Having raced in from Brooklyn in the middle of the night to answer an alarm-call at our restaurant in the East Village New York City, my wife and I stand in front of the closed shutters on East 10th Street just after 5am, as plastic bags roll down the street like tumbleweeds.
This part of the city was the site of riots, violence and drug dealing in the 1980’s. The area was so notorious that no policeman would come down here.
Two and a half decades later it still feels like that in the middle of the night, even when there’s obviously no-one on the street, you still look over your shoulder.
It’s a world away for me from my former home on the moors above Kirkbymoorside in North Yorkshire, where the only thing that tumbled down the street was Eric the Shepherd after 6 pints on a Saturday night.
The alarm went off at 4.30am in the rear of the restaurant, and that’s worrying.
There’s no police around, they haven’t answered the call; we’re on our own and must go in and investigate. There’s nothing else for it, that’s the way when it’s your place.
Kath undoes the locks and I lift up the shutter revealing the windows and glass door behind. We shine our lights inside. We’d be surprised to see an intruder in the front of house as they’d have heard us, unless of course they’re deaf, or maniacs, or both.
Through the glass we don’t look for people, we look for signs of disturbance.
Truth is we don’t know what we’ll find.
I bring with me a small home made truncheon, a kind of wooden comfort blanket for which no doubt I’d end up being beaten to death or turned into a chair-leg on a lathe.
In fact we’re about as well equipped physically to meet a couple of young thieves, as mice facing a motorized lawn-mower.
But throwing caution and good sense to the wind we open the door and step inside.
Inside, we go first to the alarm and check if it’s still going off. It is and it shows that one of the rear doors which opens onto the garden at the back is open!
I go first towards the rear. On the way we have to pass a toilet (or ‘Restroom’ as Americans call it). We push open the door and shine our beams in there and take a cautious look, just in case there’s someone’s resting on the throne. Thank God there’s neither a felon with a gun in his hand or a reveler asleep on the bog with his trousers down. (Don’t care to think which would be worse).
From outside the restroom I have a clear view of the back door, and I can see it’s open. The two heavy bolts are undone and the central lock is not engaged.
This next bit is scary because we have to check the garden. If there’s been someone in, they could have fled out there to hide.
I open the door cautiously, grasping my truncheon.
In the garden, in the winter we have a tent-like structure with see-through sides, under a conservatory roof. Like a little winter garden.
Late at night, it’s creepy as the canvas walls move, remember like the wall of your tent in the wind after you’ve woke up to hear a noise of something outside and you get up courage to look only to discover the night shift sheep nibbling by the guy ropes, well going in the cafe garden with my little flashlight and silly little stick feels like that, only more so times ten.
The garden fairy lights are on and so are the heaters, neither should be, maybe we have disturbed a thieves den having a do.
Better check behind out-sides of the tent. I pull open the velcrose fastenings and step into the dark. Nothing there, I’m relieved, and turn off the fairylights.
On these kind of escapades, Kath and I have a rule, we stick together. That way if we’re going to get shot or stabbed, the bad guy would have to think which one to do first- I bet it would be me because I always have the worst bed-hair, and besides she’s tougher than I am.
But she’s not behind, she’s gone off alone, and is already in the kitchen where the light is on. No disturbance though. I look at all the knives and choppers and cleavers hung on the wall, should I pick one up? Not a good idea.
Behind me there’s a noise in the walk-in, (that’s the cold room). I stiffen and turn. The door creaks open, it’s Kath counting the broccoli and the cheese and she comes out intact.
Now the steps to the basement beckon into our own little piece of subterranean New York. The steps are narrow and difficult, so we turn on the lights.
Trouble is there’s no other way up from the basement than these steps. If there’s anyone down there they’ll have to come past us- so I let Kath go down first, she’s feistier than me.
The basement holds all the bulk items in containers and the ice-making machine, the big fridges and the office. The office is six foot square, by seven foot high, windowless and a standard restaurant office.
In New York, space is at a premium, comforts of the standard office are not to be found in restaurant basements. Owners don’t expect comfort unless they are in the Mafia.
We stand at the base of the steps and listen. All’s quiet in subterrania apart from the 24 hour gurglings of machines and bowelletic plumbing from the apartments above.
We check the secure liquor area. locks are fine and so is the cage. We go in a look over the rows of bottles for evidence of theft, all seems ok, come to think of it who would want to steal a bottle of Vodka from Retchovinia.
After the cage, we creep down the shelves of tins and bins, toilet rolls, kitchen rolls, and containers of potatoes, and onions, as though anyone could pretend to be a bag of souds from Ohio.
But joking apart, there could be someone down here hiding in the labyrinth.
We walk like two seasoned sheriffs and reach the office. The alarm on the door checks out and so do the locks, we go in, all ok.
We check the back end, where things like stepladders, buckets and mops are kept and where the chute comes down from the street, where deliveries are dropped each morning.
I shine my torch behind the chute- the last place to hide. Not a living thing.
We’re clear and still intact.
We breathe a sigh of relief and ascend knowing we’ve both aged several months in the last 15 minutes, and deserve a shot of whiskey. We stand at the bar shot glass of ‘Jamesons’ in hand as the occasional dog-walker passes by in the pre-dawn murk. And I wish I was 28 again so we could stay up and go surfing, but we’re not we’re knackered.
How the door came to be left open at the back we don’t know, but boy do we aim to find out! Right now we’re just glad not to have found a break-in or had an encounter of the physical kind.
Twenty minutes later, as dawn hides behind the glass towers, we drive back over the East River, as the Manhattan lights twinkle in the eye of the city that never sleeps.
One things for sure;
“It’s not Kirkbymoorside!”
A day and a long night in the life of Life Cafe, New York, from the New Yorkshireman.