Farewell to Odessa, Once a Place for Pierogies and a Lost Friendship

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Odessa, East Village, first opened in 1994. Photo: James and Karla Murray

This year, we have devoted New York’s annual “Reasons to Love New York” issue to a celebration of the go-tos that have closed since the pandemic struck. A wake for the places that defined our lives here — that gave us community and let us try on new identities in return for our money. The bars where we came together for after-work drinks, the boxing gym where everybody thinks they’re in an action movie, the gallery that trusted you to build a cloud, the coffee shop where you were left alone to read, the restaurant with the full bar where you’d find yourself trying to eat after an all-night bender, the place that was so of its moment that it became a relic and then (deservedly) an icon. All gone. And sadly, probably, more to come before the city returns to its purpose: a place of gathering. We’ll be sharing these tributes all week on Curbed.

Odessa Cafe Bar, on Avenue A in the East Village, closed in 2013. It had been there for nearly 50 years when it was rent-hiked out of business, and it was old and dark and divey and cool. You could picture Joey Ramone dropping in for a beer or five after a show in 1977. I went there from time to time. But it was not my Odessa, nor was it Michelle’s.

Our Odessa was not at all cool. It was the late-night coffee shop next door, opened in 1994 by the bar’s owners as the East Village began to get less dangerous (in both good and bad ways). It was overlit and under-chic: green marbled Formica, vinyl booths, and abrupt middle-aged staff serving stuffed cabbage, blintzes, and kielbasa as well as the usual diner fare to the neighborhood’s dwindling population of Ukrainians.

Michelle lived three blocks away on East 4th Street. I lived uptown in a duller neighborhood, so I often came downtown to meet her, usually at Odessa, usually over pierogies. We had met in college and had been friends but were not super-close. In New York, though, that had changed. When we first started hanging out, she was virtually the only person I knew here outside my workplace, and although she was more social than I, I don’t think she knew many people yet either. There were two (landline) calls a day between us, sometimes three, sometimes just while we were watching TV. Endless, shapeless conversations about music, about work, about the people we were dating (or failing to), about what Cynthia Heimel had written in the Voice that week, about some Saturday Night Live joke or other. (“LMNOucus” was one.) I got a low-level magazine job; she got a mid-level social-work job. Much later, she went to law school. I wrote a book. We stood up and read poems at each other’s weddings. More pierogies at Odessa, over and over, mixing it up with the occasional omelet. We fought and stopped speaking a couple of times, but it didn’t stick. She cultivated a sideline in stand-up comedy; I went to the bringer shows. Her marriage broke up. She met someone new, a good guy from California named Ryan who moved to New York to be with her. He didn’t really know from pierogies, but he took to them immediately.

And then she got sick. “Rectal cancer,” she told me, “the funniest of all cancers.” During our first phone conversation about it, she’d said, “Yeah, but I probably won’t die,” and for a long time that seemed true. A couple of years of treatment followed, down and up and back down. Only the very last time we got together — not at Odessa, though it was within sight of it — did I grasp that she was really in trouble. She was gone a few weeks later, in August 2012, age 44. The next time I went to Odessa, it was with Ryan on his own. He moved back to California a few months after that. After which I no longer found myself at Odessa much.

But a couple of years ago when I was working on another book, I had to interview a guy who lived a few blocks from Michelle’s old place. When he said, “Where should we meet?” I responded reflexively. Didn’t have to think twice. It required no thought or reservations or long in-joke phone calls ahead of time. It was just there, and now it isn’t. Another of those lines has gone dead.

*This article appears in the December 7, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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