Where everybody knows your name…

by

Good morning, Dear Readers…

As we all know, I had to give up my daily Starbucks habit in order to pay the rent on my writer’s paradise here in Newark, New Jersey. I found a Cuban restaurant named Omar’s across the street from my office. The first day I went in, I ordered a coffee, took a sip and went straight to heaven.

It was dark, rich and extra steaming hot. (I always order my coffee “extra-hot” from Starbucks and it’s still lukewarm by the time I get to the car. Ick.)

When you order “coffee” at a Cuban spot like Omar’s, you’re actually going to get cafe con leche, coffee with steamed milk. And dear readers, it is good. Now, it doesn’t come in the soothing, aesthetically pleasing packaging that Starbucks uses.

Ahhhh. Soothing.

Ahhhh. Soothing.

Marketing is something else. Cause as soon as I get this cup in my hand, I feel better. Before I even take a sip! They could put Dunkin Donuts coffee in there and it might taste good. Or not.

Omar’s coffee is actually way better than Starbucks. Even though they use that AWFUL and annoying lid that I despise. The one you have to lift up and push back.

No. no. no. NO!!

No. no. no. NO!!

These lids leak. And when you pull it up to your mouth, the sides poke your lips. Not cool. (I KNOW I am not the only one who hates the non-domed coffee cup lips. Please, someone, co-sign. When I used to go to Dunkin Donuts, I started ordering a medium sized coffee solely because the small cup came with the dreaded top. Only the medium got the domed top.)

As always, I digress.

The coffee is wonderful at Omar’s. And a cup costs a dollar. One. Dollar.

Do you know how much my Tall Cinnamon Dolce w/Soy costs? Triple that.

Also, Omar’s is much closer and more convenient that stopping at Starbucks and standing in line. I can park my car at the office, grab my coffee at Omar’s and walk right into work.

So why do I keep sneaking to Starbucks on the way to work?

I’ll tell you why. But it’s embarassing. So don’t laugh at me.

I don’t feel like I belong at Omar’s.

Let me explain.

My office is in the Forest Hills section of North Newark. It is almost entirely Latino. In the month I’ve been here, I’ve never seen an African-American person. Nor have I heard anyone speaking English. On the little strip outside my window, there is a Sprint store, a pharmacy, a pediatrician’s office and a medical rehabiliation center. In the mornings, as I watch people scurry in and out, I hear only Spanish.

Omar’s is a true neighborhood spot. There are stools hugging a counter top. And about four or five small tables with chairs tucked under neatly. On the walls are vintage maps of Cuba and an advertisement that I love to look at. It’s a comely woman in a come-hither pose. And the caption says, “So close. But yet so far. Come to Cuba! Just 90 miles from Key West! (I think we can safely assume that advertisement is vintage.)

There are usually two or three couples having breakfast together. (Sidebar: This scene always intrigues me. The couples are usually in their late-20s, early 30s and look like they are on their way to work. And yet, they’re having a leisurely breakfast together. Where do they work and what do they do that allows them to have this wonderfully quiet breakfast together? I see the same couples in there once or twice a week. And they are always warm with each other, lingering over coffee. One couple always kisses goodbye outside the restaurant before heading in opposite directions).

Only men sit at the counters. The men are usually wearing work uniforms for places like Comcast and Verizon. Their eyes are glued to the news playing on the flat screen above the griddle where Omar cracks eggs and cooks bacon and potatoes. They shout out greetings to Omar and place orders, some to go. Some eat at the counter.

Omar is very handsome. Not very tall, dark hair and eyes. Always looks very serious. In the past month, I’ve come in and ordered the same thing. And he has never said a single word to me. Not one. Here’s how it goes down.

I come inside. Patrons look me up and down. Go back to whatever they were doing.

(Think of that scene in Jungle Fever, when Tyra Ferrell’s character walks into Nicolas Turturro’s Italian spot each day. And they all look her up and down, making a bunch of statements without saying a word. That’s exactly how it goes down…)

Omar looks at me.

I say, “coffee, please.”

Omar turns his back to me, grabs a cup, puts a bit of sugar in it, adds the espresso and the steamed milk. Puts the cap on it. Puts it on the counter.

I say thank you. Hand over my dollar.

Omar turns back to the griddle.

Let’s contrast that with Starbucks where Angelica, Victoria, Beth and a few others know me by name.

Beth: Hey Aliya. How’s TheOtherGirl?

Me: Good! Just dropped her off.

Beth: You want cinnamon dolce today? Extra hot, right?

Me: Yeah, thanks.

Beth: Looks like you might need a triple shot today.

Me: I so do. Thanks Beth.

Beth: Oh, and you have to try these new chocolate covered graham crackers. They are insane!

Me: Really? I’ll try ’em.

Beth: How’s the writing going?

Me: I’m plugging away.

Beth: Okay hun, here’s your change. Have a good one. See you tomorrow!

And this was after I’d gone there like, three days in a row. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But you feel me. As a writer who spends large swaths of time alone in front of a computer with no one else around, I look forward to my small human interactions. Sad but true. I like to start my day with a brief conversation with someone. (And I’m not talking about TheHusband or TheGirl or TheOtherGirl. From 6AM to 7:30AM, our conversations revolve around lost socks, shoes that are suddenly too small and sandwiches that are not cut on a diagonal. That last one comes from my husband, who says if I don’t cut his sandwich in half, he feels like I just don’t care about him at all… )

So I had this fantasy that my new life in my new office would include coming into Omar’s and being greeted by the cute Verizon guys who might flirt harmlessly. And then Omar would smile and greet me by some little nickname like Pecasita, (which is an actual nickname I had briefly in college. Translates roughly to little freckled girl). And he would never ask me what I wanted, he’d have it ready as soon as I walked in. And we’d talk politics and Cuban art history and Che Guevarra and Castro and vive la revolucion!

Or something like that.

But, um. No. Omar ain’t thinking about me. I actually feel a bit of disdain emanating from Omar, mixed with sheer indifference. There’s the tiniest bit of eye-rolling in Omar’s face when I order.

I feel very very American in Omar’s.

The funny thing is, I was once near-fluent in Spanish. I swear! It sounds silly. But it’s wholly true! I took Spanish for four years in high school so I had the basics. Then, my roommate from college is Dominican. And in two years of living with her, I picked up a few key phrases. Then I dated a guy, (the one who Deleted me!!), who taught himself Spanish and he taught me a few things too.

But what really did it was my two year stint teaching at Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The school is heavily Latino and my students taught me Spanish. I had a rule. Before class began and after class ended, you could only speak to me in Spanish. If you saw me in the halls or on the street: Espanol solamente.

Within six months, I could have a conversation with my students in Spanish. It was awesome.

But alas, after I left the high school and I didn’t have anyone to speak Spanish with anymore, I lost it. Completely. I can understand a bit. But my confidence to speak it is completely gone. But I want to tell Omar that I once had real Spanish street cred. Really!

But alas, at Omar’s, I’m just a plain old English-speaking American girl. A fraud in Omar’s eyes. He’ll never greet me warmly or tell me to have a nice day. The men on the stools will probably never flirt harmlessly. The couples having breakfast together may never wave or acknowledge that they see me every day.

And realizing how this makes me feel reminds me of how lonely a writer’s life can sometimes be.

I’m still going to kick my Starbucks habit and come to Omar’s instead. Maybe it will take more time before it becomes my version of Cheers and everyone yells out Aliya! when I come inside. Or maybe that will never happen. And that will be okay too.

Dear readers, do you have a special place? A restaurant perhaps. Or maybe just a corner store or a bakery, where everybody knows your name. A place where you are always greeted warmly and they know exactly what you like? I’d love to hear about it…

omar

You wanna go where people know/The people are all the same/You wanna go where everybody knows your name...

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24 Responses to “Where everybody knows your name…”

  1. slb Says:

    i’m always fascinated by customers whose names are known by the employees of any establishment–or when the bus driver and the passengers are on a first name basis. how does this happen? i often wonder.

    because when i get on a bus, i flash my free-ride-faculty ID, smile politely, say hello and find a seat. when would i have occasion to learn Bob Bus Driver’s name? (actually, i do know my bus drivers’ names. they’re listed on a placard inside a plastic sleeve above the rear view mirror, but still.)

    sometimes i think it would be nice to for them to know my name, but the closest i’ve come is coffee places where every employee knows my order and starts making it before i get up to the register.

    this simultaneously excites me and weirds me out. am i such a creature of habit that people just assume i’m getting the hazelnut mocha every.single.time? i *do* have days when i like to switch up my order, you know. but they’re so proud that they didn’t have to ask that i can’t burst their bubble and say, “actually i was gonna go with a frappuccino today….”

    i hope omar and co. warm to you. you seem like an awesome individual. maybe if you add something to the order one day (like a muffin?), it’ll throw him off enough for him to give you a second glance (or at least a word of welcome?).

  2. Aliya S. King Says:

    @SLB: tried that. ordered the whole desayuno special (with no meat) one time last week. still not a word from Omar. lol.

  3. Antonio Says:

    Love it! lol. My special place, believe it or not, is Jamba Juice in midtown. Granted they’re trained to be over-the-top and jubilant and all that other stuff, but no matter what time I go or who’s there, the kats behind the counter are giving me pounds and handshakes; the girls are like “Heyyy Antonioooooo – Peach pleasure with energy boost today?!?!” Makes a brutha feel good about his day.

    It’s hard to find that, particularly at straight up cultural joints like an Omar’s where the employees may feel awkward about connecting with someone “different.” That awkwardness sometimes translates into belligerence /slight eye rolling, which makes it even more uncomfortable for you, the valued consumer.

    But all in all, and especially if you work in a box, it feels good to be recognized and acknowledged, ya digg? Even if for just a 3 minute time frame.

  4. slb Says:

    i’m fresh outta ideas, then. lol

    if you still felt confident about your spanish, i’d suggest ordering en espanol next time… but omar doesn’t strike as the type who’d take kindly to that.

  5. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Antonio: I’m SO jealous. I wonder how long it would take me to get from Jersey to midtown and then back to Newark each morning? Hmmm….
    @slb:um, no. I can tell just by looking at Omar that he would NOT be trying to hear me speaking in Spanish. I think if I ordered in Spanish he would kick me out and bar me from returning, like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. No more coffee for you!!

  6. Margaret Says:

    I feel your pain. Prior to moving to my current Southern Jersey area. I worked at Montclair State Universiy. It was my home for many years. I could go to the wonderful C’Store and get my coffee, conversation and a run down on the manger and the cashier’s weekend. I loved walking in the door and hearing hey girl, good moring or how is the little lady. Now it is so different I work in Trenton and let’s just say the warm loving feeling is not hear at all. I frequent DD a lot now although they know what I want they don’t no my name nor do they converse. Not to mention that at MSU I also could go off campus to Starbucks or DD and get great service and conversation not only from the staff but customers. I don’t know what to make of it. I just miss the connection. So I feel your pain….

  7. jay1 Says:

    leaky lids make me wanna punch somebody.

  8. Timothy Says:

    I can certainly relate…although I don’t drink coffee…i do drink drinks…and i’ve always wanted to go to a bar very close to my house where everybody at least knew my name….a la cheers theme….

  9. Aliya S. King Says:

    @margaret: Dunkin Donuts used to be my spot. Throughout my entire pregnancy, the staff cheered me on as I got closer to due date and waddled in each day. And when I was TWO WEEKS overdue, they all knew better than to say anything. they would just shake their heads and slide the coffee over, as I looked evil and miserable. After I had TheOtherGirl, my first outing was a walk to that DD to show them that I had finally had the baby…They were all excited. It was nice.

    @jay1: this made me laugh out loud literally.

    @Timothy: well,see,I think a bar is different. It’s easy to get that kind of relationship at a bar, no? You’re there for a longer stretch of time. Ya drink and get loose-lipped…much more likely to develop relationships. It’s the morning and afternoon ritual spots that are different, y’know?

  10. Dylan Says:

    The last place I lived in Brooklyn, I had Josie’s Java across the street. The coffee was horrific (I drank it every day anyway) but they made amazing egg sandwiches that could cure a hangover in seconds. And the scenery–meaning the crazy locals I would never fit in with as a gentrifier/interloper/non-Italian–was fascinating. The owner, Josie D’Esposito, was a tiny, bawdy 70-something Brooklyn native (grew up one block over) who once in my presence told a story (to the whole shop) about not being able to find her hot water bottle in her linen closet and using a douchebag instead! (!?) She hated everyone, including her own son (an employee) and was famously grumpy or even just outright angry, but she loved me. Loved me more, I think, than my own distant grandparents. She was always taking care of me, insisting on giving me stamps for my letters so I wouldn’t have to go to the P.O., offering to hold my spare key in case I was ever locked out. After I moved away from New York, I’d always visit and bring her something when I was in town.

    Josie died in 2004. The place is closed now, turned into a Thai restaurant. It brings tears to my eyes just to think of it. The New York Times covered her passing: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B05E6D71231F937A35755C0A9629C8B63.

    OK, sorry, didn’t mean to make this such a downer. But I don’t think I’ll ever find another place like it… and clearly, yes, it DOES matter whether they know your name.

  11. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Dyl: girl. You know I’m for real choking back tears right now. For real. Partly for Josie. But mostly just because you shared the story with us.

  12. Portia Says:

    Wow Dylan, you really had me tearing up over here with that story. Your story is the most special on here because she spat fire at everyone….but you…now THAT is special. You should feel so good about that. Kudos to that somethin’ in you that sparked some love from a woman like that.

  13. Jovi Says:

    When I was pregnant with the first one, I would eat a slice of cheese pizza each day. I never introduced myself to the guy behind the counter but when I walked in he would nod and put my slice in the oven. It took a while for him to notice that I came in everyday so I say to you, be patient. Keep going to Omar’s, they will warm up to you soon. After you get your order and change, say ‘OK Omar, I will see you again tomorrow.’ They will soon love you like we do.

  14. serenakim Says:

    being an asian american woman, i feel like that every where i go because most americans assume that i can’t speak english.

  15. Aliya S. King Says:

    But what if it’s a place where you go and order (in English) and then continue to frequent?

  16. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Jovi: Between you and Dylan and my raging PMS hormones, y’all are going to have me weeping…

  17. D. Ramsay Says:

    My story is simple. I where a suit and tie every work day so I go to the cleaners quite often. After only a few visits the guy at the counter began greeting me as “Mr. Ramsay” when I came in to pick up and drop shirts. I don’t even need to carry my receipts anymore because he knows me. What is even better is that I usually have my 4 year old daughter with me because I stop by the cleaners after picking her up from school. He always has a lollipop waiting for her when we come in. NICE!

  18. Hanif Sowell Says:

    You’re no more than a passer by in Omar’s eyes. You’ll come in an get your coffee, once a day, and he expects that one day you will no longer return. Forgoing his mom and pop establishment for your “Starbucks.” You reek of starbucks and Omar doesn’t want to get attached. That’s why his regulars are welcome and accepted. The have been loyal, and probably for years.

    The massage therapist that used to occupy your same space, got Omar’s attention, and as soon as he got used to her, learned her name, and had her cafe con leche ready and waiting, she never showed. He’s been hurt too many times by you up and comers who are just passing through.

    It’s going to take a dramatic event, in the summertime, like Sal’s burning down on “Do the right thing.” then Omar will see that you truly love his neighborhood, and you will be accepted, little Pecasita!

  19. Aliya S. King Says:

    @D. Wramsay: Nice indeed!! I go to the same dry cleaners all the time too. And he usually says, hi miss. But he doesn’t know my name. =(

    @Hanif: Damn you! Damn you and all your…accuracy. You’re so right it hurts. I’m an interloper.

  20. yes Says:

    hmm Does he carry on conversations with anyone else? Maybe he has a lot of drama in his life and just wants to keep it business. *shrugs* It’s kinda weird since that is a customer service job, but some people are just reserved. You never know.

  21. naiomi Says:

    Omg I so luv the way you write. Girl you take
    Me there.I can taste the caffe con leche as I read along.I had the pleasure of meeting you at faith’s instore.
    You rock mama very sweet.
    Anywho I have a very special place that I go to its an old puertorican resturaunt on the corner of delancy st and riverton.we call it the coochie frito.
    they make the best puertorican food arronz con condules with pernil aka rice with pigeion peas roast pork butt yum O.
    especially the stuffed patatoe balls. I can smell the fresh papaya juice freshly made…
    I been going there since I was knee high I highly recommend it

  22. An update… « Aliya S. King Says:

    […] Monday, I posted about my quest to find a place where everybody knows your name. And I talked about Omar’s, the Cuban restaurant that I want to be my special […]

  23. The Week In Review-January 31, 2008 « Aliya S. King Says:

    […] started off with a post on Omar’s, the Cuban restaurant that I want to become my version of “Cheers.” It’s no going […]

  24. Eshubi Says:

    Hey,

    Try a Colada next time…Cuban coffee…nothing but rocket fuel!!!

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