Mannee ran his luncheonette with the same respect for organization that his father must have had as a cabinet maker. He was convinced that his “system“ would eventually prove successful, so he pursued it with monomaniacal focus. As originator of the system, he found no one else capable of implementing its seemingly simple demands. In fact,the tasks were simple. It was the exactitude used in carrying them out that Mannee always found lacking in those sharing his work world. It’s true only he could keep glasses sparkling on the drain, proud of their inverted alignment. Only he would remember to wipe the last drop of waffle batter after pouring (batter build-up could be a problem on the next pour). And only he could take care of the bain marie. It was the heart of the store and he treated her accordingly, lovingly. In return for his ardent care she revealed her compartmental goodies, exposing textures of eggs, tuna, liver, and shrimp. He chopped all of them fine enough to be manageable on the white bread waiting beneath the thick wooden cutting board. Lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions were delegated to spots relative to their importance as accessories. The bain marie was his pride. Where other luncheonette’s bain maries suffered from egg salad in the tuna and tomato seeds in the onions, Manny’s salads always seemed content within their metallic boundaries. He had hammered flat the bowls of several spoons to act as spatulas. With them he patted and redistributed the waning salads after each sandwich. Miraculously, the bain marie thrived as repayment for his attention.
The system was everywhere.
On the menu board, white plastic letters called out the variety of specials. He displayed a typographer’s concern for word spacing and not a single substitution of letters, p,s for b,s, or 3,s for “ees” was in evidence. He kept the original box the letters had come in, in a wooden cabinet under the malted machines, carefully storing them away after the change of each daily special. The refrigerated cake case received special attention. Its stainless steel exterior had sliding glass doors that opened to two glass shelves whose angled- mirrored back enabled customers the full view of boston cream pie, coconut custard pie, apple pie, cherry cheesecake (from the German bakery on Eastern Parkway), rice pudding, fruit salad, and baked apples wadding in their sweet juice, all presented in pristine perfection. There were no crust crumbs on those shelves, no errant piece of pineapple beyond its boundary, no smear of custard anywhere. He liked it that way. So the case was cleaned, massaged, caressed whenever a moment presented itself, before the rush, during the rush and after the rush.
Watching him work, for me, was the greatest pleasure. One that has lasted until this day. I can almost see him now at his work station, standing in front of the ban marie, his back to the coffee pots, grill and french fryer, ready for anything. There would be his cigarette burning unattended off to the side, away from the food, a large sandwich knife on the cutting board with a damp rag waiting to wipe away the remains of salad on his knife or to swab the counter clean of the leavings of the last customer.
It was here that his collected grace surfaced, some inner spark kicking in, throwing off comparisons to dancers, Dominican shortstops, and arrogant point guards. At one time he’d be involved in making three different kinds of sandwiches, while watching that the burgers behind him on the grill weren’t overcooked, intermittently taking up the spatula to scrape their sizzling fat into the well at the side of the grill, checking on the corn muffin toasting under the grill, opening a door under the counter for the gallon jar of potato salad (a specialty of his made earlier in the day) for a side order accompanying the tuna on toast, while shaking the french fryer basket to ensure even cooking for all those innocent fries, pouring two cups of coffee for the guys from the hardware store, slicing a prune danish in four pieces for a “regular” because that’s the way she liked it and doing it all seamlessly, no hitches, no missteps and after the rush was over, moving to the end of the counter, to mash his smoldering cigarette butt, and wait for the next order.
Usually, it happens when I eat out in places that afford a full view of the counterman. I’m making comparisons, of course. Is he fast? Is he organized? Is he focused?… It’s a curse. Mannee gave me — the standard to measure excellence in the management of the short order. It’s taken a long time but I’ve loosened my grip on reaching for perfection. Instead I’m learning to relax into the beauty of the crumb, the smear, the scrape, the spill, knowing all the while, for me, they’re closer to the bone.