Wit on Rye: Paul Violi’s “Counterman”

photo by Baldomero Fernandez (Katz’s: Autobiography of a Delicatessen)<?em>

So, where’s the beef?

It all depends on who’s roasting it and how you order. Here’s to the many flavors of language, elevating the seemingly mundane into art, and having the appetite for a tasty serving of wit on rye.


“Waiting at the Deli Counter” byJames Crandall


by Paul Violi

What’ll it be?

Roast beef on rye, with tomato and mayo.

Whaddaya want on it?

A swipe of mayo.
Pepper but no salt.

You got it. Roast beef on rye.
You want lettuce on that?

No. Just tomato and mayo.

Tomato and mayo. You got it.
. . . Salt and pepper?

No salt, just a little pepper.

You got it. No salt.
You want tomato.

Yes. Tomato. No lettuce.

No lettuce. You got it.
. . . No salt, right?

Right. No salt.

You got it. Pickle?

No, no pickle. Just tomato and mayo.
And pepper.


Yes, a little pepper.

Right. A little pepper.
No pickle.

Right. No pickle.

You got it.

Roast beef on whole wheat, please,
With lettuce, mayonnaise and a center slice
Of beefsteak tomato.
The lettuce splayed, if you will,
In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus,
And the roast beef, thinly sliced, folded
In a multi-foil arrangement
That eschews Bragdonian pretensions
Or any idea of divine geometric projection
For that matter, but simply provides
A setting for the tomato
To form a medallion with a dab
Of mayonnaise as a fleuron.
And — as eclectic as this may sound —
If the mayonnaise can also be applied
Along the crust in a Vitruvian scroll
And as a festoon below the medallion,
That would be swell.

You mean like in the Cathedral St. Pierre in Geneva?

Yes, but the swag more like the one below the rosette
At the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.

You got it.

~ from Overnight (Hanging Loose Press, 2007)


This is my first Paul Violi poem and I’m definitely hungry for more. It immediately brought to mind “When Harry Met Sally,” and the picky way Sally Albright ordered:

Sally: I’d like the chef salad please, with oil and vinegar on the side and the apple pie Γ  la mode.

Waitress: Chef and apple Γ  la mode.

Sally: But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side, and I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of the can, then nothing.

Waitress: Not even the pie?

Sally: No, just the pie, but then not heated.

The poem also reminded me of the rapid fire comedic banter in Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”

I love how Violi first draws us in with familiar New York deli speak, priming us for a punchline, then . . .Β  oop! he swerves left into the fanciful and absurd. I love a good curve ball. πŸ™‚ Two halves of a poem, two slices of bread, two kinds of language, dialogue both on point and on a par with each other.

And the best part? The counterman doesn’t bat an eyelash with that second order. Don’t we all crave a Vitruvian scroll now and again? πŸ™‚

In a 2004 interview, Violi was asked how he writes his poems:

The poems simply happen. I can’t claim either spontaneity or discipline as virtues. I’m too impulsive and too patient. For instance, over thirty years ago I watched a counterman in a delicatessen make a sandwich. He did it with such impressive dignity, artistry and pride and served it with a manner that bordered on disdain, I knew I’d write about it. I just did, two months ago.Β  It came out as a sort of skit.

Sandwich artistry begets poetic artistry. I got no beef with that. Just a little salt, please. No pickle. πŸ™‚

Katz’s Deli owner Jake Dell (photo by Norman Y. Lono, NY Daily News)



Wow, we have five giveaway winners this week — four for the Cookie Books by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jane Dyer, and one for Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich and Adam Gustavson.

Needless to say, we were keen to enlist the services of the dapper, always ravenous, charmingly erudite Monsieur Random Integer Generator, who was enjoying an extended Spring Break in Lahaina, Maui.

While it was difficult to tear him away from his 4th luau this week, we were able to lure him to the Alphabet Soup kitchen with Amy’s favorite Peanut Blossom Cookies and a Seeger sing-a-long with Mr. Cornelius on banjo. After effortlessly consuming 153 cookies and singing Pete’s entire folk music catalog, M. Generator picked these names from his tophat.



The winner of Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons is:

Samantha Cote!


The winner of Christmas Cookies: Bite-Size Holiday Lessons is:

Tonya Fletcher!


The winner of Sugar Cookies: Sweet Little Lessons on Love is:

Kristine O’Connell George!


The winner of One Smart Cookie: Bite-Size Lessons for the School Years and Beyond is:

Robin Pulver!



The winner of Stand Up and Sing! is:

Maria Gianferrari!



Please send your snail mail addresses to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com to receive your books.

Thanks, Everyone, for entering these giveaways!!


Keisha Shepard is hosting the Roundup this week at Whispers from the Ridge. Scamper over there to check out the full menu of delicious poetic goodies on the menu. Have a nice weekend!

Copyright Β© 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.






31 thoughts on “Wit on Rye: Paul Violi’s “Counterman”

  1. Oh, so fun….but I WANT the pickle! LOL. I’ve not seen this poetry before. But, those sandwiches….even to this vegetarian…..look mouth wateringly good. Jama, you are always such a fun and interesting visit on Poetry Friday. Thanks for this delicious serving.


    1. I’m looking forward to reading more of Violi’s work, and maybe someday visiting Katz’s for one of those huge sandwiches. πŸ™‚


  2. Ha! Jama, you are just a delight. I got no beef with that. Sometimes a pickle, sometimes not. πŸ™‚ xo


    1. I’m actually the same — it depends on what kind of pickle. No dill or sweet gerkins for me — I prefer bread and butter pickles.


  3. Wonderful to read. I love watching the counter people take orders, no eyelashes batted, they just roll with the orders. Experts! This also makes me yearn for later in the summer and those tomatoes! Thanks, Jama, a new poet and a food poem-all good!


    1. Yes, they are experts — and in NYC they’ve seen and heard everything so no eyelash batting required. πŸ™‚ Bring on those beefsteak tomatoes!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a poetry cafe where you could order poems on the spot — and notables like Cummings, Collins, and Nye were taking orders? πŸ™‚


  4. I love how the counterman hassles the guy who wants tomato, mayo and pepper, asking and re-asking, but bows to the architectural descriptions that elevates the sandwich to art. That is a counterman after my own heart. πŸ™‚ Love the poem. These days, it’s the burrito guy I talk to with such intimacy.


  5. HA! I had a “Blue Ox” off the menu for dinner last night: Roast beef, sautΓ©ed onions, and crumbled bleu cheese on rye bread. Served with caraway horseradish sauce. Now I want to go to a deli and order something very particular!


    1. Your Blue Ox sounds yummy! The sauce on the side for me, maybe wheat instead of rye, extra onions, go easy on the bleu cheese. Served by Mr. Firth of course.


  6. The deli experience described in that poem makes me proud to be a native New Yorker. πŸ™‚ Monsieur R.I. has been busy this week… someone should tell him not to sing with his mouth full, though.


  7. I have a relative who orders like this fellow in the poem and Sally, which drives me crazy. But Violi brings a sense of humor to it all – perhaps I should try that next time I dine with this particular picky eater. That sandwich looks delicious!


  8. Coming back late to take a bite out of this post, Jama. The dialogue in this poem communicates so much about New York culture and how people interact. And then that swerve into architectural flourishes! A good sandwich is constructed, not just slapped together. Thanks for sharing it.


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