A warm holiday memory of Harold's

Every December, we go through the motions. We drive from strip mall to strip mall carrying in our heads a picture of what Christmas is supposed to look like; but if we're honest with ourselves, we know it's really about bumper-to-bumper traffic and jammed parking lots, or maybe, now, sitting at the computer late at night with only a credit card for company. We claim Christmas isn't really about that, but that's Christmas as we pay to perpetuate it every year.

Then again, maybe Christmas is a jollier prospect in 2008, now that downtown's more fun than it was a generation or two ago. Now you can see kids skating on the Square, people with packages on the sidewalks, children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile, just like in the song. For some middle-aged Knoxvillians, that's a whole new experience.

Before downtown's revival, I knew of only one place that seemed dependably Christmassy, in the Frank Capra sense. And it was a little ironic, because it was a place where the proprietor and a large proportion of the clientele didn't celebrate Christmas at all. It was at a kosher deli called Harold's.

Harold Shersky, who opened the deli back in 1948, and ran it until 2005 when, at age 85, he was hurt in a car accident, died earlier this year. If you called it a kosher deli, Harold was careful to correct you; he ran a "kosher-style" deli, a distinction understood by some of his customers. Harold never offered any pork or shellfish product, and all his beef came from kosher suppliers. But when a customer ordered a Reuben, he was willing to put a slice of cheese on a beef sandwich.

Harold Shersky was an observant and conservative Jew who offered a special menu during Passover and took time off at Yom Kippur. He took it all very seriously and never made light of his faith. However, he enjoyed the Christmas season as much as anybody. Thin and clean-shaven, with dark hair even into his 80s, Harold looked nothing like Santa Claus, but he ran a jolly place.

In this column I thought I'd bring up a unique amenity offered at Harold's during the holidays, for the benefit of unfortunates who missed it. I would have hesitated to mention it while he was still in business.

It was not just that the place was more jovial than any Christian-owned place downtown. Harold's was always like a scene from It's a Wonderful Life, full of friends and strangers talking and laughing and sitting closer to each other than they did in most restaurants. It was not a place to come and be alone with your thoughts.

Maybe it was my imagination, but it always seemed to me as if the people who came to Harold's even looked old-fashioned. They wore hats and scarves and long gray wool coats, even though it was the late 20th century, and they all knew Americans were supposed to be wearing brightly colored plastic outdoor gear. Dressed however they were, they arrived every day to find a seat at Harold's, if they could, and order a pastrami or peppered beef on pumpernickel or a bowl of matso-ball soup.

If you came into Harold's in the latter half of December and sat at the counter, as I usually did, as you waited for your order and maybe even as you were already eating your sandwich, Harold would sidle up in his apron and ask you if you wanted some eggnog. The correct response was always yes, please. It was never on the menu, but eggnog was always free, Harold's treat. Then he'd say, "With?" And the correct response, again, was yes, please.

"With," as it turned out, meant "With white lightnin'." Harold, son of a Russian refugee, may have been the only kosher deli man on this planet who sometimes kept a bottle of moonshine behind the counter. Just during the holidays, as far as I know, and just for his customers. The Torah has no specific proscriptions of moonshine. And if it was illegal, by secular laws, to serve moonshine in a Knoxville restaurant, that wasn't Harold's own interpretation. It would only be illegal, he explained to me once, if he charged me for it. But his eggnog was free. His conscience was clean.

Harold and the other folks behind the counter sometimes called it "splo," which is the old street nickname for moonshine. It's about the equivalent of calling heroin smack. After a trip to Knoxville, journalist Ernie Pyle once speculated that splo was short for the word "explode," which he remarked is what your head feels like it's going to do after a little too much of it.

I remember one day paying Harold's wife, Addie Shersky, at the cash register. She smiled the sweet, grandmotherly smile we all knew, and said, "Jack, you get you some of that good Newport splo?" Confident that the restaurant at 131 Gay Street was the only kosher-style deli in the world where that phrase could ever be heard, I was proud to be there.

Usually I was content with just one glass, to be sociable. I never wanted to disappoint Harold. But one time maybe a dozen years ago, I tarried after lunch, as I often did on Saturdays, enjoying a second or third and talking jovially at the counter. Sometime after 2, I figured I'd been there long enough, and left. I paid my tab, waved goodbye, and walked out into the cold. Forgetting, for a moment, what I'd been doing downtown that day, and how I got there. Somehow in the chill I realized it was actually Tuesday, and I'd been expected back at work a while ago. One heartening virtue of this dying profession is that everything that happens to you is material.

Number 131 Gay Street has been empty for three years. The developer has been renovating the place, and it sounds like he'd prefer, more than anything else, that something like Harold's could come back there. We can hope.