Articles,  Radio Hour

The Last Bagel In New York

by Kristin Russo


Kristin’s essay appears in episode 33 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.


I take a seat on a stool in the window and can finally breathe. The scene outside is thoroughly animated like the set of a play: dogs being walked, couples at tables silently reading the paper, runners pit-patting the pavement, the morning air against their faces, and regulars strolling through the door, ready to place their orders. Lately, I’ve been wondering if the scene outside the window of my new neighborhood cafe will be as perfectly “neighborhood-like.” After living in New York my whole life, specifically this corner of Queens for the past 10 years, I will be moving on and trying my hand at international living. Will I find a suitable replacement after I leave?

A familiar face of the staff comes over to hand me my breakfast. Beaming, I accept it. Once the plate is set in front of me the weekend has officially begun. My whole morning is centered around this moment and breakfast is appropriately circular. A New York staple, the bagel is available in a variety of options. For a long time, I chose strictly sesame. For a brief stint, whole wheat. Lately, everything bagels are the variety of choice and are always topped with egg salad. Bagels are available in other parts of the country, but they’re never quite like they are here. I don’t know what to expect in Spain, which will be my new home soon. There’s a lot of debate about what makes the best bagel, but most New Yorkers will tell you, “It’s the water.” I wonder if people will boast about the water in my next neighborhood.

 

Bagels are available in other parts of the country, but they’re never quite like they are here. I don’t know what to expect in Spain, which will be my new home soon.

 

When the owner comes by to say hello, I know that polite formalities are only the door to rich conversation. I pause from mouthfuls of bagel and wipe my face because egg salad is, in part, prone to being worn. New York Times features, the mayoral election, climate change, happenings around the city…nothing beats the time we went down the rabbit hole of discussing accounts of alien life. He always segues with the same line. “Well, I’ll let you get back to your bagel.” I shift on the stool to turn my attention to the remnants of gluten and spilled egg. Crusty on the outside, carb laden on the inside. At minimum, made from flour, water, yeast and salt, there are varied feelings about what constitution makes a bagel, “the best.” Everyone feels they are right, whether they lean toward large and fluffy, soft on the inside but with a crust you can tap, squeezable with a satisfying crack on the outside…the combinations are many. My weekend breakfast bagel tastes hearty but not overwhelming. It leaves me satiated but not stuffed. In my eyes: the perfect bagel.

Late morning now, and the scene outside my cafe window has evolved. More of the neighborhood is awake and tables are all ornamented with patrons, some with pets happily lounging at their feet. Members of the staff chat with customers they’ve come to know very well and hustle from behind the counter to fulfill breakfast rituals of varied styles. Just coffee, coffee and a pastry, and the ever-popular New York breakfast, bagels with cream cheese.

When I realize I am nearing the end of my own, I slow down. Sometimes, I’ll grab a fork and make sure none of the egg salad that has trickled out of the bagel and onto the plate goes to waste. Other neighborhood regulars stop by my stool to talk. The line along the display case of croissants and treats grows longer. Once I’m sure I am prepared to wrap it up (or if I begrudgingly must get on with the day), I enjoy the last single bite of bagel. In my new setting, will I be this reluctant for breakfast to end? Will it feel like home?

 

In my new setting, will I be this reluctant for breakfast to end? Will it feel like home?

 

Appreciative, I slide off the stool, gather my things and turn to the counter to bid farewell to the staff who have become such a welcome part of my routine. They will probably never understand how much they mean to me and to so many people of this Queens neighborhood. A staff that knows my order and becomes invested in offering choices when I surprisingly, once in a blue, make a change. A staff that leans over to tell me secrets and that shakes with laughter when we trade jokes. Most of all, a staff that tells me everything is going to be okay in my new home once I am gone. I can hope there will be people like this in my new city, but I finally realize that they, along with my weekend bagel with egg salad, are irreplaceable.


Original artwork by Alex Knighten

 

About the Author

Kristin Russo is a lifelong New Yorker currently trying her hand at international living. Dedicated to movement, you’ll often find her practicing aerial arts or yoga. Since cafes within walking distance are on the list of priorities for living, she also enjoys coffee and reading in neighborhood haunts as well as studying languages.

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