I recently read that Elaine Kaufman, who ran "Elaine’s" in Manhattan, died, causing the restaurant to close. Since the décor was doubtful and the food was terrible, it couldn’t go on without her. Kaufman ran it like a private club, letting in only interesting talkers, mostly writers. You had to "be somebody" or "know somebody" in order to get in. Whitley and I never even tried, although we knew a few people who went there. Whitley was too unknown to get in BEFORE he wrote "Communion" and too infamous afterwards. From time to time friends who were "regulars" there would invite us along, but we demurred because being scrutinized in that way made us nervous, although I can see why someone would do this if they were running what was basically a salon.
Another reason why Elaine’s never interested us was because we were regulars at what I think of as the REAL Elaine’s, which was the "Little Secret" coffee shop in the basement of an old brownstone building at 46th Street and Lexington Avenue. Therese was the proprietor there and she was also a great talker and story-teller. When it was open, there would be a discreet sign on the door, saying "coffee shop." You’d enter and unlocked door and walk down a dark set of stairs decorated with artfully arranged "junk," like an attic (most of this "junque" was for sale). It was a delightful decorating job. Soon you’d arrive in a dim room that opened up into a tiny backyard with a "wishing tree," where people tied their wishes to the branches. The room was furnished with a small number of chairs and tables. Therese didn’t serve food or liquor, but she made good tea and wonderful milkshakes.
At the Little Secret, unlike Elaine’s, you didn’t converse with the other people there–you basically talked with Therese, who went from table to table, holding court. A lot of writers hung out there too and Therese never failed them–she always had stories to tell that would set their imaginations humming. One of my favorites was the time she went to court over a cat. Unbeknownst to her, the stray cat she had adopted was playing the field and had made himself at home in someone else’s home as well, meaning he was eating well and snoozing on the furniture in two places. But then the other family moved away–and they took the cat with them. When Elaine saw the moving van and glimpsed what she had always thought of as her personal pet being bundled into a car inside a cat carrier, she ran over and demanded her cat back and discovered that he had been living a double life. She grabbed the cat and ran back to her house, with the raging family following close behind. They eventually took her to court, to the great amusement of the judge who was involved. I have to confess that I’ve forgotten how the adjudication went. But however the judge decided, you can be certain of one thing: the cat won.
Another story she told was about the time she was walking along the street when she witnessed someone shoplift a valuable item from an antique store. This was before cell phones, so she couldn’t call the police, so she decided to follow the thief, and every chance she got along the way, she would alert passersby by saying, in a low voice "Following thief, call radio car." This was such a strangely-worded sentence that, to her frustration, nobody picked up on it.
Therese is just one of the many wonderfully eccentric old-timers that I remember fondly from our days in New York. There were some great eccentrics in Texas too, but I find the folks in California to be unutterably ordinary. They may do excessive things, but it’s all an act, done in order to get publicity and sell movie or concert tickets–At heart, they’re pedestrian and dull. A TRUE eccentric thinks of himself or herself as perfectly ordinary and can’t figure out why everyone else doesn’t think so too. God bless ’em all–they make life interesting.