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If you read my earlier report from the café I jointly own with my
long suffering wife in New York’s East Side, you will already know that running it is not all bacon butties and jam on each side.
It’s a life commitment, twenty-four seven and all that comes with it. It’s also an engaging ongoing constant dialogue with thousands of people, our patrons and for that, at least for me, it’s worth all the bother and the long hours. (It’s not however, worth the worry, the lifelong debt, the nervous exhaustion, that twitch that’s come to live with me on my face and the unfortunate change in my lovely sweet natured wife who when at work becomes a dragon (sometimes and only when she has to) ).

In this occasional series, I write about the real-life incidents at the Café, that come from no-where, when you least expect them and bite you on the bum; spill hot water in your lap and kick you out of bed, any time of day or night!
Yesterday afternoon and early evening, we’d been out shopping in New York, which now, (I am a Yorkshire bloke from the moors of North Yorkshire in England) seems just like Leeds to me but with taller buildings, not that you ever see them because you rarely look up, for fear if you do someone will steal your shoes.
So we’d got to that point in the shopathon when your feet tell you to stop what you’re doing and go somewhere quiet and bury yourself in cushions.
We ‘d done that, after going home on the subway as our car was in the garage, where the mechanics were still (four visits) trying to find the cause and location of the noise that only my wife can hear.

On the subway, at 8pm on a Friday night we huddled together in the carriage looking like two empty old shells, thinking, “We did that too once” as we looked at all the trendy ‘hipsters’ going out to lose their brains somewhere.

Anyway, crawling back up to our apartment, with our usual greeting on entering, “Hello Apartment,” glad as we are it’s still there and that between us we remembered where it was; on went the kettle and down went the bottoms on the sofa, off came the shoes and out from my bag came the pile of books we’d just bought. We were set for the rest of the evening, emphasis on ‘rest’.
You know that curly feeling when you’re at peace with yourself and don’t mind your partners’ feet in your lap, well that’s where we were when the phone rang. (I am convinced there’s a little evil phone elf that lives in there and waits for us to just get settled- and then makes it ring. The kettles’ the same. I just get happy on the throne having forgotten I have turned it on (the kettle not the throne, I’m not a pervert), on the stove, when the bloody thing starts to whistle. No wonder I can now look forward to future years of incontinence. Anyway, the phone rang and Kath my wife answered.
I can always tell when there’s something up, because she immediately switches to another level of consciousness, like a mother lion with cubs facing a sudden threat.

I continued to read trying to will whatever it was away from our one night off, but when she took her feet out of my lap and put them squarely on the floor, I got that fireman-pole feeling that any moment the alarm will go off and down we’ll drop into the abyss of the unknown. Sure enough it did; the overheard conversation went something like this,
Kath.“Smoke coming from where?”
Me whispering. “Anyone in the café- we’re full, oh dear.”
Kath.“Stop panicking Jessica, calm down. You know that big red thing on the wall with the funny handle – that’s a fire extinguisher , now…no it’s nothing to do with cocktails, it’s for putting out fires.”
I am now standing at attention as my wife’s gaze is directed towards the café, through concrete, through trees, metal bridges, like superwoman she can see through stone. I know as her mind shifts so mentally she’s already in her place the café she started in 1981.
“Yes that’s it, that’s the extinguisher, now if and only if you think it’s safe, get one of the guys from the kitchen and have a look around to see if you can find the cause. And call me back asap.”
She puts the phone down.
I ask, “Is the restaurant still full”
“Yes” Says Jessica in response to Kath asking her.
“We must call the fire service.” Says Kath.
“Let’s let them take a quick look first.” I say.
The phone rings again. It’s Jessica, she says, “We’ve looked round in the two basements, and can’t see any sign of fire but there’s white smoke in both and in the bathrooms.”
“Ok.” Says my wife. “Call 911 immediately.” Then she looks at me, “Time to go.” She says.
I think, “Buggeration!”

I bet we both could have been firemen because now we switch into
‘gotta get there in five seconds mode’.
I say to her, “Ok, the fire service will be on their way so we’re not speeding through lights like last time, right?” She always drives in emergencies and looks at me as though this statement is the final confirmation that I need a lobotomy and says, “What car, it’s in the repair shop!”
“Oh.” I say, actually relieved because those emergency ride-ins from Brooklyn will be the death of me. Then mentally I change perspective, and project we’re back on the subway and not in our car. Instead I’m in the train cab offering the driver money to go faster, proffering a small cash bribe if he gets us there before the café, the building, the bathroom door I just fixed, and all the patrons go up in smoke!
But no, in a minute it’s back to reality. We’re in the back of a private hire vehicle with a professional driver from Peru. (Do they have roads in Peru?), anyway he understands,“getmetomybusinesswhichisonfireassoonasyoucan!!!!” and we’re off at speed bouncing across the poxy pot-holed roads and back-streets of Brooklyn and over the Willy B. Bridge, me looking out over the East River for the plume of blue smoke rising above where the café used to be.
“Ok Jessica.” My wife’s on the phone again, she pauses. “ They’re there so soon, five trucks! Ok Jessica, calm down, no you don’t have to make them all coffee, no, no drinks on the house either. They’re there to do a job.”
“How’s the restaurant, still full, no evacuation yet?” I ask. She looks at me blankly.
We speed over the bridge, I sense our driver believes he’s in a film, you know the type with the fast car chases. He’s really into the part as he scans the road and the traffic in front for any openings we might just squeeze through if there’s a miracle. Actually I see him cross himself at one point and wondered if he was considering jumping the car off the bridge, but no worse he’s thinking of driving up and over the cables.
With the last worn out 10cc of adrenalin ringing bells in my brain, I hang onto the handle above the window wondering if my hand will become detached from my arm if I hold on when we hit the stopped traffic up front and wonder whether I should explain quickly that films aren’t real, this is.
But it’s ok, we’re over the bridge and into the labyrinth of streets of the lower East Side, now full of kami-kaze popped up kids wandering about all over the place on the savannah of the night looking for the next mating opportunity.
On we speed, no traffic, green lights, the Gods of New York traffic are with us.
“We’ll be there in two minutes Jessica, hold on, don’t panic!” Says Kath into her mobile.
All Jessica gets to say is,
“But..” before being cut off.

Now on Avenue B and traveling parallel with the East Side of Tompkins Square Park shooting along at unsafe speed and occasionally bouncing over small dogs on long leashes. I don’t look back for fear we’re dragging a tangled pile of owners behind us still holding on to what was their dogs.
Then we’re there.
No fire trucks, no smoke, no Nothing!
We can see Jessica and the chef standing outside. Now I know from experience that New Yorkers do not take a second glance at anything that might be considered by others elsewhere as somewhat unusual. That’s what our two look like on the street corner outside the café front door. They appeared relaxed and laughing like nothing had happened even though I had just spoiled my best corduroy trousers; Kath’s died a thousand deaths as she mentally went through all the stuff in her mind that she thought might be cinders, and our dog-loving driver has in a self-flagellationary vision joined a monastery on a mountain somewhere in Peru.

We pay him, and jump out in a late fifties sort of way and get to Jessica.
“Where’s the fire?” I ask breathless.
“Yes, Where’s the fire Jessica.” Asks Kath in a more commanding tone.
Jessica calmly puffs on her cigarette.
“Oh it was nothing.” She says. “It was just a cigarette butt.”
“Where’s the fire trucks?” I said looking round, disappointed .
“There were five!” She exclaims, eyes gleaming like a kid who’s just opened her presents and got what she wanted. “Wish Betty had been here, she loves firemen, no she lusts firemen! Do you know,” she continued, “ she once called in an alarm just to see who would turn up.”
“What happened?!” Demands my wife.
“Come on, “ says Jessica calmly, I’ll show you, “round here.

She and Dan the chef showed us how in the metal trap doors in the pavement that open to the basement, there’s a grill covered in metal mesh. The grill allows, as the firemen had just explained, air to be drawn down and ventilated throughout the café by fans. Jessica then explained the firemen (all fifty of them) showed her that leaves and other bits of street rubbish get caught in the grills. And what had happened was that a cigarette end dropped by a smoker from the bar next door had set the leaves on fire. They’d smoldered causing smoke to enter the ventilation system.
“So that was it?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Jessica, “Panic over!”

Internally I feel like a soufflé collapsing. yet it’s good news.
“Could have been worse.” I said.
A couple of minutes later, we’re sat at the bar, Kath who’s drained hangs on the bar exhausted with her glass of chardonnay, I perch unsteadily with my double chamomile with a valium top.
Surrounded by hipster Friday night twenty-thirty somethings we look like two old worn out socks.
My mind drifts as I look in the mirror over the bar. I’m back on the moors taking in the fresh air and sounds of a still evening outside I’m standing on the step of the old farmhouse. Beyond the wall in the moonlight the sheep in the heather are saying good night to each other; there’s a call of an owl from the copse below the farm, and was that, yes, in the distance the bark of a dog-fox on heat.
Then a fire truck, siren blaring blazes past crashes New York City reality back into my senses. Looking back at my reflection I smile to myself, a knowing smile, after all it could that it was nice and peaceful, it could get a bit boring on the moors!


John Sunderland

New York, United States

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

Another dafter-than-life true story from my cafe in the East Village, New York.

Artwork Comments

  • sandraellen
  • John Sunderland
  • Donna Huntriss
  • John Sunderland
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