A few weeks ago, I went to the Bagel place on P Street in Dupont Circle, through the alley from my townhouse that burned down two years ago. I used to go there every Sunday; I hadn’t been there in two years. I also used to order the same thing — a poppy bagel, double toasted with egg, bacon and cheddar cheese — the perfect salty treat after a long run.
The first time I went into this Bagel place in 2004, I heard a man ask for his bagel “double toasted.” I quickly learned that if you didn’t ask for that, the bagel would taste soft and chewy, even if toasted once.
A Korean family runs the Bagel place. The same woman always took my order, and after a few months, she started to recognize me. She made me laugh, because she would say with her thick accent, “Double, double, double.”
So when I ventured into the Bagel place a few weeks ago, I walked up to the counter and the same woman said to me: “I haven’t seen you in a long time.” I ordered the same sandwich, but I said “toasted.” She looked at me, cocked her head and said, “Double toasted?” I forgot that’s what I had to say — she remembered for me. That she remembered me and remembered what I ordered after two years gave me a little jump of joy.
I’ve created these “counter” relationships in various times in my life. Although I try to fight it, I’m a creature of habit, especially when it comes to food. And I find pleasure in seeing the same people who appreciate my business, and always smile and say hello. In that way, I create my own form of community when I live in big cities and community is hard to find.
When I worked at Euromoney near St. Paul’s in London in 2000, I went to lunch at the same hole-in-wall nearly every day. It was a “take-away” sandwich place, and a chubby man with graying hair and ruddy cheeks — I can’t remember his name — carved fresh turkey and thick blocks of cheese in front of his customers. We always talked, and the day I had my going away party when my visa was expiring, I told him I was moving back to the states. He gave me his card and told me to stay in touch.
When I worked at McKnight’s Long-Term Care News just north of Chicago in 2003, I drove to the Panera two miles away to get out of the office for lunch. I would sit in a corner and read — I read “Blindness” by Jose Saramago in that Panera, looking out at the slush and snow in the parking lot. Again, I got the same sandwich nearly every day and I always ordered from the same young Mexican woman. On my last day before I moved to D.C., I told her I was moving and wouldn’t come in anymore. She gave me a sad look, and came running around from behind the counter, gave me a big hug, and told me she was going to miss me.
Now, my new spot is Cafe Phillips, a half a block from NPR’s headquarters. NPR employees get 5 percent off of orders. I am pretty sure I single handedly keep the Asian family in business. I go after my 9 a.m. meeting for a latte, and one woman always says to me, “Small latte with skim milk?” and I smile and nod. When I go there for lunch, I get turkey they carve off the bone on sourdough bread with lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard, and provolone cheese. Two weeks ago, the woman who knows my coffee order asked me my name. Last week, the older woman who runs the cafe told me that I always look so young and beautiful when I come in. I laughed and said, “I’m not that young,” and she said, “Yes, you are. Enjoy it.”
**A friend from London reminded me that the deli in London was Carter’s Deli and the man who ran it was named Mick. He’s older than me, but his memory is better.