FROM OUR ARCHIVES
MANDELBROT'S CHICKEN, or, THE ORIGINS OF SCIENCE
A BRIEF HISTORY
MANNA OF THE DAY
"You won't believe what Charles is doing," Judith said.
"He's opening a café in the Village."
"He may be crazy but he's not that crazy."
"You want to bet?"
Charles was an actor. He and I had met when we played brothers in one of those experimental productions of the late sixties/early seventies where you rehearse for a year, fumbling around for a form in the company of other actors, a director and a so-called playwright. Process was everything. The end result if you ever got there was incidental. It wasn't that the director in this case suffered from a fear of failure, let alone success, it was more a fear of actually opening. Eventually the actors mutinied, hijacked the production and forced the director to announce an opening date.
"The Journey" was a play about Abraham and the two streams which sprang from his loins, Jewish and Muslim. Charles, an Irishman, played Isaac, the progenitor of all Jewry, and I, a Jew, played Ishmael, the progenitor of all Islam. In the process we became quite close. After we closed, Charles and I stayed in touch. I directed him in a couple of plays. We would occasionally get drunk together as actors are supposed to do. He would visit me and my wife on the Lower East Side, when he needed a shot of stability in his life. And when my marriage ended, I spent six weeks sleeping in an abandoned apartment across the hall from him. In short, we maintained the sort of realtionship after the play that real brothers are supposed to have. We were close, we fought, and we looked out for each other.
It was odd because we came from different sides of the tracks. My parents had escaped from Berlin to London before the war and, despite hardship, privation and loss had never shed the sense of privilege and culture in which they had been born and raised; Charles's father had died when he was very young, his mother was left with too many children and not enough means, and he had spent some of his early childhood in an orphanage. I'd been to Oxford, I'd come to America on a Fulbright, I was avoiding finishing a doctorate; he'd had the most rudimentary of educations, he'd come to New York at the age of twenty to be a hairdresser and through some chance encounter--the husband of a client was developing a new system for the training of the human voice--had taken voice lessons and developed ambitions to become an actor.
Charles had a very real natural talent and by the time I met him a trained voice. He'd even toured the country as a backup singer for Teresa Brewer. Another hairdressing client, an ailing spinster, offered to manage him. The kind of work she found him rarely paid. But that was very much the way of the theatre in those days. You got paid out of town. In New York you worked for glory. During "The Journey" we worked extraordinarily hard for 20 dollars a week each and supplemented this with the usual kind of romantic agony jobs that starving actors resort to. I, having finished my doctorate, was now doing construction work. Charles was waiting tables at the Café Loup on W. 13th Street.
There is a camaraderie or brotherhood amongst theatre people which is a great leveler. The bewitching cycle of poverty and unemployment which for some reason beckons young actors to the big city is offset by a series of temporary jobs which are a boon to the economy (legions of well-dressed, well-spoken young people working for slave labor wages and no benefits) and which have one thing in common: they may be how you spend most of your time but they are of course not who you really are. So Charles was currently a waiter and I was currently a construction worker and such badges we wore with honor and such badges confirmed our brotherhood.
In the interstices between such stints, we tended our incipient careers. I'd directed a new musical at La Mama, which netted me a total of thirty-five dollars for six weeks' work. This it later turned out was the pinnacle of my earning power as a director. After "The Journey" I directed a double bill at the Actors Experimental Unit, in which Charles, my wife and our mutual friend Judith all played, and which garnered one wonderful review from a trade paper before we all slid back into the primordial slime from which we had briefly emerged. And I was now directing a new play at St. Clement's, which Judith was producing and from which Charles, for financial reasons (i.e., pay), had had to withdraw. It had originally been written for my wife, who, since we were now separated, had also withdrawn, so the whole project had become emotional as well as artistic agony for me. For the greater glory of all this I was doing construction work? My parents couldn't have put it better.
It was at a post-mortem for this production that Judith told me about Charles's café scheme. What was he doing, giving up the profession? I called him up.
"Charles, what is this nonsense I hear about you opening a café?"
"It's not going to happen."
"Yanni and the other guys who were going to put up the money pulled out."
"Yanni and the other guys" were friends of his, Greeks who owned the Hungarian Pastry Shop opposite the Cathedral of St John the Divine (this was New York after all). They had had some notion of expanding downtown but had evidently reconsidered, and this after Charles had tromped the Village looking at spaces. He'd even found the ideal space.
"You sound really down. You want to talk about it?"
I was going back to England in two days--my mother was about to turn 75. I had been in America for ten years, I had a failed marriage, a doctorate, and a billowing career as a part-time construction worker. I was going to have some explaining to do.
In the course of those two days, through one of those lunatic acts of faith which lead either to the founding of new religions or to self-immolation or conceivably both, I offered to go in on it with him. If nothing else I could tap dance around this notion in England and stave off the "what are you doing with your life" harangues until after the first embrace.
Charles was living with a woman called Raphaela. She had appeared one day out of the blue, quiet, shy, beautiful, with a mysterious provenance. She was Italian, but had grown up in Argentina, at the southern tip near Tierra del Fuego. Her father was in some business ancillary to the oil business, so they had moved frequently and were now living in Canada, of which she was in fact a citizen. She was an artist, whatever that meant, but how and why she had landed in New York remained a mystery. She had been hitchhiking with a friend in Mexico. Perhaps New York was where she ran out of money. Whatever art it was she practiced was not very visible. In fact what she was doing mostly was being a hostess at an Italian café on the Upper West Side. Art it appeared was similar to acting.
What was decided in those two feverish days before I left for England was that the three of us would go in on this mad venture together. We would each raise the princely sum of $2500, we would sign a lease beginning on the first of May, the landlord would grudgingly give us two months building time and we would struggle to open by July.
I consulted with a few friends generally more hard-headed than my actor buddies. The prognosis was uniformly grim. Pierre, with whose family I had lived for the better part of a year after arriving in New York, who had inherited a very successful import-export business from his father and engineered an extremely profitable sale, rated the operation's chances of success at "somewhere between zero and zilch." Sally, an attorney who worked in the same office as my present girlfriend, and who was fairly well connected in City government, begged me not to go into this, drawing my attention to what everybody knew and no-one dared talk about, that the restaurant business was controlled by the Mafia, that we were babes in the woods, that some huge swarthy fat-nosed Italian, or more than one, would arrive one day and insist that we needed table linens and that when we in our innocence protested that no, we were quite happy with our little wooden tables, it was but a short trip to the bottom of the Hudson with lead in our shoes.
Come to think of it, the owner of the building, Gil diLuca, was an Italian of some known influence in the Village, and his agent Lenzano, a man of terrifying mien, who walked with a limp, a stick, an overcoat and a fedora, had already tried to dissuade Charles from taking the space. "What do you want to open a café there for? Nah, you don't want that space. I got plenty spaces that are better for you. Stay away from Cornelia Street."
But Charles had tromped the streets looking for the right space, and this, of all the spaces he'd seen was the one. He took me to see it.
Number 29 Cornelia Street had been an antique shop for forty years. Kenny, the proprietor, had died some years before. His widow, Helen, now lived with a one-eyed Mexican named Danny, who acted as the super for the building and reported to Lenzano. The antique store had degenerated into a junk shop and as it failed, Helen, the widow, had withdrawn into the apartment at the back of the store, unable to pay the utilities, barely able to afford food. She was terrorized by Danny who drank copiously and who turned the store over to the local supers as a drinking club. Con Ed had cut off power, so they would sit on boxes drinking Thunderbird in the dark and kicking the stray dogs who'd made the place home. The floor was covered in feces which Danny and Al and Frank and the other supers didn't pay attention to, partly on account of the darkness, and partly on account of their almost constant stupor. By the time we saw the space a cinder block wall had been put up to separate it from the apartment and behind this wall Helen was immured. She could get out of an apartment door inside the building but she made only the most furtive forays into the world. And she never set foot in the store.
"So, what do you think?"
"Well," I groped for something to say. "I guess it's the dogshit that really lends it ambience."
I didn't dare describe the reality of this place to Pierre or Sally, let alone my parents when I arrived in England. If they were minatory about the notion of a small sweet one-room Village café with croissants and paté and espresso and fresh bread five times a day from Zito's around the corner, I was much too timid to give them a hint of the real picture. Sometimes it's timidity which allows one to do courageous things. Sometimes one just jumps, blind and frightened, with no idea about swimming until one hits the water.
So, much too timid to back down, we started out.