Remembrance of a Restaurant Past

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

In the essay "The Handling of Neurotics," found in issue No. 2 of Proust Said That, founder and publisher P Segalwrites, "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 Prousthas 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.

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