When I got a job working at a deli, my family was confused. I don’t really like cold cuts. I had a temporary fling with bologna when I was in second grade, but aside from that, I prefer to keep it to peanut butter and jelly.
I was confused, too. My first day there, I found out that there are roughly twelve different kinds of turkey lunchmeat, not to mention the two dozen or so cheeses and the seven different kinds of ham. Everything looked the same to me.
Why was I working in the deli? It was the summer before my freshman year of college, and I needed a job that would give me as many hours as possible. As it turns out, they’re starving for people in the deli. What drew me in was the above-minimum-wage pay rate and their eagerness to start me as soon as possible.
Sure, I knew nothing about what I would be slicing, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, I knew what Swiss cheese looked like, but no, I didn’t know how to tell the difference between Lorraine Swiss and Baby Swiss. Peppered turkey versus peppercorn turkey? Forget about it.
There were a few standards that I could always identify: salami, provolone cheese, chicken. Every time a customer stepped up to the counter I secretly hoped they would choose one of the three. They rarely did.
After watching me struggle to find the right meat, one of my coworkers offered me some advice. He was an older man who liked to talk about the meat packing industry circa Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. “The trick is,” he had said, in a thick, husky voice, “you gotta smell the meat.”
It was the holy grail of deli clerk advice. Sure, it really only helped with the meats (cheeses all seem to have the same pungent smell), but it was the single best piece of advice anyone gave me. Of course, it had to be done discreetly. This I realized after receiving a disturbed look from a customer when I leaned in to get a whiff of what I was hoping to be the honey ham she wanted.
Granted, learning the meats didn’t exactly help me when customers asked questions like, “Which ham do you like the best?” Responding with “I’d tell you, but I don’t eat ham” was out of the question. I’m sure the idea of a deli clerk who doesn’t eat meat would raise suspicion, and I wasn’t out to ruin anyone’s deli experience.
Instead, I would lie. Usually, I’d suggest whatever meat was open or whatever meat I enjoyed slicing the most. Technically, though, I wasn’t lying. Those were the meats I liked the best, though why I liked them was completely different from why the customer would.
For the rest of the summer, I went home at the end of the day smelling like roast beef, with smears of American cheese on my apron. I returned that Christmas, and after slicing literally a hundred pounds of London broil, decided that it was time to move on with my career. Especially with all of my fingers still unscathed by the slicer.