Watery Note:
20 June 2018

Kathleen is off to Carlsbad, California, this afternoon, and I would say that I’m bracing for excitement, except that would make it sound like fun.

There are all sorts of things that I ought to do while Kathleen is away, but I probably won’t do any of them. Instead, I’ll watch To Rome With Love

I said to Kathleen, I’m thinking of three movies. One of them is Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. The second is about a honeymooning couple who get split up in Rome and have many adventures. The third is about a nobody who becomes the center of media attention for no reason. They can’t all be To Rome With Love

But of course, they are. I checked, on IMDb

The only thing that I remember about To Rome With Love is the tenor in the shower. What makes this ludicrous joke really funny is that it so elaborately recycles a sketch from Your Show of Shows, “Aggravation Boulevard.” Sid Caesar plays a silent-film star whose voice turns out to be unbearably high and squeaky. Wretched, he takes a walk in the rain and returns to the studio a dreamy baritone. When his voice begins to edge up, Carl Reiner and the others throw buckets of water on him, and his voice drops back down. So he’ll be a movie star once more, just one who’s always singin’ in the rain. 

Video Note:
They Really Do Play Russian Roulette?
19 June 2018

Having read Final Cut, I thought I would rent The Deer Hunter, the movie that won five Oscars and lured United Artists into producing Michael Cimino’s next feature, Heaven‘s Gate. Nobody ever said that Heaven’s Gate is actually worth watching, but The Deer Hunter was something of a big noise, and I’ve never been able to piece together what it’s about from the things that I’ve read here and there over the years. 

What struck me the most about The Deer Hunter, especially during the first hour, which is mostly taken up with the celebration of a wedding, was how relentlessly the characters are portrayed as sloppy people. Everybody who is not an old lady with her hair in a kerchief is busy making a mess of one kind or another. 

My experience of working-class milieux is very limited, but sloppiness is not part of it. Indeed, such sloppiness as I recall has been almost invariably been my own doing. I would say that less-affluent people are much better at being carefree without spilling anything that more-affluent people are. 

The Deer Hunter is one of the most overtly incoherent movies that I’ve ever seen, which is probably why I had to see it to learn, not what it’s about, but simply what happens. How it won even a single Academy Award is something that I can explain only by saying, “Forget it, Jake; it’s the Seventies.”

Upkeep Note:
As Foreseen
18 June 2018

Our bed has been falling apart for about fifteen years. Lately, the need to replace it has taken on some urgency, but we have dilly-dallied. Kathleen found the right bed, but it’s pricey, and so we have dilated.

We bought it in 1999, I think, so we’ve certainly gotten our use out of it. It was made by Grange, the French furniture maker; our model is no longer available, even if we wanted to pay scads for it. It’s very handsome, and stained in the most satisfying green — a French, not English, gentleman’s green. When it first gave way, somewhere around 2003 — a story in itself — I shored up the bed rail somehow in a way that depended on the nightstand. Later, on the very eve of our trip to Istanbul in 2005, a fellow came and screwed up the whole frame with massive, nine-screw L brackets. The other fellows who, four years ago, unscrewed the bed so that it could be transported from the old apartment to this one were pretty rough about screwing it back together. All four bedposts — there’s a handsome footboard — would shed the side-rails without these brackets; the wood in all of them has given way.

And the bedpost nearest my head looks ready to lose its L bracket.

I was changing the sheets yesterday. Minding my own business. Having pulled on the fresh fitted sheet, I thought that I would give the box spring a little shove, because it tends to drift toward the side-rail on Kathleen’s side, what with all of me getting in and out on mine. A little shove — and the slats fell out of their sockets. The box spring and mattress didn’t fall all that far; Kathleen has forested the under-bed area with plastic storage boxes. But it was far enough from plane to prevent any kind of sleeping.

Stricken with helplessness, I called Ray Soleil, who, miraculously, was free to SOS. Having done this, I went ahead and fixed the bed myself. This is what always happens. Disaster strikes, my brain freezes. I call for help. While help is on the way, my brain resumes normal functions. In this case, I had no intention of actually fixing the bed; I just knew that Ray and I would have to have a space into which to tip the mattress off the box spring. This meant getting my nightstand out of the way. Once I’d done that, I thought I’d give the mattress a tug, using those handles that they weave into the sides, and it came about a foot off the box spring, perfect for tipping. Having nothing else to do, I went over to Kathleen’s side and gave the box spring a tentative lift. The mattress, now something of a bascule, was my friend. Without much effort, I replaced first one and then the other slat in its socket. Voilà. But I didn’t continue to make the bed. I thought that I’d better have Ray give it a once-over first, as long as he was coming anyway.

Ray said, “You know it’s going to happen again.” But it didn’t happen last night. When I called Ray just now because I couldn’t remember “L brackets,” he even more miraculously — masochistically? — picked up. “Don’t tell me the bed fell again!” Happily, there was no reason to.

Video Note:
Anna’s Choice
15 June 2018

After yesterday’s electric surprise, I was good for nothing but watching movies. I was midway into the fourth when Kathleen came home, late, from a day of drafting.

My first choice was The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which I wasn’t even sure I had. I didn’t like it much when it came out, just as I hadn’t quite liked the book. Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep are superb actors, but although they’re always interesting, I don’t always like them. That’s to say that, if I were near one of the characters that they play, I would walk away. I don’t mean this personally. Long ago, at a performance of a play called Amy’s View (which I wanted to see not for Judi Dench but for Samantha Bond), Streep and a friend sat almost directly behind us, and they fairly bubbled with amiability.

Adapting John Fowles’s novel for the screen, Harold Pinter interposes a sequence of scenes purporting to show the actors “offscreen.” Irons and Streep, playing Charles and Sarah in the original story, which is set in the high noon of Victorian propriety, become Mike and Anna, the contemporary movie stars who are not only impersonating them, but tossing in their own semi-surreptitious love affair. And while the period tale is seen and felt from Charles’s point of view, that of an independent gentleman who has never before been disturbed by his emotions, we see the modern-day romance through Anna’s rather more experienced eyes. The question for both sets of lovers is whether to throw over everything for love. 

Anna decides not to, and this is presented in lieu of the novel’s alternate, “unhappy” ending. It is very hard for me to see it that way now. The revealing moment occurs at Mike’s comfortable home in London, where members of the cast have gathered for a luncheon party. At one point, Anna finds herself on the veranda with Sonia, Mike’s wife (played by Penelope Wilton). Sonia obviously suspects that something is going on between her husband and Anna, but she seems resigned to it, at least as long as the suspicion is not confirmed. Anna says, “I envy you this.” When Sonia expresses surprise, Anna falls back on an obvious prevarication: “This garden.” Anna understands that she can never have a comfortable life with Mike; they are, after all, in the middle of demonstrating their shared taste for infidelity. The best way to preserve what she has with Mike, Anna sees, is to break it off. 

I remember thinking at the time, when the movie came out, that it was mean of Anna to run off at the end. I see now that, had Mike been the one to make the same decision, I would have seen him as responsible. (The glimpse that we’re given of Anna’s life is not particularly enviable. The man in her life seems devoted to his calculator.) My change of heart is undoubtedly partly attributable to age: I don’t regard romantic love as love at all, but only as a delighted confusion. But it’s also the case that I put more stock in the wisdom of women. Men may make things happen, but it’s women who keep things going. 

Fright Note:
14 June 2018

Early this afternoon, the power went out for a little while. Hours later, I still haven’t recovered.

It ought not to have been a surprise. I was told that Kathleen had been notified, via voicemail, by someone from the building’s management. Perhaps. I wasn’t going to waste any time staring into that particular black hole. Nor did I stick around to find out why the power was out. Renovations in one of the apartments on this line, presumably; although in all my years here a deliberate power outage has never occurred before. It was enough to know that the electricity would be turned on in half and hour to forty-five minutes. As it was. (Forty-five minutes.)

I had just sat down to read the Times. The lamp went out and the HVAC went silent. I saw that my bedside clock was dark. (When the power was restored, it told the correct time right away. It’s a miracle clock, to my ancient mind, capable of registering the two annual time changes automatically.) I called Kathleen. She had power (as did the cellphone network.) I opened the front door. The corridor was lighted as usual. As a neighbor down the hall let herself into her apartment, I asked if she had electricity, and she said yes. Then I went down to the management office — I did think twice about getting on the elevator — where I found out all I wanted to know. 

But I was very upset, viscerally anxious., and I ended up good for nothing for the rest of the day.

There’s a cartoon in this week’s New Yorker. The man at the head of a sort of chain gang turns to the woman bound behind him, as colossal robots wield whips and wreak urban devastation, and says, “Remember the other day, when this was considered unacceptable?” It wasn’t funny at all — not today.

Dream Note:
Cuisine bourgeoise
13 June 2018

It turns out that the Video Room doesn’t stock Anthony Bourdain’s documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. If I want to see it, I’ll have to buy it. 

Who is Jeremiah Tower? I started hearing about him in the late Eighties, when Kathleen joined a law firm the head office of which was in San Francisco at the time. For several years, we went out to the Napa Valley for autumn retreats. Kathleen got to know a San Francisco partner who was Tower’s boyfriend, at least that’s how I remember it. We knew the name of Chez Panisse, but we never attempted to experience it. The restaurants in Napa were more than enough. 

Do admit: “Jeremiah Tower” is a power name. And it has been coming up in book after book. Well, two books. Maybe. Certainly in one: Andrea Barnet’s Visionary Women, where Tower has a big part to play in the Alice Waters story. Curious to hear him tell it, I ordered a copy of Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America. Having read it, I find I’ve lost my appetite.

I can’t recall if Richard Olney mentions Tower in his strange memoir, Reflexions; Tower more than mentions Olney in his. (They were companions for a while.) Olney was austere, Tower appears to be gregarious, but both are far too excited by food for my taste. My own sensibility, I see, is retiringly bourgeois. The other day, I came across a very fine description of it in a story by Mavis Gallant. (“In Plain Sight,” collected in Paris Stories.) 

He pictured, with no effort, a plate of fresh mixed seafood with mayonnaise or just a bit of lemon and olive oil, saw an omelette folded on a warm plate, marinated herring and potato salad, a light ragout of lamb kidneys in wine. 

Not that these are favorite dishes of mine; I can’t imagine what the light ragout would taste like. But, like the writer who is imagining what it would be like to effect a rapprochement with his neighbor upstairs, the formidable Mme Parfaire, I am ravished by the prospect of peace and comfort inherent in these meals. The table-hopping, something-for-everybody cuisine of Tower’s San Francisco restaurant, Stars, sounds psychotic by comparison. Not to mention all that wealth and winery. 

I can’t say, either, that I’d object too strenuously if someone else took up the cooking. 

Reading Note:
Final Cut
12 June 2018

Reading Final Cut, by Steven Bach. It’s the book, first published in 1985, about United Artists and Heaven’s Gate, the Michael Cimino movie that “sank the studio.” What actually happened was that Transamerica sold UA to MGM. Pauline Kael’s blurb on the cover calls it “The best account of American moviemaking in the age of conglomerate control of the studios.” I can neither agree nor disagree. To me, Final Cut is about three executives attempting to prove themselves in the wake of a regime change at the studio. Again and again, Bach, who was one of those executives, forced himself to swallow misgivings about supporting Cimino’s eccentricities — pretty much the same thing as supporting Cimino himself. As a study in sunk-cost pathology, Final Cut can’t be beat. But Bach himself is so appealing, at least as a mind writing a book, that I was distressed to learn that he died some time ago. Not that I’d have ever gotten round to writing an appreciative note, something that I usually do anyway, if obliquely, here. 

Rep Note:
Milk Shake
11 June 2018

In the middle of a lazy afternoon yesterday, Kathleen said, out of the blue, “What I’d really like for dinner is a chocolate milk shake.”

I often ask Kathleen what she would like for dinner. “Something easy,” she says, trying to be helpful, unaware that this reply is the least helpful of all. For her to volunteer a desire, without having been asked, was almost exciting.

So of course I went over to Fairway and bought the chocolate ice cream and the U-Bet syrup and even a quart of milk. I bought some ground chuck, a package of sliced shiitake mushrooms, two ears of corn, and a bag of Ore-Ida shoestring potatoes. When I got home, I prepped everything, and then sat down for a while.

This was one of those diner dinners, when everything takes about three or four minutes and has to be cooked at the last minute. I did prep the milk shakes, adding more ice cream and more milk just before we sat down. (The Breville immersion blender worked like a charm.) There were no disasters. 

The potatoes, which I deep-fried in peanut oil, were not great, but they were better than most of the French fries on offer in this neighborhood, sad to say. The burgers were a tad overdone, but that never bothers Kathleen. I topped them with the sautéed mushrooms and slices of Cabot cheddar. I realized later that I forgot to put chili sauce on the table, but Kathleen didn’t mention it. 

“I can’t believe you did this,” she gushed instead. And when she got to the bottom of the milkshake, she made as much noise as her grandson. Maybe more. 

Soirée Note:
8 June 2018

Our neighbor from upstairs came for dinner this evening, and we had a very nice time. She has been to her native Spain three times this year already, and on her most recent visit, she walked a stretch of the camino de Santiago, in the company of friends and family and a helpful automobile (for luggage transport and return trips &c). One of her brothers, a zealous walker, unable to keep the others’ dawdling pace, would march ahead out of sight for a while and then, eventually, turn round and march back to rejoin them. Helpful pilgrims would tell him that he was walking in the wrong direction. There’s a running gag for a movie there. 

We had met in the lobby on Monday evening and set up the date on the fly. We are always meaning to get together and never managing it — true New Yorkers, double-dyed in that we live in the same building. 

But I had no idea what to serve. The lack of inspiration was total, like a baffle. I went to Agata & Valentina with nothing more than hope for dumb luck. 

Agata & Valentina is a great food store in many, many ways, and its provision for shoppers in need of dumb luck is not the least of them. I realized almost as soon as I stepped up to the butcher’s counter that chicken cutlets were the thing for me. I couldn’t think why I hadn’t thought of them. 

I bought some mushroom tortelloni, which I boiled and then served in a sexed-up (mirepoix-based and then strained) A & V chicken broth. I made a salad of bitter greens with morels — a mistake. I ought to have chopped up some iceberg, especially as I’d decided on a honey-mustard dressing of my own devising. I am really off all other lettuces; I leave them to the ruminants. Iceberg is crunchy and sweet, and easy to spear with a fork. 

For dessert, angel food cake with raspberry coulis. I forgot to sieve the coulis and get rid of the raspberry seeds, but our neighbor said that she was glad that I had, because she could tell that I had used fresh (real) raspberries. 

She also said, ahem, that tortelloni are a New Year’s Even specialty in Bologna. But I still love her. 

Botanic Note:
Trop de gens
7 June 2018

At the florist’s across from Agata & Valentina, I bought a caladium, along with two more geraniums, for the balcony.

I had bought three geraniums nearly a month ago, but the cold weather and my low spirits  kept them in their little plastic pots, blowing over in the wind and nearly drying out. I’ll put all five plants in the urn that I ordered when we refurnished the balcony upstairs (hardly knowing how soon we’d have to leave it behind). For years, I  replanted it with the same White Flower Farm annuals — exotic coleus and begonia plants. They weren’t expensive, but, this year, I just wasn’t in the mood (and Kathleen dislikes coleus), so I decided to fill the urn with geraniums, or, as the guy in the department store in Born to Dance says, “perlargoniums to you.” (No, of course, that’s not what he says.) 

I have always liked caladiums, but I long ago learned not to truck with them. Now I’ve forgotten why — and I’ve bought one. I suppose I’ll find what the problem is soon enough, but I’m sure that it has nothing to do with what I just found out. Because the spell-check disapproved of my spelling, I had to look up caladiums on Google (I was right about the spelling), where I learned that they are better known, Heaven forgive us, as Heart of Jesus.

Words fail.

Grocery Note:
6 June 2018

¶ At Fairway this afternoon, I bought three packets of Driscoll raspberries. Too boring to eat, they make a nice purée, with a little sugar and lemon oil. Perfect for angel food cake.

Unpacking the groceries, I found only one packet. Checking the receipt, I saw that I had been charged for three.

I long for another food market to open in the neighborhood. 


Cheering Note:
Celery Leaves
5 June 2018

¶ Making celery soup over the weekend, I set the leafy tips of the celery stalks aside, thinking that I might for once follow Paul Hollywood’s instructions, and chop them to use as a garnish. I put them in a small green Italian tumbler.

As usual, I decided to go with snipped chives when I served the soup that evening. The celery leaves are still in the glass, still firm and bright, and only beginning to pale.

The sight of them on the counter when I walk into the kitchen lifts my spirits, even on those rare occasions when my spirits don’t need lifting.

If I bought a small green plant — I can’t think of anything quite so light-green — it wouldn’t be the same, and I don’t really have room for decorations. 

Best to regard the celery leaves as extended servings of a meal. Something to look forward to, next time I make celery soup. Which I do, now, often.

Marital Note:
The Awful Truth
4 June 2018

Kathleen’s family, friends, and clients will be happy to hear that she survived her safe return, yesterday, from attending a wedding in Chicago, and my friends &c will be glad to know that I won’t be paying a lawyer to defend my case of justifiable homicide. If you want to know what love is:

Yesterday morning, at about eleven my time, Kathleen told me that her flight back home took off at 2:30, and that she’d text me when she got to the airport, as per usual. At two o’clock her time, having heard nothing, I texted her to ask if she was at the airport. The text message was not delivered. A subsequent voice call went straight to voice mail.

Whereupon began a ninety-minute anguish. Having called her hotel — the wrong hotel, but we’ll come back to that — I knew that she had checked out. This left me with an unpleasant multiple choice test (never my favorite format, but I got pretty good at it studying for the Bar exam):

  • Kathleen left her phone and charger at the hotel, or otherwise lost it. Because everything was okay — her flight was on time (and it was) — she declined to ask a stranger to borrow a phone and so forth. I could understand this. But, although it was the most likely option, it was only an option. Statistics don’t predict particular outcomes. 

  • The taxi taking Kathleen to O’Hare had been in a collision damaging enough, at least, to disable the phone. Probably worse. Not so likely, but shall we say eloquent. 

In fact, it was neither of these. Not for a moment would I have believed that what did happen happened. Like Thomas, I had to stick my finger in it to believe it. Only I was the one bleeding. 

I my anguish, I tried to resign myself to the following scenario: Kathleen’s plane would land at 5:30. If she wasn’t home an hour later, I’d worry seriously. What this meant, I couldn’t say. Maybe I’d ask Fossil Darling to come over to sit a kind of anxiety shiva. I did call my daughter, not to whine but to distract myself by listening to what she could tell me about the road trip that she is planning. Before we got to that, though, I did want to tell her why I wasn’t feeling well, and I was in the middle of explaining Kathleen’s disappearance when the phone beeped. Kathleen was calling to tell me that she had just landed. At LaGuardia — where did I think she was? 

Here is what happened: 

On Thursday evening, the night before leaving for the wedding, Kathleen printed out her itinerary at the office, but she left the document in the printer. I forget when she realized this, but it was in any case Too Late. She remembered that she was staying at the Hilton in Evanston — the hotel booked for the wedding guests, from which a bus would convey them to the ceremony — and that her flight home took off at 2:30 on Sunday. 

The hotel part is not crucial to this story, but it sets a mood. In fact, Kathleen was not booked at the Hilton in Evanston, but at some other hotel, not far away, that perhaps was a Hilton property until last month. She told the taxi driver at O’Hare that she was going to the Hilton in Evanston, and that is where he took her (1818 Maple Avenue). They didn’t have reservation in her name. (Of course.) But they were able to give her a room, even though the hotel was fully booked. On Saturday afternoon, when no bus turned up (nor any crowd of wedding guests), Kathleen, suspecting that she was at the wrong hotel, booked a taxi. 

The wedding was lovely, Kathleen was so happy she went, &c &c &c. 

At the end of the reception, some nice people with whom she’d been chatting, whom she’d heard about but never met during her nearly fifty-year friendship with her Smith roommate’s family — Kathleen was the bride’s godmother — offered to give her a lift to the hotel on their way home. Only after they dropped her off and drove away did Kathleen realize that it wasn’t her hotel. It was the right hotel. At the desk, they told her that her hotel was only two blocks away, “take a left and then another left.” It would take twenty minutes to summon a taxi, so Kathleen reluctantly hoofed it, despite the fact that it was now raining. She had to ask four different passers-by for course correction on this two-block odyssey, which incidentally was longer than two blocks.

She made it home in time to tell me that she’d had some excitement. In time, that is, before I worried that I hadn’t heard from her. I told her to take off her wet things, get comfortable, and to wait for my call in half an hour. Everything was fine — but I was not really very happy to hear that Kathleen had been lost on the streets of Evanston after dark, not knowing where she was going (as she always does in New York), asking for help finding her way. 

This contributed a sort of third option to the next day’s multiple choice test, what I’ll call the Donizetti option: 

  • Kathleen was wandering the streets of Evanston, the town in which she was, as it happens, born, like Mad Carlotta in Vertigo

The question was, who was likely to call first, the highway police or the laughing academy? 

So much for the hotel. Kathleen did check out, hail a taxi (or whatever) and get herself to O’Hare by 12:30 PM, “in plenty of time,” she thought. But she was told that her flight had just taken off: she’d been booked for a flight two hours earlier than her recollection. She was now rebooked for the 1:30 flight — on standby. Luckily, someone didn’t show, someone else got bumped into First Class, and Kathleen was able to board the flight, and to call me when it landed at LaGuardia two hours later. An hour before the earliest I imagined hearing from her. She had set her phone, dutifully, to airplane mode. That’s why I couldn’t connect with her. She had been in the air! 

Why didn’t I know anything about this change in plans? Kathleen certainly wondered. “I sent you all these texts.” Perhaps because I had watched The Awful Truth — finally out in Criterion Collection release — on Friday night, and then the supplementary shorts on Saturday night (when I did all that ironing) — I could hear the Irene Dunne in Kathleen’s voice. “I thought it was odd that you didn’t reply to any of them.” 

When she got home, after a very long hug, she brought out her phone. “See?” I saw a lot of texts all right, but they were in green balloons, not blue ones, meaning that they’d been sent to someone outside the AT&T/Apple system (I never know which it is), and to someone whose number, instead of my name, stood at the top of the screen. A little scrolling revealed that she had sent all her well-intentioned texts to the taxi outfit that provided her ride from the wrong hotel to Faith, Hope, and Charity in Winnetka. That was, after all, her most recent text contact. 

“You thought it was a little odd that I didn’t reply,” I said, reminding her that I always reply to her texts, even if only to say, “Thanks for the text!” (I have that on autofill: thxt.) “I could have been a little dead.” 

When she said — and she did so in really her most Irene-Dunne-like voice, clearly intending an effective self-defense — “Here I thought I was sending you all these helpful texts!” I replied, “It’s just as if you sent a bunch of confidential memos to the wrong client!” 

Even Kathleen agrees that she has never been wrong about a flight. I’ll leave it there. 

Video Note:
New Releases
1 June 2018

¶ What a humid day! Just walking was taxing. I forced myself to go to the barbershop, but there was no way that I could make to Agata & Valentina afterward. Instead, I limped to the Video Room and rented two new DVDs. I had a pile of laundry to iron, and Kathleen was on her way to a wedding in Chicago. 

My choices raised eyebrows behind the counter: an odd pairing. The Commuter, a Liam Neeson vehicle, and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, starring Annette Bening. I think that Film Stars might have seemed a little less dreary if I hadn’t just watched an action flick. As for The Commuter, it doesn’t hold a candle to Vera Farmiga’s other train thriller, Source Code. It is exciting, and there’s no small satisfaction in watching the ex-cop’s former partner turn out to be the bad guy, but it has its longueurs. 

Maybe the real Peter Turner, upon whose memoir Film Stars is based, went about in 1980 with stubble on his chin, but on Jamie Bell, it simply looks anachronistic, and even somewhat disfiguring.  

I never did get out the ironing board.

May 2018

Rep Note:
31 May 2018

¶ Last night, I served cheeseburgers for dinner, Kathleen’s, as usual, without a roll. I wish I could say that I like my cheeseburgers, but I can’t. I don’t. They’re boring.

I dream of the cheeseburgers that we used to consume by the dozen at this bar that we used to go to in law school. We called them “gutbombs.” Greasy and delicious! Or the burgers at Gleason’s, a would-be pub behind the Museum of Natural History, which, back in the early Eighties, was one of the first places to put burgers on English muffins. My favorite part was eating the bottom half of Kathleen’s muffin, which she left unscathed by knife and fork. I had to use a knife and fork to eat it, so saturated was it. 

I cannot reproduce these wonders, although I try everything. Sometimes, I worry that I have simply outgrown burgers. Now, that would be sad.

Book Note:
30 May 2018

¶ The great danger of visiting Crawford Doyle, the fine little bookshop on Madison Avenue that closed several years ago, was yielding to the temptation to buy one of the many sophisticated-seeming and smart-looking paperback books that were ranged throughout the room, not in piles but one next to the other, which of course made the books seem rare — buy them while you can! I don’t know how many times I fell, and I really can’t complain, but it is true that I acquired a number of titles that I later gave away unread. 

Among these, very nearly, was Andrew Miller’s Pure. Like all Europa editions, the book was dressed with clear and spare cover art. The eighteenth-century setting was announced by a gentleman’s lower third, in breeches, hose, and buckled shoes. A small mouse suggested impurity. I don’t remember buying Pure; I generally resist historical fiction. Not to mention that the story takes place in Paris but was written by an Englishman. I still haven’t recovered from the attempt, ten years ago, to reread A Tale of Two Cities

Pure is based on “true facts”: on the eve of the Revolution, the earthly remains of generations of Parisians were removed from the cemetery of Les Innocents, not far from today’s Centre Pompidou, to the catacombs of Paris, or some precursor thereof. The excavation was filled with fresh soil, and a market was established on the site. The market is gone now, too. It’s nothing but a corner of Paris.

The hero of the book is a young Norman engineer, from Bellême in La Perche. I found this small town on the map only after consulting the gazetteer. Nowhere near the English Channel or the Seine, it’s in the southern bulge of Eure-et-Loir — Maine, practically. The engineer has spent some time overseeing the coal mines at Valenciennes. The name of that town always sounds as though it ought to be in the South of France, instead of lurking near the Belgian border, and its associations with fine lace are hard to square with filthy collieries. 

The engineer falls in with an interesting bunch of bohemians, as they would later be called, but in 1785 proto-revolutionaries, I suppose. He is induced to buy an extremely stylish suit, in some sort of pistachio fabric, from the cutting-edge tailor, Charvet. A night on the town with his new pals, spent defacing walls near the Bastille with anti-royal graffiti, had me worrying for the rest of the novel that the nice young man would be carted off in chains. But no. Instead, he is battered with some sort of iron rod by the young daughter of the house in which he is boarding. Whether she is opposed to the emptying of the cemetery or confused about how to express her attraction to the young man, she is carted off to relatives in the country, which makes it possible for the engineer to install, upon his recovery, the girl of his dreams, a brilliant and beautiful sex worker who agrees to live with him if he will provide her with plenty of good, well-bound books. Meanwhile, a colleague from Valenciennes, whom the engineer has recruited to staff and assist in the cemetery project, rapes the lovely sexton’s daughter and then shoots himself. Later, there is a big explosion. 

In short, a Gothic novel in Louis XVI drag. Or a deceptively simple tale stuffed with code to be interpreted by Theorists and Occupiers. When the engineer goes Versailles to submit his final report, he discovers, after a long wait in the antechamber, that the grand minister who paid for the mass exhumation out of his own pocket is not in his office, and may not have been for some time. I think that’s supposed to mean something.   

Shopping Note:
Birthday Present
29 May 2018

¶ A few years ago, I was looking for a new dentist. Don’t ask. Ray Soleil said, why not try his, so I did. Ray’s dentist has a nice office on 60th Street, between Lexington and Park. I used to take the Lex, coming up from the subway right at the corner.

When the Q line was extended up Second Avenue, I took that train instead. Not only is it much more pleasant, but instead of walking two long uphill blocks to the dirty old IRT, I walk three short level blocks from the 63rd Street Q station to the dentist’s office. 

The first time I took the new route, early last year, I made a point of looking for the Oriental Lamp Shade Company, unaware that it had closed its Lexington Avenue branch. (I wound up replacing a disgracefully tattered pair of lampshades in the living room with an online purchase.) What did I find instead but Gale Grant Jewelry! It used to be on Madison Avenue, near the rear of St Patrick’s. I didn’t know that it had moved. I don’t think that Kathleen knew it, either.

Kathleen would want to know, you see, because that is where she has always bought the costume-jewelry earrings that she wears every day. Every once in a while, finding myself walking by the shop, I would stop in and pick up a pair of earrings that I hoped Kathleen would like. She is very hard to shop for. These visits were not very frequent, either, because I was not often in that part of town. I had to look long and hard before daring to make a choice. 

But now, here it was, Gale Grant, right on my way to the dentist. The dentist whom I have been visiting regularly for several years. Not like clockwork, exactly, but often enough. What could be simpler than stopping in on my way home from the dentist? I know exactly which tray to examine. Years of picking up Kathleen’s earrings wherever she happens to leave them after taking them off when she comes home in the evening have given me something approaching expertise in her taste.

Yesterday’s visit, after a cleaning that seemed to take a lot less time than used to be the case (thanks to regular visits), was equally brief. The owner joked about what a tough sale I was. 

When I got home, I tucked the pink paper bag under the pillows, by Kathleen’s pajamas, where she found them at bedtime. An instant hit: “Unlike anything that I have” — which would mean, in most cases, but not this one, “unlike anything that I would wear.” 

It never crossed Kathleen’s mind to mind that her birthday was over a month ago. 

Rep Note:
Coins & Cream (?)
28 May 2018

¶ Ever since it came out, in 1993, my go-to source for pasta recipes has been Giuliano Hazan’s Dorling-Kindersley The Classic Pasta Cookbook.  It has been years since I tried anybody else’s Bolognese sauce. And Hazan’s is the book that I open when I want to indulge Kathleen with puttanesca sauce. Every now and then, I try something new, but, aside from the forementioned dishes and spaghetti alla carbonara, nothing has stuck, until, starting about a year ago, something called Conchiglie alla salsiccia e panna. Shells with sausage and cream. I’ve made it several times, but only this evening did I get it right. By which I mean: made it mine.

My principle difficulty with Hazan’s method was with the sausage. Following his recipe, I would boil a sausage for a few minutes, let it cool, and slice it into thin rounds, or coins. Except that the sausage wouldn’t cooperate. The still-uncooked sausage meat spilled out every whichway. Browning this mess was very difficult.

The trouble might have been that I was starting with frozen sausage. I buy three or four at a time when I shop at Agata & Valentina — I like the fennel sausage especially — and, when I get home, I wrap each sausage individually and stick it in the freezer.

This evening, I decided to remove the sausage skin — I scored the frozen sausage with a small knife and, under hot water, peeled the skin right off, in one piece — and then to cut it into coins. I’m still strong enough to do this, and I find frozen meat much easier to cut into thin slices. Now I put the coins in a skillet, with a bit of water. The water gently poached (and thawed) the sausage, and as it evaporated I added the butter that Hazan calls for. Using tongs, I turned over the coins until they were all nicely browned.

Then I added some wine. Hazan doesn’t call for it, but when did wine ever hurt? Besides, I like to make this sauce with cherry tomatoes, not canned Romas, so I need extra liquid. I tossed in the tomatoes, which I’d also cut into coins — easy to do, if you can find the long, dirigible-shaped variety — along with the seasonings, rosemary, salt, and pepper. When all of this was more less cooked, I added some more wine, and when the wine evaporated I poured in the cream. By the time the cream was the color of rust, the sausage had seasoned the entire sauce. 

“Sausage and cream” is probably a better name for this simple, everyday dish.

Wardrobe Note:
Memorial Day
25 May 2018

¶ Remember the scene in Serial Mom in which Kathleen Turner’s character murders another woman, a reporter I think, because she’s wearing white shoes even though it’s not summer? I always think of that when Kathleen empties her closets onto folding coat-racks, something she does twice a year. 

Because she wasn’t feeling well for much of the winter, Kathleen lost a bit of weight.

Although she’s pleased to be able to fit into things again, she’s feeling better now, and she wants a Klondike bar for dessert.