Coffee, and This and That

by

02/03/2008

60 Centre St, 10002

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

“I don’t know their names, but I know them by voice,” said Galo Cardenas, proprietor of GC Snax, located on the ground floor of the New York Supreme Court building at 60 Centre Street. And if Mr. Cardenas looks at his customers askance, it’s because sideways is the only way he can see them — he’s legally blind, and only has vision out of the right half of his right eye.

GC Snax sells the standard fare that its name implies, as well as Sole Proprietorship Forms, Affidavit and Judgment Confession Forms, and legal document covers. Its walls are hung with pictures of the snacks on offer — breakfast sandwiches, hot pockets, burritos — and handwritten signs announcing prices and specials: “Snyder’s Pretzels, only 40¢ ea,” and “New Altoid: Dark Chocolate Dipped Mint.” The shop itself is like a tiny extension of the lobby, with worn marble floors and ornate wrought iron work around the door. A formica-topped wooden counter runs its length horizontally. When Cardenas first opened GC Snax ten years ago, he moved the cash register from the right side of the counter to the left, the better to see the customers who line up to the register’s right.

On a recent weekday, classical music played softly overhead. When a customer ordered a soft pretzel, Cardenas opened a heated glass case in which a rack of pretzels spun slowly, and the room filled with the smell of a New York City street.

“How much, two hundred dollars?” he asked the customer, who had just handed him a twenty. He likes to joke with his customers by adding a zero to their totals. “That’s twenty thousand there, Mr. Galo,” the customer replied. The cash register announced the numbers on the keypad in a mechanized voice as Cardenas punched them in. “Two. Zero. Point. Zero. Zero.” the register said.

Arriving at GC Snax from the street is a task; after climbing the Supreme Court building’s imposing stone steps, passing under George Washington’s words — “the administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government” — and, appropriately, walking past 14 formidable stone pillars, one then has to go through airport-style security (belt off, watch and wallet in little plastic bin, bag on x-rayed conveyor belt), before doubling back to the left of the main entrance, where the shop is nestled. It’s nearly impossible to know how many New Yorkers pass through the Supreme Court each day. The Court System’s Communications Director, David Bookstaver, puts the number in the “thousands,” although they don’t formally keep track — but Cardenas estimates that some 500 people a day stop by his shop. Of these, he knows about half, and he has a remarkable ability to recognize them — and anticipate their purchase — as soon as they walk in the door. “You want blueberry yogurt, right?” he asked a customer in a trench coat. “Yes, and a spoon and a bag,” the man replied. “No spoon! No bag!” Cardenas answered. “You use your fingers today!”

Cardenas, 60, was a guidance counselor for the Brooklyn Public Schools in East New York before he lost his vision 20 years ago in an accident. Born in Italy but raised in Spain, Israel, and the United States, Cardenas speaks 4 languages, and his accent is accordingly difficult to pin down. “I’m like a gypsy,” he said. His black hair, graying at the temples, is gelled and combed neatly back into a side-part. After several years of recovery and rehabilitation, Cardenas made his way to Lighthouse International, a New York-based nonprofit organization whose occupational therapists teach the blind and visually impaired how to negotiate work in a sighted world.

After learning “how to do coffee, and this and that,” as Cardenas puts it, he connected with the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, whose Business Enterprise Program operates shops in Federal and State office buildings statewide. He went through an interview process, where he had to demonstrate a mastery of business principles, like balancing profit and inventory, and then he was allocated the space at 60 Centre Street. He gives 25% of his profits to the Commission, whose business advisor comes to check in on him each month. His wife comes each weekend to clean and make new signs. And Cardenas opens his doors at 7:00 each morning, fires up the coffee pot, and begins cracking good-natured jokes at his customers.

“You got taller!” he said, squinting up at a blue-uniformed security guard. “You used to be a short guy! That’s what working here does to you, I guess.”

Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn and an MFA student in creative nonfiction at the New School.</>

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