A new customer took the stool next to me at the Morningstar Diner on 59th and 9th on the West Side. His name was Rich, a thin, white, middle-aged man carrying a plastic Gristede’s grocery bag that must have contained books.
He took a seat, ordered a coffee to go, and I asked him about how the Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen/Jetlandia neighborhood was doing lately with the imposition of the Time Warner Mall last year and the possible mega-stadium in the near-future. He’d been coming to the Morningstar for twenty years.
“Well, the 400 Deli you can see across the street papered with Am Ex ads closed up and people sleep under the awning all the time now. After this and the Flame down the block, there’s not much left, really.
Swank hotel around the corner, homeless guys in the building across the street. That’s your neighborhood right there. The Flame and Arrow Drugs next door been here since World War Two. Used to be a place called the Shannonstar, too. It was a place down on 52nd Street. I used to meet my buddies there after work for a drink and some grub. Little local watering hole. Not many left, not after Giuliani let developers rezone and build these super structures around here.”
Rich smiled sadly and sardonically, which he did often during our conversation.
“I used to have a place of my own, a restaurant down the street called West Side Mignon. Great steaks, let me tell you. Remember that, Cath?” He was speaking to Cathy, the manager and matron of the Morningstar, a stocky, nimble woman of maybe sixty, who was in constant motion, focusing on waist-level activities: the sink, the register, the cutting board, the plates upon which she arranged lettuce, fries, pickles, and fried chicken.
“Yes, you had great steaks, Richie.”
A man with a closely trimmed beard, sunglasses, and a Members Only jacket was now waiting in the takeout space near the door, and he added his voice.
“Great meat, great place, Rich. Fucking landlords.”
Cathy searched her memory for more: “Dammit, what was the name of the Copa on 57th before it closed. Back in the Eighties. Green something, Green Bird or something . . .” Rich and the guy with the beard struggled to pull it from collective memory.
“No, Blue Parrot.”
Then a sudden, simultaneous revelation: “Red Parrot! That’s it!” The guy with the beard continued, “My gawd, blue, green, red, who cares. That place was dangerous then, sister. I would not step a foot in there. Great steaks, Rich.”
The guy with the beard left, and Rich swiveled toward me and switched gears: “You know who runs this city? The landlords. Even back in the eighties in Hell’s Kitchen, these guys would move criminals into SROs (single-room occupancies) to force people out. They’d torch buildings in the middle of the night. And don’t listen to these fucking real estate people—this area isn’t called Midtown West. Look, it hasn’t always been the cleanest neighborhood, but people actually do work here.
I can’t afford to live here any more. Couldn’t afford to keep the restaurant going. My wife left me after that. You know Coliseum Books around the corner closed after thirty years. And now the new Time-Warner building is up at Columbus Circle. You can see it from here now.”
He shook his sugar packet between his thumb and index finger.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. There’s going to be disparity between rich and poor again like we had in the eighties. No more middle class. Rents are too high. Now this stadium talk. P.S. 111 is the only school around here on 52nd St. All the parents send their kids to private school away from here now. There used to be candy stores around here not so long ago. There’s also a mortuary school down the street. Did you know that, Cath? A mortuary school?”
I asked Rich what he did for a living now. “Oh,” he smiled, “a lot of things, you know. I know where to find things for people. Antiques, books. Things like that. I go to libraries and buy books. I know people there.”
It still wasn’t clear to me what he did for a living. He pulled out three books from his grocery bag. They were about World War Two; one was about Nazis and the Swiss Riviera.
“I like to read about anything. I don’t care. You know, there’s a book I think you would like. It’s called The Neighborhood, it’s about a neighborhood in New York. I’ll bring it in for you and leave it here at the diner.”
He looked at me and suddenly became more earnest: “You know, here’s a story somebody should write about. Here’s a story.” He raised his finger in the air and leaned in slightly toward me: “Are the people on the subway holding books up to their faces really reading them? Ask yourself. Take a look. Or are they pretending to read?
He was nodding and grinning now. I was forced to admit—well, I was forced to admit something, anything. I’d entered a land of the inescapable conversation. I liked Rich, so I went along.
“You might be right, there, Rich.”
“I am right! Think about it. Watch next time. People aren’t reading. They’re pretending to read. That would be something to write about.”
He receded onto his stool. Then his grin slowly faded and I saw that the idea about people and books had faded, and something less sure had taken its place. It was an aimless look of someone who literally didn’t know where he was going next.
Rich gathered up his World War Two books and sat for a moment looking at the sink. Or maybe at nothing in particular. I didn’t know what to say. Did he realize that his take-out coffee in that small brown bag had gone cold in the twenty minutes he’d been telling me stories? I thanked him for the conversation and the company. I told him I’d return to the diner, and I told him to please leave the book for me because I would definitely be back.
We shook hands and he stood up to leave. But before he left, he pointed at the plastic-covered tray of pastries on the counter.
“Cathy? There’s a croissant sticking out on this side here. I don’t want to touch your croissant but it’s sticking out here. You might want to tuck it back in there under the cover.”
“Thank you, Richie.”
And Rich departed.