Photo taken by a waiter at Sevilla.
By Barbara Thau
I dreamed that I was on the Second Avenue bus headed downtown to meet my 86-year-old father for dinner.
At least I was trying to get on the bus. It was evening. It was dreary and frantic. My dream-self knew that I was living amid the coronavirus. I had to get to him, but I could not get on that elbow-to-elbow crowded bus that was coming my way. I might catch the virus, and I could endanger him; he is in a high-risk group now.
We were going to eat dinner together in a restaurant—or so I thought. This is what we have done since my 1970s childhood. But it was in the mid ‘70s that our restaurant meals became a centerpiece, or the centerpiece, of our lives together after my parents split up.
1976: pork chops at El Charro. The waiter would address me like I was a miniature lady: “What can I get for you, señora?” My father would order flan for our dessert, and surreptitiously slip me his so that I ate two. I remember a dinner, or maybe it was a few dinners, where his friend Nick the judge joined us, along with Nick’s ex-wife Carmen and her then-new husband. (They’ve since divorced.) I remember finding it rather remarkable that the ex-spouses with the new husband and my father could all laugh together, and I remember feeling like that was a nice thing.
1977: memories of the meals are fuzzy now, but those of the singer are not. We shared many dinners taking in Alberta Hunter and her pianist, peering over the wrought-iron fence to watch them perform at the Cookery on University Place. In her 80s at the time, the jazz singer from the‘20s, ‘30s and‘40s with a signature bun atop her head was enjoying a ‘70s comeback at the restaurant/piano bar. I didn’t know as a fifth grader at the time, but that stretch on University Place in the Village had been a destination for jazz. Around 1977-ish, the area, it seems, had passed the prime of its jazz vibrancy, but it was still sort-of cooking, with the Knickerbocker still doing its piano-bar thing a block north.
1978-ish: Sometimes we’d head north to East 57th Street to browse at Hammacher Schlemmer, the store that sold expensive upscale “gadgety type stuff,” my father would say. He loved and still loves gadgets. Then, after he took a swing in the store’s hammock, “These are wonderful. I can fall asleep here,” we’d head next door and enter the world of the Magic Pan.
The Magic Pan felt like New Orleans, but I didn’t have the language to describe it then. I remember the menus, with their delicate, inviting script that seemed to warmly share the goodies with you. My regular dishes were savory shrimp crepes with some kind of slightly creamy orange-tinged sauce, and vanilla ice-cream crepes with chocolate syrup for dessert. We’d take the downtown Second Avenue bus back home after dinner. The same bus I was waiting for in my dream.
My dream-self starts to regret not getting on that crowded bus but, then, suddenly I’m downtown somehow. I spot my father. He is waiting for his wife Mary, a recently retired lawyer who, in the dream, is now working in a shoe store. I see my father, but I know that I must not get near him because of COVID-19. He gestures to me and says, “Baba, pick up a pair of shoes you like, pick something,” as is his way. I eye a grey pair, but I don’t care about shoes right now. I just want us to get out of there so that we can have dinner.
We are outside the store now, standing several feet apart. My father tells me that they will be eating at home. We will have dinner another time, he says, as I shrink away.
As New York City gingerly reopens, Manhattan’s streets feel less empty at night now. Restaurants that were closed for months return, though diminished. Owners idle by makeshift curbside pickup and outdoor seating areas, a look of wistful desperation still in their eyes. Over their shoulders, a ghostly glimpse of what was. Indeed, it’s the stillness of the darkened dining rooms lurking behind them—once perpetually alive with the clatter of dishes, hustle of waiters, buzz of conversations and animated faces—that is nightmarish to me.
1980: shrimp with green sauce at Sevilla. 2020: shrimp and green sauce at Sevilla again. We were at that wonderful time capsule of a restaurant in the West Village a few months ago, where West 4th and West 12th Street cross. My father has pointed out the unusualness of how those two streets intersect ever since I was a little girl. My great hope is to go to Sevilla with my father again. My great hope is to go to any restaurant with my father again.
Barbara Thau is a New York City-based business editor and a native New Yorker from the Lower East Side.