I cannot believe it. I get off my bike in the middle of Cornelia Street and stand, staring at the café. It is the height of summer. I am frozen in place.
Crumpled in the doorway, next to the Voilà delivery—croissants, brioches, pains au chocolat—is a sizeable bundle, bigger than MoneyForFood. MoneyForFood is female, middle-aged, annoying, guilt inducing, but harmless. She accosts you on the street at all hours and sleeps in doorways. She has a single refrain, “Money for food,” and a dirty gnarled hand which reaches out from a dark coat. This is another proposition entirely. Large, male, formidable, even from a distance. It’s 7 in the morning, it’s been light for two hours, people pass by, and whoever he is, he’s unmoved, unmoving, quite possibly immovable. And I’m going to have to move him.
I chain my bike to a parking meter across the street.
I cross over and stand in the doorway. There is the anticipated odor of sweat and piss and stale cigarettes, but at this remove it’s not overpowering. I guess there’s always the intoxicating possibility that he may have shit in his pants.
I grit my teeth, take a breath, bend down and tentatively touch his shoulder. He doesn’t move. God, is he dead? I turn away, take another breath, turn back, put my hand out with more determination this time, hold his shoulder, and start to rock it. Slowly, he stirs. He opens his mouth. Saliva, yellowish, dribbles out.
“You do me wrong to take me out of the grave.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“You are a soul in bliss, I know, but I am bound upon a wheel of fire . . .”
“I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to get up. I need to get to the door.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I understand.” His voice is rasping, phlegm filled, hoarse, but his diction is not uncultivated. “I may need a bit of a hand.”
His coat—why is he wearing a coat in the middle of summer?—is dank. His shoes have holes. I can see through gaps in his trousers the grime on his legs. I reach under his elbow and together we move him off his dented sack into a seated position.
“You are very kind, sir. It will take me a moment.”
We wait together.
“Might I prevail upon you for a favor?
“What is it?”
“It would be beneficial, not just to me, but to you and to humanity at large, were I able to wash up.”
“I think we can arrange that.”
“Thank you, kind sir. Now, if you would be so kind again . . .” and he extends a hand, gloved except for the fingers. The fingers are as filthy as the gloves.
I extend my hand, support his arm with my other arm, place my foot against his feet, and using my whole body as a lever, lurch for a moment to a standing position, the two of us clasped in a clumsy embrace, tottering like drunken lovers, until we stumble against the window glass and crumble to the ground.
I use the Voilà bag as a crutch—please God, may the croissants survive all this.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friend . . . ,” he gasps and pushes his weight against me.
This time we make it up and stay standing.
He covers his mouth and apologizes for his rank breath. His eyes are rheumy, several teeth are missing, his beard is knotted, and there are sores on his neck which, I assume, extend all the way down. Lovely.
I have been clutching the keys since locking my bicycle and manage to get the right ones into the right locks in the right order and open the door. I pick up the Voilà bag, tuck it under my arm, and motion him inside. He nudges his sack ahead of him with his feet. What’s in it? A knife? A tuxedo? A revolver? Eau de cologne?
Dear God, please may he have a toothbrush.
I deposit the Voilà bag on the shelf in the window. “Come with me,” I say, and we make our way past the stacked tables and the folded chairs to our tiny delicate bathroom. I open the frosted glass door and he closes it behind him.
Phew! What now? Nothing for it but to plunge in . . .
I start to wash myself obsessively in the utility sink next to the dishwasher. There’s only so much I can do. Hands, arms, face, neck. How many diseases can one man carry?
I fill the cappuccino machine with water, turn on the gas and light it. I slide open the refrigerator display case and unwrap the pâté, the cheeses and the quiche.
I start unloading the chairs from the tables. I set out silverware and paper napkins. I go outside, step over the puddle in the doorway, unfurl the awning, open the hatch, go down the steps and pull out the hose. I start with the doorway and hose the sidewalk down towards the curb.
While I’m at the gutter a voice calls out behind me.
“My good sir, you have excellent soap and towels and toilet tissue. But I wonder whether I might trouble you for some hotter water. The water that comes out of the left hand faucet is tepid at best and methinks it might behoove me in such a company to shave.”
I put the hose back and close the hatch.
There is a spigot on the cappuccino machine for hot water. I fill the tankard that we use to steam the milk and hand it to him. “I hope this will be enough.”
“It must perforce suffice.”
Somehow he has managed at least a partial ablution. His clothes are still caked and rumpled, his hair matted, but the smell has dissipated and his breath does not make me draw back.
“Do you by any chance have a strop?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“A strop. I have an old fashioned barber’s razor and it needs sharpening. If not a strop, a stone will do.”
“I’m afraid I have neither strop nor stone.”
Christ, I’m beginning to talk like him!
He shrugs, takes the tankard, makes a slight inclination of his upper torso, and trundles back to the bathroom.
I take the croissants, brioches and pains au chocolat out of the Voilà bag and put them in the window display case. The more distressed ones I put in the back. I set out a table and two chairs in the doorway. It is 8 o’clock. I am pretty much ready to open. All I need is to go round the corner to Zito’s and pick up bread.
“My lord, methinks I fuckéd up.” He has emerged with his scraggly beard pretty much intact except for splotches of blood and scattered shreds of tissue designed to stanch the bleeding.
“Look,” I say, “I need you do me a favor.”
“Were it in my power, what favor would I not do for you?”
“I need you to sit here on one of these chairs in the doorway and keep the hordes at bay.”
“Will they be ravening, my lord?”
“I have to go round the corner to get bread. The door will be locked but should anyone come by—very unlikely—just say I’ll be right back.”
“I am hardly the most appetizing of maitre d’s, but I will, to the best of my ability, do your bidding.”
“I will feed you when I get back.”
“You are too kind, my lord.”
I lock the door. His kit bag is still inside. He is seated in the doorway facing the street. The scene is hardly an improvement on when I arrived.
I walk to the corner, trying not to look back.
Zito’s is two doors in on Bleecker Street. Their second round of whole wheat loaves has just come out of the brick oven. Six are ready for me in a bag. I sign for them and return to the café.
“All quiet on the Western front,” says my maitre d’. I unlock the door.
“Look, you can stay here. I don’t want you inside. I will make you some breakfast. But then, you will have to go.”
“I’m sorry. We don’t do regular coffee. Cappuccino? Espresso? The only eggs I can do are steamed on the cappuccino machine. They’re actually quite delicious.”
“I’ll take whatever you serve. I have not eaten in a good while.”
I pick up the most battered croissant and stick it in the toaster-oven. Since I need the steamer to make eggs, I can’t make foam, so I draw him a double espresso. I remove the croissant, put it on a plate with a ramekin of butter and a butter knife, put the plate and the espresso on a tray together with a jar of strawberry jam and another one of marmalade and take it outside.
“Here we go.”
“Thank you. Will you not join me?”
“I’ll make you some eggs and then perhaps I’ll join you.”
The eggs can be steamed with or without vermouth. I decide to forego the vermouth. I whisk up three eggs, add a little water, pour the solution into our tankard, turn on the steamer with one hand, and with the other gently move the tankard up and down, watching as the foaming liquid slowly transmogrifies itself into something resembling soufflé. I pour it into a glass bowl, set the bowl on a plate, add a few slices of Zito’s still warm bread and another ramekin of butter. I squeeze some fresh orange juice. Depending on traffic, or lack thereof, we can follow this with quiche, cheeses, pâté, even Hungarian pastries.
Please God, may it not get to Hungarian pastries!
The croissant and the coffee are gone.
“Here we go.”
“This is quite a repast. Thank you, sir. I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.”
“As You Like It?”
“Act II, Scene iv.”
“Funny, I was in As You Like It and I don’t remember that.”
“They sometimes cut that scene.”
“How come you know so much about Shakespeare?”
“Ah, thereby hangs a tale. I prithee, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
“Were you a king?”
“No, no,” he laughs, and motions me to sit down. “And you do not need to sit upon the ground.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
I sit down in the chair opposite him.
He tears off some bread, dips it in the eggs, takes an enormous bite and starts talking. The words come out almost as fast as the food goes in. “I come from the middle of America, as far from the ocean as it is possible to be born. But I always had a hankering for the sea. Even as a child. So I dropped out of high school, long before my time, and hitched my way to California, to the great port city of San Diego. It was just after the war. There were more ships than qualified men to man them. They would take anyone, even a boy, even a high school flunkey like yours truly. They took me on as a deckhand and pretty soon I was an ordinary seaman and then an able seaman and then a wiper and an oiler and an assistant engineer. I was in the Merchant Marine for thirty years. Ships and boats of all kinds—trawlers and tankers and tug boats and occasionally liners and once in a great while an elegant yacht. Excuse my manners, sir, but this is excellent food. And I know whereof I speak—I’ve sailed the seven seas, and I have on occasion dined exceeding well. Actually there are more than seven, if you count the Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea and the Great Lakes which amount to seas, or at least one great sea. No matter, I have spent a great deal of time at sea with little or nothing to do. Even on watch you are just four hours on and then eight off. So I started to read. I read voraciously. I had a great thirst to slake. Maybe it was all that stuff I’d missed in high school. But it’s hard to take too many books aboard. And the stock of a ship’s library tends to the paltry. And then one day in London, a great port city also, by the way, in a secondhand bookstore on the Charing Cross Road, I came across the Collected Works of You Know Who. All those works, all thirty-seven plays plus the sonnets and Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in one volume. How convenient. Amazing! Terribly small print, terribly thin paper. But nevertheless. I’ve carried it with me for more than twenty years. I don’t need to read much else. All you need to know, all you need to remember, all you need to ponder, savor, taste and touch, is in Shakespeare.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Leavis. But, truth to tell, they call me Shakespeare.”
“Leavis? As in F.R.?”
“Yes. Funny, no?”
“My name is Robin.”
“Are you Jewish?’
“I beg your pardon?
“Rubin—that’s a Jewish name.”
“As a matter of fact, I am. But my name is Robin, not Rubin.”
“As in Goodfellow?”
“As in Goodfellow.”
“How does a nice Jewish boy like you acquire the name of a Welsh sprite?”
“Well, Robin Goodfellow, as you surely know, is another name for Puck and there is much speculation as to whether Puck, who long preceded Shakespeare, started out in Wales or Ireland or Scandinavia or amongst the Germans. Pwca, Phouka, Pouka. Puka.”
“I doubt very much that my parents took any of that into account. They were refugees from Hitler, from Berlin—never really a port city, by the way, but a great and unified city then. It was during the war. They were German Jews. They had found refuge in England. They wanted something English. I think the woman in the next bed to my mother suggested Robin. I doubt she took any of that into account either.”
“So, what’s your last name? Not Goodfellow, I presume?”
“You presume correctly. So you are a scholar not just of Shakespeare, but of things Shakespearean?”
“Well, I try to keep up. Music, falconry, warfare, diplomacy, history. Shipfaring, obviously. Excellent eggs, by the way. Almost a soufflé. Holinshed, for example. How true do you think the history plays are to Holinshed?”
“Well, I always thought they bore a certain resemblance.”
“That’s hardly saying much. And how do you think a glover’s son from the sticks in Stratford would know Holinshed?”
“Ah, now we’re going to get into authorship . . .”
“You hit it, baby. All those history plays, all those Italian settings—some of which I know well, by the way—all that court stuff . . . how’s this working class kid from an illiterate family in Boonesville going to know all that?”
“Look, I’m going to get myself something to eat and then you’ll tell me everything you’ve figured out.”
I clear his dishes with what I hope is a companionable flourish, take them to the sink, rinse them, put them in the little dishwasher. I give an involuntary shudder and wash my hands for the fourteenth time. I open the refrigerator display case, cut a slice of pâté, some Morbier, Brie and Jarlsberg, core and slice an apple, and set it all out on one of our large glass plates. This is our top of the line, a three cheese and pâté plate. I cut some slices of Zito’s and put them in a basket with yet another ramekin of butter. I put it all on a tray and bring it out with two forks, two knives, two napkins and two glasses of water.
“Four and twenty blackbirds.”
“Well, not exactly.”
“But certainly a dainty dish to set before a king.”
“So you are a king.”
He wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “You’re a Brit, right? So you know about kings. And their divine right and all that. So what’s all that Wars of the Roses stuff, with Henrys and Richards wrestling for power? And what’s with Richard II and Gaveston? Where does all that homosexual shit come from? What’s so fucking divine about that?”
“Gaveston is Edward II, surely—and that’s Marlowe.”
“Yes, right. But Edward is a dead ringer for Richard. A precursor if you will.” He picks up the Morbier and examines it. “The school that says Marlowe wrote Shakespeare—which is of course horseshit—they bring that up all the time. And Richard’s more subtle and the play more substantial, but still there’s that whole homosexual vibe, even in Richard.”
“Well, I grant you, Richard’s an effeminate king, and Edward has a love that seems quite contemporary, particularly in this neck of the woods. But don’t you go giving the Brits a bad rap. There is such warmth in friendship amongst all kinds of people, high and low, and it’s not all homosexual, surely. What about Romeo and Mercutio? What about Antonio and Bassanio?”
“In the Merchant?”
“Right. When Antonio puts his life on the line for his friend. ‘Had not Bassanio once a love’? Or do you think that’s a homosexual allusion?”
“Well, there you go. It may or may not be a former homosexual relationship.” He has pâté in his beard now and is smearing Brie onto bread with his fingers. “But the point you make is warmth. And you are going to claim the Brits are warm?”
“Yes. I would. I would bring Shakespeare to bear witness.”
“Nice try, kid. Look at it this way, though. Who do you think of when you think of warm? Brits? Scots? Glovers from Stratford?”
“Well, yes, actually I think the English are deeply misunderstood. They are much warmer than chin up, stiff upper lip, and all that would suggest.”
“OK. And Italians? When you think of warm, do you think Brit or do you think Italian? Funny that all four of your guys should have Italian names . . . ” He licks Brie off his fingertips and probes his mustache for pâté.
“Look, don’t push me too hard. Every so often the residual Brit in me is going to come out. And one of those moments is when my first customer arrives. At that point my rigid, cool, well-mannered, proper British upbringing is going to require, ever so politely, that you take your leave.”
“There is nothing I would more willingly take withal.” He spits onto the back of his glove and wipes it on his coat. “Actually that is not true. Not true at all. You have been most kind, most, if I may say so, warm, and I would quite willingly prolong my stay. Excellent cheeses, by the way. What’s the one with the stripe in the middle?”
“It’s called Morbier. The stripe down the middle is ash. It separates the morning milking from the afternoon milking.”
“Interesting. French, I imagine. Maybe that’s what brought on the dysentery at Harfleur. The half achieved Harfleur . . . ”
“Well, we’re not there yet, and it may not happen for a bit, there’s no predicting. But the time will come.”
“Yes, my lord, we are agreed.”
“So, now to Italy.”
“Now, to Padua, to Venice, to Verona. And to your friend, Bassanio. You’re a Jew. . .”
“Well, I’m Jewish.”
“Are you familiar with the history of the Jews in England?”
“Well, I know about the York massacres in 1190 and the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and I know we weren’t allowed back until Cromwell let us in again about four hundred years later.”
“And what about Jews at the court of Queen Elizabeth? Not your Elizabeth, but Shakespeare’s, Raleigh’s, Drake’s.”
“In theory there were no Jews in England at the time of Elizabeth. But I have this vague memory that there was a Jewish doctor?”
“Yes, you are correct. There was a Jewish doctor who came from Portugal. His name was Lopez. He must have been some fucking doctor because he became physician to the Queen. But he was later implicated in a plot to poison her. So he was thrown into the Tower and was eventually hanged. Not just hanged. Hanged, drawn and quartered. The full monty.”
“Do you know what his dying words were?”
“ ‘I love Her Majesty every bit as well as I love Jesus Christ.’ Not bad for a Jew who is about to die.”
“Not bad at all.”
“Now there were other Jews at the court and they were Italian. There was a group of brothers from Venice, who Henry VIII invited over to become court musicians.”
“Technically they were conversos—i.e., converts—but in all probability they maintained their real religion in secret—i.e., coverts. Oh, that’s not bad, I just thought of that. Converts, coverts. The Spaniards called them marranos, pigs, which I guess, in a weird way, made them kosher, at least kosher enough for Henry, who, as we know, was not exactly enamored of the Pope. Maybe he was trying to get back at him. And the chief brother was Baptista. Not bad for a converted Jew, right? And guess what their family name was?”
“I give up.”
“Bassano, like your friend, Bassanio. They came from a small town called Bassano, outside of Venice. Baptista Bassano, now there’s an artificial name, no? Anyhow, as I say, I know Italy pretty well. We used to dock in Venice on a Mediterranean route. Everybody goes to Venice; they go to Verona, Padua, Bologna. But how many people go to Bassano? Nobody. But I did. And guess what? There’s a fresco on the wall of a house there that Iago describes word for word in Othello. How do you like them apples?”
“And Baptista had a daughter, who grew up in the court. And her name was Emilia. And guess what further? She was a poet. And not just any old poet She wrote an epic poem called Salve Deus, Rex Judaeorum: Hail God, King of the Jews. 3000 lines. The only epic poem written by a woman. There’s a guy in England by the name of Rowse, I think . . .”
“A.L. Rowse, the historian?”
“Yeah, that’s him. Anyhow, he has this theory that our daughter, Emilia Bassano, is the real Dark Lady of the Sonnets. People think he’s nuts. But you know what, I’m even more nuts. I think—wait for it—I think she could have written Shakespeare. All that Italian stuff: she’s Italian—check! All that music: her family are musicians—check! All that court stuff: she’s at court—check! And she writes a 3000 line epic poem, as long as your average Shakespeare play—check! And, by the way, moreover, in addition, thereunto, what was the name of Desdemona’s handmaid, wife to Iago?”
“Right. Bingo! Perhaps she got good old Bill to do the rude mechanicals—and maybe Marlowe to do the kings. Anyhow, just a thought. Could I have some more of that excellent striped cheese?”
“Excuse me,” a tentative voice asks from behind me. “Are you open?”
I turn round. There are two ladies with a parasol.
“Oh, my God, yes, of course we’re open. It’s ten o’clock. We open at 8.”
“Do you think we could sit outside?”
“Oh, yes, of course, let me get you a table.”
They look at my companion. I look at him through their eyes. God! He looks at me. I am thinking, “This, my friend, is the moment.” But I don’t need to say it. He shuffles to his feet.
“May I help you with the furniture, my lord?”
“Well, why don’t we just move this table out to the sidewalk?
I grab the two chairs and set them up.
“One moment.” I go inside, get a bar mop, stick two menus under my arm, wipe the table, and set the menus down.
“Here we go.”
Shakespeare has disappeared inside for one last pee (I bloody well hope).
I wrap a couple of Hungarian pastries in a napkin.
He reappears with his kit bag over his shoulder. He has put his gloves back on. They are still filthy, but the fingers are quite clean. He has something in his hand. He extends it.
“I wanted you to see this.”
It’s the red bound Oxford Single Volume Edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the same edition I have had and treasured since my Bar Mitzvah, thin tissue-like paper, interleaved with occasional photographs from famous productions, mostly at the Old Vic—Gielgud as Shylock, Olivier as Henry V, Claire Bloom as Ophelia.
“I know it well,” I say.
“Here, I’d like you to have it.”
I am totally taken aback. “No, no, no. I couldn’t possibly. I have the exact same volume. Mine is almost as tattered and marked up as yours.” I am suddenly overcome.
“Then I will most humbly take my leave, my lord. And this time with gratitude for your kindness, your generosity, your indulgence—and your warmth.”
With that he puts the book in his bag. Then he turns, takes my head in his hands, pulls my face towards him and kisses me hard and full on the mouth.
“I will see you again. I don’t know when. But I shall return. And in a better state than that in which you found me.”
He kisses me again. I feel his beard on my face, his breath in my nostrils, his spittle on my tongue. I can taste an entire cheese and pâté plate. I can also, I think, taste blood.
I extricate myself. “Here, a little something for the road.” I hand him the Hungarian pastries.
He nods, inclines his head, salutes, and turns.
“I wish you calm seas, auspicious gales,” I say, but I can hardly get the words out.
No matter, he is gone.
I touch my mouth and turn to the two ladies.
“Here we go.” I point to the menus. “What can I get you? I’m afraid we don’t do regular coffee, only espresso and cappuccino.”
“Who was that man?” one of them asks.
I look after him. He is rounding the corner onto Bleecker Street. A napkin is fluttering to the sidewalk. He must have stuffed the pastries in his mouth.
“Flights of angels,” I murmur as he disappears.
“Oh, him?” I turn back, “He’s sort of my maitre d’. I just gave him the day off.”
Robin Hirsch is the author of Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinksi (a memoir), MOSAIC: Fragments of a Jewish Life (a performance cycle), and (with the collaboration and interference of his children) FEG: Stupid Poems for Intelligent Children. He is the owner of the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, which he founded with two other artists in 1977 and which the City of New York proclaimed “a culinary as well as a cultural landmark” in 1987. “Shakespeare” is from a memoir-in-progress, The Whole World Passes Through: Stories from the Cornelia Street Cafe.