High Holidays Feature: Braving the Delicatessen Crowds Takes Both Patience and Chutzpah

Six hours before sundown on the day of Yom Kippur Eve, customers with long lists and short tempers swarm the smoked fish counter at Grace’s Marketplace on Third Avenue in Manhattan. There’s nothing like the frenzy of an impending fast to bring aggression to the surface. Fueled by a shortage of whitefish salad, rumors are spreading that they’re running out of sable, too.

“Can I help you?” a young deli man asks a customer in tennis shorts.

“Half a pound of herring,” the tennis player says.

“What’s your number?” the woman to his right demands.

The tennis player shrugs, asking if they’re taking numbers.

“They always take numbers!” six customers roar.

“Are you stupid?” an elderly man tapping a cane asks the deli man. “We’re standing here, and you take him.”

“Don’t call me stupid,” he says, storming from the counter.

“What’s your number?” the woman asks the tennis player again.

“One hundred three,” he says, blushing as he crumples his ticket.

“I’m 97,” she says. “I’m next.”

“Ninety-eight, 99, 100,” a deli man wearing a white cap calls out, scrolling numbers on a board.

“Two pounds of nova, sliced thin,” I say, waving my ticket stamped one hundred.

“Two pounds?” the man asks, rubbing his cap.

“Two pounds,” I say.

He confers with a salmon-slicing pro, who is rapidly turning an 18-pound fish into paper-thin sheets.

Relieved to be spared handling such a large order, the man in the cap explains that the slicing pro will help me when he’s through.

Now composed, the young deli man returns, offering to help a woman with a baby.

“But what’s her number?” 97 asks. “He takes people out of turn.”

“I’m 106,” the mother says.

“He did it again,” 97 says. The elderly man hits the floor with his cane. Holding a list of 15 break-the-fast favorites, I pray that no one quits before my turn. The slicing pro asks the man behind me what he wants.

“I thought I was next,” I say, turning around. “What’s your number?”

“I’m 110,” he says.

“But I’m 100,” I say.

“You don’t look 100,” he says.

I am tempted to flee the fish counter and try the bakery instead. But I know that the first thing they’d say is: “What’s your number?”

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