The moment I enter the deli, all my guilt over being there melts away. What reasonable person would not surrender to the sweet smell of dry salami? My frozen Lean Cuisine left in the fridge at work is long forgotten. A hint of sour from pickles and eggs curing in large glass barrels of vinegar wafts by. A great mound of pastrami steams on the counter top, ready to be taken to a hungry dinner guest. Heavenly.
I am studying the vast over-sized menu on the wall above and having a particularly difficult time deciding on German potato salad or wonderfully seasoned fries for my sandwich's side order. My coworker suggests I pull out all the stops and get both. Why not? You only live once, I say.
Decisions made, I eye the people standing in line with us. A woman behind me waits with two young children. The girl and boy look up and me and offer small smiles. The little girl holds a picture she has colored of an orange pumpkin with a happy grin. "JUAN" is near the top of the page in big green letters with an orange happy face in Crayon. She is perhaps five and proud of her school artwork.
An unseasonal heatwave cooks the pavement outside, but the children's mother wears a nylon jacket. Her hair is long, thin and separating with oil at the crown. She wears no makeup and there are no socks between the end of her faded blue sweatpants and her scuffed tennis shoes. Both children wear school uniforms common in this area - khaki pants and a white shirt. The boy's hair is buzzed. His sister's blond hair is cut a bit jaggedly at the neckline.
As I order my pastrami dream boat, one of the cooks waves enthusiastically from behind the counter. The little girl yells, "Juan! Hi!" and waves her pumpkin drawing in the air. The cook holds up one finger and smiles. "Hi Juan!" says the girl again. Her mother quiets her gently.
We step aside to wait for our take-out orders. The woman approaches the cashier, who greets her warmly. She orders a side of fries and three waters. She pays for her order with exact change: $2.60. The woman and her children sit at the counter, she in between them.
A few moments later, Juan emerges from the kitchen with a pizza platter piled high with fat home style french fries, another plate with condiments of peppers, ketchup, and small cups of shredded cheese, onions, salsa and possibly cilantro. He sets down three tall glasses of ice water with several lemon slices in each. Both children's drinks have colorful corkscrew straws.
He pats the woman on the shoulder and they share some words. He shakes the little boy's hand and the young girl can no longer contain herself. "JUAN!" she yells, "Look at! For you!" He takes his pumpkin picture, smiles widely and gives her a light hug before returning to the kitchen. The woman has already begun eating. She takes one fry at a time while her son takes heaping handfuls.
The cashier calls our number. She hands me my bag heavy with a pound of pastrami, potato salad AND french fries in one hand, super-sized Coke in the other.