The Match: France v. Nigeria
The Date: Monday, June 30
The Venue: Chez Lucienne on Lenox Ave. near 125th St. in Harlem, NY
125th St. is the main shopping, business and entertainment district in Harlem. It’s where you find the famous Apollo Theater, the imposing Adam Clayton Powell State Building and the office of Bill Clinton. 125th St. was home to several African-American-owned businesses at a time not long ago when blacks were explicitly barred from social and business opportunities below 110th St. These days, invasive mega-franchises like H&M, Marshall’s, Gap and Old Navy have choked out the local businesses.
Despite the homogenization, West 125th St. remains the busiest and most congested thoroughfare in northern Manhattan. It’s hard to walk at your normal pace along 125th St. because the sidewalks are crammed with thousands of tourists, shoppers, businesspeople, vendors and local residents.
Yet, Chez Lucienne, located on Lenox Ave. just above 125th St., was almost empty during the match between France and Nigeria at lunchtime on Monday. As usual, the three soccer fans in attendance were good dudes. One was Nigerian and two were French.
Chez Lucienne is a French restaurant located next door to Red Rooster, Michelle Obama’s favorite eatery. A French couple owns Chez Lucienne along with a few other bistros in New York City. The couple’s son David is the manager. David, who wore a Karim Benzema jersey and skinny camo pants, followed the match and simultaneously directed the waiters and kitchen staff as they tended to a few families sitting outside. Impressively, David focused on the game, made sure the groups outside were content and allowed the rest of staff to watch chunks of the match on the small TV behind the bar.
I asked David if Lucienne gets bigger crowds for matches later in the day and he told me they’re not really a soccer bar. Their crowd usually arrives for dinner and drinks. Still, the restaurant featured a large French flag on the back wall between a Brazilian flag and a Nigerian flag. There were also flags of each African World Cup team hanging on the walls. Several smaller USA flags were attached to light fixtures above the bar, their skinny wooden flagpoles parallel to the floor.
When Karim Benzema missed a prime opportunity near the goal around the 70′, the Latin American staff left the kitchen and joined us to watch much of the match. Lucienne may not be a hardcore soccer tavern, but I appreciate how they have embraced the World Cup.
Cain, a Nigerian immigrant who recently gained US citizenship, sat at the bar with a Blue Moon and a plate of salmon. I wondered why he chose to watch the match at a French restaurant rather than at one of the many West African spots on 116th St. It turns out that Cain works at a program that provides medical, mental health and housing services to homeless New Yorkers. Cain’s agency even referred a few of my clients to our supportive housing site. He and I bonded while griping about the unceasing bullshit paperwork we have to complete to satisfy government auditors.
The staff zipped in and out of the kitchen for the remainder of the match. Occasionally, men would stick their head out of the window between the kitchen and the bar to check the action. A skinny French kid in a baggy blue Marseille jersey also joined David, Cain and me. He arrived just in time to see Paul Pogba’s goal that put France ahead 1-0.
That kid and David pumped their fists and and appeared relieved when France finally scored. Meanwhile, Cain seemed dejected. France had come close to scoring on four occasions in the preceding five minutes but couldn’t capitalize on their chances until Nigeria’s keeper blundered while trying to swat a corner kick.
Cain stayed calm and held out hope for a tying goal that never came. After Joseph Yobo scored to give France a 2-0 lead, I shook my fellow spectators’ hands, slid through the crowd along 125th St. and walked back to work.
I found it refreshing to watch the match and chat with the three soccer fans at Chez Lucienne. The goal of this project is to see how New Yorkers experience the World Cup and I found a great example during the France/Nigeria match. People can’t miss work every day to watch afternoon soccer games. Sometimes you have to catch the second half with a few friendly strangers during your lunch break.
OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 6/10 with easy-going fans at the laid-back, unpretentious French restaurant on Lenox Ave. near 125th St.