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 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]
Jerusalem – The Mosaic Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe In Dormition Abbey Stock Image
What I always checked on arrival was my money. I had left Providence that morning, after the briefest of overnights. It was my parents after all, and I had burned any number of those bridges. I simply didn’t spend any more time under their roof than I had to.
I was 23, a newly minted Master (of the Arts of English Language and Literature, after all), and my own man. I didn’t spend a summer hoarding every penny I could from my earnings as a waiter in the hottest dive on the newest trendy neighborhood on Boston’s waterfront, sleeping nights on the sofa in my buddy’s seedy living room in Allston, to lose it all to a moment of lapsed vigilance.
I stood there in the baggage area of the Austin airport with the cluster of four bags that held all my pathetic possessions worth shlepping. Two hard and two soft, the bags that is. I had cajoled the use of two ancient Samsonites, long out of service, from my father’s museum of such things that he kept in the garage—relics of his sales career. And the two soft bags were of that indeterminate provenance of most households even in the late 60s, households that could boast at least one, never mind two, veterans of the war of diminishing and fading glory and honor, the big one, the just one, W.W. Two. My uncle had served in Europe, and my father kept the home fires in the National Guard, so we had an ample inventory of duffels.
The soft bags were for my clothes, mainly jeans, or “dungarees” in the lingering argot of my childhood, and a lot of tee shirts, and socks, and undergarments of the Jockey briefs variety, and a sweater or two, dubiously included by me, ruefully expecting the worst in the kind of weather I particularly abominated. I long since came to understand it wasn’t the eyes of Texas that were upon you all the live-long day. It was the oppressive heat, which, the cows and the oil rigs aside, was the cultural markers that impressed themselves with a kind of minimalist authority as being emblematic of that enigma known as our second-biggest state. I was old enough to remember the admission of Alaska into the Union, and I still bore the smug superiority only a ten-year old resident of Rhode Island could instill within himself towards the now hapless citizens of what was now an also-ran. What would I need sweaters for?
The capacious unyielding scuffed armor of the hard cases I had reserved for the other, to my mind more precious personal cargo, essentials of far greater utility than scratchy woolen pullovers I would never wear. In one, a cache of books, ponderous tomes that I came to think of as the foundation of any civilized student of literature’s personal library – portable or permanent. There was the monumental History of the English Language of Albert C. Baugh, of course, a cornerstone, if the slimmest of the volumes at a little fewer than 500 pages. There were also multi-volume sets ofanthologies of the literature of England and America, probably published by Norton, which regularly turns them out like economy-sized doorstops for mansions from a brick factory.
Whatever may have been my rationale for packing your fundamental 20 pounds of books in four or five volumes has disappeared in the residue of a haze of pot smoke and alcohol fumes. Likely I wanted to be prepared in case the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas Library happened to burn down, or was lost in a takeover by rebel forces from, I don’t know, somewhere in Central America. All I know is, the damn bag was heavy.
The other suitcase, arguably, was more precious. I had given up my lovingly gathered matched components of a stereo system, and had packed away my sizable collection, begun at the age of 12 of LP records, all for the sake of portability. After weeks of agonizing research and soul-searching, I bought a very compact Sony mini-stereo system, with cassette deck and electronics in one unit, and two matching speakers, all covered in an adamantine faux wood-patterned synthetic with prodigious shock-absorbent qualities, and inspired allegedly by the grain of some exotic rare African species of timber. I regretted giving up the purity of vinyl, especially with the hit of compromise in fidelity of tape cassettes. Which, it’s true, took up perhaps one-tenth the storage space for the equivalent amount of music, but which, to be honest and let’s admit it, sounded like shit. The selection of the recorded material available from any label’s vaults was also quite limited, from the perspective of an emerging connoisseur like myself, but what’s a man to do?
I could have spent more, but I needed my hoarded funds for grim necessities: travel, lodging, tuition. And I did figure on eating occasionally. Though it was hard to tell from looking at me that I paid much attention to such a requirement. I was just shy of six feet (though close enough that that was what I claimed) and I weighed, on a well-fed day, and probably while wet, about 128 pounds. Don’t ask how I managed those four bags through the corridors of the Theodore Francis Green Airport in Warwick, because I don’t recall, but I made it. And so there I stood, pondering how to get to the Holiday Inn, the cheapest temporary quarters I could find on a map, yet still near enough to the campus that I could walk – my preferred mode of conveyance. It was either the luxury of a cab, or the vagaries of overcoming my medieval ignorance of Austin public transportation.
Still flush with my savings, even after shelling out the one-way fare on American Airlines to take me to the loathsome Love Field (perversely named with that infernal brand forever to easterners with ever-fresh memories of the tragedy that occurred in Dallas just six years before my mad dash to get my connecting flight to Austin) and on to my final destination. I had no idea what the coming year would bring, or how or when I would desire retracing my steps, so I figured why piss away the dough?
The cab ride was mercifully brief. I tipped the driver, and waved off the bellhop eager to help me tackle my bags to the front desk. Tips? A working man and a student should tip one of the proletariat when he can barely put a decent copy of Baugh in his suitcase, or flesh on his bones?
The room was thirteen dollars a night, plus miscellaneous charges, and what was I to do? I silently gave myself five nights maximum at this embodiment of chain luxury dens, Kemmons Wilson’s brainchild of accommodations for the common man (already with over 500 locations across the country) to find permanent digs for at least my first semester, and scope out the best places to eat decently and cheap. Not to mention laying out my first semester’s tuition.
The easiest piece of business was enrolling as a doctoral student, the only severe challenge being to prove I was who I said, since at that tender period of my life, I had no driver’s license. As I said, I preferred to walk. But as I recall, my draft card and my birth certificate sufficed. They didn’t even seem particularly interested in my having a local address, since I had a permanent address in Rhode Island, even though it was 48 positions less in the cavalcade of states by size. This stipulation merely meant I was to pay the out-of-state resident’s graduate school tuition, which was a munificent $270 for the semester – an even 200 bucks more than the airfare had been to fly halfway across the country.
It took an additional day to find digs. First I sniffed out the hangout of the graduate students, and given the size of the English department, there was a separate such gathering place, a lounge, just for us. I figured there would be postings pinned up somewhere with all manner of resources. Sure enough, I found what sounded ideal. Just three blocks from where I stood on the campus, on a secondary neighborhood street, was a converted courtyard-style motel. On the second floor overlooking the interior of the court – away from the traffic and street noise – was what was described as a suite, though the complement of furniture listed only one bed. There were two rooms and a separate bathroom.
The rooms stand as a shrine within the galleries of my mind. Basically it was a nice enough layout. The entry gave way to a spacious room that could serve as an area for entertainment and for study, complete with a narrow desk and an even more narrow bookcase. With a partition of the minimal magnitude to qualify as a wall separating two areas of a very large space altogether – it was maybe 300 square feet. Impressive, but I admit, in and of itself the dimensions are hardly the stuff of deep memory. Rather it was the decor that set this domicile apart. My suite remains an everlasting altar of bizarre interior design and decor, never since duplicated or displaced for its negative capability for the invidious. Let me just say, before I describe it, that I loved it in an instant, and immediately decided to take it and seek no possible alternative selections.
The living quarters, from baseboards to ceilings, including the ceilings in fact, were covered, as in over every visible surface except for wall outlets and switches, and the very small number of windows, all on one wall of each room, and all facing the inside court, itself adorned with a dry fountain, clearly long out of service. The covering was foot-square tiles of a thick open-pored cork, dyed a very dark brown, not quite the color of ebony, but darker than walnut. All in all, a den or cave, and clearly always suffused with a kind of sombre Stygian aura, a permanent dusk. The floor, to complete the vision, was covered uniformly with, of course, shag carpeting in an appropriate unobtrusive, essentially unnecessary to clean, shade of a color I will call dun.
In marked, almost blinding, contrast, was the bathroom, of a complementary vastness of space, perhaps ⅔ the volume of the main suite of rooms. Notable was the lack of a door, though the portal was an indented doorway, so not even an oblique view from the bedroom allowed one to see very deeply into what must be designated the bathing and toilet chamber. In here too all surfaces flowed together, every square inch, with no differentiation of surfaces, except for the juncture of orthogonal planes, which is to say, you could detect the corners and seams where floor met walls and, looking higher, walls met ceilings. And every square inch was covered in white ceramic tile, square, of about a two-inch dimension. A waterproof fixture in the ceiling provided all the light needed, as when it was switched on as you entered the effect was instantaneously dazzling. A perfect enclosure for clinical examinations to whatever purpose: dermatologic in nature, lesions, one’s hairline or scalp condition. In one corner was a toilet, with appropriate appurtenances set into the wall. In the other corner along the same wall, a huge industrial shower fixture jutted out with controls beneath it on the wall. Along one perpendicular wall, a sink, with a mirror above it. There was also a ceramic shelf set into the tiles.
Further examination showed a slight incline of the floor from every wall to a significant drain, perhaps six-inches in diameter set into the exact center of the floor. Clearly the room had been designed for optimal modes of efficient cleaning, if not regular sterilization, of all surfaces. More or less at once, and with the mere expedient of a high-pressure hose.
And this temple to my rapidly emerging sense of the pure monastic life I would assume as a scholar, somewhere short of ascetic – there was no facility at all for cooking, though I was told that purchase and installation of an electric cooker of some sort, which is to say, a hot plate, was entirely permissible – would cost me the ascetic sum of 94 dollars a month, payable in advance, with an additional month’s rent as security, though refundable on a satisfactory inspection at departure. I had to sign a six-month agreement to stay, not a lease, and on the terms of the apparently equally bizarre statutes regarding transient lodgings, revokable by either party with sufficient notice.
Short of knowing absolutely no one, though I had the phone number of a friend’s cousin, a resident of Austin and whose name, I swear, was Billy Bob, and who was, to boot, a lawyer, pretty much assuring that I would wait until later in this, my first week, to contact him. In the meantime, I had to pull up stakes, though it was too late to check out that night, my second in Austin, from the Holiday Inn, and somehow transport what were effectively all my worldly goods to my new cell-qua-grotto.
However, before I did, I decided I had done so well in such a short time, far more quickly than my profound state of ignorance on my arrival had allowed me to anticipate, I deserved to treat myself to a celebration. I returned to the grad student lounge to see who I might seek as counsel with such an objective. The lounge, spacious and comfortably furnished, was not exactly bustling, but there were two people conferring in a corner, disposed in such a way, and showing other signs of a kind of familiarity that I inferred at least close friendship. It was man and a woman, neither of them, it seemed, very much older in appearance than I. Both were comely specimens, and as I approached they looked up from their confab, and spontaneously smiled. Which I took for a good sign.
She was Alma, and her sharp, precise features, accented but not overtaken with expertly applied makeup, mainly around her eyes, seemed to accentuate what I took to be a Latina heritage, and in fact, she was an Austin native, the third generation born in the United States, of Mexican immigrants who had arrived around the turn of the century and become citizens. Alma was studying 20th century literature, and was a burgeoning Woolf scholar, as in Virginia Woolf. And she gave every appearance, reinforced by an easy sunny demeanor, that there was little she was afraid of, and least of all Mrs. Woolf. Her friend, and that was all he turned out to be, another second year doctoral candidate, was Peter, who had arrived at UT in part because of the holdings of the Ransom Center at the library, where he had begun to dig into the extensive manuscript collection, mining for a worthy topic for his dissertation. He was leaning to Faulkner, but he wasn’t sure.
They were eager to know what I was doing there – though my east coast roots and ways had somehow announced themselves before I even declared them by speaking. I suggested we discuss it over drinks somewhere. It was about two in the afternoon, and they suggested perhaps re-grouping in the early evening would be more prudent, if not propitious. It was early September and still very hot in the daylight, and by six, the weather would have noticeably begun to moderate. “Have you been to the beer gardens?”
“No Alma. I’ve been almost nowhere. If a beer garden here is what I think it is… sounds perfect.” One of them said, “tell you what, why don’t we meet downstairs at the door to the building and then we’ll walk over to Guadalupe to see what looks good?” And that’s what we agreed to do.
At this juncture it would help I’m sure to point out that for some time in Austin, Guadalupe had been the main thoroughfare of the city, running up and down starting from its northern precincts, and ending to the south, very near the historic old city. Guadalupe is Austin’s Champs Élysées. Its Broadway. Its Market or Broad or High Street. All geographic orientation of any merit starts with Guadalupe.
For a healthy stretch of its length it is bounded by the main campus of the University of Texas, which, it must be pointed out, was (and remains) a very very big school. When I arrived it had upwards of 40,000 students, and its endowment, though it never has rivaled Harvard’s, was the largest of a public institution. Appropriate enough for a state with as much wealth among its constituents as Texas has. And on the side of Guadalupe facing the campus, was every establishment imaginable for all that wealth to be spent in any conceivable indulgence. Whatever you might conjure up as a personal need, it seemed like there was some store that would have it.
The street bustled with activity, and was the constant expression of incredible abundance and easy wealth. A marked contrast to my own condition, mindful of preparing myself to begin squeezing every dollar before relinquishing it. But time enough for that, and cockeyed optimist that I was, I was already in a sense banking on all the funds I had spared myself expending by being so efficient taking care of my needs. I had a roof over my head, cork-lined at that. I had my tuition all paid up, and I hadn’t even entered a classroom. The bubble of a sense of prosperity I could almost swear was, in fact palpable, would expand a bit, as it turned out after I met my new found friends, my colleagues, once I returned from refreshing myself at the Holiday Inn before going out for what Texans considered a hot night out.
At six o’clock Guadalupe turned out to be even more of a mad rush of humanity, on foot, in cars, on bicycles than it had been earlier in the day. The sidewalks on the commercial side were packed with crowds, still in the throes of shopping, and beginning to gather at each of a succession of different places to eat or drink.
It being such a college town, of such immense proportions of an institution, and further the UT Longhorns (“Hook ‘em Horns!”) always a formidable contender in the Big 12 for football supremacy, the natural lubricant of choice was, of course, beer. And the preferred venue for consumption the, as it turns out, but how would I know, being a city boy from Bean-town, was the beer garden. There seemed to be one or two to every block on the long stretch of Guadalupe. Like Munich, only with a drawl.
Each of them, as it turned out, pretty much was laid out according to the same design: a largely nondescript room, capacious enough, but hardly of any significance, just off the street, with a conventional bar along its length, which led one naturally to the multiple doors at the rear of the hall to an extensive, elongated back yard. The first time I entered the beer garden Alma and Peter had chosen I was sure it must be the length of a football field, an illusion propagated by its dimensions, which were much longer than they were wide. There was room for two rows of communal tables that ran parallel the whole length of the garden. There were seats on both sides of all tables, and it appeared at first that all of them were filled, and every other hand held a beer, or a pitcher pouring a glass.
The servers, unremittingly female, carried tray of heroic proportions with a number of pitchers of even more beer, and some number of empty glasses. As it turned out there were menus, but the food, which was edible and abundant, was the least of the attractions, the top two even a fool could quickly conclude were the suds and the gemütlichkeit – the camaraderie, which seemed spontaneous and natural enough, but then heightened and fueled by the endless flow of brewed hops and malt and spring water.
I had a good time, and a lot of beer, but I also learned some things as Alma and Peter and I conversed, sometimes, but not always – as waves of noise seemed to ebb and flow, like the rivers of beer – being forced to bellow in one another’s ear. I learned that after a semester in residence, I would be considered, legally, a state resident, and my tuition would drop to the very meager sum of $75. Not that it mattered, because I was sure to be awarded an assistance-ship once I entered my second year, and this meant not only a stipend for my duties, either teaching composition or a lit survey, but full tuition remission. Life promised to be good.
We ended our evening on a convivial note and promised to look one another up in the next day or two. I decided to walk back to the hotel through the dark night, following the route of the limited access Interstate 35, Austin’s main expressway, eight lanes wide. I learned almost on arriving, that the hotel I had chosen from afar, was only a block from the highway, and therefore easy to find. In many ways, aside from the unforgettable appearance of my temporary home in that gruesome motel, my main recollection is of the vantage I had of the superhighway, just several hundred feet away from me, when I looked out the window of my room at the Holiday Inn.
Starting the next day, in what was left of that seemingly momentous first week, I concentrated on tying things up administratively, and shopping for what few basics I had somehow forgotten to pack, and also to amuse myself by beginning to learn my new home, doing so the best way, on foot. I also expected to have another beer or two before classes started in a week and a half.
With the weekend approaching, I called my former roommate Andy, who was serving his first year of residency as a newly minted doctor at a huge hospital in Houston – not his first choice, but in that lottery you do win, you just don’t always get to choose which prize. He did have the consolation of having gotten newly married, and he and his new bride had easily been able to move to Houston, because she was a nurse specializing in a highly desirable category and had landed a job immediately at Houston General, an even bigger hospital than his.
I was merely touching base, but he was eager to see me, if possible, and I got the impression he was even more lost than I was, absent any immediate friends here in alien territory. He asked if I was free that weekend – which I took as being asked with no irony whatsoever, and we quickly arranged for me to arrive on Friday evening by bus, to spend two nights with them, while I found some way to amuse myself all day Saturday as it turned out that each of them was on a rotation that required a shift during that day.
The ride was uneventful, almost transcending boredom to some new subterranean level of insensibility. The bus was a bus. Houston, I had the impression was a hellhole, but a damp one. I had never been in a place so unrelentingly hot and so unrelentingly humid all at once. I understood, as he had told me over the phone, that everything, but every place that a human could enter for shelter in any form, was air conditioned. This included their high rise apartment, which, I concluded, once they showed me their well-stocked refrigerator, offered every reason for me not to step a foot outside while I waited for them to return from work so we could cook our dinner together and relax.
The question was, what to do with myself. And the answer lay in a fact I have not as yet mentioned.
When I left Providence, I also left behind a girlfriend. A very serious girlfriend. I don’t mean the girl. I mean the friendship, So sick was she at the prospect of my leaving with our future unresolved and indeterminate had made her sick all night, and my father had to minister to her discomfort with various nostrums to settler her stomach while she lay in bed in the den of my parents’ house the night before our departure. It was a tearful parting, and indeed, she told me much later that she was sure as she watched me board my plane that she would never see me again.
She was leaving for her own educational sojourn. Diane was a painter, and her grandmother had given her a commencement present of the cost of a year in Paris, sailing on the SS France from New York, studying with a painter who had a studio and was renowned for his tutorship.
What I remembered while I lay around on the furniture in Andy’s living room not sweating was that she was to leave on the France-America line and she would leave from their dock on such and such a date, and that her whole family, her parents and her brothers and sister, were staying together with her in New York that weekend of departure at the Roosevelt Hotel – and what a fine thing it was, I thought, how suitable, that a hotel named for those with such a redoubtable progressive reputation in the grand liberal tradition of American politics would be accommodating the scion, and his progeny, of a dyed-in-the-wool blue blood family of stubbornly conservative Republicans.
And I needed no recollection at all that that weekend was this weekend, and the inescapable vastness of the distance between me on Guadalupe in Austin TX and the Steamship France at the West Side piers of New York City, not to mention the unremitting vastness of the difference in size between my skinny wallet growing thinner by the day and the bulky billfold of Diane’s dad, always flush as I came to know him.
Suddenly a sense of mission overcame my indolence and burgeoning self-pity. We had had our tearful goodbyes at the Rhode Island airport, it’s true, but I was no overcome by the need to speak to her one more time. Though I didn’t or couldn’t think beyond the urgency of the need to speak in order to formulate whatever it was, precisely or vaguely, I intended to say.
It was early enough in the day on Saturday – she was not scheduled to depart until late in the afternoon – that I figured I could call the Roosevelt and leave a message with my number at Andy’s, and she could call me back if I didn’t reach her directly. I called the operator, as in those daysbefore wireless links to information banks around the world, the phone company still afforded one of the first lines of contact to virtually anyone, as long as you had a name and an address. I got the number of the Roosevelt and called them. Yes, they had a party booked by that name, but the gentlemen had cancelled the reservation on their arrival, and taken his family by taxi to some other indeterminate destination. Sorry, no forwarding address or contact. Casting imprecations on what I already knew to be the capricious habit of indulging his change of whims that initiated what was sometimes a chain of variations in what had been rock solid intentions, I knew the futility of giving in to my anguish. Instead, as cooly as I could, listening to the compressors churning away with a quiet rumble at the base of each window in their sub-let, I plotted my next tactics.
I checked my address book and there amid a jumble of erasures, blots, scratch-outs and random blebs of dried ink, I found my college friend Sheldon’s number, rather his mother’s number, in Brooklyn, and chancing that he would be awake this early, that is 11am on a Saturday, I dialled and he answered. “Shel,” I said, “I’ve gotta’ ask a big favor, but no big deal all in all, and pretty easy.” I explained what I needed him to do, which, essentially, was to travel downtown, after finding out the exact berth at which the France was docked, and find the purser and have Diane paged, and ask her to call me at the number I gave him.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, his voice husky from the chain smoking he did, affecting the habits of a British don, to match the bizarre accent he had long since adopted, largely, as the rest of us imagined, to mask his native Brooklynese, which nevertheless seeped through in the form of an odd diphthong or a broadly accented vowel. Indeed he smoked a brand, hard to come by, and about three times as expensive as American cigarettes, as much as a buck and a quarter a pack, called English Ovals, because they were indeed, fabricated to form an oval shape in cross-section ofvery tightly packed Virginia tobacco. I had been reduced to putting faith in his air of indolent world-weariness and sham Anglican stony indifference. As Gus, our guru of a year ahead of us at school and who had magically and marvelously talked himself into a fellowship to study poetics for his doctorate at Columbia, as well poetry with one of our avant garde gods, Kenneth Koch, once said about Ron: “Not to worry. Behind that mask of cold insouciance and imperturbability, beats the heart of a man who basically doesn’t give a shit about anybody but himself.”
I would have called Gus, but I already knew he was out of town.
I had nothing to do but wait.
I have no precise recollection of how I spent the day, though I knew I couldn’t concentrate to read. I was too wide awake to sleep, and television was out of the question, except to provide the noise and visual stimulation of the mock company it amounted to. Hours passed and by four I had heard nothing. Andy and his wife were due to arrive at about six. At five, I called Sheldon again to see how he had fared in his quest. I imagined he might still be working his way back home by subway to his lair. He picked up the phone on the second ring, and began explaining even before I could ask a direct question. In that etiolated tone of defeat of his, he virtually whined his rationale for changing the strategy I had mapped out. Well you know how crazy it is dockside when these liners are getting ready to depart. It’s wall-to-wall people. You can’t really get hold of anyone, let alone the purser or anyone else that high up. So he had decided it would be more efficient to call the dock and leave a message to be forwarded to Diane when she boarded and got to her stateroom. He reeled off these terms, “dockside,” and “purser,” and “stateroom” like the seasoned world traveler I knew he was not.
For all his tweeds and silk ties and pocket squares and bespoke shoes, and Navy Cut cigarettes, he was as phony as a slug shoved into the slot of a New York Subway turnstile. Beside myself, I could barely muster a thank you for his efforts, and that I’d be in touch. It’s at this juncture that I’ll mention that in the fullness of time Diane came to know Shel, and of course some time or other I had regaled her with this story about our fateful weekend. She also referred to him as Sheldon the Paperweight, though more usually just using the epithet, or more economically, “the Weight.” Have you heard from the weight?
Still anticipating the arrival of my hosts, I finally had a brainstorm, and called the long distance operator, and asked about calling the ship, maybe even ship-to-shore. And as if she handled queries like this all the time, she proceeded to inform me quite efficiently, clearly, and precisely that what I needed to do was wait until the ship had cleared the three-mile limit, which might take awhile as with all departing ocean liners, and have the Transatlantic operator connect with the ship’s operator and arrange to have my party paged to the phone once there was a secure connection. If I could hold she would connect me with the Transatlantic operator to begin to arrange the call. Could I hold? I’ll hold it as long as you’d like ma’am.
The upshot was, I gave the Transatlantic operator all the particulars, and she told me I would then have to wait, as much as two hours after the scheduled departure time, and then she would call me so the connection could be completed and I could converse with my party. I’d get a call after we rang off with the charges.
Andy arrived. We made dinner. We sat and ate it up to dessert, and at about 8:15 the phone rang. Sue answered it, and almost immediately handed it to me. Within thirty seconds I was talking to Diane, with no more sense of why I was calling or what I wanted to say. She answered the phone and I heard the operator ask her if she was who she was, and she said yes, and we talked, with Diane alternately shrieking happily and shouting because it was quite evident they were having a party at her end, and there was some audible continuous mayhem. It was a very happy ship having a very happy launch.
She asked why I was calling and I told her first, almost tentatively, that I wasn’t sure, though I knew I had to speak to her, had to hear her voice, and as I spoke more words came to me and I kept talking, for perhaps five minutes. Then six, and then the next thing I knew I was asking her to marry me, and she shrieked some more, and said yes. And then we exchanged what I supposed were some token endearments. I mean, who knows or is prepared to know what to say in such a moment. And there were one or two actual practical questions from her, simple things among the plague of questions that congested my thinking for the next few days thereafter, but simply hadn’t occurred to me before the phone rang, so to speak. What she asked was, what about your school? What about Paris? Where will we go? And all I could do was assure her there was time to work it out.
And then we did, for sure, ring off. I got up and walked into the living room from the bedroom where I had retreated for privacy. Andy and Sue were sitting quietly having an after dinner drink when I came in. Andy remarked that I had the most amazing look on my face, and asked what was up. So I told them, and they insisted on opening a bottle of champagne they happened always to have in the fridge. And we toasted me, and caroused and made some jokes.
Somewhere along in there the Transatlantic operator called with the phone charges. And then there was not much else to say, so we all went to bed.
It was while I was lying there that I finally remembered a conversation I had had with Diane about our upcoming plans and the variations on excitement entailed with such different destinations as Paris and Texas, I had been to neither, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Diane had been to Paris before and was very excited about the prospect of her return. She also allowed as she hated the idea of Texas. I asked if she had ever been, and she said, no. “Why would I ever want to go?”
Well I’m tryin’ to get some sleep but these motel walls are cheap
Lincoln Duncan is my name
and here’s my song
here’s my song.
My father was a fisherman,
My mama was a fisherman’s friend,
And I was born in the boredom and the chowder;
So when I reached my prime
I left my home in the Maritimes
And headed down the turnpike for New England,
Sweet New England. —Paul Simon
Some children are prodigies. I like to think every child has some prodigious talent. Some parents think their children are prodigies in every way. Those parents should look a little closer.
My father always looked closely at me, and he wasn’t shy about suggesting there were ways in his eyes that I came up short. But from early on, there was one way he made clear that to him I had a precocity he admired. It made him laugh, which was a rare thing.
It concerned food. And even if not a demonstration of some gift, my obvious obsession with what I considered, at the age of seven, great food presaged my later life. I mean the one long after I left hearth and home.
How I developed a taste for beef, medium rare at that, I have no recollection, but some inner radar always alerted me to the opportunity to chow down. In retrospect it was probably not all that deep an intuition, so I don’t credit myself for that particular perspicacity. We mainly would go out to eat on weekends, because my father worked, of course, and excursions during the week were out of the question. In any event, weekends in and of themselves were only in the best sense triggering for little me. Saturday arrived and my taste buds tingled.
Portrait of the artist as a young restaurant critic
Probably our first, or at most our second, excursion on a brief road trip were primer enough for me to be alert to the potentiality for having meat. I know we went out often enough, and to a variety of destinations, that I quickly learned to indulge what has proven in the fullness of time to be a natural penchant for criticism. I thought I knew the difference between good and bad. Further, I was not shy to declare a particular meal to be prime or to have been a disappointing sub-par performance. As the case might be. The first time I declared my share of a bloody bit of steak to be “excellent,” I know my father burst out laughing, and not because I was being funny.
He immediately dubbed me “Duncan Howard.” It’s probably a designation that, as a review of a biography of my putative moniker states, needs explaining for most people under the age of 55. I’d make it even older, but that’s neither here nor there. With the age of the short memory of almost everyone, it’s best to explain it altogether.
Duncan Hines, Road Warrior and Cake Mixer
Duncan Hines was the name of a real person. A traveling salesman in his young manhood, and later. Hines loved driving the open road, and open it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when he did his major drumming (as the profession was called). In those days, not only were there no Interstates, there were few maps for the roadways that did exist. What he came to realize was there simply were no guides for travelers—whether itinerant and regular like him and all his sales brotherhood (I assume it was largely mostly a male profession), or occasional, for leisure weekends or the odd vacation excursion.
There simply was none of the apparatus for guidance we take for granted. Especially now in the age of the internet, when all we need do is reach in our pockets, and pull out a hand-sized device and instantaneously have access to, say, 4500 recommendations as to the best places to eat from here to Rangoon. There was no Tripadvisor.com. And to reach further back, to the ancient days of print, already nearly totally forgotten, there was no Fodor’s, not MobilGuides, and in this country there was certainly no Michelin guide (which has its own distinguished history, it’s true, and it dates back to 1900, but it helped *French* motorists, all 3000 of them back then, but only with information about the location of mechanics, gas stations, tire repair outlets, and the like; they didn’t begin listing restaurants until 1922, and ratings didn’t appear until four years after that).
Duncan Hines eventually took it into his head to let his fellow road warriors know, after his myriad experiences in hundreds of establishments had informed him, which were the best places for lodging or dining, and with the rarest of luck for both in a single venue. He turned it into a business, with the help of his wife. He was, at that point, it should be noted, 55 years old.
Duncan Hines, in an unattributed photo, designated Fair Use image in Wikipedia, the source.
In 1935 they prepared a book of listings for the benefit of friends, for a start, of hundreds of good restaurants – mainly local establishments, as there were but very few chains in those days. Hines was middle-aged, well into it, when he began his great work, and he had been on the road since at least the ’20s, plying his trade selling press time for a Chicago printer. That book about where to eat sold so well, he added another volume that recommended lodging. By the late 1940s he had a national newspaper column that appeared three times a week on a syndicated basis, called “Adventures in Good Eating at Home.” He had spread out his franchise by then, associating his name with the growing institution of home cooking. The column mainly featured recipes that the home cook could replicate from the restaurants he had come to know and recommend.
By 1953, which was the year my own burgeoning career as a junior version of the irrepressible Hines began, he had sold the use of his name to a partner who created a company to package products under that name to be sold in supermarkets and groceries. The “Duncan Hines” brand, which made its mark in particular with cake mixes, is still a familiar one. If anyone recognizes it, it’s as a cardboard box filled with flour, baking powder, and not much else.
The point is, so powerful was the brand that its other manifestation: recommendations to dine at a particular restaurant, were a guarantee to the consumer of a pleasing experience. And so people came to look for theelegantly lettered signs in black and white, as I remember them, hanging outside the door of a restaurant (or hotel), as near the main signage as possible. They declared simply that this establishment was “recommended by Duncan Hines.” And it became enough said.
In our family, my father insisted that we could not declare a meal dining out a success unless it received the imprimatur of myself. And he dubbed me, “Duncan Howard.” He’d ask as we finished, and around the time the check arrived, if this restaurant was “approved by Duncan Howard?” My sole criterion was the experience of eating that bloody bit of steer, and I was not generous in offering a recommendation. I have no memory, I’m sorry to say, as to whether I took into account the ambiance, what has come to be called in the Millennial shorthand, the “vibe” of the place.
My predilection for beef hasn’t subsided, though it’s sporadic, and I am not all that indulgent. Somewhere along the line from the seven year-old me to the present I learned about other cuts than sirloin, which was about the only one I knew back then, and it was I always ordered – again a source of mirth for my dad, who I think got a kick out of being able to afford to indulge his junior league restaurant critic of a son. These days, I order hanger steak when I see it on the bill of fare. This is a rare occurrence, so I don’t worry about compromising my smug self-assurance that I am not unduly endangering my health by consuming too much animal flesh.
Much more recently, I had occasion one spring about seven years ago to make regular visits to Philadelphia – what turned out to be prelude to my moving here permanently. Part of the routine that quickly ensued, and again, as a kind of reverberation of my youthful triggering associations, these excursions (at most a couple of hours portal to portal, from Boston to Philly) occurred on weekends. And I looked forward to them with an anticipation far transcendent of my childish fondness for red meat. We’ll just leave it at noting that these latter-day satisfactions had a much more powerful component of emotional fondness than they did any atavistic hunger for blood.
Downtown Philadelphia, showing City Hall, at 6am April 2011 from my room in Loews Hotel. (photo: Howard Dinin)
Nevertheless, not every moment was stocked to the brim with the fulfillments of deep amatory bliss – largely because the object of my hebdominal visits was not always free to get away. Yet, a man has to eat. And not knowing the city after a forty year absence – my last extended sojourn in Philly was as a graduate student – I was ignorant of its culinary riches, if any. And, ironically enough, given the theme of my writing today, I placed little stock in the recommendations of any self-appointed Anacharsis Cloots* on the internet, “citizens of humanity,” who seek to universalize and broaden the culinary interests of all by removing false criteria of old values and any mention of “the full dining experience.” I simply trusted no critic I could find readily who could point me to a decent meal.
What I needed was a revival of the Hines ethos. But what I gave myself was a slow tour, weekend by weekend, of the usual suspects to be found in any large cosmopolitan city. That’s right, one after another I knocked off the local installations of the finest chain steak houses in America: Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Capital Grille, and so forth. No place really stood out, but I can’t say either that I was ever disappointed. Not a bad piece of meat among them, though no hanger steak alas. All in all, for a few brief weeks of spring, Duncan Howard rose again.
*Anarcharsis Cloots was the pseudonymous identity of a Prussian nobleman who emerged as a singularly important figure of the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, baron de Cloots, argued strenulously (and donated a small fortune for fighters to do battle against tyranny) for the cause of world rule according to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He preferred the title, by which he was known, as the orator of the human race.
When l was first married, for the first time, what is now more than half a lifetime ago, it was a freakish kind of autumn, especially in Philadelphia, the city nearest to our first brand-new apartment. Snow had already fallen three times in October, and by the middle of November, the streets were thick with sullied, mealy brown slush, renewed and augmented every other day by another deposit of wet flakes that fell, when it fell, seemingly ceaselessly, slowly, from the perpetually grey sky.
The weather did nothing to dampen our moods of bright expectancy mixed with apprehensions of great promise. We had just moved to our airy “railroad” flat a month before Thanksgiving, lugging my books and Ann’s clothes time after time after time up the long narrow staircase that led to the second floor of our building. Our only furniture, the pieces decided upon only after lengthy debate, and assiduous searching, were a double bed and a kitchen table with two ladder back chairs. Although married for a few months, we knew, if not consciously, where our priorities lay.
We had little thought of guests; an elegant service was a remote dream. We entertained ourselves. Our chief entertainment was ourselves. Not entirely blind to the opportunities provided by formal occasions, Ann and I had decided to make such an “occasion” out of Thanksgiving, our first opportunity to eat luxuriously at home, with no thought of the expense, or having to get up the next day for graduate school, in my case, or the telephone company, in Ann’s.
Out of a quirky, whimsical, habit of mind I was cultivating I had decided that instead of turkey we would dine on duck. There was no demur from Ann. Neither of us knew anything about duck. This somewhat precipitous change, for us in the throes of secretly longing for Thanksgiving dinners of many times past at home, lent an even more finely energized air to the days preceding the holiday.
We shopped on the Tuesday previous to Thanksgiving. While at the shopping center, and as was our ritual, we looked at the puppies in the pet shop next to the supermarket. This time there was a litter of eight week old kittens as well. In what was to become a rare moment of spontaneity we decided to buy one, then and there, after hurried and feverish consultation with our checkbook. “It’s all right,” I said, “we can do it.” Then came the anguish, welcome as it was, of choosing which Persian (so the sign on the cage said) to adopt. Two of them immediately attached themselves to us, one to each, as we communicated by fingertip through the narrowly spaced bars of their crates. Making a choice became unconscionable. Ann said nothing, yet I knew we either would have both or none.
I looked at her, and doing furious calculations in my head, borrowing mentally against Christmas funds not even earned yet or promised to us, said, “Let’s do it.” And in paroxysms of justification about not splitting up brother and sister, animals keeping each other company in the empty daytime apartment, and because, well, we deserved it from each other, Ann rather painlessly, it seemed, paid for our charges.
We proceeded to the supermarket, kittens in tow in a large cardboard box. Choosing the duck was considerably easier, with every frozen hulk a twin to the next. Despite the minute differences in weight, we chose the lightest, as if the economies of an ounce or two could belie our weltering feelings of ostentation and self-indulgence. At this stage, we were also not too sure that either of us really liked duck all that much, and a lighter bird surely meant less waste, if we discovered we didn’t.
We were thus slaves to my whim, and to a certain vague fear that somehow on this duck hinged a declaration that that we had greater things to look forward to than the stodginess of turkey at home, with the family, year after year, the migration done with the same regularity, out of the same primal urges as those of the beasts, and the birds of the air. In small fits of a kind of anxious intuition we mindfully fought the tyranny of our instincts.
One mishap in the aisles of the Acme Market almost squashed our vain hopes for the day and our general mood of anxious ebullience as surely as the groceries we were buying, piled ever carelessly higher and higher on top of the lid of the box holding our two new family members, suddenly crushed the container. Certainly, we both imagined in the first few fearful moments, it had also pulverized the little bodies inside. We madly threw the cans and boxes, and finally that weighty frozen carcass, out of the carriage. Before we could see anything, we heard the barely perceptible mewing from within.
Until we checked out, Ann kept the kittens in her coat; they were ruffled but unhurt. Chastened, we drove home, mumbling entreaties for forgiveness of the kittens, through yet another snow squall.
On Thanksgiving Day, Julia Child in hand (a book I had studied with far greater fastidiousness and attention that week, than any Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, or Imaginations of William Carlos Williams) we began the great preparation of the duck. It had been thawing solemnly, a monolith of avian flesh, for several days in our tiny refrigerator. I prepared the duck stock, the orange sauce, and the duck.
Ann made soup, and dessert, and the vegetables. We cooked slowly, ritualistically, to the raucously inappropriate music of The Beatles, recently defunct as a group, but the subject of interminable homages on the radio dial – stations desperate for respite from the standard holiday repertoire. We danced as we cooked. We sang. And outside the temperature dropped, as the snow fell silently. Our new kittens mainly slept, on our new bed in the last room of the long train of our flat.
We seemed to cook all day. Finally everything was ready, except for the duck. In the still unfamiliar to me, apparently criminally inefficient, oven the bird sputtered lowly, interminably. It took hours to brown. In my ignorance and inexperience, I didn’t dare raise the temperature. Night fell.
By now we were both fearful that the duck, as good as everything else was, would be as tough as old moose, and our first Thanksgiving would be spoiled. We set the table, cleaned the kitchen to spotlessness. The last traces of our labors were erased. Ann lit candles.
She disappeared into the bedroom, and re-emerged in a dress, a rare, a holiday, treat for me. Finally, as it happened, the duck was done.
We sat and we doled. Ann and I had used every dish that we owned, to serve this sauce or that garnish. As I carved the duck, the radio now silent, the snow having ceased, we realized simultaneously our fatigue. We were nearly too tired to chew, our energies spent, our excitement dissipated. We had a slice or two of duck, a bit of sauce, some peas. It was delicious, better really than we had in the end expected, but we hurriedly surrendered. We went to the bedroom to sleep.
While we lay there, me next to my wife, on our new bed, I knew somehow in my last wakeful moments that I had begun the process leading to some future atonement. Our meal lay on the kitchen table in the darkness, to be cleaned up the next day; very small penance for what felt like a much greater reckoning. With hardly an effort I turned my head to gaze toward the window, bare of shades or blinds or drapes. The sky had cleared completely. Suddenly and unaccountably alert, I watched as the moon, throwing powerful analytic beams into our bedroom, rose beyond the frame of the opening, rose out of my range of vision. A wind rose and blew powdery billows of snow out of the branches of unseen trees. Just as abruptly it fell.
from notes for my memoir, Curmudgeon: A Grudging Look Backward
My attitudes toward certain significant aspects of human development were predictable from the start. If people had been prescient enough to ask the child me how I felt about certain tasks, they could have paved my path to adulthood so it was not the rocky road I experienced.I was just reading, for example, of Calvin Trillin’s sentiments regarding what I know to be a source of great pleasure for a majority of people graced with offspring. He writes:
There can’t be many summertime activities more satisfying than foraging for wild blueberries with your grandchildren in the same place you foraged for wild blueberries with your children.
I know for a fact that this is a pleasure of which I would have had no appreciation whatsoever—in fact, in my mind, even now, I am already forming thoughts as preposterous as feeling unease at the mere fantastical prospect of having grandchildren left in my care when I have, clearly, so many other, better things to do at the moment. When I was a child, who could have, should have, screamed with delight at the idea of foraging for wild blueberries, or even taxed with the lesser task of visiting a pick-your-own farm in the wilds of New Hampshire armed with a little plastic bucket, I would have bristled, as an indubitable fact, at the mere prospect. My usual reaction to the suggestion that anything that, to my still nascent sensibility, smacked of labor was to grimace, and begin scheming to formulate reasonable objections that would disoblige me from participation. No squeals of joy at the prospect, no screams of delight as I galloped through the shrubs, or among the vines, or snaking through the orchards. Whether gentle exertion or hard punitive taxing labor, to me then, as it has always been since, work is work, and I’ll have none of it, if I can get away with that little.
As a child, I preferred to read, quietly somewhere, conserving what I already suspected was a restricted amount of energy meant to last my entire existence. And as for that, my lack of any otherwise natural enthusiasm for the pleasures of youth, was reinforced by a precocious dread of some unknown threat to the normal course of my life, which I had already come to expect, even at the age of eight (sentient enough for the biblical phrase to be correctly construed and to stick in my conscious mind), to last a measured ration of “three score years and ten” and not a day more.
Running around, mindlessly (to me), in the throes of some abandon and utter obliviousness, seemed not only degrading, with some premonitory understanding of the concept of dignity being compromised, but would draw down on the precious allotment of time I had. To me it was already dwindling at a pace that caused me great disquiet, which I could yet not express.When my parents called on me to prepare for bed, their gentle reminders, which in time grew less tranquil and increasingly martial, were only a signal for me to cavort, suddenly filled with the energy that, presumably, I should have expended on some theoretical berry patch, and shrilly declare that I wasn’t tired, “see?!” Even then, in some vague way, every moment surrendered to sleep was a moment stolen from consciousness—the one thing I knew was assurance I was, in fact, still alive.
Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.
I’m not gardening in the backyard of my old condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Been there. Done that. Howard has left the venue.
I don’t know how you spend your time when not temporizing on Facebook. There’s work, of course. And all the things we do to stay alive. Then there’s everything else. I spend a certain amount of my time on an ongoing basis looking into my roots. I mean in the Kinta Kunte sense; my own little channel of Alex Haley, but of a different skin color and a different continent.
My forebears were from Russia. In my father’s case, more specifically what is now called Ukraine—current hotbed of nationalism 21st century style opposed by Russian recidivists, mainly ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, thinking maybe they should never have left. In fact, my father’s people (and my father and his family) lived in that part of Ukraine often, in our day, violently in dispute, a region still very much riven.
I have no idea where my father, who died in 1999, would fall out on the question. I was raised to understand that he thought of himself and all of his relatives as Russians—though Ukraine has existed, that is, inhabited, for over 30 thousand years. But in modern political history, Ukraine has rarely been independent, free of the Russian yoke.
It was part of Russia when my father was born, 110 years ago. Inevitably the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement that was constituted in part of parts of Ukraine would think of themselves as Russian.
I grew up on stories from my father about his childhood, about which he had vivid memories, and the ultimate turmoil that transfigured his life and that of his small family: his parents, his brother—my uncle, and his mother’s brother, my Great Uncle Sol. It was Sol (or Zalman) who instigated the move out of Russia to better parts. They settled briefly in Argentina, waiting almost three years to be able to enter the United States under the quota of immigrants allowed from that country. Among the stories my father told was the adventure of escaping by train, past Russian and then Polish guards at the borders—all of it planned and engineered by my Great Uncle, who, my father had also told me was a troublemaker from way back.
I remember my father’s stories, fragmentary as they were, with some continuing immediacy, as he repeated them over and over, and I never tired of hearing them. To punctuate the stories were albums of photos, mainly of his immediate family: those I’ve already mentioned, as well as five (or was it six?) brothers, of whom Zalman was but one. The others were, like their father, my great grandfather in addition to his brother, my great grand uncle, enterpreneurs and business owners. One by one, they were cut down, early in their lives, by Cossacks, by bandits, by the “white army” of the czar, harassed by all of them, and from all sides, with no respite from the mayhem at the hands of the revolutionaries, including the “red army.” It was to escape the conditions, none of them “good for the Jews” that resulted from the upheaval of the Revolution, the overthrow of the czar, and so forth.
Prior to any thought of escape, my Uncle Sol had done his part by aiding the partisan efforts of his more daring and rebellious friends. Sol was protected by the status of his father, a close friend of town officials, including the mayor, from whose offices Sol would steal official blank forms to be forged into documents that allowed free passage from one part of Russia to another, necessary credentials for those bent on fomenting change.
What I am left with, though, is my patchwork of memories of the stories my father told so many times. I regularly would encourage him to write down what he recalled, and especially the exploits of my older relatives. He was only a youth when he left Russia (at the age of thirteen) and my Uncle Alex, his brother, even younger. There would not have been that many stories concerning their behavior and actions, though my father’s memory was comprehensive and incisive enough to form a virtual novella about what life in general was like for a young boy at the turn of the century in Czarist Russia in provincial Russian towns, each with its complement of a Jewish community.
There is something else of a record of that era and my family’s private history, appropriate to the present age of a disconnected if wholly continuous flow of visual imagery, especially with the eruption of personal photographic records, designed to have a half-life almost as brief as particles in a collider, and numbering into staggering orders of magnitude: billions of images every week dissolving into the ether. Ironically, the visual record that I now possess consists not of countless pictures, but more than enough, a surfeit, of photographic prints for the most part. Many of the faces when I uncovered the first cache of photos were immediately recognizable, at least insofar as my father had identified individuals unknown to me (all but my Uncle Sol and my grandfather, Josef Dinin, were dead and gone by the time I was born, and they didn’t last long enough to be recorded in my still undeveloped cortex)—almost all of them existed seemingly mainly to put faces to the cavalcade of names he would rattle off.
After my father’s death, I retrieved boxes of material that turned out to be poorly stored further records. There were some documents, like my Uncle Sol’s papers from Argentina, his passport, the naturalization certificate in the U.S. of my grandfather. But mainly there were more photos, cascades of photos in some instances as pasteboard boxes long neglected disintegrated under my fingers. I removed everything I could gingerly and procured the lot into archival storage containers, designed specifically for photographic materials, or anything on paper really and particularly susceptible to the acids used in most paper and board fabrication.
Now I continue to be faced with figuring out what to do with this trove. Most of the photographs were captured by commercial photographers with studios in the cities and towns of Ukraine, or taken by itinerant traveling photographers, more of the quality of snapshots, but still encased in their presentation covers, of a thin, opaque, and usually black pasteboard. The commercial studio portraits are mounted on thick cardboard, usually with ornate borders and title text, often of a generic nature, suggesting that the photographer bought stock mounting board, with embossed decorations and non-specific renditions of their business, like “Cabinet – Portrait” (French seemed to be a prominent lingua franca indeed, for the commercial and educated classes of Russia, like a bourgeois transfiguration of the habits of the court and of diplomatic circles).
In one trove I found two of literally hundreds of images, two that I thought I recognized readily enough.
If I am correct, and I can’t be sure because the fellow I am fairly certain is the refractory young man known as Zalman, the daredevil and stalwart friend of revolutionaries, is much younger in this portrait (perhaps this is from the office blank stealing phase of his nascent career as a troublemaker) than other positively identified portraits I have. He is the one, the particularly handsome one, sans spectacles, unlike his companions, on the right staring dead on into the camera. These three intense dudes, it seems to me, are clearly close, enough so to be entirely casual in their pose—a departure from the typically stiff and formal portraiture in so many other of the prints I have. I have no idea who the other two are, and I am fairly certain there is no one left alive who I might possibly have a chance of meeting with even the most tenuous of connections with the obscure history of the Dinin family in Ukraine, so as to be able to inform me of, at the very least, their names. I love this photo for all the portents in it, and the stories that demand being told, even out of whole cloth, so alive and direct and frank and commanding are the gazes of these young stalwarts.
Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.
The other photo is really quite small, smaller even than the prototypical snapshot size of 2×3 inches that was the popular format for photographs processed and returned by the drugstores where one brought their rolls of film for processing by labs off-site, when my parents were young and in love, in the 1930s, and of the sort, the snaps and other photos, that is, that comprise another whole portfolio of vexation for me, pondering the challenge of identifying who, and what, and where, and why these images were captured in the first place. But this photo, of a stern-faced woman and a somewhat, but not much, milder looking boy, clearly with a deep and abiding relation to the woman by blood is significantly older than that.
At first, having recognized the woman as a much younger incarnation of my grandmother than in more recent photos I had seen, my father’s mother, Ida, who never knew me, before she died of causes unknown to me, when she was barely in her 60s—at first I took the young fellow as my father, and, indeed, when I scanned the photo, I named the file using his and her name. However, on re-examination and a closer look at that characteristic curled lip, somewhere between sullen and a sneer only one-quarter formed, and after comparing the shape of his left ear and the shape of the same appendage in a much later portrait, taken by me, a teen-aged me, in fact, of my Uncle Alex (his name in Russia, at the time of the portrait of him and his mother, would have been Ilya) persuaded me of my mistake. The portrait, given his apparent stage of development and the indeterminacy of his age, except within a range of three or four years, had to have been taken around the time of the family’s escape from Russia in 1918, when he would have been eight or nine years old. The photo, an oval shape, obviously, was cut out somewhat clumsily from a larger photo and pasted to a nondesript piece of board, with no marks or printing on it of any kind—another attestation to the haste and changed circumstances that surrounded its taking and mounting and preservation. But again, there is no one to tell me any more than what my memory serves and my eyes and imagination manage to tell me.
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.
I don’t recall when I was told or by whom, but among the several facts about my father’s family are two that I never forget, if for different reasons. Aside from what are to me the obvious jokes to be made about at least one of these (and with some imagination, about both, as related), but quickly to be discarded, I am and never have been sure what to make of these. They seem at once resonant with meaning, and I imagine these are the kinds of nuggets on which whole stories are built, if not legends, and at the same time, they simply point to the kind of anomalous facts we all have in our backgrounds. Accountable for, but never accounted in terms of the audit we make of our lives from time to time.
Perhaps it’s time this late in the course of my life to make something of them myself. So I will present the facts here, and see where I go with them in future installments. Of course, if they are true and there is no one left I know of or am in contact with to verify these tidbits of information, I like to think that somehow, however haphazardly, they obviously have already made something of themselves in me, without my help, or anyone else’s.
They are these.
For one, my paternal grandparents were related. It was always supposed in my family they were cousins. How or through what lines I have no idea at this point, and I am not sure how successful any research might be into records about shtetl Jews from the turn of the last century in the Pale of Settlement. I only know, actually, that what I was told for certain was that they, grandfather Joseph and grandmother Chaia (or Ida, as she was called in English) had the same surname, now mine, of Dinin. That’s what it was in Ukraine. That’s what it still is.
Second, and I wish I could remember the context for my learning this fact, but my father was alleged to have, on one side of his body, a “double kidney.” In fact, this is a common anomaly, the literature says, usually that manifests itself as problematic only in children, and adults with it live normally. It is called, to be accurate, duplex kidney. In effect, he had three kidneys. The normal allotment on one side, and on the other side twice the complement of organ (with twice the number of ureters). It was not enlarged or of mega proportions as I understood it. Rather he had twin kidneys, in effect, on that side. Apparently both worked, or only one, or they alternated. However I was never told outright that he had anything other than normal kidney function.
Aside from the emergent theme in these two otherwise unrelated family traits and acts of the mystery of twinship, of the other, of the nature of the self and where the question of redundancy fits in mystery, the latter fact has proven to be the one of more than passing interest to me. I, who have two ordinary kidneys (and nothing else supernumerary I hasten to add, for the sake of those still stuck on my kissing cousin granny and grandpa), have also been cursed—though maybe I shouldn’t use that word, even for the color it adds—with one, possibly two, related afflictions.
One is kidney stones, with which I have been struck at two times, actually three, in my adult life. I also have gout, a metabolic disorder involving the body’s ability to filter out excessive purines, found naturally in many kinds of food—good, tasty, savory, and nutritious foods, otherwise part of many very healthy diets—both animal and vegetable. It is, of course, the job of the kidneys to filter the blood many things no longer of use to the running of the machine of our physical being, including purines.
Simple facts have a way of leading us to unsuspected places. Nothing at this stage of my life is unexpected, but still, it feels like an adventure to explore the first of these facts I have been keeping alive in my memory for so long. More reports to come.
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