Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guest in Progress: Richard Goodman Discovers the Flavor of the Lower East Side

When Richard Goodman told me he had written a new book, I didn’t realize it was something he’d written exactly for ME. Okay, not really—but sort of. Here’s how he describes A New York Memoir:

A New York Memoir is, essentially, a long love letter to New York City. It covers a period of thirty-five years, beginning with my knock-kneed arrival at Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1975 down to the present day. The book consists of fourteen essays that chronicle people I've met and the inspiration I've received as a writer living here. It shows what it's like being young here, growing here as an artist and person, and growing old here. The author Susan Vreeland said the book is "a heart laid bare." I hope so.”

Compare that with one of my primary definitions of The Perfect Book: about New York, about people coming to New York, about New York in the past, about writers/artists in New York, about food in New York.

Since his description didn’t allude to the “food in New York” part of my definition of The Perfect Book, he kindly filled me in with this gorgeous memory of eating in New York:

By Richard Goodman

You are a young man and you’ve come to New York City to live in 1975, specifically to the Lower East Side, on Tenth Street, between Second and Third Avenue. You are basically ignorant of everything and every place. You have a great advantage, though, because ignorance for a young man in New York City back then is, indeed, bliss. The sense of discovery fills all your days. You do not know that the neighborhood you have somehow chosen, quite by a giant stroke of luck, is an old Jewish/Polish/Ukrainian enclave. It is as genuine as it can get outside the mother countries, with flavors and accents and modes as strong and sweet as the smells that emanate from the ethnic shops and restaurants that line Second Avenue. There is a Yiddish theatre on Twelfth Street, one of the last, if not the last, in Manhattan, where people go—and you see them, these slow moving old people, on summer evenings—to hear plays acted in Yiddish. There is a Polish butcher shop between Eighth and Ninth Street where English is rarely spoken and understood, only Polish, where you go for the most mouth-watering ham you’ve ever tasted outside of your native Virginia.

You go to many splendid exotic places—and you realize then and there that exotic has nothing to do with money—like the Ukrainian Coffee Shop on Ninth Street where, on bone-chilling winter days, you devour the supremely restorative hot Borscht and homemade bread slathered in what seems to be butter they churn themselves. You go to the bakery on Ninth Street where three ancient siblings, two brothers and a sister, move in their own deliberate rhythm behind the counter to fetch you the fresh cracked loaves from dark shelves while inquiring about your health. Or—and this is your favorite place of all—you go to the Second Avenue Delicatessen on Tenth Street for all the glories of Jewish food.

No, they didn’t tell you about a place like this in your provincial little beach resort in Southeastern Virginia where you grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s. This wildly theatrical place, with its weary, disheveled, impatient waiters and noisy countermen, serves some of the best food you’ve never had before. You have your first pastrami sandwich here, and your first corned beef sandwich here. Both are masterpieces, stacked high between thick slices of rye bread, the slices of meat laid over one another in a pyramid of nose-arousing beauty. What is pastrami, you wonder. But you don’t dwell on this, because the dark, peppery meat is so wonderfully good and so satisfying that questions are irrelevant. Did you parents know about this and hide it from you? It’s that good, this warm succulent sandwich that sends you to heaven. Yes, you prefer pastrami to corned beef, but the decision is hard to come by, and so you must try first pastrami, then corned beef, on subsequent visits in order to be fair to them both.

When things don’t go well at your job on certain days, you wander into the Second Avenue Deli and order one of these sandwiches to go for comfort. And they do provide comfort, and joy, and optimism. If this is what we can create, you think, your two hands around the sandwich in your little apartment, guiding it toward your trembling mouth, why, all things are possible. You take a bite. Life is good.

[Editor’s note: The Second Avenue Deli has moved to 33rd Street, and is still going strong!]

About: Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France and The Soul of Creative Writing. He teaches creative nonfiction at Spalding University's brief residency MFA in Writing program in Louisville, Kentucky. His web page is and you can buy A New York Memoir here.

Also, Richard has written many popular guest posts for the blog, including a piece about writing a writing book (here), an homage to readers (here), and the benefits of writing in longhand (here).


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.