27 February 2009

Le Cafe Perdu

Today Bruce and I went to lunch at the Red Egg, a Chinese restaurant on a part of Centre Street that sits in a nether-world between Chinatown, Soho and the Lower East Side. It's hard to get any sit-down meal in Manhattan, much less one as good as we had, for seven dollars (before tax and tip).

Today I had Red Egg Curry Chicken. It was so good that I was scooping up and downing what remained of the sauce after I'd finished the chicken, asparagus and okra that made up the rest of the dish. And Bruce's General Tso's Chicken, which I sampled, was as good.

We've eaten there a couple of times before, and I'm sure we'll go back. The decor is a cross between a Soho bistro and a Chinese restaurant in Queens. That is to say, it's made up of sleek red and black lacquer and blondish wood.

A good sign is that the place was full, or close to it, each time we've gone. And, at least half of the customers were Chinese. Also, they set your table with chopsticks. I'm not sure that they have western-style utensils: I didn't see anyone using them.

After we finished, Bruce had to return to work. So, after we parted, I wandered across town on Spring Street to the Bowery, then up toward Cooper Square. The day was mild but overcast; everyone rightly believed that we would get the rain that was forecast for the early evening.

On a day like this, which feels like an early spring day except for a touch of damp chill, flesh and bright colors peeked out the way the sun does as it moves through layers of clouds. Near Bruce's office, in a building sandwiched between two boutiques, young women fluttered about in shorts with brightly-patterned tights or skirts over sheer hosiery. Some of the young men weren't wearing coats or jackets, or even sweaters, over their T-shirts. Back when I was young and full of testosterone (and alcohol), I would have done the same.

The styles may change, but they are re-enacting what seems to be a ritual I've seen for as long as I can remember. If we'd had a day like this a few weeks ago, it wouldn't have been seen as a prelude to spring: It would have been just an unusually warm day in winter. And so everyone would have been wearing coats and scarves and such.

Well, some people--young women, mostly--wore scarves, mainly as accessories. One in particular just oozed style with hers, in shades of champagne, lilac and dark pink. Its ends fluttered behind her as she pumped her Peugeot city bike--the kind they sell in France, not an export model--with fenders, a rack, generator light and all. She would have looked completely appropriate on the streets around Saint Germain des Pres or Montmartre.

She is me, in another life. If only...

Seeing her, and those downtown streets and buildings that criscross each other at mad angles, I started to get, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, woozy with deja vu. I recalled walking those same streets when they both more carefree and more dangerous than they are now. I knew of some of the dangers; others escaped--along with a lot of other things--my consciousness as I drank or intoxicated myself in some other way. I saw a place--Phebe's, still there--where I used to drink enough so that I didn't notice or care that the hamburger I ordered was burnt. It brought back images of other places, long gone, where the graffiti in the bathroom provided more debate on issues of the day, and larger questions, than just about any still-surviving magazine or other publication that has any sort of intellectual premise or pretense.

One place like that was Le Figaro cafe, which used to take up a corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in the heart of the Village. Back before Starbuck's cafes started popping up like weeds after a rainstorm, Le Figaro was one of the few places where you could get something like a real espresso or cappucino rather than the burnt-coffee-bean-and-boiled-milk concoctions other places served. Back in those days, they served decent quiche Lorraine and some not-bad desserts. But those weren't the reasons to go there. Nor was the decor: If you can imagine an interrogation room from a '40's or '50's noir film wallpapered with copies of the eponymous French newspaper (ironically enough, one edited from a conservative, almost reactionary, point of view), you have a good idea of what the interior looked like.

From what I understand, Bob Dylan and his peers used to go there after playing at The Back Fence and other nearby dives. Of course, that gives it the same sort of cachet Dylan Thomas's patronage gives the White Horse Tavern. But the real reason you went to Le Figaro, or any of those old-time Village coffee places, was to watch people. So, it was always best (to me, anyway) to go on a day like this one, which would probably be the first of the season on which the sidewalk tables would be set up.

Today, a lot of those people I looked at back in the day are probably gone. As are one bartender and one waitress who used to work there. I had crushes on both of them that I probably wouldn't have had if I'd seen them in a New Jersey mall. A lot of other people probably did, too. That's how it was in those old Village (East or West) cafes and coffeehouses: They really didn't have a whole lot to recommend them except their locations, but somehow they transformed the people you met in them in much the same way that young people who just got off the bus from Iowa or Kansas or Oregon became bohemians when they opened up their suitcases or backpacks in that neighborhood.

Of course I would have liked to have been in one of those cafes as that young woman who rode her Peugeot today. However, neither she nor anyone else I saw today would, even if they could, choose to be a patron in one of those cafes I remember. Nor could I. As much as I feel I would have liked to experience those days and all of my past as Justine rather than as Nick, I know that if I had (if I could have), I may not be here today, little more than four months from my surgery.

I forget which feminist writer said that in the Sexual Revolution, women got screwed. And so it was back in those giddily serious days. Now I realize that the women, almost invariably young and fashionable in an arty kind of way, served as props for those guitar- and chess-playing young men of yore. Even fairly recently, cafes like le Figaro were mainly the provinces of straight people. They gays were on the western and eastern extremes of the neighborhood, and they had their own versions of the cafes, not to mention the bars.

Those cafes are gone, too, as are so many of the men who patronized them. Only the women--reincarnations of them, anyway--remain. Today Bruce had lunch with one who hadn't been thought of because she couldn't conceive herself in those days.