Taka Nakano, MacDougal’s ‘Mama Taka,’ dies at 90


By Lincoln Anderson

Taka Nakano, known as “Mama Taka” on MacDougal St., where she lived for almost 60 years, died on Nov. 6 at her home. She was 90. The cause of death was an aneurysm, according to a close friend, Jose Urbach.

Nakano was a familiar and colorful figure on MacDougal St., where she could frequently be found, sitting either inside or outside, depending on the weather, at Panchito’s Mexican restaurant, Esperanto Café or Yatagan Kebab House. She’d spontaneously strike up conversations with friends, strangers and tourists alike, speaking with impeccable diction, while puffing on a Pall Mall Old Gold in an ornately carved Chinese ivory cigarette holder.

“She was always outside, chatting with people,” said Bradford Sussman, a neighbor and community liaison for Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. “She was like our ambassador. She was sharp. She was with it. She was a tourist attraction on the street.”

Sussman said when he was president of the Sixth Police Precinct Community Council, Nakano had a routine where she would shuffle in slowly, and regardless of who was speaking, put an apple in front of him on the table, then say, “I love you Brad.”

“She’d say that quietly to me,” Sussman said. “I would say, ‘This is Mama Taka, most senior member of the council.’ ”

Nakano was featured in one of Alan Gerson’s 2001 City Council campaign mailings, illustrating Gerson’s efforts to reduce motorcycle noise; the diminutive Nakano is seen pointing a scolding finger up at a beefy biker twice her size, then in another photo, shaking hands and smiling with the biker, having reached an understanding.

“She was a celebrity in the Village,” said Jose Urbach, a Tribeca visual artist, who knew Nakano, whom he called his best friend, for 18 years. “She had been living there since 1944, so everyone in the neighborhood knew her, for generations. She was very giving, very generous. Everyone called her ‘Mama Taka’ because she was like a mother to everyone.”

According to Urbach, Nakano was born in Los Angeles in 1913. Her father was a moneylender, the equivalent of a banker, in Hiroshima, Japan. He came to America in 1900, where he established a store and bed and breakfast for Japanese-American workers and immigrants. Urbach said Nakano described a prosperous youth, with large Thanksgivings with 25 turkeys. However, her mother died when she was three. Nakano attended the University of Southern California for a year but dropped out.

For two and a half years during World War II, Nakano and her family were interned at a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans at Hard Mountain, Wyo. It was there that she met her husband.

Urbach said Nakano wasn’t bitter about her internment camp experience. “She was not a person who could emotionally afford anger,” he said. However, as someone whose life was affected by war, she was strongly against the conflict in Iraq. “She was very, very anti-Bush,” Urbach noted.

After World War II, when Nakano was 31, she and her husband came to live at 116 MacDougal St., the building where her half-sister, Mary, was living. The couple had a son, Taro, but divorced soon after. Taro, 59, is a painter living on the Upper East Side.

Nakano worked as a clerical worker at Morgan Stanley until she retired in the late 1970s. After work, Urbach said, she used to like to socialize in the MacDougal St. café scene, including, in the 1950s, at Café Cinno. Years later, it was on an early evening at Café Dante, that Urbach and his wife, Marina, and son, Sebastian, first encountered her. Nakano became like a grandmother to the Urbachs’ son and would pick him up from Children’s Aid Society on Sullivan St.

“Everyone was very interested by her, because she was a very interesting woman,” Urbach said. “She had many stories. When she would tell you these stories, she was very vivid, with many details. She had a good memory. She would tell stories about the old, close-knit Italian Village, how she knew everyone in the building [then]; but the young people would move out to Long Island or New Jersey. She’s part of the history of MacDougal St.”

Nakano was well-traveled. Urbach said her travel mate was always a Japanese man. The cigarette holder was a souvenir of one of her many trips abroad to Europe, Istanbul and Asia.

“She lost it two or three times, and I always found it in one of the cafes,” he recalled. Nakano had a line about her smoking: “Like Clinton, I don’t inhale.”

“She was such an original,” Urbach said.

“She used to say, ‘I was made in the U.S.A.,’ ” said Sussman. “That was one of her lines. She had a lot of lines.”

Krista Vead, a waitress at Panchito’s, recalled Nakano: “In the summer, she’d have iced tea. In the winter she’d have tea. She had lots of stories — always the same ones, but told with vim and vigor every time.”

Her remains were cremated. She had three brothers and a sister who predeceased her. In addition to her son, she is survived by her two half-sisters, nieces and nephews.