I was told not long ago that a certain prominent New York publication has put a moratorium on features about the death of local institutions; otherwise, they’d be running such features constantly. And the sad truth is, there is a sameness to the narrative. Neighborhoods change, rents rise, developers swoop, venerable places close. It’s a story so familiar that it tends, nowadays, to inspire sadness rather than outrage.
These stories also pose certain questions. What makes something “iconic”? Just because a place is old, does that automatically make it an institution? What if standards have slipped, and a restaurant or bar is a pale shadow of its former self? And, of course, the ultimate test: sentiment aside, how often do you actually go there? In the end, the arguments are moot. Good or bad, beloved or forgotten, everything is going. The Metro section reads like an obit page.
You could spend your life going only to sepia-toned places for purely charitable reasons. What kind of a life this would be, I can’t say—probably a melancholy one, filled with pricks of secret, guilty relief when some of the spots are put out of their misery and the civic-minded patron is let off the hook.
I just had a last lunch at a coffee shop that’s being ousted by new landlords. My grandfather used to have lunch there. Of course, my grandfather didn’t care about food. So long as he could get a quick sardine on rye toast and get back to work, he was happy. That, of course, is the point; it’s the loss of everyday, affordable things that hurt most. That’s when a world vanishes.
Walking back from lunch, my friend and I admitted the truth: the matzo ball soup had been insipid, the kasha varnishkes woefully underseasoned, the matzo brie bland, and the alleged Reuben a mere pile of tough corned beef and sauerkraut blanketed with barely melted cheese, and with nary a drop of Russian to improve the situation. The lunch had been bad.
Did it matter? I asked. Did it render its loss less sad?
“No,” my friend said. “It doesn’t change the nature of the basic, systemic problem. After all, there’s no such thing as a perfect victim.”