14 macdougal st ny 10012

Neighborhood: SoHo

As most everyone by now knows, a little family of French bistros lies scattered over the lower half of Manhattan, as if arranged by the single pass of a great pepper mill. Named Le Gamin (save one Le Deux Gamin), each is a neighborhood place, a paradox of quiet and noisy, sunny and dark, boring and piqued, where woody rosemary stems turn your plate of crepes into a miniature Provencal landscape and your drained café au lait reveals le gamin himself at the bottom.

People say their histories are written on the body. Most New Yorkers would revise that to the menus, salt shakers, and chairs of their favorite restaurants. A whole minilife of my own occurred at the Le Gamin on MacDougal Street, which, sadly, has since moved to Houston. MacDougal was quieter, and there was only room for two tables on the sidewalk, which made it a bit like winning the lottery when you got one, which I did, on my first try. But it was a charmed time, the beginning of a short-lived affair with a man six years younger, who spoke French and sulkily wished I did, too. It was our first meeting during the day. Lunch. I ordered the ratatouille crepe and he had one with eggs and cheese, but what I remember is that he remarked that I’d made the better choice, and not playfully. His last girlfriend had been Belgian and he was still suffering even after two years, though in the beginning he hid it well, holding my hand continuously through lunch, then pushing me (playfully this time) against buildings to make out on his way back to work. It was a sweet and sexy time, but he still thought the world was his moule while I had already learned that it’s no use prying the closed ones open. In fact, they make you very sick.

After that ended, I would go there alone to write and drink coffee or even for breakfast before work, where I would scan the French posters and plaques on the walls, squinting to read the specials, written on a small blackboard in a nearly illegible European hand. You could find these things, you say, at The Mall of America, but the items in Le Gamin are original. They had a life in France and have immigrated. The bathroom at the MacDougal one was papered with labels from French wine and a few discreet scribbles, mostly the names of tourists and the year. But the really irreplaceable thing about that location was that the front windows had been shop windows, so an odd collection of French memorabilia sat staring out at the sidewalk, a ceramic bunny, a small sled, sometimes an interesting shoe.

When I started a real relationship with P, a man closer to my age, Le Gamin on MacDougal became our place. I can still feel the heat through the back of the chair, after having frozen ourselves walking into the wind down Prince and side-stepping our way through the tightly knit tables to the gloriously free one next to the radiator, which hissed and sputtered through our entire conversation. He always drank tea, and it would come in the same au lait bowl, the steeping tea wand slowly turning the steaming water green or brown or blue-black when the tea was blackberry. This one didn’t have a liquor license, so people would bring in bottles of wine, Europeans mostly, who would compulsively share it, if only because your table was within inches of theirs. P and I soon discovered the apple tatin, which comes with crème fraiche, a combination as warm and slippery as sex. He wasn’t much of a sweet tooth so I would eat the whole thing, and we would push off again into the night, leaving only a pool of buttery liquid and a sprig of mint on the plate.

In summer, it got hot and there was no air conditioning, or else it was always broken, but we went anyway and sweltered and had salad nicoise because of the cold eggs and icy haricort vert, trying to finish the slightly crispy squares of tuna before the daubs of mayonnaise melted completely. Because the table was small enough I could easily lean over to kiss him or cup his cheek in my hand. When we were lucky enough to sit outside, we looked out for Patti Smith, who lived catty corner and was frequently on the stoop, and we listened to snippets of French or Italian or Long Island being spoken by patrons leaving the place. We quietly admired his BMW motorcycle, hopped up on its kickstand across the street, the headlight staring out at us, the entire vehicle sleek and shieldless for summer riding. When I still had room, even in the heat, I ate the apple tatin and he had more tea.

Sometimes we fought, but that was mostly when we sat indoors, and mostly in winter, when my job would get to me and the fact that despite the years passing, he lived on the Upper West Side and I lived in Brooklyn. I cried there more than once about things in my life that weren’t happening, between us and in general, but even then I felt grateful that I could always count on the salmon crepe with basil, and the crème fraiche, and his face across from me at the table.

We went to Le Gamin on MacDougal almost weekly for years, but then it closed and moved to Houston. It was one of those strange coincidences. Our relationship was closing, too, and though we did go the one on Houston a few times, this period of time became history.

My next Le Gamin relationship, like the first, was relatively short and ill-fated. The new one and I and his darling little boy went to Le Gamin on Houston one hot day in August, and I fed the little one eggs and bits of croissant and took him to the bathroom to change his pants, which he’d wet because he was in training. Afterwards the new one walked ahead of us down Houston, then when we caught up, he spoke to me sharply about not keeping a tight enough grip on the toddler’s hand. As I stood there deciding it was not worth defending myself, I noticed we were at the corner of MacDougal Street. I looked down it briefly, scanned the sidewalk for Patti Smith, and realized there was no choice but to keep walking.

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