By Steven Monroe Smith
Long before I heard the term “West Village,” I was hired as the chef of a restaurant at West 12th and Washington Streets in Manhattan. “We really don’t need a chef,” said the interviewing partner, “but, you’re from Texas and you have experience in high volume. That’s key.”
Approaching the 30th anniversary of that first day at a faux Tex-Mex dive in the Greenwich Village industrial butcher zone, I have come to the decision that my fully plumbed psychological issues are not so much oedipal, but odyssian. I’ve spent thirty years returning home on an island that shifts beneath my feet.
My first-day tasks were seemingly pedestrian enough: After instruction in how to leave a $50 bill under a coffee cup for a New York City health inspector, I was given a check and a thick envelope of cash to dis-tribute on rough streets and an appointment to meet another partner for a final once over.
The check was for restaurant rent, which I took to a Chinese takeout place on Bleecker between 10th Street and Christopher. Speaking no Mandarin, I pointed and gestured. I was directed to a door behind the Plexiglass, through the kitchen, beyond the dishwasher and bike parts. Mrs. Anna Gottlieb, attired in a housedress, who held the envelope like an overripe squid, opened the door. She said she would give it to “my son, Bill.” I understood instantly she expected cash and she did not feign approval. The cash went to a local butcher. He said I was a fine man and could bring him cash anytime.
The last task was to meet the partner, having proved I could handle direction, moral complication, and money. I was to meet him at a bar named after an animal. That’s how I ended up at the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street while he waited for me at the White Horse on Houston Street. The deliberate misconnection, which was part of the odyssian task, was discovered in the proper neighborhood way. The bar-tenders of the respective establishments repaired the situation on their identical rotorless phones that I learned later were extensions of the payphones.
The texture of that first summer is still palpable today—the rich golden light of the sun setting across the Hudson un-der the rail trestle at 12th Street cutting through the incongruous hickory haze oozing from the ancient brick building wherein pork necks were being smoked. There were still luncheonettes operating under “workman’s variance” rules in the butcher zone. When we were done serving our clientele of coked-up Wall Streeters and bohemian WestBeth’ers at 4 a.m., we could go directly to Frank’s on 14th where the dinner rush was just beginning. Barolo, Sweetbreads, Steak, Spinach, Scotch one night. Cassolet and ridiculously good Burgundy at Florent the next. More often than not, that was followed by a 7 a.m. night cap at McCarthy’s or the Corner Bistro which seemingly obeyed no law.