To the Breakfast Cart Man, with Love
How tiny moments of connection can mean as much as your daily coffee
I am not what you would call a breakfast person. As a night owl who struggles with sleeping and has managed only to have oddly scheduled jobs, I tend not to have mornings that allow me to eat breakfast. In fact, for the last decade, if I’m eating breakfast at all it’s most likely because I’ve stayed out so late that I’m grabbing a bite before getting on the train home, eating carefully in an attempt to settle the sloshing in my stomach as I squeeze in next to the tidily dressed office workers on their morning commute. On those torturous days when I did have to get up before noon, it would be such a shock to my system that it would take me hours to wake up, finally getting little grumbles of hunger around lunchtime.
So, when I got a job during normal business hours (part-time—let’s not get too crazy here) it was an adjustment, to say the least, to find myself needing something to eat in the mornings. It took me several weeks to remember that there was a meal dedicated to satisfying this early hunger, when you had to get through more than an hour or two until lunch. I had become so accustomed to, say, fried chicken at 3 a.m. that I had nearly forgotten breakfast existed. Unfortunately, when it did dawn on me that I could eat breakfast, I discovered it might be easier said than done.
I was working at a gallery in Chelsea, and despite having a mile-long walk from the 2 train each morning, passing by a hundred restaurants, I didn’t have a place to eat.
I first cut my breakfast-sandwich teeth in Brooklyn bodegas, and after a couple tries learned that my beloved bacon, egg, and cheese simply didn’t taste as good when I got it in a place that wasn’t selling loosies behind the counter. The only bagels I could find had Dunkin' Donuts quality for Russ & Daughters pricing. And I don’t know where to begin the list of reasons why I wasn’t going to start eating the açai bowls and chia puddings that seemed to be the only other options available along the way.
Then, one day, the breakfast truck parked outside of my subway station came into focus. I’d always rushed past it in that burst of momentum you get when coming aboveground, but when I finally noticed it I decided to give it a shot. I assumed I’d be met with an assortment of mostly stale baked goods tasting slightly of the plastic they’d been wrapped in for the past several days, but every day I tried something new and instead discovered a huge array of delicious options all for a dollar and change. I had found my spot.
One of the many reasons that I’m feverishly in love with this city is its perpetual newness. There’s always another restaurant, another bar, another exhibit to see. The mere thought of living in a town where I’m always meeting up with the same people at the same place on the same day week after week after week threatens to send me into a claustrophobia-induced panic attack. But still, there’s something to be said for the comfort one can find in the semblance of routine you can make for yourself here. Carving out something you can count on in the delicious chaos can, at times, feel like the one thing tethering you to sanity.
When I found the breakfast truck, I was in the middle of a particularly turbulent year and a half stretch, and there was something deeply soothing knowing that three days of the week my alarm would go off, I’d take a train ride so embedded in my brain I could fall asleep when I got on and wake up as I was coming into my station, climb the stairs, cross the street, scan the shelves, and hand the same amount of money to the same person before walking to work. It was a strange, trance-like state where my body was carrying me along independently of my brain, not having to think about much at all except whether I wanted a bagel or a cherry danish today. That one bit of indecisiveness, however, was unknowingly throwing off someone else’s routine.
“You’re always keeping me on my toes,” the guy manning the breakfast truck said to me one morning as I handed him my cash.
“All my other regulars, they always order the same thing every day. But you, I can never figure you out,” he said.
“You know, men are always telling me that,” I said with faux exasperation, and he threw his head back in laughter and snuck a donut in my bag.
From then on, it wasn’t just the polite customer-service exchanges one expects with your breakfast truck man, but each visit felt like stopping by to say hello to something of a friend. I always love this crossover. Maybe I’m not sitting still enough to be a regular befriending a bartender or host, but reaching this point with my neighborhood people always makes me feel like I’m home. The bodega guy who’d tease me about coming in for obvious hangover cures the morning after buying a lot of beer one weekend while respectfully staying silent when I’d slide my one drink and pint of ice cream across the counter the next. The woman who, for three years, asked me how my cat was doing every time I came into her green grocer after I bought one can of cat food from her. The man who would wordlessly start making me coffee just the way I like it when he saw me walking through the doors of the little shop in my office building. The pizza guy who trusted local folks would be good for it a few days after Hurricane Sandy, when the credit card machines and ATMs were down and everyone was running out of money to pay for the food that was getting less and less available. My nemesis at the Chinese food place who always puts a second set of silverware in my bag even though I order a perfectly reasonable meal for one. I couldn’t tell you any of their names or anything about them, but these are the people that become incredibly important to me.
After the breakfast truck man and I had been seeing each other for about eight months, I went on a trip for a week. I did the unthinkable and brought my own breakfast with me the following week. The week after that, I returned to the truck.
“I haven’t seen you in so long! Did you go on vacation?” He greeted me when I got to the front of the line.
“Of course I did!”
I was taken aback. My little morning conversations with him had been this oddly cherished part of my day for so long, and yet the whole time I’d just assumed their importance had been one-sided. Surely I was just another face in a daily sea of customers, one whose absence may be registered months after the fact if I one day decided to get breakfast elsewhere. I was surprisingly touched by the fact it had only taken a week.
A lot of sad and poetic words have been written about how you can somehow feel so lonely and isolated in this dense city of millions. A lot of righteous outrage and disgust has been shared over how being forced to be so close with so many people can expose you to the worst parts of humanity, especially as a woman. And I can relate to both of those things deeply. But, so often people overlook this other aspect of life in this metropolis. There are these magical little moments of connection you can have with all of those strangers in all of those crowds. You can have entire conversations with the woman sitting across from you on the train without ever speaking a word. Someone might notice you’re looking like you’re about to faint, bring you over to the closest bench, give you water and a snack, and sit with you until the color’s returned to your face before they leave and you never know their name. You exchange a thousand looks of delight or incredulity or shock or awe, assuring each other that you really are experiencing this surreal moment. You strike up conversation with someone you’ll never see again, someone you accidentally bare your soul to over the course of five minutes before you part ways.
I’ll take these genuine, beautiful little moments of human connection over the hollow politesse of so-called “friendly” regions any day. It’s those strangers that remind you that you are seen. It’s those people who run your local store, who drive the train you catch every day, who feed you breakfast, that remind you who will see when you’re gone.