IN MEMORY OF THE CORNELIA STREET CAFE

I suspect my sitting in Singe’s Chair is what started it all. The woman at An Dun, the small hotel on Inishmaan where my partner Tom and I recently stayed, had reiterated the age-old story, that Synge had found great inspiration seated in that circular heap of rocks, the remnants of an ancient beehive hut. Of his time spent perched on the edge of a sheer cliff on the western end of the island soaring above Gregory’s Sound the lauded Irish poet wrote: “The sense of solitude was immense. I could not see or realize my own body, and I seemed to exist merely in my perception of the waves and of the crying birds, and of the smell of seaweed.”

Intrigued to make the trek, yet wary for lack of hiking shoes, my start was hesitant, and I almost turned back when the path leading to Cathaior Singe [CAHERE SINGE] devolved into an ankle-twisting sea of rocks and crevasses which were no match for my Hush Puppies. But truth be told, I have been in dire need of inspiration as of late, and so I soldiered on. And an hour later, as I sat comfortably in this revered landmark looking out into the misty Atlantic, the waves crashing against the bluff far below, something did indeed come to me. Not inspiration per se, something else, of which I was unaware at the time – an opening, a willingness – that ultimately reconnected me to a place and a friend I held dear. 

Earlier that the day as we ferried across Galway Bay and encountered this least visited of the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, I was indeed crippled by my first view of Inishmaan, by the stark prehistoric beauty of the limestone pavements, its grikes and clints, and the miles and miles of hand stacked mortarless rock walls that snaked over the entire island dividing plots and wrangling livestock. The population is tiny, about 160 persons, and the three most practical destinations are a small grocery store, a white-washed stone church, and a pub.

It was in that pub that the magic of Singe’s Chair played out. Under the high gabled roof, the bar, or rather the altar, commanded the room while an eternal peat fire roared in the hearth along the western wall. The long line of plaid upholstered bar stools stood empty and a lone patron sat at a table across from the bar sipping his pint and watching the soccer game. My fear that the TV would dilute the timelessness of the experience was immediately quelled when it was switched off as soon as the game ended and Irish music washed over us. Two more stragglers soon wandered in making the full complement for the evening six souls – including the barman. Peter, one of the new patrons overheard our non-Irish accents and came over to introduce himself. Learning we were from New York, the Des Moines, IA native mentioned he had recently visited the city and spent an evening at the White Horse Tavern. He told us that although he was impressed with the landmark pub, he was far more struck by the buzz that had permeated the room that evening – about the closing of the Cornelia Street Café. How upset and disturbed the patrons were, ruing the loss of what someone referred to as... “the last one of its kind.” I told Peter I had been a regular customer and performer at the Café and, making that admission, having that exchange on a tiny sparsely populated island anchored at one of the ends of the earth, made the loss more real than it had ever been before.

I excused myself to find the washroom, continuing to smart as I thought of the closing and of how, amid the chaos, I had lost my connection with Robin, its owner, who not only wasthe Cornelia Street Café, but had become a dear colleague and friend over the thirty years we worked together. A constant ache throbbed in my side because of a perceived misunderstanding or mistake or inexplicable fuckup that ultimately resulted in my missing the actual closing performances at the Café. Although, to be rigorously honest, I don’t know which would have be more painful – to be or not to be there. Nevertheless, the Café was now gone and after losing all contact with Robin, I feared so was my friend. 

That night I had a vivid dream occurring in non-existent venue slapped together from bits and pieces of remembered spaces. In the dream, Robin walked around the corner of a mysterious room wearing a yarn cap (unimaginable in any other circumstance), greeted me with his inimitable, “Richard!” and then launched into an enthusiastic monologue about putting up an evening of material from the Café and needing someone to man the box office and would I be willing? Nonplused, but grateful for the show of confidence, I agreed and was soon collecting twenty dollar bills from a non-stop line of patrons while Robin ran around wrangling performers, troubleshooting technical equipment, and establishing the warm and inviting atmosphere for which he is known. 

I woke around 3 AM convinced I had really played out the scene I dreamt. Returning from the washroom I absent-mindedly checked my phone. I was stunned wide-awake when saw an email – from Robin. In it he recounted briefly what these most trying days were like and how unreal the whole world seemed to him right now, but he immediately went on, much like in the dream, to say he would be presenting readers and performers at a Brooklyn pop up in April, including his very own Café Stories. As I reread the email I felt a great relief and peace of heart that my friend, this inimitable phoenix was already rising to carry on the work he so loves. 

And so, an ocean away, a happenstance encounter with a man from Des Moines, a prescient dream, and an electronic note in the middle of the night came together to portend hope, forward movement, acknowledgement of an old friendship, and acceptance of one of life’s most bitter trials. Unable to go back to sleep I walked to the other end of the room and sat for a while in a chair – not Synge’s – yet, inspired in a way I had not been for a very long time.