The Village was changing again…and not for the better. I had walked all the way from Penn Station, it was bright and just starting to get warm now, gone was the cold winter wind that keeps me indoors much of the winter. This is always a special day for me-my first Village walk of 2008, so you can imagine the look of disbelief on my face when I find myself standing holding on to a cyclone fence that surrounds Washington Square Park and finding it a war zone. The Arch for me is ground zero for all things that I’ve come to associate with the Village and it’s Bohemian occupants, the place where it’s beating heart starts and stops. Where on a cold night in December in 1917, the artist Marcel Duchamp along with John Sloan and a couple of female art student friends, made their way to the top of the arch. After sharing wine and cheese while sitting under blankets, with their girlfriends help, they decorate the Arch with balloons (and after waiting for the beat cop to pass) were said to have shot off cap pistols and loudly declared that Greenwich Village was a free and independent state-and then stumbled off drunkenly into the night!
So with a heavy heart after seeing the plans for the reconstruction that wouldn’t be finished until 2009 (which is only phase 1) I walked off to find the one place where I could find peace, Cafe Reggio. Since it opened it’s doors in 1927 the Cafe Reggio has become a Village landmark and is the oldest Cafe still in operation in New York City, scenes from Godfather II were shot here, JFK gave a speech outside its doors once and it has been the scene of numerous gatherings of artists, writers, musicians and poets. Located on MacDougal Street it is where I sit now and enjoy a croissant with confiture (that’s jam-really good jam) and a Latte with orange juice on the side, strangely this is the only thing I ever eat here because I arrive early enough to still want a typical French breakfast and usually I’m on the other side of Manhattan by dinnertime.
I sit and ponder other bad news I picked up along the way, the Union Square Market is going to be made smaller to allow for an eatery to be built and a proposal to demolish the Provincetown Playhouse so that NYU can use the landmark space for some unknown purpose. It’s unbelievable, are they serious? This is where Eugene O’Neil put American theater on the world map as a force to be respected and admired, and now they want to tear it down!
It seemed to me like all the good things were under attack in one way or another. Progress I’d guess you’d call it, but to me it meant I wouldn’t be listening to any street musicians play on a summer evening with the Arch in the background. I wondered where those who found value in that sort of free entertainment would find it now…. A man is painting the decorative iron railings that go up the front of 130/132 MacDougal St, he’s using a long stick roller to get the highest spots even on a ladder, a pretty girl with long dark brown hair in a red shirt-dress and sunglasses walks past- her hair matches the color the painter is using exactly. There is some harmonic balance to the universe, I guess as a painter I feel colors more than others.
But as I sit and enjoy my coffee I also feel a little like an outsider, a permanent tourist here. Someone from the bucolic suburbs who doesn’t fit in. The young men nearby with their rolled up pant legs, calf tatoo’s and Croc wearing sock-less feet make me feel like an aging hipster wannabee. They sit sipping their iced coffee, with unshaven faces and finger styled hair, deep set eyes staring intently from behind dark glasses at cell phones text messaging God only knows… A tour guide leads a bunch of tourists down the sunny tree lined street, they cross W. 3rd St and disappear from view. The painter stretches to reach spots he missed while buses roar by and he goes on-oblivious to the noise, while delivery trucks disturb the peace making drops of fresh vegetables to the busy restaurant lined street, the crates practically thrown to waiting hands which take them below to be processed to feed the hungry mobs who stop and purchase pita pockets, tourists, families, foreigners speaking various languages, college kids who walk by carefully peeling back the foil wrap to eat their hand held lunch, a continual procession of sound and color, snips of conversation heard briefly as people walk by only to be replaced moments later by another and another.
It is all so rich and savory to me to be here despite my momentary discomfort from before, the beautiful girls, cool hipster dudes, an occasional friendly dog sniffs at your feet, I sip the last of my coffee and ask for my check. The painters ladder falls… but he doesn’t. He struggles to get it right again pulling out his shirt tails in the process and I decide to move on, I need to make the most of this day here. I might not be back for a while….I pay my check and gather myself up and start walking down the tree lined street.