*This is nostalgia in the Homeric sense of the word. This isn't a longing for The Brady Bunch of Porky's II. In Greek, Nostos=home. Algia=sickness. Homesickness. Not like a kid at summer camp. More, like Odysseus's longing for Ithaka. For the responsibility of home, the stability of home, the order and love of home. The sadness and strength and calling of home. The missing of all that--and the sickness that comes from that missing.
This morning as I rushed my way downtown to meet and old client turned friend, I had a spasm of nostalgia break over me.
I have a thing, I’ve always had it, about being on time. If someone says, ‘let’s meet at 9,’ chances are I’ll be lingering outside their address around 8:15. Having lived in the city virtually all my life, the only way you can reliably not be late is to be early. If you go through life in the city assuming you’re not going to be stuck on the train because of a sick passenger at Euclid Avenue or trapped behind a garbage truck for 17 minutes, well that’s just asking for trouble.
The Greeks had a word for it, or nearly so. Hubris. Excessive pride, especially in the face of the Gods. The Pantheon of Gods in the city are Delay, Disruption, Disorder, Detour and Disaster. If you don’t pay proper homage to them by leaving for appointments early, you might as well cash in your punctuality chips. One of the Gods will surely strike you down.
In my car heading down on a summer-traffic FDR, I realized there was a good chance I’d be excessively early. And that’s when Dame Nostalgia took me back to a better time in our sad sad world.
All of a sudden I was cooling my heels in a better place than the dirty metal benches on the corner of Charlton and Varick. I was sitting on a leather-covered stool in front of a serpentining white formica counter at the old Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee shop that used to sit right outside the wrought iron gates of Columbia University at 116th and Broadway. I suppose it’s been replaced by a Well Fargo criminal bank, or a nail salon, or a bland chain restaurant of some sort. The world is so much the worse for its persistent homogenization.
I can’t really go into a Starbucks. I hate the whole pretentious rigamarole of baristas, faux Italian nomenclature imbued with over-promise (a medium is a tall) and more than anything, I detest the idea of waiting ten minutes for a cup of coffee and having to tell anyone my name to fetch it. I’m something of a privacy nut. In fact, I was married eleven years before I told my wife my right name.
Chock Full o’ Nuts was anti-pretense. The waitresses were professional waitresses. Stern and efficient. They didn’t need to know your name to bring you a cuppa and a plate of eggs. They just gave it to you along with a light green receipt with their illegible scrawls on it, writ with a stubby pencil stored, ever-so-daintily, behind one ear.
You could open the paper on that formica counter. You could get a refill without asking. And if you got a side of toast, damn it, it was properly toasted, not simply warmed by a toaster the size of a Nash-Rambler Lark.
I like to say that every place I used to enjoy going when I was a kid has been replaced by a Home Depot. And that’s very nearly true.
My middle-class neighborhood is now dotted with buildings for the mega-rich, where apartments start at $13 million and most people combine two or three because why wouldn’t you if you were making $67 million a year with another $12 million in bonuses and extortion. The rich are different from you and me, as F. Scott noted. Yes, they eat more poor.
So, early for my meeting, unable to enter the pasturized and plasticene precincts of a pre-packaged Starbucks, I sat on a grubby metal bench amidst the strewings of a dozen homeless people. I nibbled at my toasted corn, sipped at my black iced and wrote this piece.
Amid the roar of New York traffic, the monoxide of a thousand trucks and the inexorable heat of another Sixth Extinction global-warming summer, the clock moved ever-forward to my 9AM appointment. I looked ever backward to a seemingly cooler, and better time.