If you feel like the current conditions of political life in our country are pretty much a matter of the greater number of us being in thrall to a much smaller number, whose will to do bad acts seems to grow perceptibly, you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like the situation of our physical selves being in thrall (and certainly at threat of finding ourselves in such a condition) to microbes (or even smaller… viruses are very much smaller than bacteria, for example) about which little seems to be able to be done.
But there’s a significant difference, however compelling the analogy and however helpless and bereft you may feel. Like the body’s own immune system, of which, let’s face it, we remain substantially unaware as well, we have it in ourselves to take action against even a sea of troubles.
We can vote at the very absolute least.
Remarkably little of the electorate feel the power of their right to vote. Despair unhinges us. Disgust, frustration, anger, ennui, whatever the erosive demotivators we suffer, there seems less and less hope left in this most fundamental of American rights. But it remains the key to collective empowerment. In part this is what we mean when we speak of democracy, and we mean it with the connotations of good, and ethical, and right. Individually, we have, each of us, our one small bit of command, of entitlement. This is what substantiates our agency as citizens. The power of the ballot.
Enough votes at once will effect change. We’ve seen it in the lifetime of the current generation. Changes in administration. Changes in the majorities of Congress. Changes in laws, including at the highest, the constitutional level.
Inherently our system still works, even as we plod on, seemingly limping and bleeding from what has come to seem not merely a chronic, but a continuous assault on our fundamental humanitarian principles, uncertain of not if, but when, our sense of belief will give out completely and we submit, if not surrender, utterly. All it takes is a vote. And as the actions of key leaders among those who hold power over our behavior as a people and a nation seem to portend that we will crash on in defiance of other of the world’s sovereignties, in defiance of nature itself—utterly despite the collective will, at the deepest level, of the greater percentage of our entirety as a nation—the power of that vote we still have seems to have less and less reason to enact it effectively. But repeatedly, we have proven as an electorate, that this is not so.
We still have, remarkably, another chance. In the most primitive of assessments, it’s down to basics. Almost a Manichean choice of a duality facing us. Possibly as simple as right and wrong.
Gratefully, the choice is even simpler, because there is only one wrong choice. And many right ones, with nuances and more blatant differences for sure, but any one is right in this electoral challenge. Just don’t give up. Just don’t vote wrong. Just vote.
The family: mine that is, on one side. If this doesn’t say “Russia” to you, before it says anything else, you are invited to a serious discussion at our mutual convenience.
It’s taken all this time (and, as trigger, after reading a Louis Menand book review cum essay about Franz Boas and his followers) to understand that in saying I am an ethnic Jew, it means not that my ethnicity is Jewish. My first pass at understanding this in broad terms is that religion has not much at all to do with ethnography or ethnology (Jews, in short or in long, are not the same the world over).
Rather I am of a certain ethnic group, probably with some specificity, the first generation of Eastern European immigrants from the Pale of Settlement in the last wave of migration from that region to the United States that was admitted more or less without negotiable impediment.
My parents both were from Ukraine/Belarus, dating from a time that these distinctions were not made geopolitically. These nations, as they are recognized now, were all part of Russia. And being right on the border, or as near, with Poland, there is some dispute as to the exact way in which such derivation should be characterized precisely. Saying the “Pale of Settlement” covers a lot of inexactitude.
In any event, they both came from families that lived in small towns, definitely not shtetls (though my father did a good job of describing life during his boyhood in remarkably similar ways to the descriptions embedded in classic shtetl literature – Sholem Aleichem, and the like). And so, though there was some resonance, life was not exactly Anetevka and there were no fiddlers perched precariously on thatched roofs. There were resonances for sure, but my father and his entire family were used to many what I would call bourgeois amenities.
He spoke with equal fervor of the “emporium” (I’m sure he used that word at least once) owned by my grandmother’s relatives. It was a capacious store with many departments and sold a wide variety of goods, from the pickles in barrels and caviar (packed in similar fashion, though displayed and dispensed and sold in ways he never specified) to all manner of household goods, clothing, and the like.
My father told me of forebears (though from how many generations back he did not say) who were “magistrates,” a term he meant to be understood as interchangeable with judge—which in many jurisdictions, including current ones, is not an unfair definition. The reason this came up at all, aside from a current of motifs in his stories about his childhood that were evidentiary of the somehow higher or greater status accorded to holders of our family name, was to make a reasonable case for the etymological roots of that last name. He said one theory (apparently held by the clan’s wise men; though he never singled out these individuals as to identity) was that, the Hebrew word for law being “din”… as in “beth din” (house of the law) and these being Jewish judges, the intimation was that the laws used by them to adjudicate matters before them were talmudic derived from Torah, and there you have it. Though the intermediary steps of how these magistrates came to acquire the family name Dinin, as if they themselves embodied these laws, was also never spelled out.
I have potentially valid blood relations with other Russian emigré descendants who settled not only in this country, but even more favorably (given the coincidence of localities from which we can trace our family roots, plus the still relative singularity of the last name) in Israel. These latter, though the choice was voluntary as to the appropriate orthography of the surname, call themselves Dinim, which, in fact, is more consistent with the orthography of Hebrew plural spellings and pronunciation.
With a contemporaneity that extends back at least as far as my paternal grandparents’ births, which occurred in the waning decades of the nineteenth century—which makes it now at least 140 years—the name was spelled Dinin.
I’ve got nothing to prove here, and you have everything to gain.
Here’s what it is. I listen to more music than anybody I know. That’s not saying much, probably, given how much music some people listen to. But it’s a recursive universe and mine is particularly self-referential, because I don’t get out much.
The thing about what I listen to is, it’s all over the map, I mean the cultural qua musical map, because if it gets to my heart, or my soul, or simply into my head to my pleasure centers, I listen and I listen good. The same results for everyone are not guaranteed. I mean there’s even some rap and hip-hop I listen to. I like opera. If you catch my tune.
One of the pleasures I always get, or not so much “always” as more and more reliably more often, is listening to music that is the auditory version of comfort food. It hardly matters, except for context, but I am very comfortable with music I have been listening to my whole life, which is over 70 years, and some of it, a lot of it strictly speaking because I listen to so much so-called “classical” music and there is more of that written during the course of the modern era in western culture, that is, over the past five hundred years or so, than has been written in the time I’ve been alive.
But the greater comforts can be had as well with popular music that is, some of it, at least my age, and older, dating back to beginning of the 20th century. This is more or less co-extensive of certain kinds of music, genres distinguishable from their roots in ethnic sources that traverse continents and oceans. I am talking about, among other major musical art forms, jazz. But I am also talking about blues, and I am talking about rock and roll. All more or less a century old in their recognizable forms by those rubrics.
I love to share what I gives me so much sensate satisfaction (call it soul satisfying if you like; I won’t stop you, or even give you a fishy-eyed look). Usually this means something literally digestible, some kind of food, especially if there’s enough to go around, and particularly if I’ve prepared it myself. But music is a food. Evanescent, speaking to feeling as much as to anything, and in a certain respect impossible to get yourself filled up so you can’t take any more. Which can’t always be said of North Carolina style pulled pork.
But in a certain way, it’s easier to share something good to eat, if only because of its substance and immediacy. And I can immediately gauge the effects of consumption. And there’s an ease about how it’s here, and then, consumed, it’s gone. And if my guests don’t like it, no harm done, and my sense of pleasure isn’t compromised. Tomorrow is another day.
It’s easier to share food, because one can plan on a conjunction of heightened expectations, of preparing for a meal by abstinence, and with all the anticipatory, perhaps ritualistic appetite enhancers: the aromas from the cooking area, other palatal stimuli like drinks and a sincere air of conviviality. We build ourselves up for satisfaction.
With music it’s different. There is no amuse-geule that prepares the listener for a meal of savory straight jazz standards. There may be an opening act, but that’s only to build up a different form of anticipation, larded as it is too often, intentionally, with delay and the attendant impatience.
Of course, for that reason, and others, I avoid live performances. There’s the inconvenience, and there are all those other people.
I don’t need company, frankly, to enjoy a tune, and certainly not for a symphony or a suite.
So, in more ways than the singular and irreversible accident of the occasion of my birth in the continuum of technological progress, I am the happy beneficiary of the pleasures of recorded music. What I want to hear, when I want to hear it, or so I characterize so much of the back catalog of my musical preferences.
I look forward to new performers and new performances, experimental or tried-and-true, by old favorites.
And therefore, to cut to the chase, I love Spotify.
I have shared the occasional cut, even as I was listening to it, posting a link before a song or movement was even finished to share it with my friends on Facebook.
But for the duration I am eschewing Facebook, which loses its pitifully small benefice of being, still, a kind of threadbare means of maintaining social contact. Without belaboring it, it’s proving increasingly more fulfilling to me to provide access to what I have to offer my friends by way of sharing thoughts and cultural artifacts by the means that I have always preferred in the age of technologically enhanced connection.
So I present to you, as I will from time to time (or not, not if there’s not some kind of stir, some kind of acknowledgment, some indication that it’s welcome and useful, dare I say satisfying to you as well). If you like it, tell me.
Today was a day of reviving obscure, if not moribund, old standards. And don’t say melancholy. Say moody.
There are certain words whose meanings have always eluded me, and I need to refresh my comprehension, long since, or so I thought, hard won. Nonplus is one of those words… Is it a good quality, a bad quality. All I usually am sure of is that it is a condition of uncertain benefit imposed by outside events or actions on one’s sensibility.
Jacobin Magazine [disclosure: I am a subscriber] has always elicited from me a sense of ambivalence, the prevailing response I give their endless outpouring of screeds. Sometimes the balance tips to positivity on my part, as I am mainly in concurrence with some sweeping, often categorical, pronouncement they have made about an occurrence or a presence on the world stage. I am, for sure, never left with a doubt that the magazine is turned out by a stalwart, that is, an unwavering staff of ideologues, or at least adherents to a prevailing principle, or, at worst, wage slaves who, to earn their weekly stipend, must show allegiance to the messages defined by the editorial mission.
It is with a strange sense of stupefied admiration that I have to read – yes, have to, as I subscribe, for the time being, to their email newsletter and to the newsfeed one sees on Facebook (and other social media for sure, but apparently the effect of my Facebook “like” has been to auto-vaccinate me against the urge to follow them on Tumblr, let’s say, which is about the only other place I might see their torrent of propaganda regularly, hour to hour, day to day).
In today’s email was the following link (below). You’ll have to click on it to see the degree of brazen chutzpah (no, I don’t believe that constitutes an unnecessary rhetorical redundancy: there’s chutzpah, there’s a higher degree of chutzpah, and then there’s our current president) they can effect when moved to comment, in three-part harmony, so to speak.
In this instance, the body is not even in a state of detectable decay turning into some form of inevitable compost, and yet they hasten to shit on it, or at least on the memory of the individual that once inhabited it.
Understand that I bear no love, and bore none while he was alive, and least of all while he served as President, for George Herbert Walker Bush. The worst thing I could bring myself to say was, at the time, he was the most cynical man who ever held the office. But, in my defense, because I see the weakness of this characterization (and no, not because of the degree of the comparative, or because it was the worst thing that I thought), but I can only see its inadequacy and shortsightedness because of the two individuals who held the office after him.
I have always been wary of the accusation of “war criminal,” certainly during the tenure of the usual suspects, going back, at least, to FDR (to name the first of a series of presidents within my ken; I was born only within two years of his demise, and his memory was a living thing itself within my family, because my father, a Jacobin in his own right, and a union organizer, worshipped the departed president). For one thing, it tests the notion of war as a crime. I’ll concede, even declare openly, that war is a great evil, but as for being a crime, that requires the intervention of a defining framework, including a body of laws that elucidate formally what constitutes a crime. Then you must have a suitable court to adjudicate the indictment during, presumably, the course of a trial in which evidence, hopefully of the unimpeachable sort, is presented to the court before judgment is pronounced.
With someone like George H.W. Bush, never mind Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, well, you get the idea… most such accusations, usually broadcast publicly and purely by self-sanctioning prosecutors, with no official role or appointment by a sovereign body of government, become especially forceful and louder at their demise, because, well, because that’s the last shot we plebes have got, isn’t it? I mean before the slow, quiet engines of historical judgment gather evidence, vet it, verify it, and present it in the appropriate venue for any follow-on implementation of fitting redress, whether punishment of a living perpetrator or vilification of a dead one. And that can take years, sometimes more than some of us reasonably have to look forward to.
But for some, often those of an ideological disposition, this is not a constraint, and freedom of speech being still a right in even these oppressive times, they feel free to pre-empt whatever order might impose the foregoing sequence of an act of justice. Usually there is no such order prevailing—the complainants would probably say it is not even apparent. But my point here is not to argue that condition.
My point is merely to marvel at the heedless and often terminally earnest sense of outrage and violated justice demands that card-carrying hotheads should make pronouncements, completely out of phase with even the mildest public notion of a qualified grief at the parting of a fallen former leader. My point is to say, Jacobin, once again, and what is becoming all too often, is leaving me nonplussed.
I’ve had reason to advert in this space to the blog of my friend Dom Capossela. He’s one of my oldest friends, as in one of the most long-lived friendships I’ve come to treasure. We go back to the late 60s, when I met him and his former wife, on the cusp of beginning a new phase of their lives, opening a new restaurant.
Of late, that is, as of about nine months in a serious way, he has discovered the wonders of the internet and plunged in with all limbs. It’s something of a high wire act, given that he has persisted with a daily posting on his blog, every day since. He’s now up to over 233 days and counting. He has quite a following – a testament to his persistence and tenacity. He has admittedly very few skills, especially in a practical way, in the area of computer science and despite the challenge hangs in there, taking assistance where he can find it. I’ve been known to volunteer.
In any event, aside from providing an alternative outlet for my own writing – there have been a number of entries on this blog, and in other places where I publish, when I have cross-posted as well to Dom’s blog. He expresses great, heart-felt, and sincere appreciation for these contributions, many of which start out as spontaneous email messages from me to him privately, most often in response to some trigger in the content of his blog. I read it first because he’s my friend, and I find I have an unquestioning interest (that is, I don’t doubt my own interests, and therefore I don’t question them; I question him plenty, as in, “do you know what you did there…?”). I continue to read because out of some kind of synergy, or perhaps it’s some kind of geriatric symbiosis (he’s older than me by about four years, and, as I like to joke, he keeps gaining on me) much of what he chooses to write about is stimulating of thoughts about my own life and experiences, and somehow, equally spontaneously, they pour out of me. That’s how Dom puts it, and I’ll paraphrase, “it’s amazing; it just pours out of you, just like that.” I do clean it up a bit before I post it, but it’s pretty much true, that what you see here is what came out of me.
I always accept the proposition that maybe that’s evident enough and I shouldn’t be so proud of myself.
I don’t know about pride. But I do know that my next urge is always to share it, And so here it is.
Most recently, that is, in the last few days, maybe three, maybe four, Dom had occasion to comment on several subjects that were inadvertent prompts for me.
Somehow the subject of games and puzzles came up and he had occasion to opine, as he characteristically does, so enthusiastically, “who doesn’t like puzzles and games?” So, first you’ll see my answer.
Second, and in a continuing suite of reminiscences about his childhood which seems to vary in tone from recollections of the “mean streets” of the North End of Boston in the 50s, to quite touching, almost, but not quite sentimental memories about that same boyhood and his bumptious family life. It’s with a significant pride that he recalls running and playing on the streets of that ghetto (not meant as anything but descriptive; read no negative connotations in the usage, as the word still has a perfectly good denotation), and in the most recent portrayal he speaks of ceding the streets to no one. Generally bereft of automobiles, which were a luxury in that neighborhood, those streets and alleys constituted the perpetual playground for any number of games and sports (there’s that theme again) and the only interruption which was unquestioned was for the unchallenged passage of certain vehicles, usually a “Cadillac with Rhode Island plates,” to which obeisance was given silently and observantly.
And that’s the second subject I’ll address in my own terms as it called up details of my own life at about the same time.
Puzzles and Games
There’s not much inherently interesting, I don’t think, in imparting the knowledge, regarding “puzzles and games,” that I hate puzzles and games, and always did. Even as a kid. Smacked too much of competition for no other reason than to compete. I somehow knew prematurely that life was a rat race and, as Fran Lebowitz long since pointed out (I think it was she, it may have been Lily Tomlin – certain authorities, according to the internet, aver the origin of the statement was actually William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain of Yale University), even if you win, you’re still a rat. Why look for ways to get anxious about existential proxies for survival.
Whatever my predilections, I do remember playing Scrabble with my two grown cousins, daughters of my Cousin Fannie, who lived near us in the Bronx and the relative we were most likely to visit when that cyclic urge to break bread with blood ties came over us. Anyway, both Beverly and Harriet were school teachers. I had a crush on both of them, but especially Harriet, the darker one. She was maybe 22 or 23 back then. Beverly was a couple of years older. I think Beverly had already gotten married. I was, at best, nine. I was also the current really precocious one in the family. At least to the extent that we all need an identity, and that was mine. The little saturnine genius.
Anyway, somehow or other, we seemed always to end up playing Scrabble. I think my animus about games went into suspension with these games as, miraculously, I always seemed to win. They were very convincing. And maybe I did beat them, and at worst they simply didn’t try very hard. It honestly never occurred to me until I was in my late 20s or maybe even my 30s, and had had some harrowing experiences already with women. Two failed marriages by the time I was 35 will do that to you, and each of my errant wives were young – you guessed it – maybe about 22 or 23, as the critical age. One of them was that age when she decided to have an affair. The other was barely that age when I met her. Anyway, it wasn’t until I was only a bit older, and as for wiser, I’ll be generous and call it a bit, that it occurred to me that the fabulous Menn sisters (that was the family name; Fannie was a widow, and my cousin’s late husband – Fannie was a Dinin, like me – was named Hyman Menn) had allowed me to win, because they were teachers of young children, and they knew, preternaturally, that’s what you do. Now I think, who knows? We moved to Providence soon after that, and Harriet got married to Herb, and that was the end of the occasional Scrabble games.
“Cadillac with Rhode Island plates”
Cadillac with Massachusetts plates (photo credit: Fotolia/Hemmings 1949 Cadillac Club Coupe)
The address we moved to in Providence, on the East Side, essentially a Jewish enclave that covered about one and-a-half square miles, was 44 Sargent Avenue. A very modest one-family dwelling that sat on a very odd-shaped, tiny lot that itself was situated at the point where the street took an odd jog, very slightly, to the right as you proceeded uphill, which meant it was nearly impossible to park straight and parallel with the curb right in front of our house. It made other aspects of living there – because we were on the serious part of the rise of the hill all the houses sat on, the elevation of the left side of our house was probably about two feet higher than the right side. The house was built square and level, of course, but it made our basement and the single car garage on the right-hand side of the house truly subterranean. They could only exist as a result of being on that rise, as the lot wasn’t wide enough, and if they scooped out a driveway on an incline, which they did, and built the house into the hillside, which they did, they could tuck a garage in, barely wider than a car and which a nervous, not too skilled driver, like my father, always found a challenge – a challenge he would lose about twice a year – to avoid scraping one side, usually the right side, of our automobile on the frame of the overhead door. It also meant having to back out of the driveway blind almost directly into the street. Being situated on that jog in the street, there usually wasn’t anyone else interested in trying to park there. This meant that the free and clear part of what was otherwise a fairly narrow street to begin with suddenly seemed to widen, so that cars proceeding up the hill would speed up just a tiny bit, and this meant having to be that much extra cautious tentatively backing out of our blind driveway. My father did it for nearly 30 years, into his 80s, until he suddenly got sage and gave up driving altogether.
But this, in retrospect, was only a metaphorical representation, real enough for sure, but only a metaphor, for what I experienced as a displaced child of the Bronx as the precariousness of my otherwise mild-seeming, innocuous ‘hood. It turned out, we learned quickly as we acquainted ourselves with our community, our new neighbors immediately across our narrow street were the Gotz family. They were a couple who lived on the ground floor dwelling of their duplex. On the second floor, with its own entrance and street address, lived Mrs. Gotz’s mother, hardly ever seen as she was a semi-invalid. The other part of her bifurcated life appeared from her behavior when she did present herself in public to be that of a demented person. Or maybe her half-chronic condition was dementia, and she and her dear ones were merely spending their time waiting for the other shoe, or whatever article it was, to drop. She would occasionally appear on the second-floor porch of her apartment and yell at whoever was in the street. If you were a child you learned what the sensation associated with the word “chilling” was, as she would suddenly, breaking the diurnal calm that usually prevailed on Sargent Avenue, start shrieking and yelling. At other times, she was docile and sweet and even attentive, seemingly focused. She took a genuine interest in our lives as little kids, and we, or at least I, enjoyed these peaceful hiatuses into sanity.
The Gotzes somehow persevered with this generational impediment. Usually we saw them if we saw them at all – aside from appearances, not a little like a kind of modest royalty making an audience with their public, on patriotic occasions when everyone was home from work and school and they would stand around idly, in clement weather, on their front porch – on bundling themselves and their son, Manny, into the family sedan in their driveway (a long straight shot, nice and wide, and on level ground, into a spacious two car garage that sat at the rear of their sizable lot, with a generous view of the street and oncoming traffic). And they would putter off to god knows what destinations. They kept to themselves.
Manny was adopted. This was one of those bits of common knowledge that you seemed to assimilate out of the very atmosphere bounded by the street. I don’t remember anyone telling me, or making a big deal of it.
It was a fortuitous match, parents to child, as Manny had the same dark, one might call it swarthy, complexion as his compactly built brooding father – and later in his development it grew to incorporate the quality of being unusually hirsute, with very dark hair growing thickly on his head and his face, and, as was revealed in summer, on his trunk-like arms and legs. Manny was short. Perhaps squat was a better descriptor, as he was always fairly powerfully built. This was one factor in my sense of precariousness, also part of that atmosphere. I was, it almost goes without saying, of a more ectomorphic configuration, tall and skinny. One could say slight. I thought of myself as slight. Except I was so tall for my age, until adolescence when, seemingly, all of my friends caught up with me. Except Manny.
Not that Manny was exactly a friend, or a playmate. He was about three years older than me. I don’t know who he “played” with. He was, as I suggested, quiet, and kept to himself. I can remember thinking quite clearly that I was ill disposed to invite him, however I might have done that, to join the wholly imaginary exercises, a kind of precursor to cosplay, as we did it in our street clothes with only a few props, though the scenarios in our minds were clear enough, of combat (essentially re-enactments of the Korean War, rumbling rapidly into the past, though it had ended only three years prior to our move to Providence). Or they might be the stock tableaux, part of our repertoire, fed by a diet of Hollywood features that were prominent through the 40s and 50s, of belligerent cowboy and Indian encounters. Most of these games involved toy pistols and make-shift bows without arrows. They mainly consisted of a lot of running around, hiding poorly behind physical obstacles, and making gun fire noises with our mouths. Manny simply wasn’t the type. You developed your own style of dying: arrow to the neck, gut shot… usually very dramatically and drawn out.
A transformative incident occurred, after not too many years had passed. I was barely into my scholarly career in junior high school, a couple of years or three into our New England sojourn, that somehow or other, again through that peculiar osmotic acquisition of certain everyday facts about the existence of other residents, even as you assiduously avoided having much contact with them, that Manny had a fairly constant companion. Were they not well into their adolescence, I might be tempted to describe them as playmates, though there was only the most sinister quality, one way or another – yet another, a different form of intuition – about their hanging out. Their most noticeable singular feature, say if a policeman making routine inquiries were to ask if you noticed any distinguishing physical characteristics, was a propensity to present themselves in public with heavy, and unusually well-advanced for their ages, five o’clock shadow. Manny’s buddy, who was a little older, and already had a driver’s license – because Manny had by then stopped traveling with his parents in the sedan, and was now in the company of his constant friend; they would go off together, Manny exiting his house with a furtive air, sometimes bull-like, sometimes with a gentle if gruff grunt of farewell that he projected back through the open glass-windowed wood frame door into the perpetual darkness within. His friend was called, as transmitted by the local wireless telegraph, Ray.
Well, one day, the news came back to us, and seemed to have spread fairly quickly, and not surprisingly, as it constituted notoriety of such magnitude that it was worth reporting in the city’s newspaper of record, the Providence Journal-Bulletin. It seemed that Ray and Manny were “playing” (that was the word that sticks in my mind; I will swear it was reported to me deploying such a word choice). Ray had a weapon, a handgun, apparently a revolver, that he had borrowed from his father. He was proudly showing it to his friend when somehow or other it discharged, firing a bullet, which entered and then exited the fleshy part of Manny’s already ample mid-section. A flesh wound. As the crime shows of the 90s, about 35 years later, would teach us, a “through-and-through.” Manny was patched up and recovered quickly and life went back to the strange normal we had learned, previous to this incident, not to think too much about.
The one note to this story that was at once macabre and highly humorous, especially to the precocious posse of bar mitzvah boys of which I was one, was that, on seeing what he had done, and using what knowledge he had somehow only thus far poorly assimilated from his tutors in these matters, Ray decided that he’d better ditch the evidence, and he threw away the pistol he had “borrowed” from his father. He dropped it into “the sewer,” which is to say, he dropped it into a convenient storm drain cut into the gutter of the street. I have always imagined this bizarre and clownish scenario had come to pass in the dark recesses of 43/45 Sargent Avenue, which did have a storm drain cut into the gutter in front of it, and which I never looked at in the same way every again; but it’s not clear to me, after all this time, where the incident did, in fact, occur… it would have been just as stupid whatever the setting.
The most chilling aspect of this anecdote was what was also general knowledge, kind of part of the legend of that crazy town, belying its vaguely Wild West ancestry, Providence RI. Bluntly stated, Ray was, to give his full name, Raymond Patriarca Jr., son of the mob boss of Federal Hill, the Italian-American enclave in downtown Providence. I have never to my knowledge laid eyes on Mr. Patriarca, though his power and influence always preceded him. My tenure in Providence was brief, only seven years, taking me from childhood to my teen years, when I abruptly left to take up my precocious academic career in Boston, the Athens of America. I say all this with a somewhat sardonic tone, because neither city had yet abandoned, not in 1963, its still decrepit conditions of municipal decay and metropolitan inanition. It took ethnic politicians, Italians and Irishmen, to revive them and bring them to a true state of renaissance.
In the meantime, certainly in the early 60s and into the 70s, it seemed to me, as little as I paid attention to these matters, that what real power there was, was in Boston, which seemed to be ascendant in terms of mob rule of any other part of New England. It wasn’t until the time I lived briefly in the North End, the Federal Hill of the larger city, in the 80s that I learned that it may have been a fact that the local mob boss in that part of town (as opposed to the Irish syndicate that ruled Southie) was a man named Jerry Angiulo, but even he, back in the day, reported to the big boss of New England, Raymond Patriarca, who would appear from time to time, on expeditions, probably something like a papal visit, to the teeming streets of the North End, so the locals could pay their respects.
It made me think of my childhood, of course, and in my feverish and anxiety-laden imagination, my childhood near-misses.
[Disclosure: Some facts and proper names have been changed for purposes of fictionalization]
First let me state, categorically, that I am not one of those people who is crazy about artist’s statements. Not from others, above all, but these are easy to avoid. And not from myself, so there are very few such verbal excrescences in my history. But accepting the current premise that it should be short, and in my own words, with every effort made to avoid jargon and pretense, and honest and forthright.
Second, let me offer, as caveat, the second part, below, though honest, is not necessarily true in all its parts. It is closer to art itself, however, I think, to leave the reader to decide for him or her or itself which parts are which.
Any number of people do wonder, especially of late, given my long history as a photographer, just what I am up to, and just how my current work departs, or let’s say progresses, beyond what may be the natural drift of the Dinin canon of images, collected now for over 50 years. There are those who believe they reveal a style that is identifiable. I would hope so. And unique. Even more so.
I am never sure myself that I am moving into areas of what I am very reluctant to call explorations, because it sounds poncey and like the kind of thing I was encouraged to do when I was 10 and betraying “creative” tendencies. I resisted, as it turns out in the full course of my life I have resisted everything, and I merely contented myself with taking photographs of things that struck me as photographable and worth recording (that is, using up costly resources and time).
It was possible after the passage of a number of years, at least the ones between the age of ten (if not, in actuality, earlier) and the age at which I learned with the full impact of its meaning a word that those who know me really really well knows is one of my favorite words of all time, that is, “quotidian.” It qualifies my favorite subject. The mundane, ordinary, largely unsung and, let’s face it, unnoticeable, details of existence as we plod through our all too brief lives continuously, albeit aware of its passage only from moment to moment.
The virtue of photography, the medium of the moment.
photographs I am working on now | a gloss on two images
Lately, I’ve taken to recording real quotidian moments. And as my quotidian, like that of so many people, especially in first world countries, consists of a certain amount of time spent in front of an illuminated screen, watching whatever I like to watch (an irrelevant facet of this subject as far as I’m concerned, so forget about it). I am interested in the image. I’m interested in the randomness of what we take in in our field of vision. I’m also interested in getting a well exposed photograph when I choose to press the shutter release.
So I have a small body of images of late, say the least six years, which is about the span of our household acquisition of a large screen monitor for watching video content – a 55 inch plasma screen. Most of my images were recorded from this device. But others were recorded from the screens of smaller devices, including a phone, a tablet, and a 27” color corrected monitor on my production desktop (I call it that, because that’s where I do serious manipulation of images).
Some of these images have leaked into the stream of images I deign to share in various forms on internet media.
Today, I am posting an image that was recorded deliberately with some sense of it constituting a genre, perhaps peculiar to me, but I doubt that. It is truly peculiar only when considered in the context of all other images I’ve taken, lately, and always. So a particular understanding can be gotten only by those people throughly familiar with images I have been making, as I said, for several decades. There’s, I figure, oh about three or four of you. Talk about small audiences. But I don’t mind.
The first image here is a screen capture of a thoroughly obscure attempt by a British production company to make a successful video series of a very idiosyncratic, if not wholly baroque sequence of detective novels by a Brit (and not the first one with a jones for ginning up Italian crime novels) named Michael Dibdin. It lasted for three episodes before being cancelled. His hero is named Aurelio Zen (an odd name, even to Italians, and explained as being because he’s from Venice—I have no idea what this means, and I don’t care). They didn’t stint on the production, and even got some eye candy performers, it happens with acting ability, to play the major parts. Rufus Sewell (who did a particularly splendid job of distinguishing himself as more than a pretty boy by playing the role of Queen Victoria’s mentor and first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, for PBS Masterpiece. Though Sewell is, today, a somewhat youthful 51, he took the role about two years ago, and played it as written, as a sickly, vaguely decrepit, but clearly still attractive, middle-aged man on the brink of death. It was only six years before that he played the much more youthful role of Zen – for all the good it did his career; though I’m not sure what was expected by those Brits who played the series seriously, shooting on location in Rome, with all roles assumed by Brits, playing native Italians, except for the love interest, who, it happened, was Italian, Caterina Murino, and whose claim to fame then was that she was the first Bond Woman in the first of the rebooted series of James Bond epics, starring Daniel Craig. Murino played a beauty, entangled with the villain, and suffers a horrible fate at his hands. In the role, as these things often go, she played a Greek. Must have been money determining nationality of characters; it made no sense otherwise.
But neither here nor there. I provide all these details deliberately and also fairly sure they in some way inform, except it’s too late now to tell, the viewer’s perception and appreciation, if any, of my first image, It’s entitled “Now Watching Zen, Zen.”
Now Watching Zen, Zen
The other photo seems more characteristic of a lot of other work of mine, but I will insist that, in fact, it’s informed by this latest impulsive strain of mine to capture what I’ll call, I hope intriguingly, packaged quotidian. Like most video concepts these days.
It’s a moment caught in the wild, while I was out in one of my rare public forays for any purpose other than to go shopping for food at Whole Foods Market, or for prescriptions at CVS. It records a phenomenon that I have taken note of for some time, and is a real thing, I am positive, though little noted by others, and certainly not by the world at large.
It is the little studied phenomenon of what, for lack of any formal term I have encountered, has to be called “womansplaining,” which is also the title of the second image. There is no need to belabor the phenomenon, duly noted long since by many, and having passed into the common vocabulary, of mansplaining, which is reprehensible and comical at once, and doesn’t deserve any attention from me, I don’t think. But decide for yourself and write to me; we’ll discuss it, as long as I don’t have to explain anything. Whatever other, possibly more sober and serious analysis of the phenomenon is, I will speculate, not only likely, but if it is or it isn’t, it’s not compelling enough to explore in a scholarly fashion. Someone will help me out I am positive, whether I invite the assistance or not.
Womansplaining, as I have fashioned it, and as I have observed it, is the manner in which one woman explains to another woman the immediate subject or topic in a series of these during what is often a wide-ranging verbal engagement. It is rarely a conversation, except for stock, usually terse rejoinders by the woman in the de facto role of listener, to keep the pace of social intercourse at a rate most likely to dispel detectable boredom or ennui in either participant. In short, the woman engaged in womansplaining is also usual the participant who commandeers the conversation, setting its agenda, and delving into the narrative with a level of detail that is sometimes astonishing to witness for its breadth somehow combined with specificity. Many items I would assume, but I am the wrong gender, so I’m probably wildly off here, were of the type that fall under the rubric of speaking for themselves, if not altogether self-evident. But I have long since discovered that, all matters of gender aside, I am a poor judge of what is of due importance to others. They will decide for themselves. I know they will. They always do. I’ve observed it many times.
The explanations in these exchanges can get quite complex, not merely in terms of verbal content, but combined with a concomitant (apparently standard) repertoire of manual gestures and gesticulations. You can tell what’s being said is important because of all the hand jive. That’s not fair, I know. But I’ll leave it.
The exchange recorded here was captured in a suburban restaurant that serves excellent ethnic food. It was only sparsely attended by patrons at lunchtime, but I happen to know most of its business occurs in the evening hours. During the course of the exchange I witnessed, and admittedly I did not observe every moment, never mind closely, as we were sitting three tables away. and mainly concerned with actually eating, interspersed with an actual conversation, I can honestly say now I did not observe either participant in the distant exchange consume one bite of food.
I wasn’t sure I should craft the following coda to this statement, but I can see it presents a little opportunity for doing something else that’s not so characteristic for me: a little merchandising… you know, marketing and promotion.
I wish only to observe about these images, which are suggestive of the totality of the impact I think they embody, like so many of my images, if not all of them, they would best be appreciated as actual objets d’art, that is, physical prints on photographic materials, rendered as I wish them to be seen as closely as I can, with all my skill, manage the process. Anyone wishing to see either of these images as prints should contact me directly and privately.
It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.
Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.
Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.
However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.
But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?
I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.
The current ordeal of the nominee for the seat on the U.S. Supreme Judicial Court vacated on the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy highlights, among other things, two contradictory tendencies among the public. We tend to accept fully, or utterly reject, and purely at face value allegations of extreme behavior. What gets our juices flowing are cases of murder or even significant bodily harm, kidnapping, and, of course, sexual misconduct. At the same time, we have a spot in our hearts, perhaps softened and predisposed by all those juices, for seeing justice done however long it takes in the special instance of what are called in police jargon “cold cases.” The only matters that compare for compelling sympathy are cases that later prove to have indicted, and usually punished, the wrong person. But these latter instances, both unsolved crimes and crimes erroneously attributed to an innocent, are related if merely by the power they have to excite our emotional involvement even after protracted periods of time. We even can work up a compulsion for cases involving offenses so ancient they are history, and all the parties involved long dead, if not almost altogether forgotten. Nothing stirs certain of us like the words, “disinter,” or “exhume.” You’d think we had a scholarly love both for Latin and rotting flesh.
Among the genre programming that claims sufficient following there is always current a choice of shows, both on network television and cable or streaming. We have the fictions of the very popular series, which ran for a respectable seven years, called, simply, “Cold Case.” What underscores the avidity for that series is that all the cases featured were fictional. On the other hand, there is equivalent enthusiasm for a series which features what are purported to be real cases, in which we are to suppose there is the satisfaction of seeing in the end the meting out of “Cold Justice.” In the latter a real-life former prosecutor and a crime scene investigator team up to crack such cases across the country.
There have also been myriad mini-series and podcasts devoted to examining afresh baffling or vexing seeming (or actual) crimes in which, originally at the time of occurrence, there was either a successful conviction, or the mystery of a total lack of an indictable offender. The more popular of these “reality-based” extended inquiries resulted in concluded cases being overturned and retried, or in the case of utter failure a latter-day confession by the perpetrator. Receiving equal acclaim have been a certain number of shows that incorporated fictionalized or speculative aspects of exposition of a real case. The most engaging of these kinds of programming, in my personal experience, have included the documentary mini-series “The Jinx” (the case of admitted murderer Robert Durst), the documentary podcast (that spawned a powerful genre of such shows, and the establishment of a production company devoted to producing them), “Serial” (involving the case of an accused and convicted Adnan Syed, who had his case re-opened 16 years later, in part because of this inquiry, after being sentenced for the crime in 2000—as recently as five days ago, incidentally, the State of Maryland, which is running out of appeals of the decision to retry Syed, appealed, probably as a last resort, to the highest court in that state… as they say, stay tuned, and back to my regular programming).
Suffice it to say there is an ongoing hunger for stories of injustice, of justice forestalled or upended or perverted. Generally, we find these compelling and engaging, and a test of our willingness to keep an open mind, or at least to examine more closely how we arrive at the conclusions and convictions we arrive at in the light of what is sometimes conclusive evidence—when sometimes other factors we can’t quite identify compel us to arrive at a contradictory “verdict” in our minds despite that evidence. When the evidence is inconclusive or fragmentary or, seemingly, non-existent, we are thrown back on our entire internal system of beliefs, biases, and what we persist in calling logic, no matter what part of the brain is involved, acquired over a lifetime of childhood development and all of our experience.
We long for evidence of the successful pursuit of justice. We plunge into the fascination of cases involving the extremities of behavior, especially when there seems to be no satisfaction of that longing. We put aside our repugnance, if not outright horror, of certain acts, in the interests, we say, of truth. And we endorse, at least as passive witnesses, if not outright bystanders with no other skin in a game but our shared skin as human beings, the additional energies, if not the material expense of time and cash in pursuing what we insist on calling the truth. We do. Unless some other order of value, some objective conforming to that order and that value, is at stake. Then, it would seem not only are bets off, we don’t care to venture into the casino altogether to watch other players confront the stakes. It can be a complex and complicated business, this business of who did what to whom, and what’s it worth, if anything, to find out.
And so now, let us consider the even more convoluted contradictions of the matter before the Senate that is hogging the headlines, concerning Judge Kavanaugh.
Stating the obvious, apparently unsubstantiated allegations about sexual misconduct by alpha individuals – mostly men, but let’s not introduce the specter of gender bias – in our society have been enough to bring down politicians, both in office and seeking them. Enough to bring down very powerful media executives and on-air talent. Enough to bring down star athletes, as well as athletic management of professional teams and the de facto equivalent, major college sport organizations.
What they are not sufficient to derail, never mind to oust from any current office, are the ambitions of men who are nominated for one of nine seats as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Other misdeeds, or so they were positioned, have been sufficient to scotch a nomination. Even Abe Fortas, a sitting Associate Justice nominated to replace the retiring Chief Justice (and the first sitting Supreme Court justice to be called in to testify at his own confirmation hearing) failed in his attempt to be seated, largely because of unpaid political debts by President Johnson owed to Republican senators who elected to find that the stipend Justice Fortas received from a university to teach a course at American University during the summer recess of the Court was sufficient sign of moral unfitness that they filibustered the confirmation process into extinction. The upshot was that Justice Fortas chose to resign from the Supreme Court altogether.
And now, of course, it should be mentioned as an aside, as well as ironic counterpoint to latter day machinations, the filibuster is dead as a political weapon. The Democrats in the Senate as it is currently constituted are sufficient in number and temperament to have put an end to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh long since, and without an ounce of painful personal discomfiture for anyone.
Though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the range of historical precedents for finding reasons to disqualify candidates on what, after all, were strictly political grounds, there have not been many instances, as I started off by saying, where an alleged act of sexual impropriety lost a nominee a seat on the highest court in the land. A quick review online reveals none. There has been at least one instance of a state District Court justice losing his seat (and not a lifetime appointment at that) because of sexual improprieties, but not without his stepping down while also denying the allegations against him. Not to mention U.S. Appeals Court justices (the most recent one being the infamous Alex Kozinski, who sat very close to his colleague on that bench in the Ninth Circuit, that is to say the aforementioned Brett Kavanaugh—but Justice Kozinski got away clean by the expedient of retiring, though at the youngish age for senior judges of 67).
To be fair, Judge Kavanaugh is in the process of being prepped for being pilloried in the court of public opinion, not to mention the Senate Judiciary Committee if the Democrats in the minority can somehow get their way, for activities in which he is accused of participating when he was still a teen-ager. He was in prep school as a senior of 17 in one instance, and in a newly revealed alleged incident, it was a year later, his freshman year at Yale College.
By any definition, these incidents, accepting the premise they may have occurred, are cold cases, especially in view that the warm bodies involved are still among us, still vital, still relatively young, though the occurrence of these alleged incidents was at a time that the bodies were not just warm, but in the full flower of youth—which seems to have a fluid meaning and pertinence depending on whose opinion you ask about the allegations. Yet, given our penchant for deep interest in such cases – whence the course of justice, indeed? – there is a divide as to whether there should be any intensive effort to examine either case, but especially that of the first allegation involving the sexual assault of Dr. Ford at a prep school party, for further evidence or corroboration beyond that of the principals in this drama. Indeed, it’s clear that for the Republicans in the hearing room, and in Greater Washington DC, and in suburban Connecticut, and around the country, there has already been too much allowance, and the chance being given to Dr. Ford to submit herself to examination and inquiry (let us not call it interrogation, even though the Republican majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee insists that lawyers appointed by them be permitted to pose the questions to those testifying) is sufficient effort, energy and expense. And not because of the nature of the offense, but because of, well, that’s the question isn’t it?
If it were a Hollywood mogul, it’s easy. Guilty as charged. And if not guilty, though Mr. Harvey Weinstein, in fact, will have to face the court, so let’s consider, ahem, another example. Well, if it were a U.S. Senator or a member of the House of Representatives, either of whom will be up for re-election in short enough order, and either of whom could be made the focus of an ethics inquiry by the body on which they sit as a member (but why bother with such a nasty and un-collegial business, when a man’s honor can be invoked and he can be called upon, in private, to do the right thing?), he would do the honorable thing and simply step down, by way of tacit admission no matter what discrepant verbiage actually issues from his lips, which it inevitably will. But this is a sitting judge, who will have to suffer the bitter deprivations of continuing in his seat on the bench of one of the second highest courts of the entire nation, continuing to wield power and influence on the laws of the land, rather than assume an even higher agency holding a judicial position for life.
Is this a matter or justice? Is this a matter of life and limb? Nah. Apparently not, at worst it seems to be a matter of teenage hanky panky and indiscretion. It’s merely a matter of the reputation and word of a woman. How many times must we be taught what that’s worth, at least in certain arenas?
The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.
Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.
One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.
Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.
After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.
For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.
Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.
That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.
In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.
Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.
When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.
Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.
Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.
He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.
There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.
Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.
She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.
By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.
In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.
I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.
The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.
His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.
They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.
Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.
No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.
Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.
What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.
There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.
He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.
The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.
I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.
It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.
But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.
Dom, my very good friend after what is now more than 50 years, is about to embark voluntarily on an automotive adventure. It will be the second of what he, in what is to me characteristically droll usage, calls an “existential auto trip.” Indeed, so inspired has he been since his first such trek, he has created an entire website, now clearly a personal calling, a vocation, which he also entitled “existential autotrip.” The second word of the title, at least in the Capossela lexicon, is a portmanteau – appropriately enough – that is, a single word.
Our hero – here, closer in age to Lewis & Clark on their Expedition than he is to the age he is now (H. Dinin)
He means these trips, solo flights into the heartland of our great nation, and I mean that in the classic sense of that phrase, “once great nation, still great nation, always great nation,” to be an adventure, an exploration, and a journey into the self as much as it is a bold foray into what William Gass called “the heart of the heart of the country.” In short, Dom is leaving quite soon, that is, two short days from this precise moment of my composition, to drive from Boston, Massachusetts to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and back again. All during the course of a month.
He has been preparing for this escapade for months. As much as he is bound up in the increasingly complex business of posting a daily blog, with the attendant responsibility of being the editor of what he now calls his magazine, he must attend as well to the minutiae of assuming responsibility as what he has styled himself – again, drolly – and that is, “Web Meister.” Quite a bit to juggle, especially as he traverses tens, did I say “tens?” when I meant hundreds of miles of U.S. Interstate, not to mention whatever by-ways and diversions he may discover en route.
Lewis & Clark (public domain)
The occasion for my writing is not to announce this trip, as he has already broadcast it and adverted to it—even beyond the scope of his domain name being eponymous with his periodic peregrinations—for the edification of his followers. In fact, unless I miss my guess, and I also somehow have missed the intent of his asking me to assume some autonomy in posting relevant material to his blog as I see fit (in order to relieve the burden of his providing daily material, even as he logs his diurnal ration of miles), these words will appear sooner than later on said blog. Rather, as is my wont, being a curmudgeonly sort by nature, and a worrywart, I want to provide at the least a cautionary note to the expectant and triumphant melody it is his wont to warble as he speaks, always with a full heart, of his expedition. Speaking of which, part of his strategy is to emulate, if not literally to track portions of the trail, the expedition of two of his personal heroes, Lewis and Clark.
My note concerns coffee. Coffee, not surprisingly, was just one of the provisions that the original Lewis and Clark included in the seven tons of dry goods provisions they packed for their trip (cf: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/what-lewis-and-clark-ate/). But, despite the auroral status in our history as a nation of the Lewis & Clark outing, coffee was already sufficiently American to demand a place of that most American of beverages in the diet of those stalwarts. Imagine trying to map the origins of the great Missouri River without starting the day with a full ration of (presumably) hot java. As Vizzini lisps, “inconceivable.”
It is of at least equal moment to me that, according to the PBS food historian, the daily consumption of animal meat on average for each man traversing the Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific was nine pounds. Nine pounds of meat a day, my friends… However let me note that this is not the occasion to ponder the characteristic American appetite for protein in mass quantities. Rather, I’d suggest it is of equal significance that such an atavistic impulse — and a need that could not possibly be provisioned in advance in Saint Louis; they expected to hunt and kill their daily meat ration live — was rivaled by the need to make sure they packed coffee. The existential elixir!
But I am here not to laud the heroic virtues of my friend. Suffice it to say that in many dimensions he dares to go where I would prefer not to. Not at our age, not alone, not over such distances, and not in a vehicle with no driver other than myself. Not to mention the vagaries of internet connectivity in the hinterlands of our expansive mainland. And there is the perpetual, the daily, question of what to do when, long about three or four o’clock in the afternoon somehow the cells of my body are utterly aware that it is more or less 12 hours since I lay, suddenly, broad awake, and that it is now time, regardless of what I may be doing, and succumb to their imminent depletion of all energy – a compensatory metabolic state to balance all that bright energy in the middle of the night. In short, it turns nap time long about the same time each day. I’m not saying there are no remedies, even on a lonesome highway, even on the “blue highways” of that famous book of William Least Heat-Moon of 1982.*
*A book that also tells of a journey, if I might digress for a moment, though in fact the substance of this diversion is eminently apt, as you will see. Before you get too far into his book-length journey Heat-Moon shares this trenchant exchange:
… It was cold and drizzling again. “Weather to give a man the weary dismals,” Watts grumbled. “Where you headed from here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Cain’t get lost then.” [Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, Little Brown, New York, p. 35 (1982)]
I hasten to add that I am also not in the least concerned that Dom will encounter the young man’s plight in this encounter (which takes place, charmingly, in a town called Nameless in Tennessee, under the smiling gaze of a poster of Senator Al Gore, Jr.). In addition to planning and organizing down to the last pair of socks his solo expedition’s provisions, with the same fastidious care, down to that last pair of his socks, that the Lewis & Clark escapade required though the one is outfitting himself in the space afforded by the trunk and backseat of a Honda Accord of late vintage and the other is, well, seven tons my friends, and not one ounce of it, we know, was meat. Well, maybe a little beef jerky. But I am getting beside myself, and there is no passing lane here.
No, Dom will always know where he is, as he has AAA triptychs, a GPS device, an iPhone, maps, and a destination. What’s more as I infer from our conversations, he has a strong sense that there are no detours or blind trails where one loses one’s way, but in life, with the right attitude, there is only opportunity.
However, what he also doesn’t have is a particular article of travel gear – though I am not confident of this, as I have only anecdotal evidence on the strength of his testimony regarding his most recent road trip (hardly existential: it was only from my house just across the city line from Philadelphia to his condo on Boston’s waterfront) and concerning a recalcitrant, not to mention, in his word, “flimsy” coffee cup. Well, actually, there’s no reason to beat around the coffee bush.
What he said was, and I have it on record, “hot coffee in well of car cup too flimsy to pull out w one hand,” and, further along, “must bring solid cup w you.” Which tells us two things. He’s got some last minute shopping (or a last minute scouring of the kitchen) for one of those insulated travel mugs. What I call “adult sippy cups.” Which, let me add, in case you don’t immediately infer this, I hate.
And, two, he intends to drink hot coffee (or something hot, and I think he’s ambivalent about tea) while engaged in the operation of a moving motor vehicle.
Duralex “Gigogne” Mug
To be honest, I don’t hate coffee. It’s one of my favorite beverages, hot or cold. I suspect I don’t love it quite to the extent of my friend Dom, who seems to love the aroma and flavor well enough, but nothing on the passion with which he loves the temperature of it freshly brewed. I have now witnessed him dispense, from an insulated carafe, brewed minutes before (by me; just so you know) into a very hip glass mug (Duralex, very French) and proceed to zap said portion of existential elixir for 30 seconds on high in our prosumer-grade General Electric microwave oven. This man likes his coffee hot. In case you missed that part of his blog, way back at the beginning.
All well and good. I don’t begrudge my old friend his pleasures. His coffee. The temperature of his coffee. His quest. His dreams. It’s his life, not mine. Existential indeed.
What I am not ashamed to set down and admit to, here, after all this verbiage, are my fears concerning hot coffee (he mentioned Starbucks, so I know he has go-to suppliers on the road, and I happen to know that Starbucks serves coffee that is, in the American style, freaking hot). And so even with his sippy cup, Dom is disposed to try to handle his cup o’ morning joe while also engaged in other activities. Could we imagine he will quaff while driving? He did imply a requirement of one-handed stability in the vessel containing his coffee while in his car. I can say no more.
It could be said I have, possibly, too strong an imagination for someone of my delicate sensibilities. And I have my own take on existential questions – which, even at this late stage, still far outnumber the answers. So all I will say is, knowing Dom will barely have time to have these words register, I think he might consider the pace of his journey yet again. Consider the virtues of starting the day with a quiet contemplation, lingering over a light repast, whatever the resources of Nameless, Wherever can offer for one’s roving petit déjeuner out there somewhere on the prairie or in the inspiring vistas prelude to a view of the Grand Tetons themselves. Consider a nice quiet cup, even as the scalding infusion of Coffea arabica burns your lips, even as you feel the tug of the open road, before you can sense the blistering qualities of the decoction cooling all too quickly under your fingertips.
So my final advice my venturesome friend (and to all who would listen). For the road, a nice cold bottle (preferably with a narrow neck and a replaceable cap) of something refreshing; might I suggest water? And for those intervals of contemplation, coffee as hot as you like in a durable container, while seated in a comfortable chair, or chaise, or lounge, a loveseat, maybe, or a sofa. We don’t want that steaming tincture of java to turn (as in overturn) suddenly from being a philosophical lubricant of deep thought to a truly existential rupture providing a gateway to far deeper places in the cosmos.
You can adjust all of your cookie settings.