Slow Down in the City
June 2017, Upper West Side, NYC
In the two avenues you have to cross to get from my apartment to my place of work, you pass three food trucks. The first one, on the corner of 66th and Broadway, in front of the Raymour and Flanigan furniture store, serves the best breakfast sandwiches and iced coffee. Two scrambled eggs, a sausage patty and a slice of yellow American cheese sizzling hot with some Cholula hot sauce or ketchup, seasoned with salt and pepper smashed between a sliced Kaiser roll. Sometimes you’d get a whiff of cumin or adobo spice, so you ask her, finally realizing there was a whole menu pasted on the side of the truck, do you make tamales? As she fills your large plastic to-go cup with the dark amber iced coffee, she tells you yes and the best one is chicken. This disappoints you a bit. You never want chicken, pork is always the way to go, then beef, maybe even fish too, then chicken is last, as you find it is often dried out or bland. At the same time, someone else in a suit has come up to get his bagel and orange juice; another woman picks up a hot coffee; they’re all exchanging bills, coins and quarters with her. She slides her hands from the counter giving them change effortlessly, blank-faced. And because you want to please her, you order one chicken and one beef tamale. And because she is proud of her product, she shrugs and says, “Okay,” looking passé, but nodding because she is glad you have finally indulged. The tamales are steaming and small, wrapped in foil, the thinner kind that is mass produced in those purple boxes you see from all the street vendors. She gives you the bag and you’re off to work at nine on the dot.
Next on the block between Broadway and Columbus Avenues, still on 66th St. is the Casbah truck. You didn’t know it was called the Casbah truck until you looked on Yelp so you could tell your friends, no, convince your friends that yes there is some good and relatively fresh street meat on the Upper West Side. The two guys that work the truck wear red polo shirts and small red caps. One has a handsome face and always looks sweaty. He’s usually the one chopping up the meat and sizzling the peppers and onions. He rarely steps out, but when he does, you’re surprised that he has a little round belly and that he’s only about 5’7”. When he’s in the truck he seems like a tall, dark-eyed mysterious chef who concocts those delicious middle eastern recipes, but in the daylight, on the street corner, he’s kind of an ordinary Joe, or rather, Mohammed. Their truck is one of the larger ones as it covered with a beige and brown mural – a vibrant swath of falafel, shawarma, pitas, and kebabs. This is the source of the real cumin smell that at such an early hour can be a little abrasive on the nose. As you and all your coworkers rush with your breakfasts to the behemoth buildings of Disney-ABC Television, which take up the entire block of 66th and 67th streets all the way east to Central Park West, the smell of garlicky meat, tahini and bulgur wheat are not necessarily a match for the senses. Everyone is newly pressed, newly showered, doused in cologne and/or perfume. But of course you have come to love it and the fact that they are there, trusty and reliable, scrappy and consistent. As you pass, they are already preparing for the lunch rush which starts as early as 11 and you and the friendly, less handsome one share a genial nod.
One surprising morning, much like any other Thursday let’s say, the sidewalk gets crowded because a homeless couple is sprawled out and sleeping against the wide windows of the Century 21 store. You start walking in the street because the crowds take up most of the space, darting and dodging, and because you hate seeing your coworkers right before you even enter the building, then you have to walk together all the way up and it seems there’s never any relief from the inane small talk you both feel obliged to make. But you stop short when you realize there is a circular heap of excrement sitting on the curb, five feet away from the Casbah truck. You don’t quite step in it, but you instinctively back away, stupidly into the street, dangerously near to the slow-moving traffic. The midnight blue Mercedes honks in spurts of three. You fear the potential wafting wind or even a hint of how it might smell. It is a jarring image, because it is so large and brown like the emoji with googly eyes, and it is almost perfectly shaped by someone who swirls soft serve. So you keep on walking, because you think to yourself that maybe it had come from the new homeless couple that now live on your street and who on earth would have the awful job of cleaning up such a mess? Ill-equipped with a dustpan and broom?
The third and final truck is right outside the studio doors over where the now Kelly and Ryan show is, which used to be Regis and Kelly. This is a simple truck: they have cold pastries, cold bagels engorged with squares of plain full fat cream cheese, each served with two flimsy napkins. Their specialty is coffee, all kinds of flavors and special milks, dairy, non-dairy, soy, almond, hemp. The sweetness is what catches the wind here, the bear claws and cherry danishes meld with the turbinado natural brown sugar or caramel syrup that my colleagues drown in their joe. The guys that man this truck are white, maybe Polish? I cannot place the accent, but they’re older gentlemen who remember your order and call you sweetheart or my love with a familiarity that’s acceptable from two older gentlemen in a tin cart, confined to an arm’s reach. You’re grateful for them and their determination to remain unchanged. You imagine everything they’ve seen from this spot starting at 6am, greeting the guests and celebs that rush in to the show, serving them coffee just before they are camouflaged in wigs, makeup and studio lights.
BIO: Lindsay Gacad is a poet and essayist with an MFA in Writing & Publishing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in 2 Horatio, Divine Caroline, Levitate Magazine and others.
Photo from here.
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