New York Letter

The Coffee Guy and the Pastry Woman

My local coffee shop in Manhattan is two shops in one. There’s a counter for coffee and another counter, directly across, that serves pastry. It’s a two-business operation, with two separate places to pay, and there’s an uneasy relationship between the manager of the coffee area and the person who operates the pastry section.

It’s a personality thing, mostly. The Coffee Guy is goofy and cheerful and the Pastry Woman is dour and precise. In a movie, it would be a great kickoff to a romantic comedy. But in the West Village of Manhattan, where young people enjoy a variety of complicated and unpredictable sexual identities, it’s unlikely this relationship will blossom into the physical.

Sexual appetites aside, they are from two vastly incompatible tribes. He is a flirty and affectionate entertainer—everyone is either “darling” or “handsome”—and she is a serious pastry technician who offers many vegan options and will assure you that the banana walnut bread uses sustainably-sourced, fair-trade nuts, even if, like me, you really don’t care.

So it’s an uneasy atmosphere in the coffee shop. They often seem like shopkeepers in a provincial French town, squaring off across the street with hands on hips, glowering at each other. A week ago—and I regret to admit that I was the cause—the situation became tense.

I went in to get my morning coffee, paid at the coffee counter—“Thank you, handsome!”—and then crossed the shop to the pastry area. That’s when I made my mistake. I asked for a pastry and I wasn’t wearing a mask.

My doctor would say that’s two mistakes—I’m supposed to go easier on the pastry—but in late spring in 2021, as the COVID-19 crisis seemed to recede, the mask mistake blotted out any others. The Pastry Woman stared at me, aghast, and then pointed to a sign I had somehow missed:

“We STILL ask that you wear a mask!!”

She, I suddenly noticed, was wearing a mask. We’ve all been wrapped up for such a long time, I no longer notice who is masked and who is naked-faced. But in my life I have known a few people like the Pastry Woman, so I knew that the smart response was to be apologetic and abashed if I wanted a cinnamon bun, which I did.

“Gosh,” I said, reaching into my back pocket where I have been keeping my mask since the government health bureaucrats announced that I was permitted to do so, “I’m so sorry. He didn’t ask for one over at the coffee area and—”

“We’re different businesses,” she said, with a furious glance at the Coffee Guy, who rolled his eyes theatrically and shook himself in mock terror.

“Ah, yes, sorry,” I said, mask now firmly in place. “But you know, the Centers for Disease Control and Dr Anthony Fauci have both declared that people who are vaccinated don’t need to wear masks. So it really seems like a neurotic and slightly unhinged attitude on your part to require your customers to exceed current health guidelines,” I said.

In my mind, I mean. Out loud, through my mask, I said this: “I’ll have a cinnamon bun.”

Physical spaces often illustrate the intangible, and my regular coffee spot is a perfect embodiment of the mental state of New York City at the end of the pandemic. Some people can’t wait to sing and hug and joke and let loose, and some people just refuse to let it go. Some people, in other words, chafed under the conditions imposed by the health authorities. They didn’t like being homebound, having the bars closed and the restaurants take-out only. Others, like the Pastry Woman, rather enjoyed the empty streets and crisis atmosphere. They were expecting the apocalypse and now they’re furious that it’s not happening. In New York City, we’re all roughly one or the other and we’re trapped together until one side gives in.

It’s easy to see how the Pastry Woman acquired her perverse love of the pandemic. Her generation has been fed a steady diet of doom, from climate change disasters to imminent fascist takeovers. She’s in her mid-twenties and like a lot of her cohort she’s been anticipating mayhem and breakdown since her middle school teacher told her that the polar ice cap would melt away by 2018, the seas would rise and swallow up the coast by 2019, that life as we know it would cease to exist by 2020.

And if that didn’t get us, we’d all be poisoned to death by arsenic in the water and inorganic salad greens.

And if that didn’t get us, we’d all be subjugated under the fascist boot of the Trump administration, dragged from our cars by racist cops and beaten to death on Twitter.

And if that didn’t get us, we’d suffer and die from insufficient access to internet broadband connections, or from transphobia, or for-profit health care, or inadequate public transportation.

Pretty much every progressive policy initiative of the past twenty years—in other words, close to the entire lifetime of the Pastry Woman—has been framed as a life-or-death issue, a crisis that will result in mass death and disaster if not addressed immediately by passing a series of emergency laws and empowering a collection of government bureaucrats. So when the COVID-19 virus appeared in mysterious and murky circumstances somewhere in China, the rational and expected response from someone who had been steeped in the doom-and-disaster brew for her entire life was to insist, months after city-wide vaccinations and plunging infection rates, that I put on a mask to order my bun.

Which I did, because although she’s an irritating progressive scold, the Pastry Woman makes a terrific cinnamon bun.

As I walked out of the shop, the two shopkeepers were simmering in unspoken mutual loathing. The pandemic has been difficult for all of us, of course, but the end of it has somehow been more stressful.

During the worst of it, the city held together. At 7 p.m. every night, residents of all five boroughs would throw open their windows, lean out over the street, and erupt in applause. It was a city-wide expression of gratitude for the tireless heroism of New York’s hospital workers, accompanied by banging pots and whoops, and it was impossible not to join in. We wore masks on the street, took carefully-spaced walks along the river, sipped pre-packaged cocktails in thoughtful moderation as we sat on our stoops, held makeshift church services in Central Park. At restaurants, we ate at outdoor tables, swaddled in blankets and blasted with heat lamps. I saw people pick up after their dogs even when they didn’t think anyone was watching.

But yesterday at a local lunch spot a waiter spilled a glass of wine on the man sitting at the next table. The man exploded in anger. As the waiter apologised and fetched paper towels, the manager rushed over to explain: it was the waiter’s first day, you see. About 20 per cent of the New York workforce left the city during the pandemic. Experienced waiters who know how to carry a glass of wine on a tray just aren’t available. It was a logical explanation, but it didn’t soothe the wine-soaked customer, who was furious and inconsolable but I’m pretty sure, a few short months ago, was hanging out of his window banging a pot and feeling that New York City was one connected family of beautiful souls.

New Yorkers taking off their masks and ditching the Kumbaya attitude and going back to their battle stations is preferable, I guess, to a bunch of Pastry Women clinging to pandemic panic, though before we all depart the New Normal to return to the Old Normal, it’s worth learning a lesson or two.

COVID-19 revealed incompetence and dishonesty in all levels of government. For New York City residents, this was a triple-layer cake of stupidity and meretricious behaviour. At the municipal level, it’s hard to imagine a more hapless and impotent figure than our mayor, Bill de Blasio. At the state level, our governor Andrew Cuomo lied about the death rates, recklessly sent old people to live in facilities rife with infection, and manipulated a compliant and lickspittle press. At the federal level, bureaucrats invented new regulations without regard to scientific findings and the President of the United States was, to put it kindly, inconsistent in his message.

About the only institution that showed true competence and heroism, in fact, is the industry that has been vilified and maligned for decades.

Big Pharma—the umbrella term for the large multinational manufacturers of pharmaceuticals—came through. The executive teams at Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna—along with researchers and scientists in laboratories across the globe—responded to the combination of financial incentives and regulatory easing exactly the way Adam Smith and Milton Friedman told us they would. They invented three different, effective solutions to a complicated problem and got them into the marketplace and into my right arm, just below the shoulder, within about ten months.

This from an industry that has been attacked and castigated by the media and government officials like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for decades. And yet, New Yorkers are now free to take off their masks and order a pastry, complain about a clumsy waiter, and drink immoderately at bars across town thanks to Big Pharma and capitalism. If it was up to New York’s mayor and governor, we’d all still be cowering at home, wrapped in protective plastic.

Something tells me a lot of New Yorkers know this, which is why some of them, like my favourite baker, refuse to take off the mask. To declare COVID-19 over and done is to humbly admit you were wrong, and New Yorkers of all stripes and ideologies are too arrogant and self-satisfied for that.

On the other hand, a young friend of mine told me that his sister, who works for the city health department, told him that her department is preparing for a new health emergency this summer. They are predicting that after eighteen months of isolation and quarantine, this summer will see the biggest rise in sexually transmitted diseases and infections in history. New Yorkers are a social bunch, it seems. After all of this alone-ness, there’s a lot of pent-up energy. My guess is that my local coffee shop, as usual, will illustrate the issue.

The Coffee Guy, I predict, will need some antibiotics. The Pastry Woman will remain masked, healthy and untouched. And New Yorkers will get back to business.

Rob Long is a television writer and producer, author and journalist. He was writer and co-executive producer of the comedy series Cheers. He wrote on Woody Allen in the March issue.


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