I started at NYU in the fall of 1964 with the goal of having a publishing deal before I graduated. Planting myself in the thick of a cultural revolution, I took a waitressing job at the Cornelia Street Café. Glitterati filled the tables. They vacillated between self-discovery and being discovered. Set with the view all artists flocked and fledged together, I thrived. Waitressing allowed me to cling to the fringes and attempt to enter the inner circle of a societal movement. Life was setting in motion, and it would not lead back to Wisconsin, much to my mother’s dismay.
Paul sat at the far end of the room, singing and strumming away. No one paid him much attention. His voice and the acoustic guitar had difficulty rising above the din. Cigarette and pot smoke hung in the room, adding to the artiste effect. Coffee and wine spurred ideas and discussion. Groups ebbed and flowed with writers, poets, songwriters, artists and singers. Each one wallowed in the belief they stood at the threshold of redefining their chosen craft. They espoused and believed a philosophy which guided them. The Civil Rights moment was upon us, and I experienced the discourse first hand. When there were marches, the artistic activists handed me flyers and thumbtacks. I spent afternoons waltzing around the Village attaching 8.5x11 pastel colored sheets to phone polls and any other wooden structure I found. They needed me to get the word out.
Bob crooned, “the times they are a changing.” Lines snaked down the block when Woody or Jimi stopped in to jam on open mic nights. Elbow-rubbing with the wunderkinds of societal change meant tables seldom remained empty at the Cornelia Street Café. My novel got updated often with snippets of conversations when I got back to my dorm. I used their ideas, juxtaposing them against my midwestern upbringing, in hopes my masterpiece became the tour de force that whisked me into their artistic echelon. I served them cake, coffee, and watery soup. And by serving them, I moved further inside their circle. Tips were meager, but it kept me far from the brink of starving during my college years. I stuffed unfinished cake pieces into a tin and gobbled them in the darkness while my roommate slept.
First names occurred at random intervals.
“Hey Joanie, more coffee?”
“Hey, Lisa,” Joanie chimed back, “love some and any more walnut cake?” Smiling, I’d bring a larger than normal piece to her. She’d introduce me, and not just by name, but as a budding writer who also tended to one’s drinking and eating needs. Michelle and Cass, who said to call her Mama, did the same. Last names were unnecessary.
Writers are an elusive lot. I waited for them, and I waited on them. They were the least frequenting customers, but they’d show at some point. They created in quiet chambers. Songwriters thrived on the restaurant’s chaos. Writers arrived bleary-eyed at noon. Those who came might take a seat in the sun and sip a few coffees, leave, disappear to write their next pages, and reappear with disheveled hair. They didn’t sit center stage crooning their latest melodies like the singers, basking in the audience’s yay or nay response. For writers, it took much longer to get someone’s attention. Had I been a singer, the road would have been less cumbersome.
Four years of table waiting, on the verge of graduating, and hoping to see my name on a dust jacket, I was ready. I typed a copy of my manuscript, sealed it in a manila envelope, placed it in my backpack, and brought it to work with me daily. A coffee-stained order form with a heart and daisy above my loopy lettered name was not my destiny. A book spine was.
John, Norman, and a man named Maurice, who always carried a large art bag with an oversize sketchbook, came in to hear a young singer named Janis. I’d heard of her, but knew little more. The raspy voice made the room go wild when she whispered Bobby Maggie. I later found out she was saying McGee. My interest in her music sealed the more she sang. The writers, John and Norman, listened to Janis. But even in the small, dark room, they seemed unapproachable seated with Peter, Paul, Arlo, Judy and Pete. Singers were approachable, writers, not so much.
When I took their order, Judy and Pete, who were already two glasses of wine in, gushed about me to the writers seated with them. My face warmed, and I am certain went flush; humbly, I declined the offer to present my novel. But as the evening wore on, and the longer I deliberated, the more my gumption increased. A scraggly guy named Donovan replaced Janis, and the room quieted down. Around midnight, a group from the large table retreated to the back patio. Although privy to the pot scene, I did not imbibe, and looked the other way. While they were outside, I stoked the courage, and removed the envelope from my backpack. These people were tangible. They were going to help me make my dream come true. We had an element of camaraderie and similar interests.
Post-toke, in animated progression, they re-entered the restaurant, their inhalation having produced an intense discussion on the merits of Socialism, the detriments of Communism, and the progression of the Civil Rights Movement. They requested potato chips. Along with a bag of Ruffles, I placed the envelope in front of Mr. Cheever and Mr. Mailer, feeling last names better situated to a business interaction. I gave them each a nightcap, whiskey, paid for with my evening’s tips. They threw their heads back and winced. I without a shot glass, took a gulp, and asked if they might pass it along to an editor or publisher. Like Alice shrinking down, the room caved in on me until Mr. Cheever put out his hand and picked the packet up from the table. He nodded at me, and I beamed. High beams.
The editor I met with liked my work and suggested we get in touch after graduation. The envelope, placed there possibly for my benefit in the center of the man’s desk, had interlocking coffee cup stains on it. I imagined him reading it late into the night. Thinking my big break close, I gave my notice at the restaurant.
Graduation arrived, my parents came, and I announced my plan to stay in New York. My mother cried, claiming I was putting her in an early grave. My father stabbed at his pancakes. The plink-plink of the tines hit my eardrums like cannons. I was to live my life in the shadows of skyscrapers, not a corn silo.
The following morning, I called the publisher from a pay phone on the corner of Bleeker and Carmine only to discover, he’d quit his job. Left no forwarding contact info. I dropped the phone and left it dangling, bouncing against the metal stand. Interlocking coffee stains on the outside of a manuscript containing envelope, I discovered was not a book deal.
Sucker-punched with the realization I had quit in haste, I attempted to retrieve my waitstaff position. They’d hired a replacement earlier in the day. The bartender poured me a cup of consoling coffee. Joanie and Judy sat at a corner table toward the back. The rest of the faces, I recognized few others. The women waved when our eyes met. I told them what happened between my job and the manuscript. Well-versed in rejection, they apologized for the flippancy of others and asked me to sit. I did. We reminisced about the four years at Cornelia Street Café that we had shared, and I left. I looked back to wave goodbye, but they didn’t look up.
On the way home, on the L train, I overheard someone say the publishing elite closed deals at The Oyster Bar. The subway is a great place to pick up information. I didn’t waste time, but four years of waiting tables in the Village didn’t procure that tidbit of advice.
Determined to do what I’d come to New York to do, and armed with a shiny English degree, I took a waiting job in the bowels of Grand Central. Instead of wearing jeans and a tee shirt, breathing in cheap cigarette smoke and opening screw-off capped wine, I traded up for dressing like a Parisienne waiter, cutting through billowing sweet-scented, smoldering Cubans, and single malts.
Over a panroast, I met a fledging junior editor who finally got me beyond the first round. Rizzoli’s Bookstore invited me for a reading, and my masterpiece stood perched on a miniature easel. To me, it was the work of a lifetime, short as my life was at that point. I accepted it didn’t change the world, but it was about the change I’d witnessed and played a part in. Had I not waited tables at Cornelia Street, it never would’ve happened. Give credit.
I was privy to a magnanimous societal change. My coffee and wine pours left an impression on the glitterati whom I met. I’m sure of it. We were all unknown, creating new ideas, and hoping to be discovered. Most of us made it. And I, I poured the coffee that perked their ideas and the wine that took away their inhibitions as we set about changing the world.
I reached my hand over my shoulder, patted myself on the back, and headed down to the Oyster Bar, ready to give my notice. But this time, I got the timing better.