I can’t exactly remember where I left off yesterday. I know that I talked about Jack. I know that I talked about Shanikwa.
Let’s talk about Joe.
Joe was….is…amazing. On our last full day in New York (don’t worry, I’m going to come back to a few other details and people who were really touching, but I need to talk about Joe), we went to Little Italy. I have travelled in Italy, have been to Rome, so I know just a little (and I mean very little) about traveling in Italy. And, yes, Little Italy in New York isn’t quite the spitting image of Rome or Venice or the Italian cities where I have travelled.
But Little Italy still had a European flair. While we were waiting to get gelato for the kids and a cannoli for me (nom nom nom), I observed the tightness of the street, the way the business signs hung over the doors with special decorative flairs to indicate the goods sold in each store. I noticed the word carving shop and the porcelain saints shop next to the pasty shop where we were going to buy our yummies. And, briefly, I felt like I really was back in Europe. With all the people streaming by, the feeling of the wind as it tunneled between the buildings, and the outside cafe tables, I no longer felt quite like an American tourist in American city. I was back home in Germany. Yeah, I know this was Little Italy. But I didn’t find a Little Germany and this was the closest thing I could find to home.
Across the street from the pastry shop, I noticed a store that was the self-proclaimed “oldest cheese shop in America.” I hadn’t bought anything for Pat, at that point, and figured that maybe I would find something of interest there for him. If not, it wouldn’t hurt to look. Also, I noticed that seated on the benches outside the shop were a group of young men close to the age of the Boy. They all wore soccer jerseys and special shoes for running and playing soccer (no, not cleats. I know what cleats are). As I watched them (without being a stalker), I noticed how closely tied they were in terms of ethnicity. I’m used to a basic black-white color difference. This was one of the first times in which I could see the ethnic ties of a group of Caucasian people to one specific culture, at least within the United States.
These boys looked so Italian. Again, I was reminded of sitting at the Trevi Fountain and the people of Rome a blur in the background. I was reminded of the Italian guard in St. Peter’s Basilica telling me my hair was “fahn-tahs-teesh.”
Anyhow, back to the story about compassion. We eat ice cream and cannoli. We scurry across the street and dodge the little soccer ball the young men were passing to one another (while speaking a language that was definitely not American and not Spanish). And we entered the oldest cheese shop in America.
It was tiny. And I am not exaggerating the concept of tiny. But this was a real “mom and pop” store, something that was completely not commercialized or owned by a corporation. In a city that holds two massive skyscrapers bearing the name of Donald Trump and other major corporations, this tiny shop was a respite from excess.
Eventually, I found the perfect gift for my husband: a ball of aged, wood-smoked mozzarella. Costing roughly nine dollars, I fretted that the cheese wouldn’t make it home without spoiling but figured that talking with the owner might give me an idea if the cheese would make the trip without turning into zombie-cheese. So I approach the counter and eventually the man behind the counter noticed shy-little-me standing quietly behind display cases and melting into the background of food-laden shelves.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
I explained my concerns and what I wanted to do. He reassured me that everything was going to be well. Then, I noticed the Boy and remembered his love of salami….and this was a deli in the heart of Little Italy. I couldn’t resist.
I asked if I could have a slice or two of his best salami. I explained that my son loved it but couldn’t eat it all the time because of my husband’s and my concerns about health (have you looked at the fat grams and sodium content of salami? Come on! Do it and you’d understand). The owner grinned, pulled out his two best salamis and explained the difference to the Boy. When I finally realized that one truly was supreme and the other was “pretty good,” I made my request.
The supreme-salami went on the slicer and the meat went back and forth and back and forth and soon beautiful strips of this meat fell into the man’s hands and were then transferred to mine. Immediately, my son’s and daughter’s hands stretched out and took the slices. I gave several to my mother-in-law. And for a few happy seconds, we all munched and luxuriated in truly delicious salami that makes Oscar Meyer or any other sandwich meat maker taste like dung.
I thanked the man, asked for his name.
To show him my gratitude, I explained that my daughter is the pickiest eater I have ever met. And she was stuffing the salami into her mouth and making the loudest sounds of appreciation. Then, before I could say anything, the Girl pointed to some prepared food within a display case.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“They’re prosciutto balls,” Joe explained and started describing what prosciutto was and then listing the ingredients for the Girl. I’m not certain that she was listening. I was and was mentally drooling. Because everything sounded delicious.
Then, Joe shocked me just a little more. Grabbing a paper bowl, he loaded in four of these meatballs, heated them, and poured warm tomato sauce over them.
Oh. My. God.
They were exquisite.
Once more, the picky-eater-Girl gobbled up the food. Once more, the silence was punctuated by “mmm’s” and “yum’s.” All was good. All was delicious.
And as we were eating, to show the Girl exactly what prosciutto was, Joe started slicing it and handing over the slices to her which she almost didn’t share with the rest of us (evil child).
By the time we were done, Joe had sliced up more salami for us to eat right there. We chatted about life and his daughter came out and talked about going to school to become a nurse. We were no longer customers; it was like we had become friends.
Before we left, I ordered a quarter pound of the salami for the Boy. Joe gave us postcards with his address so we could keep in touch. I promised him I would write about him in my blog. He said that he would ship to me anything I wanted.
When it was time to tally the bill, Joe looked around. We had two bottles of water (at least a dollar each), a quarter pound of the best salami in the world (at least five dollars worth), and a nine dollar ball of cheese. This doesn’t include the prosciutto balls, the slices of prosciutto meat, or the slices of salami which I promised to compensate him for.
“Let’s make it ten dollars,” Joe said.
He was losing money on us. Deliberately choosing to lose money.
Oh. My. God.
I couldn’t do it. Not to Joe. Not to a man who, within minutes, changed from a business owner to a friend. I pulled out a twenty, handed it to him and told him to “keep the change.”
“I can’t do that,” he said gently.
“Joe,” I said quite stubbornly, “either you keep it or it goes in the tip jar.”
His face softened as his eyes went from me to the tip jar and back to me.
“Put it in the tip jar,” he quietly said.
I don’t know if he got any of that money. I know that it will have helped his daughter and any of the other people who worked for him. But, as he is the owner, I don’t know if he chooses to keep any of the tips.
The fact is, if you are looking for a tiny shop that sells incredible food and a whole lot of compassion, you need to go to Alleva Dairy in Little Italy. It’s address is 188 Grand Street, New York, NY. You’ll find a lovely man standing behind the counter. His store might be tiny. His smile is huge. And his heart is so great and so beautiful that you will feel as though your stomach isn’t full. But your spirit will be replenished.
This was New York for me. Every police officer I met wanted to help. If I asked for directions from an NYPD official, I was treated with warmth, a smile, and compassion. When I was in a subway with my bag wide open (I had forgotten to snap it up after hiding my wallet), a woman in a strong Brooklyn accent called out, “Sweetheart, you need to close up your bag. Anyone can just reach right in there and snatch out your things.”
New York City is an aggressive city. I think it has to be because it is such a huge tourist attraction. I can’t imagine what it must be to have to live in a world in which the population will massively fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. This is a city which is a business center, a world-government political center, and a magnet for every person dreaming to make it big. And you can tell who the tourists are. They’ll be like me, looking up at the buildings, trying to see the tip of every skyscraper that is palming the sky. Tourists don’t look at the ground or where they are walking. With so much to see, the ground is the last place I want to look.
So I can understand if New Yorkers become frustrated with playing dodge-tourist as they try to go to work or go grocery shopping or just try to take a walk. I can understand that, after a while, you just want all the strangers to go away so you can live quietly in the city you call home.
But, mean? Ugly? Impolite? Discourteous? Lacking in compassion?
No. New York was a city where both my children observed that they didn’t see racism. New York City is where my son wants to move. Not because of the sights. Or the food. Or the anything.
It’s because of the people, they’re inherent-incredible goodness. It’s because of people like Joe or Harold or Jack or David or Shanikwa or the lady on the subway or the NYPD or the anyone who offered a word of advice, a warm smile, or a little extra room on the sidewalk when I kept on looking up and missing my step.