You just can’t get a bad meal at the Gramercy Tavern on East 20th Street in New York City: The food is inspired, the atmosphere warm, the service consistently attentive without being obsequious. A couple of years ago, in one of the most enjoyable experiences of my writing life, I shadowed Modesto Batista, the Gramercy’s chief steward, on his early morning circumnavigation of the Union Square Farmers Market. Ever since, I’ve kept tabs on the Gramercy, grabbing lunch in the more casual “tavern” up front or splurging on the occasional take-the-top-of-my-head-off fine meal in the elegant dining room. Follow the Gramercy on Twitter (@GramercyTavern) to stay current on its daily lunch specials, which are farm-to-market driven and affordable.
It was Twitter that alerted me to the Gramercy Tavern staff celebration of National Poetry Month. Every day in April, during pre-service “family” meals, the staff members take turns reading poetry aloud. It’s a tradition that started at roughly the same time that the Academy of American Poets introduced National Poetry Month. Anybody who has ever worked in a restaurant knows how the pressure can build just before the doors open for meal service, which makes the restaurant’s tradition of pausing for poetry even more impressive.
I stopped by the Gramercy on Thursday to listen to the pre-dinner poetry offerings. As the staff assembled in the dining room, they were still talking about the pre-lunch staff meal, during which server Marcelo Valez sang an original composition. At first he demurred, because he had not yet translated his verse from Spanish to English, but his colleagues' persistence wore down his resistance and he took the floor, to everyone’s delight.
After routine announcements about menu changes and such, David Shaw (right), a charismatic server, approached the makeshift stage and announced, “Today I’m going to read “Lament,” by Franz Wright.” Shaw, one of the more regular readers, has a store of poems at the ready. “Franz Wright is one of my favorite poets,” he said and read the lines as one who has taken in the poem over countless solitary readings: I took a long walk / that night in the rain. / It was fine. / Barehead, shirt open: in love / nobody gives a shit about the rain . . . It was an impressive, moving performance.
Next up was Robert Blake (below), smiling, exhuberant, and, judging by his colleagues' applause, a crowd favorite. Instead of reciting a poem, he performed a scene from Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors. “If it’s a poem in your head, it’s poetry,” he said before launching into a dead-on impersonation of the film's elderly Professor Louis Levy lecturing about the difficulty of life’s moral choices.
With moments to spare before the dinner crowd descended upon the dining room I persuaded Marcelo Valez to send me a link to an original composition. Here it is:
Find Marcelo's translation after the jump.
MY COUNTRY MUSIC AND LYRICS BY MARCELO VELEZ I want to convince myself that I have you here very closely, that I never left you, never crossed your borders. When I left you, I packed in each suitcase my memories, my moments, and even one and other sorrow And if I were to miss you too much, in my long journey you would be my only baggage and there would be no customs, walls or barriers
that will keep you away from me.
You gave me your culture and citizenship, I explored your geography, you're my beginning and my roots. And you kept my first years and childhood friends, my parents and the nostalgia when you saw me leave. And I inherited your customs(ways), your language and flag You were my first school, and home where I was born MY COUNTRY WHEN will I return to you MY COUNTRY. And how to refuse you, if I carry you here in my blood if my skin has pigments of your mixture and crossbreeding, If I were to miss you... in my long journey you would be my only baggage and there would be no customs, walls or barriers
that will keep you away from me.
You gave me your culture and citizenship, I explored your geography, you're my beginning and my roots. And you kept my first years and childhood friends, my parents and the nostalgia when you saw me leave. And I inherited your customs(ways), your language and flag You were my first school, and home where I was born MY COUNTRY WHEN will I return to you There is No expired passport or visa required
for me to able to return to you.
Because this love That i have for you will never expire
You gave me your culture and citizenship ... How I wish your children would not work, How I wish your people would not starve, How I wish to return and not be absent of you anymore.
Listen to more of Marcelo's music here.