It was a birthday card. Down to the wire on a very important birthday, I found myself with a card from a chain drugstore, in need of a place to sit and write a very important birthday message, and also in need of a bit of a break. I rounded a corner in my old neighborhood, making a beeline for a coffee shop I’d patronized on and off for 20 years. And… I found a Jamba Juice in its place. I soldiered on. And block after block passed without my being able to find a regular old coffee shop. Dunkin’ Donuts we have many, also Subway, and Blimpie, but who wants to ruminate in any of those places? Time was you couldn’t throw a dinner roll without hitting a classic Greek-run joint, a Three Guys or Three Brothers, Soup Burg or Angus Burger, Silver Star or Silver Spoon.
I grew up on the small hamburgers, roasted chicken, cheese blintzes, and French fries from a handful of coffee shops near my childhood apartment. My first culinary memory is of scrambled eggs and miniature glasses of juice at our “local,” the aforementioned Angus Burger. It was the first place I ate without “grownups” (I went with my friend Lizzie, aged 8).
But I digress. I really wanted to make a point about coffee shops in general. Jamba is no place to while away an afternoon. When I was in high school I frequented a certain coffee shop where checks were often left open while members of the table would run back for classes. You could actually leave your books on the table for most of the day. In a coffee shop you can wait as long as you want for a tardy friend, without fear of the owner getting mad. You never have to wait for your party to be complete to sit down. And you can spread out your papers and your books. A coffee shop is really an extension of your home: a hang-out, a food source, and a social club in one.
All this was driven home by a late-night walk through Times Square last week. It was my first visit to the site of the mother of all coffee shops, (in this case the exception proves the rule: it was part of a chain) Howard Johnson’s former post at the corner of 46th and Broadway, since the place closed. I’d whiled away more than a few hours there, killing time and eating fried food, waiting and doing some major people watching. It was the only place in that neighborhood I ever felt really comfortable. So it goes.