The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Photographs and Memories: A Non-Sequential Series Part One

This is Amie and me standing in a place that doesn't exist anymore. No enemy bomber demolished Chelsesa Commons, at 242 10th Ave. [10th Ave and 24th St.] in New York's Chelsea district.

No, it was that soul-robbing process that is converting New York into a one big crass NewYorkCityworld. The Big Apple is beginning to resemble the fake Vegas casino built to mimic its spires. That itself looks like one of those posters tourists buy of the the landmarks grouped together, out of connection to their geographic location, and physical proportion.

The date was Saturday, February 20, 2004. We came to New York and through the knack she possesses for finding us good rooms in great places, Amie got us into the historic Algonquin. This was the place that Louise Brooks got thrown out of due to her immoral behavior. And there was that literary round table thing, too. The stairwells were covered by New Yorker cartoons. A plush white cat roamed the lobby and rode in the baggage carrier. Each door has a bon mot from a member of the Vicious Circle on a plaque -- though they just rotated the quotations, there's not a different one for each door. Our room was small, cozy and we loved being there.

The copper-amber haired cabaret singer Tierney Sutton was performing in the club; I didn't see her perform, but heard her husky big voice in the lobby and saw her come out between sets. Sigh. And what a grand name.

But on this particular sunny but brisk Saturday in Chelsea, Amie was slogging her way from one Chelsea gallery to the next and I was foot sore and eye boggled from looking at art that hadn't much impressed me, philistine that I am. This was one of the last places in the neighborhood where locals jostled alongside the visitors.

Soon as I walked in I knew I was home; dark wood, past New Year's Eve and band posters in garish colors and block lettering, for John Parks, Pine Top Perkins, Paul Butterfield & Barbecue, Bob & The Specialist, Dr. John & Friends, and posters for theater, on and off Broadway, one big one for Proof. There was a long, unpretentious bar and several taps, a sign that demanded, "No Sniveling," and an efficient and comely bar mistress named Eve.

Eve poured me Sam Adams pints from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and credit my ability to even walk afterward to how I spent time talking, writing and not gulping Sam. I also ate a hearty, delicious steak sandwich that came with a heaping order of big home-made fries that offered great satisfaction. I tingled with happiness. I wanted to move in. And I kind of did.

Working there, as it turned out, was Niabi Caldwell, an early participant with the company I co-founded, the Firehouse Theatre Project. I'd not seen her in a a long time, since she'd left Richmond, Vee-ay, and yet -- here she was, dealing them off the arm and looking like a knowing, urban pixie. She screeched and hugged me. Yeah, in a city of eight millions, and I walk at random into a bar....Is there a statistician in the house? She seemed to be doing well; she's still in NYC in 2007 -- I need to send a message to that girl.

The patrons at the bar complained to each other, not to me, that NYC is getting converted into one big Starbucks, that only luxury apartments are getting built and how they are destructive to the fabric of the city, that Mayor Bloomberg is a wealthy idiot who has not a whit of connection to the city, that Bush is leading us into terrible days. In 2004, I didn't hear much talk like this in Richmond, Vee-ay.

The bar mistress, Eve, was a painter and considering abandoning New York due to its expense. But Amie and I know of people who've complained about NYC and never go; it's the same in Paris, and in Richmond. I advocated for the city of my nativity to Eve, due to the relative low cost of living and the presence of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, one of the top ranked art schools in the nation, and with a burgeoning gallery scene. I wonder if she ever even thought about such a migration -- my guess is she's still up there.

We hit it off, Eve and me. The music was great, old rock and rockabilly, and the customers who all knew Eve, and she knew, created a composition of their own. She told me, Eve did, that two of the Chelsea Commons' cooks were looking into buying the place, make it upscale, and ruin the character.

Which, is in fact, what happened.

Within the year, Chelsea Commons was shuttered and now it is the Trestle on Tenth, with a Swiss-American menu that doesn't have a big old steak sandwich on it, leastwise, one that I can afford.

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