Sunday, September 20, 2009

To a Diner Dying Young: Joe Jr.'s

I was at work – July 2nd – and a couple of New York City blogs buzzed with the word that Joe Jr’s, the iconic West Village diner, lost its lease and was in danger of closing. My girlfriend was picking me up early from work to head up to Maine for the July 4th weekend.   I had my bags packed, so the plan was to leave directly from Midtown and shoot straight up to Maine. 

I got in the car and told her, “We have to go to Joe’s.” Once I explained the events, she understood.

She drove me down Seventh and took a left on West 12th.  Halfway up the street traffic stopped so I just got out and started running towards Joe’s as if I heard a loved one was in the hospital.  

I saw Greg manning the counter.  “I came as soon as I heard,” I said.  “I’m leaving for vacation but I had to stop here first.  Is it true?”  He nodded, and then in a spontaneous moment, we hugged.  It was a moment of profound sadness but also one of appreciation – appreciation that I came by, and my own appreciation for the operation of a diner that meant so much to me.  Photographers and newspaper reporters were there.  Flashbulbs went off; I’m sure there’s a picture of me and Greg somewhere in the New York July 3rd newspapers.   


(Image from jeremoss' flickr pageJoe Jr's shortly before the closing.

Let me take a step back.  When I first moved into New York, I struggled to find myself here.  Most of my friends landed in Boston after college, and despite the proximity to my hometown in NJ, NYC felt like an alien place.  It wasn’t until I established routines and “places,” that I grew accustomed to New York, and eventually came to love it. 

Joe’s was that first place for me. 

If you wanted to dine solo like me, you had a couple of options – saddle up on the counter, or take the “little table” near the front door with a view of Sixth Avenue.  I saw John Waters at the little table more times than I can count.

I was a “regular” on Saturday mornings.  My plate of a western omelet, Canadian bacon, and whole wheat toast would arrive without any prompting.  It’s an incredibly simple thing in hindsight, but the “regular” status had certain kind of currency for me.  In a city in which I knew practically no one, I had a diner where at least I was recognized and taken care of.  When you’re lonely and just out of college something that simple can take on magical status. 

I even built the diner into poems as I started to construct my New York experience:
 “ …ordering a western, wheat down at Joe Jr’s, Nicky behind the counter busting the chops of / regulars / stacked on the stools / like beer bottles with their bowls of red, staring into the depths of a coffee, black, / piecing together the night’s furtive impulses rehashing in my head,”

You could say I gave Joe Jr’s a sort of personal mythology.  It had these quirks that I came to love, like the idiosyncrasies of a family member you grow a fondness for.  When I asked for the paper, I got the Post.  If you asked about the game, you heard about the Yankees or the Giants.  The diner patois (“whisky down,” “delivery!”) interspersed with random Greek sayings and the clatter of pots of pans became a sort of music.


   (Image from jeremoss' flickr page) How I remember it...

When I brought my girlfriend to Joe’s for the first time I felt like it was an introduction to a member of my family.  The message was simple: this is a part of my life and I want to share it with you.  Meet Mom, Dad, and Joe Jr. 

I would grab breakfast there before all my important exams – the Series 7 when I just started out in my job, and more recently the CFA exams.  It was the closest I had to home cooking – the kind of food you crave when the outside world threatens you and all you can think about is comfort.  Just eat, eat, and eat and the worry goes away. 

A few months after it shuttered, Joe’s storefront is still empty.  The signs are gone and the windows boarded up.  I wince a little bit every time I see it.  It’s a constant reminder that the good things in this world are not permanent.  It was the first thing I cared about in New York that was lost, and it won’t be the last.     

More importantly, Joe’s was the livelihood for a number great people.  Greg, Nicky, Raul, Eric, Ramon… there are many others.  I don’t know how things shook out, but I think of them a lot and hope they all landed on their feet. 

I know it’s strange to feel this way about a restaurant, but then again, not all restaurants go by a first name. 

Joe Jr, I miss you.

3 comments:

  1. No! This was a landmark for so many important events in my life. I sat with my favorite poet discussing meter in Joe Jr's. I read all of Jonathan Franzen's How To Be Alone there. I sketched my first shirts there. I made funny faces while sharing a chocolate milkshake with a great girl there. This news comes as an incredible blow.

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  2. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news bud. Can you say who the poet was? I'm fascinated.

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  3. Again you nailed it, and made me think of the Paramount diner on Charles st in Boston... amidst lots of overpriced back bay crap, it was an oasis of afforadble greek american food- , teeming with college kids, and legend had it it was the inspiration for the famous "cheeseboyga, cheeseboyga, no coke only pepsi" characters son SNL...dont know if its still there.

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