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Deli Hell

DrozdowskiI hate the supermarket deli.

Well, maybe hate isn't the right word. It's more like fear.

You fear the unknown and that which you cannot control, such as ghosts and tornadoes. I fear delis for these same reasons.

My encounters with supermarket delis, which I tend to severely limit because of this fear, follow a similar pattern. I arrive with a shopping list my wife provides. The list will include, for example, "ham (deli)," meaning I shouldn't get the pre-packaged stuff that, while perhaps somewhat vile by comparison, would be immeasurably less complicated to purchase.

So I make my way to the deli, which is usually overcrowded and populated with people who actually know what they're doing there. I take a number from the dispenser and compare it to the number on the digital display. Typically I get something like 68, and the display says they're currently serving number 50. That's okay. I can wait.

When I hear my number called, I drop my ticket in the used-ticket basket and wonder if they recycle these numbered tickets. If so, how do they get them back in the dispenser? If not, why do they get their own special basket?

"Sixty-eight!" I hear, my pulse now racing. I revisit my list. Ham (deli).

"I'll take a pound of ham," I announce.

"What kind?" the deli clerk replies, appearing somewhat impatient.

"The usual, I guess," I respond.

"The usual?"

"Yeah, you know…regular ham."

"Domestic or imported?"

"What's the difference?"

"One kind comes from this country, and the other doesn't."

"Yes, I know that," I say confidently. "I meant difference in quality."

"Well, this kind here comes from Spain. It's made from pigs that feed only on the finest grains from the Andalusia region."

"How much?"

"Nineteen a pound."

"Hmm," I respond, trying not to seem the least bit fazed. "Any specials?"

"Our Krakus ham is only seven fifty."

"What about this?" I ask, pointing at a slab of meat the size of a Volkswagen Golf.

"That's our pork shoulder," he says. "One step above spam."

"How much?"

"Three ninety-nine."

"I'll take a pound."

"Right," he says, probably thinking my choice was somehow inevitable. "How do you want that sliced?"

"Medium is good," I say.

"Medium what?"


"Sliced thin?"

"Yeah, sure."

A few seconds later he holds up a piece, waving it like a Rottweiler flogging a stuffed chipmunk. "How's this?" he asks.

"Perfect," I assure him, not exactly knowing how I'm supposed to determine if this slice of flesh dangling 30 feet away is within a millimeter of my specifications.

He plunks down a pile of it on the scale. "I'm a tenth over," he says. "That okay?"

No, I think. Can you remove two slices so we're right at a pound? "Fine," I say instead.

"Anything else?" he asks, handing me my cheap meat.

I look back at my list. Cheese (deli).

"Um…a pound of cheese."

His exasperated eye roll betrays his inner feelings for me.


I scan the row of options, three yards long. Six customers have come and gone since my turn began. I'm now getting the foot tapping and icy glares from those witnessing this public humiliation, which has become my own version of a Monty Python skit.

"What do you recommend?" I ask, as if I'm dining in a fancy French bistro.

"Our muenster's on sale for six bucks a pound," he suggests.

"Is that domestic or imported?" I ask, pretending to be somewhat discriminating.

"It's a domestic cheese."

"How about American?" I reply. "Is that imported?"

He fails to appreciate my humor. "Want the muenster?"

"I like Swiss," I say. "How much is that?"

"Four ninety-nine."

"That's good. One pound."

The deli clerk and I repeat the process of slicing, waving, approving and weighing. "Will there be anything else?" he asks, cringing.

"Nope," I reply, relieved that this most recent torment has ended. "That's quite enough for today."

- Mark J. Drozdowski

Mark J. Drozdowski is a writer, humorist and aspiring pundit. He was a columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education for nine years and currently writes a humor column, "Special Edification," for Inside Higher Ed. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine, the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and Salon, among other publications and websites. He blogs at, and you can follow him on Twitter @drdroz.

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