My nights at the Carnegie Deli

I haven’t eaten at the Carnegie Deli in a long time, and being vegetarian, I don’t expect to before it closes down at the end of the year.

Not that a vej can’t get anything to eat there, as I’ve known since first arriving in New York in the early 1980s, and in short order getting a job at the long gone Cash Box music trade magazine.

Cash Box was at 57th and Broadway then, easy delivery distance from the Carnegie, just a few blocks away on 7th Ave. It’s so long ago I can’t remember what day our deadline day was, though I think it was Thursday. That day we’d stay in for lunch and order out from the Carnegie, and this I remember clearly.

The Carnegie figurehead then was late co-owner Leo Steiner, whose caricature was emblazoned on Carnegie napkins along with the slogan “Carnegie Leo makes a goooood sandwich!”—the “good” strung out because the Carnegie’s famously “overstuffed” sandwiches were indeed that, so long as “good” means “immense.”

I mean, if they didn’t have a foot-long hot dog, Carnegie sandwiches were surely a foot-high, and as big as a fortress, defended, to the death, by surrounding plates full of varied dill pickles. The corned beef sandwich, as an example, was piled high to the sky. My egg salad sandwich was as big as a mountain.

I also ordered a side of fries, though by the time they got there, they were pretty soggy, laying flat and lifeless in their thin cardboard box like (as they might say at the Carnegie) a lox. And then we all made the worst possible mistake you could make with a Carnegie sandwich, on deadline day or any other: We ate the whole fucking thing at once.

Let me tell you: You eat a whole Carnegie Deli sandwich in one sitting, you’re down for the count. I could have lived maybe a month or two–easily–on one of those sandwiches. The rest of the day was accompanied by the sounds of groaning from us comatose Cash Box staffers, who nevertheless did get their copy in on time—the quality of which I cannot recall.

But I remember groans other than my own and my fellow Cash Boxers, namely Alison Krauss & Union Station. When AKUS first started playing at New York—at the Bottom Line—they were still pretty much kids: late teens, early twenties, first times in the Big City. Naturally they gravitated toward the Carnegie, and naturally they pigged out bigtime.

It was an honor and a privilege to pig out with them. They’d even order double to bring back to the bus. Kept them all going all the way back to Nashville, for sure, and maybe back to New York again. Like the Carnegie motto said, “If you can finish your meal, we’ve done something wrong.”

But AKUS was hardly alone in heading to the Carnegie after a gig, though one time after a Texas Tornadoes show (again at the Bottom Line) the band decided to go to some other late-night joint that I can’t remember, somewhere in the East 30s or 40s. I was in a cab with Augie Meyers, but when we got there we found it closed due to a kitchen fire. It might have been pre-cell phones, because we couldn’t contact Doug Sahm and the rest of the guys in another cab. So we just decided to head over to the Carnegie, and when we got there, Doug and the others were already there and chowing down.

But My last memory of the Carnegie is especially fitting, as it concerns the one and only Jackie Mason—one of many celebrities who were regulars there. It was probably 1987, the year Warner Bros. released the soundtrack album of his Broadway hit show The World According to ME, though it could have been the followup Brand New, released via Sony in 1991. Whichever the label, they had a release party for Jackie at the Carnegie, and of course being a huge fan, I was there.

I’d get to know Jackie a bit over the years, from going to his shows and running into him on the street. Then a couple years ago I joined him and his entourage for dinner a few times, until I either said something wrong or didn’t say something right. He turned to the guy sitting on his left and said, to my perverse and lasting pleasure, “I’m speaking to a fucking moron!”

And that was it, though he did say he’d call me—just not when. Sadly, if and when he does, it won’t be to meet him at the Carnegie.

By the way, Carnegie Leo died at age 48 on December 31, 1987, and was eulogized by none other than Henny Youngman as “the deli lama.” Cause of death, according to Wikipedia, was complications of a brain tumor—a creative euphemism, no doubt, for terminal indigestion.