Love in a Cold Climate
January 6, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
I moved to Greenpoint, in North Brooklyn, on the heels of a breakup, and although I lived there for years, in my memories it is always somehow winter. While I was hardly a pioneer in the neighborhood—a recognizable mumblecore actor lived one fire escape away—ten years ago it was still a far cry from today’s full-on Girls-level gentrification; friends still griped about taking the unreliable G train to come visit, and more than one said that the rent had better be pretty cheap to justify the schlep. It was.
To those who know the area, this was just off of Monsignor McGolrick Park, a twelve-minute walk from the Nassau Avenue station. At first glance the apartment was unprepossessing, but after I had pulled up the stained carpet, painted the walls a vivid blue, found a copper leaf sculpture at a thrift store, and sewn a gaily-patterned bark-cloth curtain to separate the bedroom, I fancied it was cheerful, in a vaguely retro-modern way. There was also a fire escape large enough for a table and chairs, not to mention a few pots of nasturtiums and some basil in the summer, even though, again, my primary memories involve snow.
I had chosen the neighborhood because it was one of the few where I could both afford to live alone on my shopgirl salary and also feel safe walking alone at night. But I had not been living there long when I met M., and he kind of just moved in by osmosis. It was never a formal arrangement, but I didn’t like going to his roommate-filled bachelor pad three trains away, and we were young enough that this sort of thing seemed normal.
We would walk hand in hand down Nassau Avenue in the mornings, crossing the street when necessary to catch any weak rays of sun, and stop at the local doughnut shop, where the waitresses, all young Polish girls in teal uniforms, served us our sour-cream glazed and coffees. In the evenings we would go to a nearby cafeteria and get pork cutlets with potatoes and red cabbage. Then we would sit in the park, if it was warm enough, or play the metal-heavy jukebox at the Palace Café, if it wasn’t.
One of the clerks at the doughnut shop—a plain, shy girl who seemed to keep to herself—had an obvious crush on my boyfriend. The other girls all teased her about it and would push her forward to wait on him while she blushed scarlet and refused to meet his eyes. She clearly did not enjoy any of it; I found it painful and didn’t mind that she hated me. He was always very kind to her.
There are a few hardy drunks who to this day hold court at that particular subway stop (in the coldest weather they often go into the station), but there were other regulars. When I commuted to the dress shop, I invariably found myself on the train with an elderly woman who, every day, was met at the top of the stairs by her husband. And every day, he would dip her back and greet her with a passionate kiss.
On my days off, I spent my mornings at the doughnut shop. Nowadays it’s considered destination-worthy. Maybe it always was; it’s been there since the 1960s. I liked it because it was so comfortable (even with the hostility emanating from that one girl), with its horseshoe counters and regulars. There I would read the Post and listen to the teenagers bantering. If one stayed late enough, the twins would come in: a pair of identical elderly women who would enter in silence and, also in silence, be handed a single split, toasted, and buttered English muffin and two cups of Lipton tea. I was tolerated, after several months, sometimes even treated with cordiality. And there were moments when I sat there that I was achingly conscious of being happy.
Around this time, I learned that M. had been seeing a second girl, a beautiful young Englishwoman doing an internship at a well-known fashion house. I was heartbroken. He seemed genuinely bewildered by my reaction. As he explained, we had never formalized our relationship nor declared it exclusive. Following a tearful scene, he left. But when I got home the next day it was to find that he had made a number of repairs around the apartment and gone to IKEA to replace a faulty set of blinds. He had left his set of keys on the table.
Several days later, I returned to the doughnut shop and ordered a bowtie and a coffee with half-and-half. When I tendered my two dollars, however, the young girl behind the counter turned away, consulted in a whisper with her colleagues, then returned to me and decisively shook her head. “It’s free,” she said. “You don’t have to pay anymore.” No one seemed able to provide an adequate explanation for this sudden stroke of good fortune, so the owner was summoned from the basement, where I was told she had been taking a nap. It was then I learned that M. had arranged a system whereby I was to have free doughnuts for life. He had put down $100; when the balance ran low, he would re-up it, in perpetuity. “I hope you appreciate him,” said the owner. “He really loves you.” The uniformed girls nodded earnestly, clearly considering the whole situation highly romantic, and me somewhat elderly and bespectacled to have rated such gallantry. I saw the girl who loved him, standing back, and I held my tongue, and smiled, and agreed that yes, I was very lucky.
I took M. back, and ate doughnuts every day. And every day the girls looked at me with a combination of reproach and envy and, in the case of that one, hatred. Sometimes I would get two doughnuts: a bowtie in the morning and, just to live large, a sour-cream glazed for later.
It was harder to get to the doughnut shop from my new apartment, but I still made the schlep with some regularity. As more and more of my friends moved to Greenpoint, I had increasing reason to be there. But I would have gone anyway; it was, after all, money in the bank. But then I moved even farther away, to Manhattan, and it has been over a year since I spent a morning at the horseshoe counter, waiting for the twins. Last time I went, it was pretty jammed, anyway. I did not recognize the new crop of girls behind the counter, but my erstwhile rival was still there.
This weekend, I was packing up some of M.’s things to send to him in California, always a melancholy task. He has said I can give away most of his cold-weather clothes, so a few coats will go to the local precinct for the coat drive, and I’ll try to sell what I can and send him the proceeds. I am wearing one of his sweaters as I write this; it’s the kind of cold that gets into your bones.
Going through a large Tupperware box filled with papers, I came across one scrap on which was written, “Good for Free Doughnuts for Life.” I don’t know how to cancel the arrangement, or even whether I should. I like to think that maybe sometimes the girls there see the envelope and the note, now eight years old, and find it romantic. In any case, it’s always nice to have the option.