Laughter is served up daily among friends at Miller's Deli

July 30, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I'LL TELL you why I like the guys at Millers Deli. Odds-on, they are North American champions of the art of the kibitz. Do we need translation? The kibitz is the comfortable small talk, the comic riff, the sarcasm falling gentle as a cinder block from the top of a building. After half a century or so, these guys have it down to an art form.

And why not? Some of 'em, they've been hanging out since they were elementary school kids during the Depression. It was the country's depression, not theirs. The laughs began, and the friendships. Some of 'em came of age hanging out at the old Lombard Street delicatessens. Then, maybe 40 years ago, during the Great Northwest Exodus, they discovered the promised land at Miller's Deli on Reisterstown Road, spiritual home of bookmakers, horse players and other religious followers of the sporting bet.

When the old Miller's closed a decade ago, they followed the smell of the hot dog to the new Miller's, at the Greenspring Shopping Center on Smith Avenue in Baltimore County, for the obvious reason that nobody threw them out.

"We're just sitting here and kibitzing and watching the girls go by," Marvin "Hawk" Albom was saying the other morning.

"Do they watch back?"

"Oh, sure," says Albom, 76, a retired cabdriver. "Especially when I say, `Honey, I want to buy you a house.'"

The guys are there every day. Such as the other morning, when Albom looks up from his half-eaten bagel and happily declares, "Good news. My doctor says if I stop smoking right now, I can have five extra years in the nursing home."

"Don't do anything hasty," says Lester Brutzkus, 94.

"Nah, I told him I'm thinking about it," says Albom.

Beautiful. Brutzkus, retired after decades as a traveling salesman, pre-dates World War I. Albom goes back to the '20s. "I can still remember the day you beat Abe Lincoln in handball," Albom says. The world speeds by, and they're all sitting at their table by the deli's big front window, slowing things down, taking it all in with a chuckle.

This is why it's so lovely: The rest of the country's hollering at each other, and these guys are eating corned beef with a side order of wry. And, against all odds, they're constant. In America, we change neighborhoods the way we change the channel. And every channel's the same: somebody on television in a frenzy to cash in quick and live off the residuals; and somebody on the radio hating somebody else. It's the sound of the endless shriek.

At Miller's, they've built their own sweet circle of comfort.

"It's like an extended family," says Jerry Cohen. He's 76, retired from the installment business.

"It's held together by the long years of knowing each other," says Hal Lipsitz, 75, also retired from the installment business.

"And we're each dependent on the other," says Leon Goldberg, 78, who drives a Baltimore County school bus after years as a liquor salesman. "Like, I can't hear."

"Right," says Frank Landsman, 79. "He only hears what he wants to hear. He says he's got the quietest school bus in all of Baltimore County. The kids are back there rioting. Only he can't hear 'em, that's all. We're talking sports, and somebody mentions Cal Ripken. He gets excited, because he thinks we're talking about Cal Bittner." The crab man, not the iron man.

Landsman's retired from his former business, hauling stuff in his truck.

"He's the Fred Sanford of the group," says Cohen. He means the old Redd Foxx character in Sanford and Son, the sitcom about a junk dealer.

"Right," says Albom, "the wonderful legacy from his father. A pickup truck and a broom."

The line's comic, but the word "legacy" strikes a chord. Nobody's getting any younger. In the last year or so, they've lost three regulars: Stanley Goldberg, Phil Rosenberg and Harry "Hold the Phone" Landsman, nicknamed for interrupting all conversation by crying, "Hold the phone."

Also unaccountably missing from this morning's breakfast: Manny Magram, Morris Zweigel and Dave Hoff. Also, Ron Kleiman, who's here but sleeping straight-up in his chair, oblivious to all surrounding noise.

"He was in the iron and steel business," says Albom, pointing to Kleiman. "His wife irons, and he steals. Think I'll bring vaudeville back?"

No, but you can still hear its traces around the table. These guys go back that far. The years zip by, and they're still hanging out, still cracking wise, still finishing each other's sentences.

"We made our fortunes," says Albom, winking broadly. "But when the check comes for a buck and a quarter, you never saw so many guys run so fast."

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