Hunger

Mother’s Day brunch at the tasteful but casual Mediterranean place on MacDougal is simmering nicely, even if we’re without our mothers today. Obscenely beautiful and diverse downtown crews show off their mod hats, chat amiably, and laugh. Young couples drunk with Sunday leisure bask in the mid-morning sunshine spilling in from outside, waking only occasionally to usher their runaway tots back into the restaurant. A heavyset Iberian fellow and his late-teen daughters file in and occupy a corner table, lustily eyeballing the menu while a Semitic waiter explains the day’s specials. The café au lait is slowly cooling on our reclaimed wood table, topped by a perfectly symmetrical heart shape that makes it such a shame to drink.

Outside, the sun is beaming down on the quiet SoHo side street, generously ladling joy and tranquility to passersby. In a hectic city life that rarely affords such moments, it seems nothing could possibly burst the bubble of the endless Sunday. The egg shells on our entrees have hardly been cracked and the slow savor of our coffee feels bottomless. Between idle chats and sidelong glances at other patrons, we look out onto the sidewalk and let thoughts wander in and linger, or leave, just as randomly, just as suddenly as they come.

When the crotchety croaking of an angry man first sound, they’re slow to pierce our gentle reveries, like waking life first intruding on peaceful dreams in the early hours of the morning. Collectively, we stir slowly, turning our faces, one at a time, toward the culprit. He’s a black man who looks older than his years, sweaty, emaciated, his clothes clean but wrinkled.  And he seems familiar to the staff. One of the busboys from the kitchen hands him a paper bag. The man looks inside, makes a face, looks upset. “Bread?…That what you’re giving me?” Whatever they gave him clearly won’t do. His voice rises, hitting a different cadence with each sentence. Now we’re divided: some of us are looking, rapt, others turned away in the unmistakably deliberate way of subway riders faced with crazies.

The large Spaniard is annoyed as all the action is nearest his family’s perch by the window. He makes a slow but menacing movement toward the hungry man who’s now intimidating the busboy. The next moment, a more senior member of the staff flits out the kitchen and gets between the man and his customers. He negotiates, calmly, with a thick Israeli accent. Somehow, he talks the man down without upping the offer, or resorting to violence or cops. The threat is gone as suddenly as it came. We go back to our Mediterranean breakfasts and brunch conversations, though the afternoon feels a little less slow now.

My shakshuka arrives, and it is delicious.

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Ex-Soviet immigrant turned wanna-be scribe. I bite off more than I can chew, but at least I've got good teeth.

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