March 21, 2013 | by Patrick Monahan
“Sorry, wasn’t there a cabaret here?” a British woman asked the waiter. He was laying a napkin on the table and put a glass of white wine on top of it. For a second, I thought the woman was talking to me.
“Oh yes,” the waiter said, “this part of the bar used to be the Oak Room. They only put that wall up a couple of months ago.” He tapped a panel between her table and mine, then put an identical glass of wine in front of me.
The Algonquin Hotel’s Blue Bar lived up to its name: neon tubes snaked clear around the narrow room, reflecting their blue glare on its oak panels and plastic banquettes. Hirschfeld prints covered the walls and Sinatra crooned from a speaker in the ceiling. I wanted to answer the woman, but found myself far away from her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a baritone voice announced, “The Oak Room is proud to present … Steve Ross!”
The crowd applauded. Candles flickered inside their glass holders. A curtain at one end of the room parted, and Steve appeared in Noël Coward’s emerald smoking jacket. He wove through the tables, making his way to the grand piano. The crowd hushed, and he began to play Porter, Gershwin, and the saloon songs he knew I liked.
“If it isn’t the jeunesse dorée!” he beamed at me after the show, shaking hands with people as they filed out of the Oak Room.
“Did you know,” he told me when most of them were gone, “that the first Algonquin Round Table was right over over there?” He pointed to a corner of the Oak Room, just on the other side of the door from where we were standing. Waiters were clearing the tables; the baritone in the light booth was pulling on his coat. Alexander Woolcott might as well have been lingering over lunch.
I looked back at the Blue Bar and noticed the Oak Room still half there: the curtain rod (now curtain-less) which used to part for Steve, the panels that gave the Oak Room its name. Even the woman and her wine were about where the Round Table used to be. It was a year since the Oak Room folded, but it could have been a moment, or a century, ago.
It was also a year since my grandmother had a stroke. “Yiayia!” I called to her in Greek as I stepped into her hospital room. Yiayia didn’t notice me; she was sitting up in bed, swatting the folds of her sheets. It was an expert, delicate dissatisfaction, as if she were back in her kitchen, looking under a cloth at a bowl of rising dough and finding the yeast had gone stale.
I sat down at the edge of the bed, and took her hand. “I love you,” I could only think to say.
She began mumbling, but the words were unintelligible. Then she stopped; her eyes focused on the wall opposite. “I … love … you,” she stammered back.
A nurse came into the room with a breakfast tray, and I rushed to tell her what had happened. “That could be good,” the nurse shrugged, “though patients in her condition often repeat what they hear.”
We all repeat what we hear, and wonder where the echo begins. Resonance, after all, is the most personal kind of truth, which oscillates between our own present and past. I looked up at the Blue Bar’s neon tubes and watched as they softened into a blue spotlight. Steve Ross was bathed beneath it, singing a ballad at the piano.
“It’s here …” I started to tell the woman, but stopped. She turned, wondering what the rest was going to be. “Sorry,” I shook my head, and finished the glass of wine.
Patrick Monahan is a freelance writer and native New Yorker.