Sebald Sandwich

by Wayne Koestenbaum

Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles, and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.


W.G. Sebald had a more complicated life than most readers realize. He spent the summer of 1985 in Oklahoma City, where he ate, every noon, at a modest café that I recently visited. I ordered a tongue with horseradish sauce sandwich also called, on the menu, a “Sebald sandwich.” My waitress brought me an indiscriminate platter of leftover sandwiches: “I’ll give you this whole tray for ten bucks,” she said. I stared at the unimpressive array; I was chagrined to see that the sandwiches were on bagels, not regular bread. I told the waitress, in a tone whose uncharitableness now gives me shame to remember, “I don’t want these tawdry leftovers. I want a freshly-made Sebald sandwich.” From among the debris on the platter, the waitress fished out a pale approximation of a Sebald sandwich and handed it to me. I repeated my insulting demand: “I don’t want an ersatz version on a skimpy bagel. I ordered a normal Sebald sandwich.” After great delay, and a series of further miscommunications and disappointments, which it would be tedious to describe, I received my long-awaited Sebald sandwich. Upon finishing it, I told the harried, grumpy waitress, “Sebald was a theater person. Theater people like to eat at overpriced cafeterias. Theater people glorify these watering holes, which then become tourist attractions, like Sardi’s. I distrust any restaurant that becomes a cult locale.” The waitress was grumpy, but she was also talented and beautiful. She looked exactly like a young Roberta Flack, famous for “Killing Me Softly.”


Wayne Koestenbaum has published five books of poetry, one novel, and six books of nonfiction. A graduate of Harvard and Princeton, he is a Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Visiting Professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art.