After nearly 12 years of marriage, I know the groan well. I brace myself. Who could have died? “H&H is closing its West Side store,” my husband Jeremy says with a wince, referring to the acclaimed bagel shop. I exhale. But he adds, “It just confirms that everything is going to hell in a hand basket.”
I commiserate. I console. And I am mournful. But let’s put it another way — I’m also not quite boiling over with rage or indignation. Yes, the Upper West Side has lost much of its scruffy, heimische character in the past two decades; and yes, the neighborhood can seem overrun with banks and Duane Reades. But the last 15 years have also witnessed improvements — high-end coffee shops and gelato stores with local flavor; a Jewish Community Center with a 25-meter lap pool; the beautification of Central Park. And, unlike Jeremy, who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1970s, and lost his bicycle when a thug snatched it from under his pedaling feet, my children do not face a high likelihood of being mugged.
Many others, of course, share Jeremy’s sentiment, shedding “schmeary-eyed” tears in the words of a CNN headline, and exclaiming that “the neighborhood is finished” — as Alexandra Schwartz, raised on the Upper West Side during the Clinton era, wrote in The New York Times. One local resident, James Besser, organized a rally in Riverside Park to save what he calls “our beloved mom-and-pop store.”
Never mind that one of the beloved “pops” of the store, Helmer Toro, one of the H’s in H&H, pleaded guilty to tax charges last spring and also owes thousands of dollars in back-rent.
My son Joel, who is 6, also wails when he learns of the imminent demise of this institution. But my daughter Talia, who is 9, and literally teethed on this stuff as a baby — whenever her colorful plastic teething toys were dirty or unavailable, I reached for a frozen hunk of bagel from the freezer — says calmly, echoing the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “Every store has its time. Maybe something new will open.”
To which I say, “That’s true.”
To which Joel screams, “STOP saying that!”
Don’t misunderstand. I’ve lived in this stretch of Manhattan for almost 20 years, and I too know the pleasure of consuming a steaming bagel on a winter’s eve, of inhaling the oniony aroma that always seemed to emanate from H&H’s doorway. I’ve long adored the sweet, super-sized, crusty, doughy creations that H&H churned out at all hours. And I’m happy to learn that H&H may be scouting around for another neighborhood location.
While the shuttering does not seem like a hole-y tragedy, I do believe that every death deserves a proper ritual. And so, on a muggy morning in early summer, Joel and I head over to the celebrated bagel store for a Last Breakfast. The familiar striped awning has been removed, and the sign has been boarded over, but one whiff from the entrance tells us that we’ve arrived at the right address.
The lines are long; some faces are too. As a mother and her young son pass by, the mother adopts a high-pitched, bubbly voice: “Last Day at H & H!” to which her child informs her that she’s incorrect.
Joel stands quizzically by the storefront, pondering the long walk to the Midtown H&H factory, which will remain open. He knows nothing about the store’s beginnings in 1972, or about its guest appearances on so many television shows, from “Seinfeld” to “Friends.” What Joel knows best is the starring role that bagels have played in so many of our brunches with friends — topped, of course, with a thin layer of scallion cream cheese, and a healthy serving of Zabar’s salty nova.
Now he happily observes the customers, a diverse crowd, with some dressed up for work, some ready for the park, a woman far along in her pregnancy, a kindergarten classmate of Joel’s. “See,” he says, cheering himself up. “They have so many people. Maybe they won’t close.”
Joel and I head to Riverside Park to enjoy our purchases. We plant ourselves on a bench along Riverside Drive, where we can hear the birds and the traffic, and where we draw in the scent of flowers, with just a hint of stale urine. We pull off hunks of the warm, soft, dense, chewy bread, slowly stripping away what may be our final hot H& H bagels, until they are gone.
When I return the following week I turn away from the pile of rubble within the darkened storefront. Then I spot a tiny sign posted to the door: Zabar’s now sells H &H bagels.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month.