I used to just feel a sense of kinship for this place. Now I feel a sense of ownership. Friends joke that I should just work here. They mean work for the place, because I already work here. And even though a writer’s income is notoriously paltry, I still make more writing for four hours here, at the same small, round, marble-topped, crooked table every day, than if I poured coffee behind the bar for eight hours.
I used to work at a place just like this: a beloved chain that serves both coffee and alcohol. The connection between the two cafes — their decor is also similar — endeared me to the new place. At the old place, I often served a grumpy Jennifer Connolly and MGMT when they were on the cusp of fame. My shift was ten hours long and always felt like the longest ten hours of my life. I approached the beginning of the shift as children approach long-haul flights, convinced the flight will never end. I squirmed, if mostly on the inside.
The presence of the alcohol at the new place is comforting to me, even though I’ve never ordered a beer or a glass of wine here and I probably never will. But it’s there, a dangling carrot, an illusory reward for completing a piece. The award will vanish when I walk out the door at the end of the afternoon, and I’ll find another reward elsewhere. I’m reluctant to mix business with pleasure.
Today it’s warm enough to prop the door open with a chair. Outside: wealth. Two young men in baseball caps ride in the back of a shiny black Escalade — are Escalades ever anything but? — through slow-moving traffic down the Bowery, looking at their phones, their windows rolled down all the way. Until the car inches out of view, I wonder how they earned a ride in an Escalade. I decide that they’re Justin Bieber’s old friends on their way to meet Justin at his studio.
I refer to the baristas here as “my guys,” but who am I kidding — there’s only one that I consider “mine.” He’s become added incentive for coming here, for staying here, for committing to the written word. Today he arrives overdressed in a corduroy blazer, and I wonder what he’s done with his day so far. It’s nearly five, but it looks like mid-afternoon outside. I’m sure his day flew by, as days always do when there’s a shift at the end of them. I wonder if he’s intrigued by the young woman with the long braid and the tattered notebook and the Grateful Dead jean jacket who just ordered from him. I decide that he would be intrigued by her if I were not also here. I decide that I am his number one. This is probably not true. I am just reliable. I am almost always here.
For months our dialogue progressed painfully slowly from order-taking to a simple, “How’s your work going?” I should say that the actual progression was painful for me, not the slowness of it, and that’s why it stayed so slow-going. I didn’t want to turn this routine into something other than what it was. But it’s one thing not to put anything out; I am great at that. It’s another to try to ignore what the other person puts out.
Last week we went straight to order-talking, followed by the delivery of my tea moments later. “Here’s that tea we talked about,” he said. Something about this signaled a shift. His wit cuts straight through me.
We joke about the fact it’s a full-time job breaking it to customers that there is no wifi in this particular branch of the cafe, and only one working outlet. These are perks to me, not drawbacks. It weeds out the lazy folk, the students prone to accidentally spending the entire afternoon refreshing Facebook. “Good riddance,” I tell him.
Yesterday, talk of the weather. “It’s pretty hot in here,” he says. Outside it is foggy and cold. It feels like San Francisco. But inside the cafe: steamy.
“It is,” I say. “Steamy.”
“I’ll come over to your table in a minute and fan you.”
I laughed, surprised at this sudden move, and backed toward the milk station. “Must be one of the perks of being a regular.”
“Yes,” he laughed. “Exactly.”
Fine: the groundhog day that is a daily routine demands some newness, some color, some variations of mood and motive. This greediness risks tarnishing the simple pleasures of the routine — risks ruining the routine, in fact. But we are just helping each other get through the day, I tell myself. Yes, greed does tend to grow, to compound. But I cling to this routine superstitiously. I ask him silently not to screw it up for either of us.
As I enter the cafe on any given mid-morning, he becomes ebullient, or so it seems, and so do I. Recently I’ve taken to looking at the ground to try to hide the fact that I’m smiling. About what? The fact that two people can have an effect — any effect — on one other. It’s not big. It’s not messy. It’s barely detectable: that’s what I like about it.
Today as I approach the counter, he claps quickly to the music he’s playing on the cafe speakers — Townes Van Zandt — and scurries to the register to take my order, though he has it memorized. I know without looking at him that he’s glad I decided to come today. His body language changes. He claps.
The hands that were clapping now shake as he cups them to receive my mound of change.
“I’m not counting this,” he says defiantly. “I trust you.”
Shaking hands tapping on a screen, tossing the coins into the register. Shaking hands dropping the tea bag into the cup.
This place is a kind of island: a popular break spot for tourists, though I have no idea what attracts tourists to this particular and mostly residential slice of Manhattan, which, like every other slice, has its own name — is its own neighborhood, in spite of its small area. It’s my neighborhood, which is partly why I feel so invested in this coffee shop. I hand over $44 a month to the place, a small price to pay for a reliable office. And in New York, where a sense of community can be hard to come by — most of us move once a year — this bit of consistency has had a powerful effect on me. What I used to love about New York was that on any given day, you could round a street corner and start a new life if you wanted to. What I like about it now is that I get to come back to the same place every day and see the same faces.
Consistency in the midst of chaos: there is little that is old around here anymore. We’re surrounded by condos, by narrow, blue-green tinted glass facades and bright metal entryways. By brightly colored new brick. By gray: the color of newness. The eye sees only right angles, squares, rectangles. Young models come here to discuss their work with their agents. Tisch and Cooper Union students come to talk to their peers or professors. People talk in here: another plus.
Inside, unlike outside, is familiarity and age: old brick walls, wooden benches, marble tables, shabby old windows. And a man who in certain elders’ opinions is probably too old to be working here. His favorite baseball hat leaves a line across his forehead, he wears it so much. When he gets his hair cut — invariably too short — he doesn’t look like a boy the way very young men can after a fresh cut. He still looks like a man, a slightly less confident man. For a few days he tries to hide his lack of hair under the hat.
In the bathroom, the grungy bathroom, so characteristic of the way this neighborhood used to be, mirror-less and plastered with band stickers and old posters for open mics and shows, I contemplate how little we know about each other. In the tiny, apparently mutual celebration that occurs when I arrive to find it’s not his day off, I am partly celebrating the intersection of his world with mine, forgetting that he knows nothing of my world. I only think he does because my world is the only thing I know so well, so inescapably well. The consolation, of course, is that he is having the same exact experience. I enter his world, which is frustratingly unknown to me, and he, too, imagines that I know all the things he knows about himself. That I understand the context of me in his life. I half-wish I did.
What I do here is more choreographed than it used to be. It is also less inhibited. I am happy, now, to wait in line for the bathroom and watch him flirt with a very sexy-looking woman who attended the open mic here the other night (I did not — I am not that uninhibited). I realize watching them talk that I am probably not “the one” in this small but vastly important world of his, but I stand as if I am, I walk as if I am, I look at him as if I am.
He shares his name with a famous singer, and he is very tall. Who doesn’t love a tall man? Famous last words. I’m tall too. I imagine a story in which two tall people fumble their way into each other’s lives, in the process breaking the hearts of the shorter people who love them. But that won’t be our story. This is story enough: a simple, slow fiction. A story about nothing — my favorite kind.