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.

A Whole New World

IMG_3731Eric and I returned from New York a couple of days ago. It was a cold, action-packed 6 days and as much as I enjoyed the adventure, I’m glad to be home. I might fantasize about living in New York again, I probably will for the rest of my life, but, first, I really enjoyed swimming in the 70 degree California sunshine the day after our return and second, our dogs would hate living in cold weather and probably try to pick fights with people and other dogs on their daily walks. Eric and I always marvel that we never see or hear barking dogs when we are in Manhattan. What’s the deal? Is it the water?

Anyway, Tuesday night, our last night, Eric and I tried to stuff as much into an evening as humanly possible. We had burgers at the Shake Shack in Grand Central, then drinks and clam chowder at the Oyster Bar. We walked up Lexington to 58th, popping into the various hotels along the avenue. I wanted to check out the East Side Marriott, formerly the Shelton Hotel, that was once the tallest hotel in the world as well as Georgia O’Keefe’s home from 1925 to 1936. The day before, we saw the painting East River from the Shelton Hotel at the Met and I read about the Shelton and wondered how I’d never heard about the hotel or O’Keefe’s inspired, lengthy stay there. Either way, the hotel is still glamorous and stately, even if a bit Marriott-ized. From there we walked into Bergdorf Goodman’s men’s shop where I could get one last spritz of my favorite perfume, Maison Francis Kurkdijan’s BG exclusive, 754. On every trip, I try to visit every day to spray a little. On Saturday, an employee, perhaps resentful that I wouldn’t try the fragrance she was trying to hawk, sneered at me, “That is a ladies’ fragrance.” “Oh, what’s going to happen to me?” “Nothing, I just wanted you to be aware of it.”

From Bergdorf, we walked along Central Park South to Robert in Columbus Circle. We had drinks in a lounge area that overlooked Central Park and the Upper West Side, specifically Broadway. We took pictures and Instagrammed them, talked about some of the highlights of our trip, the traditions like Barney Greengrass and Central Park and the Met and Mary Ann’s in Chelsea. We talked about the new experiences, discovering a great, new to us, hotel, The Roosevelt and seeing John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, from the second row, no less. We talked about the cheeseburgers at J.G. Melon. We talked about how much we enjoyed the snow. We talked about how much we missed the dogs, or as we call them, the babies.

After Robert, we took the subway down to Grove Street, to Marie’s Crisis, the iconic Greenwich Village piano bar. Several years ago, I did a show where I talked about visiting Marie’s Crisis with my best friend Michele and her new husband Stan. It was a fun, special night and because it’s on YouTube, the evening has had an enduring glow for Michele and me.

When Eric and I walked into Marie’s Crisis on Tuesday night, it was to the accompaniment of 15-20 Broadway loving souls singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses, an apt welcome. We ordered a couple of drinks and found a wobbly table to sit at and enjoyed taking it all in. There was a shift change and the early evening piano player was replaced by a pretty, zaftig woman named Franca who, we came to find out, was enjoying a bit of internet celebrity because a few nights earlier Jimmy Fallon made a drunken, passionate, raucous visit and several people had posted videos from the evening.

There were men and women, gays and straights, young and old. There were boys in their early 20s belting out show tunes and I couldn’t help but think of my own 20 something self. I never went to Marie’s Crisis. I didn’t have the confidence to stand at a piano and croon Corner of the Sky, but I wanted to. Instead, I would frequent Uncle Charlie’s or Splash and stand in a corner and suck in my stomach and wait for someone to come up to me and introduce himself.

Of course, I thought about those nights as I sat there with Eric. It could have been the bourbon, it could have been something else, but I felt an ache for those days of my youth. That ache comes and goes. It’s probably, at this point, directly proportionate to my weight. When I visit New York, and walk down 8th Avenue in Chelsea or 7th Avenue in the Village, I just don’t feel as visible as I once did.

The song after Corner of the Sky was from Aladdin, A Whole New World. I know I don’t write about my sex life here, but I think that even if you are super conservative, you have deduced, at this point, that I am no longer a virgin. Still, if you are related to me, in any way, please skip the next two paragraphs. Don’t get tempted to disregard my plea, just scroll down. I don’t want to think about you having read this while we are feasting on Italian sausage and spaghetti at the next family reunion.

The first guy I ever had sex with was a guy I met at the 23rd Street YMCA. We met and he asked me back to his place and we fooled around and it was very vanilla and after, the two of us lay on his bed listening to music. Aladdin had just come out and the song was getting a lot of radio play. Before we went to his apartment, I had told my new friend, I’ll call him Milton, because that was his name, that I was very new to all of this. As Peabo purred, “I can show you the world, shining, shimmering splendid…”, Milton turned to me and said, “This certainly seems like the perfect song for this moment.” And it did.

My body might have been at 2015 Marie’s Crisis, but my heart was in that one bedroom apartment with exposed brick on one wall on 18th street between 7th and 8th, circa 1993. I knew before we tumbled into bed together, on another snowy New York day, that Milton was not going to be the person I would grow old with, but what he was, still is, actually, was my first. I wish he’d been cuter, I wish I’d been more attracted to him. Because of my upbringing, I suppose there is still, over 20 years later, a part of me that wishes that my first had been my only. But alas, that is not the way the years played out. And that’s okay, probably for the best, really.

After the A Whole New World, Franca played and everyone sang I Dreamed a Dream and I remembered another boyfriend from those early years, an Israeli atchitecture student who was only in New York for one summer. Then, You Could Drive a Person Crazy, then another song from Pippin, Morning Glow. And then, Eric and I decided to call it a night.

Eric and I splurged on a cab to our hotel and I asked the driver to let us off at 6th avenue and 41st, so we could walk around Bryant Park and the New York Public Library. We went to Duane Reade to buy some water and bedtime snacks. And as we walked back to our hotel, bundled up in scarves and hats and gloves, carrying our booty with us, one of us said, “The babies.” And the other said, “I know, I can’t wait to see them.” And we walked on and on, sideways and under, on a magic carpet ride.

Undiscovered New York

35mm_10292_061cLast night I dreamed I was walking around on the Upper East Side and I remembered that I wanted to find Sutton Place. It’s a neighborhood where William Inge lived and I’ve added it to my list of places I want to visit when I go to New York in a couple of weeks. Anyway, as I was looking around, trying to get my bearings, I noticed an escalator leading up to something. I didn’t know where I was headed, but thought to myself, hey, I’m on vacation, let’s see where this goes. It carried me up several stories where I found myself in a waiting room of sorts. I talked to the other people there for a while. I texted my friend Eboni seeing what her schedule was so we could get together. I found in my pocket the deposit I needed to deposit to a Chase Bank from the new job on the Upper West Side that I’d just started earlier in the dream. As I sat wondering where I was going to find a Chase, one of the people in the room with me told me that we were actually on a tram car and at that moment, I realized we had departed Manhattan and we were traveling to an island, in a thunderstorm, I might add. “Are we going to Roosevelt Island?” I queried. “Not Roosevelt Island, but similar,” someone answered. The tram deposited us in a desolate area that consisted of 2 Holiday Inn Expresses and 2 gas stations and nothing more than wide open parking lots. This doesn’t look like Roosevelt Island to me, I thought. I asked the cashier at one of the gas stations where the nearest Chase was, he told me it was 10 minutes away. If he meant by car or by foot, I never learned. The next thing I knew I was walking the halls of an apartment complex or perhaps one of the Holiday Inn Expresses and I came across Eboni. She lived there. We laughed and hugged and that’s all of the dream I remember.

I dream about New York frequently. And though different things happen, there is usually a recurring theme: the dream begins with something familiar, like the Upper East Side and then I turn a corner (or get on an escalator) and discover something new, some place that had been there all along and I didn’t know about it. In my dreams I’ve uncovered New York watering holes and mansions and swimming pools and hotels and other secrets. Just last week, I discovered an entire enclave of beautiful, palatial homes, also on the Upper East Side, the most notable being one shaped like a giant skull. (What does that mean?)

In my conscious moments, I love reading about New York history or watching Naked City, filmed on location in NY neighborhoods in the 50’s and 60’s or traveling about on Google Earth, so it only makes sense that I should investigate the same territory in my dreams.

Why New York? I don’t know. Would I dream about LA in the same way if I lived in New York? I doubt it. And I do love LA. Perhaps it’s just that New York will always be my first love. The escape I dreamed of when I was growing up in Kansas. Who knows really, though.

I do know that while there is something vexing about these recurring dreams, I’m comforted too. It’s a shame we don’t accrue frequent flier miles for all the distance we travel in our dreams. We could take a trip around the world.