Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Brief Eulogy: Albert Capsouto

I found out today about the death of my friend, Albert Capsouto, after a short illness.

Albert (pronounced always in the French manner) was one of the most extraordinary individuals I ever knew. I knew him first from his Frisbee throw on campus, the best I have ever seen in any venue. I can't name it--"a forehand flick"?--we always just called it "Albert's throw". It involved contorting one's wrist, near the face, then flicking it forward forcefully. The result--as he did it--went straight, hard, and fast, for 50 yards or more. After great effort, I learned to get the throw off, but--alas! that knowledge is now lost. Albert was humble about it: "I just learned it hanging out in Washington Square".

That was really pure Albert, though: he was totally urbane, and at the same time, a pure product of the streets of Lower Manhattan. Back in the day, we shared Knicks season tickets ("the day" being roughly the Patrick Ewing era). Albert would drive his old Mercedes sedan ('50's era?) up from his home on Lower Washington Street, somehow always finding a good spot near the Garden.

He was only a year ahead of me, but he was always senior to me throughout our lives. A good example is the one or two times I biked with him on the City's streets. I've done some serious bicycling in my time, but I could not keep up with him--there was too much chutzpah, brash defiance of the motorized and stoplights alike. He could've been a delivery guy--not that he'd want that career, just that he had the talent.

Instead, Albert was a restaurateur for his career; with his two brothers and his mother, they started the Capsouto Freres restaurant in 1979 in a dead part of Manhattan--something called "Tribeca". Back then, it was a high-quality place for New Jerseyans to take their dates before or after the disco--convenient to the Holland Tunnel. In this decade,* it was a place that made free meals for workers at the site of the fallen World Trade Center, though the disaster was not good for business in any way. Throughout the decades, it was a civilized place for the semi-civilized traders of Wall Street to dine for lunch or dinner, enjoying quality French bistro food and their signature souffle (order ahead, or wait).

Capsouto Freres was his pride and joy, and a large part of his adult life. He did the architecture for the renovation of the old building; he greeted the clients, and he was the public face for the bistro. Albert became active in the local neighborhood association, as a concerned resident as well as someone with a commercial interest.

He was a loyal friend, someone you could count upon for a social event--a birthday, wedding, or a party. He would take time from his busy schedule, show up with something of high quality in his hands--more than likely, good champagne--and he would socialize, kindly and without pretension or ambition, at great length. But not too long, if you know what I mean.

He had an edge, though. A keen wit, a bit anarchic. There was something of the Marx Brothers in him, somehow. A bit of Groucho, a bit of Harpo--much taller and more handsome, of course.

Maybe he came by it naturally, from his family's background. Officially, his mother brought his family from Egypt, via Paris. As I knew he was Jewish by origin, I asked him about that one day. It turns out the migration, which ended finally in triumph and a measure of security, was even more complex and unlikely (to most of us): his grandfather was forced from Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey to Egypt, during the period after World War I when non-Turks of all types were expelled.**

It seems that he and his family sought, and ultimately found, some stability and safety in this world of woe. Once he found it, he stayed with it--to the end.

I am saddened at his passing, and at its sudden nature. I am a little consoled by the quality he brought to his life and the joy he brought to all those around him.

* I'm sticking with my position that the decade isn't over until the end of 2010.

** Turkey and Israel: one thing that they have in common is good reason to take a selective stance toward the Right of Return.


pam b said...

the earth has lost a very special gift today.

Mike H said...

Nicely said Jim. His funeral service was as you would expect very inspirational. Made you want to go out and do something worth being remebered for.