May 15, 2001
Mariel Crusette del Jesus wakes up at 3 o’ clock in the morning before the cocks rock out and the sun harmonizes to go to work. She kisses her wife and children: two boys and one girl, ages 10, 8, and 4. Mariel is 50 years old. Not a looker like she once was back in her Havana Nights but still is vivacious, full of life, and stronger than Paul Bunyan’s ox.
She enjoys what she does. Her response to anyone who questions her daily motivations, “It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been doing. It’s my gift from the Lord.”
The gift she’s talking about is her hands. Though she is a Spanish woman, she believes each of her hands is of a different dissent, “My left is of the English and my right is of the Scottish, which is always my stronger one,” she says.
She uses her two hands and all of her fingers to do what she does best, make scones. She kisses her children and trusts them to take care of one another when she leaves. She boards her train in Spanish Harlem on 115th and 2nd Ave. When all conditions are perfect, it’s a 50-minute ride. “But that rarely happens. Oh my Lord, oh my, I can’t remember the last time I made it in 50 minutes. There’s always something wrong,” she says.
That’s the most complaining one will hear out of Mariel. She stops talking and whistles all the way to her work, a coffee shop called Central Perk, in Greenwich Village between Webster Hall and The Hudson River.
Before AIDS made the national news headlines in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Central Perk was a hippity-hop-don’t-stop dance club mainly filled with NYU college students. Mariel was always a hustler since the day she was born and knew an opportunity when she saw one; all of the drunks were exiting the club hungry and needed food fast. Sure, there was the omnipresent bagel, slice of pizza, and dirty water hot dog, but Mariel knew these young, attractive people needed something to meet and match their repertoire; they needed to eat a scone.
Based on a 50-50 split of profits, Mariel did a spit handshake with the owner of the building to use the basement as her own and help out the famished partiers when the music stopped.
As the AIDS epidemic storm weathered and Tom Hanks earned his Oscar for Philadelphia, Central Perk came into existence. All of the bohemians gyrating on one another turned into eclectic dreamers. A classic Thermozona cappuccino machine replaced the sound system and the cocaine and booze switched to fine grades of Sumatran coffee.
The community embraced Central Perk. The DJ’s created one of the best open mic nights in all of the 2-1-2. Local street artists changed the paintings on the walls regularly. The only branding needed was a handcrafted sign on the glass window. Artisans made Central Perk’s coffee mugs and plates. By not having any “to go” cups, Central Perk became a “for here” only place.
And despite all of the changes that were happening (for better and worse) Mariel slaves away in her basement. Beyond the large purple curtains, down the two flights of stairs are three ovens. By 5 a.m. she has the starter dough already: eggs, flour, heavy cream, baking soda, sugar, non Kosher salt, cold butter, and then a wealth of sweet and savory accessories from dried cranberries and currants to lemon cream. “Never ever use water,” Mariel says. “You’re doing a disservice to yourself and every man, woman, and child who eats. And that’s pretty much everybody.” She presses the dough with TLC until it’s almost connected, but not quite: light, fluffy, and crumbly. She spoons a tablespoon at a time on the counter and rolls the dough out. “Don’t put too much pressure into it. Be light. Be gentle. Let the dough breathe. Kiss it if you must. I know I do,” she continues. Mariel doesn’t need a pastry cutter or knife to form the scones, she uses her fingers. Every scone of hers is different and distinguished. “If one’s smaller than the other or bigger, so what who cares. It’s still delicious.”
Before the baking process starts, she puts in her secret ingredient. Behind another purple curtain and below another flight of stairs Mariel grabs a plant that she calls, “Soul Devil’s Pubic Hair.”
The armpit of Central Perk used to house naked international prostitutes who would cook crack before it was distributed among the bumpers and grinders at the club. Since the dance club changed to Central Perk, ICE sent the forced sex slaves back to their homeland, and the landlord gave the extra space to Mariel. Already sleazy and shady, the landlord knew a great product when he tasted one and it wasn’t one of Mariel’s dried cranberry scones either.
“Why do you think people just sit here on that damn couch for ever and ever and ever? They never leave! But they always want more and keep coming back!” She says.
The best place to eat one of Mariel’s scones is on the orange couch. It has the best view for people watching and you can act like the king of the castle.
“Don’t sit there, it has bed bugs,” Mariel scolds. “You don’t know how old it is and where it came from.” The couch is the only piece that Mariel gave to the shop, which is designed with mismatched furniture, tables, and chairs. She bought it at a consignment shop traveling through the rustic belt of the US and had it reupholstered at a place called Third Man Upholstery.
“The young man who owned the place did it for free. But I had to give him some of my scones and tell him that he can come by and sing whenever he happens to be in Manhattan”.
Mariel takes off around noon and let’s Central Perk run itself. She takes the train back, this time taking her an hour and a half. As soon as she enters her two bedroom-two bath apartment she starts to prep dinner for her family. When her kids come home, the eldest asks if he can join the family business.
“In due time. Due time,” she says.
ATMOSPHERE: A calm and collected mixed bag made up of would be hipsters but are comfortable in their eclectic, bohemian, professional lifestyles.
SERVICE: Order at the counter. Don’t rely on the servers.
SOUND LEVEL: You can have a conversation without using an “inside voice.” Live music from local artists happens regularly.
RECOMMENDED: The scones, especially the ones laced with “Soul Devil’s Pubic Hair”
DRINKS: There are different coffee blends listed on a blackboard, but if you’re feeling rich, the Luwak Coffee. Ask for the secret menu and you shall receive.
PRICES: Scones are pricey, $15 a pop. Depending on what kind of espresso and coffee bean you order, prices can run anywhere from $2-$20.
OPEN: Everyday except the day of the Gay Pride Parade.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Restrooms: One unisex. Lock is busted so cover-up your junk when taking a deuce.