Monday, September 25, 2006

Chumley's New York Redux

During the first year of operating Chumley & Pepys Second-hand Books, a customer came in and asked if we had any connection to Chumley's in New York City. Nope. No connection. But six months later there we were.

My brother-in-law was in the production of King Lear starring Christopher Plummer that year in Stratford, and Christopher Plummer took it to the Lincoln Center over the winter. It was our opportunity to make the circle complete.

We travelled overland using our VIA points to the border, and enjoyed a train car with the ideal temperature and hot Red Rose Tea--"only in Canada, you say. Pity." Then it was tepid Lipton's Tea--don't they make soup?--and overheated train cars from Niagara Falls to New York City. Oh, well, it was cheaper than flying. We only had three full days in New York so we had to narrow the tourist possibilities to our specific interests: libraries, books, art, tea and Chumley's. Beside the performance of King Lear of which Christopher Plummer had me in tears again, we managed to squeeze The Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Time's Square, and a quick tour of Soho and the Village into our itinerary. New York is inexhaustible. Three days was just a taste, but enough to see the Cloisters, The Frick Museum, New York Public Library, Colliseum Books, Gotham Book Mart, The Strand Bookshop, as well as enjoying much needed sustenance at Alice's Tea Cup, Zen Palate and a great little Italian Bistro on Columbus.
Greenwich Village alone could easily take three days of exploration. So many writers and their fictional characters have lived in this literary and artistic neighbourhood: Thomas Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, e. e. cummings, Sherwood Anderson, Marianne Moore. The list could on and on. We passed 75 1/2 Bedford which is a very narrow red bricked building where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived for a short time. And it was along this stretch of sidewalk that Saul Bellow's Charlie Citrine walked on his way to visit Humboldt who lived on Bedford Street near Chumley's. Simone de Beauvoir found it to be a place conducive to writing, reading and good conversation. She said it had "atmosphere." I can't remember where I heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda had their wedding reception at Chumley's. Probably from the same source who told me that the newlyweds had conceived their first child there. Sounds like hearsay. But then again. . . .
Chumley's, 86 Bedford: we arrived at 1 p.m. not knowing that it didn't open till later in the afternoon. This wasn't a problem for they didn't have signage let alone hours of operation posted. We just tried the door. It opened. We heard, oddly enough, British accented voices rising from the depth of the pub. We entered as if into another dimension, feeling like we just stepped out of the Tardis and were following Dr. Who into another adventure. We found ourselves amidst a large group of 17 year olds and a few middle-aged overseers. It turned out it was an F. Scott Fitzgerald literary tour for a public school from England and Chumley's had opened especially for them. We were just lucky. We sat down at a table and picked up what we thought was a menu but it was really a plastic folder providing the students with literary information on Fitzgerald et al. They did allow us to stay for my brother-in-law's British accent and natural charm paved the way with the British teachers and the pub manager. After all, it was a pilgrimage like theirs, and special for it was a Chumley in search of a Chumley. Well, figuratively. The portobello burger, fries and a beer set us right. We took photographs and browsed before leaving by what was originally the front entrance on Barrow Street and its fascinating courtyard, feeling the gods were looking kindly on us that day. We were entranced by Pamela Courtyard and the brick archway on 58 Barrow Street. In prohibition days, the owner, Leland Chumley would stall the police here while the patrons left by the exit at 86 Bedford. The euphemism "86 it" was in common parlance for many years as the code for "let's get out of here".
Street front anonymity hasn't hindered this unique meeting place. It's introverted character conceals a creative and imaginative extroverted joie de vivre. Most especially on a Friday night I imagine.

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