In the title story, a gambler falls into debt with the enigmatic owner of a Chinatown gambling parlor, and must run oddand sometimes dangerousdeliveries to clear his ledger.
In "How to Make the Perfect New York Bagel," the owner of one of New York City's last old-school bagel shops has to defend his storefrontin the past, from the mob, and in the present, from a bank.
In "Creampuff," a bakery with the hottest pastry in town has to hire a bouncer to control the unruly line, with tragic results.
In these stories and more, some never before published, Rob Hart explores the enticing and dangerous intersection where food and hospitality cross paths with crime and noir. Some stories are funny. Some of are dark. But each one will leaving you wanting another bite.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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HOW TO MAKE THE PERFECT NEW YORK BAGEL
The metal bowl is cold when I remove it from the back of the refrigerator. Plastic wrap clings to the surface like skin. It peels back easy, the dough cratered underneath. There's a subtle sour smell coming off it. I put the bowl on the counter, give it a tap on the side. It wobbles but doesn't fall.
A perfectly fermented sponge is the best part of this process. Nailing that first step, it never loses its shine.
I scrape the sticky wad of starter dough into the industrial mixer, measure out the rest of the ingredients: high-gluten flour, yeast, salt, didactic malt. Not even eyeballing it because I can feel the exact moment the correct amount has sifted out of the old plastic jug my father used for this step.
The bell over the door of the shop dings. I set the mixer to its lowest speed, the whirring sound of the motor bouncing off the green tile in the small kitchen. A voice simmered for years in the restaurants of South Brooklyn calls out, "Mikey Bagels. What's on the menu today?"
"Same as always," I call back. "Plain or salt."
Paulie shifts his not-insignificant girth onto the worn stool in the corner, nestled between the dead ATM machine and the cooler that's barely keeping bottles of soda and water at room temperature. He says, "You know what I like? Those everything bagels. When are you going to start making me some everything bagels?"
"I make the bagels my father made. Plain and salt. Putting anything but salt on a bagel, it's like a sin. How many times do we have to do this?"
Paulie pulls a mostly-smoked cigar from his pocket, jams the chewed end in his mouth. "Mikey Bagels, Mikey Bagels. What am I going to do with you?"
"You're the only person calls me that, you know?"
"What, Mikey Bagels? Your name is Mikey, you make the bagels. What else am I supposed to call you?"
"It's a funny nickname for a Polish Jew, isn't it?"
Paulie laughs, the cigar nearly tumbling from his mouth. He holds it between two stubby fingers and points it at me. "We're practically blood. How much do the Italians and the Jews have in common, huh?" He ticks off on his fingers. "Secret family recipes. Devotion to our religion. Guilt related to our religion. Rhetorical questions. I could go on."
"You're funny, Paulie."
"How long until we get some bagels, huh?"
"Got some almost ready."
Paulie nods, fans open a copy of the New York Post and disappears behind the thin pages of newsprint. I head to the back, stop the mixer, put the dough onto a tray and cover it with plastic wrap so it can proof. Then I pull the finished batch of bagels from the oven.
Warm and crisp and deep, deep brown. True, hand-rolled bagels that make your jaw hurt to eat. Not those semi-raw pillows turned out by machines that pass for bagels today.
The hot bagels go on the rack to cool and I cut a long strip of dough to roll into a new batch. It's dark in the kitchen, most of the bulbs blown, but it's not worth the money to replace them: I could do this with my eyes closed and half-asleep.
Wrap the dough around my fist, tear it off with my thumb, seal it on the cutting board by rolling it with the heel of my palm. My father's voice whispers in my ears, walking me through the process, even now.
The bones in my hand creak against each other, the pain jolting through my thumb and up my arm like mild electric shocks. Carpal tunnel or arthritis or the march of time. Whatever it is, not pleasant.
But it's all about the hand roll. You don't roll a bagel by hand, it's not a bagel.
After, each one goes on a cutting board dusted with a yellow field of semolina. I pause occasionally to look at them and that makes the pain worth it. Nobody makes them like this anymore. Nobody.
Paulie shuffles into the kitchen and pulls a salt bagel from the rack, passes it from hand to hand because it's still too hot to handle. He asks, "Where's my schmeer?"
"Go schmeer yourself, Paulie."
"You lazy bastard ..."
He disappears to the front. I make it to the final bagel when Paulie appears behind me.
"Don't be mad," he says.
"Paulie, how could I ever be mad at you?"
"I wasn't spying, just ..." He holds a piece of paper in his hand, staring down at it like it's in a foreign language he's trying to decipher.
The water in the dented kettle pot is at a boil. I turn the knob down a little. "I wasn't trying to hide it."
"What does this mean?"
"It means someone took a truck, filled it with money, and backed it up to the house of the guy who owns this building."
"You've been here forever. Aren't you, like, grandfathered in or something?"
"Not if I can't pay my rent. All they have to do is triple it. Which they did. I can barely afford it where it is right now."
"You make the best bagels on the Lower East Side. Probably in the whole damn city anymore." Paulie shakes his head, looks at the floor like he lost a member of his family.
I dunk a rolled bagel into the water, let it disappear halfway below the surface, before dropping it the rest of the way. It bounces around, buoyed by the roiling water. I count off in my head, thirty seconds on each side.
"There's got to be a way to fight this," Paulie says. "Talk to the community board or something. Get the people involved, you know what I mean?"
I pluck bagels from the boiling water with a wired ladle, fashioned by my father from who knows what, dip them into the pot of ice water next to the stove. "You know how many bagels I throw out at the end of the night now? The community would rather go to Starbucks. Get a pastry and a fancy coffee."
"There's gotta be a way. There's gotta. We can't abide this, Mikey. What about those two knuckleheads who come in here sometimes? Billy and Richie. Word is they're hooked up. Maybe they can go knock some heads in ..."
I transfer the last of the bagels, fish them out of the ice water one by one, and place them facedown in a tray full of sea salt. When they're all in place I turn to Paulie. "Who's head are they going to knock in? It's a bank, doing this. Who do you fight? Go find the guy who runs the bank. Where does he live? Some castle in the sky? Who even knows. I'm seventy-three years old and my hands hurt."
Paulie's face goes dark. "You remember how we met?"
"Of course I remember."
"After what you pulled you should have been dead and gone. But you were a fighter, and we respected that. The balls you had." He shakes his head. "What happened, huh?"
He doesn't wait for me to answer, just turns and leaves. The bell dings over the doorway, the sound of it echoing off the kitchen tile.
I pull the bagel boards from where they're submerged in the sink — more artifacts of my father, redwood planks a little shorter than a baseball bat, with a burlap runner to keep the bagels from sticking. Soaked until saturated so they won't catch fire in the oven. I place the bagels on the burlap, spacing them an inch apart.
The whole time, I'm glancing over my shoulder, at the letter that Paulie left on the counter. The letter had been folded in threes to fit in the envelope, and the two ends stick into the air like an accusation.
The first time the door dinged and Paulie came through it, he was forty years younger and a hundred pounds lighter and wearing a suit, the crease in his pants sharp as a razor. This is back when the made men wore proper suits, not track suits.
Back when my hands didn't hurt so bad.
He was with another guy, the two of them preening like they owned the block. Which they didn't. Their boss did.
I was behind the counter, placing bagels behind the display case. Paulie came up and put his hand on the top of it, the thick gold ring on his pinkie clicking against the glass. The two of them radiating menace like heat, trying to hide it behind the veneer of their smiles.
Paulie said, "A dozen of your finest, if you will." As I piled them into a paper bag he asked, "What's your name?"
"Your pops used to own this place?"
"Died last month. It's mine now."
"I'm sorry for your loss." He paused, letting the platitude sink in. "You like it? Keeping up the family business?"
"I like it fine, sure."
Paulie nodded, clicking his ring against the glass, looking around the place like he was interested in the décor. I counted out a dozen bagels, tossed in a thirteenth, and placed the bag down like it might burst. Paulie slid a few bucks across the counter and accepted his change.
"Thanks Mikey," he said. "Mikey Bagels, I think I'll call you. What do you think about that?"
I shrugged. "It's not my name, but it's fine."
Paulie pursed his lips, handed the bag to his partner. "Look, something else. Does the name Manny Calabrese mean anything to you?" He didn't wait for me to answer. "Manny, he's the guy runs things around here, you know what I mean? He's a good guy to be friends with. You know how it is. Dangerous neighborhood. But if Manny is looking out for you, no one's going to touch you."
"Are you shaking me down?"
Paulie's face split into a smile that showed off every single one of his teeth, put his hands in the air. "Nothing like that, no. Think of it like a partnership. We work together."
The other guy was rooting around in the bag of bagels. Paulie reached over and pulled one out, took a bite. His eyes went wide. With a stuffed mouth he said, "This is great. Perfect New York fuckin' bagel right here."
"Same recipe my father used. He was a founding member of the Bagel Bakers Local 338."
Paulie huffed. "What's that?"
"The bagel-makers, when they emigrated here from Poland, they founded the union. Used to be you couldn't make bagels if you weren't a member. The meetings were held in Yiddish so no one would know the recipes. You know what they used to do when they found out someone was making bagels who wasn't a member?"
Paulie swallowed the portion in his mouth, shrugged.
"Same thing you guys are thinking of doing to me if I don't get in on your little protection racket."
The two of them froze, like they'd never heard a threat in their life. And I'd never made one, either. My heart was racing so fast I was worried I'd pass out. Then Paulie said, "Sounds like quite the racket they had there. Quite the racket. But I never heard of this union. What happened to it?"
"Bagels get rolled by machine now. Nothing is sacred."
"So they're not around anymore. That's a good thing to know." Paulie shook his head. "Mikey Bagels, Mikey Bagels. I like you. You seem like a smart guy. I'll tell you what. I'm going to tell Manny Calabrese you were too busy to talk, but that you seemed like a friendly guy and I wasn't worried. So I'll come back in a few days and we'll talk again. Get this all straightened out. Give you a little time to Consider ... how things could go."
He raised his hand up like he was offering a handshake, then turned it into a fist, brought it down hard, the pinkie ring smacking against the glass, spider-webbing it. He used his elbow to finish the job, sending shards of glass to rain down on the fresh bagels, and I was more worried about them than the case.
Paulie brushed off his elbow, said, "I know you'll make the right call here."
The two of them stepped to the door. I felt a surge of fear like bile coming up my throat, choked it down. I called after them, "I'm not afraid of you or your boss." The door closed behind them and I raised my voice, hoping they would hear. "So do what you have to and I'm not going anywhere."
I stood there a long time after they left.
Two dozen bagels go in the trash at the end of the day. They sound like rocks hitting the bottom of the can. The fatal flaw of authentic bagels: in a few hours they turn into concrete. The homeless shelter around the corner won't even take them.
I prep some more sponges to go into the refrigerator and proof overnight, dumping the ingredients into metal bowls, mixing them with my fingers until they hit the right consistency. A little sticky, a little tacky. I cover the bowls in plastic wrap and place them in the back, where the cool air circulates better, wipe down the kitchen, the semolina and high-gluten flour disappearing into a wet dishrag.
Once the stainless steel sparkles I turn off the lights and stand in the dark. Try to remember the first job my father gave me. Official Bagel Inspector, I think he called it. I would stand on my tiptoes, peering over the lip of the table, watching my father roll the bagels with thick-muscled hands and place them on the cutting board.
The memory is there, just beyond the reach of my fingertips. The way my father smelled, the heat in the air, the line of people wrapped around the block.
It teeters on the horizon, but then it slips over and it's gone.
I pull down the gate of the store and it rumbles like thunder crashes. I twist and clamp the heavy padlock. Looks up at the sign, the red paint in the cursive script cracked and faded to a dingy pink.
Sal, shortened from Salomon, because in America they like names that are short and not so obviously Jewish, my father said.
I step into the stairwell next door, to climb up to my apartment above the store. Something else that'll disappear along with the business. Halfway up I stop and decide I'm too anxious. I walk outside, make a left, and walk through the neighborhood I don't recognize any more. Something to make me tired, but also, something else to be depressed about.
Tommy the butcher, he used to be on the corner, the front window of his store crammed with hanging tubes of maroon cured meat. It's a bank now. I pass the vegetarian bistro that used to be a hardware store. Every morning they would pull shelves onto the sidewalk. This is back when you could trust people to pick up a coil of wire or some screws and then come inside to pay.
Some of the bars have the same name, but it's only nostalgic if you don't know the original owners, all of whom are long gone. When I went to those bars, you would go in and ask for a beer, that's it, and if you asked for anything else, you were asked to leave. Now college students huddle outside, smoking cigarettes, looking at this place like it was a playground or an amusement park.
The city looks different. Smells different. Cleaner, like it's been scrubbed with antiseptic. The things I remember are gone, and I feel an empty space in my chest. Something vital is missing and I can't breathe as well without it.
I stop outside the bakery around the corner. The lights are still on, glowing yellow through the huge front windows. There's a long line of people at the marble counter, and a sign in the window advertising jalapeno bagels and sweet potato bagels and chocolate bagels.
Nothing is sacred.
The cold wind bites my neck. I bunch up my shoulders and shiver, head back to my apartment. Climb the stairs, drop my keys on the kitchen table, and strip off my work shirt. I pull a bottle of vodka from the top of the refrigerator. The light on the answering machine is blinking red. I press it and sit.
"Mister Joselewicz. This is Mister Chapin. We spoke last week. I tried to call you at the store today but nobody answered and I couldn't leave a message and ... well, I was hoping to stop by tomorrow so we can talk about the future of the building. I'll come by around opening." A pause. "Be well, and I look forward to meeting with you."
I sit at the kitchen table and stare at the machine. I dig the fingertips of my left hand into the soft web of skin between the fingers on my right hand, try to rub away the pain. I consider the vodka but don't open it. There's no real solution inside the bottle.
My head dips forward, yanked at by the gravity of sleep. My thoughts drift to Paulie, what he said about busting heads. Like it could be that easy. That was a different time. Different time, different values.
When Paulie returned he didn't return alone. The bell above the door dinged and I looked up from the remains of the display case. Only the metal trim was left — I had cleared out all the glass but hadn't gotten around to replacing it.
I didn't need to be introduced to know it was Manny Calabrese. He wasn't a huge guy. A little stocky, and not tall, but he seemed to tower over everyone around him.
He stood at the counter for a moment, sizing me up, before saying, "I heard you make a good bagel. I would like to try one, please."
I nodded, pulled out a plain one, asked, "Schmeer?"
Manny nodded. "Of course."
I placed my palm on the top, cutting through the bagel sideways, crumbs flying across the cutting board. Manny said, "I knew your father. Do you know that?"
"He never mentioned you."
"We weren't close. Your father never played ball. I gave him a pass because of that damn union. Those Yids were some tough bastards. But they don't count for much no more, and I'm tired of looking at this store, thinking about all the wasted income."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Take-Out and Other Tales of Culinary Crime"
Copyright © 2018 Rob Hart.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
How to make the perfect New York bagel: Thuglit, 2014 5
Foodies: Shotgun honey, 2014 21
Gas chamber: Hard sentences, broken river, 2017 27
Creampuff: Unloaded, down & out books, 2016 35
Bhut Jolokia: Medium short, 2016 45
Knock-off: Needle, 2014 49
Lake paradox: Mystery tribune, 2018 60
Learning experience: Needle, 2012 74
Confessions of a taco truck owner: Thuglit, 2014 98
Last request: Thuglit, 2016 107
Take-out: Mystery tribune, 2017 127
Swipe left: Unpublished 147
The gift of the wiseguy: The mysterious bookshop, 2016 167
Butcher's block: Unpublished 210
Have you eaten?: Unpublished 239