Op-Ed / Out-of-town criticism, piled high on wry
Updated 4:34 pm, Friday, February 3, 2012
Before Westport Weston Nursery School, even before moving permanently to Westport, we would spend our summers at Compo. My parents would rent a house on Soundview, pack our drugged cat into checked luggage, and lovingly dump my sister and me off at beach school.
For many, Westport is the space between our beloved jetties. For others, Jesup Green reminds them of their halcyon youth. For me, it will always be Gold's Delicatessen.
Every Saturday my dad and I drove up South Compo to the blue deli with the cracked gold sign. Inside were the greatest foods and the most important people in the world.
Movers. Shakers. Writers. Legends buying hand sliced Norwegian smoked salmon and mistakenly calling it lox.
Pounds of fresh golden black Caspian caviar sitting in the same help-yourself refrigerator that held dozens of quarts of freshly squeezed bright orange juice.
And, of course, brisket upon brisket of corned and then smoked beefs, the latter known reverently as- pastrami.
Now, Jews and New Yorkers have a lot in common. We both know everything. And about certain things, directions, politics, and especially delicatessen, we know even more.
Last night I had dinner with two professional writers and an international lawyer. The Pulitzer Prize winner, Bill Sherman, says to me, "You gotta write what you know. Nobody cares about Africa."
Okay, I say. But they don't care what you know. They have to learn it on their own or the crux won't stick. You know, analogy and reference point, I say. Higher truth through fiction.
"Yeah, I don't know. He's funny," says the other writer.
"No, it's human interest people want. Your story is Westport. That's what you know," says the Pulitzer.
I speak Swahili and lived in a South American jungle and have spent over four months on foot in underexplored areas of the Himalayas and I ...
"You know that deli Gold's," says Sherman, the Pulitzer winner. "That place is just awful. We came down to visit your dad a couple of weeks before he died and I bought everyone lunch there. The Pastrami was just awful. Now Carnegie ..."
I was born and graduated in New York City, I say.
The other writer asks about the novel I lost.
The Pulitzer says, "No, your story is Gold's. The new owner isn't Jewish? You write that story and get it in the Westport News."
How about The Atlantic or New Yorker.
"No, the Westport News is where you start. You write that story about Gold's. May never be able to eat in Westport again, but that's where you start."
"What was the novel about," asks the other writer.
It was a comedy about a little boy and his dog who are immolated by the Portuguese Inquisition after his family flees the financial ruin of Tulipomania. But it was in `06, so it was relevant.
"You didn't have a hard copy?" the other writer asks.
It was on a Dell laptop, an external Western Digital hard drive, and had been emailed repeatedly to Yahoo.
The Pulitzer says, "Your dad used to rave about that place. Gold's this..."
Okay, I'll write it tonight. How many words do you want?
"You don't have to do it tonight."
No, I say, I'm happy to.
My Bedford middle school bus driver would let me out behind Gold's. I would buy a corned beef, all fat, like Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, on an onion roll and a Dr. Brown's Black Cherry. It was the greatest thing in the whole world.
I remember when Julius Gold waited on a tall black man. He was buying sturgeon, bagels, turkey, a real spread. He looked at the food and said, "Twenty dollars."
Now, even back then, it was way more than twenty dollars worth of food. The man seemed puzzled but handed over the money and was about to pick up his bags when Mr. Gold snapped at me, "Help this gentleman with his food."
I was a customer, but I did as I was told and carried the bags to Nickolas Ashford's Corniche convertible. Mr. Gold had not recognized him. I never said a word.
Mr. Gold always put something extra in the bag. A box of cookies. A bottle of salad dressing.
And with the salad dressing came the most contentious piece of Gold's history. A. E. Hotchner may disagree, and I was only four, and a court decided otherwise, but I remember the salad dressing that started Newman's Own, was Gold's.
I love Paul Newman. I don't think Julius ever got over losing him as a friend.
"No, no. Write about how crappy its become," I think I hear the Pulitzer say.
Oh, okay. I'll try.
Compared to Katz's though, could a little suburban strip mall deli ever compare?
Westport was just an onion farming village. Bridgeport was the manufacturing and shipping hub and Danbury was hat making capital of the world.
Westport, though, had some things going for it.
Mainly, a new train station and a nice beach. Before long, Desilu Productions had set up shop and then every painter, writer, and photographer, longing to get away from The City, suddenly had a cottage at The Old Mill.
Then came the creative directors.
Then Reagan and the financial advisers.
And Gold's? Gold's was hopping.
"It's simple. We serve only the best!" was printed in two colors on the thick plastic containers that lovingly housed the chopped chicken livers and whitefish salads.
Or, "Waited on one at a time, by adults," stenciled on a glass display. As if there would ever be any other way.
Julius Gold taught me how to slice salmon and was the first person I ever called Sir.
In the car my father asked why, if I'd met Hollywood producers and actors and politicians, I would call the owner of a deli, Sir.
He just seemed to deserve my respect, I answered.
And so what now?
Julius Gold is long gone. Is the food at Gold's what it used to be? Is anything?
Westport has more financial advisers than artists. No one has worn a hat since Eisenhower. And they still call it lox when they want Nova.
But to an outsider?
Should I write the clientele has changed and it's impossible to maintain the same level of quality without the same level of volume?
Should I write that hope springs eternal?
I know, in the spirit of reconciliation and the good will exhibited by and toward my people, I'll just write, thanks for visiting.
Now, screw off back to New York, and leave the complaining about Westport to us.
Joshua Fine is a 1996 Staples High School graduate who now lives in Wilton.