Friday, February 11, 2011

Forgotten, then Gone

Although New Yorkers love to lord their city over everyone else's hometown, to be honest, they often brag about places they don't actually patronize. Kind of like the folks who brag about their iPhone app capabilities when all they really do is play the same video game every day.

You talk about how great all the museums are, and then totally fall into the habit of only going to them if someone's visiting from out of town.  You have a favorite restaurant you recommend to people, when deep down you realize the last time you actually ate there was years ago and you have no idea if it went downhill.

As life accelerates (in truth, when did it ever not?), I feel more and more of these New York attractions slipping through my fingers, and now and then I make conscious decisions to reinvigorate them.
 Last year, for example, after I inherited my dad's car, I swore I would start following up on the sort of outer borough ethnic dining tips touted by Cheap Eats in New York magazine or by the Voice's Robert Sietsema.  (I own the book to the right, which I just realized was published almost 15 years ago -- I should probably chuck it.)

They always sound so good, but the subway ride there and back seemed too laborious. Since pledging that extra effort, I have dined at exactly one place -- Pies 'n' Thighs.  Not that it wasn't amazing.

If I stop and think about all the resources of New York I am not availing myself of, I could go mad.  Perhaps the category of nonpatronage that makes me feel worst is little mom and pop places that always define a neighborhood.

In 1985, when interviewing Fran McDormand about the Coen Brothers, she introduced me to Shopsin's, the amazing, unmarked restaurant run by an eccentric couple [right] that in 2002 would be immortalized by Calvin Trillin.  She swore by it -- of course, she lived around the corner with her Yale Drama buddy Holly Hunter -- but she was right.  I swore I'd eat there every month.

In the twenty years between that first visit till Shopsin's was forced to relocate a few blocks away, I think I made it there for breakfast a total of three times.

I tried the new place once. Although it retained the insanely dense menu [left] and self-styled paintings, it lost about 90% of the charm of the original.

When Googling I learned it had re-relocated to Essex Street several years ago, which I guess exposes how deep my support truly ran.

 I was reminded of my enthocentripocrisy a few mornings ago when I found myself back in the West Village early for an appointment and was hungry for breakfast.

I remembered this amazing artifact of a bygone era called Joe Jr. [top] at the southeast corner of 12th street and Sixth Avenue.

Back when I was not yet writing for magazines, when I was temping and editorial assisting and trying to figure my way into the world, a few kind mentors took pity on me and gave me advice. One was Adam Moss, then at Esquire (and now the editor of New York magazine), and another was Peter Kaplan [left], who at the time was an editor at the business feature magazine Manhattan Inc., which started some great writers' careers like John Seabrook, but would got belly up in 1990 because of the '87 financial downturn.

Peter was exactly the kind of guy I had hoped to meet when I decided to go into journalism: an old-school eccentric who had roomed with a Kennedy in college, admired Preston Sturges, and spoke in long pauses that made you wait for the next pearl of wisdom to emit, every now and then you realized he had completely zoned out and forgotten his own point.

And Peter loved to eat at Joe Jr., which was around the corner from his apartment, before he moved to suburbia. It was old-school, like him. Nobody knew who Joe or Joe Jr. were any more. It was just an unpretentious greasy spoon where you could befriend the waitresses and spar with the cashier and get the same square meal every time. No frills.

So on this recent morning I went by there and was shocked to find the sign stripped, the innards gutted, and the creation of a new faux-country-kitchen place well underway.

I went home and Google taught me there had been a huge community outcry when it closed, after 45 years -- IN JULY 2009.

Man, am I out of touch. And then I Googled Peter, who had fled the editorship of the New York Observer when it was sold in 2009, and found out belatedly that last summer he'd been named editorial director at Fairchild. And that two of his former Observer editors, Jim Windolf and Peter Stevenson, both of whom I know, have been infamously Haiku-Tweeting in his honor as "Cranky Kaplan" and "Wise Kaplan."

All of which adds up to the fact that I had to eat a pretty sad and unmemorable breakfast that day, and that you can lose track of people and places without realizing it until they're gone or renovated. So try to have those breakfasts at your favorite places with your favorite people more often.  I'm just sayin'.


Anonymous said...

Joe Jr's has reopened as the "O Cafe",whatever that is. There is another Joe Jr's on 3rd Ave around 17th Street-ish..

Shopsins moved into the Essex Street Market. Kenny the owner is mostly retired, his kids run it and it's still pretty rocking.

So if you miss either of these places don't be sad just go east.

David Handelman said...

Well -- the point isn't the food. It's the personal connection to the physical spaces and your memories of being there. When a place moves it leaves that behind.

JanDev said...

So true. I felt a similar pang when I read that the beloved Bob Slate stationery stores in Harvard Sq will be closing. How often did I stop in to buy a specialty pen or nice set of notecards? Rarely, but I liked the idea that I could.

Anonymous said...

enthocentripocrisy - i can't even pronounce it, let alone define it!