Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In the Soup

“Alain makes zee best soups,” Rolande had told me. “Oh, wait until you taste one of Alain’s soups. Zey are zee best soups in ze world.”

I’d been invited to live as an artist-in-residence in the village of Bozouls, in the southwestern corner of France. Hugging both the base and the rim of a deep river gorge, the tiny village featured two medieval stone sentry towers, attached to one of which was an efficiency apartment equipped with a small pool and a Jacuzzi that would be my home and my studio for three weeks. As things happened, I never saw my hostess. An international attorney, Rolande was tied up with a complicated case back in New York. Aside from Alain, the caretaker, and Mama Maguy, Rol-and’s eighty-nine year-old mother, who lived in the tower proper, I was completely on my own. Which suited me fine. I had my own door, and my own key. After having driven me to Bozouls from the station, Alain seemed to disappear. As for Mama Maguy, though I knocked more than once on her door, it never opened. A dog barked inside. That was all. I wondered: would I ever get to taste Alain’s famous soup?

Finally, one afternoon, I ran into Alain at one of the town’s two cafes. “Ah, Pee-taire! You must come for soup this evening!”

Soup--the magic word! After days of surviving on croque monsieur (grilled cheese) at the town’s only cafe I was starved for some authentic and homemade French cooking!

Having barely finished a painting outdoors I was late for my 7 p.m. dinner invitation. I arrived to find Mama Maguy and a young girl sitting at a big oak table. The young girl was Magalie, her housekeeper--one of her many housekeepers, it turned out. Mama Maguy looked her age, with large blue eyes rendered even larger by thick lenses. She wore a red and white striped blouse that accentuated the pale whiteness of her skin and her parchment-colored hair. She sat at one end of the table and Magalie sat at the other, both with napkins tucked, waiting. On the oak table candles burned and the famous pot of soup sat waiting next to a bowl of grated cheese and a cutting board with some bronze, crusty bread sliced into cubes. And there, at the center of the scene, stood Alain--Alain with his long stringy dark hair and pointy goatee, looking like one of the three Musketeers as he stirred his famous soup.

“Ah, Pee-taire, Pee-taire,” he wagged a bony, warty, castigating finger at me.

“Excusez-mois,” I said.

As Alain ladled the soup, pouring over the grated cheese and croutons, I smelled its rich, mushroomy smell. Wineglasses were filled and Alain said grace. My hand reached for my spoon when suddenly Alaine stood and announced that he had to make a phone call. Taking a cell phone from his pocket, he dialed. For the next forty-five minutes or so he paced back and forth along the table’s length talking in a rapid, non-stop voice. My French being adequate at best I could barely make out a word, though I understood him to be talking about the global economy, then about the Algerian dilemma, and then about Protestantism and the Catholic tyranny and why wood finally replaced coal as the fuel of choice in French villages. To whomever he’d phoned he explained why Amsterdam was a terrible, evil place and why drugs generally were evil, and how depression was not genetic and he could prove it, because three--three!--of his cousins had attempted suicide, one successfully, while he had never, ever in his life been depressed--not the slightest bit! Also, he refused on principle to drink Eau de Vie or Aquavite. And did you know, he told whoever was listening, that during the Second World War the corpses of over a dozen fetuses were found by soldiers in a barrel in the woods behind the local abbey?. . .I looked at my watch. I’d been sitting there for over twenty minutes. Another twenty minutes passed and Alaine was still on the phone, with the soup congealing in our bowls. He went on and on and on, endlessly, oblivious of our soups getting cold. Every so often he would throw us a nod with his D’Artagnan chin, indicating that we should start without him. But Magalie refused to touch her soup or even sip her Bordeaux until we were all seated. As for Mama Maguy, she seemed used to this scenario, as if it were part of the dinner ritual. Alaine went on to discuss fluoridation, global warming, the expanding/contracting universe debate. I wondered: who on earth is he talking to? Who would listen to all this? Eventually I broke down and took a sip of from my wine glass. I hadn’t eaten all afternoon and was parched from painting under the hot sun. Alain sucked his teeth, shook his head and nodded saying, “Bien sur, bien sur; peut etre, peut etre. . .”

I was sure we’d never eat our soups.

Just as I gave up all hope, he put away the phone. “Alors,” he said, and had just tucked in his chair when a voice rang up from outside. “Ah--moment,” he untucked himself, went to the window and leaned his head out to start another conversation as we sat there with our soups turning to mush. With whoever was outside the window Alaine launched into yet another monologue. To escape the sight of my congealing soup I excused myself and went to the bathroom. There, where the odor of cooling soup hadn’t permeated, I smelled the old smell of invalid people, the redolence of cat box and leaky catheter, the scent of old Europe. Still, I was glad to be in the bathroom, glad to be momentarily free of Alain’s moulin a paroles and of the terrible sound Mama Maguy made with her supposedly real teeth--a grinding, scraping sound like marbles being rubbed together--a sound that made me squeeze my eyes shut and try to think of places far, far away. When I couldn’t justify staying in the bathroom any longer I returned, only to find Alain still deep into his flux de bouche, with no end in sight, and Mama Maguy grinding her teeth louder than ever, and the intrusive guest outside the window still invisible but listening.

Finally, with an “A demain! A demain!” the invisible window guest apparently shoved off, and Alain bustled back to the table in high spirits.

Now at last it was time to eat the soup--or so it seemed. Alain said grace again. Again I lifted up my soup spoon. But then--before we could actually eat the cold glop--we had to hear all about how it had been made, how Alain had gone to over a dozen markets in search of the very finest ingredients at their height of freshness: mushrooms, carrots, onions and leeks. . .how he had chopped, diced, sauteed and sliced, creating his own stock from veal and chicken bones, which he simmered, stirring in butter and salt, folding in cream for what sounded like hours, days, weeks. . .But that was only the beginning, for as Alain explained (at great length, of course) the secret to a good soup was not in its original creation, but in its evolution, its accumulating character, so to speak, over time--its journey from meal to meal, with enhancements along the way, for the chopping and dicing of which he spoke had happened ages prior, and the soup that (with any luck) we were at last about to savor now was in fact dozens of soups melded and grafted and simmered into one another over time, a soup of soups, with the original Ur-soup apparently dating back to the beginnings of life on the planet--to the amino-acid soup of creation itself.

“Bon apetite!” said Alain, toasting.

Finally, we ate.Though lukewarm, it was a good, thick, salty soup, gray-brown in color and porridge-like in consistency. Still, I questioned all of Alain’s dicing and slicing. Those tiny bits of vegetable floating in my bowl looked vaguely dehydrated. And there was that unmistakable essence of industrial-strength, MSG-enhanced bouillon cube. Nevermind, at least we were eating.

And then Mama Maguy, who’d been silent as a sphinx all this time, spoke up, and kept speaking, as if she were an internet site than had taken all this time to download. She loved Paris in the Fall, she said, and drank only Bordeaux in Summer, and loved her home, and herself. “Look at my stone walls,” she said. “Look at my thick beams, look at my straight nose and my still blonde hair and my spanking white pigeons. Damned if I’m not the talk of this town! (They say that my daughter, Rolande, is the talk of the town, but it’s not true--I am the talk of the town. I always was the talk of the town.) Look at me, don’t I still look good? Under this eighty-nine year-old flesh there is the body of a raving beauty. Oh, I was beautiful--much more beautiful than Rolande! You know, I almost gave her up, and probably should have, the little wench! But I didn’t; I stuck it out. No orphanage for my daughter. Of course she worships me now--and why shouldn’t she? I saved her life! If not for me God knows--imagine what a different life she would have had--possibly no life at all--had I given her up as I had every right to do! We were so poor, you cannot imagine. Poverty--the worst disease of all! Every three months we had to pack up and move to cheat the landlord, always farther and farther away from the center of the city, my beloved Paris. Once I even made Rolande leave behind her doll collection in order to fool the patron into thinking we were coming back. Oh, she cried tears as salty as this soup (I think, Alaine, that you have put too much salt in it this time)--but it was better than the alter-native, wouldn’t you say? And do you think she was grateful? Of course she was! And then I even found her a father, a respectable man who gave her a last name. Yes, that’s right: gaze upon me in awe and wonder here in my tower with my caretaker, my maidservant, my white pigeons and my squeaky teeth!” Cold soup dribbleed from her chin.

In addition to her occasional sly farts Mama Maguy gave off a faint but pungent odor of fermentation as some old people will, a tangy smell closely related to the smell in the bathroom and which invested itself into every spoonful of soup and sip of Bordeaux, making me gag slightly as I ate, watching her talk with her soupspoon dripping onto the collar of her red striped blouse, her pale globe-like eyes darting back and forth, back and forth under milkbottle lenses. Meanwhile Alain has gotten back on his cell phone again to continue the conversation of before, his whisp-thin lips moving at the speed of sound under his D’Artagnan mustache, his S’s faintly whistling through the gap in his front teeth, his phone-free warty hand stirring the now ice-cold soup. He spoke of Global Commerce, the situation in Nepal, the need for earthquake-proof construction in third-world nations, the threats being posed to the sovereignty of the Euro. . . He held forth on fortified wines and genetic engineering and improved techniques of spinal surgery. . .all the while stirring his prize soup, his Soup of Ages, his Infinite Soup, like an alchemist in his medieval tower-laboratory. And just as Alain’s soup was made 90% of past soups, and men’s bodies are made 90% of water, Alaine’s life, I perceived, consisted 90% of words, his own homemade, sliced, diced, constantly simmering words, flowing endlessly, like a river of soup.

“Bien sur, bien sur,” he said, referring to the Jacuzzi, which after five days of tinkering on his part was still unfunctional. “Sans doute, sans doute! Certainement! Certainement! Peut etre! Peut etre!” (Incidentally, was I aware that it was a Frenchman who had invented the so-called “whirlpool bath”? However--as with so many other French inventions-- the man, being something of a nincompoop, had neglected to apply for his patent on time, and therefore--). . . .

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Barber

Today I’m going to get a haircut. I just decided. There’s no barbershop in sight. I don’t even know of any barbershops in this neighborhood. The urge to get a haircut has come upon me suddenly, like an early afternoon sun shower. I don’t know this part of the city well, yet already I feel a heavy sense of comfort, a balanced feeling scented with Lilac Vegetal and talcum powder as I drift along in search of a barber pole, one of those red, white, and blue cylinders that whirl 'round and 'round, hypnotizing people into having their ears lowered, as if getting a haircut is the most patriotic thing a person can do, up there with voting, giving blood, and joining the Marines.

As a boy I dreaded getting my hair cut. I dreaded the mechanical white chair, the barber’s sneaky, small-toothed smile, the snipping sound his scissors made next to my ears, as bad as the whine of a mosquito, though not as bad as the buzz of dog-clippers, as we used to call them.

I remember the barbershop: there were two in my hometown, Patsy’s and Chris’s. My mother took me to Chris’s, though to me he wasn’t Chris, he was Floyd, the barber on The Andy Griffith Show: a short, slope-shouldered, seedy little man with an Adolph Hitler mustache and salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back in tight little curls. And though I liked The Andy Griffith Show I hated Floyd the barber. His hands were too small; so were his teeth. They were the hands and teeth of a mole. The barber who cut my hair had the same lecherous smile. I imagined him doing nasty things to kids in the mysterious room hidden behind a stained blue curtain (where he kept dirty magazines in a drawer, I guessed).

As with all suspicious persons you couldn’t say where Floyd was from, exactly, somewhere far away, like Bulgaria, or Romania—one of those places ending in 'ia'. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find out he was a taxidermist on the side, or a cannibal, and that the refrigerator he kept in his back room was packed with things floating in jars. He spoke in a thin raspy voice that oozed bad breath and was the equivalent in sound of the sound the files labeled “bastard” made when my father used them to scrape burrs off metal in his laboratory: a voice dripping perversion and espionage.

On the little table of his barbershop Floyd's real life equivalent kept a spread of old comic books for his customers to look at, yellow with age. Most had to do with war: flamethrowers, tanks, and U-boats with commandants gritting their teeth while peering through periscopes. The floor was linoleum tiled, with alternating beige and green squares resembling head cheese and creamed spinach. I’d sit in the chrome and vinyl chair thumbing the same comic I’d thumbed a hundred times before, watching the same tanks blowing up and flamethrowers spouting and U-boats firing torpedoes at allied cargo ships, feeling queasy as though I were in the dentist’s waiting room, kicking the backs of my P.F. Flyers (guaranteed to make me run faster and jump higher) into the chrome chair legs, hearing the snip-snip of Floyd’s scissors, watching the miniature tumbleweed-like tufts of dead hair tumble down to the cheese and spinach tiles from the scalp of the guy getting his hair cut, an old man (whose hair meant nothing to him) whose place I would soon be taking. I’d note the pattern of hair falling on the floor, how much fell on green vs. beige tiles, seeing faces, ships, cars, trains, and States of the Union in the proliferating blobs before Floyd kicked them out of place with his wing-tips.

Click-snip. Snip-snip. Zwick-zwick-zwick.


Most of Floyd’s customers didn’t seem to have enough hair to bother cutting, old men with more hair sprouting from their ears than from their sculls. Fathers brought sons in baseball and Boy Scout caps, as if ashamed to have let their hair grow beyond three-quarters of an inch. I’d always go with my mother, who’d abandon me to Floyd and his sharp little teeth and bad breath, then go across the street to Tony’s Supermarket. How I dreaded the moment when the customer in front of me would stand up from the big white complicated chair, hand Floyd two dollars, and with a zinnng! Floyd would ring it up on the big silver cash register whose drawer always stuck. Then he'd return to the chair (one of three in the shop, but the only one he ever used), pump it all the way down, snap the seat with a flick of his towel, and look at me with a lecherous smile over his half-moon glasses. Please, not yet, I’d say to myself, looking around, hoping by some miracle there would be someone ahead of me, someone who had been hiding there all that time, dreading the barber as much as I did.

I get up and go sit in the chair, and Floyd pumps it back up again. Then he flaps out the striped smock, filling it with air, ridding it of the last customer’s dead hair, and lets it come billowing down on me gentle and soft like a parachute. He tucks it in with tissue behind my neck. I feel his fingers tucking, tickling, giving my neck an inadvertent massage. He glides a skinny black comb through my frizzy brown hair, not saying a word, not asking how I "want it," tugging out the stiff hairs as if to let them know who's boss, seeing how long and reprobate they have grown, sighing and going tut-tut-tut with his tongue against his tiny teeth as if to say, ‘Well now, it should never have come to this.’ He yanks my hair so hard with his comb my head kerks from side to side. It's all I can do not to cry “ouch,” but I don’t; I refused to show him my pain. I stare dead ahead into the cracked mirror, which Floyd has tried to fix with masking tape, past gleaming green and gold bottles and the the tall blue jar of Barbacide with combs floating like pickles there.

My eyes well with tears.

Suddenly, with a neat flick of his wrist, from the breast pocket of Floyd’s white jacket the scissors emerge and snippety-snip-snip he starts cutting, sending gouges of frizzy brown hair to the floor like envoys from atop my head, tufts thick as Brillo pads, swick-switcka-swick, rolling down the front of the striped smock onto the tiles: my hair, once: no longer. When a half-dozen clumps have fallen Floyd’s heretofore sealed lips part, and he starts talking, as if to find his tongue he had to snip through so much hair that blocked his way. Then his bad breath oozes all over me. Don’t ask me what he says; I have no idea; I'm not listening. I'm too busy being horror-stricken by what's happening to the top of my head, counting the frizzy gobs that like downed birds shot from the sky, my arms pinned under the striped smock, wanting to catch them, to take them to my lips and kiss them goodbye.

Talk-talk, snip-snip, talk-talk.

After a while I can't bear any more. I close my eyes, squeeze them shut, waited for the torture to end, opening them only when he holds the mirror behind my head. No matter how much I hate what the mirror says, I nod, since there's nothing Floyd can do but cut off more hair, right? He can't put it back, can he, now? Besides, by then I just want to get out of there. The barbershop is a ghoulish place, the place where I go to have my hair amputated by a foul-breathed Romanian spy-pervert.

But Floyd isn’t finished. It's the old fakeroo! He flaps out the parachute smock then puts it back on again with a fresh tissue. It will never end. He will go on cutting my hair forever, for the rest of my life.

But after a few more zwickety-zwicks Floyd takes the smock off again. He sweeps the back of my neck with a big brush dipped in talcum powder (which I have to admit feels good). Then he wets his fingers with fluid from a tall green bottle and drags them wet and cold against the side of my head, leaving it slick and shiny and smelling of lemons, ocean air, pine trees, limes and vinegar—which I confess also feels good. A few more last-minute zwick-zwicks. With a decisive snap of his towel and a squeeze of my shoulder that's it' I'm done. Floyd's finished.

I hand him the two crumpled one-dollar bills my mother gave me and that I’ve been holding the whole time. She meets me at the door. It's all over. I can breathe again. For another month or so.

Ahead of me down the block a barber’s pole swirls, blending red blood, blue skies, and white surrender, drawing me to it like a ship in a stormy sea to a lighthouse. I stand before the plate glass watching the barber at work, a man no older than me, but with hair is gray, and so he’ll do. Maybe it’s nostalgia, or I’m just getting old, but for some some reason today I long to sit in one of those big white complicated chairs with flat filigreed iron plates for the souls of my shoes and with a phalanx of colored bottles lined up before a cracked mirror mended with masking tape.

A tinkle of doorbells announces my entry, the same bells I heard as a kid, only I’m an adult now, motioned by the barber toward his chair. No sooner do I sit than I’m thrown back to a time when the scariest thing in the world was going to the barber. I feel the barber’s firm yet supple fingers adjusting the tissue around my neck, tucking the smock, giving my shoulder a paternal squeeze before getting down to business. The same fingers touch my head lightly here and there, making minuscule adjustments, coaxing me ever so gently, precisely.The barber knows just how much pressure to apply, doesn’t need to ask, doesn’t need to say a word. I can sit and daydream, nod toward sleep without ever actually arriving there, exist for a half hour or so in that blissful state between dreams and reality, the gentle swick-swick of scissors forming a minimalist percussive soundtrack to my reveries.

These days I love the barber. He is my father, my white-frocked priest, my confessor, a pair of scissors his staff: I trust him with my life. In his hands I’m a kid again, an innocent kid wearing P.F. Flyers, whose worst sin is that of having let his hair grow too long.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Half Moon Overlook

Sometimes this life is a meal too big for one.

Today, a perfect Saturday. Sunny, not a drop of moisture in the air (though the forecast said rain). I spent the post-swim morning reading, and most of the afternoon commenting on student essays (subject: Darwin's theories of evolution and survival of the fittest as played out in A Streetcar Named Desire).

By five o'clock I wasn't done, but I was done. All day long I had watched the patch of tantalizing blue sky through the part in my curtains, and heard the birds singing (songs about the weather, no doubt, and how good it was). I saw the light playing off the bricks of the apartment building across the street, and the girders of the blue bridge that reigns over this neighborhood and that is named, like so many things around here, for Henry Hudson. For spending such a magnificent day indoors I felt a combination of foolish, guilty, stupid, and sad. At five o'clock, finally, I closed the lid on my computer, grabbed a random book from a shelf and went out, neglecting to lock the apartment door behind me. Hell, I must have thought. Let whoever steal all of indoors.

Mine is a neighborhood full of parks, but my favorite by far is the one that everyone who lives around here calls the Overlook, short for Half Moon Overlook, Half Moon having been the name of the ship Mr. Hudson (whose statue stands atop a high column in another park) came here on. As parks go it must be one of the smallest, a sixteenth of an acre, if that, shaped (intentionally? ironically? accidentally?) yes, like a half-moon, with room scarcely for one long curved wooden bench—another crescent. The overlook occupies a strategic point overlooking where the two rivers—the Harlem (Spuyten Duyvil Creek, technically) and the Hudson—meet. From it one has a view of the swing bridge connecting Manhattan to parts north, and of the Palisades clear down to the George Washington Bridge, the New Jersey-side tower of which is just visible to the right of the mound of trees that is Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan.

What luck: no one else was there. Usually there's at least one couple. On a sunny day to have the spot all to myself was a luxury. I sat with the sun in my face and opened my book, a collection of stories chosen by editors of literary journals, accompanied by essays wherein the same editors espoused their ideals of great literature. To read is pleasure; to read outdoors on a dry, sunny day with a view of the Palisades and the sun in one's face and no one around touches Heaven. I read a paragraph, looked up at the view, read another paragraph, and so on, neither able nore willing to choose among two beauties: of language and of nature.

Then a couple, a man and a woman, entered through the squeaky, cast-iron gate to break my perfect solitude. They were middle-aged: a term once far removed from my condition, but lately having crept so perilously close I felt it lapping at my doorstep (in fact it has entered and taken up residence).

The man wore an aqua blue sweater and green baseball cap. The woman wore a purple sweater and a thin brown flowing skirt. Though they had already swept passed the point where I could have seen their faces, and now stood facing the view to my right and in front of me, still, even from behind I could see that they were fit, healthy people, their fitness suggesting care, intelligence, responsibility. He had a gray mustache (its ends stood out from the contours of his face); she wore large classes. I felt their intelligence, their loyalty to their children as well as their participation in community events all to the good. I read it in their body language, their goodness, and in the way they stood admiring the view, saying nothing, as intelligent people will when confronted by beauty. They were people such as I might have wished to befriend in some other life, I suppose. I lowered my book and watched them watching the sun as it settled slowly toward the Palisades, which had taken on a bluish-gray cast, while the sun itself still burned hot and white, hot enough to heat my brow so its skin tightened. I wondered where they had come from. They were not locals; I had not seen them around. Maybe they were visiting others, early for dinner, killing time. Were they as aware of me as I was of them, thinking of me, wondering who I was, where I had come from, what I knew, whom I would be eating dinner with (a pair of turkey cutlets thawing on the kitchen counter, each for none but me)?

To be in such close proximity to strangers in a closely defined space creates a special energy, an energy of intimacy, but also a protective, cunning, defensive energy. After all, though the park is public, they had invaded my privacy, and surely they must have known it. Whosoever sits alone on a public park bench commands that bench, however briefly. And in a park so small the same formula extends, multiplies itself by a factor of Y, to include not only bench but gate, fence, view, water and sky. This was my territory, my world to which they had added themselves, and now I looked upon them as a landowner looks upon trespassers, however obviously benign.

These thoughts I entertained or ones like them when the man turned and spoke to me.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" he said.

"Yes," I said. "Beautiful."

"It's a great spot," the woman added.

"It is," I said.

"You come here to read?" said the man.

"Sometimes. And to write."

"Oh. You write?"

"Sometimes," I said, and nodded toward my notebook, which I'd also taken with me, but which sat unused on the bench.

"What do you write?" asked them man.

I shrugged. "Stuff," I said.

In its stinginess that answer was meant to discourage further discussion, at least of that subject, and it did. The couple soon turned back to what was not their view as much as it had been mine, and which shared more with them than I was willing to. They watched the river, with its line of shadowy barges, and the cliffs of the Palisades, which by then had turned a deep gray under the floating sun, itself gone from white to a yellow, like an onion carmelized. I no longer felt its heat on my forehead. The air felt suddenly cool, and the same top three buttons of my shirt that I'd undone before I now buttoned again. Now I felt like leaving. My restlessness had found me: no point arguing with or trying to evade it. I gathered my things.

But just as I was about to rise the man took hold of his companion's hand and said, "C'mon; let's go." And with a nod to me that was simultaneously friendly and a rebuke he and she made their way out through the swinging gate, which squeaked again—this time louder and more plaintively than before. A howl of pain.

I was alone again, back in the solitude that I had craved earlier, but which now looked like the spoils of a meal I had ordered with one appetite, and had failed to finish with another. What had been a feast now sat before me, a pile of leftovers, greasy and coagulated. At once the thought of returning to my vast and empty apartment (and to those bloody essays: why, why had I foisted Williams, let alone Charles Darwin, upon a bunch of sweet but mostly callow undergrads?) repulsed me. My life repulsed me. Moments ago it had been a charmed thing; now it seemed nothing but wretched.

It strikes me now, and with a blow as firm as any delivered by the wooden mallet with which I pounded those turkey breasts so thin you could have read the Times through them, that in not sharing with that couple, with those two strangers, in my blind greed for solitude I had denied not only them my company, but myself theirs.

And I wonder now, too, by extension of that thought, if that same sort of Pyrrhic greed, a greed in direct opposition to itself, has informed my decision not to have children, to have the world and this life all to myself--a meal much, much too big for one.