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The Deli War

The talk around the corner table at Nate ‘n Al’s delicatessen is the opening of billionaire Marvin Davis’ Carnegie Deli a few blocks away.

The reason it comes up is that the Carnegie has opened with a lot of fanfare and on this particular morning, Nate ‘n Al’s is quieter than usual.

Most of the time you can’t even get in for breakfast. The story goes that an elderly man fainted in the crowded lobby once. When he revived, the first thing he wanted to know was if he’d lost his place in line.

“It’s the start of the Great Beverly Hills Deli War,” press agent Bob Abrams is saying in mock sobriety, referring to the opening of the Carnegie. “There’ll be blood on the ground. . . . “

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“It’ll only last a couple of months,” television producer Maurice Duke says, thinking of the sudden lack of bustle at the place where they have gathered each weekday morning for years.

“It’ll be all right,” Abrams says, “as long as Kaye doesn’t leave.”

They are talking about Kaye Coleman, a waitress at Nate ‘n Al’s for 24 years and an institution among Beverly Hills deli queens.

Everyone at the table agrees. As long as Kaye doesn’t defect, victory in the Great Deli War will belong to Nate ‘n Al’s.

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“She’s the last of the true characters,” Abrams says. “You know what she did?” It’s a rhetorical question. He’s going to tell me anyhow.

“David Begelman came in one morning at the height of his problems, when he was president of Columbia. He was being investigated at the time for forging checks.

“He has breakfast and says to Kaye, ‘Can I sign the tab?’ Kaye says, quick as a flash, ‘You can sign the tab, but I want the tip in cash.’ ”

“I kid with people,” Coleman says later, squeezing into a booth.

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She’s a red-haired, heavyset 55, the Philadelphia-born daughter of an Irish stonemason, with a delivery as quick as a cobra’s bite. She is a waitress in search of a straight line.

“It’s all done in the spirit of fun, but you have to know what you can get away with,” she says with the edge of a Philly accent. “I can give it to the guys at the corner table, but you don’t slap Lew Wasserman on the back.” Wasserman is head of MCA.

Davis tried to get her to go to Carnegie, she says, but Nate ‘n Al’s is the place she loves.

“I didn’t wake up one historic morning and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a waitress,’ ” she says, “but it’s nice.”

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“We’re family here,” owner Al Mendelson says as he passes. Mendelson is 85.

“Great,” Coleman calls after him, “am I in the will?”

She gets up. Talk time is over. She’s got to concentrate on taking orders. Some of the combinations aren’t on the menu, but they’re all possible. Ice cream and lox? Fine. A peanut butter omelet? No problem.

“Nothing is weird after 24 years of taking orders,” Coleman says. “We put ‘em all together. Sometimes a guy’s wife will call and say, ‘Manny is coming in for breakfast. Don’t give him salt or butter.’ ”

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When an order gets too long and detailed, Coleman stops writing. “Look, man,” she says, “I’m just bringing you breakfast, not fitting you for a suit.”

But he gets what he orders anyhow.

It isn’t all fun and games. There are perks, all right, like a $200 tip from a hotel owner or a $1,000 gift from a bookie to help with her husband’s back surgery or a trip to New York or a yacht sail on the Hudson River.

But there are sadnesses too.

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“One morning I ask a good customer, ‘How you doing, Buddy?’ and he says ‘How can I be doing? I’m dying.’ I didn’t know what to say. In a few months he was dead of cancer. Forty-eight years old. He said, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me, Kaye, I had a good life.’ ”

For years, Coleman has worked as a volunteer in the emergency section at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.

She is known for bringing Nate ‘n Al’s sandwiches to special patients.

“Because I work there a lot of my customers think I’m a professional,” she says. “A guy says, ‘I got chest pains, what’ll I do?’ I say, ‘Either see a doctor or stop eating lima bean soup.’ ”

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Coleman says she isn’t worried about the competition from the Carnegie Deli. Nate ‘n Al’s has been there for 44 years, it’ll be there 44 more.

Al Mendelson says he isn’t worried either. “I won’t wish Davis luck,” he says, “but I’ll welcome him to the neighborhood.”

Coleman flies off to wait on a group of regulars. She has one hand on her hip and is leaning in close. Suddenly they break into laughter. Ten to one she’s nailed ‘em with a punch line.


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