Café Figaro, a coffee shop on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker was a single, crowded room, wallpapered with yellowed-with-age copies of Le Figaro, a popular French newspaper, and dominated by a huge espresso machine at the back of the room. It was always crowded, noisy, and smoky. Its owners were Tom and Royce Ziegler, a young couple, who had moved the establishment from further west on Bleecker Street. What made Figaro’s really special was Royce, who was beautiful, hard-working (she managed the place), a bit of an air-head, and overall one of the most delightful women I’ve ever met. On the left side of the room, there hung a life-sized painting of a standing Royce in a blue dress done by a young artist named Peter Heineman, who was a Figaro customer. It was a lovely painting, and I wish I knew what had happened to it.
Royce and I had spoken many times, and I often bemoaned my fate at being stuck up on 51 Street and the lousy tips I was making there. One evening as I was making my usual stop in the Figaro to play a game of chess, Royce asked me if I wanted to be a “waitress” in her establishment. As the rest of the staff was women, except for the operator of the espresso machine, I understood what she meant, and immediately accepted. I worked at the Figaro for almost four years, while attending Brooklyn College, and it was an experience never to be forgotten, as it wasn’t just a job, but an induction into a community, one it was difficult not to love.
The people of Figaro, its owners, its staff and its customers were a fascinating lot. There was an “inside” group that generally sat at a large, round, wooden table at the back of the room, near the espresso machine. This group was made up of “regulars” who were there just about every day, some of them slated to become famous, and off-duty staff and managers, some of whom had rejected lucrative careers in business, and there was me, a part-time waiter and college student. Almost everyone there was older than I was, and so I most often listened in respectful silence. Some were writers, some musicians, and they talked of Broadway productions, their own work, their hopes and aspirations, their loves, and just general gossip. To me, it was the people themselves and their stories that were interesting.
Among the more interesting ones was the story of the establishment of Figaro. It seems that originally it had been a much smaller coffee shop across the street, in what had been earlier a drug store, and before that a funeral parlor. Funeral parlors seemed popular in this old, Italian neighborhood at the time. Royce and her fiancé (who was not Tom) ran this smaller version of Figaro, and their little business prospered. When Royce inherited some money, the time seemed ripe to expand and get married. Royce’s fiancé designed the new Figaro (which in its insistence on “old” and French was startlingly innovative at the time), which was to be established at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal. However, on their wedding day there was a hitch. Royce eloped with the best man, Tom Ziegler. Not only did Tom get the girl, but he also got the Figaro once it was finished.