The Great Flood at the Deli

by Andrew Leech (

Have you ever done something you are half ashamed of, or just too embarrassed to admit - yet bursting within to tell? I bet you have! My moment of purgatory came when I accidentally flooded the loo (Anglicism for WC) of a well known deli near 7th Avenue/ 52nd Street, New York. A moment of physical, olfactoral and mental anguish I hope never to repeat or endure.

For months I’d heard of its uneatably large, delicious pastrami and corned beef sandwiches (three layers of rye with inch thick slices of meat inside) and, on the first night of our New York sojourn, I persuaded all the family to dine there. With the help of the waiter, a garrulous middle-aged gentleman who carefully intoned (and explained) the menu in a heavy nasal “Noo Yark” accent and made sure we were doubly, if not triply, aware that service was not included - “Ain’t like Urope here, ya gotta add at least 15%, folks, I gotta family to feed, too!” - I verified the truth of the three-decker, while others dealt with enormous cheesecake, blintzes and even an enviable example of the ubiquitous New York half-pound hamburger with all trimmings. All so delicious that two days later my son urged a lunchtime revisit.

With the conservatism of youth he chose a giant cheeseburger, while I moved towards a giant baloney and salad sandwich, the largest I had ever seen and the first that had ever needed the crutch of a doggy bag to finish. It was towards the end of this titanic, where two thirds had already sunk and the rest played out a delicate postponement in the brown paper bag, that I needed (in US parlance) to urgently visit the restroom.

When you gotta go, you gotta go!

Now, that part of the establishment had not been included in the glowing testimonials given me and was definitely not up to the usual North American standard, showing signs of heavy wear and usage on entrance and sorely needing the light hand of a cleaner after the lunchtime rush. However, we see far worse in many Greek tavernas!

So after the second reflection, meditation and libation, when I thought myself lighter and ready to return to the dining area, I prepared for the journey in the accustomed western manner by dropping the used paper down the bowl. Unfortunately, I did not notice a large bin - from which curious pieces of loo paper peeked at me - that sat innocuously (yet full of pointed significance for a Greek) near the door. I rose, stretched out a hand and flushed the bowl - only afterwards raising my eyes to the sign placed a good foot above the handle: DO NOT THROW PAPER DOWN THE BOWL, IT BLOCKS.

The maelstrom of swirling water rose and rose, reached the lip of the porcelain, and - horror of horrors - cascaded down onto the floor. Nimbly I hopped on to the seat, trying anything to avoid standing in it and its contents. Then, my eye caught sight of a plunger; one of those long handles with a rubber suction cup on the end. Grabbing it I manfully plunged, wiggled, wriggled and withdrew it with the low plopping sound one only expects to hear on plucking some victim from a treacherous marshland bog.

The tide seemed to lower for a second. I tried again; another plunge, wiggle, wriggle and slow withdrawal. Again the level lowered. Then, like a geyser finding its blow hole, it rose. Slowly at first, but gaining speed on acceleration until it broke its bounds, slopped over my shoes (I was still standing on the bowl) and fell, multicoloured - and with varying consistency, ripeness and odour - onto the floor. The system, in its generosity, had returned not only my offering, but those of former pilgrims, too.

Like many soldiers who have fought the good fight, I instinctively knew it was time to retreat. Having manfully struggled, wiggled and wriggled to no avail, I knew the most prudent course was to survive and fight another day. Luckily there was no one about as I stepped on tiptoe, through the carnage of the battlefield, towards the washbasin. Carefully washing hands and shoes, and wiping clinging damp perspiration from my face, I exited like any normal diner into a normal dining room.

Sang-froid stood firm till I reached the table and conferred with my son, who immediately started laughing uncontrollably. That did it. It had been my intention to talk discretely to the manager, but those demented banshee howls - drawing all possible unwelcome attention to us - killed any such notion. Now I just wanted to disappear as quickly and unobtrusively as possible! With a metaphorical tail between my legs I paid, tipped more than usual, picked up the doggy bag and slouched out into a muggy, sweltering New York afternoon haze, half-dragging, half-wishing to strangle, my unwelcome, embarrassing, hooting, giggling, teenage progeny.

(Posted 26 March 2009. Previously published in ELT News, December 2006.)

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