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