Poetry Sunday: “Gray’s Tea Room,” by Grace Cavalieri

Gray’s Tea Room (1940)

I don’t know why they called it a Tea Room.
They didn’t serve tea.
In fact I don’t know of anything
they served except hot roast beef sandwiches
on Saturday night, with mashed potatoes, 35 cents.
Sometimes my father ordered pork. We sat
on high stools at a counter, and no one thought
to sit on chairs, anymore than we expected
a chocolate cake more than once a week
from Fiestal’s grocery.

Across the street from Gray’s on the corner
was a record store,
and once I asked my father for $5.00
to buy an album of Carmen Cavallaro
playing on the piano.
I couldn’t believe my good luck.
He gave it to me just like that,
as if he had another one in his pocket,
and maybe even more.

We felt prosperous at the counter
waiting to be handed dishes
piled high with gravy for people like us
who could order whatever they want, either beef or pork.

Recently in a classroom, my students argued
whether it were better to have more or enough
and what those two words meant— satisfaction,
wish expansion, possibilities, ambition—
If philosophically we must have enough
before we can have more,

for more can never come from lack.

For six years I passed Gray’s on my way to school
and never thought anyone else was there
or that anything else was ever eaten but what we had.
Gray’s was to come alive and open, once a month
on Saturday.

Now when I see a tea room,
I want to tell them what they’re missing,
what with their sad tea and biscuits.
Sometimes, in the late afternoon,
I wish we were all alive, and back on Stuyvesant Avenue.
I like to think of that, when we didn’t know
differently, when there was always more than enough.


First published in With (Somondoco Press 2016) and reprinted here with permission of the author and available for order here.

Listen to the poet reading “Gray’s Tea Room” here.


Grace Cavalieri’s new book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers 2017). She’s founder/producer of National Public Radio’s “The Poet and the Poem,” now recorded at the Library of Congress and celebrating 40 years on-air. After cofounding Washington, D.C.’s newest FM station, WPFW- FM, she became Associate Director for Children’s Programming, PBS, in charge of the national daytime schedule, and then Senior Media Program Officer, National Endowment for the Humanities, where she set up a funding mechanism for children’s programming. She was honored by the National Commission on Working Women with national recognition in 1986. Grace hosted the cable series, “On the Go,” for the AAUW, featuring women poets. She’s the founder of two thriving poetry presses in D.C. and is the monthly poetry columnist/reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, where in 2015 she received their Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. You can read her columns here. In 2013 she received the AWP “George Garrett Award” for Service to Literature. She’s twice been the recipient of the Allen Ginsberg Award (1993, 2013) and has earned the Bordighera Poetry Prize, a Paterson Poetry Prize, and the inaugural Columbia Award. Cavalieri has published 20 poetry books and chapbooks and has had 26 plays produced on American stages; the latest is “Calico and Lennie.” She was married to the late sculptor Kenneth Flynn, with whom she has four children, four grandchildren, and a great grandchild. (Author photo: Dan Murano) 

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  • Meryl Natchez December 11, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    Lovely evocation. Thank you.