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Langer's Thrives in a Changing Neighborhood : Deli Serves Up Pastrami and Comfort

November 29, 1986|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

Push open the heavy glass doors that shield Langer's delicatessen from the teeming city. Ease into a brown vinyl booth and listen, for a moment, to the voices of Los Angeles.

Two businessman slouch at a table, talking bluntly of mergers and football. An elderly man, hunched protectively over the edge of a counter, slurps matzo ball soup.

At a broad banquette, two middle-aged Latino women idly mop excess ketchup with the few stray French fries left on their plates. They chatter in animated Spanish, until a former neighbor approaches with news.

Since they saw each other last, the newcomer says, she has lost her husband.

"I can do anything I want," she half boasts, putting the best face on things.

"Take a vacation," says one of the women. "Get the best of life."

"Honey, I'm 72 years old! I've got a bad hip!" the newcomer chortles. Her straight gray hair peeks out from under a curly, ash-blonde wig. Her ribbed sweater and knit pants are neat but worn. The strap of her dark green pocketbook is wrapped twice around her wrist, an old woman's best defense against a purse snatcher.

"I never thought that I'd live that long that I couldn't manage for myself," she says suddenly, softly.

"Take care of yourself," her seated friend insists.

The newcomer's eyes brighten girlishly. "If I don't, nobody else will," she says, and hobbles determinedly out the door.

Welcome to Langer's. Its operators and customers alike boast of the sweet corned beef and the pungent pastrami, which do indeed draw crowds from around the world. But alongside those delicacies, Langer's serves equal portions of comfort and poignancy.

From its perch on the corner of 7th and Alvarado streets, just across from MacArthur Park near downtown, it has kept watch for almost 40 years over this changing city, catching a front-row view as its neighborhood moved from middle-income Jewish to lower-income Latino.

The city can careen wildly about, its populations shift and meld, but Langer's remains constant, almost defiantly plodding along at its own pace and delivering whatever people want, from gefilte fish at $6.75 to a little human contact, no charge.

When the morning rush has subsided and Art Levkovitz can step away to a secluded booth in the back, the 24-year Langer's counterman sips coffee and talks about what draws people here.

"You give them a good product, good service," said Levkovitz, who has spent 50 of his 62 years in the deli business. "They come in, and over a period of years they feel at home. They live by themselves. If they went to other restaurants, they're strangers. Here, they're friends."

Its beginnings were less than auspicious. Consider Al Langer's first move when, armed with $500 cash and several thousands in loans, he took over a sandwich shop on Alvarado Street just south of 7th Street.

He kicked out the customers.

They were bookies. Daily, they had filled the 20-odd seats and more, from 7 a.m. until 9 a.m., talking some and spending excessively. Langer decided they were bad for business--although they were the only business.

"Who else was going to come in the place? Nobody! They'll see the place is jammed; they're not going to come in. And then you got a reputation as a bookie joint!" Langer said.

So he tossed them out.

Such unbridled stubbornness marked Langer from age 6, when he went to work on the streets of his native Newark, N.J., selling ice cones, flavored shaved-ice desserts. He decided then and there that it made sense to work only for himself.

Six years later, economics overrode that principle but introduced him to his life's work. His mother, mindful of the cost of her son's upcoming bar mitzvah, sent him to work behind the counter in a local deli. "It cost $35 to get bar mitzvahed," he said, shrugging. "I've been in and out of it ever since."

After high school, he worked the deli circuit--the Catskills in the summer, Miami Beach in the winter. It left him with an advanced education in the restaurant trade and the endearing if slightly quirky tendency to offer up true-life anecdotes like vaudeville jokes. ("A guy calls up and says, 'Al, I need 100 corned beef sandwiches,' " begins one.)

In 1937, following his tailor father and housewife mother, he came to California, spent a year running a store in Palm Springs, then came to Los Angeles.

It was a sparkling time, when up-scale delicatessens were the counterparts of today's trendy bistros, when all the stars in the movie industry galaxy would show up at places like the Gotham on Hollywood Boulevard.

Langer worked behind the counter at Lack's deli in Hollywood, near what was the Warner Bros. Theater. He stayed there long enough to marry the waitress, Jean, and save up money to buy the concession stand at a bowling alley on Hollywood Boulevard near Cherokee Avenue.

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