Last night I walked downtown to Fedora’s on West 4th Street, the little restaurant down a short flight of steps under the street, to sit at the bar and enjoy the presence of Fedora Dorato herself.
A friend told me that she is about to retire, so I’ve been going as much as I’ve been able to go before that happens. It feels good to sit there. It’s a little breath of honest-to-goodness old New York caught in amber, and Fedora is so tiny in stature she has to reach up to punch the keys of the old cash register.
I once read an article about Fedora in The Villager, which told how she was born in Florence, Italy, in 1921 and named for an opera by Umberto Giordano. I was curious and looked it up. I learned that it was first a play written for Sarah Bernhardt, and that the opera played at the Met in 1906 with the soprano Lina Cavalieri in the role of Fedora opposite Enrico Caruso. I read about Cavalieri’s glorious singing career, the silent movies she made, an advice column she wrote and the glamorous husbands she had before she was killed in a bombing raid on Florence in 1944. At the bar, Fedora mentioned being born there, in Florence, and when she named the country of her birth, she pronounced it “It’ly,” in the pleasant accent of old New York.
She brought little red baskets of bread to her regulars, leaning on her cane. At one table a plump man with a beard dined alone with a book, which he read by the dim light cast from over his table. Next to him sat an old leatherboy with white whiskers and a white-haired butch lesbian, twinkling over their plates of lasagna and chopped liver. I tried to eavesdrop on a silver-haired man sitting with a great big lady who resembled Bob Hope wearing a dress and a wig in Road to Morocco. Her hands were big and her nails were beautifully manicured and pink, and around her hairy wrist she wore a delicate old-fashioned watch. Her voice was deeper than her companion’s, but I couldn’t make out much of their conversation through the hum of the old air conditioning system. I thought: So this is where you all went.
Fedora said, “You know I’m closing next week, don’t you?” I said I did know, and that it made me sad. She said, “Yeah, I loved it. I’ve been here sixty years.” The lady beside me asked her if she was ready, and she said, “No. But my back is broken.” She said she gets an hour or so of relief from pills, but mostly it just hurts. “I got this back from standing,” she said. “Standing in the kitchen cooking for sixty years. I cooked and baked, I was always on my feet, standing, lifting, standing. They can’t operate because I’m 90, and they don’t operate on people who are 90.”
“I heard that Zsa Zsa Gabor was having an operation and she’s 94,” said the lady. “Is it her back?” Fedora asked, and the lady said, “I think it’s her hip. That’s probably the difference.” Fedora said, “Yes, that’s why. The back is different. My son is a dentist and he took me all over, and they all said the same thing. And it’s because I’m too old. They did quite a few nice things though. They cemented a lot of my fractures and that helped some for a while. So I’ll put up with it. I’m only going to be here for another week anyway.” She smiled at us. She reached out and pinched my arm. She thanked us for having our beer straight out of the bottle. “Two less glasses to wash,” she said.
I sat talking with the other customer at the bar, about how certain ladies personify the true heart of New York, including ladies like the Chrysler Building, the Cyclone and the Empire State Building. And how Fedora--with her standard New York accent, her brand of warmth so peculiar to the city, the way she manages to work very hard but make it look relaxed, and the way she dresses so nicely each evening in a pretty blouse and matching brooch--was one of them. “That would mean that New York is a lady of 90,” she said, and somehow that rang true.
Yesterday evening the place was very crowded, with just one waiter and Fedora to serve the whole room. Every table was full with more people waiting to get one. A man asked Fedora when the last time was that she had people lined up out the door that way, and she said, “Last week.” He said, “Betcha you’ll be sorry you sold the place,” and she said, “Not me.”
In an article about Fedora’s from several years ago, I read that it’s the kind of place that can exist only as long as Fedora is in it, and I believe that is true. And because of that, I don’t think it matters much what goes into that little old cellar next, as long as they don’t hurt the building. And I don’t imagine anyone will hurt it, because it’s Fedora’s building. She’ll be right upstairs, sleeping under the same roof as always, and she’s got family. Thinking about that made me feel not so blue as I walked home in the dusky light. In my experience, there’s nobody more savvy than a lady who’s run a bar and restaurant in New York for sixty years, especially one who owns her building. She knows what she’s doing, and whatever Fedora decides will be right.
Yesterday was hot and steamy all day. The sky was full of thunderheads, beautiful and dramatic, standing straight up and radiantly glowing. And suddenly without any warning there was the Empire State Building having turned on her white lights for the evening, looking sublime at eighty, and not going anywhere.
22 July 2010