On Thursday morning last week, I sat at a table by the window of a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. It was a cool, brisk day. Looking outside, I could see a vendor selling kabobs from a cart, his cooking smoke trailing up into the sky, and a FedEx truck double-parked on the street. High heels, iPhones, messenger bikes, skyscrapers, and taxicabs: The landscape of New York.
Inside the cafe there were baristas in aprons, mugs of bitter dark roast, and the continual hiss of milk being steamed. The crowd of caffeine-guzzling stockbrokers in suits and tourists lugging large backpacks swirled around me as I sat, unmoving at my table. The scent of coffee saturated the air.
I had been working for an hour or so when I noticed an older woman with craterous wrinkles lining her face stand up from the table to my right. She wore a towering fur hat—half Siberia, half high fashion, I thought—a thick pair of 1950’s-style, black-rimmed glasses, and lipstick as red as it comes. She stood in the corner, clasping her extra-large mug of coffee in her hands, and began to sing.
There had been a mix of jazzy blues songs playing on the café’s sound system: Etta James, Bing Crosby, and the like. This woman simply sang along. Loudly. But she didn’t know the words. Mainly she just improvised, belting out a hum, warbling like a bird. Though I saw a few heads turn and a couple shoulders shrug around me, most of the café dwellers ignored the sudden influx of noise from this small, wizened woman in the fur hat. I watched her, transfixed.
She had a good voice. She really did. She just looked so strange there among the blazered businessmen and women, the laptops and smart phones. She looked like a misplaced movie star gone to seed. Like someone who belonged in a different era. In a different body, another café, among a more dynamic crowd. But I watched her swing her hips, hum, and smile somewhere in space. And, I thought, perhaps she’s exactly where she wanted to be.
Later that night, I walked along Broadway near Union Square, heading downtown to meet my brother for dinner. I used to spend a lot of time along that stretch of Manhattan, as I once worked in a building not too far away. It’s been almost a year since I moved from Brooklyn to Boston, and I’m still constantly shocked by how little, and how much, everything has changed. There are new restaurants and shuttered stores, fresh hordes of college kids and no sign of the guy who used to sell me coffee from the cart on the corner. I was comforted by the familiar rumble of the subway, the hot air spewing up from the sidewalk vents. That unforgettable scent of perfume mixed with spring and rain and concrete. I love New York. I miss New York, especially the tiny moments—like watching the sun sink below the Chrysler Building, like buying a Mr. Softee ice cream cone and eating it while walking down the street, like hearing an old woman sing to herself in a room where no one listens.
That night my brother and I ate at Otto, a Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich-owned pizzeria on 8th Street and 5th Avenue. Ben and I have eaten there together many times—scores of meals shared, dozens of pizzas consumed. I’m not sure when we decided to make Otto a brother/sister tradition, but somehow we did. Traditions that sneak up on you are the best kind, I think.
Ben and I used to eat at Otto once or twice a month when I lived in the city. Now, we visit whenever I’m in town. We always order the same thing: Pizza Marinara for me, (a simple yet gutsy pie studded with garlic and chilies), and Pane Frattau for him (tomato, Pecorino, egg—well, “two eggs, please”). A bottle of red wine. Sometimes we share a smattering of appetizers to begin.
On Thursday, Ben told me that he had recently discovered something mind-blowing on the menu, something that I had never before tried. “Sformato di Parmigiano,” he said. “You’ll love it.” We ordered it, of course: a light and creamy Parmesan custard served alongside a radicchio and balsamic salad. When it arrived at the table, I took a bite. And then another. The pillow-like texture of the sformato with its rich, savory edge was cut by the sweet acidity of the dressing and the crunch of the purple lettuce. That first bite? It was a perfect bite. A perfect bite on a non-perfect night, the rain just beginning to patter on the dark street outside. That’s another kind of New York moment I miss.