FROM OUR ARCHIVES
MANDELBROT'S CHICKEN, or, THE ORIGINS OF SCIENCE
A BRIEF HISTORY
MANNA OF THE DAY
We arrived every day on bicycles, Charles and Raphaela from their walkup in Hell's Kitchen, I from my sublet on East 22nd Street. We didn't know where to begin, but we knew we had to show up. And sometimes, it turns out, just showing up shows you the way.
There was most obviously the Herculean task of cleaning out these stables. We spent days removing debris and dogshit from the store and trying to pick our way through the basement. The basement is what persuaded me we might have a future here. The store itself was small, maybe twenty feet square but the basement extended the full length of the building, under Helen's apartment and the one behind hers. It was filled to the ceiling with more than forty years of accumulated junk, bits and pieces from the acquisitive life of Kenny, Helen, and now Danny--crankcases, manifolds, chairbacks, spools of thread, doorbells, light fix¬tures, scales, shoe polish, overstuffed armchairs, ladders, paint, oilcans, dictionaries, all mildewed, rusted, pickled, leaking, broken. It looked like the set for The Caretaker multiplied a hundredfold. You reached it by a ladder going down through a hole in the floor. We managed to clear a space directly underneath the store and in so doing found an old refrigerator which at least hummed when we plugged it in. Danny, the wild-eyed Polyphemus of this place, who followed us everywhere, demanded money for this ancient contraption. We paid him off more as an act of community relations than sound investment. We also found a two-legged table which could be propped up and an adjustable wooden piano stool. With the addition of a couple of utilitarian shelves that I had salvaged from my marriage, and a forty-year-old lamp (with forty-year-old wiring) that we also uncovered in the basement we now had, within one tiny, peeling, leak¬ing, crawling, overstuffed corner of the basement, storage and an office. That still left 600 cubic feet of junk with a tiny aisle down the middle that no-one would venture down. But we had conquered the space.
What remained was everything else.
One of the idiosyncracies of New York is that certain kinds of business concentrate themselves in the same area like medieval trade guilds. Diamonds are on 47th Street, flowers are on 6th Avenue, restaurant supplies (and lamps) are on the Bowery. Almost everything you need to open a restaurant, with the exception of what you actually serve, can be found on the Bowery. It is another idiosyncracy of New York that certain populations huddle together like refugees--which of course they once were--Indians in Little India, Italians in Little Italy, the Chinese in Chinatown. The population which has made the Bowery its home is of course not ethnically defined, it's defined by a much simpler denominator--drink. It is the most celebrated home in America for drifters, bums and drunks. Hanging out on the sidewalks among the delivery men, the drivers, the stock room boys, the sales clerks, the wheelers and dealers, and the restaurant owners or their agents, the local population lends a certain weary raggedy counterpoint to the snappy commercial transactions taking place around them. The desolate nighttime flophouses of the resident population sit cheek by jowl with the bustling daytime business premises of oven suppliers, glassware and paper goods houses, chair and table and stool and booth distributors, stainless steel specialists, used equipment dealers. And inevitably there is an interchange. It's not that the proprietors of these establishments take copiously to drink (although some of them coincidentally do) or that the denizens of the Salvation Army Mission suddenly open pizzerias, rather there is an available labor force, whose step is slow, whose speech is slurred, whose wits are troubled, but who for very small sums can lug very large equipment up from the basement or out to the street.
We had decided that we were going to be a café in the simplest possible sense, not a restaurant, and that as a result, equipment would be kept to a minimum. We would not have a kitchen (Heaven forfend!), we would have a toaster oven. We would have a little glass case in the window in which freshly delivered croissants and brioches could be displayed. We would have simple wooden tables cut from the widest lengths of pine we could find (18 inches) and simple wooden chairs. But there were two major pieces of equipment we would have to invest in. One was an espresso machine--Charles had found a used one at Rudy's, an importer and servicer of Italian coffee machines, in midtown. It ran on gas, it would set us back $450.00, but Rudy himself would help set it up once we had piped gas up from the basement and it was an old manual machine with three heads and a gleaming chrome front which would make great coffee.
The other piece of necessary equipment was a refrigerator display case, in which patés and quiches and cheeses and pastries could be displayed. We combed the Yellow pages, we went to auctions of dead restaurants, but mostly, for this and many other things, we trolled the Bowery. We looked at chairs and table bases and cappuccino cups and china and paper napkins and water pitchers and silverware and ashtrays and guest checks and toilet paper, and we totted up figures and bargained and argued. We decided on tempered glass plates and cups and saucers from France (remarkably cheap and remarkably durable), and stainless King Edward knives with pistol handles and matching forks and spoons, and basic brown wooden folding chairs imported from Rumania ($11.00 apiece). And we rented a sander from the ancient crone at Zelft and sanded the floors and polyurethaned them until they shone. And we cut our 18" pine into 20" lengths, and screwed them to four-legged table bases. We built a bench seat in one of the front windows over the outside trap doors, which saved us two chairs, and we built a simple wooden counter which would become our espresso bar over the hole in the floor which led to the basement. We worked 16 hours a day and at the end of every day, as we locked the door and looked in, everything looked exactly the same as it had when we arrived that morning on bicycles.
And across the street, like crows, like a Greek chorus, sat the supers, Frank and Al and Danny, and the concierge from the Mafia club across the street and his lady friend, Diane, who lived with her mother and her three children above the store and pounded on the ceiling whenever she felt her own screaming family fights intruded upon by the sound of our labors below. Sullen, disenfranchised, fuming, they downed their Thunderbird and offered up their imprecations.
But there was also the more intangible business of becoming a business, of registering as a business, of picking our way through the various city, state, and federal agencies that wanted to keep tabs on us and collect their cut. I had seen notices in the subway for something called SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Tucked in amongst the ads for hemorrhoid remedies, ambulance chasers, career opportunities in the Army or dental hygiene, it was one of the tired sops thrown by a City administration, drowning in a deepening recession, at those of us who could read. I had however nowhere else to turn. I found myself, as I anticipated, in a forlorn office, with half a dozen forlorn desks, remaindered from some failed city agency, with a forlorn middle-aged man in a stained shirt and rumpled suit, who seemed surprised to see me.
I said I was hoping to open a café with two comrades. He said he knew nothing about that business, and he suspected that none of the other men who might or might not drift in did either. What was our experience? Slim. How much capital did we have? Similar. Had we done a demographic study? My answers were not the answers of a conventional entrepreneur, but then it seemed unlikely that any entrepreneur, conventional or otherwise, would find himself knocking at this dilapidated door. My interlocutor gave me some mimeographed sheets which contained a seemingly endless list of Federal, State, and city agencies, whose blessings I would need, and with a parting allusion to cement shoes, rivers, and a certain nameless ethnic population, he wished me good luck and long life.
I dutifully followed the paper trail, to the Buildings Department, to the Office of Records, to the State Liquor Authority, where we applied with some trepidation for a beer and wine license. At every agency there was the same dismal and debilitating lack of interest, follow-through, attention, let alone hope. You began to realize from standing in offices with somnolent, overweight, nicotine-stained, semi-literate unionized civil servants that patience was more than a virtue, it was a requirement, that if you could restrain yourself from leaping over the counter and answering the endlessly ringing phone that sat eight inches from the pendulous arm of some willfully deaf and paralyzed functionary, if you could outlast her endless lunch break and her jaded animadversions to her fellow philosophes on the nature of being, if by the end of the day you were still upright, the last dog left standing, you might be vouchsafed some clue, some stamp, some seal, some critical sheaf of paper that, filled out by hand in quintuplicate and each set individually notarized, might allow you to apply at the next office the following day and start the whole exhilarating process all over again.
In this way we acquired a Federal ID number, registered as a partnership, took on the requisite smorgasbord of insurances--fire, liability, unemployment--passed the inspections, tests, and hearings haphazardly administered by the Health Department, the Fire Department, the Consumer Affairs Department, the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Highways, the local Community Board. We did not acquire a wine and beer license for many months, because we lacked both the means and the savoir-faire to hire an expediter, whose primary function it later appeared was the judicious apportionment of financial inducements, known in the vernacular as bribes.
We had our only direct experience of this when it came to hooking up our espresso machine. Apparently, as some mysterious response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, Con Edison was enjoined from opening new commercial gas accounts. Only those premises which already had gas lines in place could have gas. With unwonted efficiency and complete ignorance I had called Con Edison to have the gas turned on.
"Do you have gas?"
"No, that's why I want it turned on."
"If you don't have gas, you can't have it turned on."
This ballet went on for some time. Eventually I got a promise that the local inspector would come by that afternoon to see whether we could have gas. "
You jerk," Charles said. "How am I going to have time to move the pipes?"
By the time Norm Smith from Con Edison showed up, Charles had managed to tap into the unused gas line from the neighboring store. The joins were still wet. Norm Smith descended with Charles down the rickety ladder into our murky basement. "Sorry, there's no light," said Charles, leading him expertly through the jungle.
Norm Smith shone his flashlight on Charles's handiwork. "You just moved that. It's still dripping."
So in the dark they sat down and talked turkey.
A hundred was a lot of money, but our espresso machine ran on gas.
In order to provide the appearance of legitimacy, Norm would "find" the records indicating that at some time there had been gas at 29 Cornelia Street. Charles would show up at the huge Con Ed office on Second Avenue and they would engage in an elaborate dance indicating to the assembled multitudes that the records had been found, and, presto, we would be able to make espresso. And this is exactly how it came to pass. A bribe meant something in those days.
All these adventures and more ensued from my trip to the desolate offices of SCORE. Years later a reporter from the Daily News called me at the café. The city was booming and he was doing a story on the tenth anniversary of a volunteer group that had been instrumental in reinvigorating the business climate--the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Did I remember speaking to them? Yes. Did I know to whom I had spoken? No. Well, he could help me with that. It had been Milton Ohrbach, the founder of Ohrbach's, the Department store on 34th Street. Did I realize the caliber of people dispensing free advice? Apparently Ohrbach had kept meticulous notes and, to my profound embarrassment and posthumous gratitude, he had given me more credit than I had given him.
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
On the street we had one champion. Two doors down, at Number 33, was a French potter named Martine. In her studio, le Feu Follet, she made to order an astonishing array of plates and bowls and vases, painted with scenes appropriate to each customer. In the midst of our labors, when we felt bereft of friends and could discern no progress, she presented us with a pitcher on which she had painted the name Cornelia Street Café and a portrait of our section of the street. An awning opened from above our windows and brushed against the leaves of our tree. Underneath the awning were two tables with chairs. We had never drawn up plans. We had barely articulated how to translate what we were striving for into concrete terms. We simply ploughed ahead, scraping, sanding, plastering, painting, with the conviction that somehow, before our money ran out, what would emerge would be a café rather than, say, a dentist's office. Now suddenly, with Martine's gift, we had the notion that it was all possible, that someone welcomed us, understood us, had faith in us.
Martine was an artist. In addition to her commissioned work, she had ceramic pieces which she had never displayed. They were designed to be hung on walls. They played with form, with color, with texture, with bas relief. They had a vitality and airiness about them, a vision that elevated the craft of pottery to an art form. We offered to hang them on the walls of the café as our opening exhibit.
We had paid the landlord one month's rent (the princely sum of $450.00) and one month's security. We had managed to secure two months' building time, but as the end of June approached, we were facing the prospect of paying rent out of our tiny capital. The process seemed unending. People would peer in and ask when we would open. "Soon," we'd say. I was the most impatient. "We've got to get this place open. We're pouring money down a hole." Charles and Raphaela, endowed by their Maker with more patience than I, would shut me up.
We needed a logo, we needed advertising, we had no budget for either. At night, on East 22nd Street, I would try to figure out lettering for the name of the café. I had an old set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, from which I could glean very little about graphic design. However, as I browsed from volume to volume, I began to notice that the first entry for each letter started off with a large Times Roman version of that letter. Idly, from Volume III I traced the letter C. It was clumsy but it was about the right size. I followed it with an O from Volume XIV. I stayed up all one night surrounded by the various volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica ranged in an idiosyncratic order, moving from one enormously heavy tome to another, absorbing the history of the cabriolet, the topography of Oaxaca, the mysteries of the sun-god Ra, until I had laboriously spelled out on three lines the words
They were in a rough semi-circle, they took up almost half a page, but they got the name across. I took them to a copy shop and printed several versions up. Charles, Raphaela and I eventually settled on one. On my little portable Olivetti, I typed up four different announcements, each beginning with a quote:
"The culinary art, when properly practiced, is the only aspect of human endeavor about which nothing bad can be said."--Friedrich Duerrenmatt
"Qu'ils mangent de la brioche."--Marie Antoinette
"I can resist everything except temptation."--Oscar Wilde
On each there followed a text announcing our imminent opening, the impending arrival of croissants, brioches, patés, quiches, Hungarian pastries and the occasional cold smoked fish. I printed them up on different colored paper. We stenciled "OPENING SOON" all over them. And when someone peered in, we gave them armloads to distribute to the rich. Down in the basement were several gross of paper shopping bags emblazoned with the logo of a long defunct bank. We pasted our fliers on each side and gave them out as though we were Bloomingdale's.
The July 4th weekend, when everybody leaves town, was approaching. July 2nd was Raphaela's birthday. Suddenly it seemed as though everything was converging. On Wednesday we maneuvered our refrigerator display case in, hauling it carefully over the freshly polyurethaned floor and lowering it into place next to the stand up wooden espresso bar Charles had finished the day before and just in front of the hole which led to the basement. On top of it facing out towards the door we placed our espresso machine. On Thursday Rudy came to hook it up. We had painted the brick walls of the café white and the woodwork--the doors, the large picture windows, the baseboards--a chocolatey brown. On Friday morning the awning company delivered a brown and white striped awning which was held up by two accordion like arms and operated by a long metal pole. On Friday afternoon, since Charles's friends at the Hungarian Pastry Shop did not deliver, we took the subway up to 110th Street and loaded up three of our newly minted shopping bags with rigo janczi, sacher tortes, almond swirls and other delicacies as yet unknown in the Village. We carried them back tenderly in the broiling heat of the No. 1 train and set them out on trays in our display case. It seemed increasingly likely that the next day, Saturday, would be the day.
Quiches, patés, and cornichons arrived from Trois Petits Cochons, three young Frenchmen who had started a small charcuterie business a few months ahead of us. Espresso beans and tiny bottles of Italian soft drinks arrived from Moka d'Oro in Brooklyn. We went across the street to Murray's Cheese Shop and brought in Brie, Jarlsberg, and Morbier. The next morning croissants, brioches and pains au chocolat would arrive from Voila, a French bakery on Grand Street which had just been opened by a young American couple, who had studied baking in Paris, and we would pick up freshly baked wholewheat bread from the legendary Italian bakery, Zito's, around the corner on Bleecker Street.
By Friday evening, we were suddenly pretty well stocked. By nine o'clock we had assembled the last of the tables. We cleared away the sawhorses, passed the remaining lumber down into the teeming basement, wheeled our bicycles out onto the street and chained them to parking meters. We helped Martine bring over her ceramic pieces and under Raphaela's direction hung them on the walls. We swept the floor, hosed down the sidewalk, dimmed the lights, unrolled the awning and close to midnight, bleary-eyed, crossed the street to see what we had wrought. We turned and there, under the awning, a pool of light spilling onto the sidewalk, stood our café. It seemed to glow, to hum, to burst with the contained energy of the last two months.
Suddenly, startling in the quiet, from the stoop next to us came the slow, methodical sound of hands clapping. Tall, toothless Frank, with his cap askew, crouched with his back against the railing of No. 26, was applauding. Little black Al with his club foot and buttoned up shirt, and wild-eyed, handsome, unpredictable Danny joined in erratically. Their applause may have been drunken, it may have been grudging, but it was hard-won and no less meaningful for being disheveled. They looked at the three of us, we looked at the three of them and a certain kind of salutation, the weary recognition that fighters or armies give each other after battle, passed silently between us. Then we made our way back inside. We still had work to do.
"How much for a cappuccino? How much for an espresso? What about a croissant, which comes with butter and jam, is it the same price as a pain au chocolat? How many cheese plates--one cheese, two cheese, three cheese? And what about a cheese and paté plate--all three cheeses, paté, cornichons, and fresh sliced apple?"
At three in the morning I am peering in at O'John's on the corner trying to figure out how much they charge for espresso. They don't have a menu in the window. But it is summer and balmy and they have tables outside, at one of which I sit, and one disconsolate waitress whose baleful eye I finally manage to catch.
"How much is a cappuccino?"
"Dollar and a quarter."
"How much is an espresso?"
"What are you, some kind of a bum? 75 cents."
"Can you make a mochaccino?"
"I don't have time for this, what'll it be?"
"Bring me an espresso, and the check right away, O.K.?"
An espresso duly arrived, which I didn't drink, together with the check, for which I left money on the table with an extravagant tip. I rushed back with the fruits of my espionage.
"But O'John's is a dump. We should charge more than them."
"But we're just opening, we should undercut them."
"Why don't we compromise and charge the same amount."
Eventually the quality argument won out and we charged ten cents more than O'John's and we developed the reputation from Day One of being expensive. On the other hand O'John's shortly thereafter went out of business.
By 8:30 in the morning, after twenty-four hours straight in the café, we had figured out our menu and our prices. We put a note in the window saying, "Open at 11." And we raced off on our bikes to shower and change.
At home on a piece of our hand made stationery I nervously typed up two columns, TO EAT and TO DRINK. I typed, I made mistakes, I whited them out. It took me till 11 to make a serviceable copy. I rode around looking for a copy shop that was open on a Saturday morning and printed up twenty copies. At 11:30, breathless, I rolled up at the café, chained my bike to a meter, raced across the street, opened the door, and found the place filled with daisies and customers.
"Here, give me those. You get behind the bar and wash dishes."
I was like the junior twin or triplet who feels forever the disdain of having been born twenty minutes later than his sibling. Charles and Raphaela had arrived back at 11:10, to find a line outside the café. Two women who were first in line had brought a bunch of daisies which Raphaela had stuck in Martine's vase. Charles had gone behind the bar to work the espresso machine and Raphaela had begun to take orders. Without menus this had become mostly a matter of pointing and improvising. By the time I arrived twenty minutes later the café was in full swing and it didn't let up till almost midnight. We didn't have a cash register yet so at the end of the night, after two days straight, we climbed down into the basement, opened up the tin box in which we had put our receipts and tried to figure out how many of these dollars would be needed to pay bills, how many would go to the State of New York as sales tax, and how many might conceivably, at some future date, be divided amongst the three of us. Then we emptied our garbage can, put the single black garbage bag out on the street for the carting company to pick up, turned out the lights, locked the doors and, feeling proud and mightily pleased with ourselves, clambered aboard our trusty bikes and pedaled home. Some day, in some unimaginably abundant future, when we were truly successful and making more money than struggling artists had any right to, we would perhaps be putting two garbage bags out on the street each night. But that mythical moment lay far in the future and for the time being we were deliriously happy to have made it through Day One and inordinately proud of our lone black sentry posted on the sidewalk.