Saturday, September 19, 2015

Pretty Pierrot

Yesterday, she would have been 110.

Have I ever told you my Garbo story?  Would you mind very much if I did?  As you likely know, almost every New Yorker worth the name who lived in the city from sometime in the mid-'40s until 1990 has one.  This is mine:

I moved to Manhattan in the later '80s, fresh out of Philadelphia and ready to live The Glamourous Life.  If that meant a stint in a tiny studio in Hell's Kitchen, so be it.  The neighborhood then truly was a wasteland, one that moreover bordered the war zone that was Times Square; things were getting better, true, than they'd been a few years before, but none of us in those days could have dreamed of Disney stores and frozen-yogurt chains on 42nd street, let alone clever little nitespots and million-dollar condos on 47th Street.  I quickly found a job on the furthest fringes of The Show Business - mostly being officiously nice to very rich donors at an arts organization of which you've heard - and started exploring this brave new world.

One perk of my new job was access beyond the usual reach of even very enterprising broke 20-somethings to the special reservation lines of exceedingly select restaurants, as well as, in quite a few cases, an easy familiarity with the imposing figures who spoke in sepulchral tones at the other end of the telephone. No Open Table in those days, and no substitute for a familiar name to drop. "She needs a very nice table for six, Paulo, and I know you can squeeze her in - it's not like anyone you know is going to Madama Butterfly this late in the season, no?"

So one night my very successful uncle was coming in to the city from San Francisco, and he asked if I could snag a table somewhere special for a business dinner - and why don't I come along? Never one to pass up a free - let alone a free and exquisite - meal, I started ringing 'round to see what could be done and soon enough had a quiet table for four at a particularly lovely little place.  It would certainly be a step up from my usual haunts, chief among them the late lamented West Side Cottage, a joint notorious for vast portions and lashings of free white wine, to the point that we usually just called it Headache Chinese.  When the night came - a rainy fall evening, not all that much later in the year than today - I was the first of our table to appear, ducking down the three or four steps to the cozy basement with its low ceiling, dim lighting pierced with shafts of light from hidden recesses, and the soft murmur of conversation from the linen-covered tables.

Ours was a table toward the back, in the narrower part of the long L-shaped room, and when the others appeared they were duly impressed with the place and the placement alike.  Dinner was all I hoped - of all the delicacies, the only one I recall was a mushroom dish that featured the richest, most savory veal reduction I have even after all these years ever encountered - and all was well.  After the glorious desserts - do I remember a meringue? - the uncle and his cronies were happy travelers, and like many travelers, sleepy.  The check paid, we made our way out into the cold, wet night, and I said goodnight.  As they walked off, I realized I had left my umbrella on the banquette inside, so back down the little set of steps I went.  On my way toward our table, I noted as I passed that the party at the large round table in the corner of the L was having a particularly pleasant evening - a group of older people, mostly, very well dressed and very worldly-seeming.  It still being the late 80s, clouds of smoke drifted through the shafts of light in the dim, largely candlelit room.  They were talking all at once as old acquaintances do, eating and drinking and laughing.  I walked on back and found the waiter with my umbrella in his hands; "Perfect timing!" he said as he handed it over. 

He had no idea.

I turned around and walked back down the row of tables, reaching the wider part of the room apparently just as the large round table finished a joke.  A discreet roar of laughter rose, and at exactly the right moment, just in time, I looked up.  The old woman, the one facing away from the room into the furthest corner away from prying eyes, the one to whose back I'd paid no particular attention on the way toward the umbrella, threw back her head in delight at whatever the joke had been.  She was perfectly positioned, as it turned out, so that her face, just at that moment, hit one of those streams of light in the dimness that gave the place its trademark romantic atmosphere.  And the little old lady, with a mop of gray hair and nondescript clothes of wintry black or gray or such - suddenly she was, as unmistakably as if she were a still by Hurrell, her.

It was just an instant; it was an eternity.  It was as close a thing as I can imagine to being struck by lightning, were one to be struck by lightning in one of the better French restaurants on the Upper West Side.  I don't remember if I even broke stride, continuing on my way, gobsmacked, back out to the rainy street.  I stood for a while, on the wet sidewalk under the discreet awning, before at last gathering my wits and walking down the Avenue to home.  That night, I had Garbo dreams.

The next day I mentioned, still marveling, what I had seen to the hard-boiled executive secretary with whom I shared an office just outside the inner sanctum of the Very Important Man, so adept at shaking loose the millions on behalf of Kultcha, whom we served.  "Oh, yeah," she said. "She goes there sometimes.  So she's still pretty?"

Well, now, thirty years and more later, to tell the truth, no; she was 82 at least, and probably not all that well.  She was undeniably old, and in a year or two her legendary walks around the city would be no more. But I can tell you one thing - one thing that I will remember for as long as I remember anything at all: when she threw her head back and laughed, the flesh falling back against those infinitely perfect bones, there was never anything more beautiful in all the world.  The glimpse of heaven that you get in Ninotchka, the laughter scene, was gospel truth, and on a rainy Tuesday night in 1988, I saw it.

So that's my Garbo story. What's yours?


  1. I don't have a Garbo story, but do I have a Muscato story? I don't know. In the 1980's, I lived in NYC, on 47th Street, worked in the arts and had more dinners than I could count at the Westside Cottage.

    Perhaps some day I can tell you my Colleen Dewhurst and Maureen Stapleton story.

    Continued best wishes to you on your recuperation and recovery.

    1. Well, it is an awfully tiny world, isn't it? We may well have bumped into each other in that little bodega on Ninth, so conveniently open all night...

  2. I have no Garbo stories, more is the pity... Jx

  3. Wow. What a great story.

    I worked in that same area during those same years, but have no Garbo stories. As George W. Tush, I have a Colleen Dewhurst story, and a Bette Midler story. Maybe one day I'll learn that I have a Muscato story, too!