*This is the first installment of the new series, an ongoing narrative that will look at how members of our various communities are not only coping with these trying times, but adjusting to them.
Rob DiGiovanni's coffee truck has been a fixture at the Smithtown Long Island Railroad station for the last five years, serving hot drinks and breakfast to groggy commuters in the early morning’s last hour or so of darkness.
“I get to meet people every day. I get to hear peoples’ stories,” he said. “You talk to customers about their families, you joke around with them.”
But up until a few weeks ago, competition was nil. That was until within walking distance to the train station.
So far, he's not felt any pinch.
“The people who wake up at five in the morning have their routine,” he said. “You’ve got three kinds of people at the station – the 7-Eleven, Dunkin’ Donuts people, the anxious people who’ve got to be on the platform, and then there’s my people who hang out and B.S.”
For such an early hour, there is no shortage of talking or joking around DiGiovanni’s truck as his customers wait for their train.
“We’ve been after you for months to get tables and chairs,” said one commuter, Tom Cordella.
“We could have a French bistro out here,” DiGiovanni said, and several customers standing around his shiny stainless steel truck chuckled.
DiGiovanni has been in the business for the last 22 years, having started with a friend’s father who owned several routes. He said this is a line of work he never saw himself doing when he was younger, but it has always paid the bills. It also connects him to other people, and provides a pulse of the economy.
“I stopped seeing a lot of faces as people lost their jobs,” he said, although he is seeing some of them again as they have gotten new jobs.
On the rest of his route, which includes an industrial park and office buildings along Brook Avenue in Deer Park, DiGiovanni has seen whole companies go under. He can only wait for the empty buildings to be rented to reclaim the lost customers.
DiGiovanni said his idea of the “American Dream” changed when he moved from Florida and started a family on Long Island.
“When I moved back from Florida in 1988, my ‘American Dream’ would have been living in a studio apartment and paying my car insurance so I could be with my friends,” he said. “But I guess when you have a family, that changes things. It’s not so much about you. Having my family, having everybody healthy – that’s what’s important to me now. After what happened with my daughter, that really put things in perspective.”
DiGiovanni and his wife, Tina, lost their 16-week-old daughter Antonella in 2009 to a rare congenital disease called pulmonary hypoplasia, which is characterized by underdeveloped lungs. With no sick or personal days, DiGiovanni said it was difficult to take time off while Antonella was in and out of hospitalizations as she underwent surgeries.
“That was a really hard time for me,” he said.
Among the hundreds of people who showed up at a benefit and at Antonella’s wake were a number of LIRR conductors and several dozen of DiGiovanni’s customers.
One of those customers was Larry Werner, a telecommunications engineer who has been commuting to the city for 20 years. Werner said DiGiovanni shows up no matter the weather and caters to everyone individually, watching to see who is running late so he can have his or her coffee ready, letting them pay the next day.
Today, DiGiovanni doesn’t seem sure whether he is living the “American Dream” or not.
“I guess that means something different to everybody,” he said.
Standing in the kitchen of his home in Lake Grove, watching the family’s dog jump around his wife’s feet and listening to a steady stream of observations and questions from his 4-year-old son, Vincent, he said he is content.
“I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, right?” he said. “I guess we’re doing pretty well.”