Oh, the Places You Will Go!!
February 15, 2016
by Svetlana Kitto
Ten years ago, my friend Tiffany and I drove across the country to move to NYC. We picked up a Dodge Sprinter in Downtown Los Angeles that needed to be driven to the East Coast, packed all of our belongings into it (we’d been warned that we wouldn’t be able to afford anything ever again) and, armed with paper maps that we’d gotten from the DMV, set sail. She was moving to New York to start a band tentatively called “Midnight Magic.” I was moving to New York to “be a writer.”
A friend of Tiffany’s from LA had written her up a list of places he had frequented when he was still living in New York. Oh the Places You Will Go!! it said at the top:
Ludlow! Try Karaoke @ Pianos
Maritime Hotel! – Sundays in the Lounge are very fun. I saw Boy George there!
The Dakota – of John Lennon + Rosemary’s Baby fame
Yaffa on 2nd between A + B. My fave 24-hour joint in the East Village. Mediterranean.
Pommes Frites – French fries with assortments of dips on 2nd Ave in East Village.
I can’t remember specifically visiting any of the places on his list. But Christian’s little chunk of New York, written up lovingly in purple ink, assured me: maybe I would come to feel comfortable here too.
A three-block radius in the middle of the East Village: from 9th Street to 7th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, became our home-away-from-Williamsburg-away-from-LA stomping ground. Love Saves the Day, the store made famous by Madonna and that iconic jacket in Desperately Seeking Susan, seemed to lead us there, even though it had become “an overpriced thrift store” by the time we got there, according to Tiffany. There was Local Clothing on 9th Street, Trash and Vaudeville and the Sock Man on St. Mark’s, all of which kept me in boots and socks and jackets, which I now needed in high volume. We could go look at art books and new fiction at St. Mark’s Bookshop on 9th Street. And on Sunday nights, we would go over to Kim’s Video to rent movies for the week, or look at old records—browsing an issue of October on the way out.
At the center of our little orbit was B&H Dairy, a kosher dairy diner that had opened in 1938 to serve the Yiddish theater district, active from the 1920s to the 1960s. Originally opened by Eastern European Jews, B&H had changed owners and nationalities many times over the years, but the menu had barely changed (“The menu hasn’t changed, just the prices!” they liked to say.) By the time Tiffany and I came upon B&H, it was owned by Fawzy Abdelwahed, an Egyptian immigrant. But really it was Raffi, an immigrant from Pueblo, Mexico, who’d been working there since he was a teenager, who ran the place. The focus of B&H was the soups, made fresh by a Polish woman daily. You might find borscht, matzoh ball, yankee bean, mushroom barley, split pea and tomato, depending on the specials that day. Equally in demand was the Challah bread, which was also baked daily on the premises by a cook who could be seen molding small white balls of dough that looked like hunks of mozzarella into well-worn loaf pans. If you sat around for long enough, you could also see the freshly baked ones come out, golden blistered loaves of challah with a sticky sweet sheen, served slathered in butter with any cup or bowl of soup on special that day.
“What did we love about B&H?” For Tiffany, it felt like “the most authentic New York experience you could have. So many townies to observe coming in and out, getting borscht to go, or a fresh squeezed carrot orange juice. Raffi claimed all the food was Kosher made by a couple of older Polish ladies. I never saw them, but I totally believed him. B&H became a big-time comfort to me. No one blinked twice if you went in there alone.” Right, I had forgotten how lonely those first few years were. And besides the comforting familiarity of the borscht and the pierogis, the kind of food I grew up eating in my Jewish grandparents’ home, I also knew that if I went to B&H, I stood a good chance of someone being nice to me.
I knew that if I spent all afternoon at the counter, not only would I witness the changing of the challah, I would hear stories about old New York. The diner was my first experience in understanding that if you sat around a place for long enough, it would talk to you about the past. Some of those stories ended up in the first piece I ever published, which was about B&H. Tiffany had said, “It was like a time capsule to an old New York I never had the pleasure of experiencing.” But in writing about B&H I realized that the old diner put our present-day experience of New York on a continuum with the past. The pleasure came from the first-hand understanding that the past was present and we were a part of it.
A year ago there was an explosion on 2nd Avenue between St. Mark’s and 7th that destroyed three buildings and killed two people. Because a faulty gas hookup had caused the fire, the city was reluctant to let B&H, just a few doors down from the decimated buildings, open again until all its plumbing had been brought up to code. B&H closed for four months and was able to re-open partly through a fundraising campaign, driven by social media.
When I go into B&H today, it’s Leo who is working. When I ask him where Raffi is, he tells me he doesn’t come in until three and by the way, he has been working there a lot longer than Raffi. “I’ve been here 25 years, Raffi been here 15, and this guy been here, what?” He pulls one of the busboys into a quick embrace. “I took my first vacation after the fire. In 25 years I hadn’t taken one!”
In the last few years, B&H’s owner, Fawzy, met and married Ola Smigielska, a Polish immigrant who was working as a waitress at Stage Restaurant across the street at the time. She now co-owns the restaurant with him. She immediately shows me a video of the first minutes after the fire. “For a second we thought it was a bomb—that there had been terrorists now, didn’t we Leo?” She looks back down at the video. “I saw a woman outside who has glass and blood all over her face. She had been on a date with Nicholas, the boy who died. It had all exploded when he swiped his card.” She motions the swiping of a credit card: “Swoosh!”
“I didn’t know that,” I say.
“Look how long it took for the fire department to come.” The video shows people wandering through massive amounts of smoke in the middle of 2nd Avenue. “No one claimed the other guy, he must have had no family.”
A woman with piercings and a face tattoo sits at the table behind me with a guy in a bandana and overalls. There is a giant carrot cake in front of her that Leo lifts up and puts in front of me along with a stack of plates. I am at the end of the counter so I have to take what I get.
“I just want cake,” the tattooed woman says to her lunch date, in a bandana and dyed black hair.
“The only thing I want to get is always the matzoh brei and the borscht,” her companion says.
“How are you?” the woman asks Leo.
“I’m good enough,” he says. “If I make complaints, God don’t like.” He points to the ceiling.
“We love this place,” she says.
“I do too,” he says.
“We don’t want it to ever go away,” they say, pleading with him almost.
Leo goes over to a woman the next table over. She puts her book down to order some pierogis.
“You should do fried!” he says.
“Boiled,” she says.
The orders keep coming in.
“Three pieces stuffed cabbage with mushroom gravy.”
“One tomato, one borscht.”
In between orders he says to me, “You don’t come in anymore, I remember you! You make me happy only today.”
All along the counter there are clusters of students, punks, and older men, anchored to their seats by unique assortments of wallets, MetroCards, keys, soups, egg sandwiches, steaming plates of pierogis. In the back, a mustached cook is making bread, “Money? Everything funny,” he says to no one in particular as he brings out a stack of fresh loaves. “No money? Not funny. It’s like a car. No gas, no move.”
An older gentleman comes in and flings an order down the counter like he does this all the time. “One tuna melt! One orange juice!”
“Tuna melt, tuna melts, tuna mills, tuna Miss!”
The Polish woman who has been making the soups for years comes out to grab a corn muffin. Leo pretends to ignore her and then hugs her from the side.
My eyes scroll up to the big mural on the wall behind him. “That’s new,” I say. Ola explains that it was made by her husband’s friend who lives in Egypt. “He sent it by mail. In giant tubes. It’s supposed to be the East Village but it’s looking more like Poland,” she says, laughing.
On the chain link fence that encircles the area where the buildings used to be are handmade signs memorializing the people and places lost in the fire. Among the plaques for Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Ismael Locón Yac, is one for Love Saves the Day, which had been replaced by the sushi restaurant where they were both killed in the explosion. “1983–2009 I miss you,” it says, next to photos of the colorfully painted store. Even though the fire had nothing to do with the gentrification fast obliterating old New York, the affective violence is the same, and draws attention to the paradoxical power and fragility of places, and the bodies that inhabit them.
Recently, Trash and Vaudeville announced plans to move to 7th Street after 25 years on St. Mark’s Place, saying in an article on Gothamist that the street had become “all fast food and bong shops. Even stores that aren’t bong stores sell bongs.” The Sock Man closed down in the last few weeks, the St. Mark’s Bookshop was out-priced and moved to Alphabet City, and Kim’s three floors of analog objects is long gone. Pommes Frites, a feature on Christian’s purple-penned list, was made of wood and immediately taken out by the fire. What’s left of Tiffany’s and my old New York is B&H Dairy, which, because of the destruction all around it, feels like it is already gone. When I visit the diner today, the customers talk about how much they love it, with emphasis that borders on desperation. Or maybe it’s my own desperation I’m feeling: writing about it in the present, I’ve inadvertently taken on the tone of eulogy.