So I’m sitting at Lenny’s Deli, in the little strip mall at Reisterstown and McDonogh roads, where the corned beef is running nicely and an old high school teacher, Bob Moskowitz, is saying farewell to Baltimore.
And, never to be minimized, to decent delicatessen.
He’s moving to Florida. Many who attended Baltimore City College over the better part of two post-war decades, or later took courses at the old Baltimore Junior College, or went to the Talmudical Academy, will remember Moskowitz as a terrific English teacher.
He understood the problems of reluctant students as well as the triumphs of the brightest kids, and brought sensitivity and insight as he dealt with each.
But he’s 87 now, and his wife, Vicki, says she’s had enough of Baltimore’s raw winters. As they prepared to head South the other day, here was Moskowitz inhaling his surroundings at Lenny’s and getting a kind of Last Supper of the kind of corned beef he fears he will no longer find.
“I have cousins who live where you’re going,” I tell him. “They say it’s tough to find good deli in their part of Florida.”
“I know, I know, don’t remind me,” he says mournfully. At this moment, I’m not sure if Moskowitz’s eyes are twinkling because his natural instinct winks at all human folly — or if they’re weeping at the thought of misspent meals to come.
“We were down there a few months back,” he says, “when we were looking for a place to live. And we went to a deli there, and I ordered a corned beef sandwich.”
Here, his voice takes on a different tone. It says: Can you believe we live in a world of such culinary cretins? Can you believe such crimes against nature can so routinely be committed in any society that dares call itself civilized?
“And the guy behind the counter,” says Moskowitz, “starts to put my corned beef onto white bread with mayonnaise. Do you believe this? And I said to him, very slowly, ‘Don’t you understand? Every time you do this … somewhere in America … a Jew dies!’”
He bursts into laughter as he says this, and so do I. It’s one of the joys of my life to reside in a city where I grew up and stay in touch with a few former teachers such as Moskowitz, and get to know them as human beings and not merely as authority figures from my youth.
Along the way, former schoolmates and I have touched base with such old City College teachers as Jerry Levin, Harold Levin, Joe Brune, Bob Patzwall, George Young and Jerry Phipps.
Back then, I never even knew teachers had first names.
Anyway, Moskowitz now leaves this land of civilized corned beef on rye with mustard. He’s originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. After military service, on his way home, he stopped here to see a friend, got set up on a blind date and wound up staying for the next 60 years.
He leaves town as another Baltimore fixture — the Preakness Stakes — threatens to do the same. To Moskowitz, a passionate horse player, this matters. For years, you could find him at Pimlico, studying a Racing Form as if it were his haftorah.
Once, he recalled, he and another English teacher, the late Jerry Levin, went to Pimlico one afternoon, Charles Town that evening and a track in Philadelphia the next afternoon.
And lost every race.
“Twenty-seven races,” Moskowitz laughed, “and not a win until the eighth race of the day in Philly. I think I won $4. And I’m on my way to cash it in, and the P.A. system announces my horse has been pulled for some violation.
“I laid down on a bench — literally laid down — and I started screaming. And there’s Jerry, standing over me with a Racing Form in his hand, quietly asking, ‘Who do you like in the next race?’”
Hope springs eternal. I hope the next generation of kids has a few teachers like Bob Moskowitz — and gets to know them as friends as well.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.