Thursday, December 7, 2006


Today I wanted to go to lunch at the Rainbow Café, downstairs on Chapel St. in New Haven, only to find out it's closed, kaput. Businesses come and go, certainly, and even if I might mourn no longer having their veggie burgers, or hamburgers, or pita pizza or chicken sandwiches, the loss of such culinary items in themselves should not stir much emotion. And yet I felt a distinct depression as I continued down the blustery street.

I think it had to do with the images that first sprang to mind: The Rainbow when it was new and lively and pretty, when two graduate students in the English dept. suggested it as a lunch destination when I was new to CT as a postdoc fresh from Princeton. That was in 1995, I guess. It had changed since then, becoming noticeably, in the last year especially, not well-kept, a bit down-at-heels. The quality of the food and service never declined but the appearance of the place did. It was no longer fresh and enthusiastic. And neither am I.

Other thoughts: how often I ate lunch there during those years when I taught on campus several days a week. The busyness of being part of the lunchtime crowd. But also many summer evenings dining there with my daughter when New Haven would be largely uninhabited, the restaurant patronized only by this or that crowd of summer programs students. Those memories confronted me with how much time has passed since I first moved to New Haven in 1999, because memories of a place are invariably associated with the venues where one spends time. It's odd to think that I won't sit in The Rainbow anymore, grading papers, reading The New Haven Advocate.

Recently a blog I read, as well as people I know, have mentioned and mourned the closing of Tower Records in Philadelphia. Tower didn't have a lot of associations for me, but today I was able to better appreciate what it was those people were trying to communicate. I think it's more than a desire to pay tribute to a good business, a valued place to shop or eat. As Ol' Fezziwig says in the film Scrooge: "one doesn't run a business just to make money . . . It's to preserve a way of life that one has known and loved." We rely on such places as providing identity for what "our town" is, and for providing us with a renewable sense of who we are as their steady patrons. You are where you eat, and where you shop? Something like that.

But I always come back to: "it is Margaret you mourn for." What my unflattering eye saw in The Rainbow's decline was confirmed by its closing. Hard times. Feeling far from flush myself as yet another year ends, I took the loss as a sign of the decline and shutting down of some of my investment with this place and whoever I might have hoped to become while living here. In a collegetown, the population is recurrently transient -- students, grad students, junior faculty come and go. It's not surprising the stores do too. Some closings, like the York Theater, or a favorite coffeeshop, have been met with expressions of regret in the press. The Rainbow is the first closing, for me, that isn't simply inconvenient, but seemed to tell me something about my own tenuous existence. Perhaps it's simply that it reminds me I never intended to be here so long as to outlast a restaurant!

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
If birds fly over the rainbow, then why O why can't I?


Andrew Shields said...

"Culture is not who you are, but what you do," wrote James Surowiecki in a different context in the New Yorker a few years ago.

Donald Brown said...

Hmm, maybe, but I take exception to one sense in which that statement could be taken. First of all, "culture" is, as I said in a poem, "not you and me, but what they let us be." In such formulations (speaking in philosophical terms) experience takes precedence over essence. So that only the people who have already "done" something have the means to do it again. There is no room for simply "being" -- one must "do." Granted, that's the way the world works, but the world has taken many philosophically wrong turns.

But even in social terms, the distinction says that you can only be what you can do, and that's only what the context or socius or material conditions decrees. I think I'm still too idealist for that concession to our dominant materialisms. When an actor is busing tables, when a poet is working as a copy-editor, when an artist is house-painting, they are, culturally, what they do, but they still are something else.

Andrew Shields said...

Your comments make it clear that it is inappropriate to apply Surowiecki's remark to individuals. Your entry here did make me think of it, but it does not apply in such a case after all.

For the original text, which is quite fascinating, check here:

Donald Brown said...

Efficiency, they say
Get to know the date
And tell the time of day,
While the crowd begins complaining
How the beaujolais is raining
Down on darkened meetings
on the Champs Elysees
--John Cale, Paris 1919