Crazy fantasy

Watching televised city council meetings or reading the local talkboard, as one sometimes does, there is this ongoing discussion about what types of retail outlets we qualify for in our micropolis, which ones we hope will come and which ones are beyond our reach. One which seems to be within reach in the future, equated, bizarrely, with Saks or Brooks Brothers (but not yet, though we have the mightily fallen Jos. A. Bank), something that many hope for, is Cheesecake Factory.

You can buy Cheesecake Factory products at Costco, but I guess the retailer would be more like a bakery/restaurant. They must do other food, or soup or something, as I don’t know how they would make a go of it. People want it.

If I were in crazy fantasy mode, I would ask for a bakery. And since it’s a fantasy, and not a business plan, I would like Polaîne pain au levain and custard tarts and a good baguette de tradition and fougasse, a delicious bread with onion and bacon in it that you can get in the South of France. If we had a bakery that sold fresh bread, people would love it. It would have to be drive-thru, but just imagine if you could stop off in the morning for good, strong coffee and some hot bread or pastry, and in the afternoon, savoury tarts, pissaladière, sandwiches on fresh bread, and in the evening, loaves of bread for dinner, warm slices of peach or pecan pie. It would be great. Someone, please steal this idea and go nationwide with it.

This fad for cheesecake reminds me of Baby Watson cheesecake, which was a kind of deli brand I had always been aware of in NYC, but never really had any particular thoughts about until my husband and I were living in Penn South, across the street from an Italian bakery called D’Auito’s, whose signs proclaimed it was the home of Baby Watson. And it was very good, too. We lived above a sausage factory and Italian deli (our landlords). They made good coffee, too. But it was a lost weekend of a neighborhood.

We had had the whole floor of a small building. We could climb out of the kitchen window and onto a roof (outdoor space!), which looked into the Albert Merrill School of technical career training, iconic in its own right (see video).  We got a third cat. I learned Penn Station like a hardened commuter or skel, never sure which. I knew all the exits and corridors in a ratlike, intuitive way, suitable to the terrain. I used to stop off and play Tetris in an arcade on my way home. Uncharacteristic behavior and neighborhood-specific.

It was a strange and depressing neighborhood. The Wertis thought the redeeming features were: proximity to FIT, Chelsea, and free or cheap drinks at Delta 88, a bar where our friend bartended. The closest supermarket was a food coop that sold very ancient looking canned/tinned food that we bought as ironic decor, which they sell at our local supermarket here in Alabama (Luck’s field peas, Bruce’s yams) and we had to schlep our laundry to 26th street. In the SRO hotel next door, there was an alcoholic woman who frequently took down her jeans in the middle of 8th Avenue and yelled, “My Ass! My Ass!” until someone called the police.

My father sent a man over to install bars on the windows in the back and a security gate, still visible, onto the fire escape. The blinking yellow bulbs framing the illuminated sign made me feel like the heroine, possibly tragic, of a Tennessee Williams play. My mother-in-law bought us a very warm duvet because the flat was heated by a single gas heater in the kitchen and our bedroom, at the other end of the apartment, was quite cold.

We had a friend who lived on the Bowery, who moved to Hell’s Kitchen while we were living there. Living arrangements had to combine some really dire feature with some unique attribute. Italian markets where you could buy real prosciutto crudo were being “discovered” in this western territory. For us, then, this was roughing it in NY. I think I needed it, to shake me out of the native’s complacency, to feel a bit of hardness and unfamiliarity.

The term “crazy fantasy,” when my husband and I use it, refers to another friend’s Canal Street apartment. A former candy factory, it had a copper vat in the living room and on the downstairs storefront was a spraypainted mural of erotically distorted women advertising the Crazy Fantasy Adult Video Store. Above the video shop was a brothel. Strange men frequently rang the wrong doorbell.

New York in the early 90s was pulling itself out of the Black Monday recession, recovering from a yuppie hangover. We were trailing in the wake of the party. We only stayed in the sausage factory apartment for a year. A downtown condo, desperate for occupants, slashed the rents and we moved into a really lovely one-bedroom with a view of the Hudson River. It was an apartment more suitable for the young newlyweds we were to become. We left the gritty urban realness of Penn South for the clean streets of unexploded Tribeca.

There, delis catered not to SRO crack addicts but to office workers who ate sandwiches and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at their desks for dinner, to car service guys who waited around for them, to late returning-home worker neighbors who grabbed a dinner of box salad and imported chocolates.

We had a communal roof terrace in the new building and laundry in the basement. It was walking distance from my underground squash club, the one sandwiched between Off-Track Betting and a shooting gallery. We went from substandard heating and a latch-door refrigerator with a perpetually iced-over freezer compartment to all new appliances and central air. From the blinking sign and stage set views of taxis and the rantings of our deinstitutionalized neighbors, the subterranean rumble of the 8th Avenue IRT, to then-underpopulated Lower Manhattan, brighter air. It was our own crazy real estate fantasy.

People who refurbish old houses dream of finding original hardwood flooring. New Yorkers hope that in knocking down walls they might discover a room, or even a square foot of closet, that was somehow walled-up in a conversion. It is the dream of space.

Here in Alabama, we have the space, and so we yearn for manageable pockets of density into which the magic developer’s wand might bequeath us a Nordstrom (Listen up, people, screams the realist on the talkboard, Not going to happen!!!) or a Cheesecake Factory. Or my drive-thru bakery.

The deli is still going. In 2010, they got a Slow Food NYC Snail of Approval. The photo of the building shows that both the illuminated sign and the window gate are still there although the street looks much cleaner than I remember it. The building is scrubbed up. The awnings look new.

Imagine living upstairs from a business that supplies luxury sausage and cured meats to some of the best chefs in the city, that would be like a crazy fantasy, like your youth viewed from a distance, distorted and out-of-proportion like the girls painted on video shop storefront.

Reality is a small Brooks Brothers in five years, a second Gap, and improved distribution by the town’s one baker. However, you can order the artisanal meat online. If Cheesecake Factory ever does come, it’s never gonna take down Baby Watson. At least, not in my mind.

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