There were bagel shops in every major intersection where we grew up on Long Island, but my dad always had his favorite. Good bagels are a source of pride for people from New York. Bagels and Pizza, there is never a reason to have a bad one of either.
Since my dad was the one who woke up early and left the house to get the bagels on Sunday mornings, his favorite place became the whole family’s favorite place.
There have been several different bagel shops over time, but the first one I can remember was a place on the far west side of town. Every Sunday without fail he’d bring home a dozen bagels. It became such a part of our routine that we’d even stop on early morning road trips to the outlets or vacations.
Once in a while, when my sister and I were still very young and our father was out of town on business, my mom, sister and I would go and actually eat breakfast at the bagel place. It wasn’t a restaurant by any means, just a place with some booths and an irreplaceable smell.
We’d give our orders to our mom (poppy seed for my sister, and an egg bagel for myself) and she’d place the order at the counter while my sister and I had worldly conversations in the booth.
I remember one December morning we were hard at work on a choreographed dance set to a record of The Nutcracker that we were going to perform for our parents on Christmas morning. We had been rehearsing every day after school, and by rehearsing I mean jumping around on the furniture pretending to be dancing dolls.
My sister and I were heavily entrenched in conversation and planning when our mother returned with the bagels. We both stopped talking immediately, which was obviously suspicious. I panicked, not knowing what to do. Instead of trying to lie or coming up with a good excuse… I just started giggling hysterically. At this point my mother got curious.
Mom: What are you laughing at?
At this point I put my hand aside of my mouth and tried to whisper to my sister.
Rich: Psst, we can’t let her know about the C-R-I-S-T-M-A-S dance.
My mother just paused, raised her eyebrows, and said, “There’s an H in Christmas.”
Foiled! How had she figured out my secret code of spelling out words? Further proof I wasn’t a bright child.
That same bagel shop was also the location of one of the first great emasculations of my life.
My sister mother and I had just finished breakfast on a rainy Sunday. My mother was using the bathroom while my sister and I waited for her. To entertain my sister, one of my favorite things to do growing up, I was dancing around on the sidewalk in the rain, jumping up and down, doing some kind of silly dance.
It was at that point that a man walked out of the shop took one look before barking:
Act like a man!
My sister and I looked at each other shocked for a second before bursting into giggles.
Several years later a bagel shop opened closer to our house. This coincided around the time my father started taking morning walks. So he started walking to that bagel shop instead. Not quite a dozen bagels anymore but still a poppy seed bagel for my sister and an egg bagel for me.
But then she left for college and it was even fewer bagels but still an egg bagel for me, until I left for college.
My dad continued his walks on Sundays, just getting bagels for him and my mother.
It was on one of those Sundays during my freshman year in college that he ran into John Kelly, a guy I had played little league baseball with when I was 12 and whom my dad probably hadn’t seen since. John was a sweet kid with a good heart, but had been somewhat misguided and hadn’t had some of the same opportunities.
Hey Mr. Boehmcke!
My dad turned around and saw John but took a moment before responding, the way you when you’re trying to buy time when you don’t know somebody’s name.
He shook his head subtly in embarrassment, knowing he know John from somewhere but unable to place where.
It's me John Kelly, I played baseball with Richy.
Oh yea of course, John, how are you?
Good, how's Richy?
Oh he's good, finishing up his first year at Arizona State.
And John paused and kind of turned away slightly before speaking again.
Oh man… I wish I'd gone to college.
It caught my dad off guard. He wasn’t sure what to say. After a moment, he just wished John well and they parted ways.
He told me that story when I came home later that year. I felt sad and grateful all at the same time. I had always like John, even when he fell in with a different crowd. I never thought he was a bad kid.
That moment in the bagel shop became a strange sort of foreshadowing as John found himself in some really unfortunate trouble a couple of years later.
The bagel shop had become a kind of institution in my life, if not the location itself certainly the regularity it provided. It became the kind of welcome routine you smile back on in your memory, sad but understanding of the fact that life moves on and some things get left behind.
And while I have always thought back fondly on the different shops we used to visit regularly to pick up our bagels, I'd never looked at it as a place that some of my friends would never have the opportunity to leave.