The 21 Club closing upset my friend Shari, its former PR director. “It survived Prohibition and the Depression!” she wailed. “It was a quintessential NY place. Presidents ate there. So did families when their kids turned 21. Where do they go now?”
The trouble with Landmarks
NYC never really got landmarks. Paris has businesses still running since the Black Plague. London has plaques marking the birthplace of the scone. NYC has a grittier history: “Sid Vicious shot up here!” doesn’t have the same cachet. When Jackie O. and NYC’s gentry finally created a Landmarks Commission – they forgot retail.
So we lose unofficial landmarks, the touchstones that make a neighborhood, that make NYC, that make… us. It’s like visiting your parents and seeing that they threw out everything in your room and just left it empty.
The Gem was the Vatican of Egg Creams and its last holdout (unless Rickey’s survives) but NYC had hundreds of neighborhood luncheonettes – like Hy and Lil’s on E. 3rd. I’d drop my bookbag with a sigh, do some twirls on the red leatherette stool, and watch Hy make me an egg cream, extra sweet, at the shiny chrome fountain. Hy was a stocky older guy whose unlit DeNobli cigar and soiled apron (hiked up to his armpits) invited food poisoning, but his eggs creams had an extra pump of Ubet. He had thinning black hair, black eyeglasses, and an eagle eye for when I loitered too long by the comics. He brought me out of my reveries with a verbal rap on the back of the head: “Hey, kid, you buyin’ or what?”
The Cupping Room
West Broadway was once a funky mix of retail and art where the Cupping Room was the local coffeehouse. Tony, the mechanic from the garage across the street (coffee regular), sat next to Klaus Nomi (cappuccino) in full space alien kit, next to the mobster (espresso) who gestured with his unlit cigar and talked to himself. It was a great time to be young in an arty neighborhood. Rachel (orange juice, toasted bagel with a schmear), a zaftig redhead whose Willow House lingerie store was nearby, asked some of us gals to model at an open house one weekend. We hung around the store in underwear – and stopped traffic. Literally. Including an ambulance.
It was hard work but fun because I enjoyed my customers – like the guy (orange juice, espresso eggs) who had a migraine. “It’s terrible,” he moaned, “Like a mental hernia.” I handed him an aspirin and told him “You must have thought of something really heavy.” He tipped me a five. We sang “I wanna be sedated” when we cleaned up, and knew when Barry’s wife was coked up because she went on cleaning binges with q-tips. (We comped her dealer). I later learned I got canned because I had “too much personality.” That’s when I knew it was the beginning of the end for SoHo.
The closures now literally hit home because of their personal meaning. The store where you could inhale air that might have atoms exhaled from someone you loved. The Koreatown restaurant with the initials carved by the person you thought was the Love of Your Life. Where you stopped for suntan lotion before going to the beach for the first time as a couple. Ordinary stops in ordinary places for ordinary events we all thought would just…keep going.
New York Natives learned to travel light because the city reinvents itself constantly, first by urban decay (the Lowe’s Avenue B) then by development fever (DiRobertis, where my grandfather held court). Covid-19 moved the cycle from decades to years to months to just weeks, taking with it luncheonettes and institutions – Like Lord and Taylor, the country’s oldest department store, founded in 1826.
A parting shot
Despite its genteel air L&T was tough, outlasting three cholera epidemics, typhoid, Spanish Flu, smallpox, several depressions and two world wars while maintaining the city’s best handbag department. I went with a friend during its ‘everything must go” stage. I got all philosophical and melancholy wandering around the picked over merchandise and the floors full of naked mannequins.
And I got exactly what I deserved. Someone picked my pocket and stole my MetroCard.
It was a virtual smack upside the head from the ghostly hand of Hy: “Hey, kid, you buyin’, or what?” – the unofficial motto of New York City, the city that still Never Sleeps and Never Stops, and just keeps going, ’cause this epidemic ain’t our first rodeo.
But don’t get me started about that.
Photo: Beyond My Ken, CC By-SA40, via Wikimedia Commons