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Hey, that guy’s in my place!

This week Robert Mueller made me chuckle and a recent event made me wonder just how quickly the social fabric of the country was unravelling.

After such a week I could use my Cafe Katja, but paternal responsibilities make that impossible today. But you should go — and raise a glass to the tenth birthday of my local watering hole. Most Friday afternoons you can find me exactly where this interloper was. Our local online rag published this appreciation of Andrew and Erwin’s little joint (though it’s bigger than it was when it opened a decade back) a few days ago, and I wrote about it in 2014 (that essay is below). Until next week …


On those rare occasions when Marilyn and I find ourselves free of the children on a weekday evening, we’re lucky enough to have a wide choice of restaurants on the Lower East Side, but most of the time we end up at Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street. Katja is not quite an Austria-style cafe; in his review of the restaurant for The New York Times in 2007, Peter Meehan described it as a buschenschank: “Traditional buschenschanks spring up toward the end of the year in the south of Austria. (Nearer to Vienna they’re called heurigers.) They are places of simple eating and drinking, where farmers can sell as much of anything they’ve grown, raised, fermented, preserved or otherwise wrangled from their land before the government assesses taxes on it.”

Cafe Katja is certainly in the tradition: a neighborhood joint without pretension, with many items on the menu possessed of local origins, and the Austrian-ness of the restaurant is more in its intimacy and conviviality than in any attempt to replicate the setting of a Vienna cafe. It is one of the few bars in the neighborhood that lacks television or a jukebox, and I don’t think it can comfortably seat more than 25, at the bar and at the tables, at any one time. But it is warm, and pleasant, and (unfortunately for those who must stand in line to wait for tables) invites a long alcoholic, conversational stay.

The food is “Austrian-style” rather than an assertive imitation of the cuisine as well. There’s a fine selection of wurst, honestly the best selection I’ve come across outside of any German specialty restaurant, and I am often drawn to the fine cheese-stuffed krainer sausages and the delightful spätzle — neither too chewy or mushy — though on a splurge there are excellent Austrian meatballs as well. On our most recent visit Marilyn and I shared the aufschnitt-teller — cured meats served with crisp toast, with a dollop of liverwurst on the side — and a red cabbage salad large enough for two. The serving sizes and the character of the food were perfect for a warmish late-spring evening.

I am convinced that Central European red wines give Western European reds more than a run for their money, and the Cafe Katja’s wine list offers a magnificent selection of Austrian zweigelts and blaufrankisches and a long, tempting array of liqueurs and schnapps. On occasion there are also excellent Hungarian reds — very hard to come by, and when they appear on the menu, I am tempted to order up the whole case to drag the remainder home.

But the primary reason Marilyn and I keep returning is that it is very much a neighborhood watering hole, and unusually welcoming. The wait staff is, to a person, attentive and good-natured; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase (who himself lives on the Lower East Side) can often be found in convivial conversation with patrons. This is what happens when a local business springs up in a local community and remains dedicated to serving it well.

There is more about Cafe Katja in a recent issue of the print edition of another fine Lower East Side tradition, The Lo-Down (more about the expansion can be found in this 2011 post). Prost to the restaurant’s continued good health.

Roundup

This week I reviewed a new brief history of Philadelphia; returned to Philadelphia to remember my father on the ninth anniversary of his death; and made plans to hear some music in Brooklyn and see a movie on the Lower East Side.

There’s no better way to end the week than with a seven-minute exercise in extreme comic frustration. In “Verbatim: What Is a Photocopier?” (2014), filmmaker Brett Weiner reenacts a real-world court deposition that leaves two attorneys, a stenographer, and a poor sap speechless. “What you see is, word for word, an excerpt from what the record shows to have actually unfolded,” Weiner says in his production notes. “However, I did give the actors creative range to craft their performances. As such, this is a hybrid of documentary and fiction. We’ve taken creative liberties in the staging and performance to imbue the material with our own perspectives.” The resulting film played around the country, winning the audience award at the Dallas International Film Festival and leading to a short series of sequels for the New York Times.

See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon. And, after the day he’s had, you might find “Dave” there too.

Roundup

Earlier this week, Mark Twain travelled to Jerusalem and the Holy Land so I don’t have to.

Philadelphia has its own distinctive aura — a strangeness, an idiosyncrasy about its urban form, and a particular history that’s critical to understanding the way America as a nation developed, but also that stands apart from the rest of the nation,” says Nathaniel Popkin, co-author with Peter Woodall of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, just out from Temple University Press. Their text accompanies some splendid photographs of out-of-the-way Philadelphia by Joseph E. B. Elliott; a few of these sites are hidden-in-plain-sight, others very well hidden indeed. The below video promoting the book features a few tantalizing samples. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is available now from Amazon.

See you at Cafe Katja later today, and here next week.

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Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight!”

Comedy week here at the blog: on Tuesday I pointed the way to a fine speech by Ben Tarnoff on Mark Twain, vulgarity, and the 21st century; yesterday I enjoyed a recent interview with veteran Monty Python comedian and satirist John Cleese.

Speaking of Twain, I leave you this week with news that Hal Holbrook, who has been performing his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! since 1959, is retiring the show after touring with it for 58 of his own 92 years. I never saw the show live (there is a recording of a 1967 performance available at amazon.com), and I’m sorry I didn’t. Holbrook is a highly-respected actor, of course, but also something of a Twain scholar-at-large, and he kept Twain’s writing in the public eye for more than half a century. Fellow Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote this appreciation of Holbrook for the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and below is a short excerpt from that 1967 performance. See you next week.

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This week I reviewed Marjorie Perloff’s fine Edge of Irony and noted the upcoming screening of Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert at the Metrograph later this month.

Are L&H due for a renaissance? Possibly. Back in June of this year, Tony Alpsen wrote this appreciation for Splitsider, and Paul Auster noted their appeal in his novel 4 3 2 1, published in January:

… [Old] Laurel and Hardy movies … turned out to be the finest, funniest, most satisfying movies ever made. Yes, they were ever so droll and inventive, and yes, Ferguson’s stomach sometimes ached from laughing so hard at their buffoonery, but why he found them so laughable, and why his love for them began to flower beyond all reason, had less to do with their clownish antics than their persistence, with the fact that they reminded Ferguson of himself … Laurel and Hardy’s struggles were no different than his own. They, too, blundered from one ill-conceived plan to the next, they, too, suffered through countless setbacks and frustrations, and whenever their misfortunes brought them to the snapping point, Hardy’s angers would become his angers, Laurel’s befuddlements would mirror his befuddlements, and the best thing about the botches they made for themselves was that Stan and Ollie were even more incompetent than he was, more stupid, more asinine, more helpless, and that was funny, so funny that he couldn’t stop laughing at them, even as he pitied them and embraced them as brothers, kindred spirits forever smacked down by the world and forever standing up to try again — by hatching another one of their harebrained plans, which, inevitably, would knock them to the ground once more.

As long as we’re on the subject of funny, I want to direct your attention to “How Bullwinkle Taught Kids Sophisticated Political Satire,” an essay by Beth Daniels about the eponymous cartoon moose that appeared yesterday at the Smithsonian magazine’s web site. I used to watch Bullwinkle & Friends (it was syndicated under a variety of titles) as a kid during the 1960s; Ms. Daniels is a few years younger than I am, but I can testify that what she writes about reflects my experience precisely. She notes:

Finally, the show’s format and depth of talent connected my sister and me to a world of comedy that was well before our time, but helped us navigate what came afterwards. First, its gloss of adult sophistication completely undercut by silliness was incredibly attractive to me and my sister. Secondly, it got us to delight in the work of a revolving cast of top-notch, old school voice actors who’d grown up in radio and knew how to sell a line. … And so, through Bullwinkle, we were granted access to nearly a century’s worth of comedy and satire, three generations of backhanded patriotism tempered with gentle skepticism going back to vaudeville, a sort of atavistic psychic tool chest for navigating strange and scary times. …

Bullwinkle’s playful critique lives on today in Spongebob and The Simpsons, shows whose creators openly acknowledge their debts. (Spongebob’s Squidward’s voice is Ned Sparks; Plankton is Walter Brennan. All the male Simpsons have Bullwinkle & Rocky’s middle initial “J.”) These shows are a loving critique of the ways American ideals and American reality are often out of whack.  And it’s a good thing, because suddenly the original great theme of Bullwinkle — fear of nuclear annihilation — is back. 

Read the whole thing here. And I’ll see you next week.