Our garden through uncertainty.
It was all we heard on the streaming device. Crazy time. These uncertain times. The end of the world. While others said we used to be this or that, we said we’re usually a jazz club to those stopping by our 6-foot wide counter for an espresso. Our tiny candle-lit basement club once overflowed with jazz legends and up-and-coming virtuosos, who played shoulder to shoulder with their exuberant audience, was now silenced.
All of New York City had been hushed into sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many New Yorkers live alone, I ached for those without the comfort of connection. Walking the city streets left you feeling haunted and isolated. Unsafe.
Coffee was hard to find in the early weeks of March; an espresso wasteland for over a mile radius in my neighborhood where my husband and I live and work in Greenwich Village. When two large coffee houses on our block closed, and then the deli on the corner, it wasn’t just a matter of getting a steamy cup of strong, rich latte or chai, you couldn’t find drip coffee unless you had a machine at home.
We had to open.
Not that anyone was leaving home.
Since many people in the city had no kitchens, we became essential workers. My husband, always the coffee aficionado, turned our piston-lever Kennedy-era espresso machine around on the bar and we built a 6-foot counter, a barrier between the staff and customers. And we became a coffee shop to-go. Being a jazz club, we knew how to improvise.
It was a great distraction from the fear closing in, a distraction from my anxiety, my son’s anxiety, and the political climate in the United States that helped create an unfathomable body-count, still growing. New York City was at war with a pandemic, the illegitimate president created with his deliberate ineptitude.
Our music club, a small business, had successfully become an espresso bar. A place to escape my young adults, a place for them to escape us, our tiny apartment, and learn barista skills. The to-go counter was bustling. There was little competition with the neighboring coffee shops, still shuttered. Plants and flowers overflowed from our counter-window. People often left dying plants overnight that we nursed back to health. Friends and neighbors pitched in and built the counter, helped served customers, and brought supplies when I couldn’t get away, and our neighborhood grew closer during the pandemic lockdown.
Our café to-go brewed local roasters and we ordered pastries from a friend’s bakery. Meanwhile, there were no signs of life at the coffee houses around the corner.
In the gloom of late March and early April, when neighbors passed and unexpectedly found us, their faces filled with relief as they drank some “damn good coffee”. They were ecstatic. Became regulars. And the flower pots multiplied. I brought roses and herbs from the farm market and slowly added more greenery and blooms. Without much money and not knowing the fate of our music club, when or if things would ever get better, much less return to normal, we kept smiling.
Because smiling made me feel better. Helping someone else made me feel useful. Lending an ear to a neighbor who’d had no one to listen for months, I learned so much, and my optimism grew. As the dank spring opened to clear and sunny days, we gained more enthusiasts and soon became known for our freshly squeezed juices and frozen drink specialties.
By mid-June, the city permitted restaurants to build seating outside in their parking spaces. Phase #2. We built a patio deck, added trees and shrubs, a picket fence, vintage gliders, and our parking-lot evolved into a woodland nook. People let us know how much they loved the new scenery, how it calmed them. It became a space for contemplation. Our neighbors gave us cards of gratitude and gifts.
During the summer cocktails were sipped and our reputation flourished. Being a thoroughfare on W 3rd street, those trekking across town were delightfully surprised to find a locally roasted decaf coffee. We’d put as much heart into our decaf and we did our espresso and fresh fruit cocktails and smoothies.
Given an abundance of chairs, we spaced them out across the street, allowing friends and families to form COVID pods, find comfort for a short stay, considering theaters, clubs, and parks were still closed.
Black Lives Matter police brutality protests marched past. Every day. Peacefully. Usually, around noon, people gathered in Washington Square Park. There were often several marches a day. While one rallied through the park, another headed over the Brooklyn Bridge. Thankfully, I was able to join and march a few times. My city was ALIVE and I was right where I wanted to be. Witnessing history. Not hidden away in a second home.
Still evolving, a friend’s refurbished bike shop set up on the weekends and offered vintage bicycles for sale or an opportunity for repairs. It was temporary, like so much else. After sunset, pedestrian traffic became sparse, our counter light gave our neighbors a little reassurance until closing time.
Phase 3 wasn’t much of a change for our café to-go that’s usually a jazz club. We had live music again. Outside. And then, two weeks into our Brazilian Sundays, the rules changed. Phase 4. Musicians had to be 12-feet from the audience. This was quite a challenge for our tiny patio parking space. We had to stop the music again. Our professional artists are hurting, streaming is expensive, and reaps little monetary reward.
The mayor has extended outdoor cafés until October. After that, what’ll our fate be? On September 30th, we’re told we can bring people inside the club at 25% capacity. But this comes with a huge risk. According to scientists, the pandemic is far from over. But we’ll be here for New Yorkers.
We never left.
ZINC BAR JAZZ Club & Cafe. 82 West 3rd Street New York, New York