That Was Her Jam

I met Mariana Rence in early 1986, shortly after the Challenger exploded and the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. We did a couple of Musicals together (“Baby” and “Godspell”) at a theater in the very odd little town of Cohoes, NY (a bit north of Albany). We were together for the next 31 years, ending when she shuffled off this mortal coil in February of 2017.

Like a large percentage of actors and actresses, Mariana spent much of her time “between engagements” working as a server in a variety of restaurants. Never having done that myself, I was fascinated by the stories she would bring home after her shifts. Most of this employment was at a place called Sarabeth’s Kitchen, owned by the eponymous Sarabeth Levine. To coincide with what would have been our 34th wedding anniversary, I’m going to try to recall some of the more entertaining tidbits that Mariana brought home.

Sarabeth’s Kitchen now has many restaurants around the country, and her delicious jams and preserves can be found in many food stores. But it started as a hole-in-the-wall kind of place in the Upper West Side, only selling baked goods and jams/preserves. She eventually started serving breakfast, then opened a larger place in the same neighborhood, adding lunch (and tables!) to the fare. Another location opened in the Upper East Side, and this was around the time when I first met Mariana. 

As described to me, Sarabeth had come of age as a Hippie from Long Island and was into some non-Western philosophies that helped (only occasionally, though) diffuse a somewhat hair-trigger temper. Sara found her success reproducing her grandmother’s baked goods recipes, and her business was a family affair. Her sweet-but-addled mother ran the cash register (the numbers rarely made sense at the end of a workday) and her husband was the co-owner. 

Sara didn’t seem to care if her customers could hear every profanity-laced tirade in her small venues. Once, after spending the day at the West Side place, she stopped into the East Side location and was dismayed that (in her view) ALL of the bread was too stale to serve to her customers. So she gathered it into arms, stomped through the restaurant and out the front door, where she promptly threw all of the bread into Madison Avenue.

But she could be sweet and nurturing, too. Mariana once threw her back out in the middle of a shift and was in agonizing pain. Sarabeth said, “Honey…the best thing for a bad back is to put rising dough on the sore spot. That will absorb all of the toxins.” So she had Mariana climb onto the table in the kitchen and deposited a ton of dough on her back, laying there waiting for the toxins to be absorbed. This was very surprising to the customers who got a full view of it while walking past the kitchen on the way to the restroom.

Mariana came home once with the story of an encounter with an ultra-privileged Upper West Side Mom: it seemed that her little darling was under the weather and had stayed home from school. Mommy absolutely HAD to have some of Sarabeth’s yummy oatmeal to bring home to the patient. It was explained that the restaurant didn’t do take-outs (wow–you’d think that Sarabeth would have known that there’d be a pandemic in 35 years that would make that policy a really poor idea) and they didn’t have any to-go containers. The woman got irate, and, when it was suggested that she could go to Duane Reade and buy instant oatmeal that entailed boiling some water and ripping open the package, that didn’t seem to calm her down. 

One of Mariana’s most annoying steady customers was Peter Max, the painter who is best known for Pop Art posters and album covers from the 1960’s. Evidently, he was friends with Sarabeth and her husband, and he would show up on a regular basis, parking himself at a table for hours on end. He insisted on having a phone placed at his table (this was before cell phones) so that he could make Important Business Transactions. He also had to have all of his food prepared in very specific ways that differed from the menu, including the directive that no butter be used (in a place famous for their baked goods!). Max must have eventually sensed that he was a pain in ass for the servers, so he told them to fill in the tip amount themselves. They started giving themselves 50% tips, and he never said a word. I’m guessing that they would have happily given up his inflated tips in exchange for his absence.

There were many, many other boldface types that came into Sarabeth’s emporiums. I’ll attempt to recall some of them:

Jackie Kennedy Onassis–Very quiet. Very polite. Ate lemon pound cake with her fingers.

Yoko Ono–Very quiet. Very polite.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward–Very friendly. Newman’s famous blue eyes lived up to their reputation.

Warren Beatty and Isabelle Adjani–They came in during the making of “Ishtar” and appeared to be in the midst of a Lover’s Crisis.

Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman–They appeared to be doing damage control to the state of the Beatty/Adjani tryst.

John McEnroe, Tatum O’Neal and children–Grownups were quiet; children were messy and out of control.

Bill Murray and family–See above.

Peter Boyle (aka Young Frankenstein)–A complete asshole.

Norman Fell (character actor, Stanley Roper on “Three’s Company”)–Incredibly nice and chatty; always wanted to hear about the state of Mariana’s acting career.

I’m sure that there were many more; these are the ones that I recall. I’ve passed a lot of water under the bridge since these events took place. But they still exist if I recall them as memories. Very much like people, now that I think of it.

11 thoughts on “That Was Her Jam”

  1. Lovely memories, Thanks, Jeremy! I’m sure that Mariana’s sweet, kind nature shined through to all the patrons of Sarabeth’s Kitchen. How did that “rising dough” trick work out?

    • I think that the dough thing worked slightly: probably as much from lying down as from the yeast’s Magic Powers.

  2. This was so sweet and so sad at the same time. I know people say our loved ones who have gone on live in our memories and in our hearts….but so does the grief. I know about that first hand. The pictures were beautiful Jeremy. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Jeremy,
    Tales of Mariana are always loving and make me smile. I only wish I were lucky enough to have known her.

  4. Oh, such sweet memories! And you capture them in perfect prose. Thanks for sharing. Brings tears to my eyes.

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