I had been out of town for a week so I was looking forward to resuming my daily morning routine at the local coffee place, Cupcake Cafe, on 9th Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan. An “old New York” type of establishment, of the kind that is becoming increasingly scarce, it’s on a street containing some of the the last remaining examples of old New York establishments in Hell’s Kitchen, such as the “Sea Breeze Fish Market” (one of the oldest fish markets in New York City) and the “International Grocery” which sells all kinds of spices and imported foods.
At the Cupcake I can sit for as long as I want, have a conversation with pretty much anyone there or more often just sit in silence. This has been my ritual for some time now. Order an espresso and sit with my small porcelain cup and saucer unapologetically doing nothing for twenty minutes, half an hour or sometimes more. No reading, no phone, no computer, no headphones. That’s almost treasonous to admit in NYC. But I think this may be the most important part of my day since once I get home and get to work I often have a certain difficulty establishing office hours and juggling tasks in a home setting. On days without rehearsals or teaching, practicing is a constant, but there is always business to do. The business of “independent artist” means there are a lot of “hats” to wear. Fortunately I like hats but I tend not to change them every five minutes. The “to do” list gets reprioritized, a half dozen things get done and a half dozen more get added. I have until late afternoon until things shift into family mode. So these potentially fractured days need some grounding and this morning ritual sets the stage nicely.
This particular day I approach the Cafe and see that the gate is down over the large window facing Ninth Avenue. There is a brightly colored hand written sign posted about being “closed for renovations” with a series of cheery and clever reasons of just why that is. All of which make the phrase “closed for renovations” seem ominous. The gate to the door was open and someone I didn’t recognize came out, walking purposefully, talking on a cell phone. Through the window of the closed door I looked in and saw Mike, the owner and ever present host standing in his usual position behind the counter. He saw me and shook his head from side to side, waving his hands. Then he gave me the cut-throat signal, hand sideways across the neck.
There we have it. Closed on this day for sure. As I walked to another place for coffee I ran into a couple of neighborhood folks who frequent the cafe. They were both certain that the place had closed for good but I had to know for sure. Once I got home I called the cafe and Mike picked up. “So it’s true?” I asked. True and final as it turned out. Mike explained that the situation was complicated, involving lawyers and other properties. “And the sign saying renovations?” “That’s bullshit” he said. I told him how much I appreciated the place and we agreed that it was indeed unique. He must have been in the midst of dealing with it all since he broke off the call rather suddenly. Which was not unusual. I’d heard Mike’s gruff demeanor speaking on the phone and with customers for many years. Sometimes a new person would walk in and ask for tea and Mike would ask “what kind do you want?” in such a way as to frighten them so badly that they often left. In fact, I think I went there regularly for at least six months before Mike did more than grunt at me. But I could tell he was a good guy and over time he opened up. He even became more relaxed with new customers, still gruff but in a charming way. Often I would walk in and Mike would start talking to me as if in mid thought, on a subject that might take me a few minutes to discern. Sometimes I didn’t really know what he was talking about. But over time it became clear that he knew pretty much everything about what was going on in the city. When Mike would engage in the occasional conversation with a group of regulars he could completely light up over some subject concerning sports or culture.
The place was decidedly rustic, furnished with many antique pieces of equipment, including an old style wooden ice box for the milk. Chairs were sometimes in need of repair and wobbly. There were a couple of old church pews along the wall and a huge marble table in the middle of the room. A bakery was in the back. Their pies were some of the best I’ve had. The radio was often tuned to WKCR or WFUV (local independent stations for jazz or alternative music) or was off entirely which I loved even more. Sometimes business appeared to be slow but they seemed to get a steady flow of cake orders for parties and such. Above all it was authentic. As was Mike. The folks who came in regularly, writers, artists, musicians, actors, neighborhood workers and the occasional traveler killing time in between buses (it was across from the Port Authority Bus Station) gave the place a special ambiance that I always knew never to take for granted.
The Cupcake Cafe had been around for about thirty years although it started in another location down the block. At one time it was very popular but somehow I never clicked with the place when it was so active. I’d only been coming in for the past four or five years and was often concerned about the health of the business given the little things I’d occasionally hear Mike say. My feeling is that they had a good run but that the real estate game must have caught up with them finally. I don’t really know. But I'm going to have to take my morning rumination somewhere else. I knew this day would come. These kinds of places are almost too good to be true any longer. I will have to do my best to keep that state of mind with me. Thanks for all the good years Mike.