There aren't many public benches on this part of Fifth - only the spartan metal bus stop seats dispensed by the city with a certain sadistic benevolence. But the regulars know where they're welcome to stop a while - the merchants' benches where they're free to break up the day, spot an acquaintance, chat to a stranger, escape the confinement of a lonely apartment. In front of a laundromat, outside of a grocery, they find a little solace in a fast world.
The Bagel Factory has the best bench sitters. It isn't one of those old, much-loved businesses that garners attention; it's one of a chain and only arrived on the avenue three years ago. And my bagel allegiance lies elsewhere. But it slipped in seamlessly, and its management is especially kind to those that use the seats outside. A place on one of the benches doesn't necessitate a Factory purchase.
These benches are a haven in times of displacement. A number of the sitters keep a daily schedule. Others attend sporadically. A jury of retired men are there most mornings, conversing in Spanish and staring impassively at passers by. I've often seen an oldish woman there, pampering an oldish dog in matching clothes. Yesterday I talked to a woman who'd grown up on Third, and was now in a sheltered apartment in Chelsea. She came back every so often to see her adult daughter (seated right next to her), but longed to be living back in Brooklyn again. The daughter had nothing to say; the mother was chatty. She pointed out a spot where a butcher's shop had been - the place where the new Beast gym was coming in. The butcher had been kind to her mother, she said; each week he'd slipped an extra cut of meat into the paper parcel.
I could have kept talking to her, but I had things to do, and went on my way. She and her daughter were still there when I swung back along the avenue. By this time, on the second bench, the sitters had changed guard several times. A leggy trans woman and a friend, deep in quiet conversation. Two middle-aged women discussing their surgeries, and laughing: "Thank God the scar left a smile on my belly. I said to the doctor, 'At least you didn't give me a fucking frown!' "A nondescript guy in sweats, quietly, to a nondescript friend: "I'm sticking with eyeliner and lipstick. For now."
Perhaps there were benches all over the city where disparate characters like these gathered. Perhaps you could make a Venn diagram. Perhaps you could determine that overlap where there were shared stories, shared laughter, shared economies, shared memories, shared fears. You loved those Factory benches, but you couldn't quite pinpoint what it was that made them so special.
A couple of years back I found a surprise acquaintance on a Factory bench: a shy, wallflower neighbor of mine, who'd just lost his sister, which meant he was also going to lose his home. I'll call him Walter. He was the least likely person I'd expect to find on a bench. In fact I hadn't ever seen him sitting down in thirty years. He was a busy man, chipper in a gentle sort of way, and always in a hurry. Now, grief and instability had pulled him here. He didn't look at ease exactly, but the company must have been something of a solace. I saw him there a few times, and then he disappeared completely.