By Robin Hirsch

I’m losing my oldest child. Cornelia. She’s 41. She’s unlikely to make it to 42. I have two children by my present marriage. 30 and 27. Cornelia is from an earlier relationship. She really had three parents.

In 1977 three of us, all artists, stumbled across a dilapidated storefront on a tiny one-block street in Greenwich Village and thought it the perfect place to open a café. After two months of sanding, plastering, painting, plumbing, and doing the intricate dance one does with the authorities who live beyond the Village, mirabile dictu, we opened the doors—toaster oven, espresso machine, refrigerator display case, tiny bar, six stools, 12 tables, 18 chairs, two banquettes—and, voîlà, The Cornelia Street Café. Cornelia.

Over the years Cornelia grew. She acquired the side room. Weekend brunch got really busy. One of her parents would be running up to Macy’s every weekend to get a new toaster oven. Eventually they realized they had to bite the bullet, and at a very early age (around 4½) Cornelia lost her virginity—she opened a kitchen.

It was tiny. With the sister of one of our comedians, who was a cook (the sister, not the comedian), we developed an elementary menu. We took over what is now the back room—the apartment in which Helen, the previous owner, had been immured and where she had spent her last days.

And shortly thereafter, busy as we were, we realized we might have to excavate the basement. A young neighbor introduced us to her mother, a poet, who suggested she might like to read with a poet friend. Who? Eugene McCarthy. Yes, Senator Eugene McCarthy, the good Senator McCarthy, who was also a poet—six published books. And we realized that, even if we kept it to ourselves, word would get out and none of our upstairs spaces would suffice.

So, from the age of about five, Cornelia started hosting events downstairs. Over the years, every conceivable kind of performance (and quite a few inconceivable ones). Poetry in fourteen languages (not all at the same time); music in as many genres; science; philosophy; belly dancing. Stiltwalking of course had to remain upstairs, outside on the street—the ceilings were too low.

In the course of her 41+ years, Cornelia has played host to countless artists, some young, starting out; some established, trying out new work; some distinguished, relishing the intimacy and conviviality after years on the road or in arenas or, Heaven forfend, uptown.

In short, Cornelia offered a home to artists and strays, to the famous and the obscure, to connoisseurs and the just plain curious. She won awards—for the food she served, for the wines she poured, for the poetry she sponsored, and for the music she conducted. On her tenth birthday Mayor Koch proclaimed her “a culinary as well as a cultural landmark.”

PAINTING OF CORNELIA STREET CAFE, left, and Robin Hirsch. Images courtesy of Robin Hirsch.

And now? At the age of 41, she is going under. Yes, there are sociological factors. But mostly it’s her brutal landlords, who, when she was 25, bought the building in which she grew up and came of age. Five years later her lease, eminently fair and renegotiated with the original landlord at each moment of expansion, expired. The new landlords, in possession of hundreds of buildings, could be heard rubbing their hands together in Westchester as the moment approached. Cornelia asked for a ten-year extension and offered a 15% increase. No. Nothing doing. No negotiation. Five-year extension and a 50% increase. Now at the age of 41 and a half, she is paying 84 times what her parents paid when she was born.

“Ah, yes, but she has grown, has she not?”

“A little, certainly, but the gorgeous space downstairs, which she cleaned out and beautified, was always hers.”

“And a lot of time has passed, has it not?”

“Yes, but if you were to flip it, she would be charging 84 dollars for a croissant. Seems a bit steep, no?”

I, her last remaining parent, am not unfamiliar with loss. My own parents, Berlin Jews, escaped from Hitler, losing everything. They arrived independently in England, where they married. Already middle-aged, bombed by their erstwhile countrymen, they had the unimaginable, almost palpable, courage to have two children—me and then my sister—during the Blitz. Both of their fathers had died, mercifully, before Hitler was more than a lunatic flicker on the Bavarian horizon. Both their mothers lived to die in Auschwitz.

Over the last couple of years, as it has become apparent that Cornelia will also be lost, I have experienced a deep ontological understanding of some of what my parents went through.

To lose what you have spent the better part of a lifetime building up. I have imagined it, I have written about it, but I had not felt it viscerally until quite recently. No, it is not a holocaust; no, my parents survived; they both died peacefully in their beds in a foreign country; yes, they managed to re-establish themselves, after a fashion; to have children, to send them to very good schools, to marvel as they thrived.

And yes, just to complicate matters, my landlords are Orthodox Jews, one of them an attorney, now disbarred. We don’t need to go into the details—strip clubs, strippers as guests (not performers, Heaven forfend!) at the Bar Mitzvahs of the attorney’s sons, embezzlement (2½ million dollars of their clients’ money) to fund a strip club, which fails; the embezzlement which comes to light, Rikers, disbarment, and after three years, release and a new beginning. My landlords.

At least Hitler didn’t make my parents destroy their businesses. My landlords have made Cornelia do exactly that—41 years of building: two bars, two kitchens, two walk-in refrigerators; one temperature controlled wine room; one dishwashing room; shelves upon shelves of storage—dry goods, paper goods, linens, kitchen staples; wine and beer and liquor; three dining rooms—hand-made tables, chairs, banquettes; one cabaret—stage, sound equipment, lighting; one office with 41 years of paperwork, plans, permits, licenses, memorabilia—eviction notices.

So, it’s over, my dear. You had a wonderful life, you made wonderful friends, you created a wonderful community. In the twinkling of a malevolent eye, a miserable little Austrian corporal became Chancellor of the German Reich; in the twinkling of a malevolent eye, on the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a vile New York Real Estate tycoon was declared President of the United States; in the twinkling of a malevolent eye, two vile, miserable Orthodox Jewish landlords (we too are Jewish), squeezed the life out of your beautiful soul, destroyed everything you had built, and kicked you out onto the street.

But thousands of your admirers, your comrades, your co-conspirators will remember you, cherish your memory, and raise a glass: “Cornelia, vin extraordinaire!”

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