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Was it Malcolm Gladwell who said, “Where you’re standing now is not where you’re going to be”? Maybe it was Lady Gaga. All I know is that it’s true. Whatever you think your problems are now, by the time you solve them you’re in some new place with new problems. I think Einstein tried to adjust for this with his theory of relativity and Heisenberg had some special principle about it, but I don’t think anyone has ever explained it.
Where I’m standing now is on an Upper East Side sidewalk, shaking off the residual effects of another pointless job interview, thanks to Lou at the Unemployment Office, who, if you ask me, is lucky he has a job. They should really think about changing the name of that place to something more upbeat, like the “You Will Be Settling into Your Own Cozy Little Cubicle Any Day Now” Office. Otherwise simply tag it “The Unenjoyment Office,” because that’s what it is.
Like a lot of people my age, in my situation, burdened with college debt and overqualified, I prefer not to think of myself as “unemployed.” What I really am is an aspiring, highly trained journalist—whatever that means in the age of BuzzFeed. Sooner or later, some editor in chief or web czar is going to recognize me for what I can do. I’m hoping for sooner.
This afternoon’s interview was more miserable than most; they were considering me as the faculty advisor for the school paper at a private academy for overprivileged and underdisciplined girls. The headmistress, Mrs. Rippington, really seemed to like me. Although this job is not exactly a career booster, a paycheck of any kind is an urgent priority, so I was thinking I’d sign up for this gig. Besides, it might be amusing, catering to the pampered progeny of the 1 percent while trying to catch up on my back rent. But that thought lasted about twelve seconds. That’s when I heard fourteen-year-old Marissa, the seventh-grade, ahem, head editor, whisper to her sportswriter and BFF, Gwenyth, that as soon as she got her braces off she was planning to bop and drop handsome Mr. Lithicum, their twenty-something science teacher. I still have enough Ohio in me to be appalled by this. Exactly how much extra credit in biology is brace-face hoping to earn here? I flash back to my own seventh-grade science teacher, who wore a toupee and smelled perpetually of formaldehyde.
Mrs. Rippington was just opening her mouth to offer me the position when I overheard Miss Metal Mouth’s bestie propose in a fast-talking addy rant that they make the little independent study in science a three-way, with a very specific graphic description of the contours of Mr. L’s anatomical assets. How do they know that much detail?
I couldn’t help myself. I thought the headmistress would appreciate knowing what’s going on behind her back, so I ratted out the little Lolitas, thinking it might actually endear me to the woman by showcasing responsibility and moral fortitude, but apparently, headmistresses at posh Upper East Side girls’ schools prefer to be ignorant of such sordid scandals—even those that threaten to become statutory, if you know what I mean. Who knew?
Guess who’s still out of a job?
Now do you blame me if I’m in need of a little comfort? And for me, in New York City, comfort is spelled c-o-f-f-e-e.
I head to the downtown subway because that’s where the coffee is. Not all of it, of course, but the kind I’m jonesing for right this minute. I don’t have full-blown trainophobia, which is a fear of subways and other trains (not to be confused with trannyphobia, which I also don’t have), but I admit, however, that in eight years I’ve never become quite comfortable with speeding underground on a rickety train through a pitch-black tunnel filled with electrical wires, water pipes, and rats, while enormous skyscrapers hover overhead.
Back home in Ohio we commuted at street level with plenty of available oxygen circulating among the minivans, punch buggies, and SUVs. But since the subway is the most expedient means of getting from “where I am standing now” to “where I would like to be,” I plunge. Mr. Gladwell would be proud. Lady Gaga would probably want to know why I hadn’t worn taller stilettos.
The subway seemed so exciting to me when I arrived in the city. At first it was such a novelty, but eventually it began to wear on me. Taking the 6 train, I find it calming to imagine I’m on a ride at Disney World simulating a New York subway. I note the cartoonishly authentic details that include metal-against-metal screeching noises, shaky train cars, lights flashing randomly on and off, and even an old deserted City Hall Ghost Station.
Like the seasoned eye-contact-avoiding New Yorker I have become, I slide past my fellow subway riders and gingerly take a seat. To my immediate right there is a man eating the world’s smelliest falafel (a Disney cast member in disguise?). I may also be sitting on gum, but I overcome those lingering concerns. I’m the last one to endorse all that princess Disneyana of Disney World, but you’ve got to admit they know how to make a good ride. I marvel at how good Disney is at this authenticity stuff.
As the doors open and the speakers fzzt and schzzt, garbling every word from Subway Announcer Lady, reality sets in and I know it’s not a theme park ride. Besides, if it was actually a ride at Disney World, I would have exited into a gift shop and bought a bracelet made of antique subway tokens for a souvenir. But no matter, I am on a quest for the dark roasted steaming beverage I’ve come to think of as nothing short of liquid manna.
In my opinion, the best coffee in Manhattan can be found in the lobby of the Daily Post. That’s where I used to work. The Post was the reason I came to New York City in the first place. It was my dream job, the answer to an aspiring journalist’s prayers. But like a lot of old-school newspapers (the kind with news actually printed on paper) the Daily Post was forced to close up shop many months back, resulting in my present career-lite condition.
That hasn’t stopped me from returning here. I guess it’s like visiting the graves of deceased loved ones. Maybe communing with the ghosts of grizzled old newspapermen and -women and listening to the echoes of breaking stories hot off the presses inspires me, even though the concept of old-style news is totally obsolete—like developing film in a dark room or sending a postcard. Maybe I’m a nostalgia junkie or even, despite my precocious early video-game-making experience, a Luddite at heart, but I still like to turn the pages of a newspaper made with wood pulp and ink.
The fact that the best cup of joe in the entire city can be found at the coffee cart in the Daily Post lobby is what I call a major perk.
I should also add that the operator of said coffee cart and I have been involved in what I call a micro-relationship for quite some time. For those of you who live outside the city that never sleeps, let me define my terms:
micro-relationship (n.) the sense of being incidentally connected on a very small scale, 1968. micro meaning “small,” comb. form of Greek mikros “small, little, petty, trivial, slight” (see mica) with relation + ship, 1744, “sense of being related,” specifically of romantic or sexual relationships by 1944. micro + relation +ship interpersonal connections that develop in bustling metropolitan areas, as a result of frequent exposure, 2007. A stranger who happens to appear in one’s sphere of experience on a regular basis and with whom it becomes necessary to interact usually in a positive manner. Not to be confused with “meaningful relationship” or “unconditional love.”
New York totally lends itself to these drive-by friendships. And they’re more important than you might think, because in a city like this, you can really start to feel disconnected and alone.
I do have actual friends here in Manhattan. Like my old friend from Thomas Tupper High back home, model-perfect BFF Jody Dicippio. Then there’s my childhood pen pal Piper Henderson (who knew that a juvenile pen pal could become a real bud?), and hard-core New York native Penny Rodgers. I mean, Rodgers. God, she’d smack me upside the head if she heard me call her Penny.
At one point last fall I had more of Piper’s clothes in my closet than my own. I am not afraid to call Rodgers at three a.m. (I have) or to borrow Jody’s Apocalips lipstick (currently in my bag). I like to think that we are an equal-opportunity mix of personalities, career choices, and cup sizes, which is precisely why I love them. These are my girls. My peeps.
Still, you can’t underestimate the importance of those New York City relationships of the micro kind. They give NYC a face. The little relationships we all have are the ones that keep you from simply giving up and dropping into an open manhole on purpose. Here is a sampling of my vast, ever-evolving inventory of micro-relationships.
The Grumpy M15 Bus Driver. Despite his ever-present scowl, he always gives me extra time to find a seat before he puts the pedal to the metal. This courteous gesture protects me from the dreaded “bus lurch,” which occurs when the articulated bendy bus hiccups out from under you before you’re seated and causes you to land uninvited on the lap of some businessman, or (worse) to spill your coffee.
The Pakistani Newsstand Guy. This fast-talking guy makes a point to say hello, even on windy days when his inventory is being blown uptown in a tiny New York Times– and New York Post–fueled microburst tornado.
The Lady Power Walker in the Chartreuse Jogging Bra. I see her when I jog the bridle paths in Central Park. We pass each other every Sunday morning and exchange the ever-popular “incline your head and keep moving” quasi-greeting. I know she’d be there for me if I ever got caught in a mugging.
The Voluptuous Latina Nanny. I see her from time to time at the fountain in Washington Square Park. She pushes a double stroller that is more spacious than my apartment. No matter how loudly her charges are screaming and how far they throw their sippy cups, she always has a beautiful smile and an “hola” for me that brightens my life.
And last but definitely not least:
The Cute Coffee Guy. On my second visit to his cart long ago when I worked at the newspaper, I christened him with his nickname, and when I mentioned him to Jody, she abbreviated it to CCG. This is typical Jody. She talks so fast she only has time for abbreviations and half words. “Whatevs” is her fave, for examp. Rodgers and I have to create a full-on glossary on occasion to follow what she’s saying. But sometimes her shortcuts say it all.
Ah, my CCG. I used to see him multiple times a day while I was interning for Hugh Hamilton, famed columnist, muckraker, and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter at the Daily Post, because Hugh was a coffee addict. The guy had more caffeine than blood in his veins. If he could have walked around attached to an IV bag filled with Green Mountain blend, he would have. Hugh’s hands were so jittery that for the first three months of my internship I thought he was actually trying to say something in sign language. Still, CCG and I never really conversed beyond small talk. In fact, once he memorized Hugh’s beverage of choice and mine, too (which I thought was very micro-sweet of him), I didn’t even have to place an order anymore. He saw me coming.
I’ve grown so used to referring to him as CCG that even though I’ve continued to patronize his establishment on a daily basis following my premature retirement from the newspaper biz, I still don’t know his actual name.
That’s because, among the many complicated criteria for a micro-relationship, there is the primary imperative that neither party knows the other’s name. Ever. Under any circumstances. If a person had to learn and remember the name of every one of her micro-acquaintances, her head would explode. But it mostly has to do with emotional investment. The minute you know someone’s name, you venture out of the micro-zone into a whole new scary level of intimacy.
If you actually knew the name of everyone you encountered, wouldn’t you be obligated to say hello every time you saw him or her? That would require more memory space and oxygen than any New Yorker could realistically afford. And if you forgot, which is inevitable, the repercussions could be enormous.
Anonymity is salvation in New York. Speaking for anonymous people everywhere, I know that if I stopped to consider that every one of those zillions of faces I pass on the street has a complete backstory featuring dysfunctional families, overdue library books, foot fetishes, nut allergies, and so on, I’d be overwhelmed with wonder, joy, disgust, and dread. And that’s just on the three-block walk from my apartment to the South Street Seaport.
All I really need is the occasional welcoming face to nod back at me in mutual recognition of our respective humanity. In my mind I make up shortcut names like “Falafel Dude” and “Cop Who Ate Too Many Krispy Kremes” and “Jimmy Choos for Every Day of the Week Lady,” and I’m good.
But the truth is that my micro-affair with CCG is a bit more important than the others. He holds a special place in my heart and I always feel a little less alone and a little more positive when I see him.
The subway regurgitates me a block from the old Daily Post building and I make my way to my former place of employment.
I shuffle through the glass wedge of the revolving door and as it spits me out into the tiled lobby, I’m struck with abject panic.
Although it’s just as busy as always—the lobby seems emptier.
The invigorating aroma of roasted beans wafts heavily through the air, piercing the foggy midafternoon with the smooth, rich scent of Colombian ground as usual.
And yes, the coffee cart is there, thankfully.
But CCG—my most significant micro-other—is … nowhere to be seen.
Copyright © 2015 by Mitchell Kriegman