At Attman's, stories of boss as filling as 'samwiches'

July 06, 2002|By ROB KASPER

It was crowded and noisy at Attman's Deli the other day. Countermen barked "samwich" orders to the cashier, a customer with a gold chain around his neck shouted into a cell phone, and at one point the entire Kibbitz Room, the sit-down section of the enterprise, shook with the force of a small earthquake, as a massive roll of cellophane, weighing some 70 pounds, tipped over on an upper floor.

Newcomers and the few out-of-towners who had ventured into this cramped, aromatic, East Baltimore enterprise stared in wide-eyed wonder at the goings on. But for the regulars, the customers who crave their corned beef extra lean, their pickles half-sour and their lunch lively, it was almost another day at the deli. Almost but not quite.

Seymour was gone. Seymour Attman, the 76-year-old proprietor of Attman's Delicatessen on the section of East Lombard Street known as Baltimore's Corned Beef Row, had been buried the day before. He had collapsed in the store with an apparent heart attack, then died weeks later in the hospital. An overflow crowd at Sol Levinson and Brothers funeral home had paid tribute to him; the deli had closed for a day in his honor. Now the deli was open again, the line stretched to the back of the store and Earl Oppel, Dave Bush, Milton Mehlinger - men who had worked with him for decades - were telling me "Seymour stories."

As I listened to their tales they confirmed my opinion that this was a man whose values, habits and personality were vintage Baltimore. He was fiercely loyal, he was steeped in the past, and he believed that palaver and personal relationships were the keys to success.

In a world filling up with antiseptic restaurants serving trendy, franchise fare, Attman's remained firmly rooted in Baltimore's old Jewish neighborhood of East Lombard Street and in a deli tradition of delivering overstuffed sandwiches and service with an edge.

"You walk in here and you know you are in a deli," said Oppel, referring to both the surroundings and the staff. The guys and gals dishing out the sandwiches may have a few more tattoos than folks you see working at yogurt shops, but they are disarmingly competent. They remember complicated orders without writing them down or making eye contact with the customers.

The deli staff, Oppel said, "is a collage of true Baltimore. They didn't come in here with a resume, they came in here looking for a job."

A small business often mirrors the personality of its owner, and Attman's personnel and its menu are a direct reflection of Seymour. Take the hot dogs, for instance. Seymour insisted that the hot dogs, six to the pound, have texture or "bite" in them and that they be served "Baltimore style" - wrapped with a slice of bologna.

Seymour also knew his pickles. As a boy, he used to help his father make them. They bought Eastern Shore cucumbers at the Marsh produce market in downtown Baltimore, smashed the garlic that would be tossed into barrels of spicy saltwater brine that would transform cucumbers into pickles. Seymour grew up hearing that the cure for "the arthritis" was drinking pickle brine.

Years later, when the deli was buying pickles rather than making them, Seymour checked out each new shipment. "He would tell us to measure the pickles," said Bush, to make sure they were the correct length.

While in some parts of America eating red meat is regarded as primitive behavior, at Att- man's in East Baltimore it reigned supreme. "The demise of meat?" Oppel asked. "We never got that memo." Instead, he said, Seymour made sure that employees learned the correct way to slice the corned beef: against the grain, with your fingers clear of the sharp blade.

"He used to tell us: `Stay away from the blade. If you cut yourself, the blade won't feel a thing,'" Oppel said.

Seymour also insisted that all sandwiches be sliced on a 45-degree angle, not 90. "If you cut it the wrong way, Seymour would say, `This is a deli, not a farm,' " Bush said.

As a boss, Seymour was demanding, but forgiving, his employees said. "He mellowed out," said Oppel, who worked with him for 38 years. "Seymour had a heart of gold," said Mehlinger, who has worked at the deli 15 years. It was Seymour's policy that if a customer was short of cash, you gave him the sandwich anyway, Mehlinger said.

Seymour also believed in talking to the customers. "He would hold court," his son Marc told me yesterday in a telephone conversation. "You couldn't keep him away from the store, especially on Saturday, the busiest day. If you came to the store for lunch, and my father came over to your table, it was not a half-hour lunch."

I last saw Seymour about six weeks ago. I was at the back of the deli line, when Oppel tapped me on the shoulder and took me deep into the warren of kitchens and offices, where Seymour sat watching a monitor that showed him how fast the deli line was moving.

We talked about current events. It was about noon, but he already had read The Sun and The New York Times and was full of informed opinions. And we talked about family. Eventually I got a pastrami on rye and headed back to work.

After visiting Seymour, you felt satisfied, rooted and glad to be a part of the life of this town. I am going to miss him, and I am sure I am not the only one.

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