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.

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The Grand Surprise

leadI am currently reading a book called The Grand Surprise.  It is the journals and letters of a man named Leo Lerman with biographical information interwoven, edited by Stephen Pascal. Lerman was a writer, critic and editor, but he was also known for the regular salons he held at his home on the Upper East Side which included the likes of Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Christopher Isherwood, Peggy Guggenheim, Diana Vreeland, etc.  He died in 1994 at 80 and even though I’m only on page 77, 1949, I can tell he lived a rich, full, life.  

I just finished reading George Plimpton’s Truman Capote biography and Leo Lerman is one of the hundreds of people interviewed for that book.  As much as I love reading Capote’s work, the more I read about him, the more I think I probably would not have liked him if I’d known him.  Well, maybe I would have liked him, but he would have been one of those friends I would have to keep at a distance.  He could never be a confidante or a person to depend on in a crisis.

Lerman, on the other hand, seems to me, a kindred spirit.  What I’ve read so far, journals and letters from his 20s and 30s, are about loneliness, vocational directionlessness, romantic complications, frustration and judgment about being overweight, all things that resonate with the 20s and 30s incarnation of myself and are likely to be themes, to some extent, for the rest of my days. And, like me at 28 or 32 or 38, the one thing he knows he has are good friends to share his life with. There is something about Lerman that I recognize, something also, that I love.  Would we be friends in real life?  Perhaps, perhaps not.

I need an escape from my real life at the moment.  Between Capote and The Grand Surprise, I’ve enjoyed spending time in mid 20th century New York City.  My job of 15 years is ending next week.  I’ve worked in the same restaurant, a high end lunch spot in Beverly Hills that caters to Los Angeles’ wealthy, since 1999.  I started when I was 30, it’s been 1/3 of my entire life.  The restaurant will reopen in a few months with a new identity, a new name, a new menu.  I could very well be back and also, in the intervening months, something else might come up.  Still, it’s an end to a time of my life and it’s bittersweet.

I suspect that in the future I will write more about this ending of one and beginning of another chapter in my life, but right now, when I start to write, I find I have no perspective.  I have no idea what the weeks ahead hold for me.  Which is kind of exciting, but also a little scary.

So, perhaps, one can understand, why I’ve buried myself in these thick books about charismatic gay men from another time. I close my eyes and imagine throwing intimate gatherings in my living room where all that is served is a jug of cheap wine and a big block of cheddar and everyone sits and gabs and laughs and drinks and eats. We all drink too much and talk too loudly and passionately and later, when I’m cleaning up the remains, I think to myself, my, aren’t we the smart ones!?

The accompanying picture is a painting by John Koch. Leo Lerman is in the foreground, conversing with pianist Ania Dorfmann. The artist is the lean, bespectacled fellow mixing drinks at the bar. He is somewhat famous for another painting called the The Sculptor which I wrote about many months ago, back when this blog was new.