Thursday, June 29, 2006

Twilight Twinkling

O frabjous night. Found a place to live. Farther uptown than I wanted, but it has some matchless qualities. Meandering southward from my future temporary home via Riverside Park and then along the Hudson Parkway, I stopped by the ruined piers to watch day's last light paint the water as a girl strummed a ukulele down on the riverbank rocks. Fireflies twinkled haphazardly above manicured lawns and carefully planted stands of swamp grass, while further upriver, vague through misty dusk, the George Washington Bridge majestically twinkled too.

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.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Vicarious Circle of Life

Yesterday was my big life cycle proxy day.

Proxy Papa

A friend just had a baby! But her husband has the flu! Baby mustn't get sick! So she asked me to pick her up from the hospital.

First, I had to fetch her car, way up in the posh Hills of Beverly.

"Go into the house and you'll find the keys and a bag of baby clothes on the dining table. The car is in the garage."

I drove my own kid-unfriendly car up to their palatial estate, which unfolds over a few acres off a secured road. I parked and walked through the lush garden and into the house. There on the table were the keys and togs. I said hi to the nanny, went back out to the garage, slipped into L's new silver Mercedes, navigated the garage door and then the security gate, and glided down the hill to Cedars Sinai, where tout Beverly Hills goes to give birth.

I found them right away in what may be the least confusing hospital on Earth. L looked even more beatific than usual, and the infant lay semi-propped in the center of the bed like an offering, swaddled and vague. As I inspected the perfect miniature, she appeared to wave at me despite a general glazed look. The room was crowded with L's bouquets and bags, so I commandeered a surgical steel cart from the nurse and piled high the personal effects.

At the elevators, an excited young man held a potted plant and a tiny spray of carnations.

"Would you like a bigger bouquet?"

He misheard me: "I wish I did."

"Here, take these," I said, handing him the biggest bouquet off the top of the laden cart. I knew my friend wouldn't care.

"Oh, you're good," he said, which confused me, but I gather that's how people speak these days.

The discharge process took an hour or more: First L disappeared, then I went off to the car, then I came back and the baby was gone, then she was back but needed a new diaper and bottle of Enfamil, etcetera, but eventually we were done. As the orderly rolled mother and child in a chair through endless halls and waiting rooms, people' eyes darted from them to me, marching along behind with the rented breast pump and bales of sterile sponges. I wondered if I owed the moment an effort to appear the proud papa. Nah. I must have radiated the right vibe; only two people congratulated me.

I left them in the lobby with the wheelchair and the orderly and a collection of demented seniors waiting for their rides, and retrieved the car. The baby seat posed a new set of issues, because it was new and complicated and neither L nor I had ever used one. I tore open the "Alcohol Prep" packet from the room (nostalgic reminder of high school) and swabbed my fingers to keep germs from the tiny slumbering baby as I manipulated the straps and buckles around her. L redid all my work more exactly, slid in next to the baby seat, and I drove them home.

Tasting Dinner

That night I met three friends at downtown LA's tony Café Pinot for a tasting dinner, part of the catering process that has never before been apparent to me. The engaged two of them had invited the other two of us to help evaluate the food and wine options for their wedding next month.

We sat on the patio surrounded by suits and skyscrapers and glimmering tiny lights as managers hovered and servers delivered a series of artfully plated dishes: six appetizers (choose three); three salads (choose one); four entrees (discuss). Midway through my detailed comparison of the salmon crisps (unimpressive to look at but surprisingly good) and the crab cakes (promising of mien but curiously disappointing) I stopped and happily observed that this was even more fun than I'd expected, because people so rarely want to hear me pontificate about food.

"That's why we invited you!" cried the future groom. "Of all the people we know, you two are the best at pontificating about food. You're doing great -- keep going."

Thus encouraged, I waxed even more loquacious than usual: why the wasabi mousse had no bite, why such perfect French fries are appropriate for a celebration (hang the calories!), why my baby vegetables were losers and what would be better, how the sauce under my perfectly pan-roasted halibut was basically a puddle of oil, why the Spanish white had all the virtues of a Sauvignon Blanc without the downside, and on and on .... We all agreed on most points, a concord likely helped along by grapes. We probably sounded like huge asses. And if we ate like that nightly we'd have huge ones too.

After dinner we wandered through the gardens and the bride-to-be showed us the tree under which the actual ceremony will happen, where the bar will be, and all the homeless people who won't be allowed to occupy park benches on that hallowed night.

We parted in a haze of bonhomie, and I drove carefully home, musing alone in my car on proximity to the major life events of others.