Popover Days

Among the photos and postcards in the box that I brought back to LA from Kansas, there was a picture taken on my Kodak of the restaurant where I worked in the early 90s. Popover Cafe.

The restaurant, located on Amsterdam Ave between 86th and 87th Street was known primarily for their crispy on the outside, fluffy and eggy on the inside, Popovers. Served with house made strawberry butter and preserves. Sometimes you might switch it up and eat your Popover with apple butter or plain honey. Or slice it in half and make a smoked chicken, mozzarella and roasted pepper sandwich. Or pop open the pastry, fill it with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge for a Popover Sundae.

I was a midwestern hayseed when I arrived at the Pop and sophisticated food was not in my oeuvre. But Popovers, I understood. Popovers, I could sell. Popovers, I could love. And I did.

Everything I learned about working in restaurants, I learned at Popover. Sure I’d worked that one summer at Pizza Hut in Kansas, but this was the big time. Or at least, a bigger time. Sure, my first celebrity sighting was a dull, if polite, Andre Gregory. But my second celebrity was Kevin Nealon, with his family. And in the three years I worked there, I waited on Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, Uma Thurman, Lee Grant, Dody Goodman, Boyd Gaines (wearing a pretentious long wool scarf), Katie Couric (oversalting her cheese grits), Kate Nelligan with a frail, gaunt gentleman who clearly meant very much to her. Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger at Sunday brunch looking like they’d just come from someplace much sexier than Mass. Maddie Corman, overhearing a gaggle of actor waiters wondering how young we looked for casting purposes, told us to relax, that she’d been playing teenagers for 20 years. Barbra Streisand came out of the ladies room on a quiet Friday night to ask the manager on duty if she would be willing to retrieve her eyeglasses from the toilet. The manager, a 23 year old recent graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) was only too happy to comply.

I wasn’t the best waiter. In fact, they put me in the worst, smallest section every day. I actually liked it: smaller section, less things for me to get wrong.

It seemed that everyone I worked with offered me some kind of test. They asked me questions about church and my faith. They asked me questions that weren’t questions. “You do know you’re gay, right?” “No, I’m straight.” “Oh Honey.”

After hiding and editing myself for 23 years I was now playing to a different audience. These theater/artsy/waiter types didn’t want me to be some judgmental, boring Christian who said things like, “God is so rad.” But you know, once they found out I loved both Truman Capote and Kathie Lee Gifford, my secret did not stay secret for long.

So Popover is where I came out, not just as a gay man, but also as an upper west side member of society. It’s where I was given lists of books I needed to read, movies I needed to see, foods I needed to try. It was someone at Popover who said to me, “You simply must rent Grey Gardens. You’ll love it.” (I did.)

My first crushes on guys who were actually out gay guys were at Popover. The dreams I had that X would break up with his boyfriend Y and we would be together forever because I was the Charlene Frazier to his Suzanne Sugarbaker.

In 1994, I moved to Los Angeles and for 20 more years, each time I visited New York, I visited Popover Cafe. Often, it was my first stop on the island.

A few years ago, I brought Eric and he loved the place as much as I did. We would meet friends, and hide out in cushioned paisley seats, still surrounded by stuffed bears, and we’d eat popovers and drink hot chocolate or steamed apple cider and reminisce about some of our favorite days.

A few years ago, Popover closed, presumably, forever. It had a great run, with credit due to owner Carol Baer and longtime employees like Bill and Joan.

I took some satisfaction in the years when the building stood empty. Frozen. As if the universe knew what we knew, something as special as Popover Cafe could never be replaced.

Finally, a new restaurant has opened. I’m sure it’s fine. My heart of course, will only be true to one occupant of 551 Amsterdam.

So many stories, epic highs and devastating lows: falling in love, weddings, divorces, love affairs, breaking up marriages, deaths, exploring art, being too hungover to work on your art, starting a family, losing a parent, giving up on your art.

Popover Cafe is gone. And yet, for some of us, it is never faraway. Especially for formerly young men and women like me who walked through those double doors at the most impressionable and hungry time of their life. I’m so glad I didn’t end up at Sarabeth’s. Although I’m sure those folks have their own stories too.  We all do.

Every Punch, Kick and Shove

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My friend Paul wrote an open letter to his middle school classmates on Facebook yesterday. I’ve included it here because, frankly, it’s heartracing to read. It’s a missive about bullying. I’ll let him tell his own story, but suffice to say, I’ve thought plenty about it over the last 24 hours. As a show of support, I posted on his FB wall the video of Julia Sugarbaker telling off her sister Suzanne’s pageant bully, because his letter is just that fierce. Clearly, I’m not the only one touched by what he wrote because the last time I looked there were 44 comments from his friends telling him how awesome he is. And the thing about middle school for most of us outcasts, is, we can’t imagine an adulthood where even 10 people would go out of their way to tell us how great and special and unique we are. But, if we survive it, it does get better. Paul and his fabulous life are proof of it. Enjoy, and I hope you get as worked up as I did.

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE 1990 GRADUATING CLASS OF ASHLAND MIDDLE SCHOOL
In this day and age, the term “being bullied” is (sadly) as common as a Coachella reference and a Kardashian quote. Everyone at some point has had the experience of being the brunt of a bully.
It’s always been that way it seems if your different. It’s especially true if you’re a gay kid growing up in a shitsville hick town. And that’s the way it was for my twin brother and me.
The blessing is we survived it together, and being twins made the pain of three long years of physical and emotional torturing bearable. Had we not had each other to experience it all, at the same time, I don’t know if either of us would be here in this world right now. When I hear that another young gay kid commits suicide, I lose my breath. I ache. I too know that feeling of dread, of hopelessness; it’s like you’re being gaslighted by your entire class (we were)for reasons we couldn’t understand. It’s exhausting, and it’s downright scary, especially when you’re being picked on, teased and tormented for just being who you are.
Those kids who were too effeminate, too nice to speak up and too scared to fight back..well, that was my brother and me.
What made matters worse was trying to go to teachers, school counselors and principles, even our parents- nobody could say the obvious. And in 1989,in the small town of Ashland in Southern Oregon where hillbilly ignorance runs under the guise of New Thought Enlightenment back then (and probably now), nobody would.
The reason I bring this up is because earlier this week, I had a friend request from one of those bullies. A girl (yeah, my brother and I were so “faggy” that even the girls would pick on us.)
However, I don’t look like I used to (neither do they). Let’s just say I’m not that “fat faggot” they used to taunt.
I was surprised at first. It’s been 25 years. But with three solid years of daily ridicule and punishment, you don’t forget the names of your bullies. None of them. I even remember in my Junior High yearbook I wrote down the names they called us, or what they did to my brother and me by every name in that book.
Surprise turned to wonder for a few days..then wonder turned to anger and rage. “Why the fuck would this lady-douchebag have the nerve to friend request me?”
Then rage turned to laughter, and that’s where I’m at (any time you can use the word “lady-douchebag” has to elicit at least a smile).
I’m not going to call anyone out personally; I don’t need to. I can tell you that almost every kid in my graduating class of Ashland Middle School were little bitch-ass bullies to my brother and me (except for a handful of students who showed kindness and tolerance, and to this day I know them by name.) You never apologized when you should have, and now, it doesn’t even matter.
Whether that entire class owns up to their behavior doesn’t mean a damn thing to me now, for every word they broke me down with, every punch, kick and shove they did to us only made us to love harder, to fight harder for the things and people we believe in. I’m still that “faggy” kid you used to torture, but I’m not fat, and I’m not afraid.
To the entire graduating Class of 1990 from Ashland Middle School,don’t send me a friend request. We’re not friends, and we’ve never been. And yes, you all, each and every one of you, were gay-bashing little bastards.
In short,to quote the great Heather Mooney in “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion: “Why don’t you tell everyone I said to go fuck themselves for making my teen years a living hell?”
Love,
Paul Ybarra