The true end of an era!

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!

20 Responses to “The true end of an era!”

  1. 1 physiobabe December 5, 2010 at 10:02 am

    That is so sweet, il mio amore. Yes, Elaine’s rocked!

  2. 2 Anonymoustache December 5, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Good begets good…..just karma, dude!
    Great anecdote, and sorry for your loss, man. Sounds like Elaine was a really great soul…

  3. 3 scribbler50 December 5, 2010 at 10:26 am

    physiobabe: Hopefully it still will rock but it definitely won’t be the same, not by a long shot.
    Thanks, bella mia.

    Anonymoustache: Funny you say that about karma because I swear to God that’s exactly what I said when I grabbed the keys, “Instant karma!” And then the kept guy kept repeating when I walked away. “Instant karma, man, instant karma!” Amazing!

    (Enjoy the Steelers / Raven tilt tonight, Bro.)

  4. 4 Ken December 5, 2010 at 10:54 am


    Great story. Elaine knew the secret of running a great bar: all regulars may not be equal, but all are equally welcome and equally treated; and bad behavior is not tolerated. These are simple concepts, but unfortunately, not all saloon keepers know it.

    Glad you found your keys. Nothing worse than being locked out of your own place.

  5. 5 jc December 5, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Elaine has helpers like Santa has helpers!
    RIP Elaine, and sorry for your loss Scrib, but you gained a friend.

  6. 6 scribbler50 December 5, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Ken: Well said, sounds like you know the place. And I don’t even want to think about the all night scenario I luckily avoided.

    jc: I like that thought, Elaine’s little helpers. Especially at this time of year.

  7. 7 serendipity37 December 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    That was a great tribute to your friend Elaine.I doubt that any news writer has done a better job of it. You were writing from the heart and they may have been writing because it was an assignment. Very interesting, the way your keys were returned. Something was definetly going on there.

  8. 8 Comrade PhysioProf December 5, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    It’s great to hear that someone of the stature of Elaine treated everyone with respect and dignity, and not just the celebrities whose opinion of her could influence her own interests. My experience has been that you learn a lot more about someone by how they treat the most humble seemingly irrelevant people than by how they treat the important.

  9. 9 Petro December 5, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Well, this reminds me of a situation where a man thanks God for sparing his life after getting hit by a bus/train/whatever. One wonders if a caring God would’ve let him get hit in the first place.

    Just teasing, of course. If you hadn’t lost the keys, you would’ve missed out on a very nice human experience (and some temporary trauma.)

    Can’t see how that tracks for my accident victim, except for the trauma, but then again maybe he meets a really nice nurse…

    Anyway, it’s nice to know you’re out there, and that you tease such fine acts out of others as well.

  10. 10 scribbler50 December 5, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    serendipity: Thanks for your kind words (especially since I let you down last week!) and yes, whatever the source of the keys business, something was definitely going on.

    Comrade Physioprof: You nailed it, Bro, how one treats ALL comers is the measure of a person.

    Petro: Thanks for your unique take, as always, now where the hell’s my nurse???!!!

  11. 11 David/Abel December 5, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    What a beautiful way to remember Elaine. In these days of everyone and their grandmother writing books and declaring themselves marketing gurus, it’s great to be reminded of an example who treated regular folks as valued and dished out grief to celebs who screwed up. I’m so sorry that I never met her.

    Thank you for writing this. And as for your turn of fortune with your keys, I also think that we reap what we sow. You’re a good man, scrib, as usual!

  12. 12 Belvoir December 5, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Great, great story and heartfelt tribute. A great read.

    I lived almost across the street too for a few years, on 89th.
    I was always too intimidated to step into Elaine’s for a drink, because her famous clientele and fierce rep scared me from setting foot in there. Didn’t think non-celebrities were welcome. Wish I had, now, in a way. Not that she’d take a liking to me or something just..she scared me off! Or,her reputation did.

    Best appreciation of Elaine I’ve read, Scribbler. As said, all the stories are about her famous customers. Your post here really humanized her for me, her NYC sense of democracy, old-school. be good or begone. Love that.

  13. 13 scribbler50 December 6, 2010 at 12:02 am

    David / Abel: Welcome back, old friend, it’s been a while. Yeah, Elaine treated people like people, not name opportunities. It’s just that a hell of a lot of her people happened to be celebrities.
    And thanks for your closing remark, David, I appreciate it.
    All the best.

    Belvoir: I know what you mean, I avoided the place too for the longest time. And for the same reasons. But I checked it out a couple years ago and boy was I wrong. My only regret is I didn’t check it out sooner. It’s just a bar with, as you put it, an owner who had a “NYC sense of democracy”.

  14. 14 Courtney December 6, 2010 at 11:12 am

    What a great post! I know of Elaine’s only from books and writers and the movies and I’ve always wanted to go there although didn’t get ever get the chance. I absolutely love this personal story and am so glad you shared it with us!

  15. 15 scribbler50 December 6, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Courtney: Thank you so much, you missed a slice of New York that will never be again. I’m just glad I was able to take you there though this post. Cheers!

    PS: (How ’bout those Steelers last night!!!)

  16. 16 Irishirritant December 6, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Grand Slice-O-Life…love a good wake, then add good fortune/karma
    Thanks Again.

  17. 17 scribbler50 December 6, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    You’re welcome, Irish, thanks for stopping by.

  18. 18 d-a-p December 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    ….an amazing story,which brought a tear to my eye,having only heard about this exceptional lady,now i feel like i almost knew her…i’m so glad you got to know her for all of us…..
    a very touching tribute….

  19. 19 scribbler50 December 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    d-a-p: Like I said, I wasn’t a close friend but I “got to know her” as you put it, and my weekly visits grew to a kind of friendship. New York has many legends but few like this, this was out of the pages of Damon Runyon.
    Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  20. 20 mvpalex December 21, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Well done pal, she will be missed by many…

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