A fire burns in Barfly’s head… Awake, inspired, and nattily attired… A first drink—of chocolate… Columbians and Southerners in South Africa (or thereabouts)… The St. Regis has a rude secret… Bemelman’s gives way to Bar and Books and bed, eventually…
Monday, February 18
Bluegrass Barfly awoke this morning in a SoHo loft to the clanging of the fire bells. An engine was rushing to quell the inferno raging between his ears! He heard the fire truck rush closer, ever closer—oh, quench this thirst, douse this fire!—but Alas! the siren blared down the street, out of earshot. He’d get no help from the FDNY today. They were preoccupied with protecting Manhattan, not undoing the damage of one too many Manhattans.
I enjoyed a far less rude awakening Monday morning. The field outside Max’s barn was vacant, the wind that rattled the windows the night before had blown its course, the house was silent, sleeping. With the distinct pleasure of being the first to rise, I snuck down two flights of stairs on tiptoe and put a kettle on for tea.
With St. Regis and Bemelman’s on the day’s list, a coat and tie were in order—not absolutely necessary, but important if we were going to do this thing right. Dressed in favorite suit and thrift-shop tie, I creaked open the door to Max’s bedroom and selected an implement to rouse him—field hockey stick or whiffle bat?—and gave him the lightest of taps with the latter. A groan issued from beneath the sheets.
“Morning, Maxie.” Dulcet tones from me; more groans from the Doctor. He leered out from the linens.
“What? Why?” I assumed he was referring to my snazz.
“Just wanted to look sharp,” I said.
He thought for a moment. “Wait until you see my costume,” he said, grinning.
Loaded with leftovers and other provisions for the city, per Ruthie’s insistence, we bid her goodbye and drove down the driveway amid many downed trees, a consequence of Hurricane Sandy. As we grew closer to the city, we picked up WKCR, the Columbia radio station. DJ Phil Schaap was holding forth on Lester Young, “Prez.” “This guy is crazy. He’s a walking encyclopedia on jazz,” Max said, remembering his time at the station himself. “He’s got nothing on the table in front of him. No notes, nothing. Just him and a microphone.”
“That’s amazing.” Phil was still droning on, describing in minute detail the similarities between a guitar fill on a Bing Crosby song, “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” and a sax piece by Prez. It was fascinating, this man’s encyclopedic knowledge and extemporaneous skill.
“We’ve been listening for ten minutes, and he’s played maybe a minute of actual jazz,” Max chuckled. He was right.
Walking into MarieBelle, the SoHo chocolate shop, was like walking into an exquisite gift. I handled the chocolates gingerly, afraid to touch them, much less unwrap and eat one. But when the shopgirl offered a taste of the Aztec hot chocolate, a 65% South American single-origin concoction, I took the cup gratefully, savoring the rich liquor in the tiniest sips I had perhaps ever taken.
Well, after that, I was hooked. I dropped in the café in the back, took a table for one, and 30 minutes to down a small cup of the ambrosial stuff. Carla Bruni was playing on the radio. The kitchen was the size of a closet. In fact, it was a closet. Somehow, I was in Paris and New York at the same time.
That evening I met with Katie Beargie at Kaia, a wine bar with a South African menu and wine. Katie was a Lexington native, a Centre and Columbia grad, and a delightful dinner partner. The menu, in Afrikaans, touted “Botterskorsie en salie toasties,” which we ate, little crostini with diced butternut squash and ricotta cheese, garnished with sage. But it was the “Bunnychow” that really caught my eye, perhaps because I had spied a beautiful flop-eared bunny earlier that day in the window of a boutique clothing shop. There were about three articles of clothing in the shop, and one bunny in the window. So as I had the Bunnychow, a hearty chicken and tomato curry, I remembered Mrs. Cooper, nibbling her straw in the heart of SoHo. Only in New York, I thought.
I had gone into the evening planning to extract some bit of dirt on my boss, Mary Robin, from her Centre days. But Katie, MR’s college roommate, was too sweet to divulge anything of any use. All I learned was how obscenely cheap the rent was on their St. Mildred’s Court apartment, which may date MR, so I’ll keep it to myself.
Kaia was rustic, all planks of wood and chalkboards, exposed brick and Edison bulbs. Turns out “kaia” means “hut” in South Africa. Founder’s Breakfast Stout and Ayinger Celebrator were on the beer menu, beers dark as night to accompany the dimly lit dining room. It reminded me of my own little bar at home, except here the glasses of wine were $17.
I met Max outside the St. Regis hotel, and we walked in to meet Tiff, nattily dressed and strutting like we owned the place. Turns out we were overdressed—that suits were entirely optional on a Monday at the King Cole Bar—and most everyone else was untucked and casual. So we relished the singular pleasure of being the best-dressed patrons in the place as we sipped on our cocktails—Max the “Penny Lane Martini,” with Hendrick’s Gin, Sake, Dry Vermouth and a Cucumber garnish, Tiff the “Jazz Me Blues,” a concoction of Grey Goose Pear Vodka, St. Germain, and Champagne, and I the “New York, New York,” an altered Manhattan with Woodford Reserve, Sweet Vermouth, and Apfel Liqueur.
The cocktails weren’t groundbreaking, just slight riffs on established classics, although they were entirely drinkable and went down altogether smoothly. No surprise that it’s not the style of the St. Regis to be on the cutting edge. Instead, they offer the comfort of a New York of yesteryear, and so walking into the bar is like going back in time. An exorbitant price was the most extraordinary thing about the drinks, although I must give the bartender, Mike, props on pouring with a generous hand.
Before taking our leave, we approached the bar to thank Mike for his service and inquire about the mural’s secret, which Mike gave up instantly—he was tired of the question, I’m sure, which must have been asked innumerable times in his twenty-two years tending bar at the St. Regis. It turned out to be a matter of monarchical indigestion. That is, the Old King Cole had passed gas. Thus his pages and attendant knights are stifling a smirk, or else turning away in disgust. Maxfield Parrish, the artist, had the last laugh of all.
We found ourselves at Bemelman’s after last call, wandered around aimlessly for a minute or two, and decided we couldn’t go home on such an anticlimactic note—that, and we needed another drink. So we wandered down to Lexington Bar and Books, a cigar bar that was warm, sexy, and alive in all the ways that the St. Regis was not. Here patrons, their eyes briefly gleaming in the flare of matches furnished by our helpful attendant, leaned over the tables to whisper in each other’s ears. Wreathed in smoke, we sank into the seat leather, happy to find ourselves among folks that felt like co-conspirators, at a place that felt like home. We ordered a first drink, and a second, and then, giddy and exhausted, we stepped out onto the sidewalk and hailed a cab to whisk us off to dreamland.