Ham and Jesus

walkers_silo.jpg “I’m hungry. Can someone please help me?  Please. This is serious.  I haven’t eaten since early this morning. Please.” The plea came from a diminutive man I had just rushed passed on 8th Avenue in New York City.  He was wearing a grey cap pulled down over his forehead and held a tattered white plastic shopping bag. 

It was 12:30 a.m. A hard March wind was blowing through Chelsea and everyone who passed this pleading man, was hurrying to someplace warm, including me. 

I had just eaten at one of my favorite joints Casa Mono. I started with the  pulpo with fennel and grapefruit and followed with the dorada with artichokes and langostinos (the langoustine tail meat was a bit mushy but still flavorful.) My belly was full and I still had the glow of a quarto of solid Spanish red. 

For a reason I still do not know, after getting a few steps past this man, who was all but invisible to passers-by, I stopped and waited for him to catch up. When I offered  a dollar bill to him, he said, “No man, didn’t you hear,  I’m hungry. This is no joke.  I don’t want money. I’m just very  hungry.” “Really, no bullshit?”  I said.

“I haven’t eaten since early this morning. I just got out of Rikers a few days ago and I was at the unemployment office from 8 a.m. this morning waiting for some work.” He then pulled out a smudged laminated ID card and a folded sheaf of papers to show me he was telling the truth. 

bestprice.jpg “You really hungry?” He nodded. I looked across the street and saw near the corner of 18th St. the “BEST PRICE DELI AND GROCERY.” Its green canvas awning announced its fare: “Chicken, Sandwiches Soda Cigarettes - Open 24 Hours.”

“Let’s go,” and we headed across 8th Avenue. “You gonna call the cops?”  he nervously  asked, thinking I might be setting him up. “Why the hell should I do that? You haven’t broken any laws. I know, I’m a lawyer.” Then, in almost a whisper, he said, “Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.” This was to become his mantra over the next 15 minutes 

After spending almost the last 10 years suing the Catholic Church for exploiting the trust of innocent children in the name of the lord, I was going to say,  ‘Don’t thank Jesus, he’s not buying you the sandwich.’  But I didn’t. Save it for the courtroom, I said to myself. This guy is not a Bishop, he’s just a hungry soul out on a frigid night.

We walked into the brightly lit Best Price. I asked the owner if they were still making sandwiches. He nodded and directed me to the back with a slightly skeptical look. It must have been the sight of me, a 6’3 white man wearing an expensive cashmere coat and dark suit and a black man who couldn’t have been more than 5’2” wearing a tattered, stained jacket and schlepping a bulging plastic bag. My new friend just stood there for a moment scanning the menu board. He looked at me to make sure it was okay to order.  “You said you’re hungry so order whatever you want, really.”

He glanced back at the menu and then said to the young guy behind the counter, “Ham and cheese.” The counterman asked, “Bread?” “Hero. And I like mayo, pickle, salt, pepper, no olive oil or vinegar and yeah, I want lettuce, tomato.” I chimed in, “Give him a lot of extra ham. I’ll pay for it.” With his  soft sympathetic eyes the counterman smiled, pulled a soft-Italian roll off the shelf and replied. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” He sliced the roll and carefully laid it out on the cutting board.

lunchmeat.jpg Now as we all know the average all-night deli man would just haphazardly schmeer on the mayo. Not this guy. Using a squeeze bottle he  loftily ran his hand back and forth across the bread laying down a precise undulating wave pattern of mayo that you’d expect to see at in a place like L’Atlelier de Joel Roubochon (except there it would be  some exotic concoction like  a cilantro, yuzu harissa emulsion). As he watched the sandwich being made, I again heard another few mentions of  “Thank you Jesus.”

“You thirsty?” I asked. He nodded and went to the refrigerated case. As he reached for a Coke I said, “Not for nothing but if I were you and I hadn’t eaten all day, I’d be going for OJ not some sugary shit.” Without turning, he nodded and said, “Yeah, orange juice, much better.” He pulled out a Tropicana and came back to the counter. At this point both of us became mesmerized by the slow and careful slicing of the Boars Head Deluxe Ham. The chef obviously took my request to heart, for before us rose a pink mountain of  thinly sliced pig.

Only an hour earlier I watched a plate of heavenly jamon Serrano being prepared and all I can say is that Casa Mono could use the services of the counterman at Best Price. The ham sculpture even caught the eye of the owner who left his post at the cash register. Before he could question the chef about the mountain, I waved a 20 and told him not to worry, I would pay for the extra ham.  My friend took a sip from his OJ, thanked Jesus again and grabbed a bag of kettle chips.

He told me a little more about his life – that he had done time for theft and had worked construction for many years - but mostly he (and I) just watched the sandwich being made. After the lettuce and tomatoes were laid down on the bread, the chef placed on several paper thin slices of dill pickle. Then came the ham which he methodically folded in thirds and layered on the sandwich. After wrapping the behemoth, he shot a smile at us and ceremoniously walked the sandwich over to the front register.

marsbar.jpg Before paying for it I asked my friend if he wanted dessert. He picked out my favorite candy, a Mars Bar.  When I looked at my change, I realized I wasn’t charged for the extra ham. I looked at the owner - now he was smiling too.

My new friend and I walked outside, stopped and faced each other. He put down the  tattered bag and extended his hand to me. “Thanks, this means everything.” He grasped my hand a few more seconds.  I was short for words – if there were any - and simply said, “You’re welcome. Take care of yourself.” As he walked away, he turned half-way around, raised the bulging sandwich bag in a kind of salute, and disappeared down 8th. Avenue.


Paul Mones is nationally recognized children's rights attorney specializing in representing sexual abuse victims and  teens who kill their parents. He is also a published author and most importantly an avid chef who won the 1978 North Carolina Pork Barbecue Championship.