“Very funny. Take a cab, you funny man. You funny rich man.” fifteen
ESTELLE SAFRAN, KNOWNto one and all as Stelli, sat on her stool at the corner of the bar nearest to the front door. It was indeed her stool, and it was not only reserved for her but had been designed and built for her. It was larger than the others, to accom-modate her girth, and had a power switch, rarely used, that would raise or lower the seat several inches.
She weighed, well, none of your business, and stood five foot three in flats, which were all she ever wore. Honey, if I wore heels, I’d make holes in the sidewalk. Her round face was capped with a pile of unconvincing blond curls, and her eyes, always elaborately framed in mascara, were a startling guileless blue.
She’d been a chubby child who grew fatter in her teens. Such a pretty face, her mother’s friends said, and it was a phrase she would hear or overhear for years. Such a pretty face, and isn’t it a shame . . .
Diets hadn’t worked, and Fat Girl Camp hadn’t worked, and by the time she graduated from the High School of Music and Art she had said the hell with it. At Cornell she hung out with the writers and the theater majors and got a reputation for a savage wit and a deft hand in the kitchen. She wrote ten short stories and two-thirds of a novel, played Tony’s wife in a student production of A View from the Bridge, and realized she couldn’t write and she couldn’t act, and, more to the point, she didn’t really want to do either. What she wanted to do was hang out with people who did—and maybe whip up a little something.
She somehow knew that a man would come along who loved her for herself alone, loved her in spite of her weight, and she met the guy shortly after she graduated and married him four months later. Unfortunately he turned out to be a spoiled child-adult, a mean-spirited emotional cripple who’d picked out a fat girl so he could feel superior to her, secure in the knowledge that she’d never leave him, because where could she possibly go? She divorced the son of a bitch in less than a year, kept the apartment, and started having an open house every Sunday.
Friends and their friends would start to turn up around four in the afternoon, bringing a bottle of wine or whiskey, and there’d be nuts and homemade party mix to nibble on, and around seven she’d go into the kitchen and bring out big bowls of pasta and salad. Everybody ate, everybody drank, and everybody talked at once, and at midnight she threw out the last hangers-on and went to bed.
Monday mornings she went off to work, and when she came home the apartment was always immaculate, every dish and glass washed and put away, the floors vacuumed, the kitchen gleaming.
That was her one indulgence, having someone clean up for her on Mondays, and it was worth it. Her shrink had suggested it, when she’d said for the tenth or twentieth time how she hated cleaning up afterward. Then hire someone to do it for you, he’d said, and for years she would say that therapy was worth every penny, if only because it got her to hire a housekeeper.
But that was only half of it, because the shrink made one other suggestion, and this one changed her life. She was working the fifth or sixth in a long series of pay-the-rent jobs, currently handling phone orders for an East Side florist, and complaining about it, not for the first time. “I need a career,” she said, “instead of a fucking job. But what? I can’t write, I can’t act, my degree’s a bach-elor’s in English, what the hell am I supposed to do?”
“What do you enjoy?”
“What do I enjoy? Having people over, listening to them talk, and watching them eat. That’s great if you can live on the half-bottles of booze they leave when they go home. I’ve got two cupboards full of open bottles and a job that makes me want to vomit.”
“You’re running a salon,” he said.
“And if this was Paris in the twenties, they’d write books about me.”
“Add an o.”
“Change the salon,” he said, “into a saloon.” She knew instantly that he was right, and told him that he was brilliant, a genius. She only wished she was thin and gorgeous so she could take off her clothes and show her appreciation. When she left his office she phoned her employer and quit, then went to work finding the right location and lining up backers.
Neither proved difficult. Her apartment was in Yorkville, in one of the big prewar apartment buildings on East Eighty-sixth, and she figured that was where they were used to coming on Sunday nights, so why not stick with it? Besides, she wanted to be able to walk to work. It was a pain in the ass getting in and out of the back seat of a cab.
She found the perfect spot, a restaurant that had gone under when the owner retired and his nephew took over and ran the place into the ground. Her lawyer negotiated a lease with a clause that gave her the option of buying the building anytime during the term of the lease. She made phone calls as soon as the lease was signed, looking for backers, and the first person she reached said he’d always wanted to own a piece of a restaurant, and he’d put up fifty grand.
But she didn’t want a partner, didn’t want to owe important money to anyone. Five, she told him, was the maximum she would take from any one person. And he wouldn’t own a piece of the place, she’d own all the pieces. If the place was successful, he’d get double his money back. If it went in the toilet, well, he could afford to lose five thousand dollars, couldn’t he?
She raised all the money she needed, and on her terms, and the next time she saw the shrink she told him again that he was a genius, and she had one more question. What the hell should she call it?
“What do people call it now?”
“It doesn’t exist yet,” she said, “so nobody calls it anything.”
“On Sundays,” he said, “when they’re getting ready to go to your apartment, your salon, where do they say they’re going?”
“What do they say? How should I know what they say, they’re not there yet for me to hear.” She thought a moment. “They say they’re going to Stelli’s.”
“A genius,” she said.
Stelli’s was a success from the night it opened. Her Sunday night freeloaders, most of whom had invested from $500 to $5,000
in the restaurant, showed up not only for the opening but several nights a week. She never hired a publicist, but got in the columns without professional assistance. And why not? The most interesting people in New York were regulars at Stelli’s, and spent their most interesting evenings in conversation at her bar.
She drew writers, of course. They’d been the core of her Sundays, and they were her favorites, not just because she respected their work but also because they had the best conversation. It was important for them to be original. An actor would find a story that worked and use it over and over, delivering it a little better each time. But it was the same shtick, and if you’d heard it once, that was plenty. A writer, though, felt compelled to think of something new.
She got actors, too, and liked them, if only because they were so determined to be liked. And they were decorative, too, and drew the eyes. But she also got politicians, both local and national, and a small international contingent from the UN. She didn’t get the Wall Street guys, or the crowd from Madison Avenue, and she didn’t get the ladies who lunched or the pinky-ring cigar smokers.
But she got a few of the more sophisticated cops and the hipper gangsters, and an occasional Met or Yankee. And lawyers, of course. Everybody got lawyers.
She learned how to keep the help from stealing and her suppli-ers from cheating her. She learned how to avoid serious health violations in the kitchen, and how much to schmear the inspectors to overlook the less-than-serious ones. She refined the menu, dropping the items that nobody ordered. She made money, and by the end of the first year she’d paid back her backers, and six months later had paid them back double. She invested her profits in CDs and T-bills, and six months before her lease was up she bought the building. Now nobody could raise her rent and nobody could make her move and Stelli’s could go on being Stelli’s forever.
Such a pretty face. She put on a few pounds every year, just a few, and she was resigned to it, most of the time. But once, not long after she’d exercised her option and bought the building, she got inspired and went on an Oprah-type diet and lost a lot of weight. She didn’t shrink all the way down to a size three, but she did get to be the size of a normal person, and everybody oohed and aahed over her.
And she discovered that, with the extra flesh gone, she didn’t have such a pretty face after all. Maybe the observation had been true when she was a girl, but since then her features had matured in an unflattering fashion, and she had a big nose and a big mouth, and the face that looked back in her mirror, the face that appeared at the top of this new almost-slender body of hers, looked like it ought to be peering over the parapet of Notre Dame.
She looked like a fucking gargoyle, and for this she was eating salad with no dressing? For this she was passing up pasta?
She put the weight back on, and then some, and she felt a whole lot better, and never again thought about taking it off.
Now, on this Friday night, she sat in her custom-built seat with the first of the four or five Chardonnay spritzers she would consume in the course of the evening, greeting her guests as they arrived, with smiles for all and kisses for a few. Her tables were all booked, except for the two she’d hold back in case a cherished regular arrived hungry without a reservation. (Once a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, a Sunday salon alumnus and $5,000 backer, had gotten off a flight from the Coast and come straight to Stelli’s, and all her tables were taken. “Hey, it’s all right,” he’d insisted. “I’ll just sit at the bar, and you know what I’ll do? I always have martinis with a twist, but tonight I’ll have them with olives.” She’d served him a full meal at the bar, and started a trend. Now several of her regulars ate at the bar on nights when they came in by themselves. But she always held back two tables, just in case.) A smile, a nod, a kiss. The out-of-towners got nice warm smiles, too, because their money was as good as anybody else’s, and for all she knew so was their company. Half her regulars had been out-of-towners once, until New York got in their blood and became a part of them even as they became a part of it.
Two men in sports jackets. One she’d seen a few times recently, a cop or ex-cop, and if you gave her a minute she’d come up with the name. “Jim,” she said, “it’s good to see you.” And his companion, a familiar face, damn good-looking, nice clothes, and the minute he gave her a smile she placed him. “Fran! You look terrific, and where the hell have you been keeping yourself? I saw more of you when you were living in Seattle.”
“Portland,” he said.
“Same difference. It’s great to see you, Fran, and you, Jim. I hope you gentlemen made a reservation . . .”
“Two at eight,” Fran Buckram said.
“That’s easier than eight at two, which is what I had the other night. Or would have had, if I hadn’t told them to get lost. Go to Madrid, I told them. They eat late there, you’ll feel right at home.