Tom’s Restaurant

by

02/13/2003

W 112th St & Broadway, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

I took two of my kids to see the new Adam Sandler picture, “Little Nicky,” and there it was again, behind Sandler as he sniffed some flowers: Tom’s Restaurant at 112th and Broadway.

When I was at Columbia College, in the gray and bankrupt and crumbling 1970s, my friends and I had a joke that someday, older and successful, we’d gather for lunch, and Tom’s would be so famous we’d be able to jump in a cab and say,“Driver, take me to Tom’s.” It would be the Sardi’s of the Bromo-Seltzer set.

This turned out, bizarrely, to be nearly true. Tom’s is a Columbia haunt and home to senior citizens on fixed incomes looking for an inexpensive full-sized Sunday meal available all week long. Its arrival as a second-tier New York icon, getting up there with the Margaret Bourke-White Art Deco bird jutting from theChrysler Building or the arches at Washington Square, came first with the house-mix version of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Restaurant; and was cemented by a decade as the exterior of the diner where Jerry Seinfeld confabbed with Elaine, Kramer, George, and, when worst came to worst, Newman.

Now visitors come from out of town and around the world just to see the place. One pauses on the sidewalk as they take their snapshots. The management sells postcards at the register.

Its fame always strikes me as a piece of bittersweet personal comedy. Tom’s, though called a restaurant, is actually a diner, one of a decreasing number of ‘50s vintage cheap food establishments in Manhattan.

I spent hundreds of hours there, through every stage of our romance, with the woman I dated through my college years, now my wife and the luckily-absent-from-Little-Nicky mother of our three sons.

Not long after we’d met, a few weeks perhaps, I ran into her on a sunny afternoon in front of Tom’s and watched her eyes blazing green in the bright light during some minutes of long-forgotten talk before calling up the nerve to invite her in for a coffee. Later we would go on Saturday evenings, spending our last money on the early editions of the Sunday papers and coffee and a shared sugar-soaked glazed donut, which was best eaten with forks. Invariably, as I remember it, we’d argue about literature. “You don’t like any women writers,” she said. I offered Flannery O’Connor and Joan Didion. “They’re not really women,” she said. “Henry James is more of a woman writer than they are.” I also liked George Eliot and the two most prominent Bronte sisters and Austen, but nineteenth century British writers didn’t qualify: it wasn’t until she introduced me to Grace Paley, who could do more in two pages than most writers can do in two hundred, that I liked a woman writer who did make it.

After fights, after rapprochments, after movies (dozens and dozens and dozens of movies, at the Thalia, the New Yorker, the Embassy, and later the Metro, which had an Ozu and Mizoguchi festival we went to every Wednesday afternoon) we’d retreat to the window seat in the corner, do the crossword, watch for friends, and work out the boundaries of a shared world view. When we were flush, we had cheeseburger specials, with the great fries and the always near-flat cokes from the fountain. One of us might even go for the roast turkey supper, which on weekends came with stuffing, soup to start, salad, two vegetables, coffee and dessert, an extravagance at $3.75.

One day in the summer of 1977, before the blackout and during the Son of Sam spree, I went in, had an iced coffee at the counter, and read my Daily News, which had three great columnists covering New York: Michael Daly, Pete Hamill, and, the writer we thought the best newspaperman of our era, Jimmy Breslin.

Then I walked out into the brutal heat and saw on the median that runs down the spine of Broadway two old men. They were faced off and arguing very loudly. One took out a cheap-looking gun and shot the other in the leg, pop, just like that. In those days, cops thought it a good idea to ride undercover together in cabs, so much so that in a neighborhood such as ours, you’d see more off-duty cabs with two white guys in the front than real ones which could actually take you somewhere. About six of the undercovers showed up in the next forty-five seconds, or so it seemed, cops leaping out the doors with pistols drawn, until the middle of Broadway was like a gun show. I meandered on home. The two old men were still yelling.

We had times apart, of course, Beth and I, and if I were to meet any other woman at a local hole, it would be at the College Inn up the block. Tom’s was for her and me. They all knew us there, not by name but by the matching narratives of maturing faces and growing intimacy: Betty the sixty-ish waitress with her flaming red hair: “How are ya ba-bay…”; and the other waitress, of similar years, so shy we never learned her name, knowing her only by her tiny little girl voice and her fabulous jet black wig. The guys behind the counter, Tommy and the rest of them, were dark and muscular young men forever wiping things down with white cloths and hot water from the coffee urns.

“Yes, my friend, whatever you like my friend.” When we were broke, “No problem, pay me next time, sure sure.”

This is still our neighborhood, vastly more expensive but in some way incurably grubby. We like it that way. Beth took one of our boys in for an ice cream recently, and Tommy, with hair and mustache gone gray like the aging Giancarlo Giannini, asked her,“You still married to that guy?” Yes, she said, in a tone that, I’m certain, very much depended on the day.

“How many kids, two?”

Three, she said.

“Good, good, I stay married to my wife all these years, too,” he said. “Too expensive to get divorced and what for? Another one is better?” He makes that face, and waves his hand: bah! to the modern world.

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