Rick Lazio, The Spice Boy Candidate 

Rick Lazio, the Spice Boy Candidate

NEW YORK, June 1—The sidewalks of the Lower East Side are paved with litter and the streets smell like fresh goat. Outside Katz’s Delicatessen, the NYPD has posted two languid cops. One of them is a girl cop. I think, there’s no way the Lazio advance people would put on a media extravaganza and forget to clean up.

Arriving late for Rick Lazio’s “lunch” event at Katz’s, I learn that I am still an hour early. Lazio’s campaign bus, the “Mainstream Express,” is still en route. Lazio expressed from Syracuse to Binghamton to Mamaroneck in the two days after the Republicans nominated him in Buffalo to face Hillary Clinton in the fall election. Today he plans to stump among the knishes.

Already in attendance: A press gang of a half-dozen reporters, a dozen cameramen in McGyver vests, and the guy who pokes the candidate with the big black Q-tip. They scarf hotdogs, ignoring the menu’s exhortations to try the “liver puffs.”

Katz’s is owned by the great-great-great … of the original Katz, and they’ve been running it as Main Street U.S.A.’s Jewish Deli Ride since before our elections were Disneyfied. Tin ceiling, low fluorescent lighting, old men in jogging suits that squeak when they walk. Slugs of salami dangling. Walls packed with framed photos of various Katzes being embraced by various individuals of intermediate fame. Those of lesser fame are identified via carefully handwritten labels below: “Richard D. Anderson (McGyver).”

Asked which way he’ll vote, Alan Dell, the top Katz present, diplomatically replies: “Pastrami is non-partisan.” That probably slayed reporters when his grandfather first served it up during FDR’s visit. Dell’s black Katz’s T-shirt features this perplexing slogan: “Send a Salami.” Where? To the Senate?

Two young Lazio staffers (Dupont Circle, circa 1998) wearing D.C. Staffer-Gear (Hecht’s, circa $129.99) and those little round glasses favored by Thackeray characters, try to herd us to the right place on the sidewalk to meet the bus. We ignore them. Finally, the bus pulls in at 1:30, looking like a big gold and black sneaker, and a cadre of blinky reporters stumbles off. One of them is ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, and he garners more attention from the tiny sidewalk crowd than does Lazio. Then a voice booms: “The man, who with your help will—” The sound system cuts off. The candidate hovers in the doorway of the bus, the sound blares back, and he dismounts gracefully with his wife, Patricia. Ignoring the five-to-one press-to-human ratio, he starts glad-handing. A tourist from Cologne, Germany, promises she “vill never vash my hand.” Still, she is not sure who Rick is.

Until today I was only amused by the puppy-splat candidate. Now I find myself in a near-swoon. He is, as the Republicans intended, adorable. Tim Robbins meets Reggie from the Archie comic books. But married to Betty, not Veronica. Creamy skin that cannot be sprayed on. A heart-stopping smile of undistilled delight. After the fourth person calls out: “How’s your lip?” Lazio crows, “It’s a New York lip!” Flashbulbs flash. Even when most of his putative voters offer long elegies for Rudy Giuliani, he beams. That, too, is adorable.

We proceed inside, part of a lethal, surging organism comprising elbows, flashbulbs, and notepads, watching Lazio order corned beef. He is handed a slice to taste, and he tilts his head back and slides it down in the most erotic performance on a luncheon meat I have ever witnessed. He does it again, slow and sexy. I cannot breathe. Kind of 9 1/2 Weeks meets Fiddler on the Roof. He invites an African-American couple from San Antonio to join him at lunch. They make their way past 40 startled diners and settle at a table occupied by one customer. Lazio and his wife shake hands with them and joke about the lip.

“Lunch” involves the elbow-flashbulb machine crowding suffocatingly close as the congressman tries to stretch his puffed lip wide enough to ingest his corned beef. Chris Bonner of San Antonio shrieks at us to leave him alone. Dave Braunstein of West Nyack is also seated at Lazio’s table. He gamely scarfs his own sandwich, while dissing Hillary for the cameras. “She should go back to Arkansas. Or Chicago,” he offers. He explains to Lazio that the corned beef is juicy because they cut it with a knife rather than with a slicer. Lazio is delighted. He shares this information with the press.

Usually, the very staginess of these media feeding frenzies throws the humanity of the candidate into even sharper relief. John McCain was no more himself than when he was pasted against some phony photo-op. Hillary, while saying nothing, is still so utterly Hillary when mashed up against two fat toddlers and a stack of alphabet blocks. But Lazio seems even flatter than the backdrop. Did I say he was gorgeous yet? That no one seems to have any sense of who he really is or what he wants—other than a Senate seat—doesn’t matter yet. His only substantive comments during this appearance are identical to his other stump phrase, something about having to “earn this,” which pops out of him—like a condom in the dispenser in a men’s room—every time anyone asks him a policy question.

An hour passes with more photos, handshakes, and the corned beef wrapped and tucked into a doggie bag. Stephanopoulos gets pinned against the counter by groupies. Among the new Lazio voters, I count six Germans, four Georgians, two Scandinavians, and two Texans. For a guy whose whole campaign has been an attack on carpetbagging, Lazio sure doesn’t object much when the voters hail from out-of-state.

As Lazio hands out T-shirts and hats from the drive-through window on the side of the “Mainstream Express” (“fries with that, sir?”), I contemplate Katz’s slogan: “Send a Salami.” Salami is delightful, too. Mostly because it comes from that which is left behind, deemed useless, swept up, and ground up. But add the right spices and you transform it into something not only palatable but delicious. A month ago no one wanted or cared about Rick Lazio. Now he’s the beefcake of the week. Send a Salami. To the Senate.