by Jenny Taher
Last month, I went to Maison Harlem, a new corner bistro on 127th and St. Nicholas, for an afternoon coffee and a long overdue catch-up with a dear friend. New York being what it is -- everyone juggling everything -- this is a City where being “busy” is a religion, and a trip to the grocery store can seem like another impossible task on the ever-evolving “to do” list. So it isn’t uncommon that you can go for a month without seeing a person who you consider a close confidant. And, my dear friend, Kim (no, her name has not been changed to protect the innocent, she’s not innocent) is a close friend and we were long overdue. We agreed to meet at Maison Harlem. She’s a long-time Harlem resident. Since the first time I sat down at this newly opened corner bistro I’ve liked the vibe.
Late afternoons, I am convinced, are the best time to go to bars or restaurants. (Maison Harlem is a restaurant with a bar so it fulfills both). The magic hour seems to be around 4 pm right as the staff is getting off or coming on. There is a kind of settled slightly melancholy quality about being in a bar at that time, a public/private feel where you can see the prep take place like being backstage before a show starts. Also, the people in a bar in the late afternoon are either die-hard barflies or off-beat freelancers with some time on their hands. They could be tourists, artists, the unemployed, or people who work in bars themselves and have a day off. Being in a bar on a weekday afternoon reminds one that yes, you are an adult and you can go out on a school night (or day, in this case) if you want to. There’s a thrill to remembering - as you order a glass of wine at 4 pm on a Tuesday - that you made it to adulthood with all its pleasures and pains.
We sat there drinking an Americanos (which got abandoned in favor of a glasses of house red) on the corner of 127th and St. Nick at this French resto as afternoon stretched into early evening. As the sun turned syrupy and orange, gleaming off the bottles of whisky and scotch and turning them an ever deeper amber, my friend and I shared confidences. And, because this is Harlem -- one of the friendliest neighborhoods in the City -- we made new friends: people wiling away a few hours in this Hemingway-esque spot. They were a bank manager who had taken a few days off because of a funeral and a slightly outlandish character who kept butting into our conversation with advice and words of wisdom a la RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m not sure if this would happen at a bar in Battery Park.
Suddenly, in that moment as day stretches into night sitting at this corner bar it feels historic and pedestrian all at once. I understand why the French are so obsessed with Harlem; the most American of neighborhoods, the crossroads of culture where many are welcome and anyone can feel at home.