04 April 2011

Zabar's Lunch Counter: Last Refuge of UWS Kooks

During the reigns of Herren Giuliani and Bloomberg, the Upper West Side has become pretty well sanitized. It's streets have been wallpapered with a mall of bland chain outlets, and its beautiful townhouses and pre-War apartment buildings stuffed with the complacent children of capitalism. Pretty much gone are the liberal, upper-middlebrow, everyday intellectuals and artists that once gave the neighborhood it's character. It's a dull place.

I've found, however, that one can still get a taste of the bygone UWS in, of all places, the Zabar's lunch counter at Broadway and W. 80th. This is a bit surprising, since Zabar's is such a treasured area landmark, and overpriced enough to be safely the province of the wealthy. However, the prices at the lunch counter are quite reasonable. You might even call them dirt cheap. Soups run about $3, and sandwiches $5 or $6.

This permits the patronage of the elderly UWS eccentrics who still cling on desperately to life among the Starbucks and condos. On a recent morning, I stopped in for an early lunch of lobster bisque. For 11 AM, it was packed. Barely a stool was free. This was primarily because the people there were in no hurry to go anywhere. They had no pressing appointments and were not members of the rat race. They were hunched over their newspapers and books (not laptops and Blackberries), making the most of their cup of soup or mug of coffee. The old man behind me in line muttered absently to himself. A lady with a bird's next of graying hair stared intently at her vintage paperback copy of Camus' "The Stranger." She had kicked her shoes off and was lounging in her stocking feet. A large man with a limp lumbered in and systematically made his teetering way through the cafeteria line.

Presiding over the scene was a wiry old man in black sweatpants, a large, leather, black warm-up jacket and a cane. He talked so loudly and was so familiar with the staff, for a while I assumed he held a position of authority at Zabar's. I was so distracted by him, I dropping my can of seltzer and it sprang a small leak. "Get rid of it!" he yelled. "It's going to blow! It's going to blow!" Unnerved, I quickly picked up the can and threw it in the garbage. "Don't throw it away!" he yelled, contradicting himself. "That's still good." He went fishing for the can in the garbage, after which a staffer took the can from him and threw it away a second time.

After a while, the old man began asking for change, and a young manager appeared behind the counter and gave him a baleful look. It became clear he was a regular and was a problem. Yet he wasn't given the bum's rush. After a minute, he craftily found a woman who offered to buy him a soup, thus granting him license as a paying customer to stay for a while. "I'm getting soup," said the man with the cane. "You got chicken soup?" The manager glanced slightly at the list of soups, which included Matzo Ball, but said nothing. "No," said the woman with the Camus, a friend of the generous woman. "Not soup. Get him a sandwich."

"See," said the man with the cane. "I'm getting a sandwich. It's OK." The manager gently glared, and didn't move an inch.

1 comment:

Ken Mac said...

The "Restaurant" at B'Way and 106 offers a similar atmosphere. An old school diner, its counter offers escape for regulars, who are entertained by a charming senior citizen who also acts as waitstaff. Everyone is "dear" or "honey" to her, and she frequently forgets what you ordered. People who enjoy quiet seem to like the Restaurant, and I do too.