Sunday, July 23, 2006

Pershing Square

Walking along 42nd street, looking for some place to land around Grand Central Station. Discouraged by the cold store fronts of fast food chains designed to force you through their calorie-ridden food fare at a break-neck pace. Tired. Feeling the sultry air of a city summer morning. Sunday. Lazy and lax.

There under the viaduct of Park Avenue, tucked away like a pre-war mirage, Pershing Square beckoned, calling me like a black and white movie, full of intrigue and mystery.

I crossed the street, somewhat wary. Pershing Square seemed both out-of-place and strangely familiar. I had the eerie feeling that if I walked through the door, I would enter the world of Bogart and Bergman. I half expected that Peter Lorre would greet me with his fiendish smile and hand me a menu as he escorts me to an out of the way table surrounded by characters from Casablanca. Lorre leans over to me, shielding his face with the menu, and whispers that he can get me out of here to a safe place, for a price.

I push through the fantasy and enter Pershing Square. It is a large space, the front inhabited by cane-backed chairs and tables set for a continental-style breakfast. Looking past this vesitbule, I find a huge restaurant with a sumptious bar to the right. Somehow I have tumbled into a wonderland of the forties. It is quiet, as though waiting for something, for someone. For me, maybe. Mostly empty. A few people give me the once over as I am taken to a prominent table across from the bar.

Almost mysteriously, coffee is poured and water placed to the side, setting the stage for the waiter, an Eastern European from Hungary or Romania, looking like a young Peter Lorre. He regards me suspiciously, asking me if I am ready to order. I order eggs over easy with sausage. He takes the menu from me and asks "you mean instead of bacon?" I nod. "That's right, sausages." He gives a look of approval as though I had successfully said the right code word and disappears.

I pour the cream into the coffee and slowly stir as I look around the dining room. It has a confortable feeling, in spite of its size, and although there about twenty-five people, the restaurant seems strikingly empty. There is a man at the bar, watching some soccer game, some world "football" fare, while the bartender moves about his business. Both men appear to glance over at me, noting my presence while pretending to ignore me.

More quickly than I had expected, the food arrives, the waiter whisking the plate from behind me to the table in an almost frantic gesture while he half whispers urgently, "...careful...the plate is very hot!" He gives a glance and disappears.

I try to understand the meaning of this and begin to carve up the sausages. The plate IS very hot, and I figure this is a common practice of the restaurant to ensure that the food arrives at the table piping hot. The breakfast is excellent, laid out as extravagant fare, a separate dish of strawberry jam and a slab of butter, and an endless supply of coffee.

Suddenly I am struck by the intense silence of the room, punctuated by murmurs and laughter from several tables. No background music!

I look around. I am disappointed that there is no piano near the bar. It is too quiet. Pershing Square is the epitome of another time, a time gone by, and I want to lean over and whisper to the piano player, "Play it again, Sam, for old time's sake, play it again."

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