Today I went over to the laundromat on 8th Avenue and after I put the clothes in, I took a walk around the neighborhood. As I passed by the Joyce Theater, which I do all the time, I remembered a day, long ago already, when I sat in the donut shop on the southeast corner of 23rd and 8th, next to the uptown subway entrance, and listened to a lady talk about what the Joyce used to be.

That donut shop itself is long gone and I’ve never stopped missing it. There’s a bakery and sandwich shop in its place now, but it doesn’t have any of the appeal for me that the old donut shop did. The donut shop had a counter in the shape of half an eight, where you could sit and have coffee or whatever you wanted, and watch the world go by out on the corner of 23rd and 8th.  The grill was right there behind the counter, beside the nickel-plated coffee urn, always with a pile of home-fried potatoes in one corner, and you could get bacon and eggs or grilled cheese or a hamburger, and nothing was too expensive. Just inside the door were the donuts on shelves, and the counter where the cash register stood. The old guy who was always behind it wore a white paper hat and white kitchen scrubs, and managed the donuts. He had some kind of accent, but I never heard him say more than three words at a time so I couldn’t guess at what kind it was. He’d say, “One-twenty-five,” or, “A dollar eighty,” or “You said glazed?’ It was as if he had a three-word limit. You could get a whole bag of donuts for a couple of dollars and the place was always full of old ladies.

When I looked at the Joyce Theater today, I thought of a lady who was sitting at the counter in the donut shop. She was already talking to the waitress when I came in and sat down. The waitress didn’t seem to be truly paying attention to her, and the lady talking didn’t seem to truly care. She seemed to be talking  for whoever might be listening, like me. She was probably in her mid to late sixties and wearing clothes that had seen better days. And from what she was talking about, it sounded as if she had lived in Chelsea for a very long time. I had a notebook with me so I started jotting down what she was saying, on that day in 1996:

"Liz Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher for a while, you know. He was an Irish boy and he used to wear a yarmulke. Is this Sammy Davis Junior singing? Let me tell you, he had a voice. He could really hit the high notes, couldn't he? Stop the World I Wanna get off? Now that was a good song. You know he was Jewish for a while, too. He was good at so many things. In the old days, people were. I'm just now finding out all the things Jackie Robinson could do, and not just baseball. He was a very good cook. Baseball wasn't even his best sport. As a matter of fact, it was his worst sport. You remember when there were all kinds of movie houses around here? They tore a lot of them down. They had some real nice old cinemas once. This used to be a real nice neighborhood. That one over there, the Joyce, that used to be the Elgin. That was a nice theater, but then they made it a porno.  A lot of them they made pornos before they tore them down. People picketed, remember that? And then they wanted to have shops selling those doodads, right inside the cinema. You know what I mean? Those doodads?”

I remembered how the lady turned and asked me specifically if I knew what she meant when she said “Doodads.” And I think I told her that I could imagine. Then she said, “Well, I wasn't born yesterday, you know. I've been to some of the places where they sell those things. Once I went to a place selling nothing but. On a date. With a priest. An Episcopalian priest. They can marry, you know. Not like the ones who can't and turn all perverted.” I didn’t want to get into a whole conversation with the lady, but I also kind of enjoyed her. I wondered about her in the laundromat, and whatever became of her. I wondered if she still lives in the neighborhood, and if she does, where she goes to sit and talk. The Chelsea Square diner, over on 9th Avenue, is where the old ladies all go now, I think, and I hope it never closes.

When I came home today I went looking for pictures of the donut shop and didn’t find any. But I did come across an old photograph from the New York City Municipal Archives, taken in February 1926, of a little restaurant called the Coffee Pot that once stood on the northwest corner. I looked at the picture for a long time, trying to understand why I wasn’t seeing the entrance to the downtown subway, before I realized that the 8th Avenue subway line did not yet exist. The sidewalk was so wide then. The Coffee Pot of 1926 looked different from the donut shop of 1996, but not so very different, really. I would bet that as luncheonettes go, the two of them probably had a lot in common.

21 November 2012


  1. Cool post.

    The donut place was on the south side of the block, no? If so, where's the Chelsea hiding in this photo?

    1. Adam, you are so right! I put on my glasses and really looked and I thought, hey, that looks more like the London Terrace down the block behind the coffee pot! Good catch. Normally I just bang out these Walkers pieces and I don't go back and edit, but thanks to your eagle eye, I've fixed that. The Coffee Pot was on the corner diagonal to the donut shop, is what it comes down to. Thank you!

    2. I love counters like that too. I used to love the big curved counters in the Chock full of Nuts luncheonette on the Upper West Side. Peter Pan in Greenpoint is still good for donuts, counter staff in white, and clusters of elderly customers.
      I'm glad you took notes !

    3. I love the Peter Pan Bakery. I made a Walkers piece about it once, after I overheard an old lady at that counter telling another lady and a man about how she had been accused of stealing a $3 pair of shoes in a thrift shop up the block and how outraged she was.

  2. Baffling photo—I don't think it's 23rd and Eighth—the buildings on the SE corner are all four stories high. This doesn't look like Ninth (home of Chelsea Square) either. The tall building looks like something from Chelsea Corners.

  3. Baffling indeed--keep us posted if you find anything.

  4. Great post! Makes me miss my old place over on 9th Ave and the hangouts I had over there that are now mostly gone.

    And now you have me puzzling over the photo, too. Based on the shadows, I'm thinking it must be the south side of the street.

  5. Ahh, Ms. G! You could be so right! Well, what we do know is that if the Municipal Archives isn't mistaken about its being on the corner of 23rd and 8th, it has to be one of four corners, right? What a mystery.

  6. This is so nice, Romy AND Goggla here in the same place!

    I lived in Chelsea on 21st near 9th in the mid-80s for a couple years. Every weekday, I walked to that uptown subway station on 23rd and 8th to grab the E to work. So much has changed around there. Do you remember the bar/restaurant that used to be next to the Joyce? I used to think that place was so cool...which I'm sure it wasn't, but at the time...

    If anyone can think of the name, I'd appreciate it. Driving me bonkers. Was it Man Ray? Or the name of some other artist?

    And God bless Chelsea Square, the diner that never dies (knock on wood).

  7. This really is a head scratcher, Romy! If the Coffee Pot was on the NW corner, it would have been a tenant of the Grand Opera House bldg., seen here in a 1937 Berenice Abbott photo:

    Doesn't seem right. I also think Goggla's right about the shadows. Maybe the Archives blew it.
    Anyway, I'm starting feel more nearsighted than 'eagle-eyed.'

  8. I remember the Elgin. When I was a freshman in college in '74, I went to a Mel Brooks festival there. Those were the days.

  9. John, I think I know the place you're talking about, but don't remember the name either. Man Ray sounds sort of right, or something with Man ... Now I want to know the name too!
    Romy, now I remember your story with the shoes!
    My mind is fading fast!

  10. There was The Coffee Pot 350 W. 49th Ninth Ave. Now closed