Word from the New York Times tonight that H&H Bagels is closing its flagship store at 80th & Broadway. I photographed Tom Beller there in 2004 for Columbia Magazine. Tom had written a piece about his trial by bagel as the inventory manager at H&H, a brief stop on his way to full-time writing.
To be back in H&H on assignment was fun for as much it influenced Tom’s life, it had intersected mine. In the fall of ’85 I moved to New York City living at first at 71st & Broadway. Fresh out of college, with the world’s smallest apartment (one window and ~80 sq. ft.), no love life to speak of, my friend Chris and I would walk the Upper West Side. Chris grew up in Manhattan and could hardly go a block without seeing someone he knew. Me, I was learning the streets. With Chris’ guidance various haunts became our home. Big Nick’s Pizza Joint – a sign on the wall implored the “girls”, the waitresses, “to get the phone,” prompting us to do the same the whenever the phone rang. Cafe La Fortuna, where a crowd of heavy older men held forth with breast pockets filled with paper two to three inches thick. I liked that the fire extinguisher was a Potter-Roemer (I had never seen that before), the chocolate ices were amazing, and the inner courtyard a respite from the crush of the city.
Equal with those was H&H Bagels. It was just on the acceptable side of run down. Not dirty, just used, but also practical. It had one purpose and that was to get the bagels out.
Chris taught me that there was only one way to pick a bagel. It wasn’t by flavor or by favorite, it was solely by warmth. The hotter it was, the fresher it was, and that was what you got.
We would stumble in (an odd silly habit we had developed), any time of day or night, and go straight to the plexiglass case. Each kind of bagel had its own cubby, a square foot of space. The key was to press your hands against the plexi and be guided by the warmth and the glow and the love of a fresh out of the oven bagel. That was what you bought and once in hand you could step outside, break it open, watch the wisp of steam rise out of it, and dig in.
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