Monday, June 26, 2006

Living, Breathing, Paying, Eating, Dying

A few things:

1. I am deep, deep, deep in the circle of hell reserved for people who think they can rent a spacious, sunny apartment in New York for roughly the same amount they used to spend on a home mortgage in Los Angeles. The boiler-room world of the Manhattan apartment broker is slightly fascinating if repellent and may warrant a separate post. In the meantime, I am looking, looking, looking. If the next few paragraphs seem more frivolous than usual, kindly blame it on the stress of impending homelessness.

2. I held my breath for 3:35 on the subway last night. That's right -- I went three and half minutes without breathing or blacking out. This ability surprised me, because I haven't practiced or tried to hold my breath since junior high. Back then, I could only go about a minute. Credit swimming and bike-riding for this unexpected ability. You try. How long can you hold it? Suggestion: Take several deep, fast breaths to oxygenate your blood before you start.

3. Yesterday, I met an ex at MoMA and we had a drink in the café. Having read Lord Zim prior to our meeting, she reported liking "A Particulate Essence of Eighth Avenue," which was gratifying, because I did too. We had a very nice time catching up on the last few years. When done, we paid a $19 tab with two twenties and asked for change. The waitress thoughtfully brought change for both twenties and included an extra twenty in the folder, for an accidental total of $60. The drinks could have been free. I pointed out the error to my friend, left the extra $20 with our tab, and said nothing to the server.

I watched covertly as she stood across the room and opened the folder. She counted the money, looked over at us, spoke to two co-workers, looked over at us again (I looked away), and then came back to ask tentatively if we wanted some more change. Hooray for honesty. I explained, and we all had a self-congratulatory little laugh. Was I being high-handed? I was just happy that two honest people had the good fortune to run across one another. Maybe I am too much in love with my own selective moral code.

4. Speaking of my selective code, I recommend "It Died for Us," a NY Times article on the "ethical implications" of a carnivorous diet. It's hardly a conclusive argument, but it raises some very good questions and hypocrisies while force-feeding facts most people ignore or don't commonly recognize about how food animals are raised. Do ducks deserve more sympathy than chickens? What about lobsters, who wait to die in small tanks with their claws immobilized, only to burn to death in boiling water? Pertinently for me, the article begins with a discussion of oysters, which are among the few foods that literally die as we eat them; clams are another.

4a. I recently went through a minor orgy of oyster-eating (three times in a week) after discovering that my favorite fishmonger will shuck bivalves for immediate consumption on the premises. Standing at the fish-slicing table, to be precise. The ambience is bizarre and not entirely appetizing -- several thousand small creatures are either dead or dying or waiting to die all around as one slurps other tiny things to their deaths -- but it is an experience unlike any conventional feed. That plate of ice and seaweed? Piffle. The richly burnished wood bar? Window dressing. Shallots minced in wine vinegar, and a cello bag of oyster crackers? Camouflage for lack of freshness or fear of flavor. As my fish store sherpa says, "You gotta be a perfessional oystah eatah!" If this means slicing your lips open on the razor-sharp shells, so be it. They heal in a day, and extraordinary experiences require sacrifice.

(And offer unexpected rewards. One oyster surrendered a small and unlovely pearl; it caused quite a stir, and Lulu the shucker was delighted to receive it as a tip. I was happy to give it away and happier still that it hadn't cracked a tooth.)

And then the buzz sets in, the post-oyster charge. It's not just the cliché of enhanced sexual potency, though the fishmongers talk as if there's no question that bivalves boost sex drive; one of the people I escorted to this place swore an hour later that he still felt higher off the oysters than he'd felt since he gave up hooch.

Is that possible? Is it imagined? I've been thinking about the life spirit of the oyster, which -- if we accept its existence -- must leave the flesh when you chew it to death. Then what? Does that energy stay in you? And if you don't accept its existence, why don't you? Why would an oyster not have a soul or at least electric energy powering its functions? Am I talking nonsense? I imagine far more erudite, thoughtful people than I have examined this question. Who are they? What do they say about the dying animal?

5. Finally, on the mysterious topic of souls, yesterday I looked at a Chinatown apartment that sounded great but was in fact a wretched disappointment. The closest thing it had to a saving grace was the bedroom's view of an ancient graveyard. The building owner had tried advertising through the usual Asian venues, but most of the potential tenants were too superstitious even to enter the room, let alone sleep in it. Craigslist's occidental audience had proven more willing to bed down next to those in eternal slumber. Chinese numerology ascribes power to different numbers than Western traditions do, but the building address is just as deliciously creepy as its rear window view: 13 Oliver Street.

As for that grassy plot, it is the First Cemetery of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue named Shearith Israel, at St. James Place, a synagogue that dates to 1683. According to, "the Shearith Israel Jews emigrated from Brazil beginning in the mid-17th Century." But wait! That's not all!
    According to legend, the location of the red-bricked building abutting the cemetery has an unusual history of its own. On the site of that building, there was a Civil War tavern known as the "Grapevine". Many Union officers went there, including many Southern spies and many incognito newspaper reporters.

    Of course everyone knew that everyone else was eavesdropping on conversations there, so the tavern became known as the place where many rumors originated. This became the origin of the phrase "heard it through the grapevine"!
Are those souls still hanging around, or have they moved uptown? And if an oyster has a soul, might it 400 years ago have inhabited a Brazilian Jew? Try covering up that taste with shallots.

1 comment:

dofmec said...

1. Hasn't anyone told you about NYC living?! Mind as well stretch out your arms and shout "Hook me up and suck my blood!" Would be a lot easier.

2. You actually look a long deep breath in the subway? You may have survived the record, but I think you've also killed at least several hundreds of white cells for it.

3. Ditto on the catch-up. :)

4a. LOL. BTW, I do recall having the same high after oysters at a sushi restaurant you took me to oh-so-many-years-ago in Santa Monica.

5. 13 is not an inauspicious number. 4 is.