Gut Instinct: Katz Scratch Fever

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Once a week, sometimes more, often less, my friend Aaron and I convene at bars and pour ourselves into the kind of confessional conversation that fills saloons at last call. “And that’s why my beagle always peed when she saw me,” I’ll tell Aaron, swallowing my seventh pint of something strong, wet and truth-inducing. Our drunken summit is therapeutic, a stand-in for the psychologists I’ve distrusted since 1989. One afternoon in fifth grade, after blemishing my straight-A record with a B, I tossed chairs across my classroom. They landed with a clatter; I landed on a quack’s leather chair.

“Why were you so mad?” the bearded doc asked. If I were a Mensa munchkin, I’d answer: “Undue parental expectations.” Instead, I idly picked a knee scab and said, “I want to go home.” “I think it’s great you got a B,” the psych said. “I think you’re wrong,” I replied, as insolent and skeptical at 11 as I am at 30. This is not to imply that I distrust my girlfriend’s counsel. It’s just that her opinion is colored by the fact that we sleep in the same bed—sometimes with each other. She’s as neutral as Iraq. Aaron is Switzerland, minus that nasty Nazi episode. We’ve been friends for 13 years, through all-night raves and coffee-fueled road trips, roommate strife and a thousand shots of Jack. We’re sounding boards, especially since we’re both employed in the supernova-ing publishing universe.

“Soon enough, I’ll be writing press releases for soup kitchens,” I tell Aaron one Wednesday eve at Local 269 (260 E. Houston St. at Suffolk St., 212-228-9874). The gritty, rickety-chaired rocker dive proffers a recession steal: two-for-one taps till 9 p.m. “I’ll be in line for the soup kitchen,” he says, ordering another Brooklyn Lager. “I don’t think there’ll be much need for retouching pictures when everyone is wearing potato sacks.”

“Another round for me, too,” I tell the scruffy-faced bartender, sighing. Job prospects for surly writers who spend their days typing in their underwear and their nights drinking are surprisingly slim.

The evening evaporates, one cut-rate pint after another, until our witching hour arrives: 9 p.m. “Time to go home to the wife,” Aaron says, spilling brown beer down his throat.

Five lonely years ago, this early hour would start our evening. Nowadays, employment and romantic entanglement supersede downing another $4 whiskey-and-Schaefer at International Bar or combating coeds in air hockey at Cheap Shots and Beer. Glassyeyed late nights are for yearning singles, while we fuddy-duddies head toward the warm, bosomy embraces waiting at home. Aaron and I stride into the night, bellies growling for a sobering bite. “Ever eaten there?” he asks, gesturing toward Katz’s, the legendary Jewish delicatessen dedicated to brined cucumbers and double-decker pastrami and corned beef sandwiches.

“No—I should rescind my bar mitzvah,” I say, ashamed. Like countless locals, I take the city treasures for granted. We’re surrounded by landmarks, museums and eateries that we neglect to patronize, turned off by a whiff of tourist taint. It’s New Yorkers’ second nature to be too cool for school, but just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s worthless—except for Zac Efron.

Through the window, I watch diners gaily devour juice-spurting hot dogs and jaw-dwarfing sandwiches.The tableau is an irresistible advertisement, tractor-beaming us inside this old-world relic packed with neon exhortations (SEND A SALAMI, BEST SANDWICH IN TOWN) and Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. Meal ticket in hand, we nab corned beef on rye. It’s stacked to the fluorescent lights, served with a log mound of spicy pickles that I nearly spill when delivering the feast to our faux-wood table.

“Ready?” I ask Aaron, as we each grab half. “Ready,” he says, toasting my sandwich like it’s yet another beer. We masticate. It’s love at first bite. The corned beef is carnivorous bliss, with the rye, mustard and thin-sliced meat creating alchemic sandwich magic. “It’s the drunk food of the gods,” I tell Aaron, busily chipmunking his cheeks. Our plate is quickly crumb-less, but booze has made us ravenous. I want more. I need more.To the right: Our camera-toting neighbors’ pastrami is untouched, another casualty of Eyes Bigger Than Stomach Disease. “Are you going to eat that?” I ask, batting my hazel peepers like a shitfaced Shirley Temple.

“It’s all yours,” the scoop-shirted girl says, pushing the plate toward us like it’s road kill. One woman’s trash is my treasure: The pastrami is peppery and meltingly fatty, slicking my fingers with grease. I slurp them clean and then totter to the cash register.

“You know, I’ve lived here nine years and never eaten here,” I tell the zaftig cashier. “That’s a crime,” she says, twisting the guilty knives into my overstuffed tummy. “As punishment, you should eat more pastrami.”

If only our judicial system were so just, I think, as Aaron and I stride into the unexpectedly warm and wonderful night.

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