NYC on a roll

There is no place on earth my mother hates more than New York City. Mention it and she’ll run through the litany of travesties that befell her the sole time she visited Manhattan, in 1963.

“At breakfast,” she’ll tell you, “I asked for a roll, and they brought out a roll. A giant, stone cold dinner roll. And when I sat there blinking at it, they asked if I wanted butter.”

Because we moved to Miami from Dallas when I was three, even as a child I wasn’t able to muster sufficient indignation at this, the crowning outrage of her stay here. “You didn’t want butter?” I said.

In Texas, apparently, any idiot knows that if you ask for a “roll” in the morning, you really mean a breakfast roll (pictured at left).

I thought of the roll story the other night while reading my friend Katherine Lanpher‘s hilarious essay, “What Iowa Did to Manhattan,” which opens by skewering native New Yawkers’ linguistic and cultural prejudices, but then acknowledges the difficulty of getting into the rhythm of life — and ordering breakfast — here.

[I]t was true that during my first few months in New York, people didn’t understand me. There clearly was a city patois that I hadn’t picked up, a set of phrases and customs that I kept bumping into the way a sparrow will fly into a glass window over and over again.

I’m at the bodega — that’s the corner grocery — across the street from my apartment building. It is a dimly lit, small shop, crammed from floor to ceiling with everything from Pepperidge Farm cookies to condoms, from Kitty Litter to four flavors of Mexican soda. There is a tiny grill…. I’m here to order breakfast.

“An egg and cheese on a bun, please.”

The guy behind the grill counter just looks at me.

“Toasted,” I say for good measure. “Could you toast the bun?”

He’s still looking at me. I am trying to figure out what I did wrong. This is a classic New York breakfast, up there with the corn muffin when it comes to indigenous Manhattan morning foods.

I point to the display case of bread. Comprehension dawns across his face. It’s a roll, he tells me with great care, and then he enunciates the word and stretches it out for me so that I, poor witless creature, will understand. Rollll, not bun. Rolllllll. Here, say it with me.

Roll. Got it.

I move down the line and stand in front of the cash register. My egg and cheese appears, wrapped in white paper, and the clerk behind the cash register tries to put it in a plastic bag.

“That’s OK,” I say. “I don’t need the sack.”

The what?

I sigh. Bag, sack, whatever. I am still learning how to hail a taxi, how to give directions to a cabbie, how to decipher the subway system. I was hoping that I could at least order breakfast.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.