As a heart surgeon, the closing of the Stage Deli reminds me of the annual meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery in 1975.
Having grown up in Manhattan, I sought out the Stage Deli for lunch with a friend, also a cardiothoracic surgeon. In the midst of pastrami on rye, I noticed an older gent at the next table keel over. In front of his horrified wife, and long before 911, public defibrillators or E.M.T.s, my friend and I put him on the floor and began CPR. Someone called an ambulance, and – leaving our food behind – we desperately maintained CPR while the ambulance careened through the city streets to the then St. Clare’s Hospital on 51st Street.
As soon as we reached the emergency room and got the drugs into him that we needed, we were able to defibrillate his heart. It transpired that he was a tourist from California who arrested in the right place at the right time – in front of two cardiothoracic surgeons. We learned later that he recovered completely and lived 11 more years. (His wife sent greeting cards on each anniversary.)
Gratified, we returned hurriedly to the Stage Deli, where the customers who remained from the earlier episode were delighted with news of the outcome. TV camera crews were filming, and the event later made the nightly news, giving the Stage Deli considerable publicity. Fresh sandwiches were brought to us, and we felt – transiently – that we were being treated royally.
But we were brought down to earth when we went up to the cashier and learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch – at least not in New York. He offered us a 50 percent discount!