February 4, 2007

The Buffa’s That Was

A few days ago, I heard from my friend John, and he had some bad news. Earlier in the day, he’d been down around the corner of Lafayette and Prince Streets, and saw that Buffa’s Deli appeared to be shuttered.

     I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard anything about this. Could Buffa’s have closed down without a peep? In a near panic I did some poking around, and learned that the venerable diner had shut down last summer, ostensibly for “major renovations.” What those might entail was unclear, though there were hints about, among other things, changes in the menu when it reopened.

     The news did not ease my despair. Even more horrifying than the thought that Buffa’s might be transformed into a chi-chi bistro, catering to the upscale slugs who infest the neighborhood in search of imported body oils and designer shoes, was the idea that they might “remodel” it as a simulacrum of a diner, a slick and smug retro joint offering up $12 burgers and soy milkshakes. That, after all, had been the rumor that followed the demolition of Jones Diner just a few blocks away. That hasn’t happened yet—and most people I talk to now doubt it ever will—but still.

     For years now I’ve been documenting in my grumpy way the slow murder of New York—from the gutting of Times Square in the ‘90s, to the smoking ban, to the present transformation of Coney Island from “the people’s Riviera” to simply “the Riviera”—a resort and spa for folks who would rather not have to deal with the likes of you and me.

     Buffa’s, though. Buffa’s was always special. I admit I hadn’t been there in almost ten years—but there was a time, when I worked a few blocks away, when I ate at Buffa’s every day. It was always something I looked forward to—greasy bacon cheeseburgers, sloppy chicken parms, pancakes or an omelet if I was hungover, and always a couple beers to wash things down before heading back to the office.

     I knew nothing about Buffa’s history before I started going there. I went at first because it was close. The atmosphere grabbed me immediately—it was bright, it was a little dingy, with a long formica counter, chrome and leatherette stools, a few small tables along the windows. They made a swell burger, too. Plus it was cheap. It was one of those places where the waitresses (Toni and Marie) called you “hon” and “sweetie.” After a week or two they got to know my name, but still called me “hon” and “sweetie.”

     Buffa’s Deli opened in 1928, at the time just another Little Italy luncheonette (back when there was a Little Italy). For one reason or another—maybe location, maybe the atmosphere—it continued to survive through the decades as a family-run diner.

     I remember Johnny Buffa whispering to me one day. “You know the crowd in here used to be a lot different. We had a lot of this type,” he said, using a forefinger to push his nose to one side.

     In fact it used to be a hangout for John Gotti and his crew, whose offices, back in the day, were on the next block.

     Then it became—for reasons they could never explain—a hangout of filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Demme. In fact they’d put up autographed movie posters, and had a shelf of mementos behind the register—including Demme’s People’s Choice Award.

     They also have an inscribed copy of a book by Alger Hiss’ son, who used to be a regular, and who cites Buffa’s in his acknowledgments.

     None of that really mattered much to me, though. I went because I liked it there, and even back then I recognized it as the real thing, despite the celebrity hoo-hah and posters on the wall.

     Marie and Toni always thought it was kind of funny that I had two or three beers with lunch every day before going back to work. Didn’t even ask—I walked in and sat down, and a beer would appear. They told me about their families, their pets, their relationships. They took very good care of me.

     I remember going in there once with Tony Millionaire, the cartoonist. We took a table, ordered a couple burgers and had a couple beers. Then a couple more and a couple more. Before long, the table was loaded with empties, and a very nervous Johnny Buffa came over and started cleaning them up.

     “C’mon guys, we gotta be careful with this,” he said. “I don’t want people walking by to think I’m running a saloon or something.”

     Yet when I wrote a feature about Buffa’s for a paper I used to be with, Johnny paid me back by hand-delivering two cases of beer to my office. (That they were obviously the weird, one-off beers that no one ever ordered was something I found funny as hell. God bless him.)

     I also remember sitting at the counter one day when Toni told me she was having trouble with a customer. I knew who she was talking about. He’d been up to the offices before, and he was an insane pain in the ass.

     “But don’t worry,” she said. “I got my ways.” She reached under the counter and produced a small bottle of Visene. I don’t think he ever came back after that.

     When they bought the building next door and decided to add an extra dining room, I was mortified. Granted, they had too much business and simply needed a place to seat them all, but I still thought the addition would destroy the ambiance. I kept my mouth shut, though. Wasn’t my business.

     When it was done, I was glad to see, the lunch counter remained untouched, and the new dining room was on the other side of a small doorway which I could usually ignore. That, I noticed, was where they shunted the tourists and new customers, leaving the rest of us be.

     Sadly, back around ‘98 or so, my offices moved to Chelsea, and Buffa’s didn’t move with us. Buffa’s was only open for breakfast and lunch on weekdays, so getting down there was pretty much impossible. I never again found myself in the neighborhood when they were open. But I had friends who still went there, and so greetings were exchanged by proxy.

     Now it looks like I’ll never see it again. Not as it was, anyway. That’s okay, I suppose. Sometimes memories are better. I am glad they’ll still be there, I’m glad they’re doing well. And it’s still none of my business to tell them how to run their diner. But New York is just a little less “New York” because of it.


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