Naylor, Gloria. Bailey’s Cafe. Vintage Books, 1992.
Summary of Work
Bailey’s Cafe is a novel about people who have had a series of life struggles and are in need of a way station to put their lives back together. The unnamed narrator of the novel, the owner of the cafe who goes by the name Bailey because people assume his name is the same as his restaurant, introduces all the characters and tells their stories (except for Mariam, who his wife Nadine introduces). Bailey is a WWII veteran who spent time in Japan and saw the aftermath of the atomic bombs. It is that aftermath that leads him to question the moral quality of America and its leadership. Before the war, he met his wife Nadine. He saw her at a baseball game (he is a huge fan of baseball, both the MLB and the Negro Leagues), and he followed her and spilled a raspberry ice on her. Nadine rarely laughs and does not smile often; she is a practical, realist woman, even telling her husband that if he died in the war, she was going to marry the butcher. She helps Bailey run the restaurant. Bailey was a cook in the navy, and although his cooking skills aren’t great, he does cook. There is one menu item each day, and then on Saturdays people can order anything they want. Occasionally, Nadine makes peach cobbler. The cafe itself is said to not be grounded in space, making its way wherever people need to walk in from.
Sadie, a homeless prostitute and alcoholic, is a regular customer. The daughter of a prostitute, she always tried to be very good, but was regularly beaten and treated poorly for making noise or even just asking what her name was. At age 13, her mother starts whoring her out, and she gets pregnant very young, and the abortion her mother has her attain destroys her ability to have children. When her mother dies, she takes a job as a cleaning lady at a whore house, and when that is closed down during the war, she marries a man 30 years her senior. He is also an alcoholic, like her mother was, and she tries to make sure the house they live in is pristine in order to please him. When he dies, his daughters won’t let her stay in the house if she won’t buy it from them, and in her desperation to make money, she turns to prostitution, is arrested, loses her home, and when she gets out, turns to prostitution and drinking for survival. At the diner, a man who sells ice for a living, known as Iceman at the cafe, takes a liking to her and wants to give her a better life. He tells her stories about how he sells ice and that it is always the person on the top floor that wants the most ice. He tells a tall story about having his ice used to put out a fire, and it makes her laugh. When Iceman asks her to marry him, she wants to, but backs out because she thinks the dream is too good to be true and that she doesn’t deserve it.
Eve runs a home that some people think is a whorehouse and others know as a way station to get well from traumatic wounds. She helps many women in a several story house, and she is always making sure that she is choosy about who she allows in. When men come to see the women, they always have to bring flowers or purchase them from Eve, who always keeps flowers in bloom no matter the season. Eve’s life story is that she was saved and raised by a preacher, but he caught her with her dress up to her thighs and a boy stomping around her while she lay on the ground, and he made her burn her clothes, throw up all the food he had given her, and leave the house. She walked all the way to New Orleans and earned a living, and then moved North, a rich woman who supposedly had never whored for her living. She bought a home and always asked women who wanted to live there if they knew the dust of the Delta, the dust that she would always carry with her from her difficult journey. As women come in looking for Eve’s place, Bailey always directs them there.
Sister Carrie, a devout, self-righteous zealot, also frequents the cafe. She uses the Bible to denounce the women of the household, and is regularly upset when Eve, who was raised by a preacher, can use the Bible to make arguments better than she can.
Ester lives in the basement of Eve’s home. She hates the light. As a child, her brother “married” her to a local white man, who kept her in a room with a nice bed and then forced her down into the cellar to perform unnatural acts in the dark with him. She was twelve when her brother sent her, and she knew that her brother was receiving monetary compensation for her being there, and so she stayed twelve years in order to pay her debt to her brother, and then left. She loves white flowers because they show in the dark and she can watch them die.
Mary, also known as Peaches, came from a privileged home where she was offered many things, but she always saw herself in the mirror and felt that she was a whore, and that’s what she chose to become. When she was mistress to a rich man with a club foot, she was still seeing other men, and when he told her that he would kill the next man she was with, she tried to stay in for two weeks, and then mutilated herself with a bottle opener from her cheek down to her chin on the right side. The authorities thought he did it, but she wouldn’t accuse him, and she wouldn’t take any offers to have a plastic surgeon fix the scar because she knew she’d just do it again.
Jessie Bell married into the very wealthy King family, even though her family came from the docks. She struggled with her husband’s father and how he tried to run everything, and when she had a child, Ely got into her life and destroyed it, alienating both her from her son and her family from her son. She descended into heroine addiction, regularly going to lesbian parties to enjoy the company of her “special friend.” One night a party gets raided and she is caught in it, and Ely uses it as a reason to have his son divorce her. After the divorce, she descends further into addiction, and makes her way to Bailey’s Cafe and Eve. Eve helps her sober up and then forces her to get addicted again and go through the process one more time. Jessie hates Eve for that. She is the only one of the women outside of Eve who will regularly come to the cafe to talk, play cards, and eat.
Gabe is a Russian Jew who owns the pawn shop connected to Bailey’s Cafe. He and Bailey do not get along, but when Mariam comes to his shop, he takes her directly to Bailey’s so that Eve can help her. Mariam comes from a small African village. Her mother had her circumcised in order to ensure her virginity before marriage, but she gets pregnant anyway, even though no man has touched her. Her village throws her out, and she makes her way out of the village looking for someone to take her in. Eve takes her in, but they are all worried about the girl and the pain it is going to cause her to have a child after the genital mutilation. None of the men will engage with her because they can’t deal with her story.
Miss Maple is a cross dresser. His real name is Stanley Beckwourth Booker T. Washington Carver, and he was born and raised in Southern California. When he is about to go to school, his father orders him an expensive copy of the collected works of Shakespeare, and when they go to get it, the white men in town confront his father about the clothes he wears. They had already regularly slashed his tires of his nice cars, and they start to beat them and rip their clothes, forcing them to strip naked. They find women’s clothes in the store, and they walk out in those. At college, he attains a PhD in marketing, but cannot find a job anywhere. He spends some time in jail because he was a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the war. He starts dressing in women’s clothing because as he is going many places to search for jobs, the weather is unbearable and he finds women’s clothes cooler and more comfortable. He finally accepts a job as a housekeeper and bouncer for Eve, and he intends to save up enough money to be able to go back and start up his own company.
At the end of all of these stories, Mariam’s child is born. It is a baby boy, and the whole of Eve’s house and the people in the cafe sing spirituals for hours in happiness over the successful birth. Mariam follows Jewish customs, and Gabe comes in and does the Jewish communal rites for the child. Bailey is named Godfather, and together, Gabe and Bailey name the baby George, after their own fathers. The story ends there, not because there aren’t more stories to tell, but because Bailey chooses to end the tale on a happy note.
Brief Note on Themes
This book is structured as almost a set of interrelated short stories, connected by a common theme of tragedy. This ultimately creates a story that functions like a blues and jazz song, with the stories being tragic blues stories and each person getting time to riff or be the main melody to tell their story, like a jazz musician. There is a touch of magical realism in that the cafe is everywhere and nowhere, with the back of the cafe leading into infinity or into death, and the front of the cafe offering an entrance into a liminal space for healing. Eve becomes a form of griot, both pariah and savior, one who knows more than everyone else in the area and community. The women’s stories are mainly featured, offering a variety of stories about what it means to be a woman and female experience. Eve can perhaps be seen as the first woman, founding a space for other women, who are always and only seen as sex objects despite their major potential outside of their physical bodies. Having a cross dressing man also brings up discussions of gender fluidity and what it really means to be feminine or masculine.