Monday, March 24, 2008

Buffa's Was A Prince Street Institution

Buffa's Deli was another Prince Street institution but it closed during the summer of 2006. It had been around since 1928 serving early breakfasts and then lunch for the locals and working class people who came downtown to work. John, Toni, Adele, Seraphin, Anna and Zack were institution around here. Adele, who was born on Mott Street and worked at Buffa's for 55 years had already retired after a lifetime of insulting customers. In 2007 she turned 80. When she was there it used to be a hang-out for film directors who considered it good luck to give Adele and the rest of the gang signed posters of their latest films. It was still a hang-out for film directors until it closed and you used to be able to see all of their signed movie posters there. John Waters was crazy about Adele and Toni and so was Peter Koper. On one of his movie posters Waters wrote, " Adele , don't kill any of your snotty customers." Two sandwiches were named after Water's and Koper's films. You used to be able to see Adele, Tillie, Seraphin and Anna having breakfast or lunch at Buffa's if you happened to arrive at the right time.

About twenty five years ago Adele announced to everyone who would listen that I was a cheap bastard who would not buy his bride- to- be an engagement ring. She claimed she had to force me not only to buy Gwen, my wife to be, an engagement ring but to get married as well. She told everyone almost everyday that if it were not for her we would still not be married. In fact I had to show her both the engagement and the wedding ring for her approval. I would not have been surprised if she had pulled a jeweler's loupe out of her pocket to give each ring the once over. The engagement ring had a big pearl on it and she asked me if it was real! She told the story so many times everyone was sick of it.

Tillie, who was born on Elizabeth Street, is a Buffa and the mother of John who used to run the restaurant and is now in her nineties. Her memory goes back a long way. Her grandfather owned a large store on Elizabeth Street. That must have been in the late 19th or early 20th century. In any event, she told me that the infamous Black Hand Society, the precursor of the Mafia, kidnapped his daughter who may have been Tillie's mother or aunt, and demanded $5,000 dollars ransom for her release. ( At that time the Black Hand Society was located on Prince Street between the Bowery and Elizabeth Street) Tillie's grandfather managed to scrape together the money and the family got the daughter back. After that part of the Buffa family moved upstate to get out of the city which they considered unsafe.

Toni Rosa, who had been around for about 25 years. guarded my seedless raspberry jelly which I used to leave there for my morning English muffin. Once Toni caught a customer helping himself to my special stash and Toni grabbed it away from him and said that if Allan ever saw such a terrible thing he would have to have a third triple by-pass. I told the cops who had breakfast there about the attempted theft but they said that they were after bigger crimes. In insisted that a crime was a crime and that it did not matter if it was big or small. They got a laugh out of the whole episode , but they did not try to capture the would be jelly thief in spite of the fact that Toni knew who he was.

During January of 2006 Frankie Corso, a regular customer, and I made Toni absolutely crazy. Frankie put a pair of ugly false teeth in his mouth and slumped over in his chair as if he had passed out or was dead. I got up from our table and told Toni that Frankie looked dead. Toni came rushing in yelling that Frankie was dead. Toni thought that the worst had taken place and was a nervous wreck for the rest of the day. She even had a slight accident when she saw Frankie slumped over. She tried to wake him but he did not budge. At that moment she peed in her pants. By March she was telling the story with pride to anybody who would listen.

Buffa's was one of the last places in the city where you could get an authentic egg cream, an old New York drink, and only Toni and a few others remembered how to make them the right way. First of all you had to use Fox's -U- Bet Chocolate Syrup. The rest is a secret formula. Our kids, Alison and Allan Jr. ate there every morning and Toni would smack them if they got out of line. Every morning they would squabble over who would get to choose the program on the TV set. The regulars were legion and nobody went there for the food. My older son Adam claimed that their ham and eggs gave him the poops every morning. Some of the regulars were Frankie Corso, Chris, Max, Harry the Hat ( Frank Andollino ) , Peter and Geena Koper, The Heisler family consisting of Greg, Prudence, Lucie and Sadie Rose, Susan Zeig and Emma, Vinny Vella, Anita Jorgenson, Donald Blair, Jimmy Wright and the crowd from the Bowery Mission. Chris had made some framed photos of a trip he had made to Greece and had given one of them to me. Two others hung at Buffa's. In April of 2006 Chris took his two framed pictures back home. He did not want them thrown out when the renovations began.

An infrequent addition to the patron who frequented Buffa's was Brian Moran who was an avid collector of old John McCormack recordings. He had just about all of them and made copies of them for his own pleasure. We got to talking one day and I told him I was a big fan of John McCormack. He said I was the first person he had met in a long time who even knew his name. Then he proceeded to tell me all about the exquisite tone he could produce and his precise pronunciation. In addition he said that the singer put his whole heart into every song he sang. He is still known to those who cherish his name as the greatest Irish tenor of all time. ( I knew about him because my other had a huge collection of his songs . ) Brian even told me that McCormack was a good friend of James Joyce. The he promised to make two cd-s for me and he was as good as his word. I still have them and play them from time to time.

A few years ago a young waitress from the Czech Republic who worked at Buffa's got the nickma,e of Sunshine because she never smiled. Her real name was Veronica. After a while at Buffa's she started to smile and never stopped.

Any time of the day at Buffa's was a scene. John ran the place but he was in his sixties and was getting tired. There were always lots of problems including a leak from upstairs which had been coming down in drips and drabs and sometimes torrents for about three years. The false ceiling once fell down and the patrons had to move to another table to stay dry. It was eventually fixed but nobody knew for how long. Their old waffle iron broke more than ten years ago and they solved the problem by never serving waffles again, but who cared? When the lights in the ceiling burned out they might stay that way for weeks or months. I loved the place even though my wife and I got kicked out in November of 2005, after more than 20 years, for lingering too long at our table. I stayed away for some weeks. Later John said that he was sorry and we embraced in public and made up.It was very emotional. I was worried that I would not be invited to their yearly Thanksgiving Day Feast, but everything was worked out just in time. The place was one of the last connections to Little Italy as it used to be.

On February 10, 2006, Gwen and I heard the bad news. John, who had only four years left on his lease, sold the majority interest in the place to several investors over the Christmas holiday season. What had lasted since 1928 would no longer belong to the Buffa family and would be transformed into a 24/7 upscale restaurant and bar. While I was away on vacation in July I heard from Jimmy Wright that the place had closed. He told me I was lucky not to have been there on that last day. Toni was in tears knowing that whatever happened , the old Buffa's wax gone forever.

Prior to the closing the new owners told the waitresses that they would have to " audition" for jobs. Nobody quite knew what that meant. When everyone was notified of the sale I saw Toni and Chris holding hands and trembling. They knew that this was the end. When I told Geena Koper the news she said that it was bound to happen , the rents were just too high for a place like Buffa's to survive. As of the end of February Toni was resigned to probably not being at Buffa's when it reopened under a new name. If that happened none of the cops, firemen or construction workers would be back either. They came because Toni was there. Frankie Corso said he already was looking for a new joint in which to have breakfast and lunch.

More important than the economics of gentrification is how the process itself rips a settled neighborhood apart. On Valentine's Day of 2006 all the local ladies of a certain age and several others gathered at Buffa's to have their own celebration. They had a special small red cake with icing made for them. Toni, Sunshine, Adele and Tillie got slices and I got one as well. Everyone had a story from the old days including adele who said she had a bureau filled with wedding rings from all her old husbands. Butch got a piece of cake as well. He had just purchased a new black motorcycle jacket and looked good in it. There was no room for Vinny Vella who had to sit in another room in the restaurant. The next day many of the same people were there at the same time, about 3:00 P.M. , sitting with the retired Monsignor from the Church.. Vinny Vella found out about the sale of Buffa's on March 7th and was visibly shocked. He wondered where he would go to sit down and have a quiet cup of coffee and meet friends. Prior to that time Vinny had negotiated a documentary film of his life sitting right there at Buffa's. In early April of 2006 I started taking a few pictures of most of the staff and regulars. On June 21st , 2006 I started distributing the pictures I had taken to everyone.

On June 28th, 2006 I heard that Tillie, Seraphin, Adele and Anna had made plane to abandon their table at Buffa's for good. Their rituals involved lunches at Buffa's , the hairdresser, shopping at the supermarket , the Church, bingo, and trips to Atlantic City every now and then. All the neighborhood ladies would charter a bus which would pick them up in the morning on the corner of Mott and Prince Street and the bring them back home at the end of the day. Over the late summer some of the older ladies including Tillie, Anna, Adele and Seraphin would being out folding chairs and sit in front of the now closed Buffa's. It was not the same but it was better than nothing. When the cold weather came they could not even do that.

At first glance one would not think that a local restaurant would mean so much, but like the old social clubs which dotted the neighborhood and are now gone, it was a gathering place for an important part of the community. This is the kind of thing that ruins an old neighborhood but never gets written about because there is nothing sensational to report. It is not new as we have come to understand it. It is not even local news, but it is the fabric of neighborhood life being mindlessly torn apart. It is the story of displacement through gentrification.

After the end of Buffa's some of the old staff who worked there came back on Monday the 31st of July , 2006 to clean up. John, Tillie, Sunshine, Zack and Toni were there to get rid of a lot of stuff before the demolition began. Toni said that during the construction period she and sunshine were going to go to charm school to learn good manners. They wanted to be ready when the place reopened. They sensed that if they could get jobs there the new customers would not want to be yelled at. Nor would they want Toni to give them classic Sicilian curses behind their backs complete with rude hand gestures and body language. Toni sensed that the place would be polite and genteel. She was right. It would be like all the other restaurants in town. John had not yet gotten the picture. He would scream and curse at the staff all day long. The new upscale crowd would not like that. He would have to tone it way down if he wanted to hang around.

There was a moment of joy on November 17th 2007. Quite by accident I met Toni and her new husband of two months and she announced that she was pregnant. They were on their way upstate to a family event and leaving from the front of Buffa's. Toni was still telling the story of the translucent figure of Christ which had turned into a giant voodoo doll and was hung outside Buffa's on a post at the corner of Prince and Elizabeth Streets. She told her shocked new husband that she had been offered a gun to shoot it down by the cops but she said no. She aslo told the story of the purloined raspberry jelly and how she got it back. She did not fail to add the detail that the jelly was very expensive because old ladies with tweezers at the factory had to pick the seeds out one by one before it could be put into jars to be sold. Then she said that Buffa's had been her whole life and that she had loved every moment of it.

As parting gifts before the place closed I gave sunshine and Toni key chains with little pink plastic pigs hanging from them. When you squeezed the pigs hard imitation shit came
out their butts.


julie Dermansky said...

i never thought i would miss buffas as the food was pretty bad and the coffee too. however you could get a table and hear your self speak. sometimes two things impossible to find at the areas resaurants these days

Allan I ludwig AKA Elisha Cook Jr. said...

I think you are right. The charm of Buffa's was the people who frequented it and the fact that you could always find a table at which to sit. It was a place to chat with neighborhood people and keep upon all the local gossip. It was also reasonably quiet. You could hear yourself talk and hear others. You could also hang out for as long as you wanted. The new restaurants around here are geared to the tourist trade and they want you in and out as fast as possible. They are also crowded and noisy.

Ruth said...

hmmmm .... if my memory serves me, and this is indeed questionable .... when heather and i made our first visit to little italy in august 1997 - making our 10 day search for two apartments the success of which would guarantee our move from san francisco .... we had breakfast in buffa's and damn if i don't remember hearing about this cheap-assed geezer who wouldn't shell out for a ring .... yo!

Allan I ludwig AKA Elisha Cook Jr. said...

Hi Ruth:

Yes, you must have been served by Adele. She told absolutely everyone that I was a cheap bastard who would not buy his bride to be a ring. And all the while I was looking around for a ring. There are lots of memories of Buffa's.Every one who went there has a story. Our neighborhood is changing so rapidly that I have written a lot of them down. I'm slowing posting them on the blog.

Anonymous said...

Hey Elisha: I saw Toni on the street yesterday. And after she bragged yet again about how cheap her rent controlled apartment was, she said she was definitely coming back to the "new" place as Atilla the Hun of waitresses. We shall see. They are racing to completion on the new place.

Allan I ludwig AKA Elisha Cook Jr. said...

That's very good news. For a while it looked as if they wanted to upscale the restaurant and upscale the waitresses as well. I'll be very happy to see Toni back and so will all the old Buffa crowd. We really miss the place. I really miss Toni and everyone else who used to work there.