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Cafe Mona Lisa - West Village, NYC

On the 16th of July, 2003, I found myself a new vice. The Parisian vice, in a sense: whiling away the summer hours in a café. The café in question on this occasion was the Café Mona Lisa on Bleecker Street in the West Village, New York City.

On nice days, when the front of the Mona Lisa opens out onto the sidewalk, it may well be the best place to watch people in New York. Within the café, Germans and lesbian couples with babies and dogs intermingle with abandon.

The beautiful, the repulsive. Who cares? Nothing is more miraculous than flesh. Except, perhaps, redheaded flesh. Yes, certainly redheaded flesh.

I wonder if the West Village will ever revert to the sort of bohemianism exemplified by the Café Mona Lisa? The mass exodus from that part of town has by now become a sort of rite of passage for a certain brand of hipster, but to be fair, so, probably, has been the mass return from that exile. Maybe there never was any exodus, just succeeding waves of eternally twenty-something journalists taking note of a demographic shift that they couldn't attribute to the aging population because they didn't even believe in the process.

Bleecker and Jones. How often can one sit comfortably at a café at so fixed, so findable a location? Not between anything. Find the post with those two signs (well, one of the two posts) and you've found the café. Even Haight and Ashbury can't offer as much, certainly not in the way of seating.

You know, I've been to the Louvre, and I simply do not remember that the Mona Lisa was holding a demitasse. I guess she was, though.

What is it that's so irresistible about people speaking languages other than English? Why, their flesh, naturally.

My guess is that West Village apartments are not all that big, not all that comfortable, not all that, period. It's the street life that brings people there and hooks them into staying. Who could leave in the midst of all those foreign languages? Who'd give you directions to Broadway?

The individual seated next to me that fateful day at the Café Mona Lisa was also writing, also in a notebook, also with a pen! And in relatively short paragraphs! Was it love? Ah, the palpitations!

On the internet, that ubiquitous and infallible manual for everything from where to go and what to do to why the Thirty Years War is called that, there are a number of negative "customer reviews" of the Café Mona Lisa. On the other hand, the primary criticisms center around rude staff and long waits, so for an itinerant writer who wants a beer once in a while but in general would rather not be disturbed, what's the drawback?

A steady stream of cars was passing, but down there it's more like a parade. There's no question of speed inside the West Village, certainly not after work. Most of the time in a car is spent waiting. I can't imagine anyone driving through who didn't live there. There's even a conspicuous dearth of taxis. Perhaps they know better. Two taxis passed while I sat there, just out of spite, but nonetheless.

Is it the fire escapes? The brick? There is certainly an ambiance about the West Village that further downtown or across town or out-of-town has yet to duplicate, not that any of them would admit to trying.

I used to have many correspondents, but one by one they switched to e-mail, so that the occasional letter from me seemed a perversity. But if and to the degree they still exist, the Café Mona Lisa will likely turn into the Vesuvio of New York.

Vesuvio, for the uninitiated (who haven't perused this site carefully enough), is by far the best place in San Francisco to write. Just across Jack Kerouac Alley from Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore, it's an old bar with a second floor, quiet in the afternoon, overlooking the intersection of Columbus and Broadway. At the other end of the alley is Chinatown; all else is pure North Beach. I lived there eight years and never even began to run out of inspiration.

Since then I look for the Vesuvio promise wherever I go. It isn't terribly common, especially in New York, where not turning your tables means an insufficiently big pool of tips at the end of the night to pay your rent. But Mona Lisa is a café from a bygone era, not the Victorian one of the furniture, but a time when the West Village and its people were not in much of a hurry and could accept casualness without attributing it to bad manners. If that sounds appealing, Café Mona Lisa is certainly the place to go. Most likely I'll see you there.


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