My throat was scratchy so I ordered peppermint tea with honey and a croissant. Traditional Italian bakeries in Queens are great for hard, dry biscotti or crisp cannoli shells piped with sweetened ricotta or bright rainbow cookies layered with thick chocolate ganache and gooey apricot jam. They’re where you go for a tiny shot of espresso or an enormous loaf of round bread that’s crusty on the outside but kind of stretchy in the center. They’re not typically known for perfectly buttery, flaky croissants or tarty stuff like matcha tea lattes and designer donuts. But it was still morning and I needed something more bread than cake. I couldn’t handle a brittle napoleon; wasn’t ready for a butter cookie with a puddle of raspberry jelly in the center.
(photo by goosiegirlboutique.com)
I sat outside on a plastic chair, under a long green awning that ran along the sidewalk. I’d passed this place every day for months, always charmed by the people relaxing with coffee at the tables or the many benches on the opposite side of the street, mostly older Italian, Greek and eastern European men congregating with a deck of cards or silently reading the newspaper. It was clearly an established neighborhood joint with a loyal crowd, the kind of place people had built into their daily routines over the years.
I sat, and said hello to the man at the adjoining table. This was the kind of place where you said good morning to the other patrons, not just because we were basically sitting on top of one another, but because that’s just how it was done here. I’d brought my computer–I tend to equate coffee shops with writing time– and plopped it on the table in front of me, but didn’t end up using it until 30 minutes later. Instead I began chatting with my fellow Astorian.
He was retired, and had worked as a flight attendant out of La Guardia for 30 years. Like many people in Astoria, he’d lived in the neighborhood since birth. He liked some of the changes, he said, but most of them he could do without.
Then he started asking me questions. How long had I been in the neighborhood? Did I grow up in Queens? Did I rent or own? What did I do for a living? Do I work in the city? Was my home one or two-family? What are houses going for these days? Who did we rent our upstairs apartment to? Did they work in Manhattan too?
It was an interesting battery of questions, one that made me shift slightly in my chair. As personal as his questions were, there was something very impersonal about the way he fired them at me, like he was a census worker collecting demographics. I felt like he wasn’t really interested in getting to know me as a fellow member of his community; he was mostly interested in taking the temperature of his lifelong neighborhood. I’d lived in Astoria ten years already, but I sensed he viewed me as an interloper of sorts, someone too young to remember the good old days before 30th was lined with frozen yogurt shops and Greek frappes were replaced by almond milk lattes. I wasn’t his new neighbor; I was another gentrifier mucking around with the look of the place.
Eventually a few of his friends joined him at his table– a group of presumably retired Italian men– and we stopped chatting. I started tapping on my computer. He finished up his coffee, and walked to throw it away in a garbage can across the street. Before leaving, he stopped back at my table to give me a tip.
“You know, this isn’t a computer place; it’s a social place. You wanna use your computer go to 60 Beans…or Brooklyn.”
“Yeah, she’s kind of weird though,” said one of his friends. “Most of the young ones these days are on the phones, she’s on a computa.”
“Got it,” I said. I felt a little shamed in that moment, like he’d reached out to shake my hand then slapped it with a ruler. But a bigger part of me actually appreciated the heads-up. Like any other place that I visit, I always try to respect the local custom, even if that place is on my street. Actually, especially if that place is on my street.
His friend then started talking to me about computers. “Once you go Mac, you never go back. Am I right, or am I right?” He was smoking a cigarette while balancing on a segway. He’d bought it two weeks earlier for $2,500. Everyone at the cafe was talking to him about it.
“Whatdya think? You want to ride it? If you were ugly, I’d probably charge you for it, but since you’re pretty, I’ll let you go for free.”
I thought for a second, then abandoned my laptop and took him up on his sexist offer. After all, this wasn’t a computer place, it was a social place and what was more social than trusting a stranger to ride your overpriced toy? He ran alongside me as I cruised down my little street, a place I’m still trying to get to know. I rode past Croatian men smoking outside their private club on the sidewalk, past the tiny wine store setting up for a tasting, past a seamstress fixing hems in front of an old foggy window. I rode past modest brick houses attached to one another on both sides with rose bushes and statues of the Virgin Mary in their tiny front yards. I rode by plenty of people– young and old– looking down at their hands, tapping on cell phones.
The irony of what I was writing on my computer that day wasn’t lost on me. It was an essay about my early years in Astoria, how I loved the old-school businesses and residents, that I loved hearing every type of language on each corner, loved the old barber shops and shoe cobblers and European cafes that don’t give a crumb about passing trends. I was writing about how I worried it would all go away, and all we’d be left with is another generic neighborhood without a real sense of community or flavor.
I guess I don’t need to worry about that so much. We’ve got some guys on the block making sure the change isn’t so swift.