Chance Encounters in the West Village

Chance Encounters in the West Village

Summer has passed by in a frenzied blur of activity and suddenly I have realized that I am down to my last few weeks living here in Manhattan before moving to California for culinary school. Soon I will make the trek cross-country with my mom in the green 1996, trusted yet not so trustworthy, Jeep Grand Cherokee that I saved up all my money to buy when I was sixteen. It has no air conditioner and the radio has long since given out, but as everyone should know, both my Mom and I have never had trouble filling the empty spaces of time with conversation and stories. I could not be more excited to embark upon this adventure in Northern California and find out if the grass is actually greener on the other side of the coast.

That being said, the idea that I may or may not ever return to New York City is causing me an immense amount of anxiety. I have always had trouble saying goodbye, whether it is to people or places, and New York is no exception. While there are many aspects about this city that I can’t stand, there are infinitely more things that I will miss. Therefore, I have devoted this summer to completing as many bucket list items as possible for being in this city. It struck me this spring that while I have lived here for four years, like most New Yorkers, I have gotten caught up in the daily routine of the Manhattan rat-race and have often forgotten to appreciate what makes this city magical. This spring I made a list of experiences, sights I have yet to see, and restaurants I would like to try, with the hopes that I could do as many as possible before I leave. So far I have done things such as biking across the Brooklyn Bridge, watching an outdoor movie in the park, and eating dim sum from carts in the traditional crowded shacks of Chinatown.

Today I finally had another day off from work! However, while this should have been an exciting prospect, I woke up feeling despondent because I knew that nobody was available to go on an adventure with me today. Being alone is alright at times, but I crave an unhealthy amount of social interaction and was thus not very enthused about exploring the city without anyone to share the experience with. Nevertheless, I picked myself up out of bed at 9 am and went downtown with no particular destination in mind.

My original intent was the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but before long I found myself walking through the cobblestones of the meatpacking district, past rows of fine dining establishments toting the names of celebrity chefs. I decided that there could be no better time than today to experience the dishes from one of the more acclaimed chefs in town. I settled on Barbuto, an Italian restaurant owned by Jonathan Waxman. I chose this place for its open-air dining, rustic bistro decor, and exposed kitchen.

People always seem surprised and pity those dining as a party of one and I was very aware of the curious expression on my server’s face as he greeted me. We ended up getting into a discussion about Italian cuisine and chef Waxman’s specialties. I explained that soon I will be moving for a culinary program and the server enthusiastically responded saying that he would not let me leave without trying the half roast chicken with salsa verde. He had also mentioned that the restaurant was known for their salads, tastefully composed of only a few, simple and fresh ingredients. I decided to trust him and ordered the chicken along with a kale salad and a glass of Albariño that he recommended as a companion.

The kale salad was a risk on my part. Unlike all other foodies, health nuts and trend followers, I have not fallen in love with the bitter and crisp leafy green. I ordered it because if they say it’s supposed to be fantastic at Barbuto, I am ready to have my palette tested and my opinions challenged. I was not disappointed! The salad came as a tower of shaved kale, tossed in a light anchovy dressing with garlic breadcrumbs and Parmesan crumbles. So simple as was stated, yet full of tangy flavor from the sharp cheese and bitter greens blended into the light and creamy dressing.

Next came the chicken. I don’t usually like to order roast chicken at a restaurant, firstly because it never compares to my mom’s herb rubbed rotisserie, but also because chicken is offered everywhere. I was a fool. Sorry mom but this was the best roast chicken I have ever had. It was perfect. The lightly seasoned skin was so crispy it was as if it had been cooked in confit and it was topped with a light drizzle of salsa verde, otherwise known as the Italian oil and herb sauce, always thrown together with whatever fresh herbs are on hand in the kitchen. This one seemed to have basil, parsley, thyme, and what I think I detected as tarragon, which surprised me. Cutting beyond the crunchy skin into the breast of the chicken exposed tender white meat, with clear juices dripping out to mix with the oil and herbs-cooked to perfection. I enjoyed my two-hour lunch on the patio while I finished reading my book.

Unfortunately, I found myself at a loss for what to do afterwards and I ended up sitting on the stoop of a west village brownstone, contemplating my next move. My mixed emotions must have been overly apparent on my face because it wasn’t five minutes before I was approached by a group of young men who insisted I take two six packs of beer off their hands. They exclaimed that they couldn’t drink them in the streets anyways and I looked like I could make better use of them. Did I really look that pathetic? I sat there with a grocery bag full of coronas and it struck me that they would make a nice gesture of a gift for the staff stuck in the hot and steamy kitchen at the restaurant I work in, which was only a few blocks away. I was right, the brews were appreciated, I was bid farewell with sweaty hugs and kisses.

At this point I had decided I might as well take the subway back uptown and do laundry while cleaning my apartment, so I made my way down Bleecker towards the West 4th train station. As I passed by Amy’s bread bakery I gazed at the moist, larger than life cakes in the window and thought about how good they had always looked. Then I realized that I had never even tried one in the year I worked down the street. “Soon I will be gone and will never get another chance to gorge myself on these delicious creations,” I thought to myself. I went for it.

I got to talking with the counter person and she explained that while the cake I had been eyeing, a yellow cake with pink frosting, was her favorite, I should really try the seasonal strawberry shortcake. She let me try the delicious yellow cake and promised she would really fix up a shortcake for me. While I waited, a child began screaming her head off and had to be escorted outside by her mother. It was then that I noticed the frail and elderly man sitting in a corner eating a bowl of soup and reading a book. I made a comment about how it seems tough to grow up in the city and he responded with a laugh saying that it’s hard to grow up anywhere. Once I was given my dessert, I looked around the space and noticed there was a small table open next to the man. And that was when I had an hour-long conversation with Herbert.

I fell into easy conversation with this stranger and before long we were animatedly flowing from topic to topic on everything from travel to history to our families. It seems as though he has traveled just about everywhere in his lifetime and he had something to say about every country that I mentioned. While the French language is his specialty, he loves Italy like I do and has spent months traveling through all of its regions. We spoke about the origins of Irish culture, Roman conquests, Swedish lingonberries and Cuban breakfasts. He writes poetry now that he has retired but for forty years before that he was a professor at NYU. He told me he has lived here for sixty years and has never wanted to live anywhere else. Herbert said that at night he goes home, opens a window, and actually listens to the noises outdoors with fondness! Eventually one of his friends stopped in to join him so I decided to leave them to their own conversation. Herbert told me that of all he has experienced, he has never met anyone with such a diverse family history or an interesting life story, and that I should put it into writing. We left after clasping hands with the hopeful proclamation of a future encounter and his parting words of saying he fell in love with my colorful dress when I walked into the shop.

I waited for the subway in the hot underground tunnels while happily thinking back on my chance meeting at Amy’s bread. I always enjoy talking to people, but I have never before had such a genuine and interesting conversation with a stranger of such a large age gap before. Herbert did not treat me like a child but instead he just shared his stories with me like an old friend. He had so much experience and wisdom, and he also had such a sharp wit and mischievous sense of humor! What a character, I hope to run into him again, if I do I will insist that he let me take him out to lunch.

I think that experiences like these are rare to occur, and I know now that I was successful in my endeavor for the day- I, of all the millions of people in this city, had circumstances of luck, enjoyed delicious food, and made a connection with a complete stranger out of all the other millions of people. Thus, I experienced what makes New York City magical. You never know what can happen on any given day.

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