March 23, 2012 § Leave a comment


I know (or knew) Mike Daisey (well, not well).  He performed a number of times (once or twice, quite possibly three times, certainly a number) at a restaurant/performance space I used to own in Brooklyn.

He has also performed at a restaurant/performance space I still own (or co-own), and have co-owned for almost 35 years, in Greenwich Village, called the Cornelia Street Café: the number here is harder to ascertain since we do 700 performances a year (more or less, two more than more or less if it’s a leap year) and if you search our website (–go ahead, don’t be shy) his name comes up more than fifty times, mostly as Mike Daisey but at least once as Mark Daisey.  The “more than fifty” number is because Sherry Weaver who ran a series here for five or six years (the website can’t properly corroborate the first year) inserted it into the copy for her show, which was called SpeakEasy, and which had “a dynamic and constantly changing cast of storytellers that include such greats as Mike Daisey, Jonathan Ames, and Reno, along with homemakers, lawyers, dog walkers, street magicians and writers.”

Last Saturday I was in Colorado.  I took my younger son to the airport in Eagle after a week of skiing and drove back to Edwards with the intention of sitting at a café/bookstore called Bookworm (or possibly The Bookworm) to catch up on e-mail and contemplate the arduous business of finishing a memoir.

Did I say “memoir?”

Yes, I too commit “memoir.”  The memoir I am trying to finish is a book of café stories—write what you know—which, in some weird way, is a follow up to a, believe it or not, Holocaust-related memoir, which was published some fifteen years ago (actually seventeen, but I would like it to have been less).

Just as I pull into the mall in Edwards, Ira Glass pops up on NPR and devotes an entire program to deconstructing a previous program in which Mike Daisey had not lived up to a journalistic standard of the truth.  He had misled Mr. Glass, his producer, and the whole production team.  He had even, according to Mr. Glass, lied.  I sat in the car for a full hour, enthralled.

I was no clearer after it was over than I had been when it began whether journalistic truth trumps dramatic truth.  I have a hard time with “the truth” anyhow.  I sat down at an outside table—it was quite balmy—with a large coffee ($2.25).  Somebody at a neighboring table told his companion that Mike Daisey was a liar.  I had the temerity to interject and say I knew Mike Daisey (not well).  Did he really think Mike Daisey was lying?  Yes, he did, he had turned off after just a few minutes because it was clear that Daisey was a liar (he used the noun, never, I think, the verb).  Was there no latitude, I asked, in telling a story?  What about the history plays of Shakespeare?  How closely do they hew to Holinshed?  How closely did Holinshed hew to history?  That’s different, he said.

We smiled at each other; he returned to his conversation, I to my laptop.

On it I was wrestling with a story I should have written thirty years ago (maybe more) when it was fresher in my mind.  In the doorway one morning when I arrived at the café was a large bundle, next to the Voilà delivery (croissants, brioches, pains au chocolat); the large bundle was a homeless man, whom I now had the hapless job of rousing.  I let him wash up while I set up.  I put a table in the doorway with two chairs.  I warmed up croissants, brioches and pains au chocolat, I made espresso, and I steamed eggs on the cappuccino machine (our lone warm specialty in those early days).  I joined him at the table and we breakfasted together.  He had seen better days, he had been in the Merchant Marine, he had had plenty of time to read, and he had devoured Shakespeare.  We discussed the history plays and how closely they hewed to Holinshed.

I told him that when the first customer arrived he would have to leave.  He understood.  Customers were few and far between in those days and we discussed Shakespeare for a good two hours.  At a certain point two ladies arrived and indicated they would like to be served.  I indicated to my table companion that the time had come.  We rose, he kissed me long and hard on the mouth, and took his leave.

These bare outlines I remember.  I have a paragraph.  Somehow it needs to blossom into a story.  A version of, certainly not the, but perhaps a, truth.  I’m thinking of calling it “Shakespeare.”

And, à propos titles. the working title of the book itself came in a conversation with an editor, an habituée of the café a good twenty years after Shakespeare (or maybe eighteen), who congratulated me on a complimentary review of my first book that morning in the Times and asked—that question all writers surely dread—what I was working on now.  “Well,” I fumbled, seventeen years ago, “I’m sort of thinking about writing a collection of stories about the café, you know, what happens to a Wandering Jew when he finally stops wandering and stands still and opens the doors and, well, the whole world passes through.”

“Great title,” she said.

The book is provisionally titled The Whole World Passes Through.   As it currently stands, it opens with a tiny story from the early days, a sort of amuse-bouche, called “Stanley.”  Stanley was a former American tennis champion, who now made his home in Kenya.  He would show up at the café intermittently, passing through from Africa on his way to some Masters Tournament in Florida or Hawaii or Mexico or on Long Island, and each time he would allude to a café in Nairobi of which Cornelia Street reminded him.  “You know,” he would say, “there’s a place like this in Nairobi.  You never know who’s going to be there.  You just know, when you walk in, that somebody‘s going to be there.  Someone you know from a former life, a different continent, another galaxy—a pal, an acquaintance, a lover, a movie star.  Someone you know, or someone you knew, or someone you don’t know yet but you will, someone you may spend the night with, carousing, or the rest of your life. And you go away and you come back, a hundred times, a thousand times, and it’s always the same.  But if you stick around, which maybe a handful of people do, sooner or later the whole world passes through.”

Did I make it clear he didn’t actually say those words?  He should have.  He would have.  He does now.

Robin Hirsch founded the Cornelia Street Café with two other artists in 1977.  He is the author of Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinski (1995), every word of which was written to be read there.


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You are currently reading TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES, or, WORDS TO THAT EFFECT at Cornelia Street Café.


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