February 10, 1929 – December 3, 2010. Written at age 14.
I had to stay at school until six at some extracurricular club and called my dad expecting him to pick me up imminently. Plans changed.
What many people thought was unthinkable had happened: Elaine Kaufman, owner and proprietor of the Elaine’s restaurant, died. I saw Elaine’s – located at 1703 2nd Avenue – as a landmark in the backyard of my New York City neighborhood: it was where all the adults would go for dinner. Elaine Kaufman was an icon. I was also a bit afraid of her. It was always exciting to go there because I felt that it was a privilege and I had been permitted to go to the grown-up place, as if I should feel honored. However, the fact of the matter is I had been going to Elaine’s since I was born and most of the time I treated it as any other restaurant. But Elaine and her restaurant were different.
My parents aren’t celebrities, writers, reporters, or actors, even though the restaurant was a known watering hole for these ilk. They were just regulars. Elaine did not understand why you were not at her restaurant for dinner and she did not believe in excuses. In the 1990s, when questioned about his decreased appearances, my father tried to explain that he had an infant daughter and a wife who traveled a lot, thus he could not come as frequently and hang out with the “crowd” – he had to take care of me. Elaine’s response was to buy a highchair for the restaurant, so my father could simultaneously eat and be social with his friends, without neglecting his child.
For me, it was always a very entertaining dining experience as my parent’s friends would walk in and, without thinking or asking, grab a chair and seat themselves at our table. They weren’t being rude but, as I observed, it was simply the culture. One, who was a regular, would walk in and upon seeing who was there would decide where to sit; if company was lacking, sit at the bar. One night, a magician walked in and not only did he have three kids including me amazed, but he had tables of adults captivated by his card tricks as well.
The restaurant did not cater to a young clientele and thus lacked many “kid-friendly” meals considering it was primarily a bar open til dawn. Typically, I ordered spaghetti Bolognese. Whoever I went to Elaine’s with and at whatever time, we were seated along the front row. I just thought that we were given whatever table was empty. I had no idea that I was privileged to sit somewhere along the front row of tables. Every other table in the back was considered “Siberia.” The tables up front had “Reservation” signs on them, but the waiters were just holding them for Elaine’s friends – not the crowd that only went to see and be seen. However, there was one factor that deterred my experience of going to Elaine’s: Elaine.
I loved going there but Elaine constantly intimidated me and scared me. Elaine would walk around and plant herself at one of the front tables. She would eat off of your plate or have some of your drink – you shouldn’t have gone if you were a germaphobe. When or if the
conversation started to get boring or if she had to say hello to someone she would simply get up without a goodbye and waddle over to another table. She normally would yell at someone from across the room as well when she was unhappy with them. She believed that her opinion was the right one and had been known to kick people out of her restaurant if for some reason she didn’t like them. One night as I was recovering from a cold, I ordered a mint tea. When it came, I
found I had apple cinnamon tea instead. Elaine had said that it would be better for my throat. Being young and refusing to consume anything remotely void of sugar, I promptly added two or three packets of sugar. Elaine, witnessing this, said honey is better for a sore throat so she sent a waiter to the bodega across the street to buy a bottle of honey. She opened the bottle and poured a 1/3 of it, maybe more, into my tiny teacup that already would have given me a sugar
high. Now, I had “tea” that was more sugar than water or any other soothing flavor. Because I was so afraid of defying Elaine, I took a sip and said “thank you!” and “yes, of course it is delicious.”
It is not that Elaine was mean-spirited; she actually was very caring and loyal. She just had a certain way that she liked things done. As I got older I began to have conversations with Elaine instead of prior whimpering obedience. They were brief conversations about nothing important but I felt that I had gained some approval. I felt that the new conversations were proof that I had matured as she told me to order “whatever I wanted” and “try the oreo cheesecake” instead of dictating my diet for the night.
On that phone call on December 3, I don’t remember what was said. But I walked to Elaine’s and my dad led me inside. There were a couple of reporters and news trucks outside. They didn’t understand why the 13 year-old girl was allowed to go inside when they weren’t. I knew this was a catastrophe: what would happen to Elaine’s without Elaine? Elaine, donned in New York Yankee jewelry most nights, was there every night and stayed for hours. Even if Elaine scared me, she remained a constant.
Both my parents travel a lot, which lead to a lack of routine most of the time. If I went with someone, anyone, to have a quick meal at Elaine’s, I knew that Elaine would be there as well. The restaurant planned on opening, like any other night for dinner on December 3rd, but it was unlike any night in the last 45 years. There was an uncomfortable aura – a feeling of eeriness. I felt extremely awkward.
Where was the 200 (questionably 300) pound lady demanding that I eat more of my spaghetti Bolognese? I somehow thought that Elaine, ruler of her realm, sitting in the front, banishing others to “Siberia,” would always be there.
With the ruler gone, the restaurant opened its doors for the last time on Thursday, May 26, 2011.