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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Not So Nuts

Working in Coffeehouses, West Village Branch: HE WAS A BARBER for forty years. It was the family business. But in 1927, Dominic Parisi spent his last and only $1,000 on an espresso machine that already was a quarter-century old. Imported from Italy, it became the gleaming centerpiece of the coffeehouse he opened on MacDougal Street in the heart of Greenwich Village.

Lily Whiteman at Caffe Reggio
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Caffe Reggio is still going strong, and they still pull espressos from the old machine, although the tiny service counter has its share of more modern equipment as well, hidden among the pastry displays and ice cream freezer.

Parisi didn’t serve food in those early days, and customers didn’t seem to care, but today there’s a menu of sandwiches and desserts. Souvenir sugar bowls and teapots, tee shirts and caps also are offered for sale. Cash only, though.

Although Café Wha’ still stands at the corner of MacDougal and Minetta, not much else remains to remind you of the area’s prominence during the great Folk Music Scare of the 1960s, never mind the days of the Provincetown Playhouse. Today that stretch of MacDougal is littered with comedy clubs and Italian restaurants, with a busy bar or pizza place here and there.

Even on a Monday night in August, when most of the natives have fled, the street is busy. People stand in sidewalk groups, dressed for business, dressed to party, dressed as an afterthought. People throng the outdoor tables, busy with meals, oblivious to the sidewalk. Loud puffs of music issue from the storefronts and cellars. 

And then you ease into Caffe Reggio and the mood completely changes. Italian Renaissance artwork colors the walls. Classical music plays in the air. Youthful servers who’ve seen and heard it all hustle refills to the busy artists at work with computers or the far more appropriate sketchpads or journals. Sure, some can’t keep their fingers off their cellphones, but those people sense their own misfittedness and soon slink away.

The coffee is dark and rich and refuses to lighten even with a generous application of milk. A plate of mini-biscotti takes an edge off the sweet tooth. You come here to write; you sit there and listen, marveling at the varied conversational rituals of friendship as the tables around you fill.

“You’re eavesdropping again,” says my daughter, sitting across from me at a tiny, marble-topped table. I’ve let my end of the conversation flag, which is fine with her. There’s WiFi; she has her computer. I’m once again staring at the pastries. The crowd at the counter clears to reveal a woman seeking a table. “Sit anywhere,” the server says, and the woman repeats the instruction.

She looks middle-aged, but her appearance is complicated by a slightly off-kilter look around the eyes as if some thoughts aren’t settling too well. She chooses a chair at a table beside ours, putting her in a little nook that would be a great spot for a newly romancing couple.

“A cappuccino,” she says, as if answering a question. “They put cinnamon on it. And a prosciutto – prosciutto! – prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich. Mozzarella.”

She holds no phone. I assume there’s a bluetooth device involved. A person at the other end who was supposed to be here by now, perhaps, or a worried parent demanding constant status reports.

“Mozzarella!” she says again. “I’m going to have a sandwich. They do nice sandwiches here.”

There is no bluetooth device. It’s a stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered at a normal conversational level, but addressed not to an imaginary companion – shades of “Rear Window”’s Miss Lonelyhearts! – but to tabletop and wall.

“After a day like this, a cappuccino . . . ” But the other tables are filling and her monologue grows indistinct. When the server stops to take the order, the woman describes her desires in a most unremarkable way. When the server departs, the monologue takes over.

But where once the woman might have seemed an out-and-out nutcase, she’s saved from such judgment by modern technology. Only I am close enough to have determined that no cell phone is involved. She acts and sounds like any other café-sat New Yorker on a cell phone. In other words, perfectly 21st-century normal.

“Can I get this wrapped?” she asks the server, and the remaining half-sandwich is taken away. “Do you still sell tee shirts?” she asks when the packaged sandwich comes back. She buys a tee shirt, bundles her cargo under one arm, shoulders a large handbag, and returns to the night.

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