I wouldn’t call myself claustrophobic per se. But I do have an intense dislike of confined spaces, a trait I share with pretty much every animal on the planet. So naturally, I’ve chosen to live in New York City, which is a series of confined spaces piled on top of one another.
For reasons I can’t quite place right now, I decided to go to a different deli than usual to get my coffee and breakfast. And for reasons that are even harder to determine, I went to the deli that once served me the worst sandwich ever made. So I should have expected to be a little disoriented and confused. What I didn’t count on was starring in a mini-French Connection subway platform scene. (I played Popeye Doyle in this version.)
Like most NY delis, this one doesn’t have a lot of room to spare for coffee preparation. It needs the space for 1700 different kinds of energy shots and wasabi peas. Even when judged by NY standards, however, this deli is aggressive in its waste of space. You know how there are design consultants who can help you maximize your space in a crowded urban environment? This deli went with these consultants’ bizzarro counterparts. “This guy comes highly recommended–he spiffed up the Collyer Brothers’ place!”
The coffee cups are stashed on a shelf underneath the carafes. Each stack of cups is piled just high enough that you have to tilt the stack to pull one from the top, and hope you don’t take five by mistake, or send them all toppling to the floor.
So I manage to grab a cup without making a complete mess, but can’t locate the regular coffee. There are five carafes, each marked HAZELNUT or FRENCH VANILLA or HONEY BARBECUE, but no regular. I look around the corner, where all the other coffee implements are wedged between the top of an ice cream cooler and a shelf loaded down with loaves of bread–all of which are too long to fit on the shelf, so they all droop down and make a yeasty canopy for the half and half.
I leave my “spot” in front of the carafes for no more than a split second and return, only to find a very large man standing in that exact space. Actually, he wasn’t that big–not any taller than I am, and not really overweight, either. But he wore this tent-like black trenchcoat, the kind favored by Kevin Smith, that swung around him with every movement. Like, he wanted a constant air cushion around his trunk. His glasses were big and round, slightly too big for his face. He had a pointy, bushy beard. He was committed to taking up as much space as possible.
So I defer to The Large Man, who takes a cup v e r y s l o w l y from the racks, then pours about one squirt of French vanilla coffee in it. He could have measured it out in an eye dropper. He squeezes past me, then says “excuse me” in the least polite way possible, like he found me sitting on the hood of his parked car.
I finally locate the regular coffee, then round the corner to get at the sugar, milk, etc. But The Large Man is there, too, stirring his coffee at a glacial pace with a red swizzle stick–which he proceeds just leave on the counter, on top of the empty sugar packet he also just left on the counter, which are both about three centimeters from a little garbage basket.
The Large Man has two choices to go on his way: he can head to the relatively open space to his left, by the cash register and deli’s exit, or he can try to fit his bulky frame between me and a swivelly rack of assorted nuts. I think you can guess which route he chose. And again, he says “excuse me” like he caught me kicking his dog.
I try to brush this off, and orient myself with the deli’s completely Rube Goldgergian arrangement of coffee condiments. They are not placed in any order in which any sane person would sequentially use them. It could be a fraternity hazing ritual, where you have do a shot if you don’t find the Equal and the skim milk in a certain amount of time.
And as I’m struggling to find stuff, The Large Man returns to trim his own coffee, which I swear he just did. As I reach for the milk, he reaches for the sugar. As I reach for the sugar, he reaches for the cup lids. As I try to stir my coffee, he reaches for the sugar. There’s no rhyme or reason to it–he’s just reaching for stuff. He’s not even doing anything.
His stupid Kevin Smith trenchcoat sleeve is an inch from my nose. And I know it smells weird, even though I refuse to breathe through my nose. I can just feel it in my nostrils.
I get out of the coffee stirring area as quickly as possible and off to the cash register. But of course, The Large Man is right behind me. Or rather, right beside me. Ignoring a hundred years of checkout line protocol, he stands to the left of me, and puts his items on the counter to the left of mine. He has no intention of cutting me–he’s just gonna stand there.
It begins to occur to me, I think I might have to get into a fight with Beardo. So help me, I thought he was gonna jump me when we left the deli. Or that I would have to jump him, just so he couldn’t ambush me.
I walk halfway down the block and turn around. Nothing. I walk to the end of the block. Nothing. I turn the corner and whip around real quick, just in case he’s trying to sneak up on me. Nothing. No trace of The Large Man whatsoever. Just like The French Connection, the bad guy got away. And I didn’t even get to shoot a guy on the stairs to the M train either. Maybe next time.