There is a coffee shop I visit, oh, once every few months. It must be a good place to be employed because a core group of workers has remained constant over the years. This, in a Manhattan coffee shop, is rare.
I discovered it by accident on a stroll in the West Village. A sticky midsummer day, a sudden yen for iced coffee, a retreat into the nearest storefront I could find. And there it was: a room full of smiling (smiling!) New Yorkers sitting with drinks, friends and paperback books. Like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, I looked around myself in wonder: This place exists? Needless to say, I claimed it. For every summer Sunday that remained, I brought a book to the café and spent my day reading.
An ideal coffee shop, like good jeans or a ripe apricot, is a hard thing to find. And this one was perfect. The coffee was rich and the muffins inventively flavored; there was pleasant music and an old backgammon set on the shelf. True, a smell of molten garbage occasionally wafted through the air, but this turned out only to be the tofu cheese they melted over vegan sandwiches. Like San Francisco or Gore-Tex, the place kept cool in the heat and warm in the cold. Plus, it was cheap, and there was always a table for me.
The phrase “well-done” describes a few things about the place. One, well-done is the way I learned to order my bagel in order to get it darkly toasted. Two, well-done is the atmosphere of the joint, which is a friendly closet of peace in a loud, too-loud city. Third, well-done describes the way I think of one employee in particular, a dark-haired server who has transitioned over the course of my visits from a female to a male.
Initially, of course, I had no idea that she was in transition. When I discovered the coffee shop, she was a she: a tomboy with a lip ring who worked behind the counter. She steamed milk, poured coffee, scooped salad onto plates. As with sanitation workers or line cooks, her efficiency was a sight to behold. No wasted movement here. A single pivot brought her from the oatmeal vat to the cash register. During a crowded spell she was brisk, never brusque. With short hair and a baggy tee-shirt, I mistook her for a teenage boy at first. Upon closer look I realized that she was quite pretty, actually; arresting in the way she skirted the recognizable signposts of gender.
During a hectic period that seeped into the autumn months, I failed to return to the coffee shop. Work interceded. The weather moved from crisp to biting, the West Village leaves no longer appeared in brilliant drag. When I did stop in, at last, it was a relief to find the gang all there: the floppy-haired girl who served sandwiches, the beflanneled dishwasher, and– ah, a new guy behind the counter. Only, no. It was the tomboy of a few months back, but somehow different. Where she had once been a boyish girl, she was now, well, it was not easy to say. Certainly she was lovely. But it felt wrong to call her a “she”, and wrong to say “lovely” where “handsome” would do.
Several more months passed before my next visit. It was winter by now and, trudging down an avenue of slush, I hadn’t even noticed my proximity to the coffee shop. Somewhere in my peripheral vision a door opened and the smell of vegan cheese extended itself in my direction like a stinky handshake. I looked up. It was a good day for hot chocolate.
This time I recognized the boy taking orders. There was the same cropped hair, the same smile and efficiency. He had a mustache, now, of the hesitant variety that teenage boys sometimes cultivate. I stood for a moment pretending to contemplate my order, thinking instead of my luck at observing such a process from its early stages to its completion. There are not many occasions in life when we undergo a public physical transformation, or witness one. There is puberty, of course, and sometimes illness. These things affect our appearance in often unmanageable ways. But those occasions happen rarely in a lifetime, and if we are lucky we remain mostly in control of the self we present to the world.
I ordered my hot chocolate with extra whipped cream. Familiar faces were buttering bagels and wiping down the counter. With everyone in cahoots against the foul weather, the coffee shop was even cozier than I remembered. The object of my admiration–I realized I still did not know his name–topped my mug with a mountain of whipped cream. “That enough?” he asked, gesturing toward the wobbling pile. It was perfect.
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