Going to New York: Encounters with Obama, a Barista, an Insurance Man and a Lady

I took the Hampton Jitney in to New York City on Wednesday afternoon to see the new Willem de Kooning Exhibit appearing at the Museum of Modern Art. For the last 35 years of his life, de Kooning, one of the greatest painters who ever lived, worked in a studio behind a modest house he and his wife Elaine owned on Woodbine Drive in Springs, not far from my home. The exhibit is extensive and arranged chronologically. The first painting is one he did in his native Holland when he was 12 years old. One can follow the exhibit through six gallery rooms and see how his work transformed over time. He died in 1997.

The plan was that my wife and I would meet up at our apartment at 6 p.m. and then tour the exhibit and afterwards go out for dinner.

I wrote a story for the newspaper about the recent local elections here in the Hamptons on my laptop on the Jitney on the way in and just finished up as we arrived up at 86th Street on Third Avenue at 5 p.m. I disembarked into a light rain, and began, without an umbrella, to walk toward our apartment nearby. At Lexington Avenue, I called my wife on her cellphone to let her know I’d arrived.

“I’m not at the apartment yet,” she said. “I won’t be there until a little after 6 p.m. And also, you should know that 85th Street is completely blocked off, even to pedestrian traffic. Obama is at a fundraiser there. So come across 84th Street.” [expand]

I could see the flashing lights of the many police cars up ahead. I also thought—I need to edit what I wrote. There was a Starbucks on the corner of Lex and 85th. I’d go there, I thought, and still get home by 6 p.m. I also noticed that across from the Starbucks was Little Brown Coffee, another choice. But I decided to stick with Starbucks.

There was a long line at the counter at Starbucks, and I saw that all of the little round tables and chairs were taken, except for one chair at one table, opposite of which sat a woman in a pale blue raincoat and white headscarf. I thought—I ought to grab that, and then get a drink when things clear up.

I walked over and asked if I could sit and she said okay. I noticed a metal cane, watery blue eyes. She was quite elderly, perhaps 90. I took my laptop out of its bag.

“Everyone’s got an Apple,” she said, motioning to a row of tables. I looked. Indeed, all the way down everybody was working on an Apple. “I have one at home too. But I left mine home.” There was a twinkle in her eye. “I’m headed out.”

“Where you going?” I asked.

“The de Kooning Exhibit,” she said. And thus we launched into conversation, which, after a brief time, I cut short, apologizing and motioning to the work I had to do.

I had been working for about 10 minutes when out of the corner of my eye, I saw her get up, give me a little wave and leave. I also thought, seeing there was still a line at the barista counter, to pass on the coffee for awhile. I’d just sit and do my editing.

Two minutes later, someone else sat in the seat opposite me, a slender, middle-aged man in a black suit, cufflinks, tie and a metal lapel pin that had two crossed flags on it. He also had black, newly shined shoes and matching black socks. He was impeccably dressed.

I, on the other hand, was wearing an old, beat-up bomber jacket and a red and blue scarf. I also wore a straw hat. And I was struck by how different we looked and how different we’d look next to the old lady.

The thing is, and I never noticed this before, if you sit down at a computer at a table you usually eat or drink at and there is someone across from you, you have an expectation that whoever is there across from you will remain that person across from you unless there is a polite exchange about it, which in this case there was not. So seeing this fellow, sitting without asking, gave me a start.

I looked for an earpiece. Didn’t see one.

“You with Obama?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “Insurance.”

And that was our entire conversation for the next five minutes. After that, he got up and I once again went back to my computer—only to be startled by still another person sitting down.

This was a slender black man, late twenties, wearing a plastic New York Yankees Cap with a big brim facing forward, a black jacket with silver stars on it and on his feet big oversized sneakers. He also carried a small black men’s zippered bag, which he set on the table. Out from this, he soon took a cellphone and began texting.

It now occurred to me that neither the old woman, the insurance man, or this guy had bought anything at Starbucks. Counting me, that made four. How does this place make any money? It also occurred to me we were all four completely different characters—we could hardly be more different one from another—and I started laughing.

He looked at me quizzically, and so I told him what was so funny. I mentioned writer, old lady, insurance salesman and now you.

“So who are you?” I asked.

“I manage the Little Brown Coffee shop across the street,” he said. “Just getting away for a little break. I come here all the time.”

“They let you do that?”

“I used to work here. I was trained here.”

He then told me he was a professional barista.

“It’s my life’s work. I enter cappuccino making contests,” he said. “Look.” He held out his cellphone to me, pressed a few keys and then I saw on the screen a cup of cappuccino with a cinnamon swirl on the top in a magnificent artful design.

“Wow,” I said.

“Could you plug this in for me? It’s on your side.” He was holding out the charger plug for his cellphone. I looked down to the baseboard. I plugged him in. I offered up my name. His was Marcus.

I then told him I was an amateur barista. I loved making cappuccinos, but the old fashioned way. I had two old machines, one in East Hampton and the other in Manhattan, both of which sputtered and hissed when you made the drink.

“Not like the new machines,” I said, “where you put in a measured pod of coffee. I can do the whole ritual in exactly eight minutes.”

“I love what I do,” he said. “Let me show you something else.” He unzipped his bag and out from it took a small stainless steel milk frothing pitcher. “I never go anywhere without this,” he said.

I was amazed.

“You ought to come by Little Brown’s and I’ll give you a lesson in cappuccino making so you can do these cinnamon designs,” he said.

“When are you there?”

“I’m there tomorrow beginning at two.”

So tomorrow I have a date with Marcus at Little Brown to learn a craft. He had also asked if I was married and said I should bring my wife too.

One last thing. As he got up to leave, his cellphone flew out of his hand and crashed to the floor. He had forgotten he was still plugged in. He grabbed and checked if it was okay. It was.

“You’re very cool,” I laughed.

At the M.O.M.A., we enjoyed the de Kooning show. I never did see the old lady though. But it’s a big exhibit, on view until January 9, 2012.

As we were leaving about 7:30 p.m., the whole damn Obama motorcade came rumbling down East 53rd Street – flashing lights, officers on motorcycles, limousines.

“He’s going to the Sheraton,” the doorman said as he motioned us to the revolving door. “Another fundraiser.”

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