The best time to experience the gentle side of Lower Manhattan is most certainly on a Monday afternoon.
While you walk east or west along the quiet streets of the Villages, you will notice a leisurely communal pace. On 7th Street, the hat shop owner is chatting with the barber on her front stoop. The usual European suspects hang outside of an Italian restaurant, smoking, laughing. An old Ukrainian store, that’s only open till 4 p.m., is at its busiest hour: The matriarch of the business can barely stand up, but she knows each customer by name and greets them in her native tongue. They all buy mason jars of honey from upstate.
This is New York.
But observe these rituals closely because they are a privilege to witness. Students are at school, commuters have made it to their destinations, and the nine-to-five toil has commenced. Our streets are calm; take it in.
Weekdays out of the office often remind me of the year I spent in retail. Saturdays were slammed with patrons coming from or headed to brunch—everything revolves around brunch—and two consecutive days off was an out-of-the-question request. So I began to cherish my random afternoons, spent at a bagel place off the 30th Ave subway stop in Queens.
“How’s your mo-ther,” a man with an Italian accent asked me. I was paying for an everything bagel the size of my face, drenched in bacon n’ chive cream cheese. It was my third week living in New York, and every time I walked into this busy breakfast restaurant, Anthony asked me the same thing.
Why? Because my mother has a way with people.
During my second week living in New York, Toney and Bob decided to drive up from Virginia. Before their arrival, my room consisted of six garbage bags full of unfolded clothes and a sleeping bag that I'd slept on top of because it was so damn hot. But not anymore! The parents were here with my bed, an AC unit, and tons of questions.
“Is it safe?” Mom wanted to know.
“How far away is your school?”
“Do you like your neighborhood?”
What they were really asking was...
“ARE YOU POSITIVE YOU WANT TO DO THIS?”
To reassure my excited/terrified parents, I took them to a “hand-rolled, water-boiled” bagel shop my roommate had suggested. Alas, we walked in and were immediately accosted by an unfamiliar world.
“Toasted, scooped, with lox!”
“Just a nosh. Mini bagel today, thanks.”
“Whole-grain everything with Nova!”
Whip, whoosh, crinkle.
The three of us silently took in the situation with wide, worrisome eyes. Workers behind the counter were barking out orders, moving golden disks of bread through a well-established assembly line of toasters and cream cheese.
I decided to try my best.
“Uh, I’ll do an everything bagel, with sun dried tomato.
Er… uh, toasted?”
Whip, whoosh, crinkle.
Embarrassingly enough, I realized my parents and I had all placed the exact same order in equally mystified tones.
Whip, whoosh, crinkle.
“Ah hello, miss. To stay or to go?” the manager asked my mother. He seemed to take his time with us, perhaps because we were three unfamiliar, slightly anxious faces.
I’m not entirely sure what happened next, but I do know my mother tends to talk incessantly when she’s nervous. Maybe it was because I was moving to New York, or perhaps she was stressed from the long, migraine-inducing car trip. Whatever the reason, this is what I heard from across the room:
“Ma BABY is moving to New Yaaark, Anthony!” The man starts laughing, and Mom motions for me to come back to the counter. “We’re from Virginia! But Astoria seems nice. Britney, come back over here!”
I roll my eyes, like an angsty 14-year-old. My mother could make friends with a parked car.
“She’s ma OLDEST,” Mom says leaning across the counter, Southern accent and all. The line has died down so there’s no one directly behind her. Meanwhile, an internal panic has caused my legs to awkwardly move toward the conversation, but paralyzed my face in a fretful expression. (I’m sure I looked something like this pug being pushed down a slide.)
“Now, you watch ova her,” Mom said, pointing a finger at Anthony.
And by golly, that Bagel Man watched over me until he was hired at a different franchise. He would ask about my mother, about school, and friends. One time, he even scolded me for wearing high heels. “What would you mo-ther say!? It attracts atten-tion.”
But some days Anthony was the only person I would talk to before 5 p.m. Like many who have uprooted to this city, I knew not a soul upon my quixotic arrival. And when you live in a sea of aspiring, ambitious go-getters, you must learn to enjoy those peaceful Monday afternoons—sometimes by yourself, with just the company of the city and its characters.
I’ll admit it. My mother was on to something.
Smile at neighbors
Know your Super.
Be “a regular” somewhere.
And revel in the quirks of our home.
It will make you feel human, especially when you’re alone.