You can also hear me read this story on: Episode #47 of R.B. Wood’s “The Word Count” podcast.
The prompt asked that we use THREE words in our stories:
Theater | Tourist | Savory
* * * *
As a tourist, I love people watching because people represent the pulse of a city for me. Nowhere is this more evident than in a busy New York City coffee house. It’s like watching a play on stage while packed into a tiny theatre. The intimacy helps create stories in my head.
That’s how I feel about my discovery of a Parisian café in the middle of Manhattan, the only restaurant in the city that thrives on its stubborn cash-only policy. Everything from the red brick interior to the wooden counters and furniture harks back to another era. What the small room lacks in modern touches, it makes up for in old world charm.
I’m here to research a one-act play I’m producing as part of my thesis in Theatre History. Everyday, the setting is provided, but the cast is different, the script is different. My role as an unobtrusive onlooker is to capture the nuances.
For the morning hours when I come to write, few things remain the same from one day to the next. The staff must work shifts, as I never see the same servers more than twice. The customers range from harried businessmen to sweaty joggers to women with newborns strapped to their chests. Students en route to early morning classes order coffee and pastry to go. Others sit leisurely with a laptop at one of the small French-style tables. The carousel of patrons and the continuous ring of an old fashioned cash register keep the noise at a high but bearable level.
For almost a week, I record the subtle changes in this micro-environment. Everything changes, that is, except for him—the man at the corner table with a thinning head of silver hair. I observe him as I line up to put in my order. He is always there by the time I arrive at seven, as much a fixture of the café as the rickety wooden chairs and the Parisian pencil sketches on the walls. He sits alone staring out the window, yet he must be waiting for someone. Why else would he have two cups of coffee and two plates in front of him? On each plate rests a croissant. I have watched him tear into one and finish it, but the second cup of coffee and the other croissant always remain untouched during the time that I’m there.
I begin making up stories about him. He probably orders two pastries because he likes them. Maybe he takes one home if he can’t finish it. But why two cups of coffee? I never see anyone join him. And who would want to drink a cold cup of coffee anyway?
With six people in line ahead of me, the place feels busier today than usual. The tension rises behind the counter as one of the baristas yells in French that he needs more whipping cream. I look over my shoulder and count five people behind me. Several more come through the door. It’s not even seven thirty yet. The line moves quickly though, for which I’m thankful.
Today is my last chance to record my final impressions. I leave the city tonight. The first few days I soaked in my surroundings but didn’t pay too much attention to details. It’s always that way when I arrive somewhere new. Funny how time flies.
When I get to the front of the line, I order coffee with a brioche, a cake-like bread that is both savory and sweet. After paying for my order, I thread myself through the crowded room in search of a seat but find none. I stand in place and do a slow 360 to see if anyone is ready to leave; there is no sign of it. After someone jostles my coffee, I know I must step away from the aisle. There is only one empty chair in the café. I walk over to the corner table. The old man is staring out the window with his coffee cup in hand, a half eaten croissant in front of him, and the other cup of coffee cooling beside an untouched crescent-shaped pastry.
I bend forward at the waist, throwing my voice in the direction of the old man. I need to get his attention above the clang of the restaurant noise.
“Excuse me, sir.” I put on my friendliest smile when he turns to me. “May I sit here? This is the only seat available.”
He sets down his cup on the saucer, looks around the crowded room as if searching for someone or confirming that it is indeed full. In that stuttered moment, I expect him to say, “Sorry, the seat is taken.” I’m ready to blurt out that I’ve been observing him all week, that I know that no one is joining him. How dare he hog up two seats! I’m prepared for a confrontation if need be. Before my ire increases, the man moves the plates on the table and gestures to the empty chair.
“Please,” he says, “sit down.”
I breathe a big sigh and set down my coffee on the table, pull off my shoulder bag and drop it to the floor. There is no room for anything else on the table, so I slide into the chair with my brioche on my lap. “So busy here today,” I say, flushed with relief.
“Saturdays are always like this.” The man’s voice is calm despite the chaos and noise around him.
“Thanks for sharing your table. Hopefully someone leaves soon.”
“Not a problem,” he says.
I feel a bit awkward sitting with a stranger in silence. It compels me to make small talk. “I love New York. I wish I didn’t have to leave.”
“Oh?” He cocks his head. “Where are you from?”
I take a sip of my coffee. “Canada. Montreal to be exact.”
“I’ve been there, a very special city for me.” He picks up his croissant and takes a bite.
I nod, expect him to elaborate when he finishes chewing, but he doesn’t. If I have to guess, I would say he is a man in his eighties. A white shirt and tie peek out from under a light brown jacket. The morning sun casts a warm glow on his lined face, but he doesn’t appear bothered by the heat. Though his body language does not convey that he is unapproachable, there is nothing about it that says he welcomes conversation either. He’s old enough to be my grandfather, and I suddenly feel like I’m intruding on a morning ritual. I remain silent and finish my coffee. There is still a crowd inside the café, but two tables over, I see a student packing up his books in his knapsack. I make eye contact with him that I want his seat, and he acknowledges.
Before I get up, I ask the man in front of me, “May I buy you another cup of coffee? I’m sure your second one here is cold by now.”
He is silent for a moment, as if recalling a memory, and then his eyes glisten. “That’s very kind of you,” he says, “but I only drink one cup a day. That one is for my wife, and she doesn’t mind it cold.”
I force a smile. “Of course,” I manage to say, quick enough to cover up that I suspect there is no wife, not one I have seen, anyway. “Thank you for sharing your table with me.”
He nods as I get up to leave and slowly turns back to stare out the window.
* * *
A month after returning home from my trip, I’m reading an online version of the New York Times when a familiar face catches my attention. The headline reads: Property Mogul and Holocaust Survivor Dies at 92. My eyes widen at the picture of the old man from the coffee shop, and then tears blur my vision as I read the story.
Respected property owner, Jacob Klein, passed away peacefully in his home this past weekend. Many knew him as the proprietor of the hugely successful Café de Paris in Midtown Manhattan, opened in 1955.
Mr. Klein was liberated from Dachau, the concentration camp near Munich. He moved to the U.S. after first settling in Paris where he trained as a pastry chef. Upon arriving in New York, he met his wife, Michelle Dumas, a French Canadian from Montreal. They had five children.
Described by employees and friends as a quiet man of extreme humility, Mr. Klein was seen with his wife for years at Café de Paris sharing breakfast until she passed away in 2010.
His three sons and two daughters have taken over their father’s businesses. Says his oldest son, David: “Even after Mom died, Dad continued to have breakfast with her at the coffee shop. At first, we thought he had lost his mind, but he said it was the only thing that made it worth his while to get up in the morning, something he did every day until he died.”
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