To the Things That Remain
New York Times
By: Alex Witchel
Published: November 28, 2007

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YOU always remember your first time, but what about your last?

The last time you sat at a restaurant table, swaddled in warmth, just inches from the bread basket, a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other. You took a good long swallow of bourbon, which soothed the raw edge of smoke in your throat. You looked at a menu that listed every cut of beef known to man, watched platters of golden cottage fries go by and raised your glass to 20th-century ecstasy, American style.

The date? Oct. 29, 2007. The place? Gene & Georgetti, a family-owned steakhouse nestled under the El in Chicago, in business since 1941. Chicago, God bless its retro heart, is the rough-and-tumble big city that has somehow managed to elude the smoking police. But on Jan. 1, it’s over. Out on the street with you, just like New York.

Let’s stay in our moment though, on that last night, in the room just past the bar. There’s history, of course. The first time my husband and I ate at the restaurant, years ago, we were seated in the bar proper, where a poster-size photo of Lucille Ball still hangs, inscribed, “To Gene, Love, Lucy.”

The television is always turned to the game of the day, and on that Friday night of a Memorial Day weekend the place seemed empty. We watched a bleached blonde slide off her barstool, and as her escort gallantly rose to take her home, the bartender handed him a carton of lettuce, iceberg, about 10 heads. Slow night in the kitchen.

Or so we thought. We sat down to eat at 9, and within the next hour a parade of people exited the six dining rooms, upstairs and down. Families with children, lips stained pink by Shirley Temples. Men with coal black hair in coal black leather jackets. Women in beehive hairdos, no kidding. It was the closest I had ever come to time travel, and I couldn’t get enough.

New York is such a harsh place, changing by the hour, it seems. What’s traditional, or old, is shunted aside in favor of the new. I hate that. I grew up watching all the movies of the ’40s and ’50s, in black and white, filled with danger and Barbara Stanwyck — for whom my mother was named — and I imagined myself in each locale, whether glamorous or lowdown.

Gene & Georgetti captures the ethos of both. On one hectic weekend night I watched a desperate man try to slip the unflappable captain, Tommy, a $100 bill for a table. He waved it away like a fly. No table. Cut. Print. I would pay $100 myself to know the reason.

I never will, of course. I concentrate on my drink instead. They pour a good one, Maker’s Mark and soda in a tall glass, not too strong and not too weak. Our waiter, Tony, stays to chat, proud about his daughter at Purdue. I always eat the same thing: fried meat ravioli that is served five to an appetizer, reminiscent of the kreplach I grew up with, these dipped in a bowl of marinara sauce instead of applesauce.

It’s so filling (no, I don’t share, sorry) that I can never make it through a steak — though the signature garbage salad is a great choice when you want to keep drinking. It’s a cocktail party in a bowl — salami, mozzarella, shrimp — with enough iceberg and celery to keep it all crunching, which seems important somehow, between sipping and smoking. It grounds you.

There is wine, eventually, and some of someone else’s steak, and broccoli, sautéed in what must be a ton of butter and olive oil and garlic, which tastes just as good as mashed potatoes by a certain point in the night. And that’s when I lean back in my chair, nearer to the comforting rumble of conversation at the table of men behind me — something about politics, or horses, punctuated by dropped words and meaningful silences. I watch a couple across the way, she with her carefully lacquered hair, he still shy after decades of marriage, lean toward each other, whisper and get up to leave.

That’s when I can’t help but think of when I was little, and my mom would come home from a party or a nightclub. She’d bend over my pillow smelling of Scotch and cigarettes and Joy perfume, her cheek cold from the night. It was the most exciting smell in the world and also the permission I needed to finally fall asleep, because she was home and I was safe and one day, even though I wasn’t named after Barbara Stanwyck, I too would grow up to have cold cheeks and come home from someplace exotic.

And that’s what Chicago is for me, what Gene & Georgetti is, the grown-up realization of glamour mixed with the safety of childhood. My personal film noir in reassuring color.

So, Tommy and Tony, I raise my glass to you. Happy New Year and no hard feelings. Save me a place on the sidewalk. I’ll be back.

©2007 by The New York Times

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