I entered the café that occupies an obscure corner of the seventh floor at Ashton Howards New York department store, a purveyor of fine clothing by top designers, and frequented by New York women who refer to their clothes by proper names and purchase them with platinum cards. The retreat’s black walls, floor, ceiling, tables and chairs give patrons the impression of entering a comforting cave. Like a loose sprinkling of stars, tiny yellow lights dot the ceiling and one long wall. In a display case, dim lighting gives a soft glow to croissants, exotic cookies, tarts, cakes and quiches. The brightest lights, in a low, refrigerated section of the case, help the privileged identify the gourmet ingredients in pre-made artisan sandwiches.
The barista, a lanky aspiring actor, and his assistant, a squat obese girl with several facial piercings and blue hair, wear black khakis, black shirts, and black neckties with gray diagonal stripes. Covering these ensembles are black aprons bearing the name of the café, Umberto’s, in charcoal gray. The foreign name gives the café character and appeal and attracts those who want to appear sophisticated and debonair. Would we flock there had it a common name such as Bob’s or Susie’s? Patrons aware that anything lighter than charcoal gray violates the café’s unwritten protocol: Match the décor.
We who enter glide our black designer shoes across the black floor to the black counter and order black Italian coffee drinks which, of course, are ordered in Italian. We are allowed to add color by requesting a kiwi or strawberry tart. Some, strictly adhering to decorum, order chocolate cookies or cake. In the darkness, we find our way to the tables by focusing on what appears to be small, floating glass bowls with white, pink, blue and yellow packets of sweeteners sitting in the center of each table. This year the yellow packet is in vogue.
I carried my black tray bearing an espresso and slice of chocolate cake to a table with a panoramic view of the room. I removed a copy of The Sane Society by Erich Fromm from my Prada purse. In Umberto’s black box, one could strain to read or, if with companions, whisper. If unable to do either of those, staring into space was acceptable. We assumed our fellow to be lost in profound thoughts.
Like an earthquake tremor, a woman wearing a look of frustration and a fiery ball of orange stepped into the entryway, shaking our tomb-like surroundings. Her head moved like a parakeet’s looking left, and then right. She spotted the counter, plodded up to it, and balanced her shopping bags against her leg. The intrusion commanded attention; regular patrons wondered how she managed to find this corner of the world belonging to our elite group.
“Do you have café solo, espresso?” she asked. I recognized the woman’s accent as being Spanish.
“Of course we do,” said the assistant, her words dripping with condescension.
“What is this?” The woman pointed to a tray covered by a glass dome.
“A tart,” the assistant snapped.
I felt compelled to rescue the woman from this display of unfounded New York arrogance.
“What is a tart?”
“A tart is a tart. It’s what you see right here!”
The woman, bewildered by the response, stared into the face of the assistant. She digested the information, composed herself, then asked, “And what is this?”
The girl noisily sucked in a shallow breath and slowly let it out. Her eyes pleaded for sympathy from the barista. “A macadamia nut cookie with white chocolate sprinkled with truffle oil and this, in case you were going to ask, is an oatmeal cookie with a sprinkling of organic cranberries and sweetened naturally with pears, and this is a chocolate chip cookie.”
The assistant lifted her face toward heaven for divine aid. “Apple turnover!”
“I’ll have this one, a croissant, please.”
“With chocolate or without?” the girl prompted impatiently.
“With chocolate and a double espresso, gracias.”
The barista and assistant giggled. The assistant retrieved the croissant and lightly threw it on a tray. The barista slammed the small cup next to it.
The woman in orange paid her bill and further disgusted the girl by not dropping her change into the tip jar. The woman struggled to balance her tray and her shopping bags. I went to her rescue and carried the tray.
“Where would you like to sit?” I asked.
“Any table is fine.”
I placed her tray at a table next to mine. I resumed reading, however, the woman’s temperance, and her dress held my interest. Intimidated by the glares around her, she nervously lifted the cup to her lips. She frowned and pushed the espresso away after a small sip.
I imagined wearing an orange sweater.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I think Barcelona is beautiful from the pictures I saw on television during the Olympics.”
“It is much better than here. I cannot wait to leave. We do not speak to people the way the waitress spoke to me. I am leaving tomorrow. I cannot stay here.” She seemed more at ease for having someone to listen to her story.
“No one has informed her that without customers this place would close and render her unemployed.”
“Where are you from?”
“Upstate New York, where people are a bit more civil.”
“I am here to visit my husband’s family. I planned to stay for six weeks and wait for my husband to join me, but it is boring here and the people are not friendly.”
New York City is boring? Impossible. She must be thinking of some small town in Nebraska. While I waited for her to correct her mistake, I realized that I too had become bored and wearied of New York. “You have to understand that many Americans aren’t friendly because they live in fear.”
“In fear? Of what?”
“Everything. They are conditioned to live in fear—fear of illness, neighbors, the air they breathe, water they drink, food they eat, and a ride in the subway or on a bus, of living. You name it; they fear it.”
“You should come to Barcelona. Here, you have money, nothing else. No quality of life. We earn less, but we are happier. You live to work; we work to live.”
She wrote her name, Consuela, and phone number in the back of The Sane Society. She planned to leave tomorrow morning for the Canary Islands and return to Barcelona the first week of May. She invited me to visit anytime afterward.
Consuela collected her bags and exited the café, taking with her the light that had revealed the scratches, missing plaster and other flaws in the room.
On a bleak Monday in late April of 2003 lowering clouds hovered over New York City; unseasonable fierce winds careered through houses, tunnels and steel-gray streets, whipping around corners to blow hats, scarves, gloves, and the city’s vexed inhabitants. Fresh white flakes lost their purity as they fell upon blackened snowdrifts that had accumulated from the blizzards and storms lingering over the east coast since October of the prior year. The night’s ice storms gave snow banks a thick layer of glistening glass, beautiful only on Christmas cards. An admixture of warmth, salt, and sand had melted some of the snow, creating lakes of stagnant black pools and miniature ice floes at corners.
I waited in a crowd of glowering commuters at the corner of Madison Avenue and Fifty-Third Street, for a glowing red hand in a yellow metal box to change into an impersonal white figure and give permission to pedestrians to walk in a single file through the small indentation of snow at the corner. I watched my fellow travelers step carefully onto the layer of slick ice covering the snow, balance the weight of bodies and briefcases, and finally—some with anger, others laughing—step into the unavoidable deep, black puddle. The white figure changed to descending red numbers telling us how many seconds remained before taxis would wildly reclaim possession of the road and plow down any who had dawdled. I remained on the corner, no longer feeling the cold wind against my exposed cheeks. My conversation with the woman from Spain the day before had deprived me of sleep and now, of all other thoughts. On the commuter train, I tired of my self-help book, whose author, featured on an early morning talk show, promised a better life by following a few simple steps.
I stepped aside and watched three groups cross the street. A life I knew well awaited me on the other side of Madison Avenue. I could cross and continue to follow that path. The numbers descended: twelve, eleven, ten. I joined the line and moved forward—is this moving forward? The red hand prohibited us from crossing. Moving colors on black wheels raced by: yellow, blue, yellow, white, red, yellow, yellow, silver, yellow; an advertisement for a new show on a network promising more blondes and predictable plots that would be resolved in less than thirty minutes rolled by on a bus.
I turned my back to Madison Avenue. In a nearby café, I stared at the human figures trying to arrive at a destination before the next click of the minute hand. They rose before dawn, showered, and dressed; locked houses filled with everything but fulfillment and contentment; rushed to meet trains and buses with empty stomachs to arrive at disappointing jobs that ruled their complacent lives, only to complete the monotonous circle by returning home exhausted and querulous. My life did not differ. It centered on a husband I stopped loving long ago or possibly never loved, a “successful” career built on tedious financial statements, forecasts, profits and losses; and managing a group of adults who had not passed the petulant self-centered stage of wanting everything, feeling owed everything, and responding with whines and tantrums when denied their unreasonable demands. The translated cries were always the same: “I want more money and less work.” I made weekly therapeutic trips to Madison Avenue to buy material things I did not need, but society required I own to belong to an elite group I neither liked nor respected.
At ten thirty on that dreary morning, I exited the elevator on the forty-eighth floor and opened the doors of Manheim, Stiles and Lubryck. Without removing my briefcase from my sagging shoulders, which struggled to carry a laptop, files, planner, the latest self-help bestseller, a scientific calculator, and discontentment, I tracked snow into the office of the Chief Financial Officer, smiled, and extended my apology for my immediate departure from the company. I emptied my briefcase of the company’s belongings and gave the self-help book to Todd, Mr. Manheim. I planned a different route than the author suggested.
I sat at my dining room table looking at flowers that could not bloom in New York’s seemingly ceaseless cold environment. On a sheet of linen stationary, I wrote:
Dear Mr. Jake Cohen,
I no longer desire to continue this relationship and life we have shared for a plethora of unhappy years. I have withdrawn fifty percent of our cash from the bank. You may have my share of the house, cars, and stocks. You and your lovers can enjoy the life I am abandoning without the burden of secrecy and if there is any, guilt.
I will contact you to legalize our separation with divorce in view.
Ms. Caroline Lettieri
From the backseat of a taxi, I breathed in incense and pungent body odors. Islamic prayers emanated from a CD. Images of familiar sights and sounds fixed in my mind to be stored as memories: a driver who did not speak English, with a long beard and a knitted white cap; an agglomeration of gray and brown buildings interwoven with glass skyscrapers and lower structures of blackened bricks; slumped shoulders and faces turned toward the ground, hiding lackluster eyes and hollowed interiors; angry horns; a fog of gray diesel fumes spreading through the highway. Painters hung from the walls of a cluster of public housing buildings, named after some deceased political figure, painting tan window frames a drab green. That should make their lives better, Mr. Mayor.
In the distance, a jackhammer’s reverberation shortly derailed my optimism. A man wearing a black wool cap, ski mask, large black gloves and an orange bib over a sand-colored jumpsuit held up a red flag and blew clouds of smoke as he shouted to the befuddled drivers. He angrily directed four lanes of traffic into two. My driver threw up his hands and mumbled English obscenities that he articulated with precision. I closed my eyes, sucked in the stench, and listened to the jackhammer that was now at my side. I wanted to cry for the years of emptiness and lack of fulfillment I had learned to color over with a shade of contentment. I thought of my future and smiled. Soon, my eyes would behold new visions. I did not care whether the new sights were better or worse—they would be new. The city receded from view and my mind as the taxi brought me closer to the unknown.
I had selected Continental Airlines. The company’s advertisements in the subway offered passengers respite in Belgium, Iceland, France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. At the ticket counter, a young woman in a blue uniform stood between my freedom and me. She greeted me with gleaming white, straight teeth.
“Do you have a flight leaving soon to Athens or any city in Greece?”
She stared intently at her computer screen and clicked the keys. “Hmmm, let’s see. It will be, like, just a moment. The computer is, like, a little slow today. Oh, here we are. Okay, well, like, we had a flight to Athens,” she sang, “and it looks like one to Crete, but like, there are no available seats. Oh, I’m, like, so sorry.”
“The flight is like sold out, or it is sold out?” I asked. The sarcasm flew over her light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.
She pressed more buttons and replied, “Yep, looks like it’s totally sold out.”
“What about Italy?”
She smiled and swung her long ponytail. “That, I know, for sure, is, like, totally sold out too.”
“What flights to Europe have available seats?” As she clicked away, I entertained other options. I always wanted to see Egypt but learning to live while learning Arabic may be stressful. Before I could think of an alternative, she lifted her head and fixed her blue eyes on mine.
“Okay, so, we, like, have available seats on flights to Malaga and Madrid—that’s Spain. The flight to Madrid leaves at eight and has, like, two seats and the one to Malaga, leaves, oh my, in two hours and has, like, five, six, seven seats.”
“I’ll take a one-way ticket to Malaga if the seats are truly available.”
She again focused on her screen and clicked. “I’ll—just—make—sure. Yep, they are. Oh, you’re going to love Spain. I’ve been there a few times. It’s, like, the best place I’ve ever been.”
I said good-bye to Caroline Cohen and carried Caroline Lettieri to board the airplane for Spain. On the flight, I would try to recall Spanish from high school and college.
Hola, ¿cómo esta? Gracias.
What comes after that?