Our building was built in the 1920s—it used to be a multifamily before the first floor was renovated into a restaurant around the time JFK was elected. There’s a second set of steps that leads to the coffee shop’s kitchen, but Bosco’s not allowed in there, so I walk him out the front door and down the narrow, green-painted steps that lead out to the sidewalk next to the coffee shop entrance.
And holy shit icicles, it’s cold!
It’s one of those freak March days that come after a rash of mild weather has lulled you into a false sense of security that winter is over. You’ve no sooner boxed up the sweaters, boots, and winter coats in the crawl space than Mother Nature says, “Sorry, sucker,” and dumps a frozen nor’easter on your ass.
The sky is gray and the wind is hair-whippingly bitter. My poor blouse, which only has two buttons fastened crookedly, never had a chance.
It bursts open.
Right in front of Pete the Pervy Garbage Man. My white lace bra is sheer as sheer can be and my nipples proclaim the arctic temperatures in all their pointy glory.
“Looking good, baby!!” he yells in a Brooklyn accent so thick, you’d think he was trying to make fun of people with Brooklyn accents. He wags his tongue. “Lemme suck on those sweet jugs. Could use a little extra hot milk to go with my coffee.”
He holds onto the back of his truck with one hand while grabbing and rubbing his crotch with the other. Jesus, guys are gross. If this were half-decent revenge porn, he’d fall into the bin and the trash compactor would mysteriously turn on, crushing and slicing him into oblivion. Unfortunately, this is just my life.
But I’m a New Yorker, born and raised. So there’s only one appropriate reaction.
“Fuck you!” I shout at the top of my lungs, lifting both hands above my head, middle fingers raised loud and proud.
As the truck rumbles down the street, I let loose every obscene hand gesture I know. The thumb-against-teeth flip, the chin flick, the horns, and the raised-fist bicep slap, also known as the Italian Salute—just like Grandma Millie used to make.
The only problem is, when I smack my arm, I also drop the leash, and Bosco takes off like a bat out of hell.
As I’m buttoning my blouse and trying to run at the same time, I think, God, this is a crappy day. And it’s not even five a.m. yet.
But that was just the tip of the crapberg.
It takes me three blocks to catch the little ingrate. By the time I make it back, tiny snowflakes have begun to fall, like dandruff from the sky.
I used to like snow—love it, actually. How it coats everything in a sparkly diamond luster, making it all shiny-clean and new. Turning lampposts into ice sculptures and the city into a magical winter wonderland.
But that was before. Before there were bills to pay and a business to run. When I see the snow now, all I think about is what a slow day it’s going to be, how little money is going to come in…the only magical thing is how all the customers will disappear.
A slapping, fluttering sound makes me turn my head to discover a paper taped to the outside of the coffee shop door. A foreclosure notice—the second one we’ve received, not counting the dozens of phone calls and e-mails that in a nutshell say, “Bitch better have my money.”
Well, the bitch doesn’t have any.
For a few months I tried sending the bank as much as I could, even if it was short. But when it came down to paying our employees and vendors or not, I stopped sending anything.
I tear the scarlet letter off the door, grateful that I got to it before any customers arrived. Then I walk up, toss Bosco just inside the apartment door, and head into the kitchen.
This is the real start to my day. I fire up the ancient oven, preheating it to four hundred degrees. Then I slip my earbuds in. My mother was a huge fan of the eighties—the music and the movies. She used to say they’ll never make ’em like that again. When I was little, I’d sit on the stool here in this kitchen and watch her do her thing. She was like an artist, creating one edible masterpiece after another, with female power ballads from Heart, Scandal, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, and Lita Ford blasting in the background. Those same songs fill my playlist and pound into my eardrums.
There are over a thousand coffee shops in New York City. To stay afloat against the heavy hitters like Starbucks and The Coffee Beanery, us mom-and-pop shops need to have a niche—something that sets us apart. Here, at Amelia’s, that something is our pies. Handmade from scratch, fresh every day, from my mother’s recipes that were handed down to her from her grandmother and great-aunts in “the old country.”
What country that is, we’re not exactly sure. My mom used to call our nationality “Heinz 57”—a little bit of everything.
But the pies are what’s kept us above water, even though we’re sinking deeper and deeper every day. As Vixen sings about being on the edge of a broken heart, I mix all the ingredients in a massive bowl—a cauldron, really. Then I knead the sticky dough, squeezing and clenching. It’s a pretty good upper-arm workout—no chicken arms for me. Once it’s the right consistency and a smooth sable color, I turn the bowl on its side and roll the giant ball onto the middle of the expansive, flour-coated butcher-block counter. I flatten it into a big rectangle, first with my palms, then with a rolling pin, stopping every few minutes to re-flour. Once it’s spread evenly thin, I slice it into six perfect circles. This will be enough for three double-crust pies—and I’ll do this four more times before the shop opens. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, I mix up the regular apple, cherry, blueberry, and peach along with lemon meringue, chocolate, and banana cream.