There was a hole-in-the wall coffee shop on the southwest corner of 89th Street and Broadway. When the weather was nice, a large window opened onto Broadway and people could buy coffee, a soda or frank while standing on the street. There was also a door on 89th Street where you could walk in and order “to go” or sit at the long counter where there were a few stools. The place had no name, just the words “Coffee Shop” on the awning over the door.
I was renting a room in an apartment on 88th Street when I decided to go inside one day, sit at the counter and order a cup of coffee. A well-dressed middle-aged man walked in and sat down next to me, ordering eggs and potatoes with toast. The man behind the counter shouted “Potatoes! How can I make potatoes in this place! The grease would splatter all over the place! I would be cleaning all night!”
“Sorry,” the customer said quietly. “Can I have scrambled eggs?”
“Sure,” said the counterman. “I’ll fix you a decent plate.”
I was relieved. I just asked for coffee.
The counterman’s name was Benny. He was a tall man in his 60s, with large hairy ears and an enormous nose. His belly protruded under a white apron that was covered in grease stains. He wore a fishing cap on his head. His teeth were very small. He spit when he spoke and he smelled of herring.
I was curious to see what a decent plate was. He served the man scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes and a grilled corn muffin on a white ceramic oval plate.
Over time I learned that the menu at this place wasn’t why people came. Benny’s toaster wasn’t big enough for bagels so if you wanted your bagel toasted, you got it grilled. Otherwise, there was white and rye toast. There were franks, grilled cheese and tuna fish. You could get coffee, soda or orange juice. That’s it.
The seat I liked best was at the end next to the wall. I could lean against the wall and watch everyone come in and out of the place while looking out on Broadway. I was there nearly every morning during my last five years of medical training. I thought of it as home during that time. Every day at 6 am, before running in Riverside Park, I would grab a quick cup of coffee. After I showered and dressed for the day, on my way to the hospital, I would stop by for another cup, a bagel, maybe eggs. I liked the simplicity of the menu and, of course, I liked Benny.
During my tenure at Benny’s, there was an anxious old actress who came in many times a day muttering to herself, the therapist who brought her tiny dog, a handsome though insecure lawyer who worked for a state legislator, an alcoholic writer who frequently asked me about his health issues, a feminist activist who railed against pornography, a journalist and the guy who owned Murray’s Sturgeon Shop down the block. He would occasionally drop off some lox that would be passed around to whomever was sitting on the stools, creating a festive moment.
Since we sat on stools, usually facing Benny, we didn’t look at one another much, and like driving in a car, this led to a more relaxed conversation that didn’t require filling in silences. Essentially we were all talking to Benny, who responded or absorbed or deflected whatever was said. We all felt a bond with Benny and with one another through him. Kind of like siblings.
In the 1980s, buildings were going up all over the Upper West Side and prewar rentals were going coop or condo. People who had lived in their apartments for decades were either cashing in or hunkering down to fight the good fight. No more homeless or prostitutes on Broadway. No more people who lived by their creative wits. No more students. Only people with money and expectations who were buying the apartments. Not surprisingly, a builder had a plan for the southwest corner of Broadway and 89th.
Benny had been working that corner for 30 years. He opened at 6 am and left at 3 pm, six days a week. He was getting tired. This was an opportunity for him, and the handsome lawyer who was a regular helped him cash in.
The last day at Benny’s was poignant, a sad and grand moment. The crowd all showed up and we had a good-bye celebration with Benny at the Chinese restaurant across the street. We all took souvenirs from the shop. I took one of the white oval ceramic plates. After the festivities, the lawyer and I had sex at his place on West End Avenue.
Many years later, I ran into Benny’s nephew, whom I knew from the coffee shop. He had just seen his uncle in Florida. Benny was spending his days by the pool, smoking cigars and playing cards happy, content, livin’ the life.
Lynne Reitman lives and works in Dobbs Ferry, where she walks, sees friends, takes yoga classes and writes.