A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

TASTE: Coffee-cart breakfast

Why, I had always wondered, would New Yorkers choose to buy their morning coffee and bagel from a sidewalk cart? The streets of every borough are practically paved in the inexpensive, fresh-out-of-the-kettle bagels for which the city is known, and good-quality coffee is equally easy to find. Sure, there’s something appealing about the convenience of the carts, but often they draw a line as long as that in any Starbucks, and meanwhile force their customers to wait outdoors in heat, cold, and traffic fumes. Moreover, the bagels always looked to me like startled captives, smushed against the plastic windows, the cream-cheese-filled holes gaping out like rows of eyes. Nevertheless I couldn’t deny their indomitable New York spirit, the drivers invariably friendly yet efficient, and moreover with the gumption to rise before dawn, hitch the cart to the back of their family minivan in the outer boroughs, and haul it up onto the sidewalk to face the people and the morning.

So a few weeks ago, I decided it was time to try a coffee-cart breakfast. I’d been tempted to take the subway from Brooklyn into Midtown, where, I figured, I’d find the most authentic carts. But then I realized one of the attractions of the breakfast cart is that you pass it in the course of your commute, so I selected one on Court Street on my way back from the gym. It had the requisite steamed windows and much-amended price list, the rows of bagels and hulking, sugar-encrusted doughnuts, a basket of hardboiled eggs, and boxes of Lipton tea and Swiss Miss. And to my delight, the woman in front of me in line was not only wearing sneakers and pantyhose but gym socks over her pantyhose, and when the coffee man said, “Coffee?” she replied in a Brooklyn accent, “Yeah, wid milk no sugah.”

When it was my turn to approach the window, I experienced a moment of stage fright. I wanted to simulate the curt decisiveness of the regulars. But instead I smiled and asked timorously, “Um, I’d like a bagel with cream cheese, please--” “Whakind.” “Um, plain, I guess, and a coffee--” “Milksugar?” “Well, do you have cream?” Shake of head. “Then just a little bit of milk, please.” “Twodolla.” A humid paper bag slid across the window toward me.

I carried it home and laid out my purchase on my desk, since that seemed to be another part of the ritual. The bagel was rubbery, and chilly to the touch. The slab of cream cheese looked as if had been hacked directly from the brick. When I bit in, the bagel immediately sprung back into shape. Furthermore, the underside was marked with the perforations that indicate breads baked in industrial ovens. It had none of the yeasty, hot-water-and-salt flavor of a signature New York bagel. The coffee was similarly disappointing, in its WaWa cup with a flip-top lid that tickled my nose with each sip. Yet with the sun streaming in the window, buses honking below, and my wad of coffee-stained paper napkins by my side, it occurred to me that even without a java jacket and a creamy “smear” of cream cheese, this breakfast was as authentically New York as the one I’d grown accustomed to, and I felt as ready as ever to begin my day.