For all the many years I’ve lived in my neighborhood, I’ve never been able to establish “regular” status. This has been one of my constant complaints. My inability to stick is owed, in part, to a general aversion to routine. I don’t like to eat at the same restaurants all the time, nor do I like to order the same thing on successive visits. My bar orders fluctuate between whisky, beer (domestic), beer (not domestic), Stoli with soda (because grown-ups i.e. drunks call their liquors and i call mine “mid-range priced”) and, on occasion, a Slippery Nipple with a Jimmy Juice Secret Money Shot. (which is, essentially, Harvey’s Bristol Cream and vodka shaken vigorously, and sprayed on the patron’s face.) They can’t nail my order down. And sometimes, instead of purchasing my morning latte/chai/green tea from the Starbucks on the corner of my block, I will buy it across the street, at the other Starbucks. (jokes!)
Another reason it’s been so hard to establish myself as a regular is that I never make eye contact, I mumble my orders, I awkwardly slide my money across the counter, and I do about five hundred other conscious and unconscious things to ensure I’ve avoided any type of pyschic connection between myself and the person on the other side. For example, after five years of patronizing the video store in my neighborhood, I am still asked my last and first name every single time I rent a film. Even my mailman leaves my mail on the floor.
So it was with pleasant shock that I was treated royally at a coffee shop in a completely foreign neighborhood over the weekend. I helped a friend move into his new place in Chelsea, and out of his old refugee camp on the Upper West Side. (a 90s-block neighborhood whose chief virtue is its proximity to better neighborhoods) His new neighborhood is Chelsea, far west, bordering on the best parts of the gallery district. Within seconds of pulling up to his building in a U-Haul van, I learned more about his close neighbors than I’ve gleaned from my own building-mates over the last five years. (who is that guy with the shaved head???) Total strangers were making conversation, conjuring up coincidences, and letting us touch their dogs without a formal introduction. As much as I love my own neighborhood, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy, as this was the kind of block young idealists imagine themselves strolling as they plan their pilgrimage to New York City. Sunday mornings probably smell like the hot ink of The New York Times. And this being a very gay neighborhood, its denizens are fastidious to a fault. People not only discard their trash in public waste receptacles; they make sure to fold it neatly before throwing it out.
At some point I wandered over to the coffee shop near my friend’s new apartment, thinking a to-go cup with a sip lid and java sleeve would be the perfect accessory for this block. While there, I guess I was so enamored with the neighborhood that I indulged in something I try to avoid at all costs – small talk with the counter-person.
I know other people take great pride in their interactions with cashiers, taxi cab drivers, waitstaff, etc., detailing the conversations lovingly as a way of promoting their own cosmopolitan status. These stories are told or written as infomercials for The New York Experience™ and many of the people who tell them go on to make short, independent films in which a recently-single girl is mentored by a caustic but magically wise homeless person. (the homeless person is usually brimming with great quirks, like carrying a doll’s head around in her lunchbox, or by being very smelly.) But this is not me.
Well, at least it usually isn’t me, but Saturday I was on fire. And, after a few minutes of what I would conservatively describe as “scintillating” conversation, I was presented with a handwritten IOU for a free coffee on my next visit, officially besting the current champion of personally preferential treatment in my own neighborhood. (that prize belonged to my dry cleaner, who let me slide on a tab for one visit because i am “long time customer.”)
This unexpected acceptance begs the question: is it ethically wrong to start patrolling a foreign neighborhood, and behaving as if it is my own? I mean, I still intend to sleep in my own bed and feed the cats in the morning, but can’t I carry Whole Foods shopping bags around someone else’s neighborhood, or haunt their coffee shops all day? I could be so happy there, during visiting hours. I really think I could establish myself as a neighborhood regular, as long as no one asks me where I live.