The now-shuttered Casino Deli [above]. At one time, my grandfather held court here and his kingdom was good and loving.
The whitefish-on-a-toasted-onion-bagel has left the building. After 35 years, the Casino Deli on Welsh Road in the Great Northeast closed a few weeks ago. If you never had the pleasure of enjoying the ambiance, imagine walking into a trailer home jam-packed with people you recognize and occasionally banter with but only barely know - even though technically you've eaten breakfast with them since 1980. Now, imagine your food served by a wise, often-funny, waitress who knows you by your first name and has your first coffee at your table before you can unbutton your jacket. Who soon says, "Whadd'ya want, hun?" and says it with such affection that you really believe that 'what you want for breakfast' is just about the most important question she's ever asked anyone. She has suggestions; recommendations; things like, "stay away from that, hun. It's older than me."
And, once the waitress leaves with your order, you are face-to-face for the first time in who-knows-how-long with your grandfather. Your buddies may be with you, too, because - like everyone who ever met him - your buddies think your grandfather is about the most charming, funny, warm person they've ever met. And, God, he sure could be. The man could charm an igloo from a penguin. What the hell he'd do with the igloo was a challenge he'd deal with later.
My grandfather was an enigma. But a loveable enigma. He passed a year ago. I last saw him in 2013 and before that I don't think I'd seen him since 2009; and before that I may not have seen him since 2006. He moved full-time to Florida in 2006. I'm not much of a phone person and neither was he. So, occasionally he would call me, but just to berate me for not calling him. This would have been hysterical had it not become so tedious, and so for much of his last decade or so I'd say our relationship was strained. There wasn't any one particular incident. Just a lifetime of slights plus a great geographic distance, plus the business of life. When he died I was sad, of course. Sad over what might have been, I guess. What might have been if he'd been a 'typical' grandfather, doting on his great-grandchildren and not allowing nearly 10 years to elapse between seeing them.
This is not, though, a piece about how my grandfather disappointed me; or a 'poor me' or a 'boo hoo' piece, either. No, I give you the background above just to paint an accurate picture. Equally accurate, however, is that my grandfather was as loving as his upbringing allowed him to be; he was as devoted as his upbringing allowed him to be; and if he became a narcissist to cope with that upbringing, well, that had nothing to do with me and - in the end - he owed me nothing more than what he gave me. If one can be a loving narcissist, that was my grandfather.
It took me years, and years to understand and accept this. And all of those breakfasts at the Casino Deli helped. Because it was there, among his friends [and occasionally mine] that I could truly enjoy my grandfather and accept the love in the only way he could give it - over something like a whitefish-on-a-toasted-onion-bagel.
We'd talk about first school [in the earlier years], then work, the family, politics, guns, the declining state of the world, all topped off by a series of jokes and stories that he'd told a few thousand times already. And I soaked it all up. I look like my grandfather - a lot - and so as all of this was going on I'd often just watch him and see myself in ____ years. Invariably, he'd stop someone [a waitress; another patron], grab their arm and point at me with the other hand and say, "Abe - this is my grandson I was tellin' you about!" Even though he often couldn't remember where I was going to school/where I worked/or what I did for a living, he was proud. That was how he showed me he loved me.
I never once gave the Casino Deli a single penny. One time I tried to pay the check and you would have thought I'd punched my grandfather in the stomach. "The day I can't take my grandson to breakfast..." So, I figure over the years I probably had a good couple-hundred-dollars worth of free food. As good as the food was, though [and it was], that isn't what I'll remember about the Casino Deli.
I'll remember Bernie. A man I loved who hasn't been in my life for a long while, even before his death last year, but who at one time had me over for breakfast at his place - for the Casino Deli was his place - for good conversation and food.
And to tell me, in his own way, that he loved me. I love you too, Grandpop.