Strange how sometimes the mere encounter of certain things – songs, aromas, buildings — can affect one so deeply, conjuring up right hook emotions, fueling locomotives of memory and desire, transporting you hither thither and yon toward all manner of known and unknown destinations. Even though I haven’t actually dined there for years and was never what you could call a habitué, I undergo some version or other of the above phenomena just about every time I stroll past the Cup and Saucer Luncheonette on Canal Street and see it still standing, still open, still operating much the same way it has been since before, well… punks roamed the earth.
The Cup and Saucer, you understand, is a greasy spoon, and one of the first order. It is not a faux greasy spoon designed by yuppies for other yuppies seeking the greasy spoon ascetic, but with food more suited to their sophisticated palettes and a cliental that looks, thinks, smells and earns like they do. No. The Cup and Saucer is the real deal, the thing-in itself, the noumenon, at once authentic and delightfully unconscious of its authenticity, frequented by people who tend to look as if they belong in an Edward Hopper painting or else walked off the set of one of those great and gritty 70’s New York movies like “The Panic In Needle Park.” (I, myself, found comfort there during my time doing graduate work at the Edgar Allen Poe School of Serious Drinking when, after a night of mystery and indulgence, paradise could be found in a plate of the Cup and Saucer’s greasy bacon and eggs. ) Such people are becoming increasingly hard to find in my neighborhood and such establishments, once as prevalent in Manhattan as a mailbox, are fast going the way of the woolly behemoth.
I understand I am witnessing a vanishing.
I have no idea how or why but somehow the Cup and Saucer has survived; no small thing in the uber -Darwinian world of Manhattan real estate. Of that I am glad, even as I know it is living on borrowed time, for the place has resonance for me as I suspect it has for many.
I cannot see the Cup and Saucer without thinking of both the paintings of Hopper and the songs of Tom Waits. I cannot, in turn, think of Hopper or Waits without thinking of my late and beloved eldest brother Eddie who, many years ago, introduced me to both and in doing so enlarged and deepened my adolescent universe. I cannot think of Eddie without often experiencing an oceanic sense of loss and a kind of vertigo of sorrow that finds me bumping into things or stepping in puddles or reaching for rosary beads which are no longer there. Finally, I cannot experience such sorrow without being reminded of how quickly our days here pass, how little we know of what we are doing here; of our sublime fragility; of how suddenly we leave, leaving others who love us and who we love behind as we enter into silence.
So somehow, against my will, the Cup and Saucer has become important to me, which is to say, it has become symbolic to me, and symbols are very powerful and necessary things indeed.
That being so, I cannot pass the Cup and Saucer without wrestling with other more mundane but just as disturbing realities as well, none more so than the rapidity of change that has become an across-the –board-norm of 21st century urban existence – that much the more in NYC. With precious few exceptions – a tailor here, a pizzeria there – the Lower East Side neighborhood I moved into 14 years ago no longer exists except geographically. Quirky independent or family businesses and neighbors have almost all been driven out by ever more insane rents, or left in disgust when the place was given over to ephemeral restaurants catering to Wall Street big shots or bars catering to NYU frat boys who confuse our doorways for public urinals. Even more gone is the spirit of the artists of every conceivable medium who found cheap dwellings here that allowed them to pursue their muses and, whatever you thought of their work, added to our culture and made things interesting. God knows where they have gone, but gone they are, and such misfits and marchers to different drummers will not be back in my lifetime. And that is a loss that is incalculable.
None of this, of course, is new in New York and change is both necessary and healthy. Change, in point of fact, is the only constant of the city since Peter Minuet first swindled the Lenape out of their tree ridden island. “Expect poison from standing water,” wrote Blake. What is new is the speed and the scale and the dislocating effects of such upheaval as well as the uniformity of so much of what replaces it. Somewhere in his voluminous entries, 19th c New York diarist George Templeton Strong laments that New York neighborhoods change so utterly that every 40 years or so, a native could return and find one wholly unrecognizable.
The vanishing Strong lamented now seems to occur every four months or so and, sadly, tends to produce places and people that are all too easily recognizable. Such a situation has definite if difficult to locate side effects for those of us — and there are more and more of us all the time – who are forced to live under such conditions or flee.
Such conditions set a kind of guerilla war of environment against the psyche: a war of the primal human need for continuity and some level of stability and the post -postmodern super capitalistic culture that eviscerates both, even as apologists for the Efficiency Market Hypothesis (which brought the world to the brink of economic catastrophe in 2008) continue to preach it is all for the good.
And all is for the good if you happen to incarnate the abstraction called The Economy. All is very, very good, indeed. Fabulous even. If, on the other hand, you are but a lowly sensate human, such perpetual change can tend to leave you feeling invisible, utterly inconsequential, and meaningless. Indeed, it feels like an attack of the most impersonal kind by the most impersonal forces, and as such, is terrifying. What’s more, the human heart and psyche have demands of their own, impervious to the “hidden hand” of the free market, (or any other hand that is not human or divine for that matter) and when these demands are not met, life begins to feel…well, crazy.
As it happens, I was a boy when I first encountered the abject horror of human craziness. It came in the form of my best friend’s mother who, during our boyhood, was painfully, mercilessly, mentally ill. When things were very bad for her she hallucinated people changing shapes and forms and identities right in front of her eyes. In those horrible moments of everything and everyone shifting, the poor woman would sometimes scream.
It took me years to understand something of what she must have felt like; took me years to understand that we need stable markers in this life, be they psychological, spiritual, moral or geographical, or some combination of them all, which somehow reinforce each other. When they would start shifting, I’d feel like screaming.
I find myself remembering my friend’s poor pained mother all too often these days when I am walking through my neighborhood and it is not a pleasant feeling.
Nor is it easy to define. Whatever the feeling is, it is not nostalgia. I have no longing for some bullshit rosy past and even if I did, I might well be sated (with enough alcohol) by the post-post modern phenomenon of faux-reality-brand-new-very old-bar, often times of the faux-Irish-faux-lineage. You know, the bar that opened last week but is designed to look and feel like it’s been there for a century or so with a name (“The Fifth Ward”, perhaps) to conjure up the wild days and nights when Jimmy Walker ran Gotham.
Nor, alternatively, am I jonezing for the “convenience” of having a CVS or a 7-11 or Starbucks or Citibank on my corner to save me the trouble of walking two blocks to the next CVS or 7-11 or Starbucks or Citibank in a city that feels increasingly as interchangeable as any airport.
Not good and, I fear, spiritually dangerous.
There is, I believe, something ineffable, immeasurable, profoundly human and absolutely necessary about forging or finding a connection, however subtle and tenuous, with the place where one lives. It is precisely that connection that allows for the formation of true community. Conversely, I cannot help but feel that there is a danger, also ineffable, immeasurable and profoundly human, when such connections are either not made or severed. Such changes change you and not, I fear, for the better. You cannot love what you do not know and you cannot know what you do not feel a connection to. And where there is no connection there can be no community.
Someday, and I suspect that day will come soon, I will stroll down Canal Street and find the Cup and Saucer to be no more. It will be replaced by either a bank or an enterprise that will have no interest whatsoever in its current clientele ( who will remind no one of Tom Waits or Edward Hopper ) or it will be a pile of rubble making way for luxury condos for the children of the mega rich as described in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. The workers of the Cup and Saucer as well as the regulars they served will be scattered to the winds searching for a place to go.
That day will spell the end of the greasy spoons of the Lower East Side and almost certainly the last use of the word”luncheonette.” For me it will be one very poignant reminder of the fleeting nature of both time and our times and the pressing need to look elsewhere for a place to call home for me and mine.