The Nectar Diner

by

06/15/2024

Neighborhood: Featured, Upper East Side

Not long after I moved to New York, my mother’s college friend Lois invited me to a concert at the Metropolitan Museum. After it ended, she suggested we go to the Nectar Diner for a cup of tea.

I’d been hearing about Lois my whole life. To my mother, she represented a glamorous New York lifestyle that my mother not-so-secretly wanted. But more than that, she was an exemplar of the discipline my mother longed for because Lois never wavered from her ultra-strict diet—a teaspoon of wheat germ mixed with freshly squeezed orange juice and black coffee for breakfast; nothing for lunch; and for dinner, a salad dressed in vinegar or lemon juice and a serving of hare—because of all the animal sources of protein, it had the least amount of fat.

By the time we went to Nectar, I’d already adopted all her doctors, including her dentist, where I once saw Joan Didion in the waiting room, a highlight of my life. Lois also told me to buy my meat at Schatzie’s—this was the ’90s, when his butcher shop was on Madison Avenue—and said there were no good restaurants on the Upper West Side.

It was dark outside as we walked the block to Nectar. Some of the paving stones were tilted. But there was enough light from the streetlamps to navigate a path between the stoops of the brownstones and the tree beds near the curb. Lois wore a paisley silk dress and a fur like the one Lauren Bacall modeled in those ads for Blackglama. I had on my usual L.L. Bean jacket and corduroys.

When we got to the diner, it was well past ten, but the place was still open and buzzing. The manager scowled at the cash register near the entrance, and workers flitted about. We sat in a booth across from the counter, Lois looking out onto Madison and me facing the swinging doors in the back that led to the kitchen.

When the waitress came over, Lois ordered two cups of tea. Then, with a conspiratorial look on her face, she said, “Would you like to split a piece of marble pound cake?” Judging by the mischievous tone of her voice, you would have thought she was asking me to do lines of coke on the table.

I was confused—had been ever since she extended the invitation. At that point in my life, I was in my early 40s, so she must have been in her 70s. I’d had reporting jobs in Texas and Massachusetts and California, but I knew exactly nothing about New York.

Didn’t even know there was a concert hall in the Metropolitan Museum. Didn’t know who James Levine was until Lois pointed him out to me, sitting several rows behind us. Didn’t know it was absolutely normal to run into Yoko Ono in Central Park. And definitely didn’t know that people as rich as Lois—her husband’s family name was splashed all over buildings downtown—went to diners. Even if the one she picked, at the corner of 82nd and Madison, was a little bit pricier than the ones in Hell’s Kitchen.

And now, to add to my confusion, this woman who ate only hare, because it had the least amount of fat, was inviting me to partake of sugar, fat, and carbs, all of which, in my mother’s estimation, were worse than doing lines of coke. After years of hearing my mother extol the virtue of Lois, this was hard to imagine.

I nodded—because what else could I do? She peered up at the waitress from underneath her stylish wedge of dark hair and said, “We’ll have a piece of the marble pound cake—and two forks.” Then she giggled, and for a moment I felt like we were two girls playing hooky, gorging on root beer barrels and banana Turkish taffy on the way home from school.

When the waitress brought our order, she set it down in the center of the table. Lois beamed.

Even I, who knew nothing about high society fashion, or even low society fashion, could tell Lois had work done on her face. She’d been lucky enough to be born with high cheekbones, but her skin had been tightened up around the edges, then scraped and polished to perfection. It glistened like porcelain.

If the waitress knew how rich Lois was—that she and her husband had owned a floor-through apartment on Fifth Avenue across from the Met that he sold in a fit of mania, which was why they were currently living six blocks south of the diner in the Surrey Hotel—she never let on.

I doubt anyone recognized her. Certainly, no one at this diner fawned over her like they did at the fancy Italian restaurant where she’d once taken my mother and me, and where she sent back the salad because, she said, it wasn’t mâche. And I think she enjoyed being anonymous. As my mother always told me, at heart, Lois was just a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn whose father adored her.

She sliced the pound cake in two pieces with surgical precision, and I remember picking at my half, dimly aware of the clatter of plates and silverware, not knowing exactly how to engage in this foreign ritual, yet never wanting it to be over and feeling as though I were having tea in the company of an Upper East Side sprite.

When we’d finished the pound cake and declined the waitress’s offer for more hot water for our spent teabags, Lois picked up the tab, then slid out of the booth and into her fur, still crackling with energy even though it was close to midnight. We said our goodbyes on the sidewalk, then each of us walked home.

***

Ann Levin is a writer who worked for many years as a journalist, including as national news editor at The Associated Press. Before that, she was a reporter for newspapers in Texas and California. Her book reviews and articles have been widely published by the AP, USA Today, and many other media outlets, and her personal essays and memoir have appeared in a number of literary magazines including Sensitive Skin, Southeast Review, Meat for Tea, and Potato Soup Journal. She has also performed on stage with the New York-based writers’ group Read650. She lives in New York City.

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§ 7 Responses to “The Nectar Diner”

  • TSB says:

    Gordon Lish used to send postcards to people we published in Open City saying that he liked the piece but it was horribly edited. (He sent this to the writers care of the editors.)

    I fear I’m turning into that kind of crank, but I can’t help it. I have two notes:

    One: this piece is dying for an epilogue, especially since you mentioned all that money and then the crazy husband and selling the apartment. How long did they stay in the hotel? How much longer did she live? Is she still alive? Was there a meal after this?

    The other issue is the narrator’s mother. She is introduced early and I feel she should be present at the end in some way.

    Otherwise, enjoyed this very much. And the Nectar coffee shop, thank god, is still with us.

  • Jacob Margolies says:

    I like the story as it is! An epilogue and more on the mother would turn it into a novel or a magazine feature. And if the subject was in her 70s in the 1990s, she is surely departed from this earth by now.

    This is a short story–a portrait really–and the impression made by Lois on the author new to NYC.

    I did wonder where the author’s mom was from–a NY suburb or another region? And the mother does sees a ripe subject. Hopefully there are more stories to come form Ann Levin.

  • Jack Szwergold says:

    “Judging by the mischievous tone of her voice, you would have thought she was asking me to do lines of coke on the table.” Excellent line!

    But I do agree that a sentence or two explaining the social status of the mom versus Lois would have gone a long way. How did her mom know Lois well enough to refer her daughter (the narrator) to Lois, for example.

    Otherwise, a cool rememberance.

  • Jacob Margolies says:

    Lois and the mom were friends in college. It’s in the first sentence of the story.

  • Jack Szwergold says:

    Whoops! Oddly forgot that.

  • SUSAN T. LANDRY says:

    I loved this story! Every woman who arrives in NYC needs a Lois to chaperone her around for a taste of the real NYC. I was fortunate to have a similar Lois-like person in my life, although her name was Yetta, and I had married her son. She took me to the theater and for lunch at The Russian tea Room. Thank you for reminding me of those early years in the city, when everything was a marvel and the future was endless…

  • Rhonda says:

    What a fun story. We all need a Lois in our life to show us the finer things. How mischievous and also sad in a way for Lois to eat marble pound cake under such circumstances. I’m guessing Lois was on the skinny side with all that food deprivation. More stories from Ann Levin!

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