businesses were launched, or stocks bought and sold. And none of us will ever know how many people worked through the grief of a lost loved one (or a lost marriage), or overcame any other life challenge, during the hours they spent alone at an Oscar’s table. The number must be in the tens of thousands.
Here’s the thing about all those people who sat at Oscar’s, whether in tight-knit groups or all alone: Other customers never bothered them, or even knew who they were. The owner loved it that way.
“Millionaires and homeless people sat next to each other at Oscar’s,” someone said hours before the deli closed forever. “And Lee treated them all the same.”
That’s not hyperbole. Very quietly -- and without fanfare -- Lee would buy a meal for someone who could not afford it. And a couple of years ago, he bought lunch for Joel Smilow, the Westport philanthropist who (among many other good deeds) endowed a cancer center at Yale. Lee just wanted to thank the multimillionaire for his lifetime of generosity. Lee had no idea that this summer, he himself would undergo immunotherapy with a superb group of doctors and other staff members at the Smilow Cancer Hospital.
Lee did not start his delicatessen. There actually was an original Oscar -- Sisken. He, his wife Sally and her brother Benny opened it in the 1940s, a few doors down Main Street. It was a narrow spot, known for (among other things) homemade pickles.
Oscar sold the business to Joe Milici, who brought in Lee as a partner in 1971. A few years later, Lee became sole owner, and moved to his now-familiar site.
That was fitting. Lee had worked at Oscar’s since he was 16. Yet his connection with Westport dates back to his father and grandfather, who opened the Club Grill across from what is now Tiffany, in 1927.
That’s 89 years ago. For half that time, Oscar’s has been synonymous with Lee Papageorge.
The heart of Westport is now gone. All we’re left with are heartfelt thanks.