Hung over from the night before and feeling a little nauseated, I was in search of a strong coffee; yet not just any coffee but the best coffee around Columbia University.
Having the worse sense of direction, I armed myself with Google maps and walked in the direction of Levain Bakery, LLC – known for its oversized chocolate chip cookies, brioche and scones and more. My path to the bakery was lined with tall stone and redbrick structures that housed families and famous institutions such as Columbia University: Impersonal at times, but always interesting to the eye! A cacophony of sound filled the streets, as it was Father’s Day and families were out and about celebrating the contributions that fathers make to their families. The aroma of the summer day was filled with blended mixture garbage, barbecue, sewer, pastries and coffee. This is New York City!
The bakery seemed unassuming at first and I wondered why this was considered to be a local favorite. There were very few people inside. Overwhelmed by the choices of pastries, I ordered the same as the customer before me – a large latte and a scone!
But no sooner had I place my order had I change my mind after reading the myriad reviews of the bakery on the wall. I ordered the famous six-ounce chocolate chip walnut cookie. After all, if it was good enough for Kristen Chenoweth, it is good enough for me.
“Do you know the name of the area that we are in?” I asked.
“Spanish Harlem…mmm…No! Wait…”Harlem, “let me check, I’m not sure. I am not from this area,” replied the woman at the counter who was serving me.
I soon learned that I was in Harlem! The knowledge that I was in Harlem where the Harlem Renaissance began in the 1920’s and which I had taught about when teaching U.S. history was a surreal experience. The history of New York was beginning to come alive for me in this moment as it would in so many other moments of the day that lay before me to discover!
The conversation began to center around places to eat in the neighborhood.
“What are some good places to eat at in this neighborhood?” I asked
“Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem or Streetbird Rotisserie restaurants are popular or you must try Amy Ruth’s,” replied a gentleman who worked behind the counter.
Jacqueline, with her friendly demeanor and with her unmistakable New York accent jumped into the conversation to offer her insights about where to eat in the vicinity and also agreed that I should experience the suggested restaurants.
New Yorkers – a city of unfriendly, standoffish and sometimes aggressive people who did not suffer fools or so I was led to believe by the influence of the media but this stereotype was quickly challenged by the kindness of these strangers. This is New York City.
I continued to chat with Jacqueline and discovered that she had lived in my hometown of Los Angeles years ago. She had come into the bakery for a coffee and pastry en route to take her cleaning to the cleaners. She was never satisfied by the work of the dry cleaners in Harlem so she was traveling to Chelsea to drop off her cleaning! I wanted to head Central Park and Jacqueline kindly agreed to let me walk with her down Frederick Douglas Street toward Central Park West as my goal was to stroll through the lungs of the city – Central Park!
Meandering along the outer edges of the park, Jacqueline gave a running commentary on the changing landscape of Harlem and the cost of real estate, the reactions of New Yorker’s in the streets to inter-race relations, a topic she was very familiar with as she had married a white man, as well as New Yorker’s reactions to hand holding of same-sex partners.
She provided advice on how to remain safe in New York!
“Be aware! Always look like you know where you are going!” Jacqueline advised me!
And on a lighter note, she gave tips about what to see in New York City and some good eats.
“Make sure you walk down Museum Mile and visit MoMa and the Guggenheim.” She advised
We passed the National History Museum. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of Abraham Lincoln standing out front before detouring along 76th street one block down from West 77th Street famous for the Greenflea Flea Market!
“This flea market is famous! Its been featured on the show “Flea Market Flip” exclaimed Jacqueline. “Do you know this show?” People who know me would be amused by this question. Flea Markets are not a place where I would usually shop! I am more of a 57th and Madison Avenue shopper!
We crossed over to Broadway to a store named Origin! We had arrived! Jacqueline was in heaven! This was her store! Origin was a transplant cosmetic store from South Africa! How ironic! I had just moved to South Africa to teach at the American International School of Johannesburg and had to travel half way around the world to be introduced to this store by Jacqueline. The sounds of the all too familiar South African accent greeted me as I walked in! This eco-friendly store was filled with a blend of relaxing essential oils of ginger, spearmint, Rose of Jericho and aloe to name a few that made me feel like I was stepping into a spa which was a welcome respite from the noise, smells, and heat of the Sunday afternoon!
We continued walking down Broadway past Magnolia Bakery! Magnolia Bakery – I know this store! My mind was drawn back to the first time I had gone to the Los Angeles store. I also remembered seeing, as I arrived to check into the Teacher’s College Residences a guest, carrying a box of cupcakes from the Bakery! Out came my iPhone and I took a picture to remember this moment.
Further along, an afternoon concert was being held at Richard Tucker Square. These symphonic sounds provided me with my first introduction to Lincoln Center. I was standing at the epicenter of culture in New York City, the home of the Metropolitan Opera, New York City ballet, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Julliard School of the Arts. This seemed like a good place to stop and have lunch.
Jacqueline, on the other hand had to go. “I’ll catch the bus here to Chelsea but first, I’ll get some napkins from Starbucks to wipe the seat on the bus. You never know…” I waited for Jacqueline to come out of the coffee shop. “Do you want some napkins?” she inquired. “I’m ok.” I said. “Are you sure, take some, you never know when you might need them.”
Jacqueline, a complete stranger, who had entered my life only a few hours earlier, hopped on her bus to continue her journey as I would continue mine. My random encounter with Jacqueline reminded me that people are good. I realized that if I travel with an open heart, unexpected goodness would come my way. One can depend on the kindness of strangers as the old adage says. This is New York City.