For old-timers like Schneit, now inching ever closer to the front of the deli line, losing the Carnegie and other places like it makes the city feel like a very different place. “We’re losing a sense of community,” he says. “The whole city, it’s all global now. When I was a kid, you’d go to a candy store and they knew you, they knew your family... The whole city has lost its character.”
In that spirit of community, we decide to share a table when it’s finally time to sit down, about a half hour later. Beside us is a family from Brooklyn, also here to pay their final respects, and at the far-end of the communal eight-seater, a pair of tourists taking a selfie with a framed, autographed portrait of the actor David Hasselhoff from his Knight Rider days in the early 1980s.
Schneit remarks that today’s celebrities are probably a lot less willing to associate themselves with a red-meat establishment like this. A quick survey of the other glossies suggests he might be right.
“I won’t have any problem using up the gift card,” says Schneit, examining the menu prices (the hot pastrami sandwich costs $19.99). “I’ll probably owe them money when I’m done, even with the gift card!” (Alas, the cashier refuses to check the balance on Schneit’s gift card, so we end up paying full price anyway.)
We order some classics: the towering half-pastrami, half-corned beef “Woody Allen” for me, the regular pastrami on rye for Schneit, a plate of pickles and two Dr. Brown’s cherry sodas. When I ask if the deli is even busier now that people know it’s closing, the gruff waitress simply shrugs, “Hard to say.”
When the food arrives, the sandwiches look even more monstrous than I remember. Somehow, over the next 40 minutes, I’m actually able to polish off the entire 4in-high monument of carnage. It’s luscious, peppery, and delicious. Schneit finishes his too. Throughout the endeavor, we are compelled to chat up neighboring diners about this place and its recent TV-drama-worthy history, which gets me thinking about what it all means.
Pastrami may never die. It carries on in the form of chef-driven dumplings, egg rolls, and countless other fusion-y incarnations beyond its old-school sandwich trappings. But this particular experience, sharing tales of local lore with strangers, all united by that basic urge of hunger, is really what’s at stake. When the Carnegie Deli is replaced with say, Chipotle, or some other soulless chain, will customers engage with each other the same way? Probably not.
Stuffed and satisfied, we settle up and head out into the street. The line outside is now even longer than when I first arrived. Though his gift card was a bust, Schneit seems pleased with having made it here anyway. Heck, he even waited on line for the privilege of one last bite at a fading NYC icon. Says Schneit, “I don’t wait on line for a haircut!”