Bar Land got a little darker last night, in fact a whole lot darker, as one of its brightest stars no longer shined. Elaine Kaufman, the last great New York saloon keeper and owner of the famous restaurant which bears her name, died yesterday afternoon at the age of eighty one. And when I say “the last great saloon keeper”, I mean just that, dear reader…. there was Elaine, Toots Shor, and then all the rest. For you don’t get named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which she was in 2004, unless you’re something special in the great Big Apple. Rest in peace, Elaine.
I wasn’t what you’d call a close friend of Elaine’s, just merely a week-end customer, but you’d never know it by the way she always greeted me. She was always a wave when I walked in the door and a smile to back up the gesture, when we spoke she was always warm and polite in discussing how our nights had gone, and the last time we actually did have a chat (ironically now that I think of it), she joined me at the bar and bought me a drink for my birthday. A real honor, believe me. And I only bring that last thing up not to act like a big shot, but to make the larger point which rarely gets made. See everyone talks about her celebrity clientele and believe me this woman had one, from the lions of literature to sports, TV and the movies, but what rarely gets mentioned is how she treated John Doe. Guys like me. Because if you showed up on any kind of regular basis (even if just on week-ends), you were treated with the same respect as the “rich and famous”. You were definitely part of the fold, both valued and welcome.
And of course on the flip side of that coin, and the part which I really love, you were treated with equal disdain if you stepped out of line. There were more than a few celebrities over the years sent packing for bad behavior, only to return with humility and hat in hand. This woman was amazing. Every night she held court and her subjects came. But I won’t go on about all of that stuff as the papers and Internet are flooded with it (just Google her name and see), from far better writers than me and much closer friends. What I do want to share is what happened last night when I went there. It was some kind of magic!
After I got off work, at 2:45 to be exact, I made it to Elaine’s to pay my respects to the staff. A staff I’m told who will thankfully keep the place going. The bar was still packed, which Elaine would’ve loved, and the impromptu wake it appeared hadn’t lost any steam. People were sharing their stories from wall to wall. And loudly! So after three or four drinks and joining the fray and making all the connections I’d come there to make, I paid my final respects and called for my check. I paid my bill, shook hands with the staff and bid some friends good luck as I made my exit. But then one giant pain in the ass happened after I left.
When I got I front of my building, which is almost right across the street, I reached in my pocket and found that my keys were gone. Totally lost, Dude!!! So when I say “pain in the ass” that might be an understatement. It not only meant me calling a locksmith who would probably charge me and arm and a leg for his services, but at that ungodly hour, he’d probably make me wait on my doorstep til dawn. Things couldn’t have been worse.
So I quickly walked back to Elaine’s to see if anyone knew who to call, and on my way I was stopped by a hapless street guy. Probably homeless. Not now, I thought, not now, my friend, can’t you see I’m losing my fucking mind here! Can’t you see I don’t have time for this stuff? So I brushed right by him. And he definitely saw that I didn’t have time because I kept going through my pockets, cursing at the utter futility of it all and the keys that wouldn’t reappear, which caused him to say these caring words in my wake. “Wow, man, I’m sorry for your troubles, it looks like you really lost something important. ”
“Yeah,” I said, “I did,” as I kept on walking.
“Well I really hope you find it,” he said, “I really hope you do,” which caused me stop. For this wasn’t your typical street guy jive I can usually spot in a nano, something in the guy’s tone said he really cared. It was actually quite weird. So in spite of what was going on, in spite of my crazed frame of mind at the time, I gave him a five dollar bill and continued my quest. I walked back into Elaine’s, Alex the bartender gave me a number, I walked back out on the street to make the call. The bar was simply too loud to hear yourself think, let alone make a rescue call. But just as I started to punch in the number (and this really blew my mind), here comes this street guy again to stop the proceedings. Like an angel in the night.
“Was what you lost something shiny?” he asked with a smile.
“Yeah,” I said, “I lost a set of keys.”
“Well I got ’em right here,” he said, “I found ’em in the street.” The man was beaming.
“You’re kidding!” I shouted like a guy who’d been thrown a life raft.
“No, Sir, I’m not. I saw something shiny right over there, right in the middle of the street, and this is what it was… a set of keys!”
Now when I tell you the odds of this happening are off the charts, I mean off the charts! For first off, if this man hadn’t been in front of Elaine’s doing his panhandle thing (this angel in the night!), I never would’ve found my keys so let’s start with that! And secondly, I’d crossed the street on a diagonal having gone to the deli first, so the spot where he found my keys wasn’t near Elaine’s entrance. Where the man hung out. It was at least fifty feet away in the middle of the road. Where cars were flying by for crying out loud! And finally, how in the hell did I lose these keys in the first place? I didn’t have a hole in my pocket, I hadn’t reached into that pocket where I could’ve dislodged them, so how did they leave my person and hit the asphalt? I still can’t figure it. But they did, the guy was there, calamity averted!
Well needless to say I thanked this guy, profusely might best describe it, I gave him more money for his deed, then walked back into Elaine’s to share my good fortune. And when I saw the reaction on the faces of the staff after telling them what had just happened… jaws dropping one by one, and to a man… I knew even more this occurrence was indeed something special. Which is why I’m writing about it. But even more important (and call me nuts if you want to), I choose to think something even stranger was afoot. And that was this. If certain spirits hang around before finally leaving this plane, as some people believe, who more likely to hang around than Elaine? Especially on this night. This night when her place was alive with all of that tribute. This bar was her life, no? For Forty. Seven. Years!!! So wouldn’t you think she’d hang around for “last call”?
And if perhaps that was the case, if perhaps she was still hanging around for one last grand hurrah, maybe she was still pulling the strings as she always had in life, and this was her way of still taking care of her customers. Yes, maybe she made those keys sparkle, maybe she summoned that street guy, maybe she was the one who had thrown me that life raft. Alex had told me earlier in the day that Elaine was very fond of me, “You’re part of a select group,” he had said, so maybe this was her way of proving that point. Yes why not go for the extraordinary here, she was certainly extraordinary in life. Why not give her the nod on the night of her death? Stranger things have happened, ya’ just never know.
So again, rest in peace, Elaine, thanks for finding my keys, and please enjoy your table in the great beyond. (If you ever leave this one!)
And while I’m paying this tribute, all the best to Alex, Duffy, Gianni and Frank, and all the staff at Elaine’s, for always making me feel the warmth of a “Welcome”. And long may the doors remain open and the legend live.
Over and out from my little corner of Bar Land. See ya’ next week-end!