Days go by. I am finding it extremely difficult to let go of the notion that the Nighthawks diner was a real diner, and not a total composite built of grocery stores, hamburger joints, and bakeries all cobbled together in the painter's imagination.
The poetry of that idea is lovely and all, but I want the damn thing to have existed, in real time and space. And, if possible, to still be standing.
Thinking again about that line from the Vogue editor who reported that Nighthawks was "based partly on an all-night coffee stand Hopper saw on Greenwich Avenue," I look back at the possible corners, second-guessing my rule-outs. Somewhere, there is the source, the brick-and-mortar genesis for the Nighthawks diner. A coffee stand on Greenwich Avenue.
Walking north on Greenwich, I decide there's no way it's the nascent White Castle burger joint at Mulry Square. That's too far-off.
That pointy florist was a newsstand/candy store, not a coffee shop.
Two Boots Pizza has a glassy curve, but it was a bakery back then. Wait a minute--I'm thinking "diner" when the descriptive term is "coffee stand." Could a bakery be referred to as a coffee stand? In the print-out of the tax photo, Two Boots was the Hanscom Bake Shop. Wouldn't they have served coffee? And maybe all night? It's very possible.
Tax Photo of Two Boots corner, c. 1940
But then it could just as likely be the prow-shaped luncheonette, that surely also served coffee, behind the Loew's Sheridan theater, which Hopper was known to frequent as an avid movie fan.
I could keep going back and forth, up and down Greenwich this way forever, deciding and undeciding, seeing Hopper diners everywhere and nowhere. The entire enterprise is maddening.
And then there's that mystery diner at Block 613, Lot 62.
Even though it's not on Greenwich Avenue, I return to the southwest corner of Mulry Square, where 7th Avenue South meets Perry. Maybe the Vogue editor was off by a block. What did those people at Vogue know from all-night coffee shops anyway?
NYPL, 1933: Southwest corner of Mulry Square
Obsessed, I look around for evidence of the one-story building that went up on this corner in 1942.
No photo of it exists in the Municipal Archives tax records. A mapmaker in the 1950s noted that it was a diner. By 1980, the two-story building that would become today's Empire Szechuan Village had taken its place, erasing it from our sight.
I circle Empire Szechuan, hoping to find some remains of that diner. I don't know what I'm looking for--a rusted footing that once held a signpost, the ghosted outline of a curved glass front? Something.
Then the oddly placed wedge of the entrance rings a bell. And I suddenly see it.
From the Perry Street side, I see the old diner--the single story of bricks that still stands, holding up the addition of the second story. It was not demolished, only expanded. It's like looking at the young-woman, old-woman illusion, where first you see a withered crone, then your brain adjusts and the girl she used to be appears before your eyes.
Thrilled by the possibility, I compare the bricks of the first story to the bricks of the second. They look like different bricks. The lines of mortar are deeper on the first story than they are on the second.
I wonder if I am seeing things--things I want to see. But the clunky second story and the glassed dining room out front do look tacked on, like afterthoughts.
close up of Mulry Square, 1950s
I decide that this is, indeed, the lost DINER marked by the mapmaker in the 1950s Land Book.
But is it the Hopper diner? Could it really still be standing, still serving food, hidden beneath the blocky augmentations and red paint of a Chinese restaurant? Or have I stumbled upon another near miss, another "close but no cigar" facsimile of the Nighthawks inspiration?
I want the Nighthawks diner to be buried in these bricks, because they are still here. Or if not these bricks, then let it be the bakery that became Two Boots, because I can still put my hand on that curve of glass, because the soul of that lonely coffee shop remains in its blunt, solid particulars. But the ultimate truth remains bitterly out of reach.
It is time to give up the search.
Resigned, lapsed into uncertainty, I fall back onto a few lines from the poem "An Urban Convalescence" by James Merrill:
As usual in New York, everything is torn down
Before you have had time to care for it.
Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall
What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
Follow the entire saga, step by step:
*Once again, thanks to blogger Teri Tynes and singer/songwriter Don Everett Pearce, who pointed me to NYPL photos and offered their theories, launching me on this obsessive search and pushing me to the bitter end.