Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Joe Jr's, my local coffee shop/diner, was forced to shut down last weekend. After 35 years the landlord wouldn't sign a lease and a long-standing family business had 4 days to clear out. My neighborhood will never be the same—the comfort, the closeness, the small town-ness of Greenwich Village has had a whole ripped out of its center.
Of all the places I've known in my life, Joe's is the one that I will miss most. Every time I walked by (and that's often, as I live across the street), someone inside waved to me. I'll me the pea soup with croutons on the side on Mondays/Saturdays. Greg's nod. Sosa's smile. Pedro's squeaks. Effy's understanding and sympathy—she could tell when things got too much for me. Neighbors and friends sitting at the tables by the window. The regulars at the counter always saying hi. It was where we ate after every vacation. The place my kids chose to celebrate special occasions. It was going to be my daughter's first job. The owner's son promised she could seat people when she was 12, the same age as his cousins were when they started working there.
We came back to the city last Wednesday night, walked by and saw a shocking sign in the window—that Joe's had until Sunday to clear out. All I could think was that we, anyone, everyone, the owners, the neighbors, had to fight to keep this from happening. I ran upstairs, whipped up a petition and flew back down so people would have something to sign, to register their protests. I got in touch with a friend at ABC, who had a news crew down to do a story the next morning. I called TV stations, newspapers, local politicians, the mayor's office. I called people who worked there, emailed everyone I know who'd been there at some point. I don't know that I've ever fought so hard so fast for something not to happen. At times I felt like time slowed down, that the pain was as if someone close to me had died. And then there were moments of elation, of energy and hope when people rallied together on the sidewalk outside, exploring ways to keep the doors from shutting for the last time.
Every time I walked in, it got harder and harder to leave, as I knew, eventually, that the last time was near. I met countless people who shared moving stories. The woman who snuck her dying mom out of the hospital for one last real meal. Her mom only wanted to go to Joe's. The people who remember meeting Teddy, the owner, for the first time, 35 years ago. The people who moved away years ago, but came back, in tears, for one last meal. The grownups who started eating at Joe's when they were still in booster seats. The man, now with a walker, who had breakfast there every morning and didn't know where he'd go instead.
We had breakfast there Saturday morning. We went back later for lunch, after I spent hours making us all Joe Jr's t-shirts. They were already out of french fries, of feta cheese, of white bread. We spent hours huddled in a booth with people who had been strangers 2 days before, whose shoulders we were now sobbing on. We stopped by later that night and stood as long as we could, on the sidewalk with all the other people who just couldn't let go. We all wanted to believe that this was a bad dream, that there would be some 11th hour miracle, that this couldn't really be happening.
Teddy, the owner, called me in and handed me an apple pie. Greg hugged me and I fell apart. I don't cry in public, but there I was, shaking, tears streaming down my face. My husband helped take the Joe Jr's sign off the building. And the next morning, no one opened. Instead of heading inside for breakfast, people stood, staring at the locked door. Izzy and I made a poster for people to sign—again, I needed to do something, to keep the reality from setting in.
We were interviewed on NY1 that afternoon: http://tinyurl.com/q4qrkn.
Later that day Greg called—they were coming to clear the place out, please come down and say hi. Again, a crowd formed that was almost glued to the corner. People signed plates, scored menus, took the brown or gold water glasses. I had heartfelt conversations with neighbors I'd barely nodded to before.
Today we missed Iz's toasted corn muffin for breakfast, my decaf light that Greg would hand me in the afternoon, without my even asking, Jack's fries that he craved after school/camp. I've never felt so devastated walking by an empty space.