Another Wonderful Pete Shaw Column: “The Reuben” from 1985

Last Friday was not my day. The whole experience was one human disaster after another. When daytime closed into evening my spirits began to rise.

My son wanted to go to the batting cages so we picked up a couple of his pals (Zack and Matt Deuel) and headed toward Fiesta village. I armed them with a twenty-dollar bill (good for about an hour) and sought out a restaurant where I could find the most obscure corner for the purpose of eating and for solitude.

I had missed my morning paper so I grabbed a Times from the rack and found a spot at the furthest end of the counter, sheltered by a plastic grape ivy plant. I was in luck. Not a living soul was within five stools of me. I put the paper down and picked up the menu. The tantalizing picture of a Reuben Sandwich formed in my mind. Lean pastrami, tangy sauerkraut, nutty mozzarella pressed between thick, grilled slices of rye. Throw in some home fries and I’m in heaven!

I ordered, reached for my paper and put my finger through the handle of the coffee mug. Apparently the counter had just been wiped because the first, second and third pages of the newspaper all blended soggily together. You get a lot of news quickly that way but when Mayor Bradley, John Tower and Bush in China are all superimposed it reads something like: “L.A. Mayor Seeks Fifth Term While Drinking Under the Great Wall.”

In my continuing frustration I committed a common coffee blunder. I neglected to take the preliminary, precautionary sip and went for the long swallow. My tongue, pallet, larynx and upper esophagus formed into one long blister. The alternative to swallowing was to publicly project my mouthful in one explosive reaction down the counter. Good taste prevailed over pain and when I asked the waitress for ice water it sounded like a Tiny Tim impression.

As I rolled the pieces of ice inside my incinerator a human being had the audacity to sit next to me. How dare he! Five empty stools and he sits next to me! “Is it summer or what? Man, it was hot today,” he offered. My urge was to stick my napkin in my ear, cross my eyes, shake salt and pepper in my coffee and mumble incoherently in his direction to discourage any further communication.

Instead, I gave a series of monosyllabic replies: “Yah!”, “Noh” or “Hmmm.” He soon got the idea. I felt sort of insensitive but darn it, I had only 30 minutes of possible solitude left.

The Reuben arrived. It looked scrumptious. I lifted the top and dabbed a little mustard inside and prepared for the first glorious bite.

Have you ever experienced toasted rye on a fresh blister? Imagine a belt sander running across a fresh case of hives. Have your incisors ever attempted to sever pastrami that is also used for the soles of expensive Italian sandals? The result is to be locked onto the sandwich but with the decision before you to withdraw or fight  on, valiantly I decided to withdraw.

As I placed the Reuben back on the plate I felt some resistance and realized that long, large strings of latex mozzarella had formed a miniature suspension bridge from my mouth to the counter. Sauerkraut intertwined the span like a dormant vine. The repulsiveness of the scene accomplished one thing: my formerly gregarious friend glanced over, picked up his check and left.

In my utter frustration I began to unravel. I stared at the Reuben with the fierce intensity of an aroused shrew. I attacked and became locked into a life and death struggle. I was oblivious to all about me.

Minutes later I sat in victory; spent and exhausted. Soon I would rise from my seat, adjust myself into composure and return to the batting cages in quiet triumph. The day had been disastrous but I had met the enemy and it was mine. Reuben the Hun: the scourge of the “Denture Wearers” had been consumed.

I paid the check with a trembling hand, stepped into the cool night and moved, in a slightly slanted John Wayne swagger, toward the car.

He who chews and walks away lives to repulse another day!”

 

 

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