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Morning’s At The Corner

20 Dec

I have had the good fortune to be writing for the magazine Idlewild over the past year.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be reprinting some of the pieces originally published there.

When my daughter was very young, and I was sorely lacking in sleep, I would carry her mornings down to Family Corner.  In need of coffee, food and adult voices, I’d drowsily listen as the regulars traded insults with George.  Back and forth, hilariously, they would ride each other.  Warm, raucous and working class, it was the New York of my dreams.

Having just celebrated their 27th anniversary, it’s the kind of place where a young woman brings her own gluten-free pancake mix and they make them for her, and shortly thereafter just add them to the menu.

The kind of place where George, at the end of his day, takes the time to lead a table of out of town visitors to their New York Islanders game.

The kind of place where, on a hot summer’s day, they turn off the ceiling fans to calm a scared little girl.

Along with his father Spyro and brother Phil, George is co-owner and proprietor.  Coming from Greece, after much travail, they settled in Astoria when the brothers were young.  Neighborhood kids, they know a little something about food, home and family.

“That’s my dad, it comes directly from him,” says George.  “He always said ‘get out there, talk to your customers, get to know them.’  In this way your customers become friends.”

As if all this weren’t enough, the food is outstanding, whether you pop in for a cheeseburger, sit down to savor the Pastichio and a bowl of warm Avgolemono, or just treat yourself to two eggs over with a side of hash.  It’s not foodie, pretentious or expensive.  It’s just good.

And if you’re very lucky, there’s Jenni.  Smart, funny and occasionally profane; tough on the outside and all heart within, she is their secret weapon.  Lily and Kristina are wonderful, but Jenni is magic.  She makes bad days good.

My son loves her for the early morning milkshake she made on his 12th birthday, complete with the hand decorated cup we are not allowed to throw away.

My daughter loves how she patiently takes her order, the same thing every time:  pancakes and eggs.

And my wife and I love her for those sleep deprived mornings when we call ahead and she has our favorite booth waiting for us, silverware laid out, coffee poured.

Diners are fading.  In Astoria alone there are whispers that the stately Neptune and gleaming Bel Aire are on their way out.

“Oh yeah, Neptune is gone,” George says, “Gone.”  And he goes on to explain that even a diner doing very well cannot handle the rents a commercial bank will pay, or make nearly as much money as a high-rise apartment building.

But Family Corner remains.  For now.

“What makes us special?” George asks, raising his eyebrows before turning to a young man a couple booths down.

“Hey you.  What do you like about Family Corner?”

“It tastes good.”

“It tastes good.”  George smiles, shrugging his shoulders. “There you go.”





20 Dec


“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time…” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

First light, and Hallie is coming down the stairs.  I hear her footsteps as she pads her way along the dark hallway and into to our room.

“Da?” she asks, standing expectantly at my side. I look up at her solemn face, then lift the covers and she crawls in.  “Da,” she whispers again, exhaling as she cuddles back down into sleep.

Raising the blinds, I see snow.  First of the year, more than expected and still falling.  Hallie supplants me, cuddling into Amy as I head upstairs into the hesitant glow of a stalled sunrise.

Showered and dressed, stepping outside is a release.  Everything a little brighter, a little fresher.  The snow is untouched and the garbage cans are frosted white.  The sky, however, broods.  A gunmetal, end-of-the-world gray, more twilight than dawn.  Even the snow is lifeless, finding too little light to sparkle.


At Family Corner, Jen clocks me at the door, “What up Bell?”

“Nothing much.  How are you”

“Morning Derek,” shouts George, moving fast over the carry-out orders.

My spirits rise.

“Egg and cheese,” she asks?

“Yes please, and medium coffee, skim milk.”


“No, no sugar.”  But as she turns I reconsider, “I’m sorry, yeah, one sugar would be great.”

The cup is warm, and I bask in the flow – the gentle banter, and the comfort of having a place here.

“Egg and Cheese?”  George is looking at me, eyebrows raised.

“That’s mine.”

He tosses it over, rings me up and I’m on my way.


The snow’s turning to rain.  Sipping my coffee, I move fast, making it to the train relatively dry.  Up the steps and onto the platform, I’m just in time to watch a train pull away.

I walk back to the farthest reaches of the roof, lean against the large metal storage bin and take in the view – my neighborhood from west to east.  The great arch of Hellgate Bridge, rising from the railroad tracks as they make their way over the river before bending north to Harlem, The Bronx and New England; the smoke stacks at Con Ed and their rising steam, cotton on slate.


The tenements climb Crescent Street, and the steeple of Immaculate Conception stands over it all.  Buildings fall away to the east, and the sky grows large over the Steinway factory.  A jet takes off from LaGuardia and I follow it until, magically, it’s gone.  Vanished into the mist.


The train arrives and the car is warm.  Stepping in, I take my favorite seat.  Lulled by the rain, I unwrap my sandwich and look out toward the city.  And suddenly I see myself swimming in a vast, unfathomable ocean, and realize that I need to go deeper.  More a feeling than a thought, I’m not sure what this means.

The train begins to move.

Making its way through Queens, small flocks of black parkas clamor for seats at every stop until, finally, we begin the slow turn toward Queensboro, arcing toward the city like the grande dame of all rollercoasters, sweeping into view the 59th Street bridge  and the skyline beyond.  Gravity takes hold and we plunge into the station, pausing briefly for the requisite running back and forth, before continuing on, down to the streets and further still, out of the rain and into the darkness.



11 Dec


It was already dark when Amy and Heath got home.  I had told Hallie we were going for a walk and she already had her shoes on, having struggled into her pink velvet boots, which weren’t the shoes I would have picked, but in Hallie’s world they worked.

When Heath got home, he was excited.  We had told him about the shopkeeper down the street who had been beaten a few days ago by a man shouting “I kill Muslims.”  The Giving Tree, our local yoga studio, had organized a meditation for peace, and we thought we should stop by.

On our way, Amy and I went over the meaning of meditation, leaning heavily on the fact that it would be quiet, and we should do our best to keep it that way.  Heath continued walking, happily bopping along, seemingly oblivious to all I had just said.

“Heath.  Heath.”


“Did you hear what I just said?”


“What did I say.”

“We have to be quiet.  I got it, I got it.”

The crowd was small, forming a circle on the corner in front of the store.  Seven or eight people sat on the sidewalk meditating.  A few dozen others stood around quietly, some holding candles. Hallie was up on my shoulders and I rocked slowly from side to side as she took it all in.  Occasionally she would say, “Wow.”  One of the women on the ground smiled.

For about two minutes it was really nice.  Then Hallie wanted down.  So I ran her around a bit off to the side, where we wouldn’t disturb anyone, and we quietly took the kids inside for a treat.  Cookies, chips and crackers were gathered, and as we were digging around for our money, Heath stepped to the counter and said, “I’m sorry for what happened to you guys.  I hope you’re OK.”

The shopkeeper looked at Heath for a moment, then touched his heart, assured him they were OK, put his palms together and bowed.

Heath then said he couldn’t believe anyone would do something so horrible and started into a rant about the generally shoddy condition of humanity, which confused the man, and Amy had to step in.  But for a moment there, he had really nailed it.

Walking home, I told him I was proud.


“Because you spoke eloquently, and you spoke from the heart.”

He thought about that for a moment, and then said “Oh.  OK,”  before moving on, heading towards home, seemingly oblivious to all I had just said.


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Love Fatima Food Mart

Astoria Gathers to Support Fatima Owner After Anti-Muslim Attack

The Giving Tree

A Christmas Walk

24 Dec


“It is required of every man,” the ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide…”
― Charles Dickens,  A Christmas Carol

Late in the afternoon, from the 61st floor, I stop to look out  over Manhattan, past the shoulders of the Empire State Building and the slowly rising World Trade Center, down into the late-afternoon gleam of the waters that bathe this archipelago, engulfing the Statue of Liberty and swirling quicksilver past Jersey City and Staten Island, before flowing beneath the Verrazano Bridge, and out into the Atlantic.  Returning to the city itself, my vision hovers over the streets I’ve wandered for the past thirteen years, especially those narrow pathways laid down by the Dutch West India Company at the southern tip of the island over three centuries ago, engulfed now in the buildings and people that followed them, and where, despite everything, late on a quiet afternoon, I can still feel the age of the place, catching the scent of wood smoke on the air before stepping off Pearl Street into a tavern to sip a beer one floor below the room where George Washington said farewell to his officers.

I grew up in Ohio, surrounded by cornfields.  Sometimes, I would wade into them, just for the hell of it, and then, feeling silly, push my way back, scratching through the dusty stalks, to stand for a moment on the side of the road, trying to make something of the experience.  I was looking for a deeper knowledge of the place, something less linear and road based than the world around me. I wanted more dimensions.

Cities are great for this. They just keep giving, every corner you turn, every face you see, every crack in the sidewalk is another dimension, another small accretion in your rapidly growing knowledge of a place. The older the street, the more intricate it’s development, the more there is to be found; more layers of people’s lives, painted one upon the other, and then worn away through the decades, a little bit of each showing through.

My grandmother left  home young, fleeing a small town in Indiana that is now little more than a name on a map; the homes, businesses and the tavern where she would wait for her father, alone in the snow, long faded to lonely roads and empty fields.  My father moved away from the home she created, and I from his, heading east, against the tide, retracing the steps of my immigrant forebears, back to this city they merely passed through as they traveled west in search of new lives.  I roam the streets that must have bewildered them, finding comfort in the knowledge they never had time to acquire.

Darkness falling, I cross the river to my quiet neighborhood, and walk its streets in the misty Christmas rain, marveling at how effortlessly I’ve traveled back in time.  Brought up in a swirl of pre-fab housing and six lanes to the shopping center, I live now in a world I thought lost to me.  A place of diners, bakeries, hardware stores and corner taverns, mixed right in with the houses.  A place where at certain times, when the light is right, I expect to see my grandfather among the men in their coveralls walking up the hill at end of the day. And a place where two young boys are playing ball on the sidewalk while their sister and mother watch from the porch, conversing in Spanish, their front door open and their Christmas lights blinking, enjoying the unusual warmth of the season.  A place of comfort, wrapped in a sense of wonder.  A home of sorts.  And a place that I, and so many others, continue to make our own.

Merry Christmas.