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It started when I stepped on my laptop.
I learned that when you step on a laptop screen, it makes a satisfying crunching sound, but the satisfaction is extremely short-lived.
That horrifying incident happened right after the Eurovision broadcast ended. I immediately phoned Apple to see if I could get it fixed quickly. My friends Ken Kleiber and Josh Koll were over to watch that cheese smorgasbord, and they came with me to the Mac Hospital.
And good thing. After I turned my laptop in, I correctly required a drink. We walked into Greenwich Village, and I directed them to Fedora’s, just north of 10th Street on 4th Street, in one of the Village’s several geographic improbabilties. I’ve known about her place for a while. She’s famous for being a Village staple. Every night, she descends from her upstairs apartment to attend to her long-running restaurant/bar. Fedora has been hostessing for a half-century.
The moment we walked in, I saw her. This tiny, 90-year-old lady behind the bar, simultaneously out of place and so emphatically in charge of the room! I went right over, sat on a bar stool, and introduced myself.
Finally, Fedora! She made us some gin martinis, and the bottle threatened to weigh her over.
Fedora had bad news. She had recently broken her back.
“How did you do that?” Ken asked.
“All those years of lifting beer and wine boxes,” she said.
“Oh! It was a beer-related injury!” I said.
So even though a year ago she was full of energy and nowhere near retirement, this year Fedora had to admit that age had caught up with her. She was retiring.
“I’m renting it to the people from the Waverly Inn,” she said.
That meant, of course, that the glitterati are about to take over this place. This handsome, messy claptrap of a downstairs bar, with the ignored wooden phone booth and the rat’s nest of wires left over from years of casual, D.I.Y. improvements. Of the plain wooden bar rail worn smooth and shiny by decades of tipsy forearms. Of the secret stairway, sealed behind plaster in 1932, when Prohibition was at an end and speakeasy rules were no longer required.
Now Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair, who had for years been making overtures to Fedora for her space, had won, and if his habits are any guide, he will turn this neighborhood joint into a place where only the elite have the phone number. He’ll keep the bar. But he’ll clear away the dust and commodify the anonymous history to make it exclusive.
Fedora rattled off Carter’s home address, which I won’t give here, but I will say that it’s next door to her own son’s home.
But she’s tired. There’s something majesterial about seeing an older person admit the fight has been well fought.
No one can say Fedora didn’t see it through. She started in 1952, she told me, or was it 1953? The bar itself opened in 1919, not long after the building itself was built and purchased for nearly nothing. Her son, the dentist, has his practice upstairs, and he sent his Tony Graham Manhattan cartoon poster, from 1977, down to the vestibule. I saw it and was instantly 10 again. My parents bought the same poster, in color, for me in 1981, I think, at the Washington Square Art Fair.
It hung in my room until high school, and I memorized every tiny joke on it. It was an early Where’s Waldo, in which you had to struggle to find the icons amongst the long-running New York stalwarts. There was a streaker in Spanish Harlem, and King Kong on the Empire State Building, squished in bold black ink lines amongst the bygone pubs and stores and galleries and Blimpies with the old logo. I had memorized that poster. You might be able to blame it for winding me up here in Manhattan, pining for all that’s lost. (Including Tony Graham, who I met as a child but died nearly 20 years ago.)
Such as Fedora. I am so powerfully thankful (pause. let me remember that. I am aware of my gratitude in this moment) that I got to meet her and hang out with her for a few hours, and drink her gin martinis. This was the New York that I moved here for, of the dusty wires and low ceilings and countless nights spent by anonymous drinking locals, and now it’s vanishing. It’s mostly gone, replaced by trendy lounges that pretend to be Old World and forgotten when, in fact, they require you to know telephone numbers that you will never be privy to.
Fedora asked me my name, and she remembered it. I am now a part of the history.
Midway through our evening at Fedora’s, a table for four came to eat. Among them was what looked to be a woman, although few true women would dress in a pillbox hat with fingerless lace gloves. She smelled wonderful and had a lilting Southern accent. Her companions eventually left, and someone identified the stately woman as Rollerina. She was herself a stalwart of a dead Manhattan. She was a city fixture in the 1970s, when she would roller-skate everywhere, and she was an icon of Studio 54. Someone played her in the movie.
We took some pictures with Rollerina (also spelled as Rollerena), and she must have taken a liking to us, because she invited us to go out with her for the night. She led us to a nearby bar on Christopher Street.
Actually, she led me. Ken said she took a definite liking to me. She took my arm without it being offered, because I am too modern and gauche to have proffered it.
As we strolled at a pace I can only describe as antebellum, Rollerina told me that she had once been drafted from her home in Gravelsnatch, Kentucky, to serve in Vietnam. She declined to say how long she had been there, but she said it was enough. Afterward, she decamped briefly to Chicago in 1968, departing just before the convention to arrive here in Manhattan, where she has stayed ever since. She is now retired (from a law firm, I learned later). She barely gives interviews, she says, except for the one that she gave tonight to the reporter for the New York Times, who is preparing a farewell to Fedora. That’s why we found her there.
“Kiss my dingleberry ring!” she commanded, holding aloft a black, blocky ring on a slender, feminine hand. “It will make you immune from gonorrhea.” Of course we kissed it. The sense of play was powerful.
Rollerina was charming, but drifting through her perfume (Acqua de Parma, which she attempted to give me a bottle of) was the distinctive note of Miss
Haversham Havisham [Per Albert Williams’ supercilious comment, below]. Her past was her world, a theme I understand completely. Nothing is the same, she said. All the things that were lost became her refrain. The old, great places are gone, and she lost around 500 friends to AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s. Christopher Street was quite the place then, she said. “You can Google it,” she told us, her new gaggle of young men, by way of instruction.
But she still dresses as Rollerina. She never once lifted her pink veil for us. She has no taste for the drag queens of today. “I like to sit on the subway and people think I’m a lady,” she said, sniffing at the muscled, Amazonian caricatures of femininity on offer today.
She knew Halston. She knew Warhol. She lived through the hurricane twice, and for her survival, she was rewarded with obsolescence.
Now Fedora goes, albeit after a long and rich life. She will never settle for being a shadow. Nor will Rollerena.
I’ve been in New York City for 17 years this year. That qualifies me for a long-termer, but I can’t enter the world that Fedora and Rollerina made. That fact tantalizes and tortures me. Their planet was one of amplified community, intense playfulness, and of course, unspeakable horror.
I inherit their diminished world, but thank God I smelled their perfume and downed their martinis before it was all over.
Last week, I was in Chicago and I pined to move back. But a night like this couldn’t often happen in Chicago. There may not be many more nights like this left in the old gal named Manhattan, but while they’re still here, it’s why I’m still here. When the last rat-trap becomes a pastiche of itself, I guess it will be time to finally go. Unlike Rollerina, I will lift the veil.
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