Greenwich Village - Restaurants, And The Magic Door - Part II
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
" I can't believe that!" said Alice.
" Can't you? " the Queen said in a pitying tone. "'Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. " There's no use trying," she said. " One can't believe impossible things."
" I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. " When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."—" Through the Looking Glass."
" But it can't be this ! " I said. " You've made a mistake in the number!"
" It is this," declared my guide and companion. " This is where Nanni Bailey has her tea shop." " But this is-is—isn't anything!"
Indeed the number to which my friend pointed seemed to indicate the entrance to a sort of ware-house, if it indicated anything at all. On peering through the dim and gloomy doorway, it appeared instead to be a particularly desolate-looking cellar. There were old barrels and boxes about, an expanse of general dusty mystery and, in the dingy distance, a flight of ladder-like steps leading up-wards to a faint light.
" It's one of Dickens' impossible stage sets come true ! " I exclaimed. " It looks as though it might be a burglars' den or somebody's back yard, but anyway, it isn't a restaurant!"
" It is too!" came back at me triumphantly. " Look at that sign!"
By the faint rays of a street light on nearby Sixth Avenue, I saw the shabby little wooden sign, " The Samovar." This extraordinary place was a restaurant after all!
We entered warily, having a vague expectation of pickpockets or rats, and climbed that ladder -I mean staircase—to what was purely and simply a loft,
But such a loft! Such a quaint, delicious, simple, picturesque apotheosis of a loft! A loft with the rough bricks whitewashed and the heavy rafters painted red; a loft with big, plain tables and a bare floor and an only slightly partitioned-off kitchenette where the hungry could descry piles of sandwiches and many coffee cups. And there in the middle of the loft was the Samovar itself, a really splendid affair, and one actually not for decorative purposes only, but for use. I had always thought samovars were for the ornamentation either of houses or foreign-atmosphere novels. But you could use this thing. I saw people go and get glasses-full of tea out of it.
Under the smoke-dimmed lights were curious, eager, interesting faces : a pale little person with red hair I recognised instantly as an actress whom I had just seen at the Provincetown Players—a Village Theatrical Company—in a tense and terribly tragic role. Beyond her was a white-haired man with keen eyes—a distinguished writer and socialist. A shabby poet announced to the sympathetic that he had sold something after two years of work. Immediately they set about making a real fiesta of the unusual occasion. Miss Bailey, a small, round, efficient person with nice eyes and good manners, moved about among her guests, all of whom she seemed to know. The best cheese sandwiches in New York went round. A girl in a vampire costume of grey—hooded and with long trailing sleeves—got up from her solitary place in the corner. She seemed to be wearing, beneath the theatrical garment, a kimono and bedroom slippers. Obviously she had simply drifted in for sandwiches before going to bed. She vanished down the ladder.
An hour later, we, too, climbed down the ladderish stairs, my companion and I, and as we came out into the fresh quiet of Fourth Street at midnight, I had a really odd sensation. I felt as though I had been reading a fascinating and unusual book, and had—suddenly closed it for the night.
This was one of the first of the real Village eating places which I ever knew. Perhaps that is why it comes first to my memory as I write. I do not know that it is more representative or more interesting than others. But it was worth going back to.
Yet, after all, it isn't the food and drink, nor yet the unusual surroundings, that bring you back to these places. It's the—well, one has to use, once in a while, the hard-worked and generally inappropriate word " atmosphere." Like " temperament " and " individuality " and the rest of the writer-folk's old reliables, " atmosphere " is too often only a makeshift, a lazy way of expressing something you won't take the trouble to de-fine more expressively. Dick says in " The Light That Failed " that an old device for an unskilful artist is to stick a superfluous bunch of flowers somewhere in a picture where it will cover up bad drawing. I'm afraid writers are apt to use stock phrases in the same meretricious fashion.
But this is a fact just the same. Nearly all the Greenwich Village places really have atmosphere. You can be cynical about it, or frown at it, or do anything you like about it, but it's there, and it's the real thing. It's an absolute essence and ether which you feel intensely and breathe necessarily, but which no one can put quite definitely into the concrete form of words. I have heard of liquid or solidified air, but that's a scientific experiment, and who wants to try scientific experiments on the Village which we all love?
" But such an amount of play-acting and pose ! " I hear someone complain, referring to the Village with contemptuous irritation. "They pre-tend to be seeking after truth and liberty of thought, and that sort of thing, and yet they are steeped in artificiality."
Yes, to a certain extent that is true true of a portion of the Village, at any rate, and a certain percentage of the Villagers. But even if it is true, it is the sort of truth that needs only a bit of understanding to make us tender and tolerant instead of scornful and hard. My dear lady, you who complained of the " play-acting," and you other who, agreeing with her, see in the whimsies and pretenses in Our Village only a spectacle of cheap affectation and artifice, have you lived so long and yet do not know that the play-acting instinct is one of the most universal of all instincts—the very first developed, and the very last, I truly believe, to die in our faded bodies? From the moment when we try to play ball with sunbeams through those intermediate years wherein we imagine ourselves everything on earth that we are not, down to those last days of all, when we live, all furtive and unsuspected, a secret life of the spirit—either a life of remembrance or a life of imagination visualising what we have wanted and have missed,—what do we do but pretend,—make believe,—pose, if you will? When we are little we pretend to be knights and ladies, pirates and fairy princesses, soldiers and Red Cross nurses, and sailors and hunters and explorers. We people the window boxes with elves and pixies and the dark corners with Red Indians and bears. The commonplace world about us is not truly commonplace, since our fancy, still fresh from eternity, can transform three dusty shrubs into an enchanted forest, and an automobile into the most deliciously formidable of the Dragon Family. A bit later, our pretending is done more cautiously. We do not confess our shy flights of imagination: we take a prosaic out-ward pose, and try not to advertise the fact that our geese wear (to our eyes) swans' plumage, and that our individual roles are (to our own view) always those of heroes and heroines. No one of us but mentally sees himself or herself doing something which is as impracticable as cloud-riding. No one of us but dreams of the impossible and in a shamefaced, almost clandestine, fashion pictures it and lingers over it. All make-believe, you see, only we hate to admit it! The different thing about Greenwich is that there they do admit it, quite a number of them. They accept the pretending, play-acting spirit as a perfectly natural—no, as an inevitable—part of life, and, with a certain whimsical seriousness, not unlike that of real children, they provide for it. You know children can make believe, know that it is make believe, yet enjoy it all the more for that. So can the Villagers. Hence, places like—let us say, as an example—" The Pirate's Den."
It is a very real pirate's den, lighted only by candles. A coffin casts a shadow, and there is a regulation " Jolly Roger," a black flag ornamented with skull and crossbones. Grim? Surely, but even a healthy-minded child will play at gruesome and ghoulish games once in a while.
There is a Dead Man's Chest too,—and if you open it you will find a ladder leading down into mysterious depths unknown. If you are very adventurous you will climb down and bump your head against the cellar ceiling and inspect what is going to ,be a subterranean grotto as soon as it can be fitted up. You climb up again and sit in the dim, smoky little room and look about you. It is the most perfect pirate's den you can imagine. On the walls hang huge casks and kegs and wine bottles in their straw covers,—all the signs manual of past and future orgies. Yet the "Pirate's Den" is " dry "—straw-dry, brick-dry —as dry as the Sahara. If you want a " drink" the well-mannered " cut-throat" who serves you will give you a mighty mug of ginger ale or sarsaparilla. And if you are a real Villager and can still play at being a real pirate, you drink it without a smile, and solemnly consider it real red wine filched at the edge of the cutlass from captured merchantmen on the high seas. On the big, dark centre table is carefully drawn the map of " Treasure Island."
The pirate who serves you (incidentally he writes poetry and helps to edit a magazine among other things) apologises for the lack of a Stevensonian parrot.
" A chap we know is going to bring one back from the South Sea Islands," he declares seriously. "And we are going to teach it to say, ` Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!' "
If, while you are at the " Pirate's Den " you care to climb a rickety, but enchanted staircase outside the old building (it's pre-Revolutionary, you know) you will come to the " Aladdin Shop " —where coffee and Oriental sweets are special-ties. It is a riot of strange and beautiful colour—vivid and Eastern and utterly intoxicating. A very talented and picturesque Villager has painted every inch of it himself, including the mysterious-looking Arabian gentleman in brilliantly hued wood, who sits cross-legged luring you into the little place of magic. The wrought iron brackets on the wall are patches of vivid tints; the curtains at the windows are colour-dissonances, fascinating and bizarre. As usual there is candle-light. And, as usual, there is the same delicious spirit of seriously and whole-heartedly playing the game. While you are there you are in the East. If it isn't the East to you, you can go away —back to Philistia.
And speaking of candlelight. I went into the poets' favourite " Will o' the Wisp " tea shop once and found the gas-jet lighted! The young girl in charge jumped up, much embarrassed, and turned it out.
" I'm so sorry!" she apologised. "But I wanted to see just a moment, and lighted it!"
I peered at her face in the ghostly candle-light. It was entirely and unmistakably earnest.
Just the same, Mrs. Browning's warning that " colours seen by candlelight do not look the same by day" is not truly applicable to these Village shrines. Even under the searching beams of a slanting, summer afternoon sun, they are adorable. Go and see if you don't believe this.
Then take the " Mad Hatter's." The entrance alone is a monument to the make-believe capabilities of the Village. Scrawled on the stone wall beside the steps that lead down to the little basement tea room, is an inscription in chalk. It looks like anything but English. But if you held a looking-glass up to it you would find that it is " Down the Rabbit Hole " written backward! Now, if you know your " Alice " as well as you should, you will recall delightedly her dash after the White Rabbit which brought her to Wonder-land, and, incidentally, to the Mad Tea Party.
You go in to the little room where Villagers are drinking tea, and the proprietress approaches to take your order. She is a good-looking young woman dressed in a bizarre red and blue effect, not unlike one of the Queens, but she prefers to be known as the " Dormouse "—not, however, that she shows the slightest tendency to fall asleep.
On the wall is scribbled, " ` There's plenty of room,' said Alice."
The people around you seem only pleasantly mad, not dangerously so. There is a girl with an enchanting scrap of a monkey; there is a youth with a manuscript and a pile of cigarette butts. The great thing here once more is that they are taking their little play and their little stage with a heavenly seriousness, all of them. You expect somebody to produce a set of flamingos at any moment and start a game of croquet among the tiny tables.
Not all of the Greenwich restaurants have definite individual characters to maintain consistently. Sometimes it is just a general spirit of picturesqueness, of adventure, that they are trying to keep up. The " Mouse Trap," except for the trap hanging outside and a mouse scrawled in chalk on the wall of the entry, carries out no particular suggestion either of traps or mice. But take a look at the proprietress (Rita they call her), with her gorgeous Titian hair and delft-blue apron; at her son Sidney, fair, limp, slim, English-voiced, with a deft way of pouring after-dinner coffee, and hair the colour of corn. They are obviously play-acting and enjoying it.
Ask Rita her nationality. She will fix you with eyes utterly devoid of a twinkle and answer: " I? I am part Scotch terrier, and part Spanish mongrel, but mostly mermaid! "
Rita goes to the sideboard to cut someone a slice of good-looking pie. She overhears a reference to the " Candlestick," a little eating place chiefly remarkable for its vegetables and poetesses.
" If they eat nothing but vegetables no wonder they take to poetry," is her comment. But still she does not smile. If you giggle, as every child knows, you spoil the game. They laugh heartily enough and often enough down in the Village, but they never laugh at the Village itself,—not because they take it so reverentially, but because they know how to make believe altogether too well.
Let me whisper here that the most fascinating hour in the "Mouse Trap " is in the late after-noon, when no one is there, and the ebony hand-maiden in the big back kitchen is taking the fat, delicious-smelling cakes from the oven. Drop in some afternoon and sniff the fragrance that suggests your childhood and " sponge-cake day." You will feel that it is a trap no sane mouse would ever think of leaving! On a table beside you is a slate with, obviously, the day's specials:
" Spice cakes. Chocolate cake.
Strawberry tarts with whipped cream."
And still as you peep through the door at the back you see more and still more goodies coming hot and fresh and enticing from the oven. White cakes, golden cakes, delicately browned pies? if you are dieting by any chance you flee temptation and leave the " Mouse Trap " behind you.
It would be impossible to give even an approximately complete inventory of the representative places of the Village. I have had to content myself with some dozen or so examples,—recorded almost haphazard, for the most part, but as I believe, more or less typical, take them all in all, of the Village eating place in its varied and rather curious manifestations.
Then there is a charming shop presided over by a pretty girl with the inevitable smock and braided hair, where tea is served in order to entice you to buy carved and painted trifles.
And then there is, or was, the place kept by Polly's brother, which was heartlessly raided by the police, and much maligned, not to say libelled, by the newspapers.
And then there was and is the " Hell Hole." Its ancient distinction used to be that it was one of the first cheap Bohemian places where women could smoke, and that it was always open. When all the other resorts closed for the night you re-paired to the " Hell Hole." As to the smoking, it has taken a good while for New York to allow its Bohemian women this privilege, though society leaders have enjoyed it for ages. We all know that though most fashionable hotels permitted their feminine guests to smoke, the Haymarket of dubious memory always tabooed the custom to the bitter end!
The " Hell Hole " has always stoutly approved of cigarettes, so all honour to it! And many a happy small-hours party has brought up there to top off the night in peace without having to keep an eye on the clock.
There is a little story told about one of these restaurants of which I have been writing—never mind which. A visiting Englishman on his way from his boat to his hotel dropped in at a certain place for a drink. He found the company congenial and drifted into a little game which further interested him. It was a perfectly straight game, and he was a perfectly good sport. He stayed there two weeks. No: I shall not state what the place was. But I think the story is true.
Personally, I don't blame the Englishman. Even shorn of the charm of a game of chance, there is many a place in Greenwich Village which might easily capture a susceptible temperament—not merely for weeks, but for years!
The last of the tea shops is the " Wigwam," in which, take note, it is the Indian game that is played. Its avowed aim is " Tea and Dancing," and it is exceedingly proud of its floor. It lives in the second story of what, for over fifty years, has been the old Sheridan Square Tavern, and its proprietors are the Mosses,—poet, editor and incidental " pirate " on one side of the house; and designer of enchanting " art clothes " on the other. Lew Kirby Parrish, no less, has made the decorations, and he told me that the walls were grey with Indian decorations, and the ceiling a " live colour." I discovered that that meant a vivid, happy orange.
The spirit of the play is always kept in the Village. Let us take the opening night of the " Wigwam " as a case in point.
The Indian note is supreme. It is not only the splendid line drawings of Indian chiefs, forming the panels of the room—those mysterious and impressive shades created by the imagination of Lew Parrish—it is the general mood. Only candles are burning,—big, fat candles, giving, in the aggregate, a magical radiance.
The victrola at the end of the room begins to play a curious Indian air with an uneven, fascinating, syncopated rhythm. A graceful girl in Indian dress glides in and places a single candle on the floor, squatting before it in a circle of dim, yellow light.
She lifts her dark head with its heavy band about the brows and shades her eyes with her hand. You see remote places, far, pale horizons, desert regions of sand. There are empty skies overhead, instead of the " live-colour " ceiling. With an agile movement, she rises and begins to dance about the candle, and you know that to her it is a little campfire; it is that to you, too, for the moment. Something like the west wind blows her fringed dress; there is a dream as old as life in her eyes.
Faster and faster she dances about the candle, until at last she sinks beside it and with a strange sure gesture—puts it out.
Silence and the dark. The prairie fades. . . . The little dark-wood tables with their flowers and candles begin to glow again; the next musical number is a popular one step ! . . .