Jake

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes
Jake

Jake

[unpublished profile fragment: 22 October 2002; travels to U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas]

Jake is a smart kid. Not the kid you want your kid to be necessarily, more the kid you wish you had been. He is from Montgomery, Alabama, as ignominious, if not notorious, a place as Providence, Rhode Island, or Newark, New Jersey. But he comes, given his roots and the far-reaching peregrinations of his young life, with the onus/appeal of an accent, from the unmistakably deep South, unmistakably American.

“I know I look 15, but I’m 24,” he tells you, and in case you are not aware of the advantage, he tells you about it. When you tell him that the real advantage will come when he is 50 and looks only 32, he readily agrees. The advantage is the sort, the only sort, that counts in a man’s life, when all accounting is done – for bartenders, artists, poets, politicians and nuclear physicists – the advantage with women. Jake implies he has been with many, and among the sweeter, indeed, was one where the age differential could only have been equitable if the female, in this case at age 44, had suffered none of the gravitational influence that terrifies all women living West of the Greenwich Observatory, East of the International Dateline. As he talks about it, the corners of Jake’s mouth twist slightly at the sweet memory. He reveals the true burden of his youth in not hiding the pride he feels in having been with what less imaginative people would call “a real woman,” and leaving the distinct impression as well that he had the stuff, his unblemished complexion notwithstanding, his 20-plus year deficit notwithstanding, to leave her satisfied. And gravity played no part for either party.

As you pull out a stool at Bobby’s Bar in one of the many arcades that provide cool passage between Main Street and Waterfront Highway in Charlotte Amalie, and when you ask if he is Bobby, as he rises from a stool on the money side of the small bar that juts into the main walkway, furtively snuffing a cigarette and slipping behind the bar, he tells you, not that he is Jake, but that he is “Bobby’s bitch,” and he works here for five dollars an hour, seven days a week. Bobby is “traveling,” (as he does, it turns out, periodically; working a month, and traveling a month, apparently for pleasure – the remittance man with the best justification in the world: he is padrone, boss, sole owner). There is a kind of swagger in all this, and you know, jaded Northeasterner that you are, that he means the “bitch” part, not in the way it’s meant at Walpole prison or in Boston’s south end, but in a kind of urbane ironic way. Jake is clearly a master at creating a sympathetic resonance with any customer, including two grizzled middle-aged white guys, stragglers of some sort, toting imposing professional-looking cameras and clearly not from any cruise ship – all cruise vessels being temporarily absent from the usually teeming Charlotte Amalie harbor. To hustle tips from tourists with excess discretionary income, especially in tough times, is a craft that even the most tender-faced must master. Jake knows this is a good job, even at less than the U.S. mainland minimum wage. He gives a tutorial in staffing tourist bars in the West Indies. Among the competition, there are at least two bartenders, spelling one another, by weekday, or day part. However, Jake insists on taking on all barkeep duties. He likes having things behind the bar his way, everything in its place – essentially as Jake defines it.

We are the only customers. It is 11:30 in the morning after all, yet appropriate for a first cocktail, especially in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where, for many, rum is a breakfast drink. Jake launches into a rap that, in retrospect, is clearly well-practiced. We learn that he has traveled: for one, to Dallas, for an extended visit after college. In Dallas, despite his youth, he worked hard, tending bar, befriending the bar owner, and endearing himself (not to mention proving his value) sufficiently that the untimely death of his friend led to a recall by his boss’s widow, and the subsequent bestowal of 30% ownership of the establishment for a mere ten thousand dollars. Every month, Jake still receives a direct deposit of 30% of all revenue. It’s clearly better than a Fulbright, a kind of bibulous McArthur grant, acknowledging the genius of his native acumen and hosting skills. Dallas has become for Jake, a life goal: a “great place,” his objective for settling down, and, once he has accumulated the requisite cash, the place where he will leverage his value by buying out the place.

Among his travels is a sojourn in Japan of three and a-half months, where he sat “doing nothing,” waiting on his girlfriend who was in the island empire doing something indeterminate. In some essential way American, peripatetic (that most American of qualities), this young wanderer has, nevertheless, never been north of Memphis. And so, your native Boston remains a someday destination. You can only suspect that if there were a dollar in it, or perhaps a woman, the visit would occur.

Jake has been in Saint Thomas for 14 months, living in Frenchtown, one of the communities that make up Charlotte Amalie, the great sprawling tourist mecca and native ghetto where it seems the population lives in a kind of dignified squalor. Frenchtown is, by any account, not squalid. It is a white enclave. Given his venturesome history, and his taste for edgy experiences, it’s a little bit of dissonance to hear that Jake has elected such quarters. Or maybe it’s that quite simply, when it’s time to go home and get some rest, he wants no excitement, or surprises. Only a later interview could clear this up, and you make a note to ask him at a later opportunity [which never does present itself].

When you ask for a place to eat, not the usual tourist haunt, but a place where locals eat, Jake first mentions the obvious – well-known, unimaginative “safe” places for bourgeois tourists to congregate and consume familiar fare, as if all were adherents to the philosophy of “accidental tourism.” When you press for a name where the local fare is featured, Jake, almost apologetically reminds that he is in the habit of helping out his buddies who run several local favorite local eateries, but he does offer the name of Cozzin’s, a short walk away on Back Street (and, as it turns out later, what amounts to a sanitized version of local specialties, plus the usual offering of tourist fare: salads and burgers, with table cloths and laminated menus – you’ve been directed by Jake to what is no doubt another buddy’s place, and the closest no doubt that he can offer to what you’ve requested without compromising his loyalties). You can take the baby-faced white boy out of Alabama, you can take him around the world, but in the cultural plane you can not take him far at all.

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The Reading

Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

The Reading_06Sep2014__DSC0009-Edit


Saturday of this past weekend was a banner day for the household. The book tour for MG’s latest opus (co-edited with her collaborator on this and other projects) began, auspiciously enough, at one of the destinations on everyone’s short list of great independent bookstores: Politics and Prose, in Washington DC. Setting aside the universal plight of all independent bookstores—how to stay viable and profitable in a world of online discount selling—we can take comfort that the strongest and most appealing of these stores, and Politics and Prose is one of them, seem to thrive. Sometime, in another post, I may end up musing on the qualities of these stores that allow them to survive where they are beaten every time on price, the factor that seems to trump all others in the book buyer’s decision process.

The book that was the focus of the event is an anthology of food writing, a collection born of a mutual interest on the part of the co-editors long since to teach this genre, drawing from a growing library and history of such works. Several years ago, in tandem, but on separate campuses, they offered what turned out to be very popular courses. One editor, whose expertise skews toward fiction, and scholarly inquiry into the nineteenth century novel in English, taught a curriculum that demonstrated a similar predisposition. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, an institution whose constituents, all and sundry, seem reflexively to add to the name, “the public honors college,” is a respected, if small, liberal arts college that is actually part of the State of Maryland system of higher education institutions. Hence it operates at the fiscal discretion of the Governor and the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. All of which is by way of seeing that there’s an analogy here, between the plight of the independent bookstore, and the plight of the small college of liberal arts—also a struggling breed, except for quality institutions like St. Mary’s, which holds its own, with far smaller budgets, though at far less cost to its students, with its peer institutions, far better funded, more prestigious, and highly competitive in their selectivity.

One co-editor, Melissa Goldthwaite [full disclosure: she’s my wife], is a Professor of English, at St. Joseph’s University, a specialist in Rhetoric and Composition, and Creative Writing. St. Joseph’s is one of a whole network of Jesuit-affiliated institutions of higher learning throughout the country. The aims of the education have, still, at their core a dedication to providing a solid liberal arts education. I say still, because the challenge for any U.S. institution of higher education today is how to continue to instill not only a love for learning and an understanding that a broadly based education steeped in the cultural history of the world, with some requisite skills in analyzing the relevance and meaning of the substance of that history.

The impediment confronted on many campuses, regardless of how you categorize the institution, and not strictly an antithetical stumbling block, but in seeming counterpoise, is the acquisition of credentials through the study of more marketable subject matter. Strictly speaking, and increasingly, this means courses in business, or marketing, or economics—or any of the broadening array of sub-disciplines—that constitute a more practical species of specialized skill sets. It’s well and good to be able to suss out meaning that appeals to the heart and the mind in a poem; it’s another thing altogether to understand the arcane relations between columns of numbers in a balance sheet and what they might augur for the continued prosperity of an enterprise.

Smarter dispassionate heads struggle to prevail in the argument that these are not antithetical capabilities. Indeed, the subject areas in the classic curriculum collectively still referred to as the humanities provide a foundation in discovering a successful way of coping with life in the real world. Not every argument is won by the humanists. There has been a progressive retrenchment in traditional curricula and it’s likely at least three decades, if not longer, that colleges and universities have introduced, in a first wave, new departments and areas of specialization: women’s studies, gender studies, and targeted ethnicities, including African-American and Latino studies, being prime examples.

More recently, and in tandem with rising tuition costs on almost all campuses around the country (rising at rates that far exceed the rate of increase in almost any other critical economic marker), the entire industry, for that is, alas, what it has come to resemble, of higher education, has added courses of study that are directly and unambiguously platforms into seeking and achieving paying jobs within highly defined areas of specialization, in technology, finance, and entertainment. In ways that test the elasticity of meaning of a word that originally sustained little ambiguity given its roots, I mean the humanities, the new designers of academic missions and the supportive educational infrastructure argue—usually by way of mere lip service—that being human endeavors, the new subjects and courses are merely latter-day manifestations of this classic epistemology. Others, in a sense less cynical, say that the study of the humanities per se, with no qualification or abridgment of the standard meaning of the term, have become at best a luxury, and at worst a useless anachronism.

There is one constant, however, and not paradoxically. If anything, the importance of the ability to communicate, especially verbally, has never been more of a manifest value. Which brings me back to the substance of the spanking new Goldthwaite/Cognard-Black opus. In food writing, I suggest, there is a rare amalgam, a blend of the two still viable contemporaneous disciplines: effective communication (dare I say, at the apex of its expressive qualities, attaining to literary worth?) and the subject of food in every conceivable aspect. The latter has long since been monetized in the still major media channels of radio, television, the Internet, and that strange space coextensive of the World Wide Web, proprietary social media. Food has become competitive sport, obsession, confessional, practical, salvational, healing, spiritual, and technological.

Books that Cook: The Making of A Literary Meal is, frankly, not an exponent of all these salient if divergent methods of inquiry into the subject. The editors being who they are, and with a more singular mission in their noble day jobs as pedagogues and mentors to would-be writers, have chosen not a more conservative course of activity, so much as a classic one. And on the Saturday, just passed, in question, seven of us read from our work, including the co-editors who were also contributors: Cognard-Black wrote a short story specifically for this volume, and Goldthwaite included one of her excellent poems. The other five of us, including myself (with a poem, commissioned for the volume, “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich”), and two other poets, an essayist, and memoir author.

We didn’t exactly wear our academic credentials on our sleeves—for one thing it was a very hot, beyond sultry, Washington DC day, and the majority of us were in short sleeves, if there were sleeves at all to our garments. In fact, to some greater or lesser extent each of us, as well as all the other writers in the book, were or are published authors. Our bona fides preceded us. The only criterion the works selected had to meet, aside from manifestly having food as a major theme, motif, or subject, was that each include a bona fide executable recipe within the text.

The publisher bankrolled a generous adjunct to the gathering, especially generous to the attendees who met no other criterion of admission than to show up, in the form of a smorgasbord of sample tastings of five of the recipes featured. In short, they paid a caterer to prepare and provide small, but ample, tastes of two kinds of cake, a vegetable soup, and a beverage, a punch. Anecdotally, I’d say, from the amount consumed and the overheard comments of approbation, the crowd was pleased.

The audience settled in, many of them with tiny cups of soup, sipped with even tinier spoons, and the reading began with a greeting from our merchant host, which, courtesy again of the publisher had provided stacks of volumes for purchase, and a traditional signing after we had all performed. We read in turn, taking from five to ten minutes each. Some of the readers bolstered the rendering of their contributions as published with yet more works of theirs along the same lines. In an hour, we were done. There were few questions, all asked with that earnestness that characterizes self-consciously literary crowds. And then the queue formed.

I was surprised to see that several folks bought multiple copies, each receiving a requested and different personalized greeting. The book is not costly, and I did not inquire as to any discounts, but three copies, let us say, which at least one generous soul had purchased, plus the local sales tax ate up most of a hundred dollar bill. I was further surprised to be asked myself to sign several copies, and I easily fought the temptation to disabuse the pilgrim of the likely value of my scrawl in any conceivable future.

I will admit personally to a certain sense of a kind of temporary dissociation. I for sure knew where I was, but I also wished I weren’t. I loathe crowds of strangers of any size. They intimidate me, and put me on guard. When it came time to read, I stood up, and didn’t quite entirely put aside my usual sense of confidence (bolstered by a rehearsal the day before at home, before my editor and our pooch, who both listened raptly as I easily gave a flowing reading of my free verse) as I hugged the podium and barely glanced at the equally rapt crowd. As I read, with the same well-paced cadences I’m sure in retrospect, all I could hear was a tremulousness in my voice, which I certainly felt. By all accounts that reading was as free of defect as the run-through, though it had seemed interminable to me. Barely noticing the applause, which had justifiably greeted each of the other readers, I regained my seat, as the sense of otherness enveloped me again.

Other than the pride in my wife’s accomplishment (and I was one of very few, present or not, with any acquaintance with the trials the editors together had undergone in seeing the book through its long gestation) my memory of the afternoon is hazy. It was, undoubtedly, a success, which I knew, having seen the number of copies the store had rung up. For all that, this was, I admit, my first opportunity to participate in a reading of this sort, from the other side of the lectern. Seeking no prior indoctrination, and even knowing my antipathy for crowds of strangers, I was interested to take in as much as I might perceive. For all the sales of the book that day (and to date, as it enjoys its inaugural weeks on sale nationally), the publisher had shipped what proved to be a significant surplus, no doubt in an established protocol of cautious optimism and preparedness. I happened to be at the check out at the front of the store, as the staff prepared for the next event, hard on the heels of our own. I admit as well, I cannot step into a well-stocked bookstore without spending some money (and I bested the outlay of the hundred dollar lady, with quite a much larger sum in a fit of spreading the wealth—I should disclose that my own copy of Books that Cook had arrived weeks ago at home, gratis). As I paid for my second purchase of the day, for another book, another audio CD, and a Lamy rollerball pen I couldn’t resist, I watched as two of the staff members, expertly stuffed what was left of an unsold pile of volumes of the literary feast into two sizable cartons, festooned with labels that looked familiar from a shipment long ago of my one published volume—probably the same production house. They had those cartons packed and sealed and ready for shipment back, all in the time it took to swipe my card and for me to sign the check.

All in all, and nevertheless, I am sure it was a good day for NYU Press, and Politics and Prose, and the co-editors. Later that same weekend, a check on Amazon of how the book was selling showed it had, for what it appears was a shining moment, achieved “best-seller” status, making it to the “Top 100” in three different sub-categories. I have no doubt with our next reading, scheduled for New York City, the home turf of the publisher, at a rare book library on campus, it will attain a few more moments of fame, and once again, even a few grains, like scattered salt crystals, will reach me.

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The book is available on-line, here http://www.amazon.com/Books-That-Cook-Making-Literary/dp/1479830216/ref=pd_rhf_ee_p_img_1, and here http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books-that-cook-jennifer-cognard-black/1119220500?ean=9781479830213. And, of course, at your local independent bookstore. I know where I’d go.

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Some Loose Rules of Thumb for Americans in Rural France

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

(inspired partially by Satchel Paige’s advice on “How to Keep Young”)

  1. Everyone moves at his or her own pace. You might as well do the same. No one is slowing down or speeding up for you, I assure you. They’ll get out of your way, if you’re polite about it. The corollary, even in the dead of night, in the middle of a village, is do not ever just step into the roadway to cross.
  2. No one is giving you the stink eye. Unlike Americans, Europeans have no trouble looking other people in the eye, or at least in the face. This is especially true of the French. They’re not sizing you up. They merely assume, if they don’t know you, that you are in the same state of mind as they. Cautious, guarded, and disinterested. And don’t worry, the French see you, and they’re not looking through you. It’s the Germans who don’t see you, and the Brits who look right through you.
  3. There is no such thing as a place in line. Everyone gets to be first, if they can manage it. There is no etiquette. Just step to the front like they do, and watch your elbows. The shopkeeper or vendor will decide who gets attention. If you’re a stranger or a tourist, forget it.
  4. The roads are much narrower than ours, and the cars, generally smaller. The trucks and buses don’t look it, but they are too. The advantage the French have is, they are used to it. You’re not. Amazingly they won’t hit you. Just don’t hit them.
  5. People on bicycles think they are the only ones on the road. This is because they have a priority. Don’t threaten them with your car. And use your directional signal when you pass them. More likely than not, there’s a car approaching in the opposite lane.
  6. Don’t hand a merchant a 50-euro bill for any sale less than 20-euros. They will always ask if you have anything smaller. So if you do, keep it out of sight, or you’ll make an enemy for the rest of your stay, or the rest of your life. Whichever is longer.
  7. Give a merchant exact change if you can. You will make a friend for, well, see Rule 6., above. Otherwise, those eensy beensy copper coins? They actually use them. If you don’t give them over, they’ll be handed to you. You can tell a merchant really likes you when he or she rounds the total down to the nearest euro.
  8. Don’t look back, because you can be sure someone is gaining on you, flashing his high beams. They’re not pissed or perverse. They just go at a faster pace than you, and want you out of their path. So move.
  9. They’re used to making fast moves with their smaller, faster, more maneuverable cars. They’re not trying to side-swipe you when they return to the lane after they pass. That’s just how they drive.
  10. Eat anything you like. It’s all good, and far better for you than the usual in the U.S. As long as you stay out of the fast food outlets. If you go to France and eat at McDonald’s, you’ve just spent a lot of money for no good reason. And I’m talking about the plane fare and the hotel. Not the Big Mac.
  11. The French, especially in the South, have been eating healthier than you, for a lot longer than you. Don’t get snotty when you tell them you’re a vegan and they seem not to know what you’re talking about. If you don’t eat whatever, just say so. You’ll still eat well. The French consider it an honor and a duty to make you comfortable and satisfied.
  12. Don’t ever raise your voice. At best, it just demonstrates you’re an American. At worst, you’ll be completely ignored. They hear you. Try a few simple words in French, in a normal tone of voice. It’s magical. Otherwise, see Rule 1.
  13. Don’t ever imagine that there’s anything remotely like marché in the ‘States. They do this every week, all year, year after year, and it’s as festive and uplifting for everybody as any Fourth of July. Get into the spirit of it, and enjoy yourself. There’s no cheaper way to get entertained, spend an entire morning amusing yourself for nothing, buy better produce, fish, cheese and meat, and raise your spirits. In the meantime, all those vendors are making a living and enjoying themselves while they do. Do you?
  14. If you think the coffee is bitter and strong, it is. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just a different palate. Just do what every American does and order a “café crême,” which is actually a cafe au lait. You can order a cafe au lait. They’ll simply repeat, “café crême,” and bring you the same thing, even as you have assured them you’re an American (or, at worst, they’ll mistake you for a Brit). If you order it after 11am, they’ll know you can’t be anything but an American, because no one drinks coffee with milk in France except for breakfast. You could get tricky and order a noisette, which literally means “hazelnut” though this has nothing to do with it. It’s a an espresso with a tiny shot of steamed milk. Saves you a euro, or more, and gets rid of some of the acidity. Might also allow you to get away with appearing French.
  15. No one eats dinner before 8pm. Not if they’re French.
  16. At someone’s home, if you’re lucky enough to get an invitation to visit and share a meal, show up ten minutes late, and it’s perfectly cool, often preferable. Show up late for a restaurant reservation and you may find yourself without a table. Go figure.
  17. Get used to dogs in any place that serves food and drink, inside or out. If you don’t like it, don’t go out. And even the most humble bistro will probably bring your dog a bowl of water, unasked.
  18. Large supermarkets and malls increasingly exclude dogs. Assume it’s the infernal Americanization of a great country that managed to get along nicely without us, until about 70 years ago.
  19. You’re not French. You will never be. You’re an American in France. Admit it to yourself, then forget it, and enjoy yourself. They actually like Americans. Can’t say as much for others.
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