This morning, on my way home from Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, I decide to take Havemeyer Street, which I do once and a while whenever I’m coming from the city and realize I need eggs. I discovered a few years back that this one giant chain grocery store on Havemeyer, for whatever reason, always has special discount deals on organic free range veggie fed eggs (should I be suspicious?), which they do this time as well.
After I buy my eggs, I continue south and notice a new spot has opened up: Stan’s Cafecito, a tiny hole-in the wall eatery.
What catches my attention is the chalkboard sign out front: We have Shrimp Etouffee Today. I’ve walked Havemeyer for years and there’s never been a spot to eat etouffee. New spots pop up often these days all over my neighborhood, which is foodie central, so I’m not surprised, but definitely interested.
I’m allergic to shrimp sometimes (it’s the uncertainty in sometimes that makes me gamble and get into trouble) so I’m not here to try the etouffee this time, but my curiosity is piqued, so I stop in, and check out the breakfast menu. The featured special is a steak breakfast burrito and there are other intriguing options like jambalaya breakfast burrito (again, shrimp), who the owner Stan, a friendly mature man with a white beard manning the orders and cash register, describes to me as being rice based. I opt for the chorizo breakfast burrito. I grew up in LA and my ex was Mexican and an amazing cook, so if chorizo or any other Mexican dish is offered, I’ll order it in the hopes of finding a spot to satiate my occasional cravings since really good Mexican food is difficult to find in this city.
I chat with Stan as I’m paying, tell him it’s my first time, and he gives me a cup of coffee on the house in honor of this occasion. I walk outside and take a stool in front of the take-out window. Staying true to its name “little cafe,” there are also a couple of small round tables with chairs and some other stools. As I wait for my order, I notice people do as I had done, walk by, then stop, and decide to try it out. There’s quite a line now.
A few minutes later, Stan hands me my burrito through the window along with one of those condiment bottles that reminds me of those glue bottles I used in elementary school. Only this is filled with a greenish hot sauce. He tells me he makes the hot sauce with poblano peppers and it’s already in my burrito but that I might want more. After taking the first delicious bite, I can’t get enough of the sauce–medium spicy, vinegary–hoarding the bottle and pouring it on before every subsequent bite.
When Stan asks me how the burrito is, I tell him, It’s simply delicious. The chorizo. And this sauce. Oh my goodness. He tells me he gets his chorizo in the neighborhood, from Mexico 2000 on Keap, where the guys make it themselves. Then he pulls out a small glass bottle of the hot sauce, which he’s selling for $4, and says, Here, I want you to have this.
I tell him, No. I’ll pay for it. I forget that I only have a dollar left in my wallet and so snap a picture of the bottle and decide to instagram it, hoping the few instagram followers I have may one day stop by this gem when they’re in the neighborhood. As I leave, I promise Stan I’ll be back and will eat more and buy a bottle then. He says, No. This is for you. Come back again, bring the empty bottle with you, and you can pay for a refill then.
When I get home, it dawns on me.
Steven Johnson. Swerving. Ants. Neighborhoods.
Just last night, I was having a conversation with a friend who had texted me earlier in the week the address of a yummy gelato shop, Amorino Gelato, he just discovered while he was in Union Square not far from where I work. He said that he hadn’t noticed it before but something caught his eye at the front of the shop and so he decided to go in.
Steven Johnson. Swerving. Ants. Neighborhoods.
So here’s the thing:
Yesterday, I was listening to a radio show on WNYC and one of the guests was Steven Johnson who wrote a book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.
I’ve not read the book yet so I searched and found a review of this book by Carrie Gartner, PhD that pretty much sums up what Johnson was saying, what the broadcast was about: swerve.
Johnson defines emergence as “movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication.” Individual actors making street-level decisions will automatically and unknowingly organize those actions into a larger, complex whole—a pattern that often works better than one imposed from the top.
Johnson comes at this conclusion in a roundabout way—by studying everything from slime molds to ants, to computers to the internet itself. In these arenas, every decision happens on the micro level—whether it’s an ant or a byte—and patterns are created as a result of these individual actions. As he points out, “While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom.”
Cities operate in much the same way. People travel through the city in set routes but if you see something interesting just off your route, you swerve. A new shop, a sidewalk café, an art installation. Pretty soon, traffic patterns change. That little bubble is incorporated into the larger whole. Then the next guy comes along and decides he’d like to take advantage of all the new traffic. So he decides to open a business just outside this area—usually because that’s where the rents are low and vacancies are high. And people swerve again. And then the next person comes along and she decides to open up a restaurant and more people swerve. And over time, you’ve created a busy urban street where there wasn’t anything before.
Who plans this? According to Johnson, no one–-and everyone. There is no leader. It’s nothing more than a series of small, independent decisions but together, they become a whole.
So there you have it, folks. Happy swerving!