Wissot: Empty chairs at empty tables
Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t thought for a very long time about my first girlfriend, Elaine, and the summer of 1956 when I fell in love with her at Brooklyn’s Far Rockaway Beach. My wife, Alyn, and I were having dinner at Bistro Vendome, a favorite French restaurant of ours on Larimer Street in Denver. I was reminded of that memorable summer while staring at a dozen empty chairs and empty tables on the holiday decorated patio where we were the only diners.
Elaine and I were both 11 so our love was of the puppy variety. After summer ended we only saw each other one more time when I took a three-hour subway ride from my apartment in the Bronx to her apartment in Coney Island so we could hold hands and smooch in a movie theater.
The sadness that enveloped me at the restaurant was reminiscent of how I felt when she left one week before I did to go back to school. I would walk by the empty tables where the old Jewish women played mahjong during the day and the empty beach chairs where the kids made out at night. The silence was deafening. The absence of chatter and laughter made the place where I fell in love with Elaine seem like a cemetery haunted by the ghosts of our feelings for each other.
I grew up in a city of almost 8 million people and found pleasure in places packed with people elbow to elbow, chin to chin, nostril to nostril. It didn’t matter whether it was standing on an “A” train subway platform, wedging into Radio City Music Hall to see the annual Christmas show, or leaving the bleachers after a game at Yankee Stadium. I felt part of something bigger than me in the company of strangers.
Where some people crave the peace and quiet far from urban madness, I don’t. I seek the dissonant sounds of the street. I welcome ambulance sirens, car horns, amplified music, drunk laughter, arguing neighbors, skateboards cascading against pavement. I miss the craziness of barely manageable city chaos.
Like you I can’t wait for this pandemic to end so we can return to some semblance of normalcy. There is nothing normal about kids learning from home. Home schooling may be the correct call for some families, but is not the right fit for most of the more than 50 million kids attending public and private K-12 schools in the country.
It is not normal for elderly people living in convalescent homes to die apart from their families like soldiers on a battlefield. Nor is it normal for patients on hospital incubators to say their farewells on a Zoom call surrounded by doctors and nurses.
Perhaps as early as next fall when the worst of this scourge has ended we will reflect on this time with relief and sorrow; relief that the worst of this health crisis is over, sorrow that so many have died, been hospitalized, lost their jobs, shuttered their businesses.
I’m sure many of you realized from the outset of this column that I lifted the title from the song of the same name in the legendary musical “Les Miserables.” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” honors the valor of the Parisian working classes in the 1832 citizens’ revolt against a despised monarch and alludes to the lives lost in the uprising who never returned to their former haunts and hangouts in the city.
“Les Miz” sings of courage and compassion, resolution and resilience, but mainly, of love and death. I first learned about love during the early summer of my adolescence. In this, the winter of my adulthood, COVID-19 has given me a remedial tutorial on the fragility and preciousness of human existence.
As we left the restaurant and walked on Larimer Street, I noticed the row after row of empty chairs and tables, socially distanced in the spaces the dining establishments on the block reserved for outdoor dining.
Larimer at Christmas is usually a very joyful place. Locals, visitors, singles, families, young couples, and old timers like us, make it the holiday epicenter of LoDo. This year all I saw was deserted sidewalks. I longed for the throngs of people who I didn’t know but wanted to be among.
I never went back to Rockaway Beach. I couldn’t. That was a one-and-done memory not open to renewal. I want to return to a very different looking LoDo at the holidays a year from now.
I look forward to having difficulty making a reservation at a Larimer restaurant because all the chairs and tables are fully occupied.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.
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