As I’ve recently been moaning, I’m still up to my neck in the sickly sewer of unemployment (and how’s that for evocative imagery?). And as is the case, much of my day is spent staring at the computer screen, paging through sites like Indeed , Mediabistro and such, looking for roles that fit the bill. Some days are better than others. Sometimes there’s a succession of great positions on offer. Other days, it’s a wasteland.
There are also certain points wherein I have to get out of the house. During times like these, I usually grab the laptop I share with my indescribably understanding spouse and repair to various locales around the city that offer free WiFi. Library branches are usually good for that, but some of them here in Manhattan just aren’t that nice (and by “aren’t that nice,” I mean they’re smelly, uncomfortable and … in certain instances … even possibly dangerous). Failing the NYPL, I usually hole up in any number of Le Pain Quoditiens.
Much like Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Pret a Manger and countless insipid froyo outfits before it, Le Pain Quoditien set its sights on Manhattan a couple of years back and dispatched a veritable occupying force. There are now several locations of the coffee-&-croissant chain per neighborhood. And like every other chain, you can bet that the fare at one of their locations is EXACTLY THE SAME as at their next location. Such is the nature of these businesses. They thrive on their patrons’ need for the comfortable and familiar.
I should really hate Le Pain Quoditien, given that they’re helping homogenize the city, and invariably putting the squeeze on independent mom’n’pop coffee shops. They may look rustic and quaint and cozy — like you’re sipping a Latte in a bespoke French farmhouse in goddamn Provence — but don’t be fooled. They’re invariably just another ruthless corporate juggernaut.
But this is where they get me — free goddamn WiFi, AND….they leave me alone. Seriously, I can set up shop in one of these joints, and pretty much spend several undisturbed hours. My deeply engrained Catholic guilt makes me purchase cup after cup of hot chocolate (or, now that spring hath sprung, ice coffee), but I’ve seen people order something tiny and then spend the rest of the day in a PQ without given them any more money — simply exploiting their free WiFi and the permissive, comfortable environment. Like I said, I hate it, but here I am, typing at you from one of them right now (the Broadway & 11th Street location, if you’re curious).
I even have my favorites. I especially love the one on East 34th Street and Park Avenue, because it seems like a lot of folks don’t realize it’s there. They have a big dining room as well (although their electrical outlets are few and far between). The one on Broadway at 22nd Street is pretty good, too, but it does fill up with swarms of chatty folks.
On Tuesday, I found myself sitting in that one, next to a pair of ladies from some indie fashion website. The combined onslaught of the needlessly over-employed “like,” the inescapable vocal fry and the insistence on inflecting every sentence as if was a question was almost enough to drive me from the place and back to the pungent squalor of the nearest library branch.
As much as I’m really not proud of it, I’m now fairly versed in the Pain Quoditien circuit. Put me in a random neighborhood, and I can find one. From midtown to Meat Packing, Hell’s Kitchen to the Upper East Side — I know’em, and I use’em. It’s come to that.
Alright, great, so where am I going with all this?
Well, a lot of it comes back to something I said on this post. As New Yorkers — native or otherwise — we tend to almost take these streets for granted. We associate them with places and events from our own, ultimately limited frame of experience, often forgetting how many countless lives and stories have played out on these same seemingly incidental byways. In a way, that’s what makes it “our town.” My wife — who grew up in England — is always remarking about how I seem to have a significant anecdote about seemingly every other block. I’ve mapped out my own New York City through the prism of my life and experience. But, of course, mine is only one of the fabled “eight million stories in the Naked City.”
And this isn’t limited to New York City, of course. Hell, you could be walking down a street in goddamn London, and forget that people have been walking down that same street for literally centuries.
So, anyway, back to the Le Pain Quoditien on the northwest corner of East 11th and Broadway. I’d been sitting here for a while, fruitlessly flipping through job postings and reached maximum fatigue. I knew that once I spotted the same opportunity scroll by for the fifth time, I’d exhausted that particular site’s offerings for the afternoon. As such, I started to — as we used to say — surf, and found myself flipping through pictures on Shorpy, the truly amazing archive of vintage photographs. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s well worth your time.
So, as is my wont, I’m perusing through shots of New York City, looking to harvest a bit of future content for this silly blog, and I randomly come across a picture that stops me dead in my tracks. While I may blithely think of this corner I’m sitting on as “the one with that certain Le Pain Quoditien” on it, it comes screaming back at me through the screen that it’s been so much more than that.
My exact view at this very moment….
Roughly, this EXACT SAME SPOT in 115 years ago in 1905.