It rained lightly in the Garment District, filling dirty puddles of discarded food and cigarette butts; 6 o clock in the morning and still dark. I plodded along awkwardly, athletic bag slung over my back, feeling vaguely foolish as Google maps lead me through alleyways to Port Authority. A few of my friends and I had made a spontaneous trip up to Boston for the weekend to get away from school, and when I realized I would actually save money spending a day in New York on my way back, I entered my credit card information.
“Jessie’s Cafe”, I smiled, my name, and looked in. A short, Italian looking man stood at the front desk, display cases of baked goodness disappearing around the corner. I hesitate, the social anxiety simmers, three boots steps forward, one step back, swivel, the bells on the door scatter.
“Breakfast?” The man asked, New York accent warm and unexpected, I think he can tell I just stumbled in.
“Yes,” I smiled, eyes wandering to the display cases.
“What do you have?”
“Everything.” He grinned. “Todays special is baconeggcheese on a croissaant.” This voice rolls and plays with the words. I like croissants, not a big fan of bacon, but I don’t want to waste his time, I am bad at wasting people’s time. And I’ve heard New Yorkers hate that. Maybe it isn’t true, but better to be safe. “Or I can put it on a bagel?”
“Croissant is perfect, thank you.” I sound so chipper in my woolen trousers, flannel and pom pom stocking hat, they must wonder I’m Heidi, Pippy or a Von Trap child, all flash by in my mind with pink apple cheeks. I realize that even though I’ve visited once before, New York might as well be another planet, mostly characterized by conflicting pop culture characterizations. I try to analyze every new moment to determine the truth.
“Yes, black please.” I pay and sit down at one of those quintessential cafe square tables, it’s checkered tile on the top. Mahogany and cream, very 70s. News radio plays softly, the urgent speaker plugs McDonalds with a deadpan “I’m loving it” right after outlining the latest ISIS beheading.
The food is out in about two seconds, they hand it to me over the stacks of bread, and I’m surprised that the eggs are not from a carton, but actually from an egg. Starbucks can’t even manage that. Is it sad I am surprised?
Everyone else who comes in walks to the back, where they speak, usually in Spanish, to the cooks, asking for very specific things; they must be regulars. It seems like a good place to be a regular. Something about my rural upbringing makes me think it would be good to be a regular anywhere.
“Good morning Frank, two scrambled eggs, pepper- no salt, ketchup on a bagel, a la carte. Coffee, sweet and light.”
The man upfront may be Italian, he’s definitely Jessie, or at least the owner, but he speaks Spanish too, so maybe not Italian? I need to quit assuming everyone in New York is Italian. On the other hand, I haven’t heard so many different people speaking Spanish at one time outside my classes in my life. It’s musical. I feel like a sponge, I just want to absorb every little detail and lay them out to admire when I get home. There is nothing comfortable or familiar, my mind feels awake, I can’t coast through the minutes on autopilot. I need to do this more; just listen and watch.
I appraise the cook’s efficiency with the trained eye of my anal Protestant father, impressive, and they stack the thin meat by the inches. I feel that this is a New York deli thing, from the movies I have watched. Or maybe just a deli thing, there’s only one in Spokane and it’s more of a restaurant, and the ones in DC are not anywhere I’ve been. The prices are merciful, such a relief from the last three months in the Capital.
There are only a few tables, and the walls sport crooked frames with pictures of New York, about half of them match. I’ve been here for an hour now, and no other women have come in. Men of all ages, sizes, ethnicities, classes yes, but no ladies.
Where are they? On my walk here I didn’t see a single lady amongst the big coats and sleepy faces plowing through the dark. Is it too early, too dark to be in this part of town, or any part of town? We’re told not to go out alone after dark, even when winter keeps strict hours. How many experiences are lost because we are afraid to travel alone? How many hours are lost in the harsh light of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, gumming bottled eggs spread on bagels that come in individual plastic wrappers, while Jessie’s Express Cafes lie cheerful in the darkness?
I marvel at where I have ended up. From spending my whole life living in rural areas with no diversity in sight to taking spontaneous solo trips to New York City. Everyone I told advised me not to go, but I felt more confident than ever that I would simply handle whatever came up. I finally believed that I deserved these experiences, to take risks and let the results blow my perspective wide open. Ladies, and gentlemen, the world, though rarely as safe as your home, is waiting for you, go explore!