Each evening before going home from work at Schrafft’s I’d make a stop, or several stops, on Macdougal Street, which at the time was the heart of Greenwich Village. Yes, very few people, except for the local Italians, actually lived there, but it was a business center of sorts made up of one or two blocks with three bars (San Remo for gay men, Minetta Tavern for the locals, and the Kettle of Fish, a hangout for furniture movers) and three coffee shops (Café Reggio, Café Rienzi, and Café Figaro) and one other that came a bit later, the Café Caricature. Slightly further north there was also the Provincetown Playhouse. That was it, except for several lesbian bars on Carmine Street, and the Amato Opera Company on Bleecker Street, where grand opera was sung to the accompaniment of a single piano. I saw my first opera and my first performance of La Traviata there. And way over on the West Side was the White Horse Tavern. Naturally, some of these places were more interesting to me than others.
The bars held absolutely no charm. I had stopped drinking while still in Panama, the result of having gotten really sick drunk on Scotch whiskey. After that I couldn’t even smell Scotch without bringing back the miserable experience. The coffee shops were a different story.
At first there was just the Café Reggio. A series of photographs of the Reggio and an accompanying story by Life Magazine (possibly it was Look) about the Bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village had suddenly propelled it to national prominence, and started the boom that was instrumental in creating the modern Village as a tourist destination. While some were already attracted to the Village, the flood was still to come. By the time I returned to Macdougal Street, after military service, there were already four coffee shops on the street, the most popular of which were the Rienzi and Figaro.
The smallest of the coffee shops was the Café Caricature, whose door was decorated with a large caricature of the American poet, pulp-novelist (Naked on Roller Skates and other works) and literary wild man, Maxwell Bodenheim, who had been murdered in 1954. The place was tiny and was frequented by players of the Japanese game of Go. It was also frequented by folk musicians such as Dave Van Ronk and the young Bob Dylan and many others. As I was neither a musician nor a Go player, I didn’t visit the place often, unless I was with some of my more musical friends.
Café Rienzi was popular for a variety of reasons. Its background music was Italian opera. Besides espresso, cappuccino, and café-au-lait, it also offered delicious Italian pastries, small, marble-topped tables, ornate metal chairs, and a very smoky and cozy atmosphere. For me, the mix of pastries, coffee and smoke was irresistible, bringing back memories of my father’s coffee shop in Brussels . People sat, drank coffee, talked, read newspapers provided by management on wooden sticks, played chess or strummed guitars. Late in the evening, an old man named Maurice, who had a long, disheveled beard and looked a bit like Walt Whitman showed up and went from table to table selling literary and foreign magazines unavailable anywhere else. And it was a wonderful place to play chess, until the management no longer allowed chess because its players monopolized tables for too long, and after all, business was business. Which now brings me to Café Figaro.