CAFÉ STORIES

Blackout
Opening
Starting Out
Manna of the Day
Stanley
Prior Experience
Mandelbrot’s Chicken, or, The Origins of Science


Blackout

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.

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:

THE CITY OF NEW YORK
OFFICE OF THE MAYOR
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!

Sincerely,
Edward I. Koch
Mayor

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

Back to Top


Opening

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.

"How much?"

"A hundred."

A hundred was a lot of money, but our espresso machine ran on gas.

"O.K."

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

CORNELIA
STREET
CAFÉ

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.

Back to Top


Starting Out

"You won't believe what Charles is doing," Judith said.

"What?"

"He's opening a café in the Village."

"Come on."

"He is."

"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 s ixties/early seventies where you rehearse for a year, fum bling 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 direc tor 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 occasion ally 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 sleep ing in an aban doned apartment across the hall from him. In short, we maintained the sort of real­tionship after the play that real broth ers 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 child hood in an orphan age. I'd been to Oxford, I'd come to America on a Ful bright, I was avoid ing finishing a doctorate; he'd had the most rudimentary of educa tions, he'd come to New York at the age of twenty to be a hair dresser 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.

Th ere is a camaraderie or brotherhood amongst theatre people which is a great leveler. The bewitching cycle of poverty and unem ployment 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 bene fits) 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 construc tion 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."

"Why not?"

"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?"

Big mistake.

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 explain ing 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 conceiv ably 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 em brace.

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 prac ticed 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 suc cessful 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 con trolled by the Mafia, that we were babes in the woods, that some huge swarthy fat-nosed Ital ian, 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 propri etor, 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 degener ated into a junk shop and as it failed, Helen, the widow, had with drawn into the apartment at the back of the store, unable to pay the utilities, barely able to afford food. She was terror ized 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 dark ness, 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 ambi ence."

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.

Back to Top


Manna of the Day

I am one of the proprietors of a particular kind of establishment of which there used to be many flourishing examples not only in New York, but all over the Western World. They grew up as shrines dedicated to the worship of a little berry. From this little berry a drink was made. And with the consumption of this drink all kinds of interesting things began to happen.
But let us begin with a little history.

The coffee tree is indigenous to Ethiopia. It may also be native to that part of the world which in a gentler time used to be called Arabia. Certainly Arabs were cultivating the coffee plant as early as 600 A.D. It was used initially in paste form as a food and in particular a medicine. Indeed, the first mention of it in literature is by the Arab physician Rhazes in about the year 900. By the thirteenth century, however, Arabs had discovered that a delicious drink could be made from the roasted beans of this plant and in the wake of this discovery coffee became a lucrative article of trade. Over the next few centuries it began to infiltrate the West. It was introduced into Turkey in the middle of the sixteenth century, into Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth, and from there it spread rapidly all over Europe.
Houses for the consumption of coffee opened in Vienna in the first half of the seventeenth century. In 1650 an enterprising Jew known to history only as Jacob (Cromwell had just let the Jews back into England) opened the first English coffeehouse, in Oxford. Two years later, another enterprising immigrant, Pasqua Rosée, opened the first coffeehouse in London, harking back to its medicinal properties, and claiming in a handbill that coffee "quickens the spirits, and makes the heart lightsome . . . is good against sore eyes . . . excellent to prevent and cure the dropsy, gout, and scurvy," and that, by way of reassurance, it was "neither laxative nor restringent."
By the beginning of the eighteenth century the London coffeehouse had become a full-blown institution and all hint of coffee's medicinal origins had fallen by the wayside. It was the great leveler. For a penny, men (not, however, women) of all parties and stations could gain entrance, glean the latest news, and drown themselves in a brew far headier than alcohol: political discussion. As Matthew Green wrote in The Spleen in 1737:
Or to some coffeehouse I stray
For news, the manna of a day,
And from the hipp'd discourses gather
That politics go by the weather

Drawn by the dissemination of news and the discussion of politics, people (sorry, men) were dropping in to their favorite coffeehouse five or six times a day, using it as a kind of office. It quickly became clear that business of a more formal kind could be effectively carried out in this informal setting. Trading companies and stockbrokers began to establish their headquarters in certain coffeehouses. Some developed long associations with a particular establishment. Few, however, can rival the shipping insurer, Lloyd's of London, which began its life in (and took its name from) Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse on Tower Street, moved with it (and retained its name) when it moved to Lombard Street, and continued to operate its ever-expanding worldwide business from Lloyd's for almost a century. Even when it opened its own building in the nineteenth century, having become a synonym for rock-solid insurance of every kind, it continued to conduct its operations under the name of a long-dead coffeehouse proprietor.


Another enticing aroma emanating from these egalitarian watering holes was cultural, in particular literary. At William Unwin's (known as Will's) on Russell Street, for example, the humblest carter, if he had a mind to, could hear the great John Dryden hold forth, almost single-handedly reshaping, by example and critique, the language of Donne and the Metaphysical poets into that elegant and measured tread which came to be called Augustan and which found its greatest flowering in the infant prodigy, Alexander Pope. And across the street, at Button's, a generation later, if that carter were now literate, he could drop a manuscript into the mouth of the lion's head which Joseph Addison, the great essayist, had attached to the west wall to solicit submissions, and wait to hear (in person) whether it might be accepted for Addison's burgeoning magazine, The Spectator. Addison's great rival and collaborator, Richard Steele, the other pre-eminent essayist and editor of the early eighteenth century, had correspondents in a multitude of coffeehouses and captured perfectly the marriage of the coffeehouse and culture in the first issue of his magazine, The Tatler (April 12, 1709), announcing in a preamble that he intended to include "Accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment . . . under the article of White's Chocolate-House; poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house . . . foreign and domestic news . . . from Saint James's Coffee-house," and so on.


The purpose and character of the coffeehouse was now defined. The drinking of coffee was of course a mere pretext. The coffeehouse had become and was to remain for almost two hundred years a meeting house, club, office, trading center, gossip central, with political and philosophical overtones and a distinctly literary air. It was, at least in England, the great democratic institution, in contrast for example to taverns, alehouses, and so-called public houses. To this day public houses (pubs) retain a hierarchical class distinction between the public bar and the saloon bar (which is more salubrious, not to mention expensive). No such distinction was ever drawn in coffeehouses. Indeed a common code of behavior contained in a set of Rules and Orders was posted in each coffeehouse. Of its thirty lines, the first six dealt with the equality of all customers, a startling and significant notion in a society which, ten years after Jacob opened his coffeehouse in Oxford, had seen the Restoration of the monarchy.


The democratic coffeehouse had its heyday, at least in England, in the eighteenth century. It began to fail, however, in the nineteenth, and not just for reasons of longevity. Its demise may have been inevitable (although pubs survived), but it was hastened by a conglomeration of social changes: the advent of home mail delivery, which reduced the need for a meeting-place; the appearance of daily newspapers, which reduced the need for direct reports of daily news; and the emergence of men's clubs, which afforded men of a certain class a much more comfortable (and in some cases, permanent) home away from home.


The democratic coffeehouse gave way by the end of the century to much grander incarnations called Cafés, where coffee and alcohol (and the sexes) mixed freely. One thinks of the Café Royal where Oscar Wilde hung out in fin-de-siècle London. One thinks of the great cafés of Berlin in the early twentieth century, like the Kranzler and the Kempinski, or the glorious cafés of Paris between the wars. But through war and peace, privation and reconstruction, glut and depression, the café, whatever its size, never lost its intimate relationship with art, philosophy, and politics. At Café Central in Vienna, Lenin held forth on the eve of the Russian Revolution--actually, since he was in almost permanent peripatetic exile, almost every café in Europe claims him. In Prague, Franz Kafka, hardly the most sociable of men, confessed to Max Brod that he had always wanted to open a café--fortunately or unfortunately, he never did. And in Paris, at the cafés which re-emerged after the Second World War, like the Deux Magots and the Café Flore, Sartre and de Beauvoir and Camus and Aron could be found formulating and reformulating the postwar philosophical and artistic Zeitgeist over their vin ordinaire.


The coffeehouse proper, however, re-emerged in America, and nowhere more conspicuously and to greater historical and social effect than for a brief and intense period in Greenwich Village, whose character it virtually defined.


There were all kinds of precursors. At Polly's on MacDougal Street before the First World War John Reed and Max Eastman and Theodore Dreiser and a pair of Sinclairs--Upton and Lewis--were digesting the political, artistic, and psychological news from Europe and translating them into a distinctly American idiom. At the Café Royal, which opened in 1920 on Second Avenue, the heartland of Yiddish theatre, a mad frenzy of actors, writers, agents, and producers created the Yiddish Sardi's, as it came to be known, about as far away in style and temperament from the Café Royal of Oscar Wilde as it was possible to get. At Café Society, in the basement of One Sheridan Square, Barney Josephson presented an unknown black singer named Billie Holiday as his opening act in 1938, breaking forever the racial barriers that permeated every club below Harlem.


Writers. Actors. Musicians. A certain social and political consciousness. The mix was very familiar. All that was missing was a scene.


That scene materialized in the fifties, just after the demise of Café Society and Barney Josephson's departure for 8th Street. Suddenly, almost overnight, the coffeehouse proper re-appeared. On MacDougal Street and Bleecker, at the Reggio, the Figaro, the Rienzi, the Gaslight, in the fifties and early sixties, coffee suddenly came flavored with the poetry of the Beats, the music of a burgeoning horde of folksingers, and the wild freewheeling experiments of visual artists and performers whose idiosyncratic congress gave birth to happenings.


I arrived in New York from London in the sixties at the tail end of this particular comet, supposedly to write about avant-garde American theatre. Two cafés were of particular interest to me, although I arrived too late for one and just after the other had transmogrified itself into something at once larger and more freewheeling. At their respective headquarters--Caffe Cino in the West Village and Café La Mama in the East--Joe Cino and Ellen Stewart had between them given birth to Off Off Broadway, the most vital theatrical movement in postwar America, if not the world. However, when I got off the boat in 1967, I was still wedded to the notion that theatre was about plays and could be understood by reading texts, and I had no idea that avant-garde American theater was about to explode into a myriad of forms and directions.

We have almost reached the present moment.

Ellen Stewart still rings her bell when she's in town, welcoming audiences to La Mama, but she no longer runs a café: she is the presiding genius of La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, still a worldwide force for good in the theatre but a world away from the café where all of that began. Joe Cino had a much shorter inning, committing suicide in a particularly violent and grisly way as success and drugs and homosexuality and the ever-vigilant Feds and NYPD and tax and obscenity charges overwhelmed him.


And after a much briefer heyday than the glory days of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London, one by one, and then in droves, other cafés and coffeehouses, a staple of New York life, fell by the wayside, because rents became too high, because the desire to congregate was eclipsed by the desire to watch television, because the excitement of what happened in certain cafés was institutionalized and co-opted by high-stakes cabarets and concerts and galleries and theatres.


What follows is the story of one which survived: the Cornelia Street Café, which three of us started in 1977, coincidentally right next door to where the Cino of blessed memory, just ten years before, had gone down in flames.

Back to Top


Stanley

One night a man I knew as Stanley, tall, elegant, tanned, trim, dressed in an expensive sport coat and an open necked shirt, white haired, clean shaven, a former American tennis champion, who now made his home in Kenya, remarked to me over our little espresso bar, "You know, there's a place like this in Nairobi. You never know who's going to be there. You just know, when you walk in, that somebody's going to be there. Someone you know from a former life, a different continent, another galaxy--a pal, an acquaintance, a lover, a movie star. Someone you know, or someone you knew, or someone you don't know yet but you will, someone you may spend the night with, carousing, or the rest of your life. And you go away and you come back, a hundred times, a thousand times, and it's always the same. But if you stick around, which maybe a handful of people do, sooner or later the whole world passes through."

I told this story to my friend Howard once in London, and he said, "Oh, yes, I know that place."

Stanley would show up intermittently, passing through from Africa on his way to some Masters Tournament in Florida or Hawaii or Mexico or on Long Island. He invariably had on his arm a woman of a certain age, a different woman each time, not interchangeable by any means, but with certain attributes one had come to expect--elegant, tanned, not so trim, expensively dressed, wonderfully coiffeured, with just enough jewelry, perfume and joie-de-vivre to make the air around her moist with anticipation. There was an ease and buoyancy about Stanley and his serial companions which was contagious. I always felt the café elevated by their presence. He may have been a gigolo, but he was a superb gigolo.

I haven't seen Stanley in almost thirty years, but he could walk in tomorrow, put an elbow on the bar, which is a real bar now, and say, "So, Robin, how's it been? Have you met my friend . . . ?" And he would turn his head and extend his arm and step discreetly aside, and over the bar would glide a gloved hand and a bare arm attached to a beautiful, if no longer youthful, shoulder, and above the shoulder would be a choker with a single large stone caught at the throat, and above the throat a handsome face of a certain age, and the face, unknown and yet somehow familiar, would burst into a brilliant smile, and eyes of a certain age would look at me appraisingly, and a voice aged in oak barrels, distilled with cigarette smoke and many complicated affairs of the heart, would murmur, "Finally. I've heard so much about you." Or that's what I imagine.

And Stanley would say, "You know, there's a bar like this in Nairobi. If you stick around long enough, sooner or later . . ."

And his companion would look at me and take in the whole café and finish the sentence for him: "The whole world passes through."

Back to Top


Prior Experience

Cornelia Street is a tiny one-block street in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. It was laid out in 1794 on the farm of Robert Herring, who named it for his granddaughter, Cornelia. It has had an interesting history.

In the nineteenth century it housed the stables of the rich. During Prohibition it sheltered one of New York's most famous Speakeasies. In the early forties W.H. Auden moved in at Number 7; in the late forties Anatole Broyard opened a bookstore at Number 20; for eleven years into the early fifties James Agee had a writing studio at Number 33; in the late fifties Joe Cino opened his café at No. 31. But by the early seventies all of this was merely history.

In the Spring of 1977, three of us, one Irish-American actor (Charles McKenna), one Italian-Argentinean-Canadian visual artist (Raphaela Pivetta) and one Anglo-German-Jewish academic/writer/ director/performer (me) stumbled across a tiny storefront on Cornelia Street and thought it the perfect place to open a café. Why a café? Perhaps it was, as I later characterized it, a lunatic whim. Certainly it did not come replete with a business plan. Our collective experience was limited, our capital was virtually non-existent, our credentials were hardly calculated to inspire banks to lend us money, purveyors to extend us credit, or landlords to take us on in the first place. Charles, in a venerable New York tradition, eked out his meager existence on the stage by waiting tables, currently at a restaurant on West 13th Street. Raphaela was an artist who worked occasionally as a hostess at an Italian café on the Upper West Side. My résumé was even slimmer: I had had only one experience in a restaurant, and that was in another country thirteen years before, at the absolute bottom of the economic and social ladder. I certainly did not know then—and I would have a very hard time persuading anyone now--that it was probably as fine a preparation for this unlikely life as anything else I could have done.

In 1964, after leaving Oxford, I hitchhiked around Europe for several months, staying in youth hostels and student lodgings and occasionally homes of people I knew or whom I had met on my travels. When I ran out of money, I took odd jobs. In Israel, on various kibbutzim, I shoveled manure. In Hamburg, all night long, I stacked and folded newspapers. In Stockholm, for an extended period, I washed dishes.

There was a highly overqualified subculture in Stockholm in the early sixties, all foreigners who had run out of money and who found themselves now in the same predicament as I. Sweden embodied the triumph of a kind of bourgeois socialism, so that those of us passing through from more benighted countries found ourselves broke almost from the moment we arrived. Everybody already had everything, so the fact that everything was incredibly expensive didn’t matter—except to us. For similar reasons it was the worst country in Europe to hitchhike in—everybody already had a car, so what were you doing walking for miles on some deserted road in the pouring rain with a rucksack on your back and your thumb stuck out, peering round at all those Saabs and Volvos with an imbecilic grin on your face? The same seemed to be true of public toilets--everybody already had a toilet, why should they build another one for you? Needless to say, after the privations of the road, desperate to pee, and almost instantly broke, we indigent foreigners were extraordinarily grateful to find work.

In New York, the restaurant business is kept alive by illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanic, but also at various times, Bangladeshi, Chinese, West Indian, and a multitude of other nationalities, almost invariably third world, who porter and wash dishes, sometimes for years in the same restaurant, abiding in the shadows of the acknowledged world, living together in apartments in Queens, sending money home to support their families, returning over the border to Mexico for a brief visit and then trying to slip back in unnoticed, in the trunk of a car or through the desert or over the Rio Grande. Some are educated, some not, but partly because of race and partly because of longevity they form an almost invisible but potent, permanent, and economically indispensable underclass—hardworking, conscientious, reliable, cheap. They do the menial work that Americans (all immigrants themselves at one remove or another) decline to do.

In Stockholm the restaurants were kept alive in a similar way. There was the same catch—you couldn’t work without a permit, and you couldn’t get a permit if you didn’t have a job. And there was the same underground grapevine: it was absolutely uncanny, but somehow within minutes of arrival, just as you were about to spend your last kroner, someone told you that, while you couldn’t find legitimate work, you could always wash dishes. Perhaps in the hostels, dosshouses, bus depots, railway stations of Stockholm, junior or retired members of the Swedish Civil Service were deployed to whisper such news into the ears of indigent foreigners in order to keep the triumph of bourgeois socialism alive. Certainly, just as in New York, where, with the exception of one tap dancer and one drug addict, I have never had an American dishwasher, so in Sweden I never met a Swedish one. However, there was one interesting difference: the gene pool of the imported underclass was of a uniformly stellar quality. In contrast to New York, my fellow dishwashers in Stockholm were the cream of Europe—filmmakers, psychologists, violinists. I was in awe of most of them.

Actually I never graduated to being a dishwasher. I was, with the exception of one day where my senior colleague, the dishwasher, walked out, and I had to take over his duties as well, a dish dryer. The grapevine had somehow led me to the back door of an extremely expensive Italian restaurant, which had seventy people working at any one time. Of these the lowest were those who occupied the dishwashing station. This was a spacious sunken room with an entrance on one side and an exit on the other. The centerpiece of this conversation pit was a large gleaming dishwashing unit, through which passed several times in the course of a night every piece of metal or china used in the preparation, serving or consumption of quite complicated and, for the Swedes, exotic Italian food. However, it was only a dishwasher. It did not dry. Hence the need for my services. I, having graduated from Oxford, was now, to the profound horror of my parents and the blessed ignorance of my tutors, a dish dryer. I had access to an endless supply of towels and my job was to dry every dish, every fork, every tureen, every sheet pan that came dripping clean out of the washer.

Two empires co-existed uneasily backstage, one the province of the chef, the other the province of the maitre d’. There was a constant jostling for position both between and within these two camps, but there was no doubt in either camp as to who occupied the bottommost rung. Even the dishwasher had someone below him to kick, and that was me. It was my great good fortune, however, that my immediate superiors (the serial guardians of our enormous machine) tended to be gentlemen. We would form a silent bond in the face of mounting abuse from all those who needed our services and needed them now. After the insanity of the major rush, when things quieted down and first the junior cooks and finally the waiters stopped screaming at us, the tongues of my senior colleagues would loosen, and, grateful for my recent education, they would unburden themselves of their passionate and closely argued animadversions on music, film, or the theories of Freud. In the matter of language I was also blessed. Just as the language of kitchens in New York tends to be Spanish, so the language of dishwashers in Stockholm was invariably English.

We had one day off a week, and, as restaurant workers everywhere, we would socialize together, the grapevine alerting other members of the fraternity to some communal activity and meeting-place. And so it was that one Monday, we congregated, a dozen of Stockholm’s finest dishwashers, outside the movie theater in which A Hard Day's Night was about to open. Crowds, many of them wildly excited teenage girls—well, wildly excited for Sweden--began to assemble well in advance of the first showing. We dishwashers formed one such crowd, speaking, joking, cavorting in our lingua franca, liberated from the tyrannies of our various kitchens, conscious of our foreignness, insufferably full of ourselves, and not at all unhappy at the opportunity finally to épater these particular bourgeois. What happened next was so sudden that it took some reconstructing later to figure it out. Some rumor must have spread that one or more of the Beatles might appear for the premiere. Some critical mass of teenage girls, putting this together with the high spirits and low antics of a dozen foreigners, jabbering away in English, must then have become convinced that said Beatle was in our midst. Anyhow, suffice it to say, given my age, height, authentic English, and the length of my hair, suddenly I was it. I found myself literally swept off my feet and carried into the theater on a sea of ululating, flaxen-haired adolescent Brunnhildes. The screaming built to a stupefying climax when the lights went down and the first images came on the screen. At that precise moment they dropped me.

I cannot imagine that any of this would have happened if the language of dishwashers had been anything but English. We all spoke it. Even the giant Finnish seaman who was one of my regular colleagues, managed an English passable enough to confide in me that he was hiding out in the underground of Stockholm, having jumped ship after killing a fellow sailor in a port brawl in Copenhagen. Self defense, of course. Though who would have had the temerity to attack him, except perhaps a gaggle of Swedish Beatles fans, I couldn’t imagine.

My friendship with Finn, as I called him, stood me in good stead, and never more so than the night the dishwasher flooded. The whole sunken dishwashing area, through which the waiters had to pass to collect dishes on their way to the cold station, was filled with almost a foot of water, in which Finn and I stood calf-deep (well, maybe ankle-deep for him). We had set out a runway of inverted buckets, the equivalent of lily pads, for the waiters, who were now required to hop with their dishes from one end of the area to the other, an admittedly difficult task, especially for the women, who tended to be in heels and whose mounting frustration incited an oratorio of screams and curses, at the magnificent crescendo of which, Finn, driven to a fury, and finding himself in possession of an unlimited arsenal of saucepans, frying pans, sizzle platters and other projectiles, let fly like some huge medieval assault weapon. Because of our friendship I was protected. But the waitstaff flailed and ducked in the waters and the cooks quaked behind their ovens. After the last saucepan, Finn, spent but unrepentant, knew that his time was up. With the waiters and cooks cowering on our two thresholds, he took off his whites, picked up his bag and a convenient cleaver, and walked slowly out of the restaurant. For the remainder of the night I had a de facto promotion. The next day Herman the violinist came in. We never saw Finn again.

I learned some important things from my weeks in the kitchens of Stockholm. One was how intense and concentrated life can be. How passionate, how crazy, how dangerous. The other, not unrelated, was how closely restaurant life resembled my real passion, the theatre. There was a backstage, which we, the rude mechanicals, occupied. There were actors—busboys, waiters, the maitre d’--who sallied forth from these wings onto the stage itself, the waiters plumping themselves up just before their entrance. And there was the audience they entertained, who dressed up for the occasion and who, in their finery and their indifference, were the object of both our veneration and our contempt. As far as the chef, who was the playwright, and the maitre d’, who was both the director and the leading man, were concerned, the audience consisted mainly of ignorant boors, who lacked discernment and who were far too easily distracted from a true appreciation of their culinary art by incidentals—conversation, a pretty face, a passing acquaintance, a good cigar. Once in while, a special customer--a politician or a luminary from the theatre or, even more magically, the movies--would be granted a dispensation, and the backstage attitude towards the floor would change dramatically. A sudden groveling servility would set in, distinguishable from the quotidian groveling servility by the fact that it was genuine. But even from my distant vantage point, the floor felt subtly different every night, just as, in the theatre, each house has its own idiosyncratic character, which the actors gossip about backstage as the performance progresses. It’s a good/bad/full/empty/smart/stupid house tonight—in a restaurant you can substitute the word floor for house. When, two years later, I became a professional actor in England, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu, something akin to what in that equally crazy profession is called sense memory. There is a similar sense of anticipation before the doors open, a similar sense of stage fright and competition during the show, and a similar sense of camaraderie and triumph after the curtain comes down and the last customer is swept out. The rhythm of the night is similar, the sense of occasion is similar, the wild conviction that somehow against all odds we will pull this mad venture off is identical.

All this was indelibly borne in on me during one tiny moment on a busy night when I was picking up dry towels from the linen station, which abutted the waiters’ entrance to the main dining-room. I stopped for a moment, paralyzed, as Emilio, the maitre d’, swept in, fuming, through the red velvet curtain and upbraided a waiter standing next to me for overlooking a fork which a prominent customer had dropped on the floor. Emilio seized a tray, threw a crisp white napkin over it, and sailed out through the curtain into the dining-room. With a great flourish he picked the offending fork off the floor, placed it on the tray, made eye-contact with the customer in question, and sailed back out. I was still standing, frozen in place, when he came off, for all the world like leading actors I would later know, who would rant or primp or crack a joke with a stagehand before turning round and re-entering as Othello or Hedda Gabler or the pantomime dame. Emilio glowered at me, seized one of my towels, which he draped over his arm, and a silver salver which he put on top of it. Then he transferred the napkin with the miscreant fork from the tray to the salver, waited a beat, glanced back at his trembling staff, glanced out through the curtain at the floor, and having held it a moment longer than you thought possible, plunged back on stage bearing the selfsame gleaming fork. With another great flourish, he placed it by the customer’s plate and was rewarded with the satisfied half-smile of the contented bourgeois, who is after all half socialist, and who therefore only half suspects, in the plush and candlelight of a foreign restaurant, where everything is satisfyingly overpriced, that he has been duped.

And so, at a tender age, fresh out of Oxford, I began my education in the real world. I was a dryer of dishes, and from my humble post I gazed in awe at the dazzle, the passion, the charade, the full-blooded theatre that swirled around me, entranced by the sheer multifariousness of a life that reinvented itself every night, and that later, when the three of us started our own little enterprise, I came to know, love, fear, despise, cherish and rail at as the restaurant business.

Back to Top


Mandelbrot's Chicken, or, The Origins of Science

“K.C.,” I said, “why don’t you do a reading at Cornelia Street?”

K.C. Cole is the science writer for the Los Angeles Times. She had a new book out about the physics of nothingness called “A Hole in the Universe.” Her publisher was throwing a party for her in New York.

“I’d love to.”

We navigated towards a date.

“Is there anybody you’d like to read with?

“Why—I’m not good enough?”

“K.C., I know you’re a star on the West Coast and in scientific circles. But nobody reads the L.A. Times in New York, and we have sixty seats to fill, and frankly, given the variety of stuff we do, and given the fact that what you do is fairly esoteric, we should perhaps hook you up with somebody else, so we can get a house.”

“Well, how about Roald Hoffmann?”

“Who?”

“Roald Hoffmann.”

“Who’s he?”

“Well, he’s quite a well-known poet. And he’s just had a play produced which he wrote with Carl Djerassi—you know, the chemist, the father of the pill—called Oxygen, which is going to London, and in fact all over the world. But Roald’s chief claim to fame is that he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”

“Oh,” I said, rather disconsolately. “I’m not sure that he’ll ring too many bells either.”

“Well, how about me and Roald and Oliver Sacks?”

“Oliver Sacks, the neurologist?”

“Yes. Why? Do you know him?”

“Yes, we actually did a program together years ago. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. He brought a Touretter with him.”

“Oh, did he really? I’m sorry, he does that sort of thing.”

What tricks might he have up his sleeve this time? I decided not to think about it.

“It’s a deal,” I said.

“O.K., I’ll alert the troops and we’ll come up with a common theme.”

It was Spring vacation, the kids were out of school, friends of my wife’s had acquired a villa on the Riviera and we were invited, so it fell to Angelo, who was beginning to assume responsibility for much of the spoken word programming, to respond to the press. This is what appeared in the New Yorker, dated April 16, 2001:

NOTHING
The author Oliver Sacks joins Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel-laureate chemist, and K. C. Cole, a science writer whose latest book is “A Hole in the Universe,” for an evening of readings and talks about “the concept of nothing, the void, the Buddhist idea of emptiness, in art, science, physics,” according to the evening’s organizer, Angelo Verga. “It’s a difficult thing to explain,” he says. “It’s such an intriguing idea that I’m just going to get out of their way and give them their space.”

Needless to say, Angelo’s impromptu response had everything and nothing to do with the eventual subject of the evening. It did however result in an army of crazed aficionados filling Cornelia Street, begging to be let in. Science writing as rock concert. When mystified passersby inquired what the commotion was about, desperate fans would turn to them and howl, “You don’t understand. We’re here for NOTHING.”

The phone didn’t stop ringing. People started lining up in the afternoon. Part of it was the New Yorker, but part of it was that Sacks had acquired a kind of crossover following. This quiet, thoughtful, humane man, who had spent years toiling in obscurity in a forgotten ward at a remote hospital in the Bronx, dealing both practically and theoretically with some of the most intractable issues of the human brain, now had, by dint of his luminous writing and of the movie version of Awakenings, a ragtag army of what amounted to groupies, who clamored to breathe the same ravishing air he breathed and touch the hem of his bedraggled sweater.

K.C. arrived early with Hoffmann, and I maneuvered them through the gathering throng outside, past the bar, into the back dining room. Hoffmann was a sweet-faced roly-poly man, with an engaging smile and the trace of a Middle European accent. I pieced together later that he’d spent his childhood on the run from Hitler through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany. His father and much of his family had been killed. He had spent the remaining war years in hiding and the postwar years in a succession of DP camps before coming to America in 1949 with his mother. In the tradition of brilliant immigré children he’d gone through Stuyvesant, Columbia, and Harvard, veering off from an early fling with art history into science and the discoveries which led to a Nobel in Chemistry and many other honors. He was clearly a man of the world, if largely the scholarly world, completely at ease with the incongruity in such generally reserved company of a bolo tie, a leather vest, and a silver ring set with a large American Indian turquoise. “Call me Roald,” he said, beaming.

K.C. was worried about Oliver making it through the barricades. I went outside and stood in the crowd, among them but not of them, the recipient of sundry harangues and imprecations.

“Are you the producer?”

“Well, yes, I guess so, sort of.”

“Why didn’t you get a bigger venue?”

“I’m sorry. We do many events. They all happen downstairs in the same space.”

“I’ve been waiting since three o’clock.”

“We took all the reservations first.”

“We had reservations.”

“We flew in from San Francisco.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Jerk.”

“Moron.”

“Asshole.”

Somewhere around here the waves parted and a diffident man with a gray beard and a younger woman acting as a combination tug and icebreaker made their way towards me.

“Oliver Sacks?”

He nodded.

I put a tentative arm around him and we waded through the last few yards to the front door together, borne on a twin wave of adulation (him) and opprobrium (me). Inside, Kate, his general factota, went downstairs to make sure there was a seat, and I took Sacks into the back room. Embraces. Chatter. Finally, I mustered up the courage:

“Dr. Sacks, I don’t know whether you remember, but ten years ago I did a program at the Murphy Center, which you were kind enough to participate in. Two plays, one by Pinter and one by Peter Barnes.”

“Yes, of course, I know the Pinter, and the Barnes piece was rather clever. I wrote him a note.”

“You brought along Lowell Handler.”

“Oh, yes, Lowell, he has a book out now. Twitch and Shout. Rather clever title.”

“I did the Barnes piece—Drummer, about the Touretter. Lowell and I got into a bit of a tussle afterwards about who was better, he or I.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, actually it was quite touching, and you were very gracious, moderating and answering questions.”

“Oh, really, was I?”

He riffled through his papers. For a man whose province was the mind, he seemed eminently distractible. It was both charming and disconcerting. It was also contagious.

“Shall we?” Roald said, bringing us back to the business at hand, and indeed it was time.

We struggled downstairs and forced our way through the multitudes to the front. I introduced the performers with a reading from the New Yorker and a brief synopsis of the story up to this point. K.C. read from her book. Sacks read hesitantly from seemingly inchoate portions of what appeared to be a voluminous autobiography-in-progress. It came out the following year to enormous acclaim as Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. It was dedicated to Roald.

Roald in fact was the quiet unassuming center of the evening. In a gentle voice, his poems picked at great themes with a small chisel, prying away one layer only to reveal another layer beneath it. No great answers were forthcoming, only an interconnected series of ever more pertinent questions. In contrast to science, he said, “poetry soars, all around the tangible, in deep dark, through a world we reveal and make.”

Afterwards we had dinner together on the new banquette in the back room. K.C. was immensely pleased with the evening and kissed me. Sacks, who had perhaps been coached by the ubiquitous Kate, called me by my first name and emboldened me to call him Oliver. And at the end of the night Roald asked whether we might be interested in a little series which he could curate where scientists and humanists would address a common theme from their respective sides of the same mountain. It was out of this that Entertaining Science was born.

ii

Scientists spend their lives in the airy world of numbers. So do shopkeepers, but the numbers are less rarefied. We needed to come to some agreement, which clearly would be idiosyncratic, about such basic matters as the cover, the take, the split, the number of comps and freebies. The cover is what it costs to get in; the take is either the total of paid admissions or the overall total for the event, including food and drink; the split is how much goes to the performer and how much to the house; comps are free admissions, made available to the performer at the discretion of the management; freebies are anything—drinks, dinner, a discount—offered to the performer either as a courtesy or in lieu of any more tangible payment.

What ensued with Roald was a delicate dance conducted in person, on the telephone, but mostly, since he was at Cornell, and I was in New York, via e-mail. Since his e-mail address included his initials, and since his initials and mine were the same, we engaged in a friendly banter in which we referred to each other variously as R, RH, RH1 and RH2, and eventually, by way of compromise and deference, as RH 1.5.

What we arrived at was an arrangement which preserved the conviviality of the initial event and which indeed hearkened back to the early spirit of the café when no actual money changed hands and performers were given scrip in the form of a little certificate entitled NSMAFL (Nothing So Mundane As Filthy Lucre). This entitled them to x number of dollars in play money to be spent in celebration and carousing after the event.

Things are more complex now that we have a downstairs which has to be separately staffed and paid for. The downstairs is our soul, the little engine that drives the machine, the tail that sometimes seems to wag the entire enterprise, a kind of cultural loss leader that is not designed to make money, but that one hopes will at least break even and perhaps spill over into the occasional dinner upstairs and an increased profile in the wider world.

Some of the people Roald was bringing in were eminent, some were traveling from considerable distances, even abroad, so that what we might be able to pay them—a split of the door—seemed at once charming and preposterous. It struck me that, as in Roald’s model, almost everything could be approached from different sides of the same mountain: science/humanities, guarantee/door gig, charming/preposterous.

Dear Roald,

I propose, in lieu of the pitiful sum that might accrue from what we collect at the door, that we revert to a simpler model from the early history of the café (and the world) where artists sang for their supper . . .

Hi, Robin,

OK, we sing for our supper, but how many non-paying guests can I tell my performers they can bring to dinner . . . My proposal: something like 12 free dinners in toto. So if there are 3 perfs and me (is “perfs” a word in the trade, like “perps” in police jargon?), we can invite two guests each . . .

My dear RH,

What is it with you guys? You all live in ménages à trois?

My dear RH,

No, I just depend on the kindness of women. And café owners.

My dear Roald,

2 per is my preferred number. It’s clean, clear, democratic—and it takes the onus off you. However, after a 17-hour meeting of the ruling junta, I am authorized to make a total of ten dinners available to you . . . and an Artists Survival card for each performer which gives them 20% off their tab upstairs in perpetuity throughout the universe—provided they pay cash.

My dear Robin,

Thanks, ten it will be. I will apportion them. And the Artists Card is a great idea. Could you send me eight for the perfs who have already performed? Now, on complimentary admissions to the performance (as opposed to dinners): what is your policy? I would charge everyone on the list I gave you except the Klein family group of 6, and my one guest, and any guests Lukas has (he hasn’t told me of any yet). Is this too complicated?

A hug,

Roald

Dearest Roald,

Do you know the word “chaffer’? It means the same as “haggle.” It just sounds so much more genteel, don’t you think?

xxx

Robin

Dearest Robin,

No, I didn’t know it—it’s a beautiful word—I will use it in a poem.

And so it went, back and forth, over several months, with periodic reviews after the series began. What we agreed to was a cover, all of which would go to the house, in exchange for which Roald would be entitled to x number of comps downstairs and y number of dinners upstairs after the show, x and y being variables subject to market fluctuation. And so it was essentially in the beginning and so it continues to be several years and dozens of shows later.

iii

I am not a scientist, so I was not aware of Roald’s reach or of the distinction of some of his guests. I heard for example the name Mandelbrot whispered furtively or in awe and I was dimly aware that he was a mathematician and had something to do with fractals, whatever they might be. That he was the inventor of fractal geometry and perhaps the most distinguished mathematician on the planet I did not know. I conjured up the image of an intense saturnine gnome-like creature with a protractor and a misbuttoned waistcoat. When I met him he turned out to be large, gregarious, the soul of affability. He too was of Middle European Jewish descent. Older than Roald, he had had the good fortune to follow an uncle to Paris before the war and immerse himself as a Polish schoolboy in the French educational system before, during, and even after Hitler’s conquest of France; he had some brushes with poverty, starvation even, but he survived as a promising student and emerged after the war with a bright future which included an early fellowship in America, with which he developed an on-again-off-again relationship. One of his close friends at Caltech was another Polish Jew whose family had escaped initially to Cuba. The friend had a cousin, Aliette, from a part of the family that survived in Paris, whom Benoit met on his first return to France in the fifties and whom, after some pro forma resistance—she was too young, he was too worldly—he married. And here they were now, Benoit and Aliette, fifty years later, sophisticated, celebrated, open, curious, as comfortable, after early privation and ultimate glory, in the loftiest tower of Academe as in the obscure basement of the Cornelia Street Café.

If Roald’s luminaries had been stars in my own firmament—Olivier, Brando, Beckett, Bergman—I would have been speechless, paralytic, bumping into the furniture. But since this was an alien universe, I saw them for who they were—all doubtless brilliant, but some garrulous, some withdrawn, some incapable of the most basic social interaction, but all having fun in whatever way they thought of as fun. Some of them straddled both universes, as Roald did—a Swedish brain expert who played complex piano pieces by Chopin and Ligeti and then attempted to map the geography of those portions of the brain which afforded music; a goldsmith whose understanding of metallurgy, particularly gold, allowed him to compose the most astonishing miniatures, too small, too intricate to be viewed except in photographic enlargement; an Englishman who used the principles of magnetism and pressure to create large installations composed entirely of smashed cars. I dubbed them Crossover Scientists. This was in contrast to the Pure Scientists whom I dubbed Nerds At Play. Conversely, the Pure Artists—actors, dancers, musicians—from whom one expected life, liberty, and manifest exuberance, were often intimidated by the august company in which they found themselves and retreated into serious explications of what they thought were the intellectual underpinnings of their art.

Roald was following in the footsteps of the English scientist and novelist C. P. Snow—“Sir Charles to his friends,” as Michael Flanders so sweetly put it—who more than fifty years ago had written compellingly about “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow’s point was that the world—the Western world, bien entendu—was separating into two camps, that scientists were becoming more specialized and losing the thread which had been one in the Middle Ages, indivisible in the Renaissance, and reconstituted during the Enlightenment, a thread that bound them into a web where science and the humanities were seamlessly entwined. The language of science was becoming abstruse; the world of art was becoming hermetic. Roald was trying in his unassuming way to re-establish a dialogue, and thereby to point out the obvious, that at the cutting edge, scientists and artists were engaged in a similar search. And in the process all kinds of unlikely wires were crossed, all kinds of unexpected sparks were ignited.

iv

Judy Joice was a legendary figure in the Village. At the age of eighteen, at Columbia, she was picked for a National Science Foundation research fellowship and found herself at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab in the company, amongst others, of James Watson, the brilliant and idiosyncratic biochemist who, together with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, had mapped out the structure of DNA. When Watson came on to her, she abandoned her internship and entered the fertile demimonde of Greenwich Village. She became a waitress at Bradley’s in the East Village, where jazz greats hung out and jammed, and at the age of twenty she married the brilliant and idiosyncratic jazz flutist, Jeremy Steig. In the seventies, after she and Jeremy split up, she fell in love with Wes Joice, the owner of a legendary bar in the West Village called the Lion’s Head, where brilliant and idiosyncratic journalists and politicians drank together and re-invented New York. She married Wes and became the beautiful den mother of the most interesting, volatile, and vituperative collection of drunken writers since Dylan Thomas was carried out of the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in 1953, a block and a half away. In 1997 Wes Joice died, leaving Judy a widow with a fifteen-year-old son. She lost everything—her husband, her business, her apartment. She was adopted by one of the great old men of the New York restaurant business, Joe Baum, the mastermind behind Windows on the World and the Rainbow Room, amongst many other New York landmarks. Luckily for her he put her in charge of the Rainbow Room. On September 11, 2001 Windows on the World, the magnificent restaurant complex on top of the World Trade Center, was obliterated. But by that time Joe Baum too had died, the Rainbow Room on top of Rockefeller Center had been taken over in a restaurant war and gone private, and Judy had found herself out on Shelter Island managing the Ram’s Head Inn and longing for a return to the Village. In January 2001 I mentioned casually to Elizabeth Lyons, who was working for Brooklyn Beer and who would come in from time to time and try to educate me about obscure breweries, that I was looking for a manager. She said, “I may just have the person for you.” And within two weeks Judy Joice had returned to the Village.

Judy’s sister Lucy had had a more serious flirtation with art and art history than Roald, but she found herself after college illustrating medical texts. One of her authors recognized in her curiosity a true scientific intelligence and suggested she might want to pursue science more seriously. So Lucy Shapiro, née Cohen, the sister of Judy Joice, née Cohen, followed this unexpected path, earned a Ph.D at twenty-three, and became one of the world’s leading molecular biologists. In 2002 she was delivering a lecture at a symposium in Stockholm. When it was over she was approached by George Klein, a tumor biologist and a member of the Nobel committee. “Yours was the only lecture I attended,” he told her. “My wife and I would be honored if you and your husband would come to our house for dinner.” Lucy and her husband accepted and over dinner the conversation turned to mutual friends. One of them was Roald Hoffmann.

“You know, Roald runs this series in a tiny café in New York City,” Klein said. “I’ve even appeared there myself. Twice. In fact, when I’m in New York, if it’s the first Sunday of the month, I make a point of going down to Greenwich Village to see what’s on and who’s there.”

“Do you mean the Cornelia Street Café?” Lucy asked.

“Yes. How do you know?”

“My sister Judy manages the Cornelia Street Café.”

v

Betsy Robinson was a brilliant classmate of my wife’s at Wellesley. She graduated in three years, took a Ph.D at M.I.T, and, after flirting with several careers in the States, married an Italian economist and moved to Milan. In Europe, working on the structure of analgesics, she started a cutting-edge biotech firm with European colleagues and set up headquarters in the new industrial zone outside Nice. As the firm prospered, the principals acquired quite lovely properties on the Riviera; one of them was a villa overlooking the gulf of Antibes where we stayed with the kids just before K.C., Roald, and Oliver made their debut at Cornelia Street. Betsy came to the States regularly, mostly to raise money from banks and large pharmaceutical companies; she always made it a point to hold at least one dinner at the café. She was always disappointed that her visits never coincided with Entertaining Science, but she kept up with it from a distance.

One day she e-mailed me from Bologna, where her husband now taught, saying that the Italian premiere of Oxygen was going to be given the following Saturday, that both Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann were going to be in attendance, and that they would both be receiving honorary degrees from the University. Could I get her an introduction to Professor Hoffmann? It took me aback a bit because the following night was Science Sunday and Roald was supposed to be presenting a program called Forever Amber at the Cornelia Street Café and he had asked me to perform a portion of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I e-mailed him to ask whether I could facilitate an introduction to a friend while he was in Bologna, and by the way, had he become such a jet-setter now that he could leave Italy on a Sunday in sufficient time to make it to our basement for a 6pm kickoff, particularly since Italy was six hours ahead of us? Roald e-mailed me back that he had more than enough honorary degrees, that Carl would be perfectly capable of handling the limelight by himself, that he would drop Betsy a line, and that of course he would see me at the usual time, not at six, but at five to help set up. Betsy wrote later that he had sent a charming video address in his stead.

Betsy and Riccardo went to the opening. Oxygen revolves around three 18th century scientists—the Frenchman, Antoine Lavoisier; the Englishman, Joseph Priestley; and the Swede, Carl Wilhelm Scheele—any one of whom might be credited with the discovery of oxygen. It moves back and forth in time between a fictional encounter in Stockholm in 1777 when the three are invited to stake their claim by King Gustav III, and an equally fictional meeting of the Nobel Prize committee in 2001, which is considering which one of the three might be awarded the first "retro" Nobel in honor of the prize’s centennial. Politics, research, passion, luck, ambition—the issues remain constant. However, the play ends, tantalizingly, with the verdict still open.

Riccardo was so captivated by the issues and so frustrated by the ending that he conducted an elaborate statistical analysis, which takes both the historical and the contemporary protagonists at their fictional word, graphs several potential variables in the voting, brings in feminism, probability theory, and Condorcet’s paradox, and proposes two possible outcomes. Roald found this sufficiently intriguing to engage in an extended transatlantic dialogue.

And while Dr. Riccardo Rovelli, Professor of European Economic Integration at the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the Western world, founded in the eleventh century by masters of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, was wrestling at his computer with scientific and sociological questions of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, raised in a play written in English by two foreign scientists and translated for the occasion into Italian, at the same time in a public ceremony in one of the great halls at the same university, one of the play’s co-authors, the Viennese-born American chemist Carl Djerassi, the father of the pill, was being invested with the university’s Sigillum Magnum, and, across the ocean, in the New World, at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, founded in 1977 by three penurious artists, his colleague and co-author, the Polish-born American Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, was scouring the basement with the last of the original owners (me) in search of an extension cord with which to plug in the ancient projector he had lugged down from Cornell, from which a Russian architect was going to project the first pictures of the newly restored Amber Room in the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, which had been plundered by the Nazis during the siege of Leningrad in 1941, shipped to Koenigsberg/Kaliningrad in twenty-seven crates, given up for lost, and recreated over more than twenty years by a joint Russian-German team, using modern laser technology to carve billion-year-old fossilized tree resin into a dazzling replication of what was once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, completing their work just in time to celebrate the 300th anniversary of what had been for two centuries and was now once again, after ten years as Petrograd and almost seventy as Leningrad, the fabled city of St. Petersburg.

vi

Dear Robin,

I’m having lots of fun in Tokyo. Just met the Emperor today (really), told him to come to the café and you’ll give him a free dinner.

Love,

Roald

My dear RH 1,

I am of course totally outraged that you would offer the Emperor a free dinner. I am thinking au contraire of forming an Emperor’s Club, replete with Emperor’s Noblesse Oblige card, an exact inverse of the Artists Survival Card, with which genuine bona fide Emperors (with drivers license) get to pay a 20% surcharge and pick up the tab for everyone currently dining (with said 20% tacked on), the balance to go to supporting Entertaining Science and assorted songwriters, performance artists, stiltwalkers, and Nobel Laureates.

As always,

RH 1.5
Wine Czar
Minister of Culture
Lord High Everything Else

The next Entertaining Science had the title: Heavy Metal. It included the guitarist /composer Elliott Sharp playing an early steel guitar, and the return of Oliver Sacks discoursing on various metals. Because Sacks was on the bill, we had had to cut off reservations days before; nevertheless, far more people clamored to get in than we could accommodate. We had somewhat streamlined the entrance procedure by this time. Judy would stand at the head of the stairs collecting $10 from everybody not on Roald’s guest list and issue them a ticket which entitled them to a drink at the downstairs bar. I would shuttle between downstairs—where the staff would be setting up the bar, straightening out the tables, lighting the candles, and checking sound and other technical requirements with Roald and the performers—and upstairs, where the entire front room would be taken over by impatient science groupies jostling for position.

We are more than sold out when to my horror the Mandelbrots arrive. They are not on Roald’s list nor have they made a reservation. For Judy, after years of dealing with drunken writers, scientists are child’s play. She is just about to send the world’s most eminent mathematician packing, when I manage to interpose myself, collect their cover, pull them through, and find them seats before the masses descend.

I introduce the evening with the Japanese e-mail exchange, Roald introduces Oliver, and Oliver talks fondly about some of the ritual objects in his family home in north west London where I too grew up—the ornate silver candlesticks for Shabbat, the filigreed Havdalah box, the brass menorah. I am struck again by how many participants in Roald’s series have a journey behind them not dissimilar to mine, how wide the reach, how extraordinary the range of accomplishment, how international in scope, and how, collectively, they represent a quintessentially American ingathering of exiles—Mandelbrot; Roald himself; Oliver; George Klein, the tumor biologist from Sweden; Marcelo Gleiser, the Brazilian astronomer, and a host of others. It was a far more exotic thing to be a Jew in England than it is here and I am touched, as I listen, by the unassuming way in which Oliver alludes to his ancestry. His family were observant Jews and professional people of some distinction. Both his parents were doctors. Now, in honor of the uncle who inspired in him as a boy a passion for chemistry, he passes around a small and very heavy chunk of tungsten, and, as a finale, a fragment of a meteorite which fell in Argentina in 1576. The room is very full, there are fifteen or more of us crowded in at the tiny bar, but mercifully we have survived. Some of those who were turned away are still upstairs hoping to take up seats at intermission if anybody leaves. And indeed, after Oliver, quite a few people do leave and the room becomes manageable.

Mandelbrot motions me over:

“Robin, I am having dinner with the Emperor of Japan next week.”

“What is it with you guys and the Emperor of Japan?”

“Well, they are giving me a prize and rather a lot of money.”

“Aha.”

“Do you have any messages for the Emperor?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I do: Dinner’s off.”

Elliott’s compositions employ feedback, looping, sampling, layering, and delay pedals, in addition to instruments, in this case a miniature steel guitar. They often follow structures based on the discoveries of mathematicians like Fibonacci and indeed Mandelbrot himself. I tend to find this kind of experimental, computer-generated music dauntingly cerebral. Tonight is no exception. But Elliott, in talking about it, manages to haul some of us retrograde toe-tappers into his boat, at least intermittently. “In the early ‘70’s, I was studying music at Bard and living in a house on the Hudson. I spent a lot of time walking along the river, and we had a porch, and you would see literally thousands and thousands of fireflies.” The online journalist Matt Rand is taking notes. “There were times they would form patterns and almost seem on the verge of spelling out things. That led me to thinking about all the rhythmic structures we were composing, structures that are open-ended. It was all right there, all the fractal shit, pine cones and branches, streams and currents. It inevitably found its way into my thinking and I did a Hudson River series of compositions. They were all instruction sets, or command sets, basically conceptual pieces, it being the ‘70’s, but with a mathematical subtext.” His hope, he says, is that “some people hearing this music will understand, will hear the complexity in it, will wonder how it’s generated, will maybe hear the order, maybe hear the rules. And they’ll go backwards from the sound of the music to the systems that went into it, thinking about birds flocking, thinking about the way RNA molecules combine, thinking about genetic mutation, thinking about African drum choirs, thinking about how nature creates an algorithmic structure.”

I give up trying to tap my toes and for brief, random, unpredictable stretches, I make a blind leap into the foaming waters of mathematics.

After Elliott’s performance we retire upstairs to the back room for dinner on the banquette. Roald, the Mandelbrots, Oliver, Elliott, and various spouses and accomplices. Wine is on me. I choose a white and a red and give some little talk about them. Generally quite a healthy amount is consumed. Dinner for y number of guests is also on me (or, perhaps, more accurately, on Roald), which always makes for interesting calculations at the end of the night, particularly given the genteel state of inebriation. One of the waitresses is now so familiar with the formula that I can leave the settlement at the end of the night to her. All drinks are taken off the check, the dinners are totaled and divided by the number of diners; y are comped and the rest Roald is responsible for, by collecting from some at the table and by putting others on his credit card. I pay the tip on the entire bill.

On this particular night there was music downstairs which at a certain point needed my attention. I was in the office when Alice came down with the check and asked me to tip them out: 18% of the pre-tax total, which she had of course precisely figured out. Roald collected his projector and made his adieus; everybody else had left.

At midnight, as we are preparing to close, I get a call.

“Robin, it’s Aliette Mandelbrot. A terrible thing happened.”

“What? What happened? Is everything alright?”

“We forgot to pay.”

“No, no, Roald is entitled to a number of free dinners. I’m sure you were his guests.”

“But Benoit did not perform tonight.”

“No, no, that’s perfectly OK.”

“No, no, Robin, that is not right. I insist. We have to pay.”

“No, no.”

“Absolutely. Now, I had the spinach salad, that’s nine dollars. Benoit, what did you have?”

Benoit in the background: “I had the spinach salad also.”

“So, that’s two spinach salads. Benoit, nine and nine, how much is that?”

“That’s . . . eighteen dollars.”

“Then I had the chicken. That is fifteen dollars. Benoit, nine and nine and fifteen?”

“Nine and nine is eighteen. Eighteen and fifteen is . . . thirty-three dollars.”

“Benoit, what did you have?

“I had the skatefish.”

“Robin, how much is the skatefish.”

“Aliette, this is ridiculous.”

“No, Robin, it is not ridiculous. The skatefish was a special. How much was the special tonight?”

“Sixteen.”

“Alright, Benoit, now we have it. Nine and nine is eighteen. Eighteen and fifteen is thirty-three. Thirty-three and sixteen for the skatefish—you are expensive, Benoit—how much is that?”

“Thirty-three and sixteen is . . . forty-nine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Thirty-three and sixteen is forty-nine. Yes, I am sure.”

“Now, Robin, there is also tax and a tip.”

“Please, Aliette, forget it. I have already paid the tip, and the tax is negligible.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am sure.”

“Alright, then I will send you a check for fifty dollars.”

“Alright, Aliette, I give in.”

“And it was a lovely night. Thank you.”

“No, thank you.”

“Goodnight, Robin.”

“Goodnight, Aliette.”

“Benoit says goodnight too.”

“I say goodnight to him.”

“Benoit, Robin says goodnight to you.”

Benoit in the background: “Thank you, Robin.”

Two days later a check arrived made out to the Cornelia Street Café in the amount of fifty dollars, drawn to the account of Benoit and Aliette Mandelbrot. I blew it up and stuck it on the bulletin board in the office. I smile every time I see it.

Scientists and shopkeepers: they both spend their lives in the airy world of numbers. Some of the numbers are more rarefied than others. But once in a while, on both sides of the equation, all the numbers come out right.

Back to Top