I’ve recently changed jobs and on the last week of work my office had a social outing to wish me well. I had never been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse and asked to go there.
Yes, it is shameful that I had lived this long and not gone to Sammy’s, being a New Yorker through and through. Sammy’s is a quintessential New York institution and a landmark for Jewish New York culture.
Our office took cabs to arrive on Christie Street while it was still light out. It looked like we were the first to arrive for the evening dinner rush (sadly Sammy’s is only open for dinner). The place is below street and adheres to its famous basement aesthetic except that finished basements usually have carpeting; Sammy’s looks dingier than your average suburban basement. There are photos and business cards stuck everywhere and the place is eerie when it’s a bit empty. That changed quickly though.
There is schmaltz (a viscous spread) in small maple syrup style pitchers on the tables rather than butter as Sammy’s is a kosher-style restaurant; the food is classic Jewish-American cuisine. I made sure to taste the schmaltz—it tasted like chicken fat, which is essentially what it is. A giant bowl of chopped chicken liver with onions was irresistible and I had as much of that as I could.
The place is also famous for its vodka. The first thing our table ordered was a bottle of vodka that is served inside a frozen block of ice (appearing to have been frozen in a milk container).
I knew that there was an entertainer who sang and played music at Sammy’s. I did not know the extent that Dani Luv was a dominant force who could turn a weekday work night into an evening of ribald fun. He really dominates the room and infuses it with an energy that defines the atmosphere and turns up the charm on the minimalist décor. He stands or sits on a stool behind a modest keyboard in the corner, a large tip jar and small disco ball nearby. A New York Times profile from 2013 notes that his name is Dani Lubnitzki and he is Israeli. The impact he has on the evening can’t be understated. If Joan Rivers had been in a three-way with Don Rickles and “Weird” Al Yankovic, she would have given birth to Dani Luv.
By the time Dani got started, another larger group occupied a nearby table and he asked both groups how many Jews there were among us. Invariably several people at each table raised their hands. “How about you, the ISIS guy,” he said, referring to a dark-skinned man who looked Middle Eastern and had a beard, “you’re not Jewish, are you?” The guy laughed and shook his head, ‘no.’ “Of course not…”
“Why are you guys here?” he asked our table.
“This guy is leaving the company,” our boss answered, pointing at me.
“That guy’s leaving the company because he doesn’t want to work with Jews anymore!” Dani joked. Our table had another good laugh.
The food is big. We had the family style meal and there was so much food that three of us took a lot home. I had the schmaltz on the rye bread, and the chicken liver, and the latkes, and something they called “Jewish ravioli” that was very dense and delicious, and chicken and even some salad. I couldn’t say no to the large steaks either. If you go to a place that is famous as a steak house, it feels somewhat like a crime to not have the steak. There was also stuffed cabbage and pickles and pickled peppers (not an entire peck of pickled peppers but enough for everyone).
The evening wound down quickly as people had long commutes home from Manhattan. Dani Luv begged a few to stay- at least our female coworkers anyway, but before the night got too late it was me and my boss.
My boss finished off the vodka and bought me a Sammy’s t-shirt. I gave Dani Luv a generous tip and took my photo with him. Soon after we headed home.
Sammy’s is a great New York tradition and I vow to make visiting there a tradition of my own. I was very fortunate to work with a great bunch of people and it was difficult to leave. Saying goodbye at such a fun place put a more cheerful lining on a sad event.
The Fourth of July every year brings with it many great traditions: hot dogs, fireworks, partying to excess with friends and family. And every year I have partied with high school friends in a way that embraces all of these observances.
My high school friend Steve and his wife Paige put on a great 4th of July party that brings in friends from far and wide.
Steve is the center of our social circle among most of my Connecticut friends. When we were in high school, his mother’s house was our central meeting place, and Mrs. Q was a second mother to a lot of us. She is missed. Steve and Paige’s house has become a second home to many. They have helped many friends and relatives who have needed places to stay. Even friends with perfectly good homes of their own nearby wind up spending a lot of time at Steve and Paige’s house.
The day of the party, circumstances delayed our departure until after 2 p.m. Driving on I-95 in Connecticut is its own special hell, and a Saturday on a holiday weekend it was an infernal misery of traffic. A two-hour drive became a three-hour drive, and since our kids had already napped at home, they screamed and cried for much of that three-hour drive. When we finally pulled onto our friends’ property, it was after 5 p.m.
I didn’t have time to make the stop for fireworks like I normally do. The forecast called for rain.
Once we got there, it was great to be among friends again.
Steve is a very handy person. He turned his one-story house into a two-story home and constructed his own out-buildings to keep farm animals on his property. He got me into hunting, gave me good advice on how to move about the woods, and helped me field dress my first deer. He also introduced me to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and we’ve debated both the immutably dark nature of human existence until the wee hours of the morning.
Steve and I were both financial journalists for a while. After being laid off and being without a regular job for a long time, Steve began working in shipbuilding by helping to renovate the historic Amistad. He has since began working on boats in Newport, Rhode Island. More than a year ago, he told me he could not go back to working behind a desk. At the party he said he hated having to be away from his family for so long for his job, but that he loves his job. He wakes up every morning and looks forward to going to work. It was something I had heard about but didn’t think I’d see.
A man who loves his job today is rare. I expected to see Bigfoot or get kidnapped by a UFO before one of my friends told me they loved going to work every day. Even though he loves to play the part of a curmudgeon, he looked sincerely happier than he’s been in the past. It was great to see and I can’t think of someone who deserves that more than Steve. He brings a lot of good thoughts and much-needed perspective to a lot of his friends. I know I’ve been better for having had long conversations with him and I’m far from alone.
He’s been writing a lot of good poetry lately as well and posting his poems online. He’s getting to see new things, and be inspired by his work with ships. “In so many ways, sailing is freedom like most of us can’t even understand.” He messaged me at one point.
A while into our time at the party, I found Steve sitting on a lawn chair in the back of his pickup truck. With him was our friend Jay. The two were perfectly content to sit with their beer there and observe the party from their perch. But they soon began to attract a crowd. Everyone wanted to stop by and enjoy the conversation. In between searching for and wrangling my children and stuffing my face with food, I discussed poetry with Steve.
We agreed that two men sitting in the back of a pickup truck was good fodder for a poem and we decided to each write a poem with this as the theme.
The party continued and despite my not being able to contribute to the supply of ordnance, there were still plenty of fireworks. My twin girls asked to be brought inside and skip the rest of the barrage after getting a bit too close to the pyrotechnics. Inside Jay was making his outstanding jambalaya, and we got a peek at the culinary genius at work.
We stayed late and got on the road for home after 11:30 p.m. Someday we’ll stay overnight in a tent on our friends’ lawn like my wife and I did before we had children.
It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day. The national politics evolves and devolves, and no matter your perspective, it’s easy to become discouraged. The strength of our country lies in the bonds we form with friends and neighbors, and at Steve and Paige’s house, a strong community thrives on its own.