I am a writer, and I have Saturday morning deadlines, which means my Friday nights are spent hermetically sealed off from the world, typing away and staring at my computer screen. If I get sick of my office, I go to a cafe near my apartment. It is open 24 hours, mostly serving the employees of New York Presbyterian Hospital, which is right across the street.
Dre holds the place down from 9 pm to 6 am. Dre is from Brooklyn, by way of Jamaica. It takes him an hour and a half to commute to Washington Heights, and he has at least five other jobs–he’s a bartender, a freelance photographer, a DJ, and a student.
Here, at the cafe, Dre is a one-man show, making wraps, slinging sandwiches, being the barista, and providing the music.
Amazingly, Dre doesn’t drink coffee. Instead, he stays awake on a blend of Jamaican tunes. Indeed, if it weren’t for the steady stream of vigorous dance hall and reggae music streaming from overhead, and a latte at my side, my mind would have drifted into a catatonic oblivion, and deep pools of saliva would have gathered on my keyboard a long time ago. Lobotomy by pixilation is what I like to call it.
Most of the patrons look like they have gone through hell in a hand basket. They come in wearing wrinkled scrubs and blank stares, like zombie extras on Walking Dead–or like they’ve just beaten back a zombie attack, and are looking for fortification to stave off the next one. That’s what a night in a city hospital will do to you.
Dre has compassion for these folks, these working stiffs who clean out bedpans, peel dying junkies off the street, or who might have just finished a triple bypass surgery at four in the morning.
“It is my job to keep them awake. I tell them to feel free to come in here and scream,” he once told me.
Some of the Working Dead visibly come back to life and shuffle about discreetly to Sean John as they wait for their midnight sandwiches to be made. The music gets raunchier as the minutes turn to hours. I know I wouldn’t possibly be able to meet any of my deadlines if I knew how to twerk, but I still can’t think of a better place to work on a Friday night.
A fraction of the patrons are the homeless people who live at a shelter right next door. And there are some people, like me, who bring a computer, a charger, order a coffee, and spend the night, or “pitch a tent,” as Dre puts it.
With the shelter and the hospital both in close proximity–and the EMS bay station directly across the street, there’s so many different situations and people that a 24-hour cafe can witness at 4 or 5 in the morning.
But Dre does his best to make the most of his own situation, and with his music, does his best to create a festive atmosphere. When he doesn’t think anyone is looking he breaks out in dance, waving his arms about, pointing to no one in particular and mouthing the words to his favorite songs.
I don’t feel so bad about being here, finishing articles on a Friday night. Misery loves company, and I’ve got plenty of it. Dre clearly would rather be elsewhere, and I’m sure these hospital workers can think of 5,001 things they would prefer to do instead of dealing with the flesh, blood and bodily fluids of New York City.
But as I listen to Sister Nancy, I realize things are never so bad as they seem. At least I’m not having a triple bypass surgery.