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The International Writers Magazine
:Lifestyles and Living in New York

An Encounter with Martha
Ron Silver

This is a tiny tidbit about Martha Stewart, or perhaps it’s about Karma, or some more Greek way of seeing the way the balances come into line, or perhaps it’s a story of naiveté, perhaps my own. It begins sort of awhile before Martha took her big fall, so bear with me a moment.

I am the chef and owner of a restaurant in Tribeca, a neighborhood downtown in New York City that most have heard of by now. When Bubby’s opened in 1990 Tribeca was a real estate term for an isolated neighborhood with no name; maybe it was called "the cheese and egg" district, or something. There were guys standing around fires burning from fifty-five gallon drums drinking cheap liquor in the middle of the street in "Tribeca" back then, before the big stars came and turned all those lofty cavernous warehouse apartments into multi-million dollar loft apartments. Tribeca was so underdeveloped (there were no traffic lights) I was able to open Bubby’s for $10,000. If it were not for the fact that one could open a restaurant for $10,000 I would not have a restaurant today. Actually, I recently opened a second restaurant, in Brooklyn, and for a comparably ridiculous small sum of money, in a neighborhood called Dumbo (down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.) Dumbo is also fairly under-developed, with a similar dearth of traffic lights. I never have made it rich. I probably never will. But running your own joint beats the hell out of catering parties for other companies, or working as someone else’s chef. I used to work for lots of little companies freelancing here and there.

In the freelance catering world there is a circuit of people, and one gets to know lots of people on the circuit. One night I was driving a vanload of food along 23rd Street, shooting the breeze with one of the young ladies I had worked with a lot. As we passed in front of the Chelsea Hotel, I shared a fact with her I had recently learned, "That’s the hotel where Sid Vicious killed that prostitute."
The young woman, Susan, got upset. "She wasn’t a prostitute, she was my sister," she said.
We were both embarrassed and drove back to the kitchen pretty much in silence. Susan went on to become Martha Stewarts top assistant, and I went on to open Bubby’s.

Anyone who thinks he can open a restaurant for $10,000 has got to be an idiot, and anyone who knows me will testify that in many ways I am exactly that, in many ways. Certainly idiot enough to think one can open a restaurant for $10,000. But, idiot that I am, not only did I come up with the original $10,000; I also gave away 50% of the business to a partner, who I have since bought out for somewhat more than $5000. We had to work hard all the time to make it happen. My partner had a flair for design, and so he really put the look and feel of the place together, while I cooked food and baked pies, and all the fun stuff that I love to do. Of course, we had no budget for frivolity, and I would always be after him not to spend what we didn’t have.

One Christmas season my partner designed a beautiful Christmas card, a black and white photograph of freshly baked pies on a lovely pewter or brushed-steel pie stand. It was an impressive photograph. It never occurred to me to ask where the photograph came from because I had no concept of copyrights or image rights or any kind of legality, having always operated by the seat of my pants, protected by what I called "goodwill," based upon the notion that everyone who came into Bubby’s seemed thrilled to see a couple of kids making a place work on their own merit. We had a pile of the cards out on the pie counter for people to take for free. Being marketing material, my partner had all of our graphics superimposed over the photograph: Bubby’s Pie Co., with our address and phone number and all.

One morning my partner came down to our shared basement office with some bad news. He had snipped the photograph from " Martha Stewart Living" magazine, and the photographer had happened to come in for brunch and saw that we were using her property, actually Martha’s property, and we should discontinue handing out the cards right away. We did as asked, and figured that was the end of it.

A couple days before Christmas I received a phone call from Martha Stewart’s legal team. Her lawyer insisted I cut a check for $5000, and they would forgive our infringement of their copyrights, and that would be that. In fear of being sucked into a nasty legal battle of Homeric proportion I said I’d cut the check, and I did, and that was that.

Martha took exactly half of what Bubby’s started with. I understand the value of owning the rights to a thing, having had to deal with several instances of people opening Bubby’s in Chicago or Hawaii. I am always gracious but firm in my ownership of the name of the business I started, nurtured, and grew. Certainly I would never use someone’s photograph again, without express written consent. But I also understand that lawyers are grubbing little clerks, and all I had to do was tell him I’d already stopped using the photograph, and that I’d see him in court, and that would have been the last heard from them. That is the cost of an education; I am not complaining. But I am happy to see Martha get hers, and for lying, the pettiest, most easily avoided offence. I stole without malevolence, and I gossiped to the wrong person when I called Sid Vicious’ girlfriend a prostitute. I paid $5000 to learn a valuable, if humiliating, lesson, and I paid to get, spiritually, a front row seat to a damn well deserved lynching. Hurray for justice.

Not long after the new restaurant in Dumbo opened, Susan, Sid Vicious’ girlfriend’s sister, Martha’s right hand woman, came in for dinner with a group of people. It was nice to see her after all those years; she looked happy and good. She had a nice boyfriend, and she was taking time from work for herself, before figuring out her next move, post-Martha. We sat together chatting at the bar about old times, where we’d come from, where he had managed to get to now. It was a somewhat sentimental, philosophical discussion, like we used to have driving around in the van. After a few moments she took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, "Sorry we banged you for that five grand." I was smiling. She continued to tell me how the photographer came into the office irate, ‘Those jerks at Bubby’s are using my pie photograph,’ the photographer ranted. Susan brought it up with Martha, and they decided to hit us as hard as they could while still keeping it fun. For them. As I am sure they did all day, everyday. It seems now, with Martha going to jail for just enough time to bring some humility to the world, all is back in balance and as it should be, in a Greek sense.
© Ron Silver March 11th 2004

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