What a diner taught me about New York and human nature

Food for thought

Like many who graduated from an Irish university in the early 1980s, within a few weeks I was on a plane. In my case the destination was Manhattan, a place I knew well courtesy of Superman, Spiderman, Serpico, Scorsese and Woody Allen. Making my way home late on my first Saturday night there, I stopped a man I took to be a newspaper vendor because of what I thought was a bundle of newspapers under his arm, and asked if I could buy a copy of the New York Times. “Get your own!” he growled.

Later, when I was more familiar with the city, I liked going to a corner diner on East Ninth Street for breakfast on Sunday mornings with my own copy of that day’s huge edition of the newspaper tucked under my arms. Usually you had to queue for a table, but if you went early, it didn’t take long. One such Sunday, armed with my newspaper, I waited in the queue while marvelling again at the fact of being in New York. Steam really did seep out of vents in the pavements, uniformed policemen really did hang around Midtown on towering muscular horses, the drivers of yellow taxis really did sound their horns as they struggled to make their way up and down the city’s long avenues. It was like waking up on a film set.

Soon I was ushered not just to a table of my own, but to one that was next to a window. Happy days. A waiter filled my cup with coffee and took my order. I laid the news section of the paper out on the tabletop and surveyed the headlines. The German philosopher Hegel, about whom I know pretty much nothing, once referred to reading a newspaper in the morning as a type of prayer.

So, there I was, the lapsed Irish Catholic on the loose in New York City, reverting to childhood practice. And then, sacrilege!


It came in the form of a woman. Nice-looking, about my age, casual clothes and, worst of all, smiling at me. “Hi,” she said. It was a development that in other circumstances would have made my young heart leap. “Would you mind if I shared your table?” As far as I was aware, this was a complete and utter breach of etiquette. And what about my newspaper, my brain thundered. Where is it supposed to go?

But instead of giving voice to my discombobulation, I instantly put the news section away with the rest of the edition, pointed towards a seat, and trumped her smile with an even brighter one. “Of course not. Not at all. Please do.” The interloper had a wonderful New York accent and obviously noticed that mine was not from anywhere nearby. “Where are you from?” she asked. I told her. And how was I finding New York? “Friendly,” I said. Without the least suggestion of irony.

It was true too. On buses, in cafes and bars, in the shops, I’d found New Yorkers to be decidedly friendly. There was often an element of gruffness involved, but I’d come to think of it as a type of code that, once acknowledged, operated as a facilitator. It seemed that not just the blow-ins, the natives too regularly found themselves marvelling at the fact they were there amidst the yellow taxis and the hot dog stands and the delis selling pastrami sandwiches on rye. We all had something in common – being in Manhattan.

I thought my being complimentary about New Yorkers’ friendliness would please my breakfast companion, but I was mistaken. “It’s so unfair,” she said, suddenly possessed by something close to anger. “I was in London last year and people were really mean to me.” Everywhere she went, she explained, she had encountered anti-Americanism. Despite the (Irish) War of Independence, and the distance between Dublin and London, it made me feel guilty, so I did my best to be as charming as possible during out subsequent chat. By the time she left to meet a friend, I felt I had made a small but positive contribution to trans-Atlantic relations. I considered for a moment whether I should ask for more coffee and turn my attention – at last – to the New York Times. But the diner was busy and people were queuing. So I split.