Big Apple Memories
by Denis Rouse, April 27, 2016
New York, New York. The big city. We're your grandmother's Russian/Jewish cooking is readily available. It's called Kaplan's Delicatessen on 58th? How about chicken soup with stewed chicken feet? It could happen, but if not, there are viable alternatives like cabbage stuffed with high fat beef that guarantees you a gurney at Mount Sinai and oniony kishka dripping with hot chicken fat and wrapped in the intestinal integument of some poor ungulate blessed by the rabbis before having its life extinguished. This I remember as Russian/Jewish kosher cooking probably somewhat influenced by my maternal grandfather's roots in Romania, in Bucharest where he grew up before emigrating to the United States via Ellis Island one million years ago.
Grandpa Louie said to Grandma Sarah at one time I'm sure, Sarah, I want gribnis tonight. Gribnis is a dish of generous pieces of chicken skin fried in onions and chicken fat, the onions and the chicken skin blackened a bit about the edges if the cook is adroit, and trust me, my Grandma Sarah was. Grandpa Louie had a fatal heart attack before he was 60. I remember my Grandma Sarah weeping at the time and saying, "Oy, I told him, for God's sake, Louie, go easy on the salt." Somehow though, I'm sure if Grandpa Louie could talk to me now he would say, Franklin, the glory of the gribnis was worth my early demise. I was only 58 but I had plenty enough of this gift the rabbis call life. Your grandmother's cooking and attention in the schmata business in the Los Angeles garment district sent me to an early grave. Don't misunderstand me, a few more years would have been fine, time to witness your maturation into a man, but I had plenty enough of this gift the rabbis call life. Mazeltov!
You go on like this when your guts hurt with the pain of, ready Editor? Existential isolation. When Franklin first used this phrase long ago in a worthless short story, his Editor said, that means nothing. He was right, you guess. Existential isolation? Sartre would shrug a shoulder. This is what Thomas Mann was referring to when he suggested that the truth of things has nothing whatsoever to do with the best interests of man or beast? Existential isolation? Do we even exist or are we, to use a better word, trapped in a lonely perception that best describes our own stupid, prejudiced, fatally flawed view of the world and how it works? In Franklin's case, this is the deal. He thinks he is a member of a unique cadre of human beings who think above the parameters of ape behavior. Just because he would never attend a 49ers game or go skiing again or go to the mall voluntarily or do anything connected to the Disney Corporation or vote Republican or buy a Hummer or go to a Super Bowl party or… Well, you get the idea. Franklin hates unanimity. When he was a youngster in grammar school and all the kids were excitedly planning the teacher's birthday party he eschewed the whole process; he even tried to enlist some of the other kids into his devious plan to ignore the whole onerous activity and just, to use a modern phrase, shine it on. His treachery was discovered by the teacher and he was soundly excoriated for his efforts, even those little pricks who signed on with him early in the game, turned into traitorous little barbarians. This early experience with his fellow man turned Franklin into a sufferer of existential isolation. You, Mr. Editor, figure out a better way to write it. Franklin is out of gas.
New York, New York. Continued. You just flew there and back like a schmuck first class on Virgin America where the hors d'oeuvres come in little square plastic cups. One is patted down to the top with a version of crab salad. Another is called, "Would you like the cheese balls, sir?" The cheese balls are two mozzarella balls and little tomatoes and some cucumber wet with what you hope is extra virgin olive oil in a little square plastic cup. The little square plastic cup looks exactly like the one that contains pills for the inmates at the cuckoo's nest. The chicken draped with sweetish mystery sauce on a rectangular plastic dish will arrive soon. You remember Japan Airlines business-class not long ago, specifically the Narita/SFO return leg because one of the, ahem, cabin attendants (don't say stewardesses these days) looked like Franklin's vision of his Japanese wife in another life. This lithe long-limbed sweet faced Japanese beauty realized from the get-go that Franklin is a white man who would prefer to be Japanese. Franklin spoke Japanese to her a couple of times, like gochiso sama desita, thank you for another wonderful meal, and it was indeed, a breakfast right out of the Kamakura, it was okayu, rice porridge with all the trimmings including some cold crisp sections of tekuan and she knew you knew that to chew tekuan noisily in a Buddhist temple is to be rewarded with a sharp rap or two with a bamboo switch wielded by a priest who is also a kendo master.
The limo guy at JFK, actually a taxi guy at the wheel of a Lincoln Towncar with a creamed right front fender, says, 45 bucks to midtown. Franklin knows a bargain when he hears one. To the Waldorf-Astoria, he says. On the expressway in Queens the driver, a dark swarthy guy with a serious Bronx accent, says, "My fucking son is a Patriots fan." Ha, Franklin thinks, no one escapes hell on earth. The Giants had just destroyed the Patriots in Super Bowl XVIVX with a miracle play wherein an impossible pass results in an impossible catch and this poor fucking hard-working New York schmuck's son is a fucking Patriots fan. We're all at the same party, buddy, you tell him. Take me to the Waldorf in midtown where the bottom-class rooms are $350+ and the well drinks are 12 bucks apiece and there's a Starbucks below the lobby where the coffee is six bucks a cup and you're looking at a minimum of $100 bucks a plate for dinner anywhere within a 12 block radius and it's now going to cost you $40 to go to the top of the Empire State Building through a gauntlet of assholes trying to sell you on going even higher than "the observatory" on the 84th floor to the antenna aerie. It's now the highest point in Manhattan post World Trade Center/ 9/11 disaster. Aren't you glad you're a Republican?
So what? You take a cab to Grant's Tomb at Riverside and 124th. How's the old IQ test go? Who's buried in Grant's Tomb? Ha ha. A real chuckler. Hey, if it wasn't for Grant New York would look more like Atlanta. Our cab driver this morning is Walter, ten years in New York from Ghana. Oh, you blurt beautifully, Kofi Annan country, I think he's a great man. You could have said, Ah, Kofi Annan, I think he's a great, kind man who is terribly outnumbered by (a) assholes who run the world and by (b) assholes who faun at their backsides, but you don't. You ask Walter, after visiting Grants Tomb, in which we are alone, no one else there on a busy Manhattan weekday morning remembering this great man's gift to American history, the preservation of the god damn union for Christ sakes, you ask Walter, Is there a possibility of a soul food breakfast in Harlem? Walter is very kind. He masks well his concern that you, Franklin, may be crazy. No soul food this morning, but a nice quiche and salad at a place on Malcolm X Avenue. Quiche and salad for breakfast in Harlem? Yes, New York is changing in ways you haven't got a prayer of fathoming.
You remember your mother lives somewhere in the Bronx. Walter? Let's see what the Bronx looks like. Over the turbid Harlem River we go. Last time you saw the Bronx 25 years ago you remember huge vacant tenements with ragged people standing around 55 gallon oil drums of burning trash trying to keep warm. It looks better now, the tenements seem occupied and the human desperation seems more covert. Old Yankee Stadium ("intoxicated fans will not be allowed into the stadium") stands mute astride New Yankee Stadium in the final stages of construction, but still surrounded by chain-link and concertina wire awaiting sellout crowds of alcoholic dupes to pay dearly to watch millionaire drug adicts playing the American pastime. Fordham University is situated here like a manicured citadel of higher education above the ruins. Didn't Vince Lombardi play football here? What would Vince think about the cheating millionaire drug addicts? Walter, we've seen enough of the Bronx. Back to Manhattan via the garment district please, I'd like to look at Grandpa Louie's old schmata factory at 1261 Broadway. My God, it's still there, doesn't look a day over 125, now a gleaming office building with high security at the door and a sign in Korean on the glass entrance. The traffic here is the most viscous in Manhattan, double parked trucks and covered rolling racks of clothing being pushed across the street by gaunt individuals who look like they just jumped off the boat from El Salvador and a dense walking stream of humanity, of faces that seem positively unfazed by the apparent madness of it. Who said it? Tolstoy? Humans can cope with any condition especially when people all around them seem to be minding it not a bit.
Give my regards to Broadway. Herald Pinter's "The Homecoming" is playing at the Cort Theatre. You would love to attend a performance with George Bush well disguised so you wouldn't be pestered. Afterwards you could hit the bar together at the Waldorf. Over single malt on the rocks he could tell you what he thought of the play. You imagine it would go like this:
Franklin: What was hideous?
GB: You know very well. Nobody acts like that. The whole family is demented.
Franklin: George, that's the point, art is supposed to stretch life's possibilities to make you think.
GB: I know what I think. These people are scum treating the good brother like that, seducing his wife, the old man calling her a guttersnipe. Shit, the good brother is the only decent human being on the stage.
Franklin: Yes, but doesn't it trouble you that the good brother's wife seems a little weird and depressed from the get-go? And that the good brother seems remarkably unfazed by the fact that his father and brothers are turning his wife into a whore and she's buying it like New York cheesecake?
GB: Hey, when I was drinking and doing drugs at Yale and living the high life we figured we were doing bad-bad but soon we'd be graduating and doing good-good. Pinter's problem is he's a case of arrested development. He never got beyond the bad-bad. He thinks I was wrong invading Iraq. History will vindicate me.
Franklin: George, come on, untold thousands of innocent people are dead. Thousands more are about to be incinerated on your watch. Opium production is booming in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is on fire. Even many Republicans believe you and that neocon cabal of yours are war criminals. Pinter, as you know, thinks you're a fucking ape.
End of drink date.
Katz's Deli on East Houston in the Lower East side. We get there too early to be waited on by a Jewish waitress who you know is from Brooklyn. She tawks funny. She walks her dawg. The bridge is nearby. The cab driver's from Lahore or Delhi, it doesn't matter, he smiles and jokes a lot, tells you his wife is driving him crazy. As they say in the deli, nu? What else is nu? He knows you want to go to a major neighborhood East Side Jewish deli and he finally says, ah, I know where you want to go, and he drops us off at Katz's not far from where Grandma Bea and her parents live datad at an address that's now a park where you got to be careful not to step on the hypodermic needles. No matter. Katz's Delicatessen is a 200 year-old tribute to chopped chicken liver, never mind the guys behind the counter look like they're related to Emiliano Zapata. Mexicans understand Jews. Jews do not understand Mexicans. But it doesn't matter because los hermanos know how to make a pastrami omelette and the kishka there will knock your socks off. Lox and onions scrambled, you order, lox on the side. When it arrives you see the lox has been fried with the eggs and onions, separately, but lox on the side means lox on the side, not fried, but still it's cured "raw" form ready for a bagel and cream cheese. Such is life. Mexicans do not understand Jews that well.
Across the street from the Empire State building is Brooklyn Bagels, a place you would think would be as good as Jewish as a bar mitzvah. But no. Emiliano is there too. Gimme an egg white and vegetable omelette, you order. It comes. You struggle up dangerous stairs to the "dining area." The omelette in the plastic container is tasteless. The Mexican papaya is excellent. You see how things are, do you not? You are overruled by fate over which you have no control whatsoever.
Just down one of those streets from the Waldorf, Park Avenue? 48th Street? Franklin can't tell you at the moment, is a famous Italian restaurant where the Pope ate. Jesus, the place is as good as anything Franklin remembers in Italy during his time there with his daughter Leo when she was attending art school in Florence and they drove aimlessly south together, ending up at the end of the Gargano Peninsula in an ancient village high above the Adriatic where the calamari was as wonderful as in the place near the Waldorf where the Pope ate. He orders Dover sole pan fried in butter, bring it whole please, bone in. The waiter is from Bari or somewhere else deep in hardly-any-tourists-there Apulia, or Puglia, Italy. He understands mightily, and to prove it, he brings an empty plate with the sole into which Franklin can deposit the skeleton of the sol after he has cleaned it of its succulent flesh. Many other New Yorkers would never understand Franklin's major food fetish and this is to his everlasting pride.
Did you do a Japanese in New York?
Of course. One night we went to the Japanese restaurant in the Waldorf.
How was it?
How was it? It was magnifique! Our Japanese waitress understood me instantly as an old white male who wished he was Japanese. She looked a bit concerned when I ordered the steamed snapper head but was quickly relieved when she saw me eat the eye. The ochazuke with ume for dessert was especially appreciated. Noda-san would have been very happy at our table.
Did you do Chinese in New York?
Stupidly, no. I saw the roasted ducks hanging in smudgy storefront windows near the foot of the Manhattan side of The Bridge, wanted one badly with its crisp skin covering a veneer of rich duck fat and then that succulent dark duck meat so fine with a bowl of saimin, but we got distracted. Instead walked to the Gleek place a block from the hotel on 48th.
Sorry. I was still in Chinatown. I mean Greek place. The octopus appetizer sounded so magnoid on the menu I ordered it as an entre and wasn't sorry. It was done beautifully sauteed, but charred at the edges of the sliced tentacles with onions, tomatoes and spices that reminded me of how I feel in a famous olive oil restaurant in Athens where elderly patrons insist upon a shot of the local very green extra-virgin first press to down before the salad comes. It's a lesson I find unforgettable and undeniable.
The Jack Kerouac exhibit at the New York Public Library with Ionic columns on Fifth Avenue was edifying. He's dead now, but if he wasn't I'd say, Jack, alcohol and drugs work for me too, but I'm not sure it's okay to write under that tremendous influence. I think it might be better to be stone sober while you endure the mad cacophony of reality and then record your feelings with various verbs and nouns and the occasional adjectives in an unaltered state. In "On the Road" you and the boys were relieved to finally be in Mexico with music and beautiful girls dancing in the village streets. Well, no shit. To me, this is not literature. This is called common sense. I suppose if you carried it further with you and Lupe getting together in the sublime sense for longer than a single evening perhaps then literature could happen. You could have ditched those assholes who were your companions and lived with Lupe through several years and at least two children. Now write "On the Road" and tell me all about your difficult magnificent years. That's literature, Jack. Warmest personal regards, Denis Rouse
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, New York. Across the street in Central Park is a gray white winter netherworld of dendritic and human wraiths, a stark contemporary canvas widely visible in pale light beyond the windows of the great solarium that houses a microcosm of ancient Egypt in all its silent stony glory. It would be good to be alone here with one's thoughts, in full contemplation of the mysterious enigma that is the whole of human history, or as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, "the chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate — that is beyond retrieval and that is beyond reconstruction. All historians know this in their souls."
But no. We are not alone. We are surrounded by a gaggle of some schoolchildren wild eyed with attention deficit disorder paying minimal attention to their neurasthenic teachers mouthing homilies, one of whom looks exactly like liver spotted Mrs. Stuart, Franklin's junior high teacher who hated the sight of him and he of her for reasons that are now thank God gone forever from memory. Forget Aunt Selma the commie, Mrs. Stuart was chicken face. She was dangerously thin, slightly bent with scoliosis, and had a nose that looked like a beak that spoke woe to the June bugs. Harsh, she was, angry, a dried up nasty old harpy with the presence of a bad omen, of a shitty report card (big red Unsatisfactory in obedience, effort, dependability, reliability, courtesy, thoughtfulness, and the subject grades averaging to something like a D+) so that when Daddy regarded the card he said, Franklin, at least give it some effort. Get an outstanding in Effort, or at least a satisfactory and I'll forgive all the rest. Franklin remembers this as Daddy's second most important lesson, that the worst thing to do is quit. Did the Old Man quit in Hemingway's novel about the old man versus the great fish? No, he did not quit. Did he win his epic battle with the great fish? No, he did not. The sharks won. But he got an Outstanding in Effort and he knew it and so he sleeps peacefully on his face at the end of the book. Mrs. Stuart, wherever you are in heaven or hell, Franklin remembers you and forgives you. You could have been the old woman in "Death in the Afternoon" who loves bullfighting, who Hemingway uses as a sparring partner early in the book to accentuate that the bullfight is above all else a tragedy and so to judge it, to call it cruel, to be concerned with the disemboweled horses, is to miss the point.