The old timers sit in the back at Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop. That’s where regulars like Bob Grady (“a good Irish name”) drink their coffee and pass the time. Big Bob, as he’s affectionately known, is here every weekday around 10 a.m. With so many people coming in and so much conversation to have, he can stay sometimes all the way to 3 p.m.
Moments after he takes his seat, his bagel is served by one of the handful of Polish gals adorned in a retro uniform of teal and pink, “like the I Love Lucy shows when she worked in the candy factory,” says Bob. He likes his bagel well done, not toasted, just baked so it’s darker than usual. Bob has been a customer for forty years, so they know what he likes here. (He also favors the very delicious éclairs with the Bavarian cream.)
Now in his 70s, Bob was born and raised in Greenpoint, married twice, and made the proud father of six kids (the oldest is 48, the youngest 33). Today, he’s “recovering,” he jokes, from spending the day cheering up his youngest son who just lost his job at a nonprofit. “He never thought the economy would hit him,” says Bob, “but it did.” Bob’s been retired since January 1, 2000. For decades, he worked at Citibank and climbed the ladder from the bottom clerical jobs all the way to vice president. In fact, he started at the branch that’s just across the way from Peter Pan.
Bob’s seen the neighborhood change while the donut shop has stayed the same (albeit turned into a friendlier place 20 years ago when owner Donna Siafakas took over). A champion of Greenpoint, he loves everything the neighborhood has to offer but worries about the effect of so many new luxury condos taking over. “It’s turned from a middle class to either rich or poor,” he says. Meanwhile, he spends his days reading, taking walks in the park, and, of course, coming here for the “camaraderie” while he reminds the old timers to take their medicine and talks up the young newcomers about their lives and the changing neighborhood.
Everybody thinks this is a Polish place because it’s in the heart of a Polish neighborhood but it’s not. The owner’s grandparents came from Italy. Her husband was born in Greece. And the baker that bakes all the fantastic, wonderful stuff is from Egypt. I keep trying to get him once or twice a month to make some Middle Eastern pastries.
It’s like having breakfast with family. It really is. You can see everybody says hello. Everybody from the neighborhood. They’re very warm and close. It’s the same people they have every morning.
I meet a lot of people here. A lot of young, bright, articulate people, which I love. It’s almost like talking to my children, you know?
It’s easy to talk to people here. You go to some other areas, you talk to people, they look at you like, “What are you talking to me for?” Believe it or not, a simple hello sometimes opens conversations.
Tina Fey loves this place and her favorite donut is the white cream donut. The reason why we get a lot of people like that here is Greenpoint has become very big in film. They used to film 30 Rock here, and she’d pop in because she loved the white cream. So no matter where she went, on the Oprah show for example, she’d mention this place.
I remember a couple coming from Australia. Two young ladies were staying at The Y for a day, and they were gonna travel across the country. They were only going to be here for a day or two. They come in one morning and try the donut, and they would not leave until they tried every single donut. So they were here for weeks. They used to get four donuts at a time and cut them in half.
Growing up, this was a wonderful place for people to come live because you had a lot of industry, a lot of jobs, especially by the waterfront. They let the waterfront go to nothin’. We should be having ships dock there. Domino [Sugar] was very big. There was the Pencil Factory. So much industry, that’s why people came here to live. [The new condos on the waterfront] are changing the whole makeup. Everything that sells in Greenpoint, they turn into a luxury thing.
I feel for the old timers because everybody’s worried if their landlady is gonna sell, if they’re gonna move, if they’re gonna be forced out of the neighborhood. They have nowhere to go because they can’t afford to live here anymore. Some of the old-timers are still paying the low rents, you know?
Today I woke up early. I’m an avid reader, so I have hundreds of books on my list. I was at the end of one and I wanted to finish it. A book on jazz. I was a big jazz aficionado. I used to play a little bit: sax and clarinet. We had a lot of dances in the old days. I used to play weddings. Every church had a dance on the weekend. There was always music in the neighborhood.