Monday, July 17, 2017

Where Coffee's a Prop & More's Being Served than Breakfast

exception that proves the rule: me eating kielbasa at Odessa, Ukrainian diner, 7th street & ave A, that does sometimes serve good food. (but still a NYC diner)


It's funny, I know that nyc diners are mostly closing but because the stalwarts around me - east village Polish ones and the 6th ave west village trio of them (central to which is the Waverly 'restaurant' at 6th ave, can't remember what the others are called but they're just south & north of that) and some on the upper west side when I'm up there for musical reasons usually - in other words, because that familiar landscape of diners is still goin' down it really hasn't entered my imagination yet that they could be disappearing.

There truly is nothing like a New York diner anywhere else I've been in this country or the world. It's a fascinatingly familiar place to us - whose obvious identity in fact is full of strange subtleties to anyone else, usually annoying ones. I have a friend from Singapore who can't stand them. Number one, the food is almost always meh. The coffee (to his mind and to many others used to the high-profile Starbucks et al models) is nothing but something to fill a cup and have in front of you as a prop. (Number 2 is you can't substitute, say, iced tea for coffee without having to pay for it. Numbers 3, 4, 5 I can't remember but he vociferously had them.)

But this to me harbors the real clue about New York diners, which I know I've gone on about before at length (I do go on at length about stuff don't I, often the same stuff), which is they're not about food. They're about providing a place for New Yorkers to be. Food is the ostensible reason to walk into one, and indeed over time you do tend to develop an affection for this or that reliable breakfast item, etc that in fact does taste more than okay, but basically they serve the same purpose as an oasis in the desert, where maybe you don't fill your 'camels' with water, but you do give them (& yourself) a place to sit down & -- breathe. When Reed and I go to a diner, which is frequent, we have extraordinarily deep-dive talks. I don't know what it is about the availing canvas of a nyc diner, but something about it is comfortably anything-goes. Which of course could be the generative password to NYC. When Florent was open - oh that amazing place! - it managed to mix the sense of New York diner with, in fact, quite wonderful food (I remember the steak frites thing as being terrific) and of course an inimitable cast of characters. So 'anything goes' had a maybe more theatrical reality at Florent, but it was never disruptive.

That's another core-of-the-heart thing about a NYC diner. It doesn't disrupt. Like New York as a whole, it doesn't take any particular interest in you: it lets you be. With a mixture somehow both of dispassion and warmth, it gives you a place to be and stay and - breathe. Great if you're alone. They exist for Hopperesque solitude. Great if you're with someone. In fact, Reed has been away coaching opera stuff in Colorado & just got back to Fort Greene. I shall scoop him up asap to haunt another diner. Which - hmm, wait a sec. Maybe this is the hopeful thing: most Fort Greene restaurants certainly aren't 'diners' but they do, like Florent did, manage to convey the same 'stay here & don't worry about it' feel that is a New York diner's artless and finest specialty. So we may have some 'good' food in a Fort Greene restaurant and still feel like we're in a diner. I think - I hope, I believe, I am all but certain - that as long as New York has the heart she has, she will (i.e., her inhabitants will) insist on that 'feel' in a neighborhood restaurant. It may be serving cous-cous - but if it's to survive in this city, it will have in some large measure to harbor the soul of a Diner -- and of a New York diner IN a Diner.

This all of course corroborates my larger hope, dream, certainty, fantasy - that is, my collective daily 'reality' - that New York at its core has really been radiating the same powerful identity since the Dutch arrived in 1624 - some strange mixture of Naples' 'don't-even-THINK-about-gettin-in-my-effin-way' & Paris' long sweet exhalations of amoral pleasure. First time I've invoked those cities in the same sentence. New York prods untoward analogies. Often over a meh cup of coffee in one of its iconic diners. Even if/when diners disappear, they won't have disappeared. Something will have their effect.


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