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Remembrance of a Restaurant Past 

Caffè Proust has closed. Long live the Marcel Proust Support Group.

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002
In the essay "The Handling of Neurotics," found in issue No. 2 of Proust Said That, founder and publisher P Segal writes, "Mine has always been the intuitive approach; being deeply neurotic myself, I've operated on the assumption that other people have the same buttons as I do." For the less empathetic soul, Miss P offers five simple rules contrived by a scientifically minded friend, among them: "Neurotics are most comfortable when given choices"; "Neurotics respond to the subjunctive case"; and "Neurotics are more comfortable if they know your limits." The rules, Miss P explains, are subtle strategies to relieve the internal pressure and worry of the neurotic personality while offering ease and inspiration for its potential genius. They are also the mark of a hostess of exceptional grace and skill.

As everyone would agree, Miss P is such a hostess.

For the last three years, Caffè Proust has been the physical embodiment of Miss P's magazine and her public parlor: Young artists lounged on couches sipping wine; others sat at the bar flipping through the old books found on the nearby shelves while dinner guests perused the rustic Italian menu which benefited, equally, from Miss P's heritage as well as her years in catering. Piano players came and went, tickling the ivories while classical singers filled their lungs and poured out their hearts. Original art -- mostly portraits of Marcel Proust, the early 20th-century French novelist -- hung on the walls, alongside cover illustrations from Proust Said That. Painted vines curled beneath the ceiling, and marbleized columns emerged in copper-leafed furbelows amidst salmon-colored walls with the texture of tissue paper. The tables, covered in tasteful decoupage culled from hundreds of magazines, offered Proustian quotes written in a careful hand. The menu encouraged guests to share their dishes and put emphasis on the more social aspects of society, a passion shared by both Proust and P. Still, the lone patron was not forgotten. A supplement called The Caffè Proust Magazine was often added to the menu to assuage the solitary moments between salad and pasta with charming anecdotes about the restaurant, its namesake, the neighborhood, and the Marcel Proust Support Group, which Miss P hosted once a month on the couch next to the piano. Lastly, there was Miss P herself, behind the bar pulling beer, her thick, black hair streaked with red and her bright red mouth smiling.

This scene differs little from an average night in Miss P's home just a short block away. The large Edwardian, built by a family of architects, contains multiple stories, spiral staircases, sweeping views, hidden passages, weird little nooks, and 14 rooms of redwood paneling and has been a hotbed of spontaneous talent and cacophonous absurdity for the last two decades. While Miss P's "social season" begins with a grand fete on Halloween and ends with Twelfth Night, the door at the top of the marble stairway is rarely closed. Over the years, thousands of people -- artists, actors, musicians, pranksters, poets, drunks, merry brigands, and no fewer than 100 housemates -- have come and gone at all hours of the night. Comfortable under Miss P's tutelage, friends and friends of friends have stopped by for morning coffee at 3 p.m. Miss P Standard Time and conversed in the late-afternoon glow of the parlor, or they've drunk ceremonial liquor and risen in the tiny attic room known as "Loungeworld" surrounded by formerly conscious revelers. They have played jokes on each other in the "Room of Doors" and conducted social experiments in the "Fainting Room." They have planned early incarnations of ridiculous underground events such as Burning Man and constructed 18th-century finery for Bastille Day. They have nursed broken hearts at the kitchen table and recovered with new friends in the king-size shower. They have held writing groups by the fireplace and engaged in drunken sword fights on the pitched roof. And everyone has felt welcome, and privileged, to be there.

"Just sitting around the kitchen table could be wonderful," says Jane Sommerhauser, who counts the three years she lived at Miss P's among the happiest of her life. "I remember one night, someone made a potato animal out of baby potatoes and toothpicks. Pretty soon, all the fruits and vegetables had been transformed into strange characters, and we sent them off on a great adventure in a paper car. Just silly, spontaneous stuff."

Another night, struggling to open her bedroom door, Sommerhauser plunged into a knee-high pool of 400 gold balloons.

"It was amazing," she recalls. "They just floated around the house for weeks until we threw the "Balloon Killing Party.' Everyone dressed up in overalls, and we popped the balloons using long sticks tipped with straight pins. Then, we swept up all their little golden carcasses. It was an event. That's just how things happen there."

One night in the early '90s, viola player and then-housemate John Casten asked Miss P to join him in reading Marcel Proust's 3,500-page masterful albatross Remembrance of Things Past.

The Marcel Proust Support Group held its first official meeting in the parlor.

The downstairs neighbors, both dear friends, were cajoled into joining the endeavor. Forty people attended the second meeting of the Support Group, and, of those 40, four actually read all 1.25 million words. It took a year, at 10 pages a night.

"It changed my life," says Miss P, lounging in a party dress crinkled by a night spent on the Caffè Proust couch. "[Proust's] powers of observation were so keen, his humor so rich and subtle. I learned a lot about myself in that first reading. I laughed at my faults and those of my beloved ones and looked at the subjects of love and jealousy, and the nature of things that destroy relationships.

"I still use his advice to comfort people that come here in the midst of a breakup," she says, squinting through a cloud of smoke at the dusky light shining through her bay windows. "Think about the love that broke your heart 20 years ago, and ask yourself, "Would you want that relationship right now?' Proust said that."

Upon reading a biography of Proust, Miss P discovered her affinity went well beyond romantic realism: Like Proust, P wanted to be a writer but attended college anyway; like him, she has avoided "legitimate" work at all costs, preferring to socialize in cafes; like him, she keeps pathologically late hours and is never on time for anything; like him, she has ignored politics on all but one occasion. She rose before noon to protest the trial of Food Not Bombs leader Keith McHenry; Proust rose at a similarly "ungodly" hour to protest the anti-Semitic trial of Alfred Dreyfus. Like Proust, Miss P delights in sending letters to acquaintances who live two blocks away. Finally, Proust had a long-standing fascination with Italian coterie, to which Miss P, being a member of the exuberantly social Pizzimenti family, might claim a consanguineous intimacy. Even eerier still, Proust died on Nov. 11, the same day on which Miss P was born.

So Miss P started a magazine.

Cherished friends, including Twisted Times creator Stuart Mangrum, tried to talk her out of it. "I told her a magazine would suck her dry and break her heart," says Mangrum. "Especially a magazine about Proust. I think Proust was a long-winded poofter who needed editing. But there was no stopping her." So he helped. Other friends put Proust Said That on the Web, making it one of the first periodicals available by computer. "Proust's Wake," an annual party involving a coffin, a funeral march, and a life-size cake made to resemble Proust, was added to the social season. Soon enough, Proust Societies throughout the world were paying attention, finding great delight in Miss P's genial blend of Proustian wisdom, gourmet recipes, and personal peccadilloes (everything from Proust sightings to a piebald cat that bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead author). Soon, the Utne Reader and the New York Times were calling and the German Proust Society had issued her a formal invitation to Berlin. Devotees of Proust Said That from all over the globe wanted to visit.

When Miss P found the site for her cafe, 19 friends put up the cash. Of course, they had made fun of her obsession over the years -- they created Proust shooting targets, spray-painted the author's face around town, and founded the retaliatory Bukowski Appreciation Society (in which Miss P also took part) -- but they wanted to give something back. Within months, Caffè Proust was known in art and academic circles worldwide, but more important, it was known as Miss P's place, the structural embodiment of grace and spontaneity.

"Proust's three-year anniversary fell in the middle of a four-day PG&E blackout," recalls Sommerhauser. "Everyone pitched in -- the whole staff and a bunch of people with reservations brought in candles and candleholders and candelabras. Now known as "The Night the Lights Went Out,' it was the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen. Candlelight on every surface. People were awe-struck. That's the sort of environment this is."

Sadly, love does not pay the bills. Last weekend, Caffè Proust closed its doors.

During one of its final evenings, while Rococo Risqué Kabarett's house band performed songs by Kurt Weill and a glorious soprano named Ariela Morgenstern was met by the spontaneous chorus of guests singing Bizet, friends and admirers of Caffè Proust raised glasses with tears in their eyes, but Miss P shook her head.

"This is not the time to be morose," she said. "There will be another restaurant, sooner than you think. Everyone must leave Caffè Proust happier than they came."

As Miss P says, there's a quote from Proust for every occasion, and this one hung on the door: "It is sometimes just at the moment when we think that everything is lost, the intimation arises which may save us; one has knocked at all the doors which lead nowhere, and then one stumbles without knowing it on the only door through which one can enter, and it opens of its own accord."

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Silke Tudor


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