Letters From New York, Part I:
An Evening In the Manhattan Cafe
by Eric Davenport
The room was warm from the moment we walked in. Exiting off Broadway on a chilly east coast evening, the scent of pizza and cigarettes hit us like the brick walls that enclosed the homey restaurant. Our posse, exhausted from lengthy travels, and experiencing minor cases of culture shock, had stumbled upon the Manhattan Cafe in downtown New York; we entered hoping partly for a hearty meal, but mainly for salvation from the cold Atlantic wind we had never experienced in our West Coast home of Vancouver. There were the five of us, the tips of our noses a stunning shade of crimson as we hurriedly cupped our frozen hands and brought them to our faces. We shuffled our feet, brushing the powdery snow off our boots, and made our way to the back of the cafe. There stood a man who, in a tomato stained apron and flour covered gloves, patrolled his post behind the pieces of thin crust pizza we were all staring at.
“Yo! How we all doin’ tuday?” He exclaimed, revealing a strong New York accent and four missing teeth. “Ya want some pizza?”
We all nodded slowly. We hadn’t yet caught on to the pace with which New Yorkers get things done – which is rapid, by our standards.
“Honey!” He said, opening his eyes wide and smiling cheerfully at the girl next to me. “What can I getchya?”
She hesitated. The man continued on. “Some pepperoni, maybe some salami, sausages are always good!”
“I’ll have cheese, please, if that’s alright,” she said politely.
“You gonna have what?” The man blurted out.
“Sure thing, honey. Giuseppe!” He called, turning to the back of the restaurant. “A margarita pizza for the lady here!”
By the time I got up to the counter, everybody else had ordered and were taking their pizzas back to our table. The man snapped his fingers. “What can I getchya buddy? Ya lookin’ hungry!”
“I’ll have a…a piece of that one.” I said, pointing to a pizza with sausage and pepperoni scattered on it.
“Ya gonna have one pieces o’ two pieces?”
“Um…” I hesitated.
“Ya gonna have two pieces.” He said decisively. “Yo Giuseppe, two pieces fo’ this guy! That’ll be six bucks,” he said, looking back at me.
Not yet accustomed to the atrocious confusion that is American money, I fumbled around in my wallet to find something that wasn’t a one-dollar bill. I glanced up at the man, but he just smiled his toothless smile; there was no one behind me – he wasn’t in a hurry. I found a ten and handed it to him. “Keep the change.” I said frantically, not as much out of generosity as it was an effort to simplify the giant wad of paper folded in my wallet.
“Thanks there buddy! Here’s ya pizza!”
I headed back to the table, where my four companions, reinvigorated by their food, were already engaged in an animated discussion.
“Times Square is what I’m looking forward to the most!” Exclaimed Madi, who I took a spot next to.
“What about Mamma Mia!” Piped up Emma, who was sitting across from me.
“You guys do realize we have to go to the opera before all this,” said Kate unenthusiastically. We all groaned.
“Five bucks says everybody’s asleep within ten minutes.” I said. There were nods of approval from the table.
The conversation continued for long after we had finished our meal, until I glanced at the clock. “Holy!” I exclaimed. “It’s already quarter after six! We’ve gotta get going!” We all jumped to our feet. “I’ve gotta run to the washroom.” Madi said. I agreed to wait for him while the girls made their way back to the bus.
While I was waiting in the restaurant, the man behind the counter struck up a conversation.
“Yous ain’t from around here, are ya?”
“No,” I responded, “we’re visiting from Canada.”
“Canada, eh?” he asked with a laugh, attempting – and dramatically failing – at a Canadian accent.
“You know,” he said, moving back to his New York tone, “since, yous are tourists, yous should know that dis neighbourhood is quite a famous one. In terms of the arts, dat is. Bob Dylan played just down the street. Hendrix made his name at the cafe up the avenue. Dylan Thomas lived a just few blocks away, and Leonard Cohen used to come in here an’ order a coffee and muffin.”
The man saw my eyes go wide. “Ya. No joke buddy. But ya wanna know something? Ya wanna know what makes a true artist?”
“Most people are caught up in life,” he said, his voice dropping in volume to display his increased intensity. “They move fast. Wake up, eat, work, eat, sleep. They work hard, but they’re slaves to history. Artists are different. We’re a special breed. While everybody else is a part of history, we separate ourselves. We observe – that’s what makes us different. That is art – just a tool of expression for what the artist sees. Great art is not about the artist, but everything that surrounds the artist. Here’s a tip fo’ ya buddy: you’re in the greatest city in the world, and some people live here and don’t even realize it. When you walk outside, stop. Look around. Separate yourself. Find the pattern. You may only see glimpses. But of these glimpses, make art. Paint these glimpses, sing these glimpses, write these glimpses, act out these glimpses. Artists, no matter how hard we try, will always be different. We will always observe – we have no choice. We will always be separate. Because you can only see the pattern if you move outside of it.”
I made my way back through the crowded cafe, and held the door open for Madi. He sprinted for the bus. I stopped. I glanced back at the man behind the counter, and gave him one last wave. He waved back hurriedly, and went back to serving the lady at the counter a slice of pizza. He had a tomato stain on his apron. Or maybe it was a blood stain. Or maybe a paint stain. You choose.
Part of a new continuous series, “Letters From New York”.