As part of my weekly Facebook Live show, Fab Night In Chatty Thing, I am writing and sharing chapters of my third New York/Kowalski’s novel, In A New York Minute. This week I had to cancel the show because I’ve lost my voice, but I promised to share the latest chapter I’ve written.
In A New York Minute follows the eldest Steinmann brother, Daniel (we met middle brother Ed in Fairytale of New York and youngest brother Jake in I’ll Take New York and readers always ask me what Daniel Steinmann’s story is). On the day he sells his successful psychiatry practice in Manhattan, he chickens out of going to the formal sale meeting (leaving his lawyer to complete it), flees into New York’s Upper West Side, gets caught in a rainstorm and takes shelter in the closest store – a tiny cupcake bakery a few blocks away from a certain magical New York florists, Kowalski’s. Here he meets Maya Christie, working in her sister’s business, wandering when her life is going to start… They become friends and agree to help one another find whatever it is they want the next season of their lives to be.
So, here is the latest chapter: Maya has promised to take Daniel to ‘the best place in New York City’ – and Daniel is about to discover a Big Apple delight you may not find in any guide book…
THE BEST PLACE IN NEW YORK CITY – by Miranda Dickinson
‘This is the best place in New York?’
Beside me, Maya nods.
Until now, I haven’t once questioned anything Maya Christie has told me. But now, standing in the doorway of this small, unassuming space somewhere in the depths of West Village, I’m suddenly on shaky ground.
‘But it’s a—’ I pause, not sure how to express aloud what my eyes are still not certain they’re seeing. ‘—a hair salon.’
I look over from the three overhead hair dryers that look like they landed from space somewhere around 1964, to the next section of the store. ‘And a shoe repairers…’
‘Yup. Best one in the West Village.’
The enormous guy behind the counter grins in our direction and goes back to fixing a heel on a scuffed pair of brogues.
‘And a… what is that at the back?’ There’s another counter there that, like everything else in this place, looks as if it’s been hiding here for decades. Three faded green vinyl stools line the counter, the shine that once graced the chrome of their bases a long distant memory. Beyond the stools and the dusty wood lie shelves of boxes, reaching almost to the ceiling.
‘Well now, that,’ she throws me a happy smile and skips away from the entrance towards the mystery counter, ‘is the absolute best bit!’
She’s halfway across the peach and grey check linoleum when she turns to beckon me. Bewildered, I follow.
A lady under the middle drier scans my progress beneath her row of pink curlers. The shoe repairer pretends he isn’t watching either.
Clearly, I’m missing something. And now I feel like I’m intruding on a gathering of time-frozen ghosts of Manhattan as I scurry after Maya through the dimly lit store. Even the place smells old, like the homes of ancient relatives my dad always farmed me, Ed and Jake out to during the summer break. Sandalwood, floral bleach, old lavender and dust.
When Maya had promised the first stop on our adventure would be the best place in New York, I’d imagined the New York Public Library, Grand Central Station with its star-strewn ceiling, or one of the rooftop viewing platforms scattered across the city. I’d considered it might be a special diner or bookstore or park Maya had grown up loving – I was hoping for that, in fact, to give me a glimpse into the girl I haven’t been able to get out of my head for days. I know what she’s told me. I know what my trained eye as a former psychiatrist suggests – much as I’m trying to ignore the signs now I’m no longer in that profession. But there’s so much more I want to know about Maya.
Is that what this is? It makes literally no sense to me whatsoever, but does this kooky triple-threat store hold a key to who Maya is?
We’ve reached the far counter now and Maya has already hopped onto a stool, patting the frayed seat of the one next to her as she invites me to sit. She looks utterly at ease here, I think. Not like I’ve seen her anywhere else; not even her workplace or the park where we met by chance a few days ago when I rescued her sister’s dog.
I’m fascinated. And I need to know more.
Obediently, I take my seat on the stool next to hers. ‘The best bit, huh?’
‘The very best bit.’ She leans across the counter and taps a brass bell with all the thrill of a kid being allowed to ring it.
As if from nowhere, a middle-aged guy pops up. He’s wearing a striped green and white apron, white open-necked shirt and black jeans and is sporting the most impressive moustache, which could almost have been bequeathed to him by a famous circus showman. Behind his left ear the stub of a yellow pencil nestles against the shock of silver at his temples. He smiles at me and then, when he turns to Maya, he lets out a squeal of delight and leans across the counter to hug her.
‘Bambina! You’re here!’
Maya giggles from somewhere between his arms and his chest. ‘I was missing you, Ciro.’
‘I should hope you were,’ Ciro grins, his eyes sliding to me as he lets Maya breathe again. ‘And you brought someone.’
‘Ciro, this is my good friend Dan Steinmann.’
‘Dan, welcome.’ His handshake is warm as he greets me. ‘I expect Maya’s told you…’
‘I haven’t yet,’ she interrupts.
For a moment I wonder if they’ve done this for other good friends – if I’m just the latest in a line of waifs and strays Maya Christie has rescued from the streets of Manhattan. But then I check myself: clearly this place means something to her. She could have chosen the New York Public Library, or Central Park, or any one of countless wonders New York offers everyone, but she chose this place.
‘What’s the secret?’ I ask, pushing my doubts away.
Maya leans across the counter and pulls a dark green cover off a vertical object shrouded on the counter end nearest the back wall.
My breath catches in my throat.
‘A soda fountain,’ I breathe, taking in the elaborate decoration, the nineteenth century elegance of its design. ‘Is that original?’
Ciro beams. ‘My great-grandfather installed it in 1902, when this place was a neighbourhood drugstore. It’s been serving us here ever since.’
‘Can we get two strawberry and peach sodas?’ Maya asks, turning to me when Ciro sets to work. ‘Welcome to the best place in the New York City.’
‘How did you find it?’
She beams, the thrill of surprising me lighting her from the inside out. ‘My mom rented that middle chair.’
I follow her pointed finger to the three hair salon chairs with sixties’ dryers. ‘She was a hair stylist?’
Maya nods. ‘All the years we were at school. Lucy and I would come in to help her set up in the morning, then come straight back here after school to do homework and help out.’
‘And drink sodas?’
‘That too.’ She laughs. ‘But the sodas aren’t all that make this place special.’
‘Nope. This is where I discovered stories.’ She takes a breath as if breathing a scent from her childhood, savouring it for a moment before she continues. ‘Mom was the only person not related to the Bianchis– everyone else was and is part of one enormous, happy, loud, opinionated family. They couldn’t afford to have their own separate premises for their individual businesses, so they put them all in here. And somehow, despite New York changing the moment you blink, it’s survived.’
Ciro slides two perfect pastel-coloured sodas across to us. Each one has a striped red, white and green straw, a crown of cream and a glossy maraschino cherry, the chill of the drink frosting the sides of the traditional glass.
It’s magical. And, also, crazy. But sipping my soda, exchanging identically gleeful grins with Maya Christie, I can’t imagine anywhere else in New York I’d rather be.
‘So, why are we staring our journey here?’ I ask.
Maya smiles. ‘Because this is the place so many people have figured out what it is they really want. Most of them Bianchi’s, but I think it can help you, too.’
‘Us,’ I say, quickly.
A patter of pink dances across her cheekbones. ‘Us.’
©Miranda Dickinson 2021 – All rights reserved.