THE WONDERFUL CAFE EDISON


I was with a friend a few days ago when I noticed her nail file as she drew it out of a little velvet sheath. To me it looked like frosted glass studded with diamonds, and it was both glitzy and glamorous at once. It had on it a little label reading: Made with Swarovski Elements. This made me laugh and my friend too, because she’s a bit of an old fashioned Guidette; she reads romance novels and her winter coat is lined with faux leopard, but she knows what she’s made of and she knows it’s funny.

I had invited her to go with me to have lunch at the old Café Edison on 47th Street, where I used to go at least once a week, because soon it will be no more. It’s closing for the worst, saddest, and most ungenerous reason, and I wanted to sit in its unpretentious grandeur one more time. On the way, walking up Broadway through the crowds of people in Times Square, I thought of the big ball, covered in Swarovski crystals, dropping on New Year’s Eve and how glad I always am to not be there while it’s happening. I thought of the chandeliers at the Met that look like exploding galaxies made of Swarovski crystal, and the way they dim so elegantly at curtain time. I told my friend that her nail file had made me think of those things and we both had the idea that someone at Swarovski must have decided to make use of the sweepings in the crystal factory by sticking them all over nail files and calling them ‘elements.’

For almost seven years I worked in an old publishing house in Times Square and during that time I had lunch at the Edison at least once a week, sometimes by myself and sometimes with one or two or three co-workers. Someone would say, “Edison?” and I remember how it felt, going down in the elevator and out onto Broadway to walk up to the cafe in its block full of old theaters. It always felt a little like a special occasion, even though it wasn’t. One day a man held the door for me as I was going in, and I knew him, but not from where. I bought a little time by saying, “Well, hi, how are you?” He seemed to be wondering how he might know me, too, and said, “Oh, I’m doing pretty well,” and I realized he was Keith Carradine. He saw me realizing it and laughed when I apologized. He was just as gracious as I might have imagined he would be had I ever thought of it. That kind of thing must happen to people like him all the time.

Many book publishing people in that neighborhood thought of the Edison as their café. I remember a certain associate editor who saw one of the senior editors having an earnest lunch at a table with someone she knew to be from McGraw Hill, and for a few days after, all of the editors working under that senior editor worried that she was going to leave the company and leave chaos in her wake. All of the actors and stagehands from the Broadway theaters surrounding the Edison thought of it as theirs as much as the publishing people did, and so did the people from the New York Times and the men with long beards who came over from the Diamond District on the other end of 47th Street, but I think the Café Edison belonged particularly to the magicians who sat and dazzled each other with conjuring at their magic table every day at lunchtime for thirty years.

My friend and I had a sweet waitress, an old pro with a Café Edison baseball cap sitting on the bun she wore, who took down our orders over her glasses. I had a grilled cheese sandwich deluxe and my friend had a hamburger. I told her about a particular Guidette I used to work with at the publishing house who had the big frosted hair and long painted nails so popular then, especially among the Long Island Railroad crowd. One morning she arrived all smiles and as she took off her coat she said to me, “I’m going to tell you something, just for your enjoyment, and if you wanna laugh, g’head, it’s why I’m tellin’ you.”

“What is it?” I asked her. She drew two tickets from her big Massapequa pocket book and said, “I am going to see Barry Manilow at the Garden tonight, and I can hardly wait!”

I did laugh, and so did she, because she too knew what she was made of and she knew it was funny.  She was a wonderfully funny girl and I remember the day she came in carrying a Bloomingdale’s garment bag because she had a blind date that night, with a dentist. All day long she could hardly sit still. Finally she changed into a pink satin dress and left to meet the dentist somewhere deep in Midtown. When I asked her later how it went, she told me how she’d been crapped on by not one, but three pigeons on her way to the restaurant, how she’d washed the crap off her dress in a diner washroom and met her date covered in wet spots. He’d invited her to a Chinese restaurant, and once seated, pulled a long slender box from his inner jacket pocket. How sweet, she thought, he brought me a gift, but he hadn’t. He’d brought his own chopsticks—gold plated—and used them to eat General Tso’s chicken. He was the most obnoxious person she had ever met.

When our waitress brought the check, she said, “You know we’re closing, right?” She looked sad. I asked her what her plans were for after the Edison closes. “I’ll wait for the boss to open a new place,” she said. “I can’t work for anybody else.”

The Café Edison to close Sunday December 21st 2014.


THE LIFE OF JUANITA CASTRO


Last night I walked downtown to see Agosto Machado in The Life of Juanita Castro by Ronald Tavel at the Theater for the New City on 1st Avenue. Gramercy was beautiful and mysterious in Christmas lights and so was Rutherford Place, with its very old church and the Friends Meeting Hall and the lighted trees in the little park. The play was one of the old Theatre of the Ridiculous things, truly ridiculous, and I sat and laughed at Agosto as Juanita Castro, a role for which he’d had to shave his long and silky beard.
Agosto Machado 2014  Photo by Romy Ashby

 Across 1st Avenue from the theater I looked at the darkened windows of De Roberti’s caffé and pastry shop that closed last week after 110 years, and thought of all the many times I sat in it when I lived down in that neighborhood in the ‘80s. It was a lovely place, very old fashioned with its beautiful tiles and mosaic floor; the kind of place people go on trips to Italy to sit in, or at least they used to. De Roberti’s owned the building but people in the neighborhood stopped going in. Instead people crowd the coffee chains in the neighborhood, preferring them it would seem, as hard as it is for me to imagine such a thing possible. I remember going to De Roberti’s on so many nights after something at the St. Marks Poetry Project or the Knitting Factory when it was on East Houston Street. The reason I didn’t keep going regularly is because I moved out of the neighborhood long ago. It used to be that you didn’t necessarily make a trip to another neighborhood to sit in a café there because each neighborhood had its own. And as beautiful as those places always were, they were not yet out of the ordinary. They didn’t feel endangered. I marvel at the way I once assumed that when a place had been on the same spot for fifty or eighty or a hundred years, it would stay forever because it been there for what seemed to me like forever already.

Photo by Romy Ashby, taken in about 2007 or 2008
Agosto reminded me not long ago of the way he and his friends used to go see a movie or a play, or someone reading a few poems in a park or an old cemetery at night, and then afterwards they’d all go sit in a café to talk about what they’d just seen. We both had the feeling that doesn’t happen so much anymore, or if it does, we somehow just don’t know. Does it happen still? I would be happy to think it does, and I remember spending whole afternoons in a café, sometimes with a friend, sometimes by myself. I remember the way it felt, on a day of pouring rain, to take a book and a notebook and a pen and go to an old fashioned café, order a coffee and sit there reading and writing. I wrote lots of poems in the ‘80s, most of them awful and lost, but the feeling of sitting there writing them is something delicious that I can still conjure up, right now. I still remember some of the funny little plays I saw in little basement theaters and how great they were even when they were terrible. They were wonderful because people found props on the street and made their own crazy costumes with fabric from garment district trash bins, and ingenuity reigned with dazzling effect. You didn’t need much money to put on a show, and there was not yet a peril attached to having very little money in certain old neighborhoods of Manhattan, where nobody had any and life was possible anyway. The money was in other neighborhoods, not everywhere, and I enjoyed walking those wealthy streets, admiring the beautiful old buildings on my way to the Metropolitan Museum. And in the museum, wealthy old ladies with hairdos and perfume and impeccable manners would often volunteer at the information desks.

I felt happy after seeing Agosto in lipstick and a tango dress as Juanita Castro. I waited a while afterwards, hoping to congratulate him, but I heard someone say he was backstage getting out of drag. With all the make up and sparkly things he had on, I had the feeling that was going to take forever, so I left.

Outside I saw big posters lying on the street, left over from the huge crowds who came out during the daytime to protest the unfathomable decision of a grand jury to not bring charges against the policeman who killed a perfectly blameless man named Eric Garner in Staten Island. Mr. Garner looked to be a very gentle person who radiated harmlessness it seemed to me when I saw the video of him being choked to death. The notion that selling loose cigarettes is something worth being stopped for by the police is hard enough to understand, and the fact that no attempt was made by the police to revive Mr. Garner after he stopped breathing would have been hard to imagine, but there it was in the video. I stopped into a pizzeria for a soda and while I was there I looked at two big cops at another table. “This time of year cookies are a real problem,” one of them said. “I wish people would stop bringin' ‘em. I don’t wanna, but I eat ‘em anyway.” They both looked friendly, like Sesame Street cops. I thought about asking them what they thought about what happened to Mr. Garner but they got up and left before I could.

I’ve never trusted the police, but once I saw a sweet-seeming young cop helping an old lady.  I followed them, listening to him repeating, “Is this it, Ma’am? Is this where you want to go?” block after block. She kept quiet and held on that much tighter. Sitting in the pizzeria I thought about him too, and if he’s still a cop, I wonder what he thinks.

I followed these two for many blocks in 2009 and took lots of photos, unbeknownst to them. The old lady was apparently lost, but once she had the little copper's hand in hers,  it seemed to me that she didn't want to be found. Photo Romy Ashby





MADAME SUI FONG WONG



On November 23, 2014 Sui Fong Wong passed away at home, a day before her ninetieth birthday. A great star of the Cantonese opera, she came to New York from California in the late 1940s and lived in Chinatown for the rest of her life. By the Western calendar she was born November 24, 1924 in the province of Canton (now Guangzhou). Her father was a doctor and her mother a traditional lady with bound feet. While still a child, she was mentored by a prominent acting teacher and began acting professionally in 1936. Leaving home at thirteen to tour with a theater company, she would eventually lie about her age (adding two years) in order to come to the United States. She made her American operatic debut at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939.

Sui Fong Wong and her daughter Susie Ng in Chinatown (2006)






In San Francisco Madame Wong befriended legendary film director Esther Eng, who lived her life as an elegant man, always wearing a fine suit and red lipstick. She was a central figure in Madame’s colorful storytelling. In 1941, Madame’s friend and fellow performer, Lee Hoi Chuen, allowed his infant son to play the part of a baby girl in Esther Eng’s film Golden Gate Girl. The baby was Bruce Lee, in his first cinematic appearance. Many years later Esther would open several fashionable restaurants in New York including Man Bo, which won Three Stars from Craig Claiborne of the New York Times. Following semi-retirement from the opera, Madame sometimes worked with Esther in her posh restaurant on Fifty-seventh Street, although she continued to make special appearances as a singer for years. She eventually opened restaurants of her own in upstate New York and New Jersey. Between 1943 and 1965, the peak years of her singing career, Madame had seven children; four with her first husband and fellow opera singer Ng Yuen Hai, and three with her second husband, Raymond Wong, an artist and restaurateur. Because she was so often on the road, Madame’s older sister, who lived on Mott Street in Chinatown, played an important and beloved role in helping to raise her children. They called her Yeemah, which means Second Mother.


Madame loved to talk about the opera. She was one of very few highly skilled singers who could play both female roles and male, using a baritone falsetto. She would recount a melodramatic plot with tears rolling from her eyes, reliving a performance from fifty years past with all its tragedy intact. She could magically transform a busy Chinese restaurant into a fluorescent-lit tabloid of delicious vintage operatic scandals, pointing out unremarkable people at other tables and making them suddenly fascinating. “See that old man? He was a famous actor! Crowds would follow him in the street! But then his wife had an affair with another actor and he was never the same!” Or, “You see that lady? She was a singer! You’d never know it now, but she was beautiful! She had an affair with Esther Eng!” When Madame’s daughter Susie described her encountering another old actress in the street and saying, “You were gorgeous! What happened?” I couldn’t help but laugh. Even as an old lady Madame Wong could never be described as sweet, because she wasn’t. But she was utterly charming, delightful, and thoroughly entertaining.


The Opera troupe in the 1940s  Madame is third from left in the first row, Ng Yuen Hai is farthest to the right in row two

Not long ago I went to Madame’s apartment. She lay in bed, surrounded by a little audience of ladies; her old friend Auntie Bic, her protégé and Goddaughter Yim Cheung, her daughter Susie, and a home-health aid. Madame had suffered a little stroke followed by a little heart attack, and they had taken a lot out of her. She looked very ancient and fragile, but miraculously still elegant, and she seemed to be sleeping. I thought of Greta Garbo in Camille. I wondered if she’d seen it. I know she loved the old American movies. She loved Vivian Leigh, Judy Garland, and she had her own special name for Ingrid Bergman: English Bourbon. I watched Susie gently lift her mother and try to coax her to take a drink of water and Madame growled. Yim reported the tongue-lashings Madame had given to a couple of the aids, saying, “She scared one of ‘em so much the lady ran to the kitchen and hid all the knives!” Yim had unearthed a pile of old publicity photos of Madame in her operatic splendor, and while we looked at them she said that when she’d turned on the radio to an opera earlier, Madame quietly began to sing.

Susie and Madame 2000
While I was there the telephone rang. It was Uncle On, an old six-foot tall Chinese opera lover who once lived with his longtime partner, Uncle Larry, in Yeemah’s Mott Street apartment. “It’s Uncle On, Mom,” Susie said, and she held the phone to Madame’s ear. Madame couldn’t speak, but we could hear Uncle On’s voice coming from the receiver. After she hung up the telephone, Susie said that Uncle On called Madame every day. He’d done so forever. Sometimes, she said, he used to get small female roles in the local opera.
“You know what?” Auntie Bic said to Susie. “I used to take you to the Sun Sing Theater as a baby to see the performances.”
“Really?” said Susie. “What did we see?”
“Her,” Auntie Bic said, gesturing towards Madame, who lay with her eyes closed. And it occurred to me then that Madame Wong was probably the most glamorous person I had ever met. I watched as Susie massaged her mother’s hands, and I noticed how pretty they were still, even with unpainted nails.

Madame herself said that in her next life—and in her lives after that—she would be an actress. So somehow, her passing a day before she would have turned ninety felt chosen, on purpose. As if a spiritual stage manager had peeked behind the curtain where she was dressed and ready for her grand exit and said, “Five minutes, Madame,” whereupon Sui Fong Wong decided to just skip over ninety and rush into the drama.




 Wong Sui Fong

24 November 1924 – 23 November 2014




The above photograph of Madame Wong was taken in 1949. Her name is embroidered on the banner behind her, indicating her distinguished position in the opera troupe. She is survived by six of her seven children; Kenny Ng, Calvin Ng, Doris Ng, Susie Ng, Anita Wong and Alan Wong, as well as seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren. 



All images posted here are copyright Susie Ng and used with permission. Please send an email if you are interested in Sui Fong Wong. I will gladly forward all messages.  30 November 2014 Text copyright Romy Ashby




NOTES FOR THINGS TO NOT FORGET


Opening my datebook to mark something down today, I found a note to myself written in June of this year which said:

Today in the grocery store I saw the very ancient lady I sometimes see there with her pushchair. She’s so old and so fragile looking and bent at the middle, and she’s the most adorable old lady. I always wonder about her. Today I stood right next to her while she very painstakingly counted out yogurts. She read everything written on each container. I felt a huge swell of love for her. She looks about 100. Everything about her looks to be made of bird’s bones. She might be Chinese but I’ve never heard her speak so I don’t know. I hope this won’t be the last time I ever see her. 

I hope I did not, by writing that last sentence, make it come true because since that day I haven’t seen her and I would like to see her again, even if I never say anything to her. I was away from the city for a lot of the summer and whenever I come back from having been gone, the first thing I do is try to see the people I know and like, even by chance in the street. For a few weeks before I left, I’d been meeting my friend Agosto Machado every so often on a bench in a little park on the West Side. It was always the same bench, and Agosto was letting me interview him for my little magazine called Housedeer. After each little interview session on the bench, we went for a walk together and to at least one art gallery to look at pictures.

I like Agosto very much, and he’s someone I’ve seen all around town forever. I’ve seen him onstage in plays and waiting in theater lobbies and walking in the streets, and nothing is nicer than to mark down in my book a certain day at a certain time when Agosto will be waiting on a certain bench. He has a magical way of telling what he remembers about New York and when he described standing on the street and looking through the windows of Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue, long ago, to watch the ladies with their shopping bags having lunch—taking off their gloves to eat their sandwiches and afterwards having, with their coffee, a cigarette—and the feeling it gave him, looking in, I felt that I had been standing there with him. And I think quite a lot of people would feel that way, because he tells his memories like movies. I remember my friend Debbie talking about Schrafft’s, and going there in the 1950s with her grandmother for lunch as a special treat, having come into old Penn Station on the train from New Jersey. Agosto remembers old Penn Station too, and he and Debbie both described the particular atmospheric charm of the great station—in the echoes of cups and saucers from the coffee shops and the voices announcing trains coming and going—as the marvelous entry to the city itself.

This afternoon I met my friend Hank O’Neal in the Malibu diner on 23rd Street. The Malibu never seems to change and it's always full of people. When Hank ordered a dish of ice cream the waiter asked, “One scoop or two?” and when he brought me a cup of coffee I thought of Old Penn Station. Certain New York diners just feel the way they always have, and I think part of it is the sound of the cups and saucers. Hank entertained me with stories about personal things that you can say to certain people if you’ve known them long enough, and he told me that the reason he never gets sick is because he grew up playing in mud puddles and eating the mud.

Last night I met my friend Susie for a lecture on West 13th Street, all about how to cleanse oneself of impurities in the body. Afterwards we stood on the sidewalk and chatted, the way people have forever here, pausing for fire engines to pass and watching the world go by. I thought of Susie’s mother, who is very old now and lives in Chinatown, telling me how it felt to her when she first came to New York long, long ago, coming out of one of the stations in the snow and finding her way downtown. Was it Penn Station or Grand Central? She was a famous star of the Chinese Opera, Sui Fong Wong, and a few times I had lunch with her and Susie both in Chinese restaurants on little streets, where Madame Wong ordered all kinds of delicacies that weren’t on the menu and told stories. She loved going to the movies in the big theaters of Times Square, and she remembered the billboard advertising Camel Cigarettes with a man blowing what looked like real smoke.

During one such lunch, an old lady passed our table using a walker, and after she had left, Madame Wong told us that the lady was herself an old actress (Who used to be gorgeous! You’d never guess it now, but she was gorgeous! She had love affairs with this one and that one, and it was scandalous!) I wished I’d taken a better look at the old lady before she disappeared out the door, but by the time I looked again, she had been swallowed into the crowds of people outside. Walking home after saying goodbye to Susie on 7th Avenue, I realized that I would very much like to see her mother again. Once home, I made myself a note to ask Susie about visiting Madame Wong. Because she is soon to be ninety, and the thought occurred to me that when someone one likes is in their nineties it’s probably good to not put off visits. Actually, putting off visits to people one likes of any age is just stupid.

September 28, 2014

THE PRETTY WINDOWS


Loren MacIver's Greenwich Village Night II
Yesterday on my way to the farmer’s market to buy greens, I went into a little antique shop I like on 17th Street, which is reached by a long narrow passageway lined with mirrors. The prices are always reasonable in that place, where every so often I buy something  that I need. Last autumn when I realized one day that because of Honey I only had one unbroken glass left, I bought six fine little drinking glasses there. I keep them on the top shelf in the kitchen behind a wooden chopping block. Honey can jump up on it, and she likes to reach up and pull things off the shelves. I realized too late that one of her favorite things to do was to grab for the glasses when they were on a shelf she could reach and watch them crash to the floor. Then she couldn't leave the box of salt alone. It’s the same kind of salt I’ve used all my life, Morton Salt, in the round blue box and the girl with the umbrella on the label. Most days when I came home I'd find it lying on the floor of the kitchen. Honey is like having raccoons. But I can never stay angry with her for long and I know she gets bored in the house during the winter when I can’t take her outside. Now that spring is here I’ve started taking her out again and the box of salt is staying on the shelf.
 A few times I’ve taken Honey into the little antique shop on 17th Street because the guys who run it always have dogs lying around snoozing. Everyone in the shop likes Honey when she rides in on my shoulder but I hold onto her tightly in there with all the delicate, glittering things displayed upon the shelves reflected in her nosy green eyes. When I went in yesterday, by myself, I saw that in the little office at the back of the shop a green and white bird was sitting in a pretty gold cage, listening to a recording of rushing water and birds singing. I whistled to him and he turned and looked at me with interest and whistled back. He seemed very happy sitting there listening to his record, and I thought again of something a lady I know told me the other day, about two Belgian firefighters who drowned in a river while saving a swan. I didn’t know what to say. I felt very sorry for the two firefighters and at the same time something about the story was so beautiful. I imagined it as a painting that one would have to sit down to really look at. I wondered if the swan realized what happened to the man who had freed him from whatever he had been caught on in the river, and I think that unless he didn’t see it, it must have made an impression on him. How could it not?

After the farmer’s market I walked home in a roundabout way. Not far from Gramercy Park I noticed a medallion beside the door of an old house at 128 East 19th Street, announcing that Lincoln Kirstein had lived there. I was reminded of Loren MacIver’s bedroom on Perry Street where there sat a very old and beautiful toy fire engine, horse-drawn, made of cast iron. “Guess who this belonged to,” she said. “It was Lincoln Kirstein's.” She had admired it at his house during a party one night so he gave it to her. It seemed to me that Loren had that kind of thing happen all the time. There was a little snuffbox carved out of wood that she showed me a few times, and that, she said, had belonged to a farmer she met long ago in France. I think she was walking with him in his newly-plowed field when he pulled the little box from his pocket for a pinch of snuff, she admired it, and he gave it to her. She had oodles of charm, Loren did.

In the middle of April I went to the opening of a show of her work at the Alexandre Gallery on 57th Street. The show was called Loren MacIver’s Light, and everything in it was dazzling. But my favorite of all that I saw was a pastel drawing that she made in 1939, on black paper, which was so recognizably the Village that I felt as if I might walk right into its beautiful nighttime street and be able to walk home from there. I looked at it for a long time, the little amber-lit upstairs window pulling at my heart with all of its mystery and prettiness. I love those kinds of windows, lamp-lit with curtains apart just enough to allow a peek at whatever is going on inside. Sometimes there’s a whole wall of books, or a staircase disappearing upwards, or a person sitting quietly in a chair, reading the newspaper. Sometimes it’s a sad thing on the other side of a window the way it seemed to be a few days ago, when the friend I was walking with—the same friend who told me about the firemen and the swan—gasped as we passed a row of old houses. She had seen a lady lying down, but lying as if she’d been placed there for the day, attended by a kitty. There was something about the way the cat was sitting, oblivious to the beautiful day, all her attentions devoted to the lady, that made my friend say, “Oh no,” when she saw the scene through the window. I didn’t see it, it was a glimpse. But it  made a beautiful picture in my mind, like Loren’s light.Today is a beautiful warm day in New York, and if Loren were still here I would run down to Perry Street and tell her about the swan and the lady lying by the window with her nurse.

May 13, 2014