Katz's Deli Saved My Life
Pickles, Pastrami, and Purpose
Five years ago I ate a life-saving sandwich. I didn't know it at the time, but that pastrami on rye was the cold cut catalyst that would go on to forever change who I am. The transformational experience was anything but sweet, half sour one might say, but it was a modest price to pay for the new perspective and kosher-style values that resulted from it.
On June 20th, 2015, I had been living in New York City for exactly one month. My home at the time was an apartment with two friends on Howard Avenue in Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
I was 22 years old with a degree in accounting and a desire in flux. In my thirty short days of big city living, I had already entered and exited an unpaid copywriting internship and a job selling African soap and shea butter. It didn't take long to find out that unpaid internships don't pay your rent and that shea butter will only get you about a quarter of the way there.
To make money, I took a job as a dog walker and started tutoring English to people in China via an app on my phone.These jobs gave me the ability to cover my living expenses. I was even lucky enough to have a little leftover cash for some fun on the weekends. At this point, I was up and running, but I didn't have a path to run on, or even a direction to run in. I was walking dogs for a couple whose marriage was in shambles, and I ditched my degree for the idea that I would instead go on to pursue... what exactly? I had no idea, but that didn't stop me from carrying on my unofficial tradition of blindly boozing every Friday and Saturday night.
Saturday, June 20th, 2015 was no different. Thanks to a few extra dog walks and a double session of tutoring during the week, I had enough cash on hand to go out with my friend in Manhattan. We met up that night in Union Square and had a few drinks at a bar in the neighborhood. From there, we had a few more drinks at another bar nearby. We repeated this process until we eventually wound up on the Lower East Side. As we walked south, the energy around us gradually increased. Block after block was filled with New York lights, New York noise, and New York crowds, and the closer we got to Houston Street, the more amplified the atmosphere became. The city was alive, and the influence of the nighttime nectar was in full effect. We could feel it.
While the drinks were flowing, there was no shortage of fun on the Lower East Side, but a growing hunger sent us an unmistakable signal. It was clear that the time of sips and shots had gone, and the time of snacks and salt had come. Food was in our future, and we knew what that food would be as soon as we saw a bright sign with neon letters that read, 'Katz's Delicatessen'. We were drawn to it like metal to a magnet, and our stomachs sang a song of praise. My figurative lack of direction had become literal as we made a crooked beeline for the umami oasis.
The inside of Katz's was the same as always: Butts in seats, with cuts of meats.
The hotdog hustle and corned beef bustle of the late-night crowd was just the kind of afterparty we were looking for. I ordered a pastrami sandwich with a side of pickles and coleslaw, then stood and swayed while I waited for my number to be called. It didn't take long before some yelled out, '106... 106... 106!'
I grabbed the tray of food and joined my friend at a table. Eager to eat, we picked up our sandwiches ready to take the first bite. They were so sizable that I didn't actually know where to start from. Top or bottom? It was hard to tell. In the end though, I decided that the best solution was a happy compromise of meat in the middle. After I tasted that first bite, I looked up at my friend with a face that said, 'wow.' His face said the same thing.
In my scrambled headspace, that bite made me believe that this was the life. It tasted so good, and I was having so much fun. I didn't need a path. I didn't need a direction. As long as I was making enough money to party and pay my rent, then that's all that mattered. I was sure of it. To celebrate this realization, I went for my second bite, and then...
I woke up.
I was in my bed. My clothes were on, my shoes were on, and my head was spinning. Damage had been done. It was hard to accept at first, but seeing is believing, and my eyes made it clear that I had let the Katz out of the bag. The contents of my feast sat patiently in my bed as I recalled the parts of my night I could remember, while also trying to piece together the parts I could not. I reached for my phone, still in my left pocket. The screen was completely shattered. Reality started to set in, and along with it came immense amounts of shame and guilt. I stared at the remnants of a broken down sandwich with a look of despair, and they stared back at a broken young man with a look of disgust. I had destroyed my phone, bed, and self-respect in one fell swoop. I felt sick in every sense of the word.
The highs I felt from the night before paled in comparison to the lows I felt that morning. It was rock bottom of a descent into chronic complacency Something had to change. I needed a path. I needed a direction. But first, I needed to upgrade my mindset.
I thought for days, searching for a new psychological framework that would be compatible with my temperament and natural skillsets. The brainstorm rained down a flood of ideas, but the true paradigm shift in my perspective came when I fully recognized that time is scarce, and unlike money, something I could not go out and earn more of. With that concept as my foundation, I started treating my time as something to use, not something to kill. I shifted my focus from partying to productivity, and I moved towards a lifestyle that favored creation over consumption.
That sandwich had sparked a personal renaissance inside of me, but my fresh way of thinking still needed to be put to the test. I had come up with this new set of Sandwich Systems, but systems are ultimately useless until they have been applied to something.
I decided to apply these systems by teaching myself how to program computers, with the end goal of being hired as a software engineer. It was a mission that was both practical and challenging, but it gave me direction, It was also a mission with a future-oriented finish line, but it gave me a path to follow.
It wound up being a path that took 18 months to walk down. This path had rocks. I tripped over every single one of them. This path had ditches. I saw the inside of them all. This path was unforgiving, but it got shorter every single day. Along the way, I learned that this path valued dedication more than motivation. I learned that this path valued doing things more than viewing things. And while my Sandwich Systems were constantly being scrutinized on this path, I learned that they held up to the scrutiny time and time again.
I ended up getting that job as a software engineer. I worked at a company for three years and even got promoted in the process. In fact, it took an acquisition and a pandemic for them to get rid of me.
I'm now on a new path. One that leads to financial freedom through writing and content creation. I've learned quickly that this path also has no shortage of rocks to trip over and ditches to fall into. That's hardly a problem though, because no matter what goal I set out to achieve, I trust my tried and true Sandwich Systems for getting me there successfully.
The night of June 20th, 2015 is one I will never forget, at least the parts of it I can remember. It was a pivotal moment in my life that spurred a drastic shift in my mindset and values. I consider the sandwich from that night to be the most important meal I have ever eaten. No other food has come close to teaching me as much as that one pastrami on rye. Without that sandwich, I don't know where my life would have ended up, but I do know that Katz's deli saved me from finding out.
- Harry W. Brodsky
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