The noise of the street is left behind. The taxis honking, the delivery vans being robbed of their clinking, squeaking hand trucks' siren songs. The sounds from the pavement—stiletto heels clicking, people laughing, babies crying, the odd shout of a person signaling to a friend he noticed far ahead—all are shut off with the suddenness of a thunder clap when the second of the air-lock doors closes behind you.
The odors greet you. No exhaust fumes here, no sewer pong. No brazier smoke, in winter, from the hot-chestnut vendor's pushcarts.
MY Burger Heaven, where Betty reigned supreme, and I reined in my writer angst
Well, OK. That last odor is delightful, and lasts all too short a time, only while the Great Christmas Tree is up in Rockefeller Plaza which has, probably more than Santa walking into sponsor Macy's department store at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade, signalled the season of joy.
Once those doors have closed, and until another seeker of warmth, light and sustenance opens them to enter, there is peace and the welcome beauty of a traditional Manhattan coffee shop. Not, mind, a coffee shop in the Starbucks mode. No. These predate designer coffee. Here, it comes in white porcelain cups rimmed with a strip of green, burgundy or blue, a stainless steel spoon perched on the saucer. (Remember saucers?) A Manhattan coffee shop opens early to serve breakfast to the hordes emerging from the subways, clambering off the bus, or hoofing it from their home to their office or shop. At 7-ish, it finds financial types there, stoking up on caffeine and calories before a hard day of mind-reading to see where the dollar, the pound, the yen will go today, and how many they can load into their own pockets.
Then relative quiet until ten or so, when office workers begin to arrive. Those who go to work early—few in Manhattan—will have been at their tasks since 8, so they are the first second wave. Then between 10:|30 and 11, the 9 a.m.-ers arrive. That's when I went, and even then, it was early for me. As a freelancer, I didn't really get started until 9:30. But the attractions of the coffee shop were such that I was willing to leave my tasks on many days, even if it meant a delayed lunch or dinner. Or none at all.
The smell of coffee, the rattle of the porcelain dishes and clank of stainless steel cutlery, the squeak of a counter stool as its occupant get s up to return to work, the soft clank of the coins she leaves as a tip. All this, and so much more, attracted me. I happily walked the two short blocks and four long ones to get there, in any weather.
“What will you have?” Betty asked each day. Had asked 100 times, probably, before that coffee shop became one of my spiritual homes. Just because I would beard any miscreant in search of journalistic fodder for my job didn't mean I would easily join in the slipstream of casual friendships that develop at a lunch counter in Manhattan. But I did, finally, with Betty as the acolyte who introduced me to the high altar of casual community.
And I loved it. All of it. The spotless counter. The spotless mirror behind it. Betty's spotless uniform, and, eventually, the perfectly filled cup of coffee that arrived before she even asked me what I wanted. She knew her customers; she knew I wanted the coffee long before she knew I wanted the connection. Before I did.
As for sustenance, sometimes I wanted an English muffin, toasted and dripping with butter. Sometimes it was a slice of something sweet and delicious from the gleaming glass pie safe at the end of the counter. A slice of fat, dense, strawberry jam-topped New York cheesecake. A slice of lemon meringue pie, furnished with 2 or more inches of lightly browned meringue above the perfectly sweet-tart filling and crumbly crust. Or maybe a slice of spicy sweet potato pie topped with a huge dollop of whipped cream.
As a New Yorker would say, what's not to like? If you couldn't find comfort—warmth, food and camaraderie—in the interior of a Manhattan coffee shop, the only answer must be that your soul dried up and disappeared a long, long time ago and is past resurrecting.
I miss the gleaming silvery coffee urns, drained by hyper New Yorkers so fast that you'd never get burnt, too-long-heated coffee. Always fragrant, never fouled by neglect, like the bulbous glass pots that deliver undrinkable brown muck 'out of town.' The tall fresh OJ press, pressing hundreds of oranges into vitamin cocktails for sun- and air-starved New Yorkers. The scent of frying bacon all day long. The sweet greasy smell of that coffee shop favorite lunch, a grilled cheese on white with or without tomato. (If you order it with tomato, be warned; let it cool a bit because the thinly sliced fresh tomatoes in the middle will be way hotter than the cheese, and will burn your tongue. A mystery of science.
About 10:30, the air-lock doors would get a workout, from the staff of the publishing house across the street. This was my favorite time; the conversation was always good, once I loosened up enough to join in, and witty. Memorable. Like the tales about Amelia Persky. But they are a story in themselves, and so shall wait a while, to be offered up to the gods of my cultural baptism with a few other notables of various stripes. The loss of this milieu from my life is poignant and somewhat sad, possibly. But the wealth of having had it so long in my life is stronger still, a touchstone for my soul when I find myself in lands less vibrant, company less alive and interested. The memories are greater than any sadness. The memories are comforting, as the visits to Burger Heaven were all those years ago. They will live in me forever, and I bless them.
Copyright 2019, Laura Harrison McBride