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Les Deux Megots

When I first came to the lower east side in New York City it was summer 1961. I was 27

and had just gotten my teaching license. In a month I was to start teaching 2nd grade in Brooklyn. I came looking for an affordable apartment. A friend had convinced me that the Lower East side was convenient to subway and work and the rents were low. I found a one bedroom 2nd floor walkup on Avenue B between 6th and 7th Streets. My first apartment. I was in heaven. I began to “fix” it up immediately. It was the first of many places over the years where I’ve tried to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I’ve always enjoyed the process if not the result.

The walls were subway green. I bought quantities of cheap off -white paint and proceeded to give myself a minor case of paint poisoning from the fumes. My young neighbors directly across the hall had volunteered to help me paint and were feeling the fumes as well. Marilyn and Karen were sisters and had come to New York from Connecticut to try to break into show business.

The perfect antidote to the fumes, Karen said, was a quick three-block walk in the fresh air to Les Deux Megots. “The two cigar butts”, she translated. It was a play on the name of the famous Parisian cafe Les Deux Magots. So we opened the windows even wider, turned on a floor fan, locked the front door and left.

Out on the street I breathed deeply of the balmy evening air and then began to feel giddy. My jeans, old shirt and sneakers were covered in paint. My hair, hands and face also had a fair share of off-white spatter. The three of us skipped down the sidewalk singing “We’re off to see the Wizard” gathering non-committal New York style stares from passersby. That made us laugh more. We hopped down the 4 or 5 steps to the front door of Les Deux Megots still singing and entered the coffee house laughing and out of breath. It was early for the coffee house business and we got waited on immediately. Coffee and hamburgers were quickly forthcoming as well as a few amused comments by the proprietor, Bill Mackey, who sat on a stool behind the cash register watching us. Karen and Marilyn kibitzed back and forth with him and I could tell they were regulars.

Coffee houses were very popular at the time, but not on the Lower East side. Les Deux Megots was the only one of its kind in the area. The Lower East side was still predominantly Jewish and eastern European and blue collar. Various Slavic groups lived alongside Italians and a few ‘others’ in relative harmony. The shops and restaurants reflected the makeup of the neighborhood. There were kosher and Italian delicatessens, restaurants and bakeries, and ‘mailing shops’ which specialized in sending packages to European or Slavic countries. They usually featured a few colorful woven and embroidered artifacts in their windows from the ‘old country’ to advertise who they catered to. The streets were narrow and dark and the apartment houses tended to be walkups.

About the time I came to the area, a growing number of young professionals and artists had discovered the low rents. Most of them hung out in the evenings at Les Deux Megots and another place called Cafe La Mama. Cafe La Mama was different from Les Deux Megots in that it served alcohol and put on plays. I guess they were called off-off Broadway plays then, I’m not sure.

Les Deux Megots suited me perfectly. I liked the atmosphere, the friendliness of the owners

and the customers. It was an easy stop on my way home from the subway each day. It rapidly became my hangout. I would promise myself daily that I would go home from work first, and then maybe, if I was a good girl and finished all my “chores” I could go to the coffee house as reward. It seldom happened that way. I would come in to the cafe, put down the lesson plans I’d brought with me from school and some friend would inevitably come sit at my table. More would come as the evening fell. It was hard to leave and go home to homework and an empty apartment. It was usually late when I got my lesson plans done.

As I remember it physically, Les Deux Megots was a narrow storefront on East 7th Street between 2nd and 3rd Aves. On either side of the staircase leading down to the front door were two windows, one on either side. These windows played an interesting role later on. Inside on a platform each window held a table with two chairs where serious couples would talk intently, quietly, away from the more boisterous main floor. The place was paneled in wood, the chairs and tables were also wood. It was a simple yet cozy place where classical music was always playing on owner’s hi-fi. There was at least one very large round table dead ahead when you walked in. Larger parties gathered around that one. The rest of the tables were smaller. On the walls were photographs or paintings by local artists. An ever-changing show. The lighting was low and pleasant but enough to read or play chess by. People did both. The place opened each day about 4 pm and closed around midnight.

Not long after making the cafe my home away from home I began to really notice the owner. It wasn’t hard. He was tall, dark brown and handsome and he was making himself known to me. At some point every time I was in the cafe he’d saunter over to my table and ask how things were going. I was teaching in Bedford Stuyvesant and I was not very knowledgeable about what the kids were going through. Bill began to talk with me about the black community. I was willing to learn.

Bill co-owned Les Deux Megots with his partner Mickey Ruskin when I first came there. Ruskin sold his half interest to Bill shortly after and went on to own several well-known restaurants in New York City. (The Ninth Circle is the one I remember) When Bill became sole owner he quit his job as engineer in a large firm to run the coffee house full time when Mickey left. At 41 he was bored with engineering, single (long divorced) and in his view likely to remain so. In the coffee house he had found a milieu he enjoyed. He played chess well and there were always chess sets and willing partners to play with. He also required kibitzing as part of the game. Usually there was a group watching around any table he played at.

He had an ability to alternately delight and exasperate his customers and friends by taking an opposing position on any subject they’d care to launch. He read newspapers avidly from political left to right in order to be prepared for anything anyone could throw his way. He relished knowing things The ‘well educated’ and mostly white customers did not always know what they were up against when they started with him. He prodded and challenged the common precepts around him. The really challenging aspect of a debate or argument with Bill was that one was never sure whether he really meant something or was just taking that side as “Devil’s advocate”. He didn’t play Devil’s Advocate with me probably because I wouldn’t play. I didn’t know enough about what he talked about to be a good sparring partner. Nor did I know how to play chess. He taught me but then he won every single time. I went on strike and have never played since.

One of the topics that Bill held forth on was the stirrings of racial unrest in the late 1950’s leading into the furor of the 1960’s. At a children’s camp where I was a counselor during the summer of 1961 (just before coming to the lower East Side) I heard young white people discuss the non-violent demonstrations that had been taking place in the South. The reasoning went something like this: Since it was well-known that white Southerners were likely to get violent over integrated lunch counters and integrated interstate buses, it was therefore the fault of the demonstrators when violence took place! I think most of us who considered that a thoughtful argument would prefer to forget it now. The cook at that camp was black and she took the young counselors to task and challenged their logic, but most of them (including me) stuck to their theory and felt that civil rights should be pursued through the courts.

In the coffee house discussions were becoming lively about the demonstrations springing up that fall all over the South. It was becoming clear to many of us that the North was segregated too. In fact if not in law. There were laws, while not so obvious, that supported segregated housing and schooling in New York just about as effectively as any Jim Crow laws in the South. More and more was being written about race relations everywhere in the U.S. I was appalled at how little I knew. Bill was a terrific and lively source of information. When I decided to attend a conference in Maryland with some Brooklyn C.O.R.E. members he was impressed. I think that is what I want to do – impress him. After a very long day riding to and from the Eastern shore of Maryland (see The First Demonstration – 1961) I turned up at the coffee house extremely tired and very upset by what I’d experienced that day. I lay my head down on my arms on what had become ‘Bergie’s table’. He was very solicitous and told people to leave me alone and why I was so tired. He brought me free food and coffee. This was getting good!

Bill’s interests ranged widely. While racial issues were certainly a major theme, He would connect the business news from Wall Street with what was happening in Civil rights or with any number of other topics. Music was a passion from Bach to the blues. He knew a great deal about the subject and had a large collection of records. He saw patterns of greed and abuse in the capitalist system, but was no longer an admirer of Communism as he had been right after World War II. Liberals and conservatives alike could find issue with Bill, and did, but seldom emerged feeling totally comfortable with their original positions. Some would come back time after time to Les Deux Megots with a new ‘piece of evidence’ to bolster their pet theories only to have Bill knock it down, just as he repeatedly checkmated the chess players who challenged him with equal vigor. He was interesting to many and I was among them. I was fascinated.

Being a black businessman in the predominantly white area had its interesting moments. Sometimes an unwitting salesman would come into the coffee shop just after it opened around 4pm. He would walk back to the cash register where Bill sat waiting like the spider for the fly. “The boss in?” the poor salesman would ask. “The Boss man? No suh, ah surely don’ know wheah he is” Bill would reply in his deepest Georgia dialect. I think he scratched his head too. The conversation would continue along that line for a bit until the salesman, convinced that he’d better come back another day, would walk out. Those of us staff and customers who happened to be in the place at such times never gave Bill away, but burst into laughter when the door shut behind the victim. It didn’t pay to assume anything about Bill.

There were no other Black business people that we knew of in the area. Bill did have some trouble from time to time, but we couldn’t really pin it on racism. Occasionally garbage cans would be overturned, beer cans thrown in the stairwell, that sort of thing. A few local teenage boys tested Bill out verbally early on, but became intrigued with him and decided to take on the role of his “protector" in the neighborhood. In turn he taught a few of them to play chess.

On Sundays Les Deux Megots opened at 11am for Sunday Brunch and music by quartets from The Julliard School of Music organized by a friend of Bill’s, Chet Davis. It was the best day of the week I thought. Customers brought their newspapers and settled in for food, coffee, music and the New York Times, and perhaps a good conversation here and there.

There was another day of the week that was special. Was it Thursday? I don’t remember. It was “Open Poetry” night at Les Deux Megots led by Howard Ant. (Sunday nights were “Invited Poetry” nights when only invited poets could read). I understand that a number of the poets who read at Les Deux Megots went on to become distinguished men and women of letters. On “Open Poetry nights”, however, it seemed to me the truly serious poets suffered from monotone deliveries and the pompous emoters spewed nonsense endlessly.

On at least one of those evenings there were no chairs left for staff so
they sat on the floor behind the pastry counter waiting, waiting for a break in the proceedings. Absolute silence was required. When at last a coffee break was called they jumped up and ran around like mad taking orders and delivering coffee to the audience. Then it was back to the floor behind the counter for another interminable period of pontificating. It was not their favorite night. That was not the majority opinion, however, as people filled the place early and stayed late.

Another night was Talk Out Night with an announced speaker and a question and answer period after. I don’t remember who organized that. I think we tried to get the young Cassius Clay to come one time. I don’t know if it was for Talk Out or Invited Poetry night. He was doing both in the press! He did speak at a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, but we weren’t successful in having him come to Les Deux Megots. The topics were often controversial and occasionally the audience threatened to erupt into fisticuffs. I remember one such topic was about Fidel Castro, the new leader in Cuba. It was a hot one and almost erupted into a fight.

Fights did erupt at Les Deux Megots, but not because of political or artistic beliefs. There began to be a pattern of Thursday night fights. The table, that large one in front, would suddenly rise up in the air to the accompaniment of much shouting and falling over of chairs. The fight between two men accompanied by others who were trying to stop them would move out the door, up the steps to the sidewalk. In the process one or both the two side windows would be broken. There would be much excited talk from everyone else in the cafe and people would be inside and outside fussing about until the police arrived. The perpetrators would have disappeared by that time, of course.

After three such incidents the insurance for the plate glass windows was cancelled and Bill was furious. One day one of the local young men of the neighborhood casually remarked to Bill that he thought he possibly knew who was at the bottom of it and possibly he could put in a word and possibly the situation could be brought to a halt. Bill knew what was coming. A protection plan. Bill called his landlord and told him of the occurrences. He had a good rapport with the man. It turns out his landlord was the local Jewish “Don” of the neighborhood. He said he would speak with the Italian “Don”. It was a done deal and there were no more fights. I was agog as they say in crossword puzzles. I thought this kind of thing only happened in the movies.

The combination of the east village with its old Slavic street life along with the young poor professionals like me, and the bohemian atmosphere of the coffee house was intoxicating to me. And then there was the charismatic Bill. Our romance developed slowly as I remember it. But perhaps not. After only 4 months I left my Avenue B apartment in January of 1962 and moved to his apartment in Brooklyn. It was not acceptable behavior in 1962 to live together before marriage. It was also far from acceptable to engage in an interracial relationship. After becoming friends with Sanora in college I couldn’t reject someone on a racial basis. I was hiding my living arrangements from the public school where I was teaching – I could lose my job on moral grounds - and from >my parents, because while I felt rebellious and righteous, I was too scared to confront them yet with my choice of partner.

My new life was becoming overwhelming. In Brooklyn we lived in Bill’s small apartment on St. Mark’s Ave. I began to participate in more demonstrations with Brooklyn CORE. (Congress of Racial Equality) And then there was the coffee house in Manhattan. My work was suffering because of all this in addition to the fact that I had very little background in second grade curriculum. I should have been studying furiously, and finding a mentor, since the school didn’t provide one. I think my friend Sanora who taught at the same school worried about me. But I was too distracted to hear her or follow any of the sensible steps outlined. I resigned after my first semester as a second grade teacher and felt terrible. I worked for awhile in the coffee house but we needed outside money to live on. I soon found a job as an early childhood teacher, a field I was far more familiar with. It was a happy choice. I stayed at The Bethlehem Day Nursery in Manhattan until shortly before I gave birth to my son in 1963.

We were married in Bill’s apartment in August 1962. Neither of us being Jewish we felt it quite logical that the ceremony be performed by a rabbi-turned-social worker, Saul . My brother walked me down the hallway. I wore a short veil that Sanora and her mother had made to match my dress. We had our wedding reception in Les Deux Megots. We closed the doors to the public that day. Friends brought a huge amount of delicious food for a banquet. We opened up the small garden and most of us sang, danced and people gave funny warm speeches. It was a good party in a good place. My parents did not attend.

We sold Les Deux Megots about the time our son Patrice was born. Friends Stan and Selma Katz bought the place and had a manager run it for a couple of years. It didn’t make it financially and eventually became a macrobiotic restaurant and then I lost track of it. I was sorry when Bill sold it. I loved the place. Bill said the reason for selling it was because he wanted to be home in the evenings. But I knew it was not romantic being the owner of such a place. The work was never-ending, and the profit low. I think he preferred to be a customer and chess player in a coffee house like Les Deux Megots.

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March On Washington | It's Hard To Know | City Hall Demonstration

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