Aug '02 [Home]
Love Song to the Borgia: A Meditation on Coffee House Culture
in Greenwich Village and Beyond
[In the Fifties] you could walk from New York to California by just
For years, I steeled myself for the Café Borgia's closing. I'd halt at the Southwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, peer into the window and shudder—empty or almost. Please, I'd pray. Let it fill up! In January 2001, my prayers became redundant. After forty-two years, my coffee house of coffee houses joined Lucrezia in history.
Despite its prime location, the Borgia had no polar draw at all on this corner's compass. The other three cafés pulsated with action while the Borgia's empty tables brooded. The ides of fashion decreed it should be sacrificed to the trendy and upscale. Even my close friends objected when I coaxed them inside. They preferred the Le Figaro across the street, with its bright modern interior, its overflow crowds from opening to closing time.
The Borgia seduced me into permanent patronage: summers outside, winters in. A sublime melancholy immediately washed over me upon entering. My toes tingled, my brain meandered in outlandish directions normally inhibited by New York's high voltage vibrations. My elbows must have etched grooves in the wobbly tables, just large enough to pile several books on. Worshipfully, I sat on wrought iron chairs that Beat backsides once massaged.
I'll miss the imposing portraits of Lucrezia and Cesare, my gracious hosts on occasions too numerous to mention. They looked on indulgently as I blabbered with friends or sat silent, meditating, plotted creative endeavors or daydreamed about failed romances while hoping for new ones. In the Borgia's laissez-faire atmosphere, which did not require ordering much of anything (one reason it closed), I wondered how coffee houses first came into existence.
A few months before the Borgia closed, I tried to explain its hold on me to Frankie, a neighbor whose dog I mind when he's at a party in the Hamptons or jetting off to other fashionable resorts. His response was to berate me for wasting my time in a "dump." Why didn't I socialize among the "right people," so I'd have invitations too?
Patiently, I explained to Frankie the venerable history of coffee houses. How they had originated in fifteenth century Mecca, where Muslims drank the stimulant together and dubbed it the "wine of Islam." That coffee houses had then traveled from Turkey to Europe through Venice in the sixteenth century, and crossed the English Channel. That they were widespread in seventeenth century London, where they served an educational function. That some published newsletters, political pamphlets and accumulated substantial libraries—one numbering two thousand volumes.
The news that Sir Isaac Newton discussed his theories in coffee houses made Frankie yawn. That Dr. Johnson exercised his wit there, Jean-Paul and Simone refined Existentialism, and Franklin, Jefferson and Adams bounced their conceptions of the baby democracy around, failed to impress him. He couldn't care less that Lloyd's of London had developed from a coffee house.
Half way out the door, Frankie brushed a speck of dust from his Armani suit. "Make sure you take Marie Antoinette to the vet next Friday," he reminded me. "And wake up and smell— Oh, you know. Stop being so bloody bohemian!"
As much as I doted on the Borgia, it paled next to the Parisian archetype Anaïs Nin experienced before World War II and wrote about in her 1944 diary:
The home and the studio were private. No one visited during the day. The day was preserved for work. Very often we did not even know where a certain artist lived or worked. But one was sure never to be lonely, for in the evening after work, one could always walk into certain cafés and find friends gathered there, or someone would come with a new friend, a visitor or a disciple. If there was a party somewhere, one would hear about it at the cafe and would go in a group, or if a need of intimate talk was felt, one left the group and walked to some small, unknown cafe. It was unplanned, free, casual. It was not difficult to meet an artist one admired. One sat in the café with a group of friends; sooner or later someone would introduce me to the other and groups would mingle. [unexpurgated, 128]
But forget Paris! I cared about the implosion of my West Village social life, the shortage of spots for enlightening conversation. Viscerally, I felt signs of Disneyfication creeping down from 42nd Street. I'd dipped my toes in ripples of Left Bank bohemia in New Orleans, Gainesville (Fla.), Marbella and Tangier. Ever since, I've missed belonging to a community of creative, eccentric characters who spoke a common language. I presumed people familiar with this alphabet still existed, but where?
In Minor Characters, a memoir of her late 1950's bohemian experiences, Joyce Johnson gloried in "being part of an endless family whose individual members only needed to be discovered one by one."  Fifty or so years later, if I find a kindred spirit occasionally, I'm thrilled. The easygoing "bring your own bottle" style of socializing Johnson gloried in seems quaint today. Instead, clubs that erect velvet ropes with doormen ordered to exclude the unchic are common. Hello celebrity, goodbye comradeship Borgia-style.
I began exploring for a replacement, but before I'd found it, my friend Eva—over on a summer visit from Berlin—showed up on my doorstep. An inveterate bohemian with no German accent, she seasonally hops from continent to continent. This year, she slept on the beach at Goa; last year, she lived in a commune on the Baleric island of Fomentera. Her crew cut black hair, sexy black patterned stockings, leather jacket, red beret and blood-red lipstick are eye catchers even in been-there-done-that Greenwich Village.
Usually my visitor sets the pace and I follow. This time, in mourning for the Borgia, I enlist her in my quest for a new home away from home. She is familiar with the Borgia, and merely grunts when I recount its demise. "Too dark, Sweetie. Reminded me of a tomb. You can do better," she insists. "Okay" I counter. "Show me!"
At the Figaro with Eva, I make a welcome discovery: Norma, the Borgia's lone waitress has migrated cross the street. There, I had admired her white skin and flowing dark hair, her habit of assuming statuesque poses that models once struck in pre-Raphaelite paintings. We embrace like old comrades, although we have never exchanged more than pleasantries before. Norma insists we have a drink on her, then invites us to the Sunday night belly dancing show. Eva, as familiar with casbahs as she is with airplanes, accepts with alacrity.
Come Sunday, dressed in jeans and a sleeveless blouse, I accompany Eva, who is dolled up in Eastern regalia, ankle bracelets jingling. At the bar, she straightaway chats with a tall, bearded Lebanese businessman in town for a convention. One of the drummers (a woman—rare among Eastern musicians), warms up with a contained ferocity. The other players join in, their eyes on her, their bodies pivoting in her direction. She appears to be the heart of the ensemble, its star. Norma informs us that she's from Brooklyn, about to leave on an international tour. Since all tables for two are occupied, we join a party of male students in NYU sweatshirts chattering about their summer vacations.
The first dancer, petite, undulates onto the makeshift dance floor, which consists of narrow aisles between the tables. She is joined by another dancer in a similar hairdo and costume. Their energy fuses together so powerfully they create the illusion of one person dancing. Mesmerized by an eroticism reminiscent of ancient rituals, no one in the crowd even stirs to lift a cappuccino cup.
Another dancer, tall and voluptuous, follows the twosome. Her performance is an onslaught of whirls and isolations of body parts that raise the temperature of male onlookers. The last dancer, another dark-haired beauty, circles the room, then finishes to deafening applause. Called back for an encore, she works the room to find a partner.
After several people decline, she places her veil—an invitation to the dance—around Eva's neck, who pops up to mimic the dancer's moves. Such precision and vivacity! One would suppose that she had been trained from birth. Glottal noises surge up from Eva's throat, an imitation of the eerie sound Eastern women make at gatherings to acknowledge a belly dancer's skill.
At ten, the festivities over, Norma invites us into the front room for a night cap. The NYU students, and several other males enthralled by Eva's exhibition, join us. On this balmy summer night, we are both indoors and out, floor length panels rolled back giving us an unobstructed view of Bleecker Street. We sink into a cushioned couch, part of the happy clamor of conversations going full tilt.
Ari, the Lebanese businessman, plops down between Eva and myself. The two globetrotters launch into anecdotes about their international wanderings that exclude mere New Yorkers. Predictably, Ari occupies Eva for the rest of her visit—an opportunity for her to add Lebanon to her ports of call.
In 1927, the Reggio became the first European-style coffee house downtown. Afficinados dote on this old timer, a location Paul Mazursky used in his film, Next Stop Greenwich Village. Its patina of age, including an irregular tin ceiling, takes one back to an era when the world moved at a slower pace. Inconspicuous waiters neither rush nor pay particular attention to patrons.
As murky inside as an old Italian museum, each year the paintings on Reggio's walls acquire another layer of grime. Surprisingly, none are reproductions of the Flemish master Franz Hals, fond of depicting burghers gossiping in coffee houses. The obscurity encourages me to jot down random musings on cabbages and kings. Two hours later, after a sinfully sweet zabaglione, washed down with chamomile tea, I saunter across the street to check out a newcomer on the coffee house circuit.
The all-night Esperanto Café, earlier incarnated as the Kettle of Fish bar, stands next to the former Gaslight Café (now the Wreck Room Bar), a spot hallowed by Beat poetry readings and Bob Dylan, who introduced his song, "Masters of War," there, among many others. During MacDougal Street's golden age (or perhaps silver), drinkers imbibed liquor at the Kettle, while those preferring to inebriate themselves on language showed up at the Gaslight. Traffic streamed between the two.
Daytimes at the Esperanto, NYU students are mixed in with thirtysomethings clicking away at their laptops. One Tuesday night, insomnia keeps me tossing and turning, so at two a.m., I throw on some clothes and head for the Esperanto. Souls out at such witching hours are not worker bees. No laptop in sight. Brisk October weather discourages those normally lounging outside on a bench. I imagine waves lapping the Esperanto, marooned on a calm sea; shops on MacDougal are shut and few pedestrians saunter by on this weekday night.
Inside, I join a scattering of other nocturnal crawlers whose mellow mood I share. I'm tempted to sit on the plush red couch in front, parallel to the window, but a young couple holding hands and talking intently might not appreciate a stranger's company just now.
A woman about fifty is seated by the window alone, staring out. Her expensive blue blazer bows to conservatism while the rest of her erupts in an uninhibited blaze of color: carrot red hair, tattoos in place of eyebrows, a large alpine hat with a peacock feather dangling, green thigh-high lizard boots.
Conversations go on against a background of Sixties perennials on the sound system. In back, I settle on one of several Victorian-style chairs arranged higgledly-piggedly, a nod to the diversity of bohemia itself. A small blonde reading The Village Voice mumbles to herself; a Black man carrying a briefcase sips his espresso meditatively; across from him, a grey-haired woman alternately munches a gooey eclair and shuffles papers. A teacher grading exams? I wonder.
On a profound level, I silently communicate with my compatriots of the night. Occasional eye contact signals an occult connection with hanger-outers from the Procope in Paris to the vagabonds at Pfaff's, New York's first bohemian bar. We treasure our solitude, yet are sustained by the comfort of like-minded spirits close by. At the Esperanto, we transform New York into a village in the best sense.
After a cup of tea, the visuals filed away, my empty hands fidget. As I am about to leave, a man in a velvet cloak, with salt-and-pepper hair cascading in silky waves down the back of his neck stumbles over my foot. Accomplishing a graceful pirouette, he lands in a chair against the back wall. An Oscar Wilde look-alike, where is his walking stick?
I can't help but stare at the elegant line of his long legs, the tiny gold-rimmed glasses which perch on his patrician nose. Effortlessly, he exudes what the Spanish call castiza.
"I say, Miss. Sorry." I'm curious why such a fancy gent isn't decorating the bar at Elaine's or at a hotsy totsy charity function uptown.
I fantasize opening night at his latest play, which I've helped him rehearse. In the front row, among the theater crowd cheering his bravura acting, I treasure the secrets we've whispered in bed. Blowing me a kiss at curtain call, my face is the only one he sees.
"Vivaldi's off my route. I seldom turn down Bleecker onto Great Jones."
"Petey! Why, oh why you making yerself so scarce, not calling, phone off the hook, not answering twenty emails? Somebody else in yer life?" Glaring at me with bloodshot eyes, the carrot-haired, blue-blazered woman throws her purse onto my table. Sniffing a commotion about to happen, the school teacher woman across the way leans closer.
Not a muscle in Peter's face twitches; nor does his tone of voice escalate. An explosion, when?
Nervously, Peter's head swivels toward the door as though any moment he expects a don from his public school days to show up, or a policeman to take her out in handcuffs. When he brushes back his luxuriant hair, his ears are crimson—the single outward sign of his inner distress.
Leave. Vanish. Let this dismal commèdia lumber to its depressing conclusion sans your presence. Paralyzed, I follow the longtime lovers down their sad lane, poignant and embarrassing memories dredged up in excruciating detail.
Milly starred at Dublin's Abbey Theater for ten years in plays by Shaw, O'Casey and Sheridan. Peter, an apprentice, fell in love with her beauty which inspired a popular Irish painter to do her portrait—currently on view in a Dublin museum. As her career declined, his took off, until Broadway producers brought him to New York. Washed up, Milly followed.
Through lean and fat years they lived together, quarreling then reuniting, in furnished sublets downtown, their tempers fraying in cramped quarters. Out every night, but since bars only compounded Milly's drinking problem, they became coffee house afficinados accustomed to settle their issues publicly.
When Peter locked her out one night, she hunted him down at the Sha Sha on Hudson Street to deliver a mighty punch. Shifting gears to the victim mode, she swore that Peter's sexual inadequacies were the root of their problem. One rainy night, frustration drove her from table to table regaling customers at Carpo's with details of Peter's fumblings in bed. At Anglers and Writers on Hudson and St. Lukes Place, she hurled a chocolate eclair in his aristocratic face, causing the onlookers to howl with glee.
L'Angolo, at the corner of Houston and Thompson, wins the prize for the darkest of all coffee houses. In its pitch black interior, the lovers quarreled last Halloween after the parade over Milly's secret drinking. When verbal provocation failed, Milly switched to physical. Her move to toss Peter through the floor-to-ceiling front window would have succeeded, if only the waiter hadn't interceded.
A cross between Medea and Blanche Dubois, Milly is a consummate performer, expert at churning sympathy in an audience. Emotionally drained, my first impulse is to cry. Instead, I extend a limp hand toward her to offer some reassurance. Milly's angry words contrast with the pathos of her gestures. The Esperantians, stunned by this recitation of physical and mental abuse, edge in closer, yet no one loses their New York cool by aggressive eavesdropping or butting in.
Peter listens with aplomb to these insults and indignities that run as deep as the Irish Sea. Finally, he clears his throat with a loud harrumph. Any moment I expect him to storm out. Surprise! Peter picks up Milly's coat—which she'd hurled to the floor for emphasis—and drapes it over her shoulders. Dropping money on the table, he escorts her into the chilly night air, no further word for or glance at me.
At best, a coffee house functions as an impromptu university: Inadvertently, I'd learned something about human psychology to be figured out when I could whip together the omelette of impressions gathered on this night of expectations and disappointments. At worst, it is a cool place to catch glimpses of the bohemically inclined at their pastimes. The coffee, made with love, isn't bad either. No longer fixated on the Borgia, I looked forward the continuation of my pilgrimage, with the aid of the serendipitous guidebook Milly's trail of tears provided.
Soon, renovations were underway on a corner store at Christopher and Barrow, two short blocks from my home, prefiguring the birth of Mona Lisa 2, an offspring of the parent at Bleecker and Seventh Avenue. These days, I fall out of bed into this appetizing space, as cute as a doll's house, untroubled by regrets or the what if's that destroy spontaneity—essential to living in the Now.