The Spectacle on Grand Street
Accounts from inside a kaleidoscope
The blizzard propelled me along Grand Street that traverses Manhattan’s Lower East Side like a conveyor belt of people and goods. As snow progressively formed a carpet beneath my feet, the wind suddenly blew me into a tizzy.
As if blasted into a kaleidoscope, I zipped past colorful Chinese storefronts and restaurants with roast ducks hanging by the misty windows. I spun over produce stands where vibrant vegetables shivered under plastic covers while snow piled on top. A few oranges and star apples jumped ship and rolled underneath a car.
I was whisked across the street as snowflakes frosted my eyes. An aroma of honey roasted nuts from the corner street stand hit my nose, just as quickly as I caught a whiff of the trash billowing over the sidewalk.
As if I reached the far end of the kaleidoscope, I tipped over and landed in front of an Italian bakery. The bright lights on the awning flashed ‘Ferrara.’ The doors swung open and the wind’s invisible palm pushed me towards the bakery case that hosted a party lounge of pastries.
There, I saw a gigantic flaky pastry called a lobster tail reclining on a cloud of powdered sugar—its jolly belly bursting with custard. The rum baba sat on his own throne in a permanent inebriated state of elation. The éclairs spotted me and batted their eyes, while the black and white cookies showed off their glossy sheen. They cheered as the rainbow tri color cookies paraded across the bakery case.
Ever so warm and animated, the cannoli huddled like a big family across the pastry shelf—big and small, classic and chocolate covered. They chattered effusively until they saw me and my puffy red cheeks peering down at them. They paused and exclaimed, “Mama Mia!”
As more people streamed in to seek refuge from the wintry elements, I proceeded past the movie theater velvet ropes that created an orderly queue for customers. I walked towards the restroom but took an adjacent staircase up a flight to a changing room.
I put on my fresh pressed white blouse and apron and took my position at the counter behind the bakery case. I arrived just in time to service an elderly couple whose eyes twinkled when I boxed their dozen mini cannoli. As I moved them towards the register, they remarked how similar the café still looks compared to when they came as children.
Opened in 1892, Ferrara Bakery and Café remains one of the oldest cafes in New York City. Situated on 195 Grand Street in Little Italy, Ferrara felt more like a landmark on a postcard than being only a hop and skip away from Chinatown where I grew up. I entered its doors for the first time after graduating college. To live into the expectation of being in the city that never sleeps, I moonlighted for six months by picking up a few evening shifts after work.
Looking back, I appreciate how the café offered an ideal microcosm for developing relationships that rivaled any expensive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training that present day companies could offer. Working a shift enabled people to practice the principles of building awareness and cultural competence and fostering belonging with fellow members of the community.
After my first week at Ferrara, I made the acquaintance of the Colombian lady who washed dishes. Tucked away around the corner of the bakery case, she stood daily in front of a sink and had her hands submerged in soapy water. Like bathing a newborn, she hummed and gingerly washed every dish, mug, and utensil that came her way. She set them on the drying rack like a nursery placed under her care.
If we timed it right, we took breaks together by sneaking in a glance or a nod as we busily passed each other at the counter. Sitting on the staircase to the changing room, she would share her arepa and tell me about her children in Colombia whom she sent money to each month. Once she called her daughter and bragged that she was friends with a Chinita who spoke Spanish. She put me on the phone and we laughed and chatted in a way that allowed me to discover that the bond that connects humankind is the worth and joy we bring to each other’s lives.
In the back of the house, I got to know the Mexicans who worked around the clock baking the beautiful pastries that customers enjoyed at the front of the house. Like opening a door to Santa’s workshop, the kitchen was possessed by a multitude of trays with cookies in various stages of being prepped, vats of flour, and ingredients whirring about. Whenever I entered the kitchen to refill a tray of cookies, the Mexicans cheered and greeted me with enthusiasm. Often at the end of my shift, they would urge me to take home some of the misshapen cookies and pastries that would otherwise be discarded.
Not all interactions at the café coalesced seamlessly, however. Like holding up a kaleidoscope that reflects the various characteristics of light and color, Ferrara also showed us the multiple facets of people. There was the male manager who sometimes made inappropriate comments to the female staff and the two pretty Dominican girls who protected their turf at the register. True to humans honing in on difference, they picked on the sole white girl who worked next to me at the bakery case line-up. Her academic gait and proper prose gave her away as not being from the community.
After she quit due to the inhospitality, I recognized that the misuse of power and the fear and disdain of difference is not limited to any one group. However, like the contents in a kaleidoscope, it is this constant movement and interaction of people through various angles and assembly that allows for seemingly incongruous elements to eventually fall into place.
My shift ended when the clock struck 9pm. I dusted off powder and flour from my apron and tucked it away in the changing room cubby. I readied myself to confront the cold and joined my friends for hot pot at a Chinese restaurant just a few steps away.
Litter rolled like tumbleweed down the barren streets when I walked to the Grand street subway station after dinner. On the platform, I greeted two Mexican colleagues who just left the night shift. We hopped onto the D train together headed to Brooklyn.
As the train rumbled out of the station and into the tunnel, I felt the container of blemished Italian cookies jostle in my back pack and rub shoulders with the Chinese take out box. Like moving through a kaleidoscope, I see cultures and people thrown into one location and being tossed into motion a myriad of unexpected interactions.
Grand Street, a street that I have trekked since childhood, is always revealing something new and interesting to me at different street intersections and life stages. Now living more than 200 miles away, the principle of multiple reflection continues to cast opportunities for eternal discovery and appreciation onto Grand street for those fortunate enough to cross it.