As the most insufferable of his actions while we were contemporaries in high school, the kid who was president of my senior class interrupted his speech during our graduation at regular intervals to serenade us, a capella, with portions of the theme song of Cheers. Yes, the TV show.
I have to confess, I hadn't thought of this in years until today, when it came back to me what that otherwise unmemorable song is about: Being a regular. One of the great civic, and particularly urban, traditions of our culture is the idea of being a regular at the establishments that form part of the routine of living in a true neighborhood.
I realize it again because the past few days, as I've been home after a particularly long and arduous time on the road, and have been suffering through something of a lingering cold, I've gotten the chance to encounter time and again the fact that I'm a regular in my neighborhood. And that the sense of belonging, the sense of place, that this inspires is why the East Village, for me, feels like home.
From Saturday, I visited my neighborhood barber for haircut. The establishment's sign out front says, in big letters, "Neighborhood Barber". That's probably all the context you need for setting the scene. I trundled in with unkempt hair and a happy new year greeting, and got an affectionate, "Hey, happy new year! The usual?" in return. Now, I am not celebrating a new year, of course, but despite our neighborhood being predominantly hispanic, I'm probably the only person who frequents this barbershop who's not jewish or muslim, so it just seemed appropriate. And more importantly, I didn't even have to say "Number two razor, keep the sides and back natural" and my hair ended up as it should. If I hadn't have shaved the day before, he would have done that, too. Very dignified. There are some non-Muslim, non-Jewish regulars at the barbershop, too, mostly really skinny almost-famous hipsters who bring with them magazines or CD artwork showing the photo shoots where they try (unsuccessfully) to get Neighborhood Barbers a styling credit for their part in the burgeoning star's fabulousness. The guys at the barbershop always nod politely and then get back to cutting hair.
From yesterday morning, while heading out to a meeting, I walked by the guy who runs the tea shop at the end of the block. (It's like a coffee shop, only they serve a gentleman's drink.) Nothing more than a nod, but he was acknowledging me as somebody who makes his business go, and I was acknowledging him as the most talented enabled of my caffeine addiction. Fair exchange.
Yesterday evening, rushing back from being at a conference all day, I got into the corner laundry just as they closed. Well, technically, after they closed. The mother and daughter who run the place held the door open, and even retrieved my bag of washed-and-folded without me providing my name, phone number, address, or any other ID. "You almost missed us!" was half-teasing, half-scolding, in true Asian mother fashion. But I still got my clothes back, no problem.
Then today, at lunch. I went to eat at Ssam Bar, a block and a half from where we live. It's a much-praised restaurant, with a not-quite-celebrity chef, sure. But it's also a neighborhood joint where they know us as regulars, and take care of us accordingly. I wanted to try out the bento box, which I've never had, and while i was there (the place was almost empty!) a woman came in, asking basic questions about the place and clearly only there on a recommendation. I asked if it was her first time there, and told her "That's David Chang, he started this place." as he walked by, in the midst of me explaining how the pork bun was the place to start at lunch if you wanted to really begin to understand the menu at Ssam. Some more pleasantries were exchanged, and she made the (correct) decision to have her first visit be at dinner. The skeleton staff that watches over the place brought me a Diet Dr. Pepper, no need for me to order, and when I left and started to bus my little tray of food, they shook their heads. "Don't worry about it."
For all the (over-)explaining I've done about why I love New York City, it's probably never been more complicated than the simple fact that in the East Villlage, in the places I live my life, the people here know me, and I know them. We have a shared context, of being multiethnic and vaguely Asian and obsessed with food and in so many ways, really old-fashioned. New York is the biggest of big cities, of course, but my experience is actually a lot more personal and personable than when I lived in a small town. And it's a place where I feel like a regular. Where, you know, everybody knows your name.
Originally posted on anil.vox.com