My day off began at 2pm on Columbus Day--while of course as a freelancer I don't necessarily observe holidays and tend to work right through them (though I have been trying to be better about that)--it was merely a Monday that I had taken off after working the whole weekend.
After a brisk walk through Central Park seeing the leaves just begin to turn, I made my way to the New York Historical Society to catch the last day of their exhibition on caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, one of my favorite artists of all time. For the uninitiated, Al Hirschfeld illustrated Broadway and entertainment throughout his life, often for The New York Times, using pen and ink, gouache, and occasionally collage. His career spanned nearly 100 years, as noted by the title of the Historical Society's exhibition, The Hirschfeld Century. Any time I get to see a Hirschfeld I'm utterly thrilled, but to see his real live drawings in front of my eyes, watching where his pen whipped back and forth and scribbled those ever-elusive NINAs into place, was a true treat. I availed myself of the gift shop as well, leaving with more than a few Hirschfeld-drawn goodies.
Being on the Upper West Side, mere blocks away from Zabar's, I made a plan to go there post-Historical Society. There was no way I would miss one of my favorite locations in all of New York, especially when it was so close by. To 80th and Broadway I walked, stopping into their cafe for my usual: a nova and cream cheese sandwich on a plain bagel and an English Breakfast tea with milk and one Splenda.
I sat down at the long communal table next to an older gentleman chatting across the table from a female friend of his. His hair was buzzed and whitish-grey under his black beret, a smattering of white scruff around his mouth and cheeks. A black scarf hid his neck and a black coat his torso. He gossiped unabashedly about other people I gathered were also in his friend group, people who gathered at this very same cafe but for whatever reason that day were not present. The woman across from him, younger but not too much younger in a dark green sweater and shoulder-length brown hair, nodded at his every word, as if she were the Gretchen Wieners to his Regina George. I nibbled at my sandwich as he went on about this woman whose son was suing Zabar's after she fell off a stool there though she apparently knew it was her own fault. Oh my, I thought to myself, irony likely registering in my face with an all-too-unsubtle eyebrow raise. I did my best not to make eye contact with them as they continued their tales.
A woman in magenta came in and saw Black Beret.
"HELLO, JACK," she said loudly in my ear, thrusting her face and upper torso toward him as if aiming for his ear. He nodded noncommitally in her general direction but other than that said nothing. Realizing she'd been snubbed, she got in line and ordered a slice of chocolate babka. Ice burn, I thought to myself. Regina George turned out to be a great metaphor after all and this was some top-quality lunchtime entertainment.
Another gentleman from their crew strode in, balding with thick frame
glasses, a Hawaiian print shirt and shorts on this 50 degree day. He
spoke in a thick New York accent then went up to the counter to place
his order in a perfect Spanish one. He talked about the lawsuit woman,
too. "Her son's a real sonofabitch," he said to Jack, who nodded.
"That's what I heard." Apparently the son lives in the family apartment on the Lower East Side and doesn't have a job. "A real shmuck," one of them offered. The woman in green was still nodding.
I loved this idea of this crew of old people gathering every day at the Zabar's cafe and shooting the shit. Zabar's itself is a New York institution (it opened in 1934), occasionally inhabited by people who are themselves old enough to be institutions. Perhaps they'd been coming there since they were kids and just never left. Perhaps after all this time they are the people they each have left to talk to. Or maybe they just like good gossip and know where to find it.
I am finishing up my sandwich, almost sad I have to leave in the midst of their discussion. What happened to the woman with the son and the lawsuit? Am I just as bad as the gossipers? And are they going to talk about me when I leave?