pastrami-sandwich

Ode to a pastrami on rye

I’ve been thinking about pastrami since I read recently that the Carnegie Deli is closing.

I have history with pastrami and the Carnegie.

I grew up in a New York where every Jewish neighborhood had at least one deli, when the words deli and takeout were synonymous. Now, there are reportedly fewer than 20 in the five boroughs.

In my New York, as in Herb Gardner’s wonderful 1962 play A Thousand Clowns, delis provide sustenance to the soul of the city.

“Irving R. Feldman’s birthday is my own personal national holiday,” declares Murray Burns, the play’s free-spirited protagonist. “He is proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in this neighborhood and as such I hold the day of his birth in reverence.”

And no food says New York like pastrami. Not a Coney Island hotdog. Not a folded slice of greasy pizza. Not a New York steak, which isn’t called a New York steak in New York.

Pastrami is the fatty flavor king of the Jewish deli. Corned beef? A timid cousin. Brisket? Wishy-washy. Tongue? Feh!

It’s a pastrami sandwich George Costanza turns to when he discovers the orgasmic qualities of mixing food with sex and finds a woman to complement his appetite when she purrs: “I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats.”

Milton Berle spoke for all of us when he said: “Anytime a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”

That joke required no further commentary when Woody Allen had Annie Hall order “a pastrami on white with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato.”

Given opportunity and mentoring, newcomers to the city can become associate members of the tribe, enthusiasts of the pleasures of pastrami.

Russell Baker, originally from tiny village in the mountains of Virginia, seemed to stamp his New York passport with pastrami references in countless Observer columns in the New York Times.

In one:

“That racket on the roof is too much,” said Mitgang, a connoisseur of Times Square pastrami houses who is not accustomed to the sweet country sound of rain on a tin roof.

In another:

“Why don’t we, just once, order the salami and eggs?” asked Mitgang after five consecutive days of pastrami on rye.

About ten blocks from the old Times Building was the Stage Deli. Opened in 1937, it was known for drawing celebrities.

And, sure enough, when I went there for the first time, when I was a copyboy at the Times in the mid-1960s, I was seated next to Tom Poston, the deadpan comedian from The Steve Allen Show.

The Stage named sandwiches after its famous patrons. When I returned many years later, all its 24 triple-deckers carried a nametag – from Alec Baldwin (brisket, corned beef and Swiss cheese) to Julia Roberts (chicken salad, hard-boiled egg, lettuce and tomato) to Barbra Streisand (pastrami, turkey, roast beef and Swiss cheese).

The Bill Cosby included tongue.

The Stage started going downhill in the ’70s, when it became known as a hangout for gangsters.

After that, the Carnegie, a block north on Seventh Avenue, was top banana in Midtown.

My first taste of the Carnegie came on a pilgrimage to my hometown shortly after 9/11. After the long drive from southern Ontario with my wife and daughters, it was comfort food – pastrami, corned beef, rye bread, knishes, pickles and deli mustard.

A couple of years later, doing a story for the travel pages of the National Post, I sat down for lunch with Sandy Levine, the Carnegie’s bald, beefy proprietor.

At noontime on a winter weekday, the restaurant was packed, all 160 seats occupied with chazzers chomping on the Carnegie’s trademark overstuffed sandwiches – a full pound of meat between slices of thin rye bread.

“Betcha I’m the only one in here from New York,” Sandy confided at our table in the middle of the small dining area – I held my tongue – then set out to prove his point.

He turned to a young couple at a table over his right shoulder: “Where you from?”

“New Orleans,” they said.

He hollered to another couple: “Where you from?”

“Michigan.”

People started shouting – “Texas” … “North Carolina” … “San Francisco.”

The demonstration appeared to support the idea of the Carnegie as a tourist trap, where rubes forked over big bucks – $13 then, $20 now – for a grotesque sandwich.

“The somewhat catty truth about the Carnegie Deli is that it is one of those New York destinations that actual New Yorkers visit once or twice and then frequently decide they have had enough of,” the Times wrote in its story that the restaurant is closing Dec. 31.

It also slipped in the line that the Carnegie “has been putting out cardiologically perilous fare since 1937,” piling on decades of heartburn and heart-attack jokes leveled at the city’s Jewish delis.

With the Stage having shuttered in 2012, Midtown will be a deli wasteland, pastrami out of fashion, gone in a world of takeout sushi and Szechuan.

I knew it was coming. As I wrote in my novel:

I picked up pastrami, rye bread, knishes, pickles and a cheesecake at the Carnegie Deli on my way back to Park Avenue. “When you said you’d take care of dinner, I thought you meant you’d take me out to a nice restaurant,” Jeannie said as I unpacked the food in the kitchen. “I haven’t eaten this stuff in … I don’t know how long.”

“It’s good for you.”

“I hope you packed your Nexium.”

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USA conquers NATO allies

I viewed the Ryder Cup this weekend through the lens of Trump’s America.

Twenty-four rich white men playing golf on a private course.

No Muslims, no Mexicans, no blacks.

Thousands chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Cheering the misfortunes of the foreigners. Heckling the losers.

The result: America first, NATO allies last.

Patrick Reed, a chubby Texan who flaunted his fine play like a crazed Sasquatch, led the Americans over the Europeans throughout the three days at Hazeltine National Golf Club outside Minneapolis.

“A hero for our country,” declared teammate Jordan Spieth.

“Hopefully, we made every American proud,” said Phil Mickelson.

This American, from his refuge north of the border, watched the proceedings on NBC.

Some observations:

  • The cancelation of the biennial event in September 2001, right after 9/11, bumped the Ryder Cup into even-numbered years. Thus, a golf competition hyped as a clash between Old World and New World cultures, is played at a U.S. venue at the height of election fervor every four years.
  • The Americans are the red team. Republican red. Red states. Better red than dead.
  • The Euros are the blue team. Blue EU flag. Seven of its 12 players are Brits. What happens when Britain Brexits?
  • During commercial breaks, there are a couple of Trump ads, none for Clinton. What does that say about the perceived audience?
  • Then again, there’s also a Jeep commercial, with Cat Stevens singing, “If you want to sing out, sing out, and if you want to be free, be free …” It concluded with the message: “What unites us is stronger than what divides us,” a minor twist on the Clinton campaign slogan Stronger Together.
  • NBC announcer Dan Hicks informs us the next Ryder Cup will be in “Paris, France.” Thanks for the clarification, Dan. I thought it was in Paris, Tennessee, home of the world’s biggest fish fry and a replica Eiffel Tower.
  • His partner, Johnny Miller, exhibits a firmer grasp of geography after a Sergio Garcia putt circles the cup and fails to drop – “that went around Spain and ended up in Portugal.”
  • Ads on a grandstand at Hazeltine are for Omega, Mercedes and Samsung. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
  • A TV commercial for Mercedes, the Third Reich’s preferred carmaker, features the soundtrack of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem.
  • Hicks refers to young Euro star Thomas Pieters as “the Belgian bomber.” Inspired by ISIS?
  • NBC announcer Mark Rolfing says, “I would think Europe has to make some kind of a statement.” Deutschland uber alles? Liberté, égalité, fraternité? The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain?
  • The loudmouths in the galleries must be graduates of the Jesse Ventura School of Boorishness, betraying the term “Minnesota nice.”
  • The German and Scandinavian roots of many Minnesotans do not translate into fans cheering for Dusseldorf’s Martin Kaymer or Swede Henrik Stenson. Assimilation conquers multiculturalism. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
  • At the closing ceremony, a U.S. military color guard lowers the EU flag while a military band plays Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
  • I thought the European national anthem was Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole … Ole, Ole.
Private Josh Klukie, 23, of Thunder Bay, Ont., served in 4 Platoon, Bravo Company, part of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment. He is shown taking part in a Canadian advance into Panjwai District, southwest of Kandahar city, on Sept. 11, 2006. The landmine that killed Private Klukie on Oct. 29 was planted not far away, in a part of Panjwai the troops had already cleared of insurgents. (Photo by Graeme Smith)

Josh Klukie: Warrior

The picture above is from Graeme Smith, who supplied this caption: “Here’s a photo I took of Klukie in September 2006, during Operation Medusa. He was a good guy.”

In my last piece, on Josh’s life and death, I included a couple of quotes and a nice passage from Smith’s Oct. 2, 2006 story in the Globe and Mail.

I sent Graeme an email, with a link to my blog. Besides the photo, he replied with a kind note and told me he is still in Afghanistan, doing political analysis for the United Nations in Kabul.

Private Josh Klukie, a member of 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, was killed on September 29, 2006 in Afghanistan.

Task Force Afghanistan is part of Canada’s contribution to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This mission is about Canadians and their international partners helping Afghans rebuild their lives, families, communities and nation. Canadian operations aim to improve the quality of life of Afghans by providing a secure environment in which Afghan society can recover from more than 25 years of conflict.

The Canadian Forces (CF) contribution in Afghanistan comprises about 2,300 soldiers, most of whom serve with Task Force Afghanistan at Kandahar Airfield and Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City. Additional personnel are assigned to various military headquarters, and civilian organizations. 

Le soldat Josh Klukie, membre du 1er Bataillon, The Royal Canadian Regiment, fut tué le 29 Septembre, 2006 en Afghanistan.

La Force opérationnelle Afghanistan constitue la contribution du Canada à la reconstruction de la République islamique d’Afghanistan. Dans le cadre de cette mission, les Canadiens et leurs partenaires internationaux aident le peuple afghan à rétablir leurs vies, leurs familles, leurs communautés et leur pays. Les opérations menées par les Canadiens visent à améliorer la qualité de vie des Afghans en assurant la sécurité de leur milieu, de sorte qu’ils puissent se remettre d’un conflit qui dure depuis plus de 25 ans.

Environ 2 300 membres des Forces canadiennes (FC) sont actuellement affectés en Afghanistan. La plupart d’entre eux font partie de la Force opérationnelle Afghanistan, qui est basée sur le terrain d’aviation de Kandahar et au Camp Nathan-Smith, dans la ville de Kandahar. D’autres membres du personnel sont affectés à divers quartiers généraux militaires et organisations civiles.

A soldier’s story

Ten years ago, I was running the desk at CBC Newsworld in Toronto when word came that another Canadian soldier had been killed in Afghanistan.

Handling such news had become routine by 2006. Yet, for me, this time was different. I knew the soldier.

Private Josh Klukie, 23, had gone to school with my daughter Jodie, grades seven and eight, during the years we lived on Lake Superior, outside Thunder Bay. They’d been good friends.

I phoned Jodie in Vancouver. She told me she knew Josh was in the army but they hadn’t spoken in years. Still, the memories of their friendship, their shared love of sports, were fresh, the news saddening.

The Josh we remembered was smart and handsome, a good student, a good athlete, quietly self-confident, a sweet guy.

I wondered why he had chosen to join the army. (While reminded that most of the Canadian casualties in that war were from small towns, three from Thunder Bay alone that year.)

This week, as Thursday’s anniversary of Josh’s death approached, I phoned his mother in Thunder Bay. I’d never met Carol Klukie, but she remembered Jodie fondly. We talked for half an hour or so about Josh, the youngest of her three sons.

Josh was sixteen when his father Reg died in 1999. It hit him hard, knocked him off balance.

After high school, he took the paramedic course at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. He lived with his mother. “He and I were close,” she says. “We had a special bond.”

But, when he couldn’t land a job as a paramedic, Josh enlisted in the Canadian Forces.

“He came home one day and said he’d joined,” Carol recalls. “It just knocked my socks off. I was very, very upset.”

Josh went off to basic training at Saint-Jean, Quebec. “He got right into it, he loved it,” his mother says.

For the next couple of years, he was stationed in Canada and came home regularly on leave. In August 2006, he shipped out to Afghanistan.

“It just floored me,” Carol says. “I didn’t raise my son to go to the armpit of the world to get himself killed.”

Josh wrote home, real letters. “He was old fashioned that way.” His mom sent him letters and packages of treats – gum, candy, salve for sore feet. The last package and letter came back unopened.

On Sept. 29, 2006, Josh stepped on a bomb buried in a dusty track while on foot patrol with the 4th Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment.

“The blast threw Klukie about 50 meters off the road,” Corporal Mike Blois told Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail in Kandahar. “He landed in the vineyard. I think he must have hit one of the walls. He was laying on his back when the American medic and I found him.”

The corporal continued: “You could tell he couldn’t hear anything, but he could recognize me, you know. I was looking right at him. He couldn’t say anything. I was just telling him to keep fighting, you know, keep fighting, keep fighting.”

Picking up Smith’s story in the Globe:

Pte. Klukie’s friends say he was a big, well-built soldier in peak physical shape, who dreamed of joining the elite JTF2 special forces. But the blast that went off under his feet was probably enough to destroy a vehicle, never mind a man.

“He was breathing,” Cpl. Blois said. “He had a pulse. His eyes were moving … He looked right at me. It was just weird. He couldn’t talk.”

This quiet, desperate scene lasted maybe three minutes, Cpl. Blois said. “… I grabbed him by the shoulder, I’m like, ‘this is nothing Josh, this is nothing.’ He just looked at me, smiled, and that was it. He died right there.”

Josh’s hitch would have been up the next month. But he had started the paperwork to reenlist.

“He told me this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life,” Captain Piers Pappin, the platoon commander, told Smith. “It was good for me to hear, because he was one of those soldiers who was going places, for sure.”

Carol was at work at a law office in Thunder Bay when she read a small item on her computer that a Canadian had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. There were few details. The soldier was not identified pending notification of next of kin.

She got a call. An army officer and a padre showed up. “I was stunned when they told me.”

The military stepped in to guide her through the whirlwind that followed: The flight to CFB Trenton to meet Josh’s coffin; the procession on the stretch of the 401 known as the Highway of Heroes to the morgue in Toronto; the flight to Ottawa and drive to CFB Petawawa for a military service on the home base of the Royal Canadian Regiment; the flight back to Thunder Bay for the funeral at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

Large crowds turned out along the route from Trenton to Toronto, as well as at Petawawa and the church.

“The outpouring of people blew us away,” Carol says. “I felt almost uplifted, knowing he was home.”

Pappin, her son’s commander, and others from his unit have kept in touch. This weekend, Carol is getting together with a few of Josh’s friends to reminiscence and remember.

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A novel appeal

It’s been a strange time, living in two worlds.

I’d wake up to another steamy day in southern Ontario, to news of Trump inciting nascent assassins, and Michael Phelps winning gold medals.

Then, I’d return to working on the novel – and it’s a snowy Christmas Eve in Toronto, a crazed, drunken ex-NYPD detective is in the house, spilling his guts about rape and murder.

I was rewriting a novel I started in 1995 and thought I finished in 2010.

I’m done. Wrapped it up in about a month, which may sound impressive until you consider Frederick Forsyth wrote The Day of the Jackal from scratch in 35 days.

Working every day, sometimes eight, ten hours, I did more than tweak. I chopped large sections and added many new scenes.

What’s the book about? An aging newspaperman’s quest to solve the mystery of a missing woman, a woman who told him a shocking story when they met once, briefly, decades earlier. It is also about life, death, seeking justice, seeking love, being Jewish, and baseball.

The biggest change in the rewrite was moving the narrator, Charlie White, from an unnamed city in the northeastern United States to Toronto.

Why? Because as an American in Canada, Charlie will always think of himself as a visitor, an outsider, as I have.

Given the choice between being a Canadian immigrant or an expatriate American, I choose the latter.

I’m an expat. I like the word. Sounds like Hemingway in Paris. Of course, he eventually came home and blew his brains out.

I’ve also changed the title. It was Charlie’s Rules, words that still have a place in the narrative. I may have been inspired by such titles as Sophie’s Choice and Portnoy’s Complaint. I don’t recall.

But the new title, The Hudson Rivers, helped me set a new tone from the first new sentences.

Charlie lives in Moore Park, on Hudson Drive, where Linda and I moved in together the year before we were married. The Hudson Rivers was the name of my team in a wintertime tabletop baseball game I played with friends.

The new title and setting also guided me to stuff I’ve chewed on for the forty years I’ve lived here.

I often wonder why Toronto became a major city. There are no rivers big enough to float a dinghy, no Thames, no Seine, no Hudson. No landmark bridges. What other major city has no bridges to treasure?

But Charlie is not anchored to Toronto. His investigation takes him to many of my favorite places: San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, Sanibel Island, Florida, and Kennebunkport, Maine.

There is also a memorable visit to New York for a funeral, and a confrontation with his prime suspect in a hotel bar in Pittsburgh, at the outset of a cross-country road trip.

The last time around, I generally killed a litre of red wine writing into the wee small hours. Charlie still drinks – not as much – but I don’t anymore.

Charlie doesn’t curse as much as he did – or I do – either.

He still has sex with his ex-wives. But, this time, we do not share the explicit details.

Typing sober may have had something to do with these alterations.

The one thing I didn’t change is Charlie’s age. I leave it vague, but it’s clear he is in his sixties, as I am – for three more months, anyway.

I value his life experience, and mine, though I know this puts me at a disadvantage in trying to get the book published.

In my last effort, I was told flat out by a literary agency that it would not represent a first-time author of my declining years. No one would even read the manuscript.

They wanted fresh young writers – you’d call them prospects in baseball – with the hope for a lifetime of sales, not geezers taking a first shot.

(I just came across a website called Bloom, promoting writers over 40. I can’t find one called Wilting.)

If you’ve read this far, if you are one of my faithful “followers” or just wandered into this site, I need your help.

I suck at self-promotion. It gives me the willies.

So, if you know anyone who happens to be a literary agent or in publishing, or have a third-cousin or a friend from elementary school who knows an agent or is in publishing, please forward this piece and my contact info: kenbecker@rogers.com

Thank you.

***

Postscript: I have passed the manuscript on to my best proofreader, Linda, who always catches my typos, and my other unpaid editor, Judy.

In the meantime, I may start posting stories on this site again. Need to keep the old fingers nimble.

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A novel interruption

It’s been exactly one year since I published my first piece in this space. Since then, there have been 78 posts.

It’s time to pause. Time to stop taking notes while watching news and sports on TV, dissecting the coverage and the politics.

I’ll continue to start my day with the New York Times, and check out the Washington Post, CBC News, ESPN and other bookmarked sites.

In the coming weeks, I’m sure I’ll watch the Republican and Democratic conventions, as well as the Rio Olympics and my customary menu of baseball and golf.

I may post the occasional piece — if the subject is irresistible.

But I’m getting back to a novel I started in 1995 and thought I finished in 2010. Total rewrite. Could take awhile.

One scene, written with an assist from my cousin Brian, a rabbi, has survived in every previous draft.

I’m not certain it will make the cut this time. So, I offer it here:

On April 22, 1994, I went to synagogue for the first time since my bar mitzvah. I’d buried my father in West Palm Beach earlier in the day, flew home, and took a cab from the airport to Temple Aleph Gelt. Friday night services had just ended when I talked my way in to see the rabbi.

“I’m Rabbi Black,” he said. Sincere. Sweet. A kid. A mark. We were in a large boardroom. He motioned me into a chair. I looked him over. Dark curly hair, olive skin, full lips, puppy-dog brown eyes, a teen idol in a stylish pinstriped suit.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked.

“Of course, I’m Jewish,” he said with a wary smile.

“I don’t mean to be a wiseass. It’s just that I didn’t know Jews were called Black. Jews of color are usually Greene. Like Shecky Greene.”

“Well,” he said, “my father was Black. My grandfather was Black.”

“They were Negroes?”

“No, they were white.” He was playing along.

“I’m White,” I said.

“I can see that.”

“No, I mean my name is White. Charlie White. My father was White too. He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that – z ikrono l’bracha.”

“On Wednesday.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“My father died on Wednesday. On a golf course in Florida. He had a stroke hitting a five-wood on a par-three.”

My father’s funeral was in a tacky chapel that blended seamlessly into the abomination that is South Florida. My father loved it, of course, since everyone in the identical red-tiled houses of Shangri-La By the Sea – thirty miles from the ocean – came from the same Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

When I visited, which was as seldom as possible, I marveled at the goniffs who managed to drain the Everglades, cover it with concrete and Bermuda grass, fill the strip malls with kosher delis and Chinese restaurants, and entice millions of refugees from the Northeast to retire in the ideal habitat for alligators and other swamp creatures.

My father, who had owned a jewelry store in Flushing, moved a thousand miles to lose money at gin rummy and golf, complain about too much fat on the pastrami and too few pieces of barbecued pork in the pork fried rice. This went on for the ten years he lived in West Palm Beach, before he was struck dead on the twelfth hole at Royal Palms Golf and Country Club.

“I don’t believe I’m following you, Mr. White.” Rabbi Black said.

“Doesn’t matter. He’s still dead.” I paused and attempted to appear lost in thought, or grief.

The kid rabbi waited me out. When I didn’t say anything he offered, “Have you come here to seek counsel, or perhaps to say kaddish for your father.”

“No, that’s not it,” I replied. We were seated at one end of a long, well-polished table, fourteen high-backed chairs along either side.

“All right, Mr. White,” he started again, “what can I do for you?”

“I want to damn someone,” I said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Somebody just died and, before it’s too late, I want you to make sure he goes straight to hell.”

“You want your father …”

“Not my father.”

“Who?”

“A criminal who was never punished for his crimes. He died tonight. That’s what they say, anyway. Me, I’m not so sure. Could be a trick.”

“Trick?”

“Yeah, to make sure he beats the rap.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look, I came here tonight because I’m a Jew. I didn’t know where else to turn. I’m facing a crisis of faith and, although I haven’t been to synagogue in more than thirty years, since my bar mitzvah, I’m still a Jew and I need your help.”

“But we don’t do that, Mr. White,” the kid said.

“Do what? Help Jews in need?”

“No, we don’t damn people. We don’t conjure curses. We also don’t believe in hell.”

“Who’s we?”

“Jews.”

“What do you – we – believe in.”

“We believe in God. We believe in study, and good works, and good deeds, living a worthy life.”

“So what happens after you die?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think happens after you die?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“No.”

“What kind of man of faith are you?”

“An educated one.”

I smiled. He seemed to have won the argument, if you could call it an argument. I really liked this kid. I knew nothing of his – my – religion and wanted to hear more. He no longer seemed impatient with me. Maybe his rabbinical curiosity got the best of him. “Who is it you want to curse?”

“Richard Nixon,” I said, barreling ahead, “and there’s not much time. The son of a bitch just died.”

The rabbi chuckled. “A worthy endeavor,” he said, pausing as if to consider the challenge. “But since Tricky Dick wasn’t Jewish – at least I don’t believe he was …”

I shook my head.

“Well, then, I don’t see where he falls within our, er, jurisdiction – even if you and I had the power to curse him in death.”

I was running on instinct and adrenaline. This sounded like a technicality.

“Look,” I pleaded, “he was an off-the-wall anti-Semite – even if he did hold hands with Kissinger, who, as you know, is more German than Jewish – so he, Nixon, is – was – an enemy of the Jews. Don’t we have the right to curse our enemies?”

He appeared to politely consider this before saying: “I’m sorry, Mr. White, but I can’t help you. But your questions warrant study. That’s what we do, we rabbis, we study. And I will study your, er, dilemma.”

He stood. I stood. He extended his hand. I shook it.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “If you’d like to call me Monday, maybe I will have enlightened myself and can pass on to you what I have learned.”

“I appreciate that,” I said, suddenly exhausted and wanted to go home. “But I fear that by then the bastard may have slipped into heaven.”

He laughed. “Sorry, Mr. White, but you have a rather cartoonish Christian notion of life and death – the soul slipping out of the body, ascending to the clouds and beyond, St. Peter at the gate, admitting people as if he were a ticket-taker at Disneyland. We Jews believe in an all-powerful God. If He can create the world, and perform miracles, he can certainly schlep Richard Nixon out of heaven and deposit him in a more appropriate hereafter.”

He appeared pleased with himself and seemed to take genuine delight from our meeting. I gave high marks for his scholarly performance skills.

“Thanks, kid,” I said.

He shot me a stern grownup look. “You may call me rabbi, or Rabbi Black, or Mr. Black, or Ian.”

“Ian? Ian Black? Are you sure you’re Jewish?”

I never talked to the kid again. It was also the last time I set foot in a synagogue.

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Officer down: Shots echo through history

You’d think from the breathless, oh-my-god coverage of the shooting in Dallas that cops in the United States had never before been mercilessly gunned down.

I’m not suggesting the five deaths in Dallas are insignificant, or don’t rate the media attention they’ve been afforded. Or lacked the requisite elements of a big story: major city-center under siege for hours; shootout and standoff; gunman expressing black rage through the barrel of a high-powered weapon.

But police officers were taking bullets before the advent of 24-hour cable news and cellphone videos posted on social media, before Americans could pick up assault rifles and a trunkful of ammo at the corner store.

A lot more lawmen were shot down in the Wild West of the 19th century and throughout the 20th, especially during the Prohibition era, the heyday of gangsters with Tommy guns. And again in the late 1960s and ’70s, when American cities were rotting, when black rage was first rising.

That’s when I was a reporter in New York, and covered the shooting death of a police officer and the near-riot that ensued. More on that later.

But first, some stats from one organization that keeps the grim tab across the U.S., the Officer Down Memorial Page:

  • The deaths in Dallas bring this year’s total of officers shot dead to 26.
  • Last year, it was 39.
  • In 2013, it was 33, the lowest total since 1887 – that’s not a typo – 126 years.
  • The count was mostly in triple figures every year from 1910 to 1940.
  • It topped 100 again in 1969, and stayed there through 1980, before beginning a steady decline.

But, since 1981, the numbers still add up – 2,259 officers shot dead.

(In Canada, where I live, there have been 23 this century.)

Like other gun deaths – Virginia Tech, then Orlando – one superlative can drive the headline: most.

The news from Dallas has focused on the most cops killed in one day since 72 died on 9/11.

But, just sticking to shootings, the five dead in Dallas are the most since 1932, when six Missouri lawmen were killed in a shootout with two murder suspects at a farmhouse in the Ozarks.

The most in U.S. history were seven Chicago cops killed when they tried to break up a labor protest in Haymarket Square.

Never mind that the Haymarket “riot” began when someone, possibly an agent provocateur, exploded dynamite in the crowd, or that the casualties were probably shot by other cops.

The bloodbath was blamed on immigrants, socialists and anarchists with a radical idea – an eight-hour workday. Four labor leaders were hanged.

Politicians across the country used the Haymarket carnage to execute a tough law-and-order agenda. Just as Nixon did in 1968 to win the presidency, exploiting a backlash against antiwar and black-power militants.

(Stay tuned for Trump and the GOP ramping up the fear machine post-Dallas.)

Which brings me to April 14, 1972, when I was a reporter for UPI in New York.

The news was that a cop had been shot at 116th Street at Lennox Avenue in Harlem.

I arrived to find a huge crowd gathered outside a Nation of Islam mosque, surrounded by dozens of jittery cops. There were also a lot of TV cameras for the assemblage to play to.

And that’s what it seemed like at first – a theatrical production, with all of us playing our parts: the menacing Black Muslims on the steps, guarding the mosque; the cops trying to shield their anger after one of their own took a bullet; the gathering storm of mainly young blacks filling the street; the mainly white press hoping to get the story and get the hell out of there.

The main character in this drama, Officer Philip Cardillo, was already dead, having been shot inside the mosque and whisked away.

He and three other cops had rushed into the building, responding to a call – it turned out to be bogus – of an officer in peril.

What they found instead were men who took offense at having their house of worship invaded by the enemy, responding with fists and the bullet that killed Cardillo.

I stood on the sidewalk, between the Muslims on the steps and the commotion in the street. It was early afternoon, a beautiful spring day, unseasonably warm and sunny. I wondered why all the kids in the crowd weren’t in school.

Then I heard a gunshot and watched the crowd compress, not running away but toward the sound of the shot. It turned out a lone cop had been pinned in the mass, fell to one knee, raised his revolver, and accidentally fired into the air.

But the crowd was in a fury. So were the cops, running around shouting.

Next thing I knew, the men in blue were pulling out and a little kid who couldn’t have been more than twelve walked up to me, smirked, hoisted his T-shirt, showed me a big gun stuck in his belt, nodded toward the cops and said: “When they’re gone, you better be gone too.”

He melted back into the mob. And an angel appeared at my side.

“You look a little nervous,” said Leon Pitt, the only black reporter I worked with at UPI.

“Did you hear what that kid said?”

“What kid?”

“The little kid with the big gun – he threatened to kill me when the cops leave.”

“So, I guess I better get you out of here,” said Leon.

And he did.