Brush with Greatness

by Matt Myers

Brush with Greatness   Eating at the Carnegie Deli in April, 1990—New York, sitting next to Henny Youngman.  Who?  HENNY FUCKING YOUNGMAN.  King of the One Liners.  Take My Wife, Please.  OLD SCHOOL.  He must have been in his 80’s.  I was in my 20’s.  My college roommate Jeff and I decided to splurge and blow some cash to split a classic Carnegie corned beef—a massive pile of meat between two slices of bread.  While we sat there eating pickles, waiting for our five pound sandwich to arrive, packed shoulder to shoulder with total strangers, I double-taked to the old dude sitting next to me.  He was loud, the way old people get.  Flirting with the waitress, ribbing an old friend sitting across from him, and cracking one joke after another in rapid succession.  His mouth was like the end of an assembly line at a bottling plant, relentlessly and effortlessly “on”, steady and sure.  Everyone and everything around him was merely a set-up for a vast catalog of well worn rimshots.

WAITRESS: All finished?  Can I take that away for you?

HENNY: Yes.  And when you come back, take him away, too. (nodding to his friend).

WAITRESS: (to the old friend) Sorry, I’m married, honey.

HENNY’S OLD FRIEND: Don’t get him started.

HENNY: I used to be married, God rest her soul.  Once, for our anniversary my wife said she wanted to go somewhere she’d never been before.  I said, “Try the kitchen!”

And on and on it went.  Lines we’d heard a thousand times, new ones we hadn’t.  Seeing Henny in public, eating his lunch at the Carnegie—he reminded me of a few uncles I had.  No off switch.  My pal Jeff and I sat there, along with the rest of the customers, eating corned beef and trying not to choke as we rollicked to this old timer’s relentless vaudeville punchline factory. 

HENNY’S OLD FRIEND:  What’re you doing on Friday?  How about we meet at Carmines?  Do you wanna go to Carmine’s?

HENNY:  Sure.  You know I speak Sicilian, right?  Let’s speak a little Siclian: “Stick ‘em up!”  (makes a gun gesture with is hand).

 I finally got up the nerve to say something.  I mean, how often do you get to eat lunch next to Henny Youngman?  I turned to him and said something stupid like, “Excuse me, you’re Henny Youngman, right?”

            HENNY: I used to be.  Who wants to know?  Waitress!  See if this guy’s from the police!

            HENNY’S OLD FRIEND: You’re still Henny Youngman, who the hell else can you
            possibly be?  (turns to me)  There’s a sandwich named after him here.

I tried talking to him—asking questions about “what’s good to eat here”, and “do you come here often” and other stupid shit one says to celebrities when tongue tied.  But it was as though he was constantly looking past me, trying to find the set up in whatever words came out of me.  At the end of lunch, we all realized he was unable to get up from the chair.  His old pal, who jovially acted as the shill, stood up to help him painfully get to his feet.  Clearly Henny’s minder, he held the King of the One Liners up by his arm.  A cane appeared in Henny’s hand and he moved with slow, mincing steps.  Towards the end of our brief exchange, Henny pointed to me with the tip of his cane and announced loudly:

            HENNY: I like this guy.  Waitress!  Put his lunch on my bill!  (then after a furtive glance around he
            quickly looked at her and shook his head ‘no’.).

I noticed he was not carrying his trademark violin as he shuffled at a glacial pace
towards the door, propped up by the old man.