Amid Midtown’s Bustle, a Street-Level Tea Party for All

October 15, 2017

Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times

Every Thursday around noon, a cheery woman lugging several large bags stakes out her spot on a busy walkway near the northwest corner of Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan.

The woman, Liz Gannon-Graydon, 54, corrals a few tables and chairs amid the bustle and noise and sets up the kind of tea party that seems
more suitable in a formal parlor or a fancy garden.

Ms. Gannon-Graydon puts down place mats, cloth napkins, teaspoons and steaming teapots, as well as a motley assortment of teacups and
saucers that convey a campy elegance.

For the past four years, Ms. Gannon-Graydon has been convening these weekly pop-up tea parties in a setting where the cast of parkgoers can range from office workers, to tourists, to homeless people.

The weekly tea, which runs from noon until nightfall, has its regulars, but is also open to the many passers-by who glance curiously as they walk past. Anyone who approaches the table or offers a comment is invited to sit and join the conversation.

“We have no rules, we welcome everyone,” Ms. Gannon-Graydon said. “You don’t even have to drink tea.”

One thing new guests can expect is to field an ice-breaking question or two from Ms. Gannon-Graydon, who typically asks newcomers: What’s
the best thing I should know about you?

On a recent Thursday, about a dozen people crowded around the tables. Ms. Gannon-Graydon served both pomegranate and caramel-flavored teas, and she set out her usual fare of fruit, snacks and baked goods — on this day she was offering brownies and banana bread.

On one end of the gathering, Dave Rudbarg, 63, a relationship coach and soul singer from Jersey City, chatted with Geraldine Sweetman, 70, a therapist and writer who was born in Dublin and lives in Brooklyn.

On the other end, Kelia Remsen, 28, chatted with a lithe dancer in a red, broad-brimmed hat who said she preferred to go by the performance name Jacqueline La Flaquita.

“Everyone’s invited, there’s no judging and there’s great food and wonderful conversation,” said Ms. Remsen, who works at a dog kennel on
Long Island and travels to the tea party every week.

Mr. Rudbarg said he comes for the people and conversation. “They say there are no strangers, only people you haven’t met yet,” he said. “Well, these are all just new people to meet.”

Ms. Gannon-Graydon says she rises at 5 a.m. every Thursday at her home on Long Island and begins baking goods for the day. She packs about 20 cups and saucers and plenty of tea bags. By midmorning everything is ready, and she takes a public bus to a Queens subway station, where she takes the train into Manhattan.

Workers at a nearby food concession provide Ms. Gannon-Graydon with hot water for the tea, and in return she provides them with some of her baked treats.

Ms. Gannon-Graydon, a former Queens schoolteacher who helped
found a nonprofit that provides speakers and sponsors workshops, often brings along her teenage sons, Josh, 17, and Jacob, 15, and sometimes her husband, Rob Graydon, a filmmaker.

Ms. Gannon-Graydon wakes up at 5 a.m. every Thursday to start baking and packing her bags with cups, saucers, pots and other essentials.

She said she used to take her sons to Bryant Park on Thursdays to attend Broadway in Bryant Park events, and would often invite friends to join her. One of them, Izzy Leggat, suggested having tea — in real cups — and the tea party was born.

“It really makes the experience of tea special,” Ms. Leggat said. “If you’re having a bad week, this is like group therapy.”

“I can get uncomfortable in groups,” said Ms. Leggat, who is deaf and reads lips. “But I feel good here because if I lose the thread of the conversation, Liz will lead me back in.”

The tea gatherings continue into December, weather permitting, although they move toward the park’s fountain when the holiday vendors arrive and take up Ms. Gannon-Graydon’s usual space.

Ms. Gannon-Graydon said she never knows how many people will
show up. So she fills her bags with as many supplies as she can, and will keep pulling more tables and chairs as more people arrive

“Everyone shares and everyone’s accepted,” she said. “Depending on the person and the day, they might stay minutes or hours.’’

Sometimes the conversation revolves around the events of the day, such as the death of Prince, or the election of President Trump, or the day a man deliberately drove his car into a crowd in Times Square several
blocks away.

“Sometimes things intrude, but there’s no agenda,” Ms. Gannon-Grayson said. “Sometimes it’s funny and silly, and sometimes it’s more serious.”

For Ms. La Flaquita, who lives in Manhattan, the tea party offers a refuge of calm amid the frenzy of car horns, ambulance sirens and buses whizzing by.

She said she walked by the tea party last spring, “and it just made me feel welcome in a sea of anonymity.”

“I just smiled when I saw this because it was like the Mad Hatter’s tea party — it was my fantasy come to life,” she said. “There’s an elegance to the whole thing. It’s the opposite of all the tourism and commercialism around us in Midtown, where everyone drinks out of paper and Styrofoam cups.”

“It’s a place of authenticity where people can be who they are,” she said.

Throughout the afternoon, Ms. Gannon-Graydon fetched more hot water and brewed more tea. She filled teacups, gave hugs and made introductions. She welcomed a newcomer, Chantal Louison, 27, a dog walker and artist from Mill Basin, Brooklyn.

When another woman cautiously approached, Ms. Gannon-Grayson
had a cup of tea in her hand and a brownie in front of her within moments. The newcomer said her name was M’Lou Caring, a psychologist from Manhattan.

When Anna Crawford, 23, a writer from Astoria, Queens, showed up, Ms. Gannon-Graydon reached into her bag and put together a sandwich for her.

A tour guide led a group of out-of-towners by the table and described the tea party as a staple of the park. A photography class from the nearby International Center of Photography flocked around the tables taking
pictures.