‘We Were at the Counter of a Coffee Shop on Lexington Avenue’

The Counterman

Dear Diary:

I was with my daughters. They were 5 and 3 at the time. We were at the counter of a coffee shop on Lexington Avenue that had recently opened. The girls were having custard-filled doughnuts and Cokes. I was having a chocolate doughnut and coffee.

The man next to me said to the counterman that he had given him a $10 bill, and had gotten change for a five.

The counterman checked the register.

“There is no $10 bill here,” he said.

The man became loud and accusatory.

Without saying anything, the counterman handed him a $5 bill.

The man left, red-faced and muttering.

I opened my purse to pay.

“Let me treat you,” the counterman said.

I’m not one to accept gifts easily, and never from strangers.

“Why should you?” I asked. “I have no problem paying. I can afford this.”

“At least let me treat the bambinos,” he said.

He stood in front of me, waiting as I hesitated.

“Say thank you,” I said to my daughters.

— Helen Tzagoloff


Dear Diary:

It was a Sunday afternoon in August. I was walking home and about a block away from my apartment in Sunnyside when a woman approached me.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said with a slight accent. “Do you know how to tie a necktie?”

She was holding two black ties. She explained that she, her husband and her son were going to a funeral. Her husband and son wanted to wear the ties but didn’t know how to tie them.

Could I do this without a mirror, I wondered. It turned out to be one of those things you never forget, like riding a bicycle.

I did one, and then the other, each time leaving a loop large enough to lift over my head.

The woman thanked me, and I said it was one of the most unusual requests I had ever received.

“I was trying to find a cleaner’s,” she said, “but then I saw you.”

— Gary Matson

View From Above

Dear Diary:

In 1998, I went to see Kathleen Chalfant in “Wit.” I sat in the front row of the mezzanine. Because I’m on the short side, the railing at the front of the section blocked my view of the stage.

I asked the usher if he had any cushions I could sit on.

He said he did not. Then he said he had an idea and would be right back.

He soon returned with six stacks of Playbills, three to put under me and three to put behind.

I had a great view.

— Judy Epstein

Summer ’22

Dear Diary:

It was summer 2022. I was running with my friends at the time — 10 of them, plus my older brother — from the Museum of Modern Art to Penn Station to catch a 6:30 train back to New Jersey for an 8:30 reservation at Olive Garden.

The air smelled like falafel, and the city around us felt as alive and young as we did. I was about to turn 16. I was in New York, and the only bad thing I could imagine happening to me at that moment was missing the 6:30 train.

The people running along behind me were my best friends, girls I had whispered secrets to at sleepovers and made popcorn with in the microwaves in their kitchens.

It did not occur to me that within a year, I wouldn’t speak to any of them anymore, not a single one, or that precisely a year later, around the time of my 17th birthday party, I would uncap my pen and cross their names off the guest list.

None of that mattered — nothing mattered, except catching the 6:30 train.

I waved my hand in the air and, as the hazy New York sunset swallowed us whole, called out to my friends to follow me because our train was leaving in five minutes.

— Preeya Govil

‘What’s Downstairs?’

Dear Diary:

In the 1990s, I traveled to New York from the Netherlands several times a year. On one trip, I popped into a small drugstore on 47th Street to buy toothpaste on an especially hot summer day.

I couldn’t immediately find the toothpaste, but then I saw a staircase to the basement. I turned to an older man who worked there.

“What’s downstairs?” I asked him.

“Everything that isn’t upstairs!” he said.

— Alan Stephens

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Illustrations by Agnes Lee

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