Monday, 16 January 2012

The Opera Lady

She sits at the bar of Il Mare restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. It is a Friday night and the place is heaving. Customers enter from the freezing night and wait for a table in a huddle by the doorway. The heater over the door sends waves of ludicrously hot air that just prevent the cold from encroaching as far as her favoured spot. She sips white wine, chatting occasionally, and with the insouciant and proprietorial air of a regular, to the barista. "D'you wanna order now, before it gets even loonier?" asks the latter solicitously. "No: I don't know what I want yet", she replies, with the certainty of the born-again client in New York City. The girl retires, not hurt but put in her place, to wait on the demands of others, less regular but no less demanding. She works flat-out, 7 evenings a week and smiles for America.

The lady is called Elsie and this is her local. She tells us she eats here three evenings a week because she lives alone. She is, in a smallish way, an heiress. Her parents died and left her and her younger brother $1m dollars each. He has spent his on a series of girlfriends and a home on the coast of South Carolina; she has been more frugal. She occupies a rent-stabilised apartment on the Upper West Side, which costs her so little that she can live perfectly comfortably, eating out as she chooses, without eating into her inheritance. She's now 65, but had a career as an operatic agent, working with singers who performed at the world's most famous opera-houses. Given our shared English ancestry, she refers particularly to her visits to Covent Garden and the Coliseum (and doesn't understand why you can't get a post-performance dinner at 11:00pm in London as you can in New York).

We talk about food and drink, and she eats her pasta. She does not look especially as though she needs to lose weight, and sniffs at my explanation of the three Ps avoided by Italian women (pasta, patatas, postre) as the key to minimising weight-gain in later life. I don't mention the fourth no-no - alcohol - as the barista pours her a third glass. Like so many New Yorkers, she doesn't assume from our accents that we are not resident; but when we confess our nationality, chats amiably about the Royal Family. She is interested in actresses who have played the Queen, but struggles to believe there is one who rejoices in the name of Prunella Scales. "Prunella!", she exclaims, "Can you imagine how a child with that name would fare at elementary school in this city?" But, we reflect silently, she was not at school here and is a famous actress. It occurs to me that Elsie must have represented some artists with equally improbable names - some, perhaps, who grew up in New York.

She finishes her meal, then accepts and quickly swallows a glass for the road. She bids us good-night with old-fashioned grace, and leaves when we do, wrapping herself tightly against the bitter Manhattan night.

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