One of my favorite annual traditions was shopping at Sal’s at Christmastime. I’m writing this on May 10, as flowers bloom outside my window. If I bring up Sal’s at Christmastime, months out of season, it’s because of a sign I saw in his window on April 19. A big sign in red and white, in big block letters:
STORE FOR RENT
650 SQ FT
FULLY EQUIPPED OR VACANT
At the bottom of the sign was a number to call in central Jersey, which is south of here.
I wasn’t totally floored by the news; I knew the situation with Sal. His three-year lease was up for renewal when the virus hit in early March, and these two things, coming together, had put him in a bind. The shop was dark for a couple of weeks even before the sign went up, so when this news of the end came it wasn’t out of the blue.
“No more Christmas at Sal’s this year”—that was my thought, my sad reflection, as I stared at the sign from across the street. The shop was open all year round—for many years, six days a week—but it was often my sense that Sal and Elsa were merely marking time till Christmas, when the whole world suddenly seemed to want cheese and their coffers filled to overflowing. This boom, which lasted all of two weeks, began with the notice that sandwich orders wouldn’t be taken for the rest of December. It was all about cheese now, the way Sal liked it. If he had his druthers, never again would he take another sandwich order; never again call one out to Elsa at her workstation.
He’d only started featuring sandwiches as a midday sideline to help bolster cheese sales. But things took their own course, and year after year he’d watched in dismay as his mainstay waned while his sideline gained until the two had switched positions.
It was during this period that he bemoaned to me once, from behind his showcase display of fresh cheeses, “That’s all we are now—sandwich makers.” It was past two o’clock, his lunch trade over, and the shop had fallen quiet again. I’d popped in only to say hello. And now as he made this bitter comment, it was all I could do to meet his gaze. As one of his steadfast sandwich customers, measured in years and frequency; further, as one who combined this distinction with very little buying of cheese—I felt to blame, at least in part, for Sal’s unhappiness with the state of his business. The question was, did he blame me too?
The truth is, even before his comment I had some feelings of guilt toward Sal, touching on my sandwich habit. My favorite sandwich on his menu was the vegetarian No. 4, but because it came with goat cheese—a cheese I don’t like—I always asked to “hold” it, and there was no problem. My order went from Sal to Elsa, who made it up fresh, and neither raised an eyebrow or ever acted less than pleasant. But to my ears, each time I said,“Hold the cheese”—especially in the hearing of other customers—the phrase sounded jarring in a place called a cheese shop, and to spare other ears I’d try to keep it low.
As the grandson and son of hardworking storekeepers, I felt for Sal and his struggling business. And Sal, aware of my sympathy, responded by letting his hair down with me whenever I found him alone in the shop, pacing the floor or reading the paper. He’d look up and tell me about some feud he was waging with another merchant in town. For instance, there were the two brothers who had a Turkish restaurant just up the street from Sal, next door to the shoe repair. The restaurant is gone now, but when it first opened, one of the brothers was in the habit of tying up a metered space all day long with his personal vehicle. In a town with limited public parking, the brother’s action, as witnessed by Sal, was not to be tolerated and Sal let him know it.
And then, around the same time—this was late January—the brothers put a sign in their plate glass window:
GET YOUR SUPERBOWL CHEESE PLATTERS HERE!
“That was it,” Sal exclaimed. “They crossed the line with that. You mention cheese, and I never forgive.”
The man who started the Duffin Shop, our town’s second bakery (its specialty a cross between a donut and a muffin), also managed to cross Sal and ignite a second feud. At that time—this is going back a few years—there was a push under way, led by the Duffin man, to introduce a farmer’s market on Tuesdays and Thursdays over on the village green opposite the train station. The Duffin man stopped by the cheese shop one day and asked Sal if he’d like in on the project. He also asked Sal to sign the petition he’d brought along, in support of the project. Until that day, the two had always enjoyed a cordial relationship. One would stop in and buy cheese from the other, and the latter would stop in and buy duffins from the former.
All that came to an end with the visit of the Duffin man on his special mission. Sal detested his brainchild and told him so to his face. “I might as well close up shop right now if you put this through,” he roared at his “friend.” “Don’t you see what you’re doing?” he cried. “The stores are struggling for business as it is. You put a bunch of stalls on the green, and you’ll bleed the downtown area dry. I’m sorry, John, but you and I are done, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t come in my shop again. I’m not going to serve you.”
Sal could be ornery with customers, too. A woman came in once, walked down the aisle, and took her place behind me in line. I’d already put my order in (No. 4, hold the cheese) and was simply standing quietly by, waiting for Elsa to serve it up.
“What can I do for you?” Sal asked the woman with a courteous smile from behind the counter.
Before addressing the gentleman’s question, the woman turned with a question for me.
“Have you been helped?”
I started to nod and mouth a “yes” when Sal cut in and answered for me.
“We’re professionals here. I know who’s next.”
His courteous smile never left him, but the edge to his voice was unmistakable. In the same tone, with the same smile, Sal went on. “People do this all the time, like we don’t know the situation. It makes me laugh. But trust me, I see him”—a nod in my direction. “So let me ask again. What can I do for you?”
My heart went out to the poor lady, whose face had gone completely white. She’d done what she thought was the civil thing, and for this she’d had her head bitten off. There were two other people behind us in line—a man and woman who’d come in together—and the three of us waited to see what she’d do. Give this man a piece of her mind? Turn on her heel and storm out the door?
“Do you have a castellano?” she asked with an obvious effort, her thin voice cracking. And Sal, with a brisk “Castellano?” and an at-your-service smile, brought out the hard cheese as if nothing had happened.
On another occasion I was the sole customer present when a woman poked her head in the door, looking for fresh bread. This was during—or immediately after—Hurricane Sandy, when New Jerseyans were scrambling for fresh bread and gas. Sal’s, at least during normal times, always had fresh baguettes, which came from a well-known bakery in Hoboken. In normal times a wire basket with half the day’s allotment stood near the front door, for customer convenience. The other half was needed for the sandwich operation and was kept behind the counter in a basket of its own.
And now this woman appeared in the doorway and called to Sal in a breezy voice that belied the desperation rampant in all of us.
“Excuse me, do you have any bread by chance?” A handsome, fair-skinned woman in her 30s, dressed in a conservative sweater and slacks.
I shifted my gaze a foot to her left. The basket was there on the window ledge, standing tall, but with nothing in it. Meanwhile Sal was shaking his head and scrunching his face in commiseration.
“Sorry,” he called down the length of the counter. “I had some earlier, but they went in a hurry. Everyone’s got the same idea.”
“All right. Thank you. Have a nice day.” The door had barely closed behind her when Sal erupted, making me jump.
“Go fuck yourself!” he called after the woman. “Can you believe these fucking people?”—turning back to me. “I’ve never seen her in here before, and now she suddenly wants my bread. I keep all the bread back here now with me.” He stepped aside and indicated a half-dozen golden sticks standing in the basket atop the back counter. “These are for my regulars, for people like you. Everyone else can go fuck themselves.”
His mood began to lift in December. During the general gearing-up, as fresh provisions began to arrive, you’d see him hauling boxes away with an almost elfin spring to his step. I felt my spirits lift as well at the sight of all this plenty about. When he had a free moment, I’d ask him what day he thought would be best for watching “the floor show.”
“The busier, the better,” I always reminded him.
It really was a kind of show. There were no prepackaged cheeses at Sal’s. Everything was cut to order right before your eyes, and for two weeks running, from morning to night, he and Elsa did nothing but. An extra man was taken on to take care of the incidentals—the dishing out of olives, gherkins, and the like. He stood apart, down at the end, away from the real action. A nice man, pleasant, but of limited use.
One had to budget a chunk of the day for a trip to Sal’s at the height of the rush. It took some time to serve each customer, who typically requested two or more cheeses. Sal rushed no one; neither did Elsa. They themselves betrayed no hurry. When suggesting a cheese (“You’re going to love this”), they’d shave off a sliver with a pass of a planer, scrape it onto a coated paper, and hand this freebie over the counter. Then they’d wait as the coated paper was scraped of its morsel by tongue and lips. The entire store waited along with them. When the go-ahead came, as it always did—the ceremonious nod of approval—you’d hear a sound like the rattling of sabers as Sal and Elsa drew their knives. But this was only a feint, as it were. What size piece did the customer want? The edge of the blade stood poised over the cheese in questioning fashion—here? With the ceremonious nod of approval, the knife cut through with a resonant thud.
And that was only part of the show. In a single day, between the two of them, they went through reams of plastic wrap. Every time a wheel of cheese was brought out for cutting, its old wrap was thrown away and replaced by a new one. This new one seemed to go on and on as they spooled it out of its giant dispenser, their arms spread wide as if holding a bedsheet. They knew just where to rip the piece and where to center the cheese on it, and after a series of folds and flips, the wheel was wrapped and put away. I loved this whole operation, which was harder than it looked. If the hired man couldn’t be trusted to take a knife to a single cheese, no more could he be trusted to take a hand to the plastic wrap.
Within a few hours Sal’s black t-shirt was riddled with little specks of cheese, like splatter marks on a painter’s smock. They also clung to the hair on his head, a thick gray mound parted in the middle. For all this wear, he showed no let-up. His step was lively, his voice resounding, his smile effervescent. The sight of dollars piling up had a lot to do with this, but I don’t think that alone told the story. Sal was a suffering artist in his way. “There’s no other place like this,” he’d tell me, with melancholy pride in his voice. He loved the look and feel of his shop, this thing he’d brought to life out of nothing, and it hurt him to see it neglected.
But all that changed at Christmastime, when the whole town seemed to convene there at once. Even though I didn’t always need a piece of cheese then, I bought some anyway, and happily so, as the price of admission for attending the floor show. The best time to go, as I told Sal repeatedly, was the day he expected the worst crush ever. Some years it was Christmas Eve; other years, the day before; and still other years it was two days before. Whatever it was, whatever he told me, I marked it in my calendar; and that was the day I paid my call. The longer the line, the longer the show. For this reason I couldn’t understand those people, those would-be shoppers with orders to fill, who took one look at the line out the door and abruptly walked away in disgust. If I could’ve stood in line without buying, I would’ve done so every day. As it was, I often showed up twice, the second time under the pretext of having forgotten something I needed.
“You never know,” my wife replied, trying to console me, when I came through the door with my news about Sal’s. “Who’s going to take a lease right now? Sal could take it over again if they can’t find another tenant. Or maybe he’ll open somewhere else.”
It sounded like wishful thinking to me. A few days later I saw some fixtures out by the curb in front of the shop. That’s when I knew it was over for Sal.
Well observed, well told. Love it!