You are Welcome Here.
There’s a street in Astoria, Queens called Steinway. It’s lined with ethnic restaurants and pizza shops and strange housewares stores that still sell things like window valances and ivory tablecloths that look like gigantic doilies. There’s a Brazilian clothing shop where the mannequins have triple-D breasts, a lingerie store with some very provocative window displays and a bubble-tea parlour named, of all things, Mr. Drink. The travel agencies specialize in one country only– Croatia, Greece, Mexico– and double as translation services. There are boring franchises like Sleepy’s Mattresses and Duane Reade and KFC too, but for the most part, Steinway is for doing business with a local who is more than likely from another country. The whole place looks a bit like Sesame Street, which–perhaps not ironically–is filmed in a studio just around the corner.
On the far end is a section known as Little Egypt. It’s about a ten-minute walk from my house, but it feels like stepping into another world. There are tiny groceries selling things like sumac, z’aatar and Sebah Baharat (ie: 7 Spices), enormous bottles of tahini and bags and bags of dried nuts, grains and lentils. On the sidewalks, fresh packages of pita breads are stacked on plastic crates like pancakes, while perched in the windowsills, jeweled hookah pipes catch the light like stained glass.
The large Arab population that lives and works around this street dresses in a variety of ways, some in American jeans and t-shirts, but many in modest and traditional clothing; men in long white kaftans and kufis, women in dark abayas, with either a burqa or hijab covering their heads. This section of town is often referred to as “Hookah row”, as it’s lined with at least a dozen parlours, three of which are co-owned by the Egyptian family renting our upstairs apartment.
Vinny lived on Steinway Street when we first starting dating. He and two friends shared a grungy three-bedroom with wall-to-wall maroon carpeting and a bathroom ceiling so destroyed by moisture bits of it would fall on you while showering. I didn’t really love sleeping in his warm, windowless bedroom but I always looked forward to the next afternoon, when we’d head downstairs to the Lebanese deli on the ground floor. The man behind the counter was always so friendly, and he sold the most incredible hummus in the whole wide world.
A few weekends ago, I was taking a Sunday stroll around the neighborhood. The weather was brisk but sunny, the kind of day that makes it easy to feel really, really alert. I was walking more for leisure than exercise, so I kept peeking around at everything. The big church by my house had just let out its Spanish service (it conducts them in English and Italian too) and throngs of parishioners flocked toward two ladies selling homemade churros and hot chocolate from a giant orange thermos. Further up, a crowd of hungry 20-somethings stood in line for brunch at Queens Comfort, which specializes in things like Breakfast Lasagna Benedict and Oreo Brioche French Toast. And just a minute later, there I was on Steinway, surrounded by Egyptian coffee shops and hookah bars with plush red curtains and a store called Islam Fashion, Inc.
I peeked into the window of a small grocer who sold beautiful things like Moroccan tea glasses and tajines in addition to a huge assortment of imported Middle-Eastern foods. I was just about to continue walking when the store owner popped outside and greeted me on the street. “Hello there,” he said. “Why don’t you come inside? You don’t have to buy anything, I just want you to know you are welcome in my store.”
I walked in and poked around the narrow aisles, smelling bags of cinnamon and turmeric and reminding myself to come back later when I needed to buy a gift. The man approached me again, and handed me the largest date I’d ever seen in my life.
“Try this,” he said. He watched me as I chewed it, genuinely hopeful that I enjoyed eating it as much as he enjoyed giving it to me.
“It’s delicious,” I said. “Thank you so much. I’ll definitely be back.”
I left his store feeling like I lived in the greatest neighborhood in the entire world, but also found myself thinking a lot about what he said to me, “Come inside– you are welcome here”, and wishing we lived in a world where a line like that wasn’t so fraught with complication.