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Cozy Fragments

It was still muggy out, even this late. Though indoors, I could roughly tell the temps outside by the flushed faces and necks of people coming into the bar. They looked a little frayed, some of them had probably been dancing over at the Pyramid Club a block away; many were NYU students. I could tell the last by the preppie clothes, all the giggling cliquishness and the similar ages. Yup, NYU. They looked happy.

I was sitting with my friends, Larry, Susan and Rob, glancing at them occasionally to check in on the conversation. But I paid more attention to the NYU students, watching with vague envy. Those guys really had it made. They must have had a lot of money to not only go to that school, but especially to live in Manhattan. I mean, wow. I had moved to Brooklyn only about 8 weeks before this night, worked temp jobs and rented a little share right on Atlantic Avenue. I had to take the 4 Train every time I wanted to find a cool place to hang out. But NYU kids had their pick; they could walk over to McSorley’s, then choose from a bunch of bars and restaurants I had never been to. I mean shit, they had it made, at least in my mind.

I looked forward to a possible future there, or at some great school. But I was here now, this night in Alphabet City. I sighed and looked back at my new friends. Rob asked me if I was ever going to finish my beer. I didn’t want to blow my cool and admit to the wistfulness I was feeling so I just chugged the rest and offered a lopsided grin. These guys, Larry and Rob, brothers they were; always made me feel like a young kid, and maybe I was. I was twenty though, already older than a lot of these nameless NYU students I envied. That thought gave me yet another ‘Better Get With It’ thought-jolt that made my heart race for a moment. I had that a lot back in those days. At twenty I didn’t know where I was headed in life and wasn’t even back in school yet.

When I felt a little buzz I announced my intention to head back to Brooklyn. I loved the buzz but back then it was a signal to cease and desist. I promised them I’d be back in a couple of days to hang out with them at the Ear Inn and scooted myself off the wooden booth and wavered a little towards the door. I turned around and waved goodbye but they weren’t looking. That made me feel young and silly again.

I stepped out into the 1 am 72 degree temps, closing the red bar door behind me. I liked the place, Susan called it the Horseshoe Bar but I didn’t know if that was the real name. It sat anonymously on the corner of Avenue B and East 7th Street, no signs to indicate the name or even the hours. It was like an out-in-the-open speakeasy that gave me an in-the-know confidence whenever I was there. A little wobbly, I almost bumped Larry’s motorcycle crossing 7th.

I was a New York rookie but I loved Broadway, I already knew that. It had the trains and the record and bookstores and the sci-fi place my brother loved. It always had people milling around but this time I was really out late and wanted to see what was open. It was like a test of my New York night-owl coolness. I knew I could catch an N Train back home but what else was open? Many long crosstown blocks west on East 7th later, I was nearing an answer. had recovered my straight-line swift gait and paused at the amorphous Cooper-Village Voice area that interrupted the street. I was annoyed, as this had broken my crosstown trance. The good thing was there was a VV Kiosk there where I could pick up a new Village Voice. I looked it over, delighted that a high quality weekly like this was offered for free. New York could be had on the cheap, you know, especially then. The paper had more stories about the Chamber/Levin trial and a couple more inspired rants about Reagan, I rolled it up and tucked it under my left arm, stifling a small worry that I would sweat the newsprint all over my clothing.

I didn’t like cutting through Cooper Triangle, it was dark and seemed a little scary so I diverted north to 8th. There were people around, not too many though. My stomach grumbled, I realized I was a little hungry but it was 1:30 am. It would be silly to eat even if there was anything open. I didn’t think I’d ever eaten after 10 pm or so, not that I could remember, back when I was in Miami anyway. Realizing where I was though, I quickly banished all thoughts of my old boring life in my mom’s apartment on South Beach and started looking for food. This was New York.

Reaching Broadway, I looked right, then left. To the left, south a bit, I saw a pinkish neon sign that said ‘Diner.’ I walked a little wearily towards it. ‘Cozy Soup ‘N’ Burger’ it said on the front; this place was definitely open. I had passed it a couple of times in the past but never entered, it looked like a dive. That was my excuse anyway. What it really was was that I was very cheap. It wasn’t only that I didn’t have a lot of money, but I lived an intentionally austere life, always fearful that something bad was right around the corner. I believe I had learned that from my mom, and from actual experience. By then it was hard for me to think any other way, but in this moment, and on this night, I was still filled with the spirit of adventure. Of doing something different. I felt ashamed that merely eating at a restaurant past a certain time represented something new and exciting to me but that was how it was. At twenty, the contradiction of my existence was that I was a very social loner, a guy who was certainly glib but not a risk taker. I recognized that in myself but I was pretty happy with it anyway.

Convinced that my left sleeve was inundated with newsprint ink, I ditched the Voice into a trash can on my way into the restaurant. Looking south one more time I could see that even Tower Records was closed, the neon was turned off. Late indeed. It was a little warmer in the restaurant than outside, balmy, the interior lit kind of yellow and it smelled like, well, like soup and burgers. A guy in a white coat behind the bar gestured me over to a booth, then pointed to a bar seat, muttering “or wherever” in a New Yorky accent.

I sat and looked over the menu, which had a lot of stuff there. I was surprised at the variety. I ordered a chicken soup and a cheeseburger and looked around. There were several other diners, they were all older than me. I wondered if they worked night jobs and what their lives were like. One thing I knew for certain was that their lives were interesting because they were all New Yorkers. I’d learned that as soon as I got off the plane. I felt a rush of warmth inside me that was really a feeling of love for my new hometown and all the people in it. I didn’t know anyone there that night but we were still a community, a community of overnight dinner diners.

 

I was in a hurry. I wanted to see everything one last time. New York had a lot of memories for me, the different neighborhoods existed like little time capsules, places I’d lived during different eras, they held memories both good and bad. In my life in Brooklyn I had been a college student, and then a drunk, and then finally a smart-ass thirty something health food store employee with dreams of heading west.

I rode the rails, getting off only when nostalgia tugged hard. I had my mom’s camera, which I’d always thought of as borrowed, but now she was dead and I guess it was mine now. That shuddering event had happened two years prior and ever since then I’d been thinking, always thinking. Thinking about what to do next. During this October I revisited the Brooklyn neighborhoods, even Clinton Hill. That neighborhood was a hard one to see again because it was there that my artist dreams went out the window (like one of those books I’d flung out of the Pratt Library windows over ten years before). Clinton Hill was where I stepped off into some really dark territory, namely a blurry couple of years as one of the few non-yuppies in Park Slope. But it was all cool, for the buildings were all the same and I was gripped again with fascination by the relative timelessness of architecture. I loved stuff that stayed the same. The Heights, Midwood; yeah, I’d done Brooklyn. Ten rolls of film was testament to that.

I liked photographing buildings more than people. A look at a building I hadn’t seen in years triggered not only a flood of memories but the exact same longings I had experienced back when I was twenty-one; namely the desire to see the place in person back in the 50s, the 20s, or even the Nineteenth Century.

Another day after work I emerged from the Spring Street Station and weaved my way through thickening crowds up Broadway, which was still my favorite street. Some things were the same and some were different. I’d pause at the changes and try to remember what was once there. It was like an exercise. They had just moved Canal Jeans to a spot north of Tower Records. I took a lot of pictures, always wondering if people watched me and wondered why I photographed certain things. It was a lingering self-consciousness I’d had since I was a teenager. I didn’t want them to think of me as a tourist because, hey, after 12 years I’d earned my title as New Yorker. Well, fuck them, I decided. I veered west to photograph the buildings at NYU where I had attended classes back in ’91. Then and then it was never the same idealization I had pictured in my mind as a newcomer long ago. I walked back to Broadway.

Broadway was physically the same but I looked at it all differently. I had come to this realization in a gradual fashion not long before. I felt a little tired inside and it colored my vision. It had been years since I’d felt a warm love for all New Yorkers and I guess I just wanted to go, it was time. I had decided that many New Yorkers were assholes after all and I guess maybe I was one too; or at least becoming one. That’s why I had resolved to go west.

Thinking about Seattle and a fresh start gave me the feeling I had when I had just arrived at my brother’s apartment on State Street all those years before. Unbridled excitement, like I could do anything. Passing by a crowded Starbucks I wondered why it is that that feeling ever has to go away in people. If only we could hold onto excitement like we once had it seems we’d never age, right? Or (to be more realistic) when we inevitably aged it wouldn’t matter. Or matter much.

Up ahead I saw a familiar neon sign. I would have been shocked to not see it. I wasn’t hungry yet but I hadn’t been in there in years and I thought why not? Let’s see if it’s the same, I challenged. I was still cheap but I could enjoy dining out whenever I really had to. There was an empty Village Voice kiosk in front of Cozy’s. It was Tuesday after all, and the new papers would come out that night, probably a bit after my bedtime. Working at Perelandra Natural Foods had turned me into an early bird.

I stepped inside for the first time in about 8 years. It was the same but for bits of NYU memorabilia on the walls. Over the years NYU had spread outside of its confines in Washington Square, getting closer to Cozy and the décor reflected that. Each time I had eaten in Cozy over the years it looked like my fellow diners were trending a little younger. There were more students, the restaurant seemed to be running a delivery service too and it was absolutely packed. Usually I’d blow off a long wait and exit but this time I just stood there until I got a seat. Coming in alone (I hadn’t eaten alone there in years) they popped me onto a bar stool and gestured for me to get on with it. I glanced a little at the menu and felt a little bit of the self-consciousness of the solo diner, a feeling that I knew inside had to be universal with all people.

The chicken soup was exactly the same as I remembered. I ate it fast but lingered as long as I dared. I sank a little inside, feeling like I was going to miss this place, for there was no place like this outside of New York. I looked around at some of my fellow diners and felt that habitual disdain of mine. Yeah, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. On the train home to my stop at Avenue J, I made a mental note to buy a new hatch lock for the U-Haul I would be renting the following week.

 

It was brick ass cold that Saturday afternoon. I still thought (and spoke) in 90’s slang phrases like ‘brick ass’ though it was a long time out of fashion. My New York-ness was frozen in the amber of the year 1999. Isabelle and I were visiting my brother and his wife in the City for a week. This was maybe my 12th time back to New York since I’d left and I geared up for it every time like I was a little kid. “Let’s go here, let’s do this!” I could be a real pain in the ass, oh I knew. But I had to see it all, to do it all, I couldn’t help it. New York was changing fast and I had to record those transitions, either with a camera and my cell phone, or a quip about the way things “used to be.” I strode quickly down 6th Avenue, slowing a bit when Isabelle or Luis would say, “Hey slow down there,” or something similar. I didn’t have my 80s stride anymore but I could still motor around faster than just about everyone. Kathleen kept up pretty well and didn’t comment.

We passed the place that was the Parking Lot Flea, or the 27th Street Flea, or even the 6th Avenue Flea, as it variously called. I didn’t know the actual name but I knew how to take the train to 23rd Street and beeline up to the thronged outdoor parking lots with the Frozeade guy up front, sweating under his green and white umbrella. But that was back in the 80’s and 90’s. The sight that greeted me this day was disorienting. Two relatively new condos stood right where I had spent hours in the hot sun thumbing through old record albums. There was almost nothing on that street I could make out and I didn’t like that one bit. Even the Frozeade vendors were all gone, defunct.

“Bummer,” I uttered.

“I know right?” Isabelle replied. She had accompanied me many times here when we were fledgling art students. Kathleen told me there was still a part of the Flea Market that remained and she proposed we head there, to the Garage Annex.

I remembered some garage flea, they had it back then too, but I thought it was lame, even though I’d gone a few times. Why go there when you have two large parking lots of glorious junk awaiting you half a crosstown block away? Now it looked like it was the only game in town, and as it was too cold for us to contemplate a walk all the way to the Hell’s Kitchen Flea, it looked like it was the Garage after all.

I didn’t have the appetite to finger through every little freaking thing there so I made a few fast circuits, taking pictures. The Garage was really just like I remembered; I even convinced myself the vendors were all the same too, just a little (or a lot) older. It made me feel warm inside, like the timeless New Yorker I always fancied myself to be. My visit to this underground bazaar was kind of proof of this.

After hitting the Garage Annex Flea Market we decided to divide our forces. My wife and Kathleen wanted to go get acupuncture and Luis I were gonna have none of that. Anyway we were a little hungry. We split up. Luis and I headed towards Broadway and Forbidden Planet, still his favorite little sci-fi place. To me it had changed, its character was different. I wondered if Luis felt the same way. It had moved north a few blocks over the years and it seemed like it didn’t have the rows and boxes of comics and stuff that it used to. It looked like they sold more toys and merchandise than anything. He picked up a book and we headed out, unknowingly repeating the exact same errand we had made my first night in New York in June of 1987.

However this was not my 1987’s Broadway, not really. The shoe store Rubber Soul was gone, as was the restaurant Silver Spurs and even venerable old Tower Records. That last one sucked, it was now a MLB Fan Zone or some shit. I surmised their rent was just astronomical, and it wasn’t even a retail place open to the public. They used it as some kind of man-cave thing for the MLB Network.

I told Luis we should go to Cozy, it was only three blocks south and we knew it was open. Well, I knew it was still there and open because I passed it often over the years on my manic walks, visiting from Seattle and then Atlanta. I hadn’t eaten there since I’d moved away, Luis said he hadn’t since the 80s or so.

We stepped under the unchanged neon sign and inside, greeted by the same burgery soupy smell I always knew. It wasn’t that crowded, we’d arrived in that weird lunch-dinner twilight time. But Cozy didn’t care, it never cared, it was open 24 hours a day every single day and had been for decades now as far as I could reckon. The sign said 1972 but certainly it had in reality been there forever.

I ordered the same soup and burger I always did (though confronted with an encyclopedic menu I always took the restaurant name literally) and Luis did the same. We talked about stuff, work, sports. Luis assured me New York’s biggest asshole would never get the nomination, much less be elected President. I listened, sort of. I was distracted, looking around the restaurant a lot. The diners were all about our ages or maybe even a little younger. I got to wondering, the way I tended to wistfully over the years when I knew a big change was coming. Cozy doesn’t ever change, I decided, and I meant that then and now quite literally and with wonder. When the check came I offered to pay but was relieved when my brother picked it up. Even in my forties the cheap dies hard in me. I wondered if maybe years down the road, after my son is born and gets a little older; maybe I can take him to this place. Maybe it’ll still be the same and the eatery will even mean something to him. Perhaps he’ll hardlly believe that his daddy ate here back in the 1980s. I came to and looked back at my brother, zeroing in on his words, rooted again in the present. As we got up to leave I was overtaken by a warm feeling, an old familiar one, where I was home again and loved all New Yorkers.

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