Thursday, July 26, 2007

anonymity, or, when the deli man knows your name

I've been stopping by Hamilton Deli for my morning coffee before heading in to the library at least two or three times a week for a couple years now. The guys who work the counter at the deli are all friendly, the coffee is decent, and if you arrive well before the first Columbia class session starts, you can get in and out in under a minute.

One deli guy in particular started paying a little more attention to me this past January. I think this is because I rather abruptly started to look like a stereotypical broken-hearted, thwarted in love, wreck of a woman. I was not eating well, and not sleeping. My eyes brimmed with tears as often as not, my nose was rubbed raw, my lips chapped to the point of bleeding. My voice tended to sink back into my winter layers, absorbed to the point of non-existence by my wool coat, wooly scarves, winter hats, chain smoking, and the cold.

This particular man started greeting me at the register with a kindly, almost concerned, expression on his face. He began remembering how I like my coffee, would ring up my $1.25 almost before I came through the door. He never said much more than a polite good morning, if that. Often enough it was just a smile that passed between us, thin and wavering on my part, warm and encouraging on his.

The months passed, though, and my voice has long since returned. The layers of dark, heavy wool have been relegated to the closet. I can sleep through the night now, and have regained my normal hardy appetite. And I imagine this man has watched the spring return to my steps, the color return to my cheeks, replacing the wintery, sleep-deprived pallor. He has, now and then, begun to ask if I would like anything else with my coffee, but I never do, and this is the extent to which our conversation had grown. Until Tuesday morning, that is.

I was in a particularly good mood that morning, I'm not sure why, and I practically skipped down the four steps and in the door to the deli, grinned broadly at my favorite deli counter guy, handed over my dollar bill, two dimes, and a nickel, and trilled out my good morning. He took my money, paused, and then said, "Can I ask you a question?" I paused in turn, mouth agape, and finally said, "Sure, I guess." He said, "I would like to ask your name." I told him. He said, "Emily, it's lovely to meet you." I asked him his name, which I have mortifyingly forgotten, said it was nice to meet him too. And fled out the door.

My favorite deli guy, my quiet knight in shining armor who so steadfastly helped me through those long winter months with your sweet smile of encouragement, your subtle understanding, your careful distance, what have you done? All this time I have felt buoyed by your early morning presence, have taken comfort that someone outside the confines of my narrow life might notice if I disappeared, or at least missed too many morning coffees. And yet now a wall has been breached, an understanding has been broken. My beloved New York City friendly anonymity has been lost.

Yesterday I went back to Hamilton Deli on my way to the library, and my deli guy greeted me with a, "Good morning, Emily!" And then a, "Thank you, Emily!" Very friendly, very sweet. Very, very disconcerting.

This morning I went to the coffee cart on 116th & Broadway. The guy there always puts too much sugar in my coffee, and their napkins are too small to protect my fingers from being burned on the hot cup as I cross campus to work. I have to get over my irrational fear of this loss of anonymity, and move on, and go back to my favorite morning coffee spot.


nathan said...

well, emma. i guess you better accept that you have a new friend.

also, i came across this unexpectedly related site:

Myster said...

Listen to your brother.

I can't believe I just said that.

Emma said...

yeah, yeah. i went back this morning, and thankfully there was only one incidence of name-calling. :)