I was teaching night school in New Jersey four nights a week.  Since I had to be on a bus at Port Authority at 4:30, I would open up, and Charles and Raphaela would relieve me around 4 and do the night shift.  On the weekends which, it turned out, could be hectic, we would improvise a schedule which allowed us to do brunch followed, at least on Saturday, by a really busy night.
    We opened at 8 in the morning, which meant getting there at 7, sweeping the sidewalk and hosing it down, setting out two tables with their attendant chairs, one outside each picture window, another table and two chairs in the entry alcove, taking the chairs off the tables inside and the stools off the bar (where at the end of the night Charles and Raphaela had placed them to clean the floor), lighting the cappuccino machine, receiving boxes of croissants, brioches and pains au chocolat from the Voîlà delivery van and setting them in the glass case in the south window, unwrapping the patés, cheeses and pastries in the refrigerator display case, running round the corner to Zito's to pick up fresh loaves of wholewheat bread and across the street to Murray's to stock up on cheeses.  Of course there was no stove to light--there was only a toaster oven; and no prep to speak of--until the significant day where we hooked up a hot plate and started making soup and poached eggs.

Robin Hirsch reading from Cafe Stories onstage at the Cornelia Street Cafe with Frank London on trumpet blowing him away.  Sketched live by Ted Berkowitz, June 2008.
    It was a very leisurely activity.  Sometimes Carolyne, a young musician who lived next door, would be up walking her dog, and she'd plonk herself down at the table in the alcove and wait for the cappuccino machine to warm up.  Late revelers, drunk, drugged out, bleary-eyed, would stumble back into the rabbit warrens on Cornelia Street.  Occasional early birds would stroll by, sauntering off to work, and they'd take a croissant and a macchiatto in a brown paper bag and cradle it on the way to the subway, where, presumably, standing, squeezed and jostled by their neighbors, they would attempt to have their breakfast without spilling any of their precious cargo, squinting at their neighbor's newspaper thrust willy-nilly against their noses, and slithering out in midtown to face a day very different from mine.

     The shiny faces off to work, however, were an exception.  New York was in a recession.  Jobs were scarce.  And the Village, in the way the Village has always managed to do, lived by its own lights. Rents, which of course everyone complained about, were still somehow affordable.  Apartments were tiny, erratically heated by steam in the winter, stifling in the summer.  The notion of a "straight job" was not merely anathema, it existed on the other side of a cultural, social and political divide.  People hung out.  They gave at least the illusion of having nothing pressing to do with their lives.  They lived, as my parents would have put it, harking back to a similarly idyllic and inchoate era in which they came of age, Berlin in the twenties, on air.  They could sit for hours at an outdoor table nursing a single espresso and a glass of water, breathing the bohemian air and expatiating on art and music and drugs and the meaning of life, even if there was no-one there to listen.  Somehow the Village existed outside time and the constraints of everyday life.  People (or at least the people who drifted into the Cornelia Street Café) lived in a curious half lit world where they managed brilliantly to disguise the fact that somehow enough money floated in (from parents, a trust fund, drug dealing, waitressing, temping or, Heaven forfend, a straight job) to sustain a life in which nuances of meaning were sifted in the manner of Talmudic scholars from the tiniest shards of human experience.

     And yet each life was different.

     Carolyne played piano in a bar around the corner on Bleecker Street, sometimes till four in the morning.  When it got late and the patrons were really drunk, she would sing some of her own songs, and songs by friends of hers.  Occasionally, after teaching in New Jersey and bicycling back to the café, and helping to close up, I would hang out there, leaning on the piano, nursing a beer, reveling in the romance of someone else's bar, already having a kind of nostalgia for the present moment.  Greenwich Village, New York City, the epicenter of the universe, two in the morning, a wildly talented young woman playing piano, wailing, rocking, crying, songs from the heart, her songs, the songs of her friends, songs about drugs and art and politics and murder and of a longing in the soul not one of these, let alone love, could satisfy.  And no-one listening but me.  I didn't know then that within months Carolyne and Jack and Tom and Rod and Nancy and David and a whole slew of others, whose songs I now knew, would be showing up every Monday night at the Cornelia Street Café, allowing themselves to sing only what they'd written the week before, taping half finished lyrics to barstools, mapping out over the next few years what became a trove of more than 5,000 new songs, and bringing out of the darkness some brilliant, touching and astonishing work.

     Izzy, who lived across the street, who never seemed to work, and with whom I began occasionally to play racketball at the courts on Carmine Street, came from an Orthodox Jewish family, but had abandoned the faith.  He barely patronized the café, perhaps because some vestige of kashrut still clung to him, perhaps because he was a bit of a loner.  He had developed a scheme for trading frequent flyer miles from different airlines, an obscure business which he ran out of his apartment.  From this he branched out, until he was able to offer discount prices on first-class travel and even on the Concorde.  This was a business which suited his temperament since it hovered on the edge of the legitimate world and needed considerable discretion and privacy to flourish.  Somewhere there was a considerable intelligence at work, which, like almost everybody else, he was at some pains to disguise.  A year or so later, when I was producing new work at the Chelsea Theater Center and we were doing a first reading of Nellie Sachs's Eli with half the avant-garde actors in New York and music on found and homemade instruments by the avant-garde composer, Skip laPlante, the director, Gitta Honnegger, a non-Jew, asked me for a liturgical adviser, and I thought of Izzy.  This, despite the fact that he lived across the street from what became a gathering-place for experimental art of every conceivable (and indeed inconceivable) kind, was perhaps his only real brush with that world.  In a very quiet, patient way, he listened and whispered a correction when something was wrong.  There must have been a dozen Jews present at these occasions, including me, but Izzy was the only one who knew how to pronounce the name of the title character.  We listened to him with the studied seriousness of actors who want to demonstrate that they can swim in intellectual waters.  Izzy became for this brief moment our rabbi.  Otherwise, on Cornelia Street, there was the discreet bow of the former yeshiva student, the occasional game of racketball, and the perplexing sense of an intellectual who had withdrawn into an arcane world where the mysteries of the Kabbalah had been replaced by an equally arcane set of mysteries which only he understood and which he had no need to divulge.

     Across the street in adjacent buildings, in three similar tiny apartments, with bathtubs in the kitchen and a loft bed in the living area, lived three young women whose lives flirted with the arts.  Sara was a young sweet-faced actress who studied (or, as actors were wont to, continued her studies) under the aegis of one of the theatrical gurus of that era--Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, or the HB Studio, which was founded by Herbert Berghoff and his wife, the actress Uta Hagen.  Paying work was extraordinarily hard to come by, so in common with other toilers in that vineyard, she took class, participated in workshops, and auditioned for agents in the hope that they would send her to audition for real jobs, in commercials (ah, the money), in industrials (ah, Cleveland), in the theatre (ah, the prestige, but there was so little money and even less commission, so why would an agent bother?), or in the movies (ah, the Holy Grail).  One day I was talking to a friend, Herb Liebman, who taught in Staten Island in one of the outposts of the City University system, and who had had some short stories published and who had aspirations towards playwriting.  He was married, had children and dogs, and had long ago abandoned the bohemian life in an attempt to support his family.  He would visit with a kind of sad longing for a world he now knew about only from distant memory and books.  Sara darted in and while I made a cappuccino she and Herb talked.  Out of this came the first play we did--Herb's one-act, "Joey, the Staten Island Ferry Junkie, and Sara, the Waitress at the Cornelia Street Café."  It was written at the speed of light, it required no set to speak of, and two actors, one of whom played herself.  Whether Herb was prescient, or the play impelled her on an actor's search for inner truth, Sara, like Carolyne before her, became (when we were able to afford ourselves such luxury) our waitress.  It was many years before we needed more than one--hence the significance of the definite article in Herb's title--not a waitress, the waitress.

     Jane, who lived in the neighboring building to Sara, and who also did a stint as "the waitress" was an extraordinary young raven-haired pre-Raphaelite beauty, who drew, acted, sang and radiated a kind of intelligence which can be the downfall of certain actors.  She found a true metier in improv, joining a troupe in a basement on Bond Street, where her ability to think on her feet and her command of popular culture together with her capacity for digesting political and philosophical issues and regurgitating them in brilliant offbeat aperçus elevated her briefly to star status.  Of course it was a star in a rather limited firmament, and the pay was an eleven-way split of the door, so that inevitably she found herself crossing the street in search of easier money.  Every so often, if I had a little cash, I would buy a drawing from her, and I still have very elegant line drawings of a brioche, a croissant, a bar stool, and our Cadillac of an espresso machine.
     Eve, who also waitressed for us, was a writer of sorts.  She aspired to fiction writing and had a voracious appetite for all sorts of literature.  But the only work which sold was pornography, which she seemed to be quite good at.  So good in fact, that she was eventually able to give up waitressing for the pornographic equivalent of a straight job--she was hired to write the letters and first-hand accounts of the outré sexual longings and practices theoretically sent in by the female readers of a particularly raunchy men's magazine.

     In the lower reaches of one of the other buildings across the street lived Jack Baker, the proprietor of a legendary Music School, the Fretted Instruments School of Music, where various legendary and not-so-legendary figures studied guitar, banjo, dulcimer, and ukelele.  He was a tall, elegant, courteous man who never aged and who never lost a kind of civilized hauteur that came with his Southern upbringing and that showed itself only occasionally, for example when he went horseback riding in Central Park, a world as far removed from the Village as his Carolina roots.  He had the same kind of distant relationship with the café that Izzy had.  Not unfriendly, but not close.  I had the impression that while he was always ready for a conversation he had better things to spend his time and money on than one of our au laits.  Some things don't change.  Jack still doesn't come into the café, but he still teaches.  Two weeks ago my doctor was at the bar having a late afternoon martini.  "What are you doing here at this hour of the day?"  "Oh, I'm taking banjo lessons with Jack Baker across the street."

     The street had its own rhythm, its own identity, its own population, some of whom never strayed beyond its confines.  It began to have the feel of a Village within the Village.  There were hours sometimes in the morning when no-one came in, and I stood behind the espresso bar, balanced nonchalantly on the plank that covered the stairs down to the basement, staring out through the picture window at what appeared to be the movie of Cornelia Street: little Al, the black super from two doors down, limping by with his club foot and pork pie hat, who, perpetually inebriated, nevertheless managed to retain a kind of unassailable dignity, and whom in my mind I had elected mayor of Cornelia Street; Diane, the harridan who lived above us and who had somehow managed to replace Danny as our super, and her mother the Ur-harridan, and her terrorist children, one of whom attempted to set fire to the café; her boyfriend, the concierge at the tiny Mafia social club across the street, who, in an act of solidarity with his inamorata, decided late at night to glue the lock to our front door so we would not be able to open up the next morning without calling in a locksmith; this continued till one memorable night when Charles, having stayed late to do the books, heard noises upstairs and, trusty baseball bat in hand, found him filling our locks with Crazy Glue; it was a long time before it happened again.

     Inside the café, locals, having found a place where no-one would move them on, would nurse their steamed eggs or fresh squeezed orange juice or chinotto until somebody they knew or would like to know showed up or some more pressing appointment called.  Actors in particular would hang out for hours, studying or perhaps pretending to study, a script and, oddly, for so notoriously gregarious a profession, rarely talking to anyone.  I would come out from behind the bar, give them a menu, return to my post, wait the appropriate amount of time, come back, take an order, return to the bar, prepare it, assemble it on a tray, deliver it, and later, sometimes much later, present a check, wait the appropriate amount of time, collect, and return with payment, and more often than not, scarcely a word outside the immediate transaction would pass between us. 
     Despite my life in the theatre--or perhaps because it was so delimited by experiment and the boundaries of Off Off Broadway--I had no clue who was well-known and who wasn't.  I had had a long and arduous relationship in England with an actress and director in England some ten years before, named Glennis, who was known as Glen, a completely unknown name for a woman.  One day, surveying my smattering of customers from behind my bar, I was staring at the back of a blonde head of a beautiful woman who was completely absorbed in what she was reading.  I slowly became convinced that here, ten years later, over from England to direct a show, was Glen Walford, now founder and artistic director of the Bubble Theatre in London. 

     Unable to contain myself I walked up behind her and said quietly, "Glen?" 

     Startled, she turned round, "Yes?" 

     The face was not the face I was expecting. 
     "I'm terribly sorry, I thought you were someone else." 

     I blushed, she looked at me quizzically and returned to her papers. 

     Charles, who happened to come in at that moment, and who was much more au fait about such things than I, whispered to me behind the bar, "You know who that is, don't you?" 

     I shook my head. 

     "Glenn Close." 

     "Glen . . .?"

     Perhaps it was as well that I was so uninformed--Raphaela was perhaps even less informed than I.  It meant that well-known people from all walks of life could sink into anonymity here.  Just as other locals could be sure that no-one would come up and ask them to order something else, so Glenn Close and Harvey Keitel and Robert de Niro could sit at their separate tables, secure in the knowledge that nobody would come up and ask for an autograph.  It wasn't until three or four years later, when we had taken over the place next door and expanded into two rooms and built a kitchen and graduated to washing dishes in a machine, that our dishwasher/porter/general factotum, Carlos, actually started to talk to de Niro.  De Niro had moved now to the side room, and instead of reading was writing.  Quite affably, he and Carlos would chat.  Carlos would report back that de Niro had bought a building in what was coming to be called Tribeca and was thinking of opening his own restaurant, and what he was writing were notes.  On mornings off Carlos would go down and help him, apparently just the two of them, with cleaning and lifting and moving stuff around.  And after a much longer gestation period than ours--and to much greater fanfare--de Niro eventually opened the Tribeca Grill, together with a bunch of buddies, like Baryshnikov and Chris Walken and Dan Akroyd and other luminaries, all of whom, unbeknownst to me, had passed through our much less prepossessing portals.

     Last week, one deserted winter weekday afternoon, the café totally empty, I am standing behind the bar instructing my French bartender, an exceedingly hip and savvy young man dressed in the requisite black and sporting the requisite spiked and frosted hair, in the minutiae of inventory.  A gust of cold air sweeps through the bar room, the red velvet curtains part, and a tall elegant middle-aged man heads for the stairs, saying "Use the bathroom?"  My hip young French bartender stands transfixed, watching him disappear.  "You know who zat was?" he finally blurts out.  It is almost a quarter of a century later.  Some things do change a little.  I nod.  My hip young bartender is close to fainting.   His eyes are fastened on the stairs.  And as the man, having made his ablutions, reappears, smiles, and heads for the front door, parting the red velvet curtains and sweeping out, my hip young French bartender, eyes popping, jaw dropping, gasps out the answer to his question: "Christopher Walken."  And half raising a hand, in salutation, in farewell, in yearning, he gazes in awe and disbelief at the red drapes swaying in the chilly swirl of an abrupt departure before turning back in a kind of post coital tristesse to the sad and necessary business of counting bottles..
    Ten days after we opened Charles and Raphaela relieved me as usual around four o'clock, I jumped on my bike, and pedaled up to Port Authority, which was under interminable construction.  I chained my bike to some convenient scaffolding, hacked my way through the labyrinths, jostling the throngs of panhandlers, runaway kids, tourists, and early commuters, climbed to the top tier and found the bus to Bloomfield.  The heat, the noise, the shortness of tempers, the sense of teeming humanity about to run amok was the perfect preparation for teaching night school.  I did this four nights a week and as often as not when I came back around 10:30 I'd head back to the café, partly because it was a new baby, partly because it was a welcome counterpoint to the insanity of midtown and the desolation of New Jersey, and partly because it was already beginning to acquire the contours of home.  Not a home where you lay your head, but a kind of spiritual home, a home in the sense of community rather than family, a sense of place, of something you had built and whose burgeoning life you would continue to nurture and which in turn would nurture you.

     That night when the bus brought me back, there was a strange and eerie darkness coming out of the tunnel and climbing the ramps that lead into Port Authority.  When the bus pulled into its berth, a porter stood illuminated in the headlights.  We glided to a halt and the driver released the doors.  The porter climbed on to the step, leaned in and said, "Power outage." 

     For some reason everybody laughed.  This was the most fun anybody had had at Port Authority. 

     "You mean, Port Authority's lost power?" I asked. 

     "Nope.  The whole city's out." 

     Everybody thought he was joking.  We laughed some more.  Port Authority was strangely quiet and completely dark, except for the occasional employee with a flashlight pointing the way.  When I got outside it was pitch black.  No street lights, no shop windows, no neon signs, no traffic lights.  The only illumination was from the headlights of crawling automobiles which at every intersection had to figure out whether and when it was safe to proceed.

     I felt my way along the scaffolding to 40th Street.  People were always telling me I was crazy to leave my bike there, there were too many druggies and professional bike thieves, that even if they failed to break the lock, it would be stripped bare--wheels, saddle, chain, mudguards, whatever they could pry off.  I had lost bikes everywhere, outside my house, on quiet residential streets, on crowded avenues, but for some reason I had never lost anything outside Port Authority.  I had developed a completely unrealistic sense of inviolability.  But sure enough, as I groped my way around the corner, I felt a familiar shape, and there was my bike, intact as far as I could tell.  I unlocked it and wheeled it tentatively to the corner of 8th Avenue.  Lights like a funeral cortege were snaking uptown.  At the intersection with 40th, which goes East, cars were stalled like frightened swimmers trying to enter the stream.  With trepidation, I slipped my bike in and floated it across to the other bank.  In utter darkness I wheeled it down 40th Street to Seventh Avenue.  At that intersection there was a citizen volunteer with a flashlight conscientiously directing traffic.  I could try to sail down Seventh to Bleecker Street and the café or navigate the dark tributaries over to East 22nd and First Avenue and my pitch-black fifth-floor walkup.  Headlights illuminated a phone booth.  What was happening at the café?  Had they closed?  What would happen to all the perishable food in this heat?  I fumbled for a dime, straddled my bike, lifted the receiver.  No dial tone.  I decided to head down Seventh.

     For some reason this was easier.  I was going with the flow of traffic.  It still had the air of a funeral.  But the quiet was magical, as though even the cars were wearing slippers.  Suddenly at 35th Street all the lights in the city came on.  Everything froze in the most delirious blaze of light.  Street lights, traffic lights, the lights of office buildings and department stores.  Outside Macy's, a huge green pulsing neon sign announced "ACTION DOWN UNDER."  As in a strobe, or in a children's game, people were caught in mid-activity, looters with TV sets under their arms, pedestrians frozen in fear, drivers blinking in stupefaction.  Suddenly cars began honking, people on the street began screaming, and alarms and sirens which had been stilled began to wail.  Forty seconds later all the lights went out again with a collective human sigh and the palpable quiet returned.

     I made it down to Bleecker Street and turned left.  Everything was silent and dark.  I wheeled my bike past Jones and inched my way to the corner of Cornelia.  As I approached, I could hear distant voices.  When I turned there was a pool of light flickering out from the café onto the sidewalk.  I crossed the street and locked my bike to a parking meter.  The doors were open.  Tables were out on the sidewalk.  People were laughing and singing.  Every candle we owned was set out, in votive glasses, in cups, on saucers.  Charles and Raphaela had decided the only thing to do was to have a party, to throw open the doors and to give everything perishable away.  Carolyne had brought a guitar, Jack had brought a banjo.  Other people had brought instruments--a flute, a double bass.  Even Izzy was sitting in a chair tapping away.  All the rules of daily life had gone out with the lights.  Some people had brought wine.  We were not charging for anything.  People who avoided each other on the street were embracing.

     At four in the morning as the candles gave out and people trickled back to their apartments, carrying the odd croissant or Hungarian pastry, Jane or Eve or Sara, or perhaps Katie, who lived directly opposite and who was subsidizing her Sarah Lawrence studies by working late nights as a stripper, suggested cooling off by climbing into the Carmine Street pool.  I distributed dish towels and about a dozen of us sailed off down Cornelia, left on Bleecker, right on Carmine, climbed over the fence, stripped, and jumped into the glorious empty waters of the Carmine Street pool.  At five, with the sky lightening, thoroughly refreshed, feeling totally at one with the world and our city, a roseate glow flushing the stone of Our Lady of Pompeii, we walked back up Carmine Street, smiling, holding hands, euphoric in the unaccustomed silence, a timelessness, like a Renaissance cloak, spreading over downtown, as though the Village and Sienna might indeed be one.
    Ten years later, as our tenth anniversary approached, we thought it might be an appropriate marker if the City acknowledged us in some way.  However, such acknowledgements, even I was blasé enough to realize, don't come out of the blue.  We didn't work with a press agent, having found generally that our own amateurish efforts to get noticed seemed to have as much, or as little, effect as the expensive cliché-ridden releases of professional flacks.  I had a friend who had done publicity for the Chelsea Theatre Center, with considerable success.  His lover, it turned out, was quite highly placed in some corner of the Koch administration.  He thought it absolutely à propos, given our history, longevity, and the number of artists, nay, even celebrities, who had passed through our doors, for a congratulatory missive to emanate under Koch's signature from City Hall.  Was Koch himself, after all, not a Villager, known to shop at Murray's?  Was he not also a fan of folk music and had not I, on more than one occasion, taken a musician or two up to Gracie Mansion to provide a couple of staggeringly inappropriate songs by way of after dinner entertainment for a bunch of hard boiled politicos?  

     Without wanting to push too hard I would call every week, and, as the date approached, daily, to inquire about the state of this famous letter.  Finally, on the day before our big celebration, my contact tells me that they are indeed working on it, that he was assured it would be ready, and that I should pass by the back door of City Hall at midnight, when an envelope would be waiting for me.

     On the eve of our tenth birthday, we are making preparations not unlike the eve of our opening.  We are decorating, Charles and I are making our now traditional 30 gallon tub of Sangria, tasting as we go; various artists are passing by, offering to perform the next day; Paul Aston, the composer, who had worked as a host for us, is putting the finishing touches to his "Fanfare for Three Fine Friends" which will be played outside on the street by an assortment of musicians on wind instruments and percussion and members of our staff on tumblers filled with water.  Towards midnight, heady with anticipation and the serious concentration needed to get the Sangria just right, I climb aboard my bicycle headed for Brooklyn, which is now home.  At City Hall, weaving somewhat, I lurch up to the back door with my bike and ask whether there is an envelope for the Cornelia Street Café.  To my astonishment there is.  Out on the street, in the lamplight, I carefully pry it open.  On City Hall stationery and over the signature of Edward I. Koch, Mayor, it says:

    NEW YORK, NY 10007
    Robin Hirsch, Charles McKenna and Raphaela Pivetta
    The Cornelia Street Café
    29 Cornelia Street
    New York, New York
    Dear Robin, Charles and Raphaela,

     Today as you celebrate your 10th anniversary of being in business, I am pleased to add my voice—on behalf of the City of New York—to the chorus of praise, tribute and general merriment.

     Ten years ago, this city and your café were facing long odds.  But a lot of New Yorkers were refusing to give up, and you were three of them.  Of course, the omens were not exactly terrific; ten days after you opened, the entire city was blacked out for 26 hours.  (Are you sure you didn't connect that toaster oven into an extension cord?)  But things have been looking steadily upward all around ever since.

     For a decade, you have been providing artistic as well as gastronomic nourishment, helping to keep going a lot of hungry diners and a lot of starving artists.  While helping many talented people be discovered, you have been discovered yourself.  Now, in 1987, you are a culinary as well as a cultural landmark—and, thanks to you, the tradition of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse is alive and well.

     Here's to a great day, and many more happy, taste-ful anniversaries!


        Edward I. Koch

    Ah, New York City, there were giants on the earth in those days . . .