Next time you’re at 125th Street and Lennox Avenue, here’s a tip for you!
by Charlie Leck
On New Years Day in Manhattan – in Harlem – it was cold. As they say around Lake Wobegon, “it was colder’n all get out.”
I didn’t sleep well and, early, I left my little hotel looking for a place to have breakfast. At the hotel they had recommended an Italian Bakery up the street, but it turned out to be closed. So, I wandered up Lennox Avenue and found Jimbo’s just before I got to 125th Street. The sign in the window announced breakfast, so I hastened in to warm up.
There was one long fountain (counter), at which to sit, with shaky looking fixed stools all extending toward the back of the deep, narrow joint. I slid into an empty stool and realized I was hearing only Spanish all around me. The manager, however, recognized a gringo when he saw one and asked me in perfect English if I wanted coffee.
“Yes, please!” I spoke loudly so he’d understand me.
I stuttered for just a moment over that question before figuring out its meaning.
“With a little cream,” I said. The manager shouted the instructions in Spanish to a fellow back by the giant coffee cookers. Then he turned back to me. “Breakfast?”
I had been studying the complex menu on the signboard that hung above all the grills and sinks and burners, right out in front of me.
“Western!” I said to him.
“Home fries or hashed?”
“Home,” I said, “and an English muffin.”
“No English muffin,” he said, “only white, wheat, rye, hot bun or grilled french bread.”
“Rye,” I answered, wanting to order the hot bun, but unsure of just what it might be.
Lots of instructions were shouted in Spanish and some of it produced laughter and a few of the short-order cooks turned to look at me and giggled. It made me curious. I was dying to know what was so funny about me, but I’d never get to figure it out.
I settled into my wonderful book and waited. The coffee came in a paper cup with a plastic lid on it. I took the lid off and the amount of cream looked perfect. I sipped the hot beverage and it tasted fine – also just about perfect.
I’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Home. Her novel Gilead is the best book I’ve read in many years. I’ve strongly recommended it here.
After standing in the airport bookstore, looking at the dust jacket on this one, and reading that it is an “independent… work,” but a continuation of the earlier story, switching this time from the home of Reverend Ames to the household of Reverend Boughton, I hesitated to buy this one. I’m not much on sequels and I could sense the publisher’s great pain to explain that it wasn’t that even though it was. I bought in anyway, just because Gilead had been so wonderful.
Ten pages in, waiting for the plane to board, I was deeply hooked and terribly happy that I’d made the purchase.
Off to my left there were raised voices in English.
“No, no, Sally, the last time you walked out without paying. You owe me a dollar ninety. Now you want free, free, free.”
“Not free. I’ll pay you very soon.”
“You pay the dollar ninety first.”
“It’s only a dollar,” the woman shouted. “I told you I paid Manuel a dollar last time and told him I’d pay this week.
“No, no. I waited on you. You walked out without paying.”
“Okay,” the woman said more softy, “Look at what I got for you. You can have it all for ten bucks.”
From an old, tattered cloth bag she pulled out three plastic jugs of laundry detergent and two jugs of Minute Maid orange juice. She put those things on the counter.
“Ten bucks,” she repeated. The manager shrugged and said something in Spanish.
The woman pulled out a large jug of Clorox bleach and added it to the assortment. The guy checked the freshness dates on the orange juice.
“Ten bucks,” she said firmly. The guy reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. He peeled off a ten-dollar bill and then rang up $1.90 on his register. He put the ten spot in the till and made change. He handed her eight dollars and ten cents.
“Coffee and a hot bun,” the woman said firmly and proudly. The manager sent the order on to his cooks in their native tongue.
My omelet arrived on a paper plate just as Jack Boughton was gently lifting his papa into his arms to carry him up the creaking staircase to the old man’s bedroom. His sister, Glory, watched him handle the old man so easily and caringly. She envied his strength and compassion.
Robinson must be the best pure writer in America right now. Her prose is spectacular. It is sometimes mysterious, but it is spectacular and it sometimes demands you read a sentence twice just to make sure you got all of its richness.
I squeezed ketchup all over the omelet and broke a big piece of it off with my plastic fork. I delivered it on target. Lord, it was good – hot and tasty – with all those peppers, onions, cheese, bacon and ham melding together so perfectly in the fluffy eggs. The rye toast oozed under a blanket of melted butter.
I was so glad to be back in Gilead. Jack had returned, as his father always knew he would, after a twenty-year absence. He had unsteady hands and a nose reddened and slightly purplish. The old, old man was delighted to see him and knew, all along, that God would answer his prayers.
A fellow next to me jabbed my elbow with his and said something in Spanish, pointing to the salt and peppershakers off to my left. I realized he had been trying to get my attention and I was too deeply engrossed in my visit to Gilead.
“Sorry,” I uttered, wishing I knew how to say even that little amount in Spanish. I handed him the shakers.
“Gracias,” he said.
I finished up my breakfast and headed back out into the cold. I wasn’t ready to put Robinson’s new book down, however, and I headed toward a Starbucks on the corner. I ordered a silly coffee and found a little table and sat down with Glory, Jack and Reverend Boughton.
The time flew by. It’s a wonderful book.
“As good as Gilead?”
“I’m glad you asked. Yes, every bit as good and every bit as beautiful. If you liked Gilead, you’ll like this incredible sequel.”
“Glory went up to the attic, the limbo of things that had been displaced from current use but were not in the strict sense useless. If civilization were to collapse, for example, there might be every reason to be glad for this hoard of old shoes and bent umbrellas, all of which would be better than nothing, however badly they might fare in any other comparison. Other pious families gave away the things they did not need. Boughtons put them in the attic, as if to make an experiment of doing without them before they undertook some irreparable act of generosity. Then, what with the business of life and the passage of time, what with the pungency of mothballs and the inevitable creep of dowdiness through any stash of old clothes, however smart they might have been when new, it became impossible to give the things away. From time to time their mother would come down from the attic empty-handed, brushing dust off herself, and write a check to the orphan’s home.”
(Robinson, Marilynne: Home [Farrar, Sraus and Giroux, New York, 2008] pps 93-94)