I went out to shop for groceries. Our county has been declared the epicenter of Covid-19 contagion for all of Pennsylvania. Hence only stores that serve the public with vital household necessities are permitted to remain open: groceries, pharmacies, etc. Even the state liquor stores in Montgomery County must close their doors (online ordering for shipping to one’s home is still possible) indefinitely by Monday, midnight.
Anyway, on my foray this morning, I visited an outlet for a chain (Trader Joe’s; we are regular consumers of a very short list of their generally excellent frozen products, and they are managing to keep themselves stocked, now that the initial tsunami of hoarders cleared out their shelves in virtually every TJ’s for a period of three days), and stocked up on what was unavailable my last visit. I also then visited two specialty purveyors: the gourmet cheesemongers Di Bruno Brothers, and Stoltzfus Family Farms, a Lancaster County-based business whose image and brand deploys memes that leverage an Amish heritage to be inferred, and which offers bakery goods, produce, beef, pork, and poultry. Most of the sales staff behind the bakery and produce counters are women, mainly young women, always dressed in frocks, aprons and bonnets transmitting the brand values. The butcher counters are mainly staffed by men in white coats and aprons.
What struck me (and with entirely containable levels of alarm at the signs of notable laxity in what I know from nine years now of patronizing both establishments—a laxity that is notable mainly as a baseline norm, and clearly not visibly altered in practice, even in a time when almost all other vendors are closed in the marketplace their counters are installed—and these two retailers probably dominate, I’m guessing, about 45-50% of the available retailing space) was how business was as usual.
Of course in the larger scheme of things, it’s probably good to adhere as much as sense permits to the usual ways of conducting oneself in transactions with others, including how vendors and retailers do business with us, the consumers.
However, there is the heightened awareness demanded by the conditions of a national state of emergency, of a general, if largely passively imposed, regime of the practice of social distancing, and of the repeated instructions about the most fundamental aspects of the disease we are trying to control: how it spreads, and sensible, doable, personal hygienic practice to ensure prophylaxis that will minimize the risk of infection of society at large.
We all feel most keenly the obligation to do so for our own personal protection, and most of us, I am sure, are mindful enough of the need to bear in mind our constituency as a whole as a community that owes to one another, as individual members, simple, most importantly easy, mindful practices.
I noticed an absence in all the service areas of both retailers, and they occupy significant amounts of space for counters and displays, which show their wares for display and inspection, and to allow consumers either to make their own choices to be brought to a point of sale, or to allow consumers to interact with sales staff to retrieve the desired portions of desired products. I noticed no dispensers of any sanitizing products in any form: dispensers of sanitizing fluids or foams, dispensers of sanitizing wipes, etc.
Stoltzfus makes some tantalizing baked goods, pastries in particular, and among my favorites, fruit and berry pies, which they sell as whole pies or (to our advantage as a small household) half pies. Today they offered blackberry half-pies, and overcoming my mild misgivings (the pies are already packaged in clear polystyrene containers), I asked over the counter for the young woman who offered her assistance for one half-pie. She retrieved it, put it on the counter, offered me a bag, and recited the price.
I already had a shopping bag, half-full, which I had intended for any purchases on this foray, so I declined the bagging, and then, remembering their sales procedure, retrieved (with some chagrin) my wallet, and extracted a charge card, which I handed to her. She handed it back, and I declined the proferred receipt and went on my way.
One of my tasks thenceforward for my return journey home, was to remember everything that I had touched that also had been touched by others in my presence, and which I had to presume had been touched by yet others, an incalculable number of people, before being placed within my personal reach.
Fact is, I had come equipped with a pair of disposable clinical gloves in my pocket, for any, what I’ll call far more radical, contingencies, but I hadn’t donned them. There was nothing much such protection would do to avert the risk of spread by the touch of ungloved others.
For my other transactions this morning (at two other points of sale), I was able to rely on my usual and preferred mode of payment, Apple Pay, via my iPhone, which eliminates at least one, and possibly, usually at a minimum of other potentialities, three other people touching my personal belongings. I had retrieved the goods I purchased. I bagged them. They were touched only by sales staff only to be scanned for pricing—the possibly irreducible minimal risk we all face by submitting to the need to re-stock our household foodstuffs.
But Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus.
When I got home, I extracted the pie container, our treat and reward for later, to compensate for the continuing enforced sequestration. I wiped it down, on all surfaces with a Clorox brand bleach based disinfectant wipe.
I removed my wallet, and all the cards I touched and all the cards they touched, and wiped them down, and wiped down the wallet.
Is this infallible? Of course not. Is it safer than trusting to the vagaries of normal retail practice (images of all the signs in all the public restrooms in all conveniences and points of purchase you have ever utilized, saying, at a bare minimum: Employees must wash their hands before returning to work should be running in a stream through your consciousness; it does mine… often). You bet it’s safer. Though it, at the very least, annoys me to know I must do such things to compensate for what should be the far more conscientious practice of everyone who serves the public.
The fact is, people, most people, have no true conception of what the words “microscopic,” “aerosolized,” “disinfected,” “droplet-borne,” among others mean in terms of understanding the scrupulous practice we are all capable of, but in the main, in “real life” eschew as unnecessary, unreasonable, and tedious.
I’ll end by saying, the only things I would add to the short list of social distancing dos and don’ts are:
• Avoid all physical contact with others, directly or indirectly.
• Handle your own credit cards and allow no one else to touch them.
• Use a hand sanitizer, or, better, wash your hands, after pressing keys or in any other way touching public means of performing monetary transaction.
• If you’re particularly nervous, simply that scrupulous, wipe down all retail grocery packaging before restocking your pantry shelves after a shopping trip.
“Social distancing? Hey! No big deal. I never really liked you anyway.”
From the rear of the store, to the front, Bath Tissue and Facial Tissue (and, note, Paper Towel as well). Appropriately, Aisle 13. Friday the 13th, March 2020, 10 am. Giant Supermarket, Wynnewood PA
It’s mid-morning. About 10:30am. The store, a suburban Whole Foods Market, opens at 8. I exit the store with my two reusable shopping bags, festooned with WFM logos and nowhere near full with my short haul of singular items, a few apples, a couple of fresh pastry items, a partial loaf of sourdough bread baked in huge bâtards and then cut into quarters, bagged and weighed and sold by the pound. A chocolate bar. Those sorts of things. No staples.
I dodge and weave through other shoppers’ carts. In front of me, as I get near the produce section at the front doors, a woman stands next to her heavily burdened shopping cart, filled to the brim with a variety of groceries. On top of these, held gingerly in place with her left hand, a stack of five paste-board packages—the standard package for a pound of sliced, cured and smoked pork belly. Bacon to most of us. Five pounds seems a lot, but is not inconsistent with the mounds of other foodstuffs in her carriage. I don’t linger even a moment to see what other comestibles are featured in this matron’s haul.
I think immediately and fleetingly of the usual coroner’s expression I’ve heard repeated so often on my favorite streaming British detective series—a “well-nourished female in apparent good health, of about middle age.” The store in fact is full of such subjects, all very much alive of course, regardless of my morbid speculations and associations. I think even more fleetingly of why she, and her cohort, and the dads, and the nanas, and the myriad children I would otherwise have expected on a friday morning, a warm one in an early spring of persistent and no longer unusual mildness, not to be clinging to sleeves and shopping carts, and pulling items off shelves. I would have thought they’d be in classrooms doing what school children do these days.
And I realize the teeming aisles of this prosperous suburb, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (media home value just north of half a million dollars), are as full as the township’s school building corridors must be empty. But not because of spring break; that was originally scheduled for a month from now. I’ve learned in the interim, schools were closed on Tuesday, three days ago, because two students and a school staff member may have been exposed to the area’s first reported case of the virus – a Children’s Hospital cardiologist serving in a satellite clinic in nearby King of Prussia. He has been in the ICU at UPenn Hospital downtown since the discovery he was positive.
The schools were to have been cleaned and sanitized and reopened, but, as in neighboring Cheltenham School Disrict, they remain closed for the week.
Here at the Whole Foods, which bursts with boisterous life, and has increasingly depleted shelves of stocks, there are nine register lanes. Eight are open. All are full. I’m guessing after the fact there are about six or seven carts in each lane. I am guessing about every two out of three carts is full to the top of the cart. These are mainly full-size grocery carts, rather than the smaller, two-tier carts, which are in every event in much shorter supply anyway.
The people in line are civilians. By this, I mean, they are not part of the usual and sizable brigade of Amazon Prime shoppers, who use the same carts and fill them to the same brims – usually every day of the week as increasing numbers of consumers exploit the generous Amazon policy of free same day delivery of groceries in orders in excess of $25 placed by their premium customers (called “Prime” as is the membership program which entitles them to such, and other similar, amenities).
I am by now used to the brigades of Prime shoppers who normally manage quietly to stay out of the way of legitimate consumers fending for their own urban foraging needs. But even as much as they clog their specially designated deployment area, the deployment zone keeps growing as the shopping service beneficiaries mushroom in number. It now encroaches on a section of the store that originally served as an area for customers to dine on the prepared foods for which the chain is justly famous. Where there had been a dozen tables seating six at a time, there are now three that serve to seat maybe two or three disparate customers who try to keep their mutual distance, and consume their pizza slices or fresh salads as quickly as they can before moving on.
But for now, as in those rare historical moments that adverse weather reports predicted as imminent, and usually in mid-winter and delineated in terms of massive snow accumulations and blizzard-like conditions, the platoons of professional grocery stock pullers are far outnumbered by the expeditionary force of an army of householders preparing for the siege of an invisible enemy that demands adherence to that defensive term of art in the peculiar stiff bureaucratic rhetoric of public security enforcers, first heard as a recommended tactic for those under siege by only too palpable wielders of only too real armament. These shoppers are provisioning for sheltering in place.
And what is most unnerving is that there is no definitive sense of when the siege will end. But, while the prospects for toilet tissue are equally unclear, it’s a good bet some of us will always have bacon.
I did have a chance to do a very informal survey of what is disappearing from the shelves.
I knew a week ago, when I went to look in supermarkets, drugstores, big box, whatever, the usual suspects, there was no hand sanitizer in any size to be had. At the Whole Foods, the price leader brands of pasta – Whole Foods own, and the Italian brand De Cecco – stocked with the greatest variety of shapes and sizes and the least deviation from the vanilla of pasta grains #1 semolina are being depleted. Today, they are pretty much gone, and the much higher priced premium imports, the kinds with convolute names and made with convoluted antique bronze dies and allowed to air dry, have also (amazingly to me) begun to disappear.
Cheaper mass-market brands of canned tomato products were already well-gone and the more recent hebdomadal toll sees a decimated reserve of the authenticated, certificated San Marzano stocks. Somehow consistently, I do note that the olive oil shelves are as depleted as I’ve ever seen them, and Whole Foods being who they are tend to stock only the EVOO varieties of oils, whatever the points of origin (or bottling: information which must be sought scrupulously on the label, and usually in virtually no-point size type, next to the names of the countries of origin of the olives which may have been pressed in Italy, but are about as Italian by derivation as my great uncle Sol of Ukraine).
At the Giant Supermarket, just across Wynnewood Rd, and slightly south of the WFM, in a strip mall with other somewhat more downscale retailers, including a Bed Bath and Beyond and an Old Navy, there are no more paper products to be had. To wipe one’s bum, or any other body part, or the kitchen counter.
I don’t check the pasta shelves at Giant, kind of knowing what to expect, but I do note that virtually every kind of packaged rice product is in extremely limited supply, as are most of the processed tomato sauces in jars and cans. I don’t check the raw goods shelves.
I am so astonished by the vast expanse of shelf space in the paper goods aisle, I have to take a rare photo. I’ve not seen shelves so empty in a consumer store of such magnitude since I was given privileged access to the first Staples store in the world, prior to its opening, prior to its stocking, some 35 years ago.
It bespeaks emptiness. I mean in the sense of the hollow lack of accord that somehow, whatever the calamity, hummed in the interpersonal spaces and voids and promised, even if only in an inchoate way, assurance of a return sooner than later to some kind of normalcy. Now, I am not so sure.
And the little sign, tucked in the crevice of the long unbroken expanse of tier on tier of emptiness of this most basic, dare I say fundamental, of symbolic necessities in our modern sense of inhabiting a coherent and resilient society, offers no reassurance of any kind in the platitudinous eviscerated insincerity of corporate speak.
Corporate sorry from Giant, for running out of toilet paper, facial tissues, in fact anything absorbent made of paper. The sign, you should note, is tucked between the “Sensitive Wet Wipes” and the “Gentle Clean Wet Wipes” shelf talkers.
Sitting in the local Toyota dealership waiting room for the service area. I am here with about a dozen other customers waiting for their vehicles to be evaluated for service, a cost to be estimated, and then for the work to be done.
Like most customer-minded modern businesses, the waiting room has an array of amenities, including vending machines for packaged goodies (mainly candy bars and pastries), several urns of coffee in vacuum pump reservoirs in a choice of flavors, including decaf and hot water for tea.
There is another vending machine for cold beverages, including bottled water, the ubiquitous Dasani, which is, I believe, a brand of Coca-Cola and its bottlers.
There are three large-screen monitors, two above my head which I have to crane my neck to view. One of these features a live Instagram feed of marketing and promotional material related to the dealership itself. The other screen, silenced seems mainly to be showing a succession of commercials from a variety of advertisers, including Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a variety of law firms of local provenance, etc. It does seem, now that I watch for about 30 seconds, to be tuned to the local major affiliate for ABC. At this hour of the morning (it’s just about to turn 9:30) the show is “Live Kelly and Ryan,” which features the eponymous perpetually mirthful hosts speaking to a round robin of guests who are there to tout whatever it is they are touting, and to bathe in the prompted glorification from the studio audience, consisting of hooting, cheers, laughter, much clapping and general expressions of guiltless, non-judgmental approbation.
The screen, about four feet above my head and located about eight feet on center from my field of vision, repeats the content of the screen on the opposite wall across the waiting room, above the alcoved coffee station. There is a mate across the way as well to the screen with the live “house” feed of marketing information.
The screen near me is muted. The screen behind me provides the main sound track for the entirety of the waiting room, which has a capacity, I would approximate, of about four times as many individuals as now occupy the space. In addition to the endless stream of mirth and enthusiasm that issues from the programming stream of Kelly and Ryan’s production, including all commercial messages (all, in some way, hopeful and upbeat, even when advertising the services of advocates for personal justice when a malign social milieu has, unjustified and fearfully, targeted the consumer’s well-being for the usual mayhem laden reasons: suits of various kinds, including divorce, malpractice, fraud, etc.).
However, in addition to this foundational layer of sound, there are additional ceaseless audible tracks from various sources located on vectors that are no doubt random and accidental, but which serve to present a current of perpetual counterpoint one to another, and challenging the listener, to exercise a significant effort of mindful aural focus. It’s the only way to distinguish one stream of audible content from another.
The effect is not unlike, say, a rough mix of the intended soundtrack of a more artfully crafted (and intended) work of cinematic presentation…very reminiscent, in fact, of a Robert Altman movie, any of the iconic ones, like MASH, Nashville, or a film from his oeuvre sometimes criticized for its extremity of sound effects, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
The difference being, of course, that, successfully or not, Altman sought to encourage the willing viewer not only to focus, but sharpen their observational and analytical skills on the strength of more than mere visual cues and image manipulation, as one would expect from an art form like the cinema, and learn something about the cumulative and aggregate impact of a nexus of discrete and individualized coded aural content occurring stochastically in a suburban Toyota dealer showroom. Here in the specific waiting room of the Ardmore Toyota dealer’s service facility, the effect is to create, as stated, a cacophony.
The only aural signals that register and capture the attention of the listener, providing a focus, are those arising randomly from the throats of the platoon of service representatives who are monitoring the progress of all jobs being shepherded and tended to in the system. Every so often a name is announced, usually the surname of the customer, and a head twitches or jerks, or perhaps less spasmodically reorients and signals attentiveness, turning like a dish antenna in the direction of the interjection.
A hushed conference ensues, and the service representative returns to his or her station with the consent of the owner to proceed. This is usually the only hushed or modulated verbal exchange that occurs in the course of the morning.
Usually other conversations are conducted at not merely audible levels to a narrow locus of accidental listeners in the vicinity of the communicant – and almost needless to say representing one end of a multi-sided exchange by means of the ubiquitous smart phone. Every customer seems to have one. Every customer seems to have recourse to its use one way or another during the course of their vigil attendant to the mending or possibly merely the preventative maintenance of their vehicle. Most engagements by phone seem to have nothing at all to do with the immediate mission at hand. The calls have nothing to do with the vehicle.
Rather, and this is immediately evident, as no conversation—none—is conducted discretely at the murmurous level called for by etiquette and even only a token amount of self-regard. Rather all and sundry in the waiting room are privy to any and all business that occurs ex tempore.
Those scattered about the room not engaged in a magazine, not staring blankly at a television screen, not volubly holding up their end of an inevitably and quite evidently wholly banal confabulation, one of doubtless millions being conducted at any daylight moment throughout the entire great nation of ours, and all through the miracle of a slab of silicon and other much rarer minerals, are using their phones as a personal amplification systems, conveying the soundtrack of what may be a visual display of live action or other animated programming, or perhaps merely providing musical accompaniment as a kind of anodyne relief from the montony of waiting for the mechanic to get done.
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?”
The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.
Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.
One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.
Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for schmoozing.
After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, prestigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.
For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.
Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.
That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.
In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.
Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.
When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.
Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening.
Seeing my friend enter, restaurant staff faces brightened. They said his name and greeted him hands outstretched. There is little that compares to being known as one in the party of greatness, however parochially it may be defined. And there is nothing strictly parochial about the most fundamental of affinities: true friendship. Not only were we glad to be in a literally world-famous restaurant, about to be seated to dine. We were glad to be in the select company of those recognized as “one of us.” Moreover, I was glad, petty as it was at bottom, that all this greatness was not for a single centavo to be at my expense. We were invited as Phil’s guests.
He was paid semi-handsomely for his exertions on the part of the turkey growers, as well as other clients. A significant part of his emolument was a personal expense account, on the one hand potentially taxable as income, on the other, amounting to such a munificent sum annually that strategically his bosses put him in the position of using it up, according to that poetic bit of doggerel philosophy, “use it or lose it.” So that night, he was showing an important IBM executive and her husband his appreciation in the form of a very nice dinner. And he simply refused my participation.
There was another remarkable occurrence, long before food began appearing systematically and with a certain arcane periodicity at the table; clearly not as a dish was ready, and clearly not some rigid mechanical interval. Linda had ordered the vegetarian “Degustation,” which is what fancy places such as this called what has become the prosaic “tasting menu” (and more on that phrase later), while I had the default omnivore’s portions. Not at all alike, each course was, nevertheless, perfectly in sync with all components. But that memorable presence I alluded to was not substantive and plated, so much as maternal. No other than Charlie Trotter’s mother appeared at our table, warm, congenial, welcoming, with an aura that softened the somewhat austere ambiance of the decor.
Not tall. Not short. Not thin. Not heavy. Neither overtly stylish, and by no means haute couture, but appealing and modest, understated while at the same time very present. Her smile was genuine. Her hair, grey, was genuine. Her loving praise of her son’s cooking was genuine.
She seemed genuinely pleased we were there to partake of her son’s handiwork – more than that, of course, it was universally accorded to be overall the artisanship of food as attained by genius, with or without a mother’s validation. We were promised an evening of superlative wining and dining, but what became memorable in larger part, at least for me, was this note of grace and warmth. And all afforded by the simple gesture of having the chef’s mother glide around the room putting every guest at ease and in a positive frame of mind. It was singular, and in my experience, it has remained as much. Nothing speaks of being welcoming than to make people sincerely welcome.
By this point in my life I have eaten in thousands of establishments in North America and Europe. And surely the mother of more than one restaurateur or cook was somewhere in the vicinity, though not, to my perception, in strong evidence. None, other than Mrs. Trotter, ever introduced herself or otherwise made her presence known. I remember the meal that night most generally as overall a classic display of haute cuisine, brilliantly prepared and plated and presented with a level of service to match. But no one dish was so singular as to distinguish itself or the evening – to make it memorable as only a unique detail can render one’s clear recollection – as much as the presence of that pleasant woman of, shall I say, advanced middle age, gracefully introducing herself, announcing her preparedness to answer any question about the menu, or her son, and offering her assistance with meeting any reasonable need.
In case you haven’t picked up my gist, and an appalling lack of testimony about the menu, or the food it proffered, or the wine, or any of the no doubt fine details of smoothly functioning service, let me be clear. I frankly remember almost none of it.
I know we had, as I mentioned, the two menus on offer, one for omnivores and an alternative for vegetarians. I know there were eight courses – or was it ten – including the desserts, which I remember least of all. Not to suggest that the food we were given was not superb. I’ll stake my unsupported belief in it to say that it was. I just remember none of it.
The fault is no doubt mine. It takes quite a bit for me to remember specific dishes I’ve had, especially in venues I’d never been to before and to which I have never returned. And returning by now, for sure, would be impossible, because Chef Charlie died in 2013, of somewhat indeterminate causes given the vagueness of the reporting about the autopsy performed on him, aside from drugs or alcohol or foul play being ruled out, as well as the dismissal of any chance of a notorious rumored burst aneurysm on his brain.
His brilliance lives after him by lingering reputation, and more substantially in the form of several enduring cookery books. The one I prefer is the one he wrote about cooking at home, called straightforwardly enough, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Though the more defensible landmarks of his are a series of genre cookery books: one devoted to Seafood, one to Vegetables, one to Meat and Game, and, of course, one to Desserts. The more compendious general subject of his innovative way with classic dishes and the freshest ingredients, and titled simple, like the restaurant was, Charlie Trotter’s is still in print, in hardcover, after 24 years on the market, and five years after his death.
They all are enlivened with a quiet authority and assuredness about the food. Trotter was, as I have noted, known to be a perfectionist. He had a sure hand with the cooking, and a sure hand about how things should look on the plate, and how to taste once they arrived at ground zero, the diner’s palate. But getting there, for him, required the utmost care and preparedness.
Nowhere was this more evident at his restaurant than in the place that became the tableau and focus of what clear memories I had of that memorable dining experience. Not, as I have confessed, for the food, an evanescent collection of evidence in any event. And not even for that, I’ll admit, second-most memorable aspect of that evening, the engaging and warm presence of his mom – another deft touch on his part, accepting and also requiring her presence. A softening perhaps of the hard edge of his perfectionism and precisionism.
No, the most memorable part of the night came about with an invitation to tour the scene of the sorcery practiced every night in the fulfillment of ten measured courses of food. We were asked if we’d like to see the kitchen, and before anyone could say anything, I responded with an emphatic yes.
Entering was what I would have imagined it to have been like to enter the control room of a submarine in silent running, or given the amount of light and the sleekness of the overall design, it brought another kind of ship to mind. Something from the future, a starship’s bridge, with fewer seats and fewer dials and many hands on deck in immaculate whites.
What was most striking though was the silent operation. Sotto voce conversations; brief ones at that. No shouting. No scurrying. No wasted motion, though with all deliberate speed.
There was spotless stainless steel everywhere. Every station was well-lit. Every station was immaculate, even as they prepared meals for a dining room still full of patrons. Overall, the room was so quiet, I could hear the small printer that spit out short snippets quickly shorn from the lip of the machine and perused by a man, also in white, standing alone at the center of all the activity at the stations surrounding his post. The chef de cuisine.
He occasionally issued terse low-voiced commands to one cook here, or the garde manger there. It was more like he was coordinating a precise intensive operation, meant to save lives and not merely plate courses for some very indulged guests.
The air of calm and the steady intense intuitive sense I had of complete control under severe pressure never broke. As studiously as we observed the staff, no one changed stride, looked up or appeared interrupted. Discipline and order ruled, and as I say, proved far more impressive than the food. The fare had been exemplary, but the production of it – in a sense even more evanescent, because it existed only in time, possessed no mass or volume, but simply happened and was done. Altogether it was as much an unintended performance as a display of ingrained professionalism – yet repeated reliably and flawlessly six days a week.
I’ve had many great meals, and yet so few stand out. Usually the memorable dishes were individual; over a lifetime a scattered constellation of a great main course here, an unforgettable starter there. But only one kitchen operation stands out, akin to a great concert performance by a renowned orchestra start to finish, every movement perfection.
It’s possible, I suppose, for a particular dish to be so good it defies capture in the mind of anyone but the most practiced and refined connoisseur. I would never claim to be that, and I am prepared to be judged as one not capable of appreciating what appeared on the plates of a Charlie Trotter meal. And that’s the reason I suffer the anomaly of remembering a great meal, but being incapable of describing none of it from “amuse bouche” to the final sweet nothing of a mignardise.
But I have also seen many kitchens in full array during a meal, and there is still only the one I will never forget.
more often than not what you read on this blog is inspired, though I tend to think of it as provoked, by something I’ve heard or seen or read, especially on the Internet. the link below is the provocation in this case
We had dinner at our house for guests the other night. One couple were 30-somethings, well along in establishing their careers, with graduate school behind them, but not so far that it’s a dim memory. The other couple were 20-something, one of them just 23, and just recently out of college, with the elder of the two about to start law school. My wife teaches at a local university, and just started the new semester’s classes, with students from freshman year through graduate school. At one point, the conversation turned to the volatile nature of the vernacular, especially as used by those even younger than our guests, both in spoken conversations and texting. Even the youngest of our guests said it’s simply impossible to keep up with the vocabulary that is au courant.
It’s clear to me, being a student of language for onto 40 years, and often cited by others for the expansiveness of my vocabulary (which is, alas, wholly deficient in the current slang of the moment, of the locality, of the region, of my country, never mind of France in any part of it, urban or rural), that the agency of all this, if not the enabler, is the Internet. Not because of some innate linguistic voodoo, or because of some social emollient (though it’s easier to say anything even to strangers, because, famously, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog), but because of the rapidity of the spread of anything, be it a meme, or a joke, a cartoon, a photographic image, or a newly coined buzz word.
In the early 90s it was stock brokers who were the medium for the rapid spread of the latest jokes, simply because they were the only workers, cross country, who were interconnected for business reasons, and who universally had computers and email accounts. A joke could make it from New York to LA by lunchtime on the east coast. I suspect the delay is even shorter today for the traffic in what passes for the content of communications, because there are so many more people intereconnected, because connections occur in real time, just like a voice phone call, and the devices are all mobile and wireless.
It’s not prescient in the least to expect that the impact of youth and the ways they use language and the ever shrinking dimensions of the virtual globe on which we all reside is changing how ordinary people convey a message or a greeting. Writers have long anticipated it, and even tried to prefigure how the vernacular might go, getting the flavor of the phenomenon, if not the actual mutations as languages meld. The best example I can think of immediately is Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, a novel that was published in 1962. And of course, there was George Orwell in the 1940s, with his “discovery” of Newspeak, and the specialized languages he invented in his dystopian novels.
the following is an exchange that originally took place on Facebook on my “timeline” purely as the result of my posting a link (which appears first) to an opinion piece by teju cole, nytimes photography critic, novelist, new yorker magazine writer and columnist, and self-styled photographer. this ended up as a dialog, the latest of many that have occurred over the years, with me and my very good friend paul naecker, an architect and consultant currently based in los angeles. i thought it, the dialog, spontaneous and admittedly off-the-cuff ended up with a kind of validity and some might even find it of value. in all events, as it turned out, paul and i independently concluded it deserved better than facebook.
The shot by René Burri [in this New York Times piece] is the inevitable iconic image. I’ve long since admired it (even used it in a seminar I taught on architectural photography five years ago). It is, indeed, a memorable and evocative, if not a haunting, image. But I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be motivated to replicate in any way a photo taken by another photographer. I never have. I never will.
[Paul Naecker]: H thanks for sharing this. Tejo [sic] Cole’s past work strikes one as fairly rigorous (but not w/o controversy.) This seems more a journey of discovery than imitation.
Seems more a journey of ginning up something to write about for pay. I can’t argue with that.
Clearly he wasn’t pretending to replicate Burri’s vision. Nevertheless, I wish he hadn’t even printed the one lousy shot he got (with color film, the wrong lens, on an overcast day…).
What would be even more interesting is what is evinced when comparing this with another iconic shot, speaking to the ethos of the modernist sensibility and the impact on the urban milieu in the 20th century. Shot almost exactly 50 years earlier in New York, the precursor to the international city São Paolo became:
Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914
[Paul Naecker]: The shoulders of giants eh? I prefer to follow Cole’s limited but still intriguing premise. Don’t know much about him as a photographer. But since he self-identifies as one I guess your critique is fair game.
Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838
I still believe that Barthes was closer to it, as you would no doubt suppose I would, than this premise of the “oneiric possibilities” of street photography, which is validated by that most inarticulate of men, Garry Winogrand, with his pseudo mystical claptrap about “transformation.” Garry should mainly have kept his mouth shut.
Barthes said the photograph is “a message without a code.” Not the same thing. And what Cole wants to take for dream imagery—the context for which exists, as it does for all of us, only in his own consciousness—really has more to do I suppose with contemplating the notion of the substance of a shadow. Stand still long enough and your image is recorded. Keep moving and you disappear. But this is explained by science, not metaphysics. Barthes said what a photograph tells us about its subject, no more no less, is that it existed. Period.
[Paul Naecker] : Period?
I think Cole’s position is less epistemological and more polemical. His insights aren’t really about the capacity of photography to record but rather
much more about some inference or field of memory. More writer than photographer kind of stuff. I like his lied now that I read some of his stuff. Surprised you are so negative about his world view. Apparently the guy is a Times photography critic?Interesting given his anti-colonialist writings. Most of these ‘street’ photographers don’t have much of a political space in their work right?
I was sure you (or someone, but then, who? I really kid myself sometimes…) would take me to task for seeking a differentiation in Cole’s characterization and Barthes’s famous definition. I mean, what is a dream, after all, but “a message without a code?” But then a photograph is not a dream, it merely seems at times to work the same way.
Cole is, in fact, I think, at least in his critical inquiries and analyses in The New Yorker, largely on an epistemological hunt. There are times, however, when I think that not all such inquiries, especially if they are declarations in and of themselves of a particular position against received wisdom, are polemical. I found myself agreeing with his words after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. They were, if anything, anti-polemic.
As for his being a photographer, I haven’t seen much of his work. I thought in this day and age it’s safe for everyone to say he or she is a photographer. It’s inescapable. However, as more than one person (usually it’s a photographer who does it for a living, however meagerly; or possibly for the mere love of finding expression in the medium) has pointed out, because someone can honestly be called a photographer doesn’t necessarily grant that their work is any good. It’s a safe bet they’re not, but in this country at least, it’s almost as easy to get a gun, whose ownership should be licensed, as it is to get a camera. Plato didn’t want to exclude poets from his utopia because they were lousy poets, but because they lie. Merit has its rewards, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of a license. So, Cole is a photographer. Good on him.
But I wasn’t, in the original instance, responding to his picture taking capabilities, but to the impulse, however constrained, to track down the provenance (quite literally) of a famous photograph. We both responded to it, the photo, in what I am sure is an ultimately indistinguishable way. I called it an icon. Doubtless that’s how he views it. Yet (and not to make my favored bugaboo, invidious comparisons)I would never go on the search he did—maybe I’m just envious of his world-beating travel opportunities, which he seems to take mainly for the chance to write contextually about the venue for other purposes.
Cole, as a critic of photography, was particularly good about Saul Leiter, another unsung genius. I love Saul Leiter. And I think so does Cole. I suspect you, Paul, would also. So no argument there either.
No, yet again, I think you are reading heat in my words where, at best, there is merely an attempt at cold fusion—a safe sustainable source of critical energy, harming no one, and maybe providing some light. Of course it could be said that’s all Cole was trying to do. But I still think I’m free to question, that is, to be dubious, of his exertions, at least in their manifestation in this NYTimes article. Now, all I have to do is wait for Steve [Lipsey], the champion of all things Winogrand, to chime in about how he (the Wino-man) and Barthes also agree, for what, indeed, is a photograph that is successfully transformational—I think he meant transformative, but then I’m never quiet about how inarticulate the big lug couldn’t help but be; also, of course, I’m talking about the viewer fo the photo, and I’m simply not sure, though I can guess, that Garry meant the subject—he always speaks of taking photos for the mere purpose of seeing how something looks having been photographed, until in fact he had transformed himself into a picture taking machine—is a photograph that contains a message without a code. To that I can only say, and then I have to shut up, because this could be a book, that I can only speak for myself and my relationship to my own photographic process. And this will have to be taken on faith, because no one can dispute it, and that is, before even putting a camera to my eye, in most instances (and all photos are instances, in at least two senses), I do put it to my eye because I have “seen” a photograph and I want to attempt to capture it. If I were a painter, I am sure it wouldn’t be any different. Cole talks about his pleasure at discovering that Leiter was also a painter, and quite familiar with his contemporaries who were painters (of the same generation: Rothko, etc.). Cartier-Bresson famously started out as a man who simply made drawings (and returned to doing so, when he “retired” from picture-taking) who said that a camera was simply a much more efficient way of doing the same thing.
Perhaps it’s like capturing magic in a bottle, many many times. But once caught, it’s done (that’s all I meant by “period,” not that that’s the end to what can be said—obviously). And in Cole’s case, if he wanted to beat down São Paolo finding the vantage Burri had when capturing his bit of magic, more power to him. I’m not interested.
Note to a Portlandian upset over Salon’s analysis:
It’s been clear to me since I began to learn in earnest about the greater than superficial (i.e., stereotypical—in short, Fred Armisen is NOT your friend) and more salient facts about the culture, ecosystem, and anthropological excrescences of Portland, because some of my dearest friends purely serendipitously (and hence appropriately to the PDX gestalt) moved there, that it is, in fact, a huge movie set, planned, designed and executed by Hollywood moguls, starting, likely, in the 1920s, as a kind of Truman Show on an urban scale and an ongoing experiment.
This magazine’s analysis (and I wouldn’t get my knickers in a twist because Salon doesn’t think you are liberal enough—their shtick these days is to froth at the mouth, and amusingly, they seem close to considering Henry Wallace a closet conservative; must be a new form of jaded NYC chic). Besides, a whole city full of hipsters, slackers, and very very very early retirees and proto-survivalists (or is that pseudo-?) could not possibly sustain a consistent political point of view so as to constitute a caucus, never mind a quorum.
You’ll just have to wait for the list of the ten most apolitical cities. Don’t worry, the delusion that you actually have a political stance, never mind a liberal one, will pass. If not, take two of your drug of choice, and forget about it. Otherwise, your only solution is to move to Vermont—a whole state that, for over 250 years, has been what Portland thinks it is.
Having enjoyed the privilege of a brief—brief to me, but probably an incredibly luxurious hiatus for most people—period of rustication, first in the wilds of Provence, and then in the wilds of Grafton County, NH, virtually on top of the Vermont border, it has been a strange awakening to arrive back in Philadelphia. There was a bracing, very brief interval, between trips to the bosky dells of two continents—mainly I think to get our temporal sea legs to regain their normal status—but not sufficient to be a reminder of what we have escaped during our annual summer run.
But goodbye to that, alas. We are back in the thick of it. The main and prevailing thickness is the swampy weather that for some reason the founding fathers found so congenial here in the Middle Atlantic wedge of the great jaded northeast of the U.S. But there is another thickness, palpable enough, a dimension of the quotidian here in the urban milieu, though wholly invisible. I speak of the thickness between the ears of the collective inhabitants of the region.
In plain language, my friends and fellow commiserators, there’s a reason for that famous apocryphal epitaph of W.C. Fields, and, considering the alternative, which I am wont too often to do (and I don’t mean the Côte d’Azur), I unhappily agree. That is, I do, until, say, I sit behind the wheel of our car, which has taken us through thousands of miles in the north country in safe, largely imperturbable bliss, except for Route 84 in Connecticut. What I have been quickly reminded of are the only too predictable and thoroughly irksome habits of Pennsylvanians, or maybe it’s just Philadelphians, but they do a pretty good job of it in the suburbs as well. So here’s the beginning of an irk list. I am sure, in the fullness of time, as my brain further congeals and grows a defensive barrier, I will dispassionately add to this list in installments.
1. The car horns from the car behind you:
the horn for sitting a nanosecond too long at a traffic light just turned green, before flooring the accelerator for one of those quick Philadelphia Grand Prix starts from a dead stop
the horn for waiting, with your turn signal deployed, to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass safely on your left, before executing a left hand turn removing you from the path of the blower [that would be the horn blaster] who is, of course, tailgating you
the horn in the cramped parking lots, which are legion in the overpopulated suburbs, where life as we know it cannot exist without a strip mall every 1/5 of a mile on major thoroughfares, from the speeding vehicle racing for the exit, as you slowly, gingerly, and most of all anxiously, pull out of your parking space, watching, seemingly simultaneously somehow, the side mirrors, the rear view mirror, the rear camera screen on the dash, and the view through the rear window and side vents, keeping in mind always the deadly blind spots
the horn for actually coming to a dead stop at a Stop sign, instead of simply continuing your forward momentum, with or without the assistance of the use of the accelerator of your vehicle, at whatever speed happens to suit your own sense of urgency at the moment, executing, in effect, the maneuver, formerly known as The Boston Roll, called The Philadelphia Roll [cross reference here: Stop sign behaviors]
2. The car horns from oncoming vehicles, proceeding from either the right or left, and more often than not, both, even with traffic islands, separating traffic, because the Philadelphia driver is nothing if not anticipatory of what’s happening on the other side of the road that could potentially (with a .025% chance of probability) impede their progress, occurring usually at at least 20% in excess of the speed limit
the horn for standing, as a pedestrian, less than a yard (or meter, whichever is longer; just to demonstrate that I have no biases, I mean, the person behind the wheel invisible behind the tinted windscreen, could be British, or Canadian, or European, and also, at the same time, berserk) from the curbstone, especially with no intervening zone of parked vehicles, waiting for the traffic to abate so you can cross [cross reference here: irks for the less than brilliant road and street engineers of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who, it appears, must park their brains along with their vehicles as they report for work to design the highways and byways, the streets, avenues, roadways, boulevards, and alleyways of our fair cities, towns, villages, hamlets, boroughs, and unincorporated IPCs (important population centers)]
the horn for daring to anticipate making a left hand turn across oncoming lane(s) of traffic at an intersection with a traffic control signal, and your own turn signal indicator deployed, by actually stopping the forward motion of your vehicle well short of the trajectory of said oncoming vehicles; special mention for the anticipatory horn blast as the blower approaches from behind you, but is still ¼ mile away from you, and extra special mention for the prolonged blast from the blower, especially after you have, in fact, executed your turn, and are exiting the intersection, thereby removing yourself from the blower’s vector without materially impeding their velocity, not that these people slow down for much anyway; this type of horn blast is always an excellent demonstration of the Doppler effect, in case you have any young students of the Principles of Classic Physics in the car.
I thought I could make this first installment a fairly good introduction to the subject, by making a fairly substantive list of perhaps a half-dozen to ten items in just the automobile horn category, but, I am sorry dear reader, I have to lie down now and rest for awhile.
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