Einhorn’s Kosher Palace
My father made his fortune litigating accident cases, but his was less the practice of law than a carnival midway, with its false fronts, rigged games, and peep show grotesques. In fact, he loomed so large across his Emerald City, his gold rush boomtown—slapping backs and slipping cash-stuffed envelopes into palms and pockets, “adjusting” accident sites and “getting our story straight,” swearing undying loyalty with fingers crossed behind his back, and even, here and there, trying a case in actual court—that he was known with much affection, but also terror and loathing, as The Mayor of Brooklyn.
The Mayor was a creature of the night, when he could prowl, hungry to be happened to. Sometimes one of those nights went on for days. Darkness would fall and still no key in the door, no phone call of explanation, dinner long grown cold, my mother, Nina, flying from room to room, annihilating every crumb and folding things to death, dimming the lamps and twisting the cord for the window blinds as if she were strangling all light from our private little planet of anguish. “He could have been hit by a car, lying in some hospital, shot in the street. He could be dead; he could be dead and how would I know?” she’d plead. Not to me, exactly—she seemed oblivious to the puzzled bystander following her from room to room—but to some imagined intercessor with the power not so much to explain the Mayor’s whereabouts as to change his nature at the core. Even then I sensed that her fear was half a wish. Court reporters and docket clerks, waitresses and opposing counsel, wives of judges and wives of friends: all were making sure he was safe and sound and in the very best of hands. I was left in Nina’s.
It was shortly after one of the Mayor’s disappearances (that Nina explained around the neighborhood as his being “away for work”) that he returned home to declare that family was “the root of the Great Tree,” so from now on we would gather together every week for Sunday dinner, “come hell or high water.” And we would do it at Einhorn’s Kosher Palace.
Einhorn’s was palatial, a Chinese box of dining rooms that began beneath the spellbinding sign rising like a neon beacon above double glass doors at the corner of Ocean and Emmons Avenues. The small parking lot was always full, cars ringing the restaurant as if it were a planet. The first, inner ring was the envied line of curb-parked cars whose families were already happily gorging themselves in the leather booths with antique lamps. The second was the double-parkers, who had to wait for the appearance of a blissfully engorged family climbing into their car and easing away from the curb with the exasperating dreaminess that was the post-coital-like culmination of an evening with Einhorn’s mile-high platters. The third, outer ring, was the circlers, who waited for the double-parkers to pitch forward for a newly vacant space. Circling casually was out of the question: this was war, and you had to be on high alert, because the minute a car pulled from the curb and a double-parker took its place, the circlers scrambled with the headlong glee of Coney Island bumper cars for the open space in the double park line. One of the spoils of victory was getting to watch newcomers circle past you now, while you waited for the restaurant’s doors to open, signaling a fresh curb space to come. The restaurant employed no valets to keep order, so the question who had been waiting longest was settled with screaming horns, elaborate insults, and, every now and then, middle-aged Jews and Italians going mano a mano in the middle of Ocean Avenue as their wives rolled their eyes or shrieked for them to Cut it out so we can eat before Tuesday.
Once inside, it would quickly become obvious, as Izzy the headwaiter would usher us past tables of well-wishers, hand-claspers, and back-slappers, that the Mayor was angling for more than simple togetherness (I knew something was up because he always made me wear the navy blazer with oversized gold buttons and blue-and-green striped tie we’d bought for my bar mitzvah: “No blazer, no Einhorn’s”). Still, I never resented playing my part in any Big Happy Family pageant, because both my hands would soon be wrapped around a Double-Header brimming with Russian dressing, Einhorn’s magnum opus, a paean to baseball and to overeating. Abraham Einhorn’s twin obsessions.
Within a couple of hours, we were all walking from our Cadillac toward the giant Einhorn’s sign as if that strip of sidewalk were a Hollywood red carpet: junior in his blazer and clip-on tie, the Mayor in a silver pinstripe, Nina in her stole, shimmering with jewelry. The single thing Nina excelled at was makeup. Her light green eyes, red hair, pale freckles, and expression of serene self-confidence expertly camouflaged the energy it took, every day, just to hold herself together.
Izzy led us through the “Walk of Schmucks,” as the Mayor put it only after we’d reached our table and no one could hear, dismissing old Izzy with a nod, making a show of pulling out Nina’s chair himself and removing her stole. He even leaned in for a kiss that she accepted the way she usually did, face turned away with a faint look of disgust, a fleetingly revealing moment at most, because she would snap right back to her public smile of self-satisfaction, as if to signal to the crowd that the Mayor of Brooklyn was, after all, hers.
I opened my menu, which had gradually expanded from a cloistered two-page foldout of kosher-only to eight towering pages of secular gastronomy sealed in thick plastic. The Double-Header took so many words to describe that it had its own place of honor, four-by-five inches of black-bordered poetry in the section of the menu devoted to “Our Heroic Yankees.” I knew with perfect savoring certainty what I would order for my main course but strategized dessert from the infinite assortment of cakes, pies, manhole-cover-sized cookies, and ice cream sundaes. Nina turned to me pointedly, “They have so many delicious looking salads, don’t they, Henry?”
Izzy hustled back to our table—no ordinary waiter was good enough to serve the Mayor and his family. Pressing close like a gratingly chummy uncle, he asked me whom I liked in the Series. Immediately the Mayor stopped flipping pages, scanning the crowd for who might be listening, while making a show of pretending not to be. Then he fixed me in a look of homicidal expectation, through a smile so wide his jaw clenched and his neck muscles detonated.
“What do I feel like tonight?” Nina said, musing brightly, while studying the menu as if it were a freshly discovered page from the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Bay scallops or veal piccata?”
Izzy hovered eagerly, waiting for my pearl of baseball wisdom.
The problem was that I had no idea whom I liked in the Series. I knew, and cared, nothing about baseball. Nothing, for that matter, about football, basketball, or any of the other sports that occupied kids my age. I was big enough to play linebacker (if someone explained what one of those did), but blubbery: everything between waist and neck wobbled when I ran, which wasn’t often, because I was fundamentally uncoordinated, with a tendency to trip over hairline cracks in the sidewalk. Also because I had a wicked case of asthma. After sprinting five or six yards, I’d be doubled-over, sucking in breath with a sound like Nina’s Hoover after it swallowed one of her earrings.
“Tell him who you like,” the Mayor prompted, his eyes dilating with threat.
Izzy said, “Oakland or L.A.?”
I nearly fainted with relief—now at least I knew who was playing.
The Mayor cared even less for sports than I did. His reason wasn’t asthma or a tendency to stumble. He was an Old Testament God, jealous of his prerogatives—there was room for only one hero in his world. Still, he made a practice of eyeballing the sports pages, just enough to fake expertise during the preliminaries to business talk. Now everyone in the restaurant was about to learn that the Mayor’s kid knew nothing about the World Series, a scandal that would wildfire through Brooklyn.
To Izzy, the Mayor said, “The kid’s got a method. You can put a thousand bucks on his opinion and retire to Miami.”
“A method!” Izzy said, awestruck.
“I’m inclined to go with the bay scallops,” Nina sang, not taking her eyes from the menu. “But when I think about it, am I really in a bay scallop mood?”
Izzy rubbed his hands together. “If the Mayor says his kid’s got a method, I’m getting on the phone in the kitchen and putting a weeks’s salary, with tips, on who he’s going with.”
Nina turned to the Mayor, draping her fingers across his wrist as if to signal something but rushed them back to her menu as if his hand were a hot coal. “A month’s salary,” she fluted. “That’s quite a responsibility.”
Now she was the focus of the Mayor’s ballistic smile. He told Izzy, “Give the kid a minute to work out his numbers. When you come back with the food, he’ll know to a dead certainty who’s going to win.”
Satisfied, Izzy finally let us order.
“Double-Header,” I told him, and images sprung from that incantatory phrase: a platter-sized, glassy emerald dish, carried out of the kitchen and down the aisle like a caravan of rarities along the Silk Road; that altar of corned beef and roast beef and salami, larded with slabs of Swiss cheese, erupting with the lava flow of Russian dressing—meant as much to be admired as eaten, except by a select few with the appropriate concentration, commitment, and grip strength. And of course the fries, crusted with salt and thick as pegs, would be piled so high a few would slip from the platter as the waiter threaded his way toward us around the tables.
As soon as Izzy hustled off and we were alone again, it began:
“Let me ask you a question,” the Mayor said. “There are only two teams playing in the World Series, Oakland and L.A.?”
“I guess,” I whispered.
“You guess? What else can there be, three teams?”
I studied the tablecloth, struggling to ignore the bread basket overflowing with Einhorn’s famous onion rolls, because you did not want to appear to pay anything less than rapt attention when the Mayor was cross-examining you. You did not want that.
“No,” I said.
“So there are two, do I have that correct?”
“Oakland and L.A. Then tell me, what is the problem choosing one and saying it, and get him out of my hair?”
“I know I wouldn’t want to have so much responsibility,” Nina told the air, so that the Mayor wouldn’t take it as an attempt to interfere with his inquisition, though it’s possible she might have intended just that. “But who gambles a month’s salary? Especially with what a waiter makes.”
“I’m waiting to hear if it’s overly complicated for you,” the Mayor continued. “Telling Izzy Oakland or L.A.”
At moments like these it was best to say as little as possible. The wrong word, no matter how innocent-seeming, could trigger an instant transformation into something that was half-creature, half-man, like Jack Torrance from The Shining. For some reason, instead of waiting him out, I said, “But I don’t have a method.”
“You do,” he told me, leaning across the table. “Because I said you do.”
Nina said, “Baseball. I’ve never understood how grown men can place so much importance on a game.”
All the Mayor had to do was stop talking; his silence told Nina not to interrupt again. Then he was back at me: “I walk in with my family, everyone is here. My son with his tie all over the place and his shirt coming out of his pants, looking like he doesn’t eat his food, he inhales it. My son with his Double-Headers. Half the restaurant waiting to hear who the Mayor’s kid picks in the Series, and you sit there staring at the onion rolls. What is it, you have a qualm? It’s time to start being a man. Before you know it, you’re going to be out of law school and doing business. You’ll sink us both, you can’t even pick a team.”
“But what if I’m wrong?”
“You won’t be wrong,” he said, lowering his voice until it sounded like the muffled drone of a chain saw. “Because you have a method.”
Izzy returned, and with a flourish, lowered the plate until it hovered beneath my chin so I could inspect and approve the kitchen’s artistry. “For the young genius, a Double-Header on the house.”
“On the house,” Nina said, so impressed that she forgot the Mayor’s silent admonition not to interrupt.
The Mayor said, “Illuminate us, young genius—Oakland or L.A.? Izzy hasn’t got all night.”
Maybe it was knowing that whatever he did to me, it would have to be with a smile, because we were sitting in a sea of Einhorn’s customers; maybe because it was inevitable that I was going to keep hearing, as I had hundreds of times over the last several months, how it was time I be a man—or maybe I was simply possessed by the same disregard for self-preservation that prompted me to ride my bicycle hands-free and hell-bent through the traffic on Ocean Parkway. But instead of picking a team and getting it over with, I said, “Actually, I learned the method from my dad. He created it.”
Someone had flipped a switch, and suddenly Einhorn’s was flooded with sauna-level heat. I didn’t want the Mayor to see me struggle for breath, so I simply stopped breathing.
In a voice that sounded like he’d just seen a bona fide UFO, Izzy said, “How do you like that?”
By now I knew every stitch of the tablecloth. I looked up just enough to scope out the Mayor’s reaction; it felt like my head was a hundred-pound dumbbell I was pulling up from the bottom of a swimming pool. As Izzy hung there with reverent anticipation, the Mayor stared through me as if he’d invented a way to make time reverse, and it was now a world where I had never existed. He couldn’t care less what happened to some waiter, but if he guessed wrong, every Sunday through spring, Izzy would make his rounds with the story how the Mayor’s “method” had cost him a month’s rent.
“L.A.,” he said, in a voice that seemed to carry some measure of threat, and some of mocking laughter.
Izzy, impressed, answered, “Why not, after what Green pulled in yesterday’s game?” He squeezed my shoulder. “Sluggers need to bulk up. McGwire eats two of these at a sitting. When I come back, I don’t want to see anything on your plate.”
The Mayor said, “There’s little chance of that.”
With a small bow in the Mayor’s direction, Izzy said, “I owe you,” and not wanting to impose any further on the great man’s dinner, rushed back to his station up front.
“They bring you so much food,” Nina chimed. “Thank God they have those Chinese food containers for leftovers.”
Though the Mayor’s eyes were like extinct planets, I thought I caught them, for an uncertain second, smoldering at the core with some cryptic appreciation. “What are you waiting for?” he told me. “You ordered the thing, now eat it.”
I knew that he would make me pay, and keep paying, no matter who won the Series. But for now I savored my Double-Header one glorious bite at a time, not leaving anything on my plate: not a wedge of sandwich, not a fry or speck of salt, knowing how the memory of it would be my solace through the long winter to come.