A great friend has come to town. We’re meeting on Sunday morning at Russ & Daughters Cafe on Orchard Street. Because I rarely get to that part of town anymore, I leave home an hour early in order to have time to ramble around a neighborhood I once knew in which I should have feared for my life but didn’t, as one didn’t (in those days) when one should have. There’s major construction along East Houston Street, as if the entire wide street is being redesigned, also, boutique hotels (new to me) like the Gatsby Hotel. (The Gatsby, are they serious?) and the East Houston Hotel near Eldridge advertising a red deck. (A red deck!) A group of tourists gather on the narrow sidewalk in front of Yonah Schimmel’s Bakery intently listening as their guide explains the differences between blintzes, knishes, latkes, and kugel – noodle and potato. Overtaking a hand-holding couple, I hear:
Kyn-ish! It’s always made with potatoes wrapped in dough like a samosa.
Is it sweet?
As sweet as cheesecake?
Yes. Just like cheesecake!
I bite my lip. I’m tired of know-it-alls and resist interjecting a long list of (cheese, cherry cheese, blueberry, kasha, spinach etc.) possible knishes both sweet and savory. Just past Allen Street I reach the original Russ and Daughters Appetizer shop, frozen in time. A long line of hungry shoppers runs out the door and down the street. This is where I’ve stood many times with my father at 7 am waiting for the doors to open at 8. (My father liked to buy our bagels, lox, cream cheese, whitefish, sable, smoked salmon, pickled herring, etc. for Sunday breakfast early and never minded waiting.) Standing with him beside the window displaying herring, whitefish, hunks of lox, etc. in all seasons, we would smoke and talk. Later, when I no longer smoked, he still did, lighting up, taking a few puffs, and tossing his barely smoked cigarette into the gutter. Waiting enabled a visit without our big noisy family hijacking the intimacy of a conversation. Turning right on Orchard Street, there’s a corset shop, then, a string of shops selling discounted luggage, leather, linens, hats, gloves. (The operative word is discounted.) Once my immigrant grandparents shopped here. In those days the street was chock-a-block with pushcarts piled with many of these same bargains.
Early for the rendezvous (I guess it runs in the family), folks (some with luggage, yes luggage, perhaps on the way to or from an airport), gather in front of Russ and Daughters Cafe. I’m told by the no-nonsense hostess that a table for two will be available in an hour and a half and am promised a text when the time comes. As its happened, I haven’t seen Andréa Vaucher *** in a couple of years. Not that we’ve lost touch but we aren’t exactly current either. As there’s been a very salty sea of obituaries and bad news of late, a visit with a healthy, outgoing, not-world-weary, vintage pal is a glad event. A diversely talented accomplished writer and journalist, my friend Andréa has been a great playmate and pal. We share the same taste in books, come from similar backgrounds. As I wander up and down a street that’s filled with ghosts of my immigrant ancestors, I’m struck by how many and varied are the places where our paths have crossed through the many years of friendship: in Paris, in Greece, in California, in New Orleans, in Gloster, Mississippi where Andréa once arranged a fellowship for me at a forest retreat. One time we drove from Los Angeles to B.C., Canada in my blue Saab, eating salmon jerky and oyster bergers along the entire, heart-stopping Oregon coastline.
When she arrives, time stands still. We wander over to the Essex Street Market to drink Cuban coffee and catch up. Later, at Russ and Daughters Cafe seated under a display of colored seltzer bottles (like my parent’s used to have delivered weekly), we share an order of crispy, dumpling-shaped potato latkes surely made with schmaltz, then order bialys lightly toasted with cream cheese, capers, tomatoes and raw onions. Andréa goes for smoked salmon while I choose fishy lox. Our waitress asks, Still water or seltzer? We cast our lot with homey seltzer. While we eat, sip, yak, laugh, nod, listen, digest, a camp song comes to mind: Make new friends, But keep the old. One is silver, The other gold. Later: stepping back out onto sun-dappled Orchard Street, breathing in the heady smell of an irreplaceable autumn day on the Lower East Side, I feel like a million bucks. Swilling seltzer and breaking bialys with my piquant old friend has rendered me rich indeed.
***[Andréa R. Vaucher writes about the arts, travel, style and spirituality for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Tricycle, among other international publications. She is the author of Muses From Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists and Art (Grove Press) and the recipient of Visit California’s 2013 Eureka! Award for Best Digital Feature for her Huffington Post blog: Los Angeles to San Francisco: From Goat Cheese to Gaultier. Gateway to her site: www.huffingtonpost.com/andrea-r-vaucher/ ]