Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Breakfast in Autumn in New York.

One of the great institutions of New York, the New York I grew up in, is the coffee shop, or diner.

There used to be one on nearly every corner. Angus Burger. Red Flame. Athens. Socrates. More or less, these shops were run by hard-working Greeks and their families. Many, if not most, were open 24-hours a day. So anytime of the day or night, you could get bacon and eggs, a decent cup of coffee, or a steak dinner, if you felt like splurging.

There were also the chain coffee shops like Chock Full o' Nuts, which after closing its last shop nearly 30 years ago has opened a new one on West 23rd Street. The Chock Full o' Nuts I remember best was directly across the street from my college. It was the first place you hit when you escaped from the wrought iron.

It was a cavernous place. The counter serpentined through eight or so esses. There was seating at the counter for probably 50 people, maybe more. There were no tables or booths. Sitting like this, at a counter, on a stool, was the most egalitarian of acts. There were no class distinctions at Chock Full o' Nuts. This was everyman’s joint, like it or lump it.

Their coffee was strong and served in small ceramic cups with their logo on one side, and their tagline “The Heavenly Coffee” on the other. When they closed their restaurant near my campus, I stole two of these cups, their ceramic so thick I still have them today. They have survived almost thirty years of constant use, two kids, and other sundry insults.

As I said, the cups were small. And the waitresses filled them as quickly as you emptied yours. Because they were small, the coffee stayed hot. I think the coffee cost 32 cents a cup and the 76-year-old waitresses would fill your cup as often as you emptied it. Also with the coffee, for another 32 cents or so, you could get a really superior donut. They came wrapped in cellophane, had an adroit mixture of cinnamon and powdered sugar on top and were delightfully al dente, as a donut should be. They were small too, these donuts. The circumference roughly the same as that of the coffee cup, which made the whole act of dunking eminently pleasurable.

Basically, for 64 cents, a dollar by the time you got done with tax and a tip, you could sit for an hour between class and read “Bleak House,” or study your Ovid in Latin, or even find a pretty girl and try to make eye contact.

This morning I met a disconsolate friend in a coffee shop on 11th Avenue in the 40s. The last of the species. The booths covered in a rusty orange vinyl, the tables a faux formica wood grain. The waitresses attentive, the menu as compendious as the Library of Congress, the prices from a different era, like Roosevelt’s first term.

I don’t know what mania swept our world that places such as these became scorned. They were comfortable places to go, reasonably priced and, generally, a respite or sanctuary from the mayhem of life.

Today marks Autumn. In the city the air has a bit of crispness and the sky is clear. Leaves litter the ground and mix with dog excreta, discarded beer cans and used condoms.

I love the city. No matter what it's done to everything it used to be.


Dave Trott said...

I used to love the Chock Full O' Nuts on Madison Ave around 53rd St.
Every Wednesday evening I'd come into Manhattan, from Pratt in Bklyn.
I'd have a coffee and go through my work, ready for my class with Mike Tesch at Carl Ally.
Their original jingle had a New York Jewish syntax: "Chock Full O' Nuts in the heavenly coffee. Better coffee Rockerfeller's money can't buy."
But he must have objected, because they changed it to "Better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy."

george tannenbaum said...

And I changed it to "Chock Full O' Nuns is the Heavenly Coffee."

george tannenbaum said...

Actually Dave, if you haven't seen the 1940 Preston Sturges movie, "Christmas in July," it's worth viewing. The plot (such as it is) involves an advertising slogan contest and lampoons "Maxford House" coffee.

Kelly said...

Oh, my goodness, your comment form still hates me. And I suppose the minute I re-post this, both this and the first comment will show up...


Jersey's still full of 'em. Though the prices are shocking the atmosphere hasn't changed in forty years. Somewhat comforting...

Best little joints I know are nowhere near our megalopolis, though: down the street from each other in little Poultney, Vermont.

They make coffee and food that's so decent, in spaces so completely basic, and at prices that are so retro (without a hint of irony—no knowledge that they're retro) that I sometimes have dreams about my favorite one when I can't get up to visit my parents for a while.

Yeesh. I'm hungry now. Thanks for putting it into my head!