· ESSAYS

Brian Cullman

It’s a sad day when a Hungarian restaurant closes.

It’s a sad day when a Hungarian restaurant opens.

It’s always a sad day.

— Grafitti seen behind The Kispipa Cafe in Budapest

I saw that The Red Magyar closed. It actually closed a few years ago, but I hadn’t noticed. I always planned to go back there, but not right away.

Hungarian restaurants are great to go to when you’re in too good a mood and need to be brought back to a more sober reality. Hungarian restaurants are great to go to when you’re in a bad mood and need to be reminded that things will probably get worse.

“Remember John Lennon’s line? “ My friend Mark lowered his voice, like he was telling me a secret or giving me directions to the nearest restroom. “‘God is a concept by which we measure pain?’ In the absence of God, Hungarian restaurants are the best available metric.”

We had just been to Thelonious Monk’s funeral, a jazz service at St Peter’s Church midtown. We’d gotten there early, but still had barely gotten in. The church was overflowing with musicians and fans, many of whom had just stumbled in from the last set at The Vanguard or Bradley’s. A wild assortment of friends and accompanists, from Gerry Mulligan and Randy Weston to Tommy Flanagan, Sheila Jordan and Charlie Rouse, played, paying tribute to him as he lay, as still in death as he was in life, in an open coffin, right by the piano. Everyone played right to him, and there was a solemnity to it all, a sense of both respect and trepidation, a sense that if anyone’s playing displeased him, he’d just lower the coffin lid.

Afterwards, we walked around uptown, from joint to joint, getting a drink, getting coffee, then a beer. Into Central Park then, but there were too many trees, so we wandered back to the streets until, just when the sun was going down, Mark insisted we walk up to The Red Magyar.

“They have cold cherry soup,” he explained.

I couldn’t argue with that, so I followed him up to a dark cafe on east 75th street, just past First Avenue. Inside, although there were tables and candles and the murmur of dinner, it felt like a small, out of the way train station, people there waiting for lost luggage to be delivered.

We were handed a menu with pictures of unhappy looking ducks on the cover, and the waiter leaned over us expectantly. I asked about the cold cherry soup.

“Like borscht,” he sighed. “But no beets. Cherries!”

He waited attentively, looking to Mark, then myself.

“Like vichyssoise,” he nodded. “But no potatoes. Cherries!”

He considered life for a moment, then realized that was a bad idea.

“It’s like…” he stopped, then wandered off to another table.

The cold cherry soup, when it arrived, was remarkable. Chilled and sweet and pink, it tasted like someone else’s childhood.

I looked around the room. No one was talking. This wasn’t the sort of place you’d go on a date unless the point was to break up; more the sort of place you might discuss funeral arrangements.

A sense of second hand melancholy was everywhere. Not tragedy, exactly, but resignation, as if one by one we were watching a train pull away from the station without us.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

Only the waiter was waving. Though maybe he was signaling to the busboy.

And now The Red Magyar is gone, and I hadn’t even noticed it slip away. Like so much of New York. It was here. I can still see the matchbook, the menu. There's the taste of cherry, sweet but not quite sweet enough.

It’s almost too easy to mourn the things we loved, the places we were happy once, the rooms, the sounds, the paintings on the wall and the smell of tobacco and heat and old books and maps.

It’s time now to mourn the things we forgot to notice, the places that slipped away that we never cared that much about.

They won’t be coming back.

On MSNBC, Andrew Zimmern, host of What's Eating America, reported on industry estimates of a 60-80 percent "extinction event" for America's restaurants as a result of COVID-19.

If Congress approves additional bailout legislation, 60-70 percent of restaurants could be saved.

The restaurant industry employs 11 million people; second only to the defense industry in the number of jobs it provides for Americans.

But, hey. Things could get worse.

Brian Cullman is Journal of the Plague Year's Music Editor. He knows Hungarian music. (And just about every other kind of music.) Plus, he offers up a little Monk.

Marta Sebestyen : Istenem, Istenem

Joseph Moskowitz :: Chasen Senem

Allan Sherman : Hungarian Goulash #5

Thelonious Monk :: These Foolish Things

Gaby Kerpel :: Budapestation

Timar Viktor :: Sebes Magyaros

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