I captured this photo late last summer in Hell’s Kitchen. The pigeons looked so peaceful silhouetted in the afternoon light, high above the Theater District rush.
I was noticing pigeons everywhere that summer. One in particular, the largest I’d ever seen, had made its home on the ledge outside my kitchen window. I’d turn on the stove for coffee Saturday mornings and it would greet me by fluttering its wings – revealing a streak of silver that each time I’d mistake for a flash of light. Each time I was surprised a bird could emit such radiance.
It occurred to me a few weeks ago I haven’t seen that pigeon in months. Where did he go? He hasn’t traveled south. Unlike other birds, pigeons don’t migrate – once they find a nesting place they will stay year round. Pigeons will always return to the location imprinted on their brains upon birth.
Maybe he’s been there all along but his feathers are dulled by the city dust. Or maybe he flutters his wings but there’s no light in the sky for his silver streaks to reflect, nothing to make me turn.
My heart sank when I heard this news. For someone who’d only had a margarita here once, late at night with a few friends, my sadness may seem exaggerated. But only recently I’d passed the Avenue A and East 6th Street corner where Benny’s stands, thinking, “That was a great place – I should go back sometime.” The problem is, Benny’s isn’t so much a place you go to but a place you stumble upon. And I never stumbled there again.
I’d only been to Benny’s once but knew it had history. The East Village gem opened its doors to the late ‘80s downtown scene where artist-types roamed the streets looking for a post-club bite. With its bright-colored walls and 1960s artifacts, Benny’s was always a bit kitschy, but that was part of its appeal. As New York Magazinewrote in 1990, “Benny’s Burritos is a rare find: a scene with no attitude.”
These days Chipotles pop up all over Manhattan, but just 25 years ago the burrito wasn’t a fast food go-to. In fact, its rise has been fairly recent. Burritos existed at chili parlors, the burrito joint’s predecessor, but were slender, manageable tubes of rice and meat rather than the monstrous creations we know today. Benny’s was a big-burrito pioneer back when “Mexicali food was as rare as an East Village stockbroker,” according to New York Magazine.
Owner Mark Merker told EV Grieve “the world has changed” since he first opened Benny’s in 1988. Business has been good, but costs keep rising and competition from franchises like Chipotle doesn’t help.
OK, it’s not quite true that Benny’s is closing – it’s downsizing. Benny’s is shuttering its restaurant space and keeping just the takeout counter. (Its sister restaurant, Harry’s Burritos on the Upper West Side, will also close.) But for me this may as well mean the end of Benny’s – it was all about atmosphere. With a proliferation of other food options in the East Village, from fancy fries to authentic tacos, I don’t envision stopping at the takeout counter for a just-OK burrito.
The Twitterverse agrees, one customer lamenting, “it was never about the burritos (average) but the great sidewalk scene.” Reading other reactions on Twitter, it’s clear the burrito joint played a role in many New Yorkers’ formative years:
Benny’s will always be the taste of being 19, broke and spending my last $20 on a margarita and burrito
Mass foreclosure on my early NYC memories continues. Ate many a meal at Benny’s in late ’80s/’90s
Heard last night that Benny’s Burritos on Ave A is closing. End of an era in NYC
This one hurts.
I can’t claim the same disappointment as customers who frequented Benny’s during “Rent” years. But I’m sad for what it represents – continued rent hikes forcing a generation of beloved restaurants to downsize or shut down completely. Casual gathering spots like Benny’s, where the people and not the food take center stage, make New York what it is.
Benny’s had character and building character takes time.
The reality is that the city changes and we want it all – the new and the old. It’s sort of a paradox, isn’t it? New Yorkers are totally obsessed with newness – clothes, food, music – but gripe when change occurs to our New York. We feel protective over our visions of the city and the places within them that feel like home. For many people that cheap Mexican spot on Avenue A was one of those places, so despite more than 20,000 other New York restaurants and countless other burrito joints, it’s impossible not to feel loss.
Bye-bye, Benny’s. Your margaritas were strong and your guac not particularly memorable. But you’ll live on in my idea of New York, the one I’ll hold dear when I’m older and reminiscing about the city “back then.” I’ll remember the tequila bliss and late night chatter, the contagious laughter of a few good friends sitting on worn vinyl bar stools. I’ll remember it was you, Benny’s, even though it could have been anywhere.
On Sunday I woke up on the early side and spent the morning doing one of my favorite things: relaxing at a coffee shop. I’d been meaning for awhile to check out Irving Farm Coffee Roasters in the Upper West Side, a spot my roommate had recommended but I’d been reluctant to go to since they don’t have wifi.
But today was my birthday. Who needs work? Who needs wifi?
I took the 1 train uptown and the shop was just around the corner from the 79th Street stop. I could tell immediately it was popular from the line out the door. Irving Farm bustled with Upper West Siders getting their pre and post workout coffee fixes, young families gathering for quick breakfasts before church, and older couples quietly reading The New York Times.
I waited on line for nearly 15 minutes just to order coffee, something I typically wouldn’t have patience for–but time is one of the great luxuries of Sunday mornings.
And I have to say, the quality of the coffee and the ample seating space made it worth it.
They also serve all their cold drinks in mason jars (don’t ask me why but that’s a game changer).
After getting my dark roast I grabbed a seat in the back corner, opened my notebook, and did some writing. Irving Farm’s lively atmosphere made it a great place to people watch. I’ll definitely be going back!
Then, because I love coffee so much, I met my friend Grace for more coffee at Aroma a few blocks away. Aroma is an Israeli coffee chain that I discovered a few summers back while working at the Garden State Mall. One of Aroma’s first U.S. stores had opened up next to the Lord & Taylor where I was a sales associate, so each day I got my midday caffeine fix at the trendy new spot.
But having just returned from a trip to Israel where Aroma is as ubiquitous as Starbucks is in the U.S., Aroma now has a nostalgia factor for me. I immediately noticed Israeli accents when I walked in, and I overheard two women near us discussing the conflict in Gaza. Sitting on the covered rooftop, it was easy to believe I was back in Israel.
Grace and I spent about an hour at Aroma, chatting about our vacations and summer plans. After that I walked back to my apartment from the Upper West, then went for a run.
In the evening, my family came into the city and we ate at Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center. Margaritas, fresh-made guacamole, enchiladas, and family.
What does it take to have a good conversation with strangers in New York?
Apparently it’s not necessarily going to bars but getting the late-night pizza afterward.
After spending last Saturday night at a bar in Union Square, I sauntered outside with a couple of friends, John and Katherine. It was that critical point in the night when a decision must be made–get food or go home? As we walked down 14th Street we each silently weighed our options: Is there anything at all in the fridge? What about that gyro place next to my apartment…does it close at 3 or 4? Am I really that hungry or can I wait till tomorrow’s bacon egg and cheese?
We were all heading in our separate directions–me to Hell’s Kitchen, Katherine to the Upper East Side and John back to Hoboken, so a decision needed to be made soon.
John was the first to speak. “OK, it’s late, I’m going home.” Before I knew it he’d disappeared into the subway station.
Taking his cue, I said a quick good-bye to Katherine and continued west. But then my stomach starting growling, and the thought of actually having to prepare food when I got home settled in.
“WAIT!” I said to Katherine. “I’ll get pizza with you.”
She smiled, as if she’d known I would change my mind. “OK let’s do this,” she said.
And so we walked back the way we had come, returning to the only crowded pizza place on the block.
We each ordered a slice–Katherine basic pepperoni and me this onion/mushroom/garlic/pepperoni concoction that looked incredibly appetizing at that late hour (and really was delicious).
We dumped some parmesan and oregano on our slices, grabbed two seats at table, and began eating our pizza in total silence, the way two hungry and tired friends can do without feeling awkward.
But we weren’t silent for long, because two guys asked if they could grab the empty seats across the table.
“Sure!” we said. One of them in particular was pretty attractive.
After introducing themselves, they started asking us some questions that seemed a little too formulated for random conversation.
“So,” one asked. “Do you guys use apps to determine what bar you go to on the weekends?”
“Um, I use Yelp to find restaurants and sometimes bars,” I said.
“I use Yelp and Foursquare,” Katherine said.
“What if you could find out LIVE information about a place, before you even get there,” the guy said. “What if you could know how many people are in a bar, what the atmosphere is like, what the ratio of male to female is, before you even walk in the door.”
“Ummm…” We looked at each other. We both work in the media world and could sense what he was on to.
“Are you creating an app?” Katherine asked. ” I work in consumer insights, this is what I do for my job.”
“You caught us,” he responded.
They weren’t just two guys asking to sit down and chat with two girls. They were two guys pitching their product to girls in their target demographic, and getting to know us at the same time–which made the experience even cooler.
And so we discussed the merits of knowing too much versus too little information about a place. We talked about the limitations of such an app–if it didn’t immediately have hundreds or thousands of users, like Yelp and Foursquare do, how could we trust the opinions of a user base that may not be like us?
Katherine and I agreed that the only real way to determine atmosphere is to be there in person. Or maybe we’re just old.
I don’t know what time it was when I called quits on the conversation. Maybe 3:20, maybe 3:30, maybe 3:45. But it was late, and I had the sense these guys could go on for hours, or as long as we let them. (They were sober, and possibly caffeinated.)
I’m not an app creator and I need my sleep, but it was an awesome, intelligent conversation and an interesting experience. The kind of thing that I wanted, and expected, to happen when I moved to New York.
I was immersed in work one night at Starbucks when I heard a loud, raspy voice call out, “Excuse me, you dropped your phone!”
Instinctively, I looked to the floor for my pink case before I heard a woman say “thanks!” She reached under the table and picked up her iPhone. The man seemed to appreciate her appreciation and started chatting with her.
“Just today this guy dropped his phone outside. I called a number and got through to someone,” he said to the woman and the young man she was with, tone friendly as if they’d spoken before. “A $400 phone, and no thank you, nothing. I waited for an hour outside Rockefeller Center, too. Unbelievable.”
His anger became other customers’ anger, and soon four or five people in the store shook their heads in unison. It was the first time I’d seen everyone in Starbucks engaged in the same conversation.
“Next time it happens, I’ll throw the phone in the garbage can. I’ll throw it out!” The man was standing now.
“Do it!” cheered the young man with the woman who had dropped her phone. The woman smiled, offering her approval. Even the baristas momentarily abandoned their shop-closing duties to listen to what was going on.
Finally the man sat down, pleased with his good deed for the day.
I can only hope what goes around comes around for this Cell Phone Samaritan—even in a city where phones seem to evaporate the second they’re left alone.
I signed my first New York City lease about three weeks ago.
I was walking up Ninth Avenue before work, around 8:45 a.m. It was a slight detour from my usual walk east from Port Authority towards Sixth Avenue, and I loved the change of pace. Instead of passing flashing screens and packs of tourists like most mornings, I passed cafés, bars and bakeries with unique storefronts. Restaurant staff carefully etched the day’s specials into street-side chalkboards. People walked out of nearby apartment buildings, coffee in hand, keys jangling.
Clearly I wasn’t a New Yorker yet, because I broke out smiling.
I probably looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it. I was happy, exhilarated. I’ve been coming into the city every day for over a year and a half, and on occasion for my whole life, but today was different. Signing this lease would mean formally crossing over into a new phase.
The moment reminded me of another time in my life, about eight years ago, when I took a tour at the University of Pennsylvania with my parents. It was the very first college visit I made, the very first time I crossed a campus and thought in a few years I could be part of this. I remember loving the fast-paced campus where professors and students filed in and out of buildings, talking. I loved the intellectualism and sense of opportunity. The university had an energy I’d never experienced before, one that I’d go on to find at a number of other campuses.
After we finished the tour I said to my parents, “Let me go ahead for a minute. I want to feel like I’m in college.”
So I walked briskly and blissfully down Locust Walk, the main campus pathway, acting like I was a student. (I’m sure my wide grin and calculated stride gave my age away.) After a few seconds I turned and looked back at my parents, who were also smiling.
“You look like a real college student,” they said.
“Thanks,” I said, wanting to believe it but knowing I had a few years to go.
I felt the same excitement walking down Ninth Avenue a few weeks ago. But while Locust Walk spans a few hundred yards, New York City avenues go for miles. And this time, there were no parents to look back on. I was totally and completely on my own.
I smiled because I’d soon be part of this city full of lights and people and endless stories. I’d soon be part of this city I’ve loved since I was a kid, finally opening up to me, no longer just out of reach.