At the moment, against all odds, Hold The Phone Harry is mostly holding his tongue. Who could get a word in edgewise? The usual gang of kibitzers, guys now saying hello to their 70s and still getting together twice every day, guys who used to talk of the joys of sex but now talk of the joys of salad bars, are sitting here trying to explain the allure of Miller's Deli, and even Hold The Phone Harry has to spot his openings.
This is an old gang in a new setting. For the past three decades, through the various seasons at Pimlico Race Course, where many still matriculate religiously, through the deeply important moments of life from a boy's first football pool to a man's most recent prostate surgery, there's something important happening here.
(Did somebody mention prostate surgery? "Sure," says Frank Landsman, settling into a crowded booth, who had a little operation several weeks back. "And all these guys want to know is, 'How's the sex since the surgery?' I tell 'em, 'I'm gettin' to it. I'm going for a trial run soon.' ")
This is extended family talking. From the time the original Miller's Deli opened across the street from Reisterstown Road Plaza back in 1967, these guys, 10 or 15 or more of 'em, have been getting together every day.
Only now, in a new jurisdiction. Things change. People move to suburbia, and sometimes, so do delicatessens. Two weeks ago, Miller's on Reisterstown Road, home to corned beef sandwiches and also to a collection of northwest Baltimore immortals (remember Nookie the Bookie? No? Wait, we'll get to him in a minute), shut its doors for the final time.
The action has now shifted to Greenspring Shopping Center, on Smith Avenue in Baltimore County, where a new Miller's opened about a year ago and was redesigned cafeteria-style late last summer to make it feel more like Reisterstown Road.
What makes it feel most intimately like the old joint, though, are these guys, like Harold Tabb and Phil Rosenberg, and Mannie Magram and Dave Hoff, and Marvin (Hawk) Albom and Dave (Poopsie) Zandick, not to mention Leon Goldberg who walks into a place asking the eternal question, "Who's finished eating? I'll take what's left," and Harry (Hold The Phone Harry) Landsman, who got his moniker from constantly interrupting people by loudly declaring, "Hold the phone," but who currently can't work a syllable into this conversation.
This is important business. This is conversation about friendships that last across the years, and also across the deli locations.
"We get together morning and afternoon," says Harold Tabb. "We tell jokes, we catch up on who died, the usual business. Only now, all of a sudden, we're showing scars, this hurts, that hurts. "
"So then we compare doctors," says Phil Rosenberg.
Or business. A bunch of these guys are old tin men, door-to-door home improvement salesmen, installment guys who learned to live by their gifts of gab and by looking for the angles.
"Like the track," says Mannie Magram. "You'll see guys studying the racing form who never won a race. They'll study it for three hours. If they studied like this in school, they'd be a professor today. Instead, they hang out at Miller's. See, a lot of us, we grew up at the Lombard Street delicatessens, but we moved uptown by following the smell of the hot dog."
They landed at the old Miller's for a simple reason: nobody threw them out. There were no waitresses hustling them along, and they could kibitz until the place closed its doors at 5 p.m., at which point they'd stand outside for a while longer.
"And then," says Phil Rosenberg, "get home in time for dinner and tell my wife how tough my day was."
Sometimes they were tough. Like the time of Nathan (Nookie the Bookie) Brown, who made a living taking bets. On occasion, the cops would take offense at this. Once, commencing a raid, they kicked in the door to his apartment. This bothered Nookie, who marched himself to the Northwest District desk sergeant.
"This," Nookie announced, "is the key to my apartment. Next time you come, just knock. If I'm not there, use the key."
Nookie died a few years back, but his contemporaries live on.
"Constant humor, constant kibitzing," says Larry Abel, owner of Miller's, who got his start years ago at the Reisterstown Road place as a delivery boy and part-time slicer of lox. "They keep alive the Runyonesque ambience of the old place. Like "
"Hold the phone," says Hold The Phone Harry. "Could I finish my story?"
"What story?" says Poopsie Zandick. "You haven't said anything yet."
Maybe in the next column. These guys will be hanging around. Count on it.