arts 08.13.03

The Bon Vivant

We've always loved this essay by Adam Gopnik, which, with amazing generosity, he gave us to publish in MUG a number of years ago. Since the impetus for the piece is Mr. Gopnik's recollection of his first day in New York — an August, 25 years ago — we thought we'd run it again today.

By Adam Gopnik
The attraction of rows of booths in coffee shops is a hard one for a New Yorker to explain, except in terms either depressingly nostalgic or else just as depressingly homey. Nonetheless, my own favorite vista in New York is the one presented by the two booths that sit inside the west side windows at the Bon Vivant coffee shop on 12th Street and Broadway.

My first morning in New York (setting aside a first run-through in 1964, aged seven: the "Small World" ride, twice, sinister devil dolls, shrieking world peace) was in August 1978, when my true love took me to a coffee shop on Madison. A real New York coffee shop — a row of booths along the north wall; a quilted aluminum console; separate menu for breakfast, two eggs with Virginia ham. It taught me an essential New York lesson — that cramped and generous aren't necessarily opposites.

That place, the Gardenia, is gone now — well, not gone, but all dolled up, with hard-backed chairs and a short wine list and the waiters, Nick and Joe, trained to sprinkle cocoa on your cappuccino. It defined a zone of pleasure for me, though, and the few little Greek coffee shops that are left still seem to me to be the hearths of the city, especially now that this plague of espresso bars is driving them all away (why should New York takes lessons in style from Seattle?).

There are, by my doubtless idiosyncratic count, only about three coffee shops worth the name left — Gracie's Corner, up on 86th, which for a little while in the eighties was my Café de Flore; I did my writing there and thought about doing it; the Palace, all the way east on 57th St. (odd that it survives; it's a bit tony, but authentic: They have a wine list on which some of the wines are called "fruity" and some "nutty," but only one is called "nutty and fruity"), and the Bon Vivant, on Broadway near 12th St.

The interior of the Bon Vivant is one of my favorite places around the city; it was done over in the early eighties, in a kind of candied postmodern palette, sort of what you might expect from somebody who once visited a house that had been decorated by Michael Graves's nephew. There are candy apple colors, and sour grape colors, and off-aquas all over. It is those two big booths near the front, which look west onto Broadway, that I love most.

The pleasure of booths on a street window is, I think, if not limited to New York, at least especially rich here. Out in the real world, America, whenever I travel, I notice that all the booths are stowed away in the back, away from the street and the noise. But there is no back, no room in New York. (Notice how the coffee shop on "Seinfeld" is just a big phony; the space is too big, and the booths sit inside, away from the street.) Space costs too much here, so the booths line up by the window.

This is where the uncanny brightness of the decor inside the Bon Vivant has a wonderful effect. The theory, I'm sure, was that the bright colors would brighten things up inside, without anyone stopping to think that what it would really do is darken things up outside — make Broadway look even dingier and more shadowy than it did before, like a woodcut from an Expressionist novel-in-pictures, long shadows trailing the angst-ridden hero home.

But this is a blessing, too: Now, when you're inside the Bon Vivant on an average winter Saturday, around three o'clock, eating your Yankee bean soup with white toast and a soda, it always looks as if it is about to snow. The dark sky, the dim light, the gray pallor that hangs over everything — you think…snowstorm coming, six inches on the way…all that white tomorrow morning. Then you step outside and, your eyes no longer tuned to the dazzle of all those bright leatherette booths, you become accustomed again to the New York palette running its usual spectrum from Pigeon Feather Purple-Gray to Olde Chewing Gum Off-White, and you realize, no, no snow.

But for a little while you thought that by the time you got home, the city would be beautiful, which is no small gift for the price of soup.
Photo credit: Christopher Lovi

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