Friday, December 30, 2011

Never Such Innocence Again

I've been trying to get Sue down, in words.

It's been difficult.

Sometimes, you spend more time with coworkers than with your family.  If you're lucky, you enjoy those coworkers.

With Sue, I was lucky.

There are so many thoughts that come to mind when you try and picture someone who has died, so many thoughts and images.

With Sue?  It's the raspberries she brought from her garden to share with us at the store - red raspberries, wet and ripe.

With Sue?  It's the way she'd roll her eyes if I said something ridiculous - which was often.

With Sue?  It's the number of customers who would ask if Sue was working.  Why? I'd ask.  Well, they'd say, no offense to you, but Sue's recommendations have always been so great - is she here?

It's the image of Sue out back of the store, sitting there with a smoke in one hand and a book in the other.  I read a lot.  Sue?  Sue read more than anyone.  And when she'd see me, she'd call out, Hey Hon.

I really miss Sue calling me Hon.

I miss all of her recommendations.  It wasn't just customers she turned onto good books - it was all of us.  Her first tip to me was to read Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color.  Hambly's hero is Benjamin January, a Creole doctor who returns to New Orleans after being trained as a surgeon in Paris.  He's fleeing ghosts, only to confront new specters rising from Louisiana's swamplands.

Sue's mother still lives in New Orleans, so Sue often evoked it with food, music, and books.

So I miss all of that, but with Sue, the sadness I feel is tinged everywhere with guilt.  I should have been paying more attention - but I wasn't.  I just wasn't paying attention.

July 16th was a Saturday.  Sue was the opening supervisor for the store that day.  She always got here early on those mornings so that, before she unlocked our front doors, the cash was counted for the register drawers and the previous day's deposit had been tallied, the old newspapers had been pulled and the new ones put out, leaving her time for a leisurely smoke and a read.  That Saturday, I stopped by the store just before we opened.

I wasn't paying attention.

Sue was at the table in our back room, recounting the money.  That was unusual, but--

I wasn't paying attention.

Nick, Sue said, I don't know what's wrong.  I keep counting the money, but it's just not making sense.

I wasn't paying attention.

Had I been paying attention, it would have occurred to me that Sue never had problems counting the money, but--

I wasn't paying attention.

Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed that Sue's speech was slightly slurred.  But I wasn't paying attention.  It's only after rewinding that brief encounter with Sue that I noticed something was off - that something wasn't right.  What was it? I kept asking myself later.  What's the false note?

Her speech - I should have noticed the false note there.

But I didn't.  I was busy.  In a rush.  I didn't have time to put those two things together - the counting not making sense, her diction.  I didn't have time to put them together, to make Sue call Ernie and get to a hospital.  Right then.  Instead, it was Josette who would send Sue home that Saturday morning.  Instead, it was Tracy who would send Sue home the next day, Sunday, even before they opened the store.  I didn't do the simplest thing - pay attention.  I didn't call Ernie.

Do I have any idea what was so distracting to me that day?  None.

Sue's last morning here at the store was Sunday, July 17th.  Her birthday was two days later, on the 19th.  Sue's memorial was held at her son's house, at Jordan's home in San Francisco, on Saturday, November 5th.  Just a little more than three months later.

Three months.

I keep trying to get Sue down, in words, but it's difficult.  I'll start the writing, and then something will happen.  Jerry will bring in some gin and mix martinis after work.  On a Sunday night.  Late.  During the holiday rush.  And Duane, Ben, Jerry and I will drink the dry spirits that Jerry mixed, drink them from fabulous 50's martini glasses that Jerry brought in.  And we'll talk about the season, and how busy it's been because of Borders closing its doors, but pretty soon - we'll get around to Sue.  And we'll talk about Sue.  And we'll toast Sue.  And I'll break one of those fabulous glasses of Jerry's, and apologize, and Jerry will laugh it off.  No problem, he'll say.  Thank god it was empty, he'll say.

And then later I'll look at the words that I'd written and realize they aren't good enough, not nearly good enough, for Sue.

These photos were given by Sue to Jerry. Thank you, Sue, thank you, Jerry.

So I keep trying to get Sue down, in words, but it's difficult.  I'll start the writing, and then I'll receive a card from Karen, one of our customers.  And Karen will write: 

December 5, 2011

I am so very sorry to hear of Sue's death.  You all seem so close, I'm sure this loss of a dear staff member is just terrible.

Sue was my "bibliotherapist."  When I was first diagnosed, she introduced me to Meredith Norton's Lopsided.  It was "just what the doctor ordered:" a dose of reality and a dose of humor....Sue pointed me to so many good books.  One of my favorites is Gumbo Tales....We also had some good discussions about The Warmth of Other Suns.

Oh, I will miss Sue so much.  I love reading the little tags you have on the shelves with her recommendations - like little memorials.

My sympathy to you all.


And then I'll look at the words that she'd written - Oh, I will miss Sue so much - and realize that my own words aren't good enough.  The irony, by the way?  Of Sue pointing Karen to just the perfect book as Karen began dealing with her own diagnosis, her own cancer?  Irony is sometimes brutal.

I often look at the Drink books I have on my shelves when I don't know what else to do.  It's distracting.  I get to lose myself for a moment, read about Drinks I'll never make, ingredients I've never heard of.  So I did that the other night, thinking about what I should drink when I toasted Sue one last time in 2011.  I grabbed a copy of The Bartender's Guide, one of three out-of-print books that Bob sent me - Bob, another incomparable bookseller.  Bob had sent me the books just because.  What Bob didn't know is that his thoughtful gift would in turn send me on one last journey with Sue.

I looked at many of my books that night before settling on a Sazerac.  It's the most New Orleans of all New Orleans drinks.  Perfect for Sue.  But before that, before that choice, before the chase had even started, I turned to the copyright page of that first book - The Bartender's Guide - because I'm a bookseller, it's what we do.

Copyright MCMXIV, it read.

MCMXIV?  I'm a bookseller, right?  And we're a weird lot, so the copyright date of this random Cocktail book sent by a friend months before made me think of Philip Larkin's poem of the same name - MCMXIV - 1914 if the date wasn't printed in Roman numerals.  Larkin's poem is about the calm in England just before the Great War's madness descended.  If you don't have time for the whole poem, please read the last stanza - but here it is in its entirety. 

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Larkin's last line reminds me of Sue.  Sue had been through and seen a lot.  I don't know a fraction of her story.  She got some of it down, in words.  And I'm glad for that.  Of all the stories she told me, the one I always think of first is Sue, on her 18th birthday - in 1966, the year I was born - leaving home.  Leaving behind the violence that had visited there.  And I see her, at 18, a young, beautiful, African-American woman sitting on a Chicago street corner with a boa constrictor worn around her neck like a scarf.  I see that 18-year-old with so much living ahead of her.  Heading off to England as a single mom, with two kids - because it sounded like a good idea.  Drinking at an English pub with the Doors, laughing at English groupies.

I imagine all the years in between, twenty-five of them as a bookseller, and the misfortune that befell Cody's Books that led to my good fortune, that led Sue to write me a letter on my birthday in 2009.  In that letter, Sue wrote

I am able to handle chaos and remain calm.

She wrote

I am a book person.  I enjoy reading, talking about, recommending and selling books.

Such simple phrases that say so much.  That would portend so much that would come to pass in the two years I was lucky enough to work with Sue.  Working those two years, seeing her build relationships with customers and with us, with all of us.  Rejoining Elizabeth, also from Cody's, and Jerry, too.  Watching her friendship with Samm begin - Samm who would do so much for Sue in those three remaining months.

At Sue's Memorial, on that first Saturday in November, her husband took me aside.  Ernie said that Sue had wanted me to know that her last book was Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

That didn't make sense.  Maybe it was the wine - earlier, Ernie had directed me to the bottle without a label, to the wine he had bottled himself.  It's going fast, he had said.  Enjoy it while you can.

So I asked Ernie what he meant about Colson Whitehead.

Ernie explained that there came a time when Sue knew she had one last book to choose.  Sue, dear Sue, who spent so much of her precious time reading books.  Sue - always, always with a book in her hand.  And then there was only time for one more, and she knew it.

Sue had hosted Mr. Whitehead at Cody's bookstore - had met him and liked him.  Met him, liked him, admired his books.  And Mr. Whitehead had a new book out, so she chose it.  For her last book.

Of all the books in the world, Mr. Whitehead, Sue chose yours.

Did she finish it? I asked.

No, Ernie said.  She wasn't able to finish it.  But she enjoyed it while she could.

I keep coming back to that.  To the equanimity with which Sue was able to cope with her disease, with her prognosis.  The composure it must have taken to pick her last book.

I worry I don't have that kind of strength, that kind of control.  The power she had - even at the very end - to hold on.  To not let go.  To not close here eyes and let go even when the pain must have been overwhelming.

And why?  Why at the very end was she not allowing herself to let go?  Because she was waiting for the last of her children to arrive at her bedside.  The grown child who had gotten that dread call three months in the making, that they had to return home, to Sue, because--


And so Sue wouldn't let herself go until her last child returned.  Then, when that finally happened?  When everyone had gathered around her?  Sue relaxed and closed her eyes for the last time and let go.

She let go.

Oh, I will miss Sue so much.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 10, 2011 - a date which will live in infamy

So Karen takes the girls on that Saturday morning to Kofman Auditorium.  The kids will be going through a dress rehearsal for The Nutcracker Rocks! that they'll perform the next day.

I'm left home alone, which is never a good thing.  I go into our back yard to again look at the scene of the crime.

The scene of the crime?  We have a small yard, but in it we have a big tree - a redwood standing majestically in the far corner.  I'd love to string it in lights for Christmas, but it's just too tall.  I'd gone in the back a few days earlier to try and figure out a way to light it - or maybe a way to set a star on top.  That's when I saw all the branches dumped between the tree's trunk and the fence.  I had no idea that the winds we'd had on

December first had caused so many boughs to break.  And then deposited them neatly between the tree and the fence.

When I looked closer, I saw that the ends of the branches had been sawn through.  No wind shear here, just a grumpy neighbor playing lumberjack on our tree - and then throwing his debris back into our yard.


Listen, if you have a problem with branches hanging over your yard, you have every right to trim them to your heart's content.  My preference would be that you knock on my door and explain the situation - I'll call the woman that worked over our maples this year and have the work done properly.  In order to, you know, prevent the tree from being hacked at by a drunk Lizzie Borden.

But again - you can do what you want.  But don't then throw the branches into our yard.  That's a Jerk Move.  What do you expect is going to happen when the homeowner sees what you've done?  Maybe you don't know that this homeowner is Greek.  Maybe you don't know that this holiday season has been stressful.  That the store has been even busier than I could have hoped, but that this has only added to the strain of December.  Maybe you don't know that, left to my own devices, I'm going to grab the biggest of the dying limbs, its end as thick as my arm, its length twice my own, and drag that son-of-a-bitch out of my yard, down Monte Vista Avenue, up High Street, and then along Fairview until I get to your stupid house.

Where I'll throw the evidence of your destruction onto your front lawn, you jerk.

Where I grew up?  This is an example of going Greek.  Do you have the image?  Some idiot in his shirtsleeves on a brisk, December morning?  Pulling a huge branch behind him as his breath clouds the cold air in front?  Lugging that branch around two corners as needles break and trail after?  Trying to heave the branch onto the grass of a seemingly slumbering house?

That was me.

As I walk away from you and your stupid, undecorated-for-the-Holidays house, I see Good Neighbor Dave step out of his home, two doors down from yours.  Good Neighbor Dave is a musician with a couple of kids a little older than ours.  But he's always calm.  Good Neighbor Dave has never gone Greek in his life.

Hey Nick, he says.  What's going on?

So I tell him.

I get that, says Good Neighbor Dave.  You're upset.  I'm feeling - and here, his hand kinda makes a brushing circle in the air, like the Karate Kid doing Wax On.  I'm feeling, he says, some tension.  Wax on go his hands.  Some anger.  I get that, he says, I do.  But I feel like I should tell you something.  That guy? and he gestures over at the house, the house that has an abandoned branch in its front yard.  That guy is crazy.

Crazy, I say, or mean?

Oh, he's mean, says Good Neighbor Dave.  But he's also crazy.

For example?

Oh, well, says Good Neighbor Dave.  For example, when my oldest was about eighteen months old, we made a circuit around the block.  When we got close to our house, she pretended she was walking on a balance beam.  Took a half step off the sidewalk, started walking on the grass.  Arms out from her sides, waving a bit like she was working hard to keep a straight line.  But she was walking on his lawn - Good Neighbor Dave gestures again to the house with the branch in front - and that guy comes barrelling out of his house, yelling at her.  Vulgar words.  Yelling to get off his grass.

For example? Good Neighbor Dave says again.  One day, I drive home after shopping for groceries.  There's a car parked in front of my house, so I stop in front of his.  Just to unload my groceries.  I've dropped the first load inside, and as I'm leaving my house for a second load, I see him - again with the gesture - through my front window, and he's spitting on my car.

Because you parked there to unload groceries?

Yes, says Good Neighbor Dave.  So I wanted to tell you, he says, because, well, you've got the little girls....

Mentioning my girls of course changes everything.  I think about them for a second.

And you think, I say, that this is something that could escalate?

I do, says Good Neighbor Dave.  I do.

Then Good Neighbor Dave pulls the Gandhi card and says, I just think you need to find the answer inside you.  Gandhi found it there, you know?  He found peace there, even in the face of pretty extreme adversity.

Gandhi? I say.  Gandhi, he says.

We bid each other good morning.  I take a deep breath.  Look at the stupid branch over there in your stupid yard.  And march over to pick the son-of-a-bitch up and drag it back home.

As I'm bent over getting a grip on my branch, I hear the unmistakable sound of your front door being unlocked - click - and then that door being opened.

What Good Neighbor Dave failed to mention is that you are about six and a half feet tall and broad shouldered.  Really broad shouldered.  He also left out the part that you appear to be ex-military.  But not our military.  Like Stasi. Or Red Army.  Maybe Gestapo, but you're too young for that.  Though you're not too young to have a small and tight Chucky-grin stapled to your face.

It'll stay there through our brief conversation.

What's going on? you ask.

So I tell you.  I start with the tree and its sawn off branches.  I describe going Greek, though I may not use that term.  I explain - without mentioning Good Neighbor Dave - that I then had a moment of conscience.  That I decided that my action was as passive-aggressive as your own.  That throwing one branch into your yard was as silly as throwing all the branches over my fence.

And you just grin your Chucky-grin.

You tell me you didn't realize branches had made their way into my yard.  You allege you filled your green bin and your neighbor's green bin with the all the branches you had cleaved from my redwood.

You're lying, of course.  I had counted the jagged cuts despoiling our tree - nine - and I had counted the branches that had been tossed in my yard like corpses in a paupers grave - nine again.  So you lie, but I let it go.  Like Hamlet, conscience makes a coward of me.

We part with a handshake - me telling you that that my choice would be for you to knock on my door if you have an issue forcing you to action.  You lying through your stiff, Chucky-grin.  Me lugging my branch back to Monte Vista to cut into pieces small enough to fit in our own green bin.

It was too early for a drink, even though I wanted one badly.  Instead, I consulted Speakeasy, a cocktail book from last year.  Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric gave us a fine collection that came out of their New York bar, Employees Only.  I don't like the book only because Kosmas is Greek.  I mean, that makes it better, sure, but it's also full of great stories and quenching drinks.  I settled on something easy, something satisfying.  Something I could mix later that night, something that would chase the cold.  The perfect choice from a host of perfect choices?  The Whiskey Sour.


2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 orange half-wheel, for garnish
1 brandied cherry, for garnish

Pour the whiskey, juices, and syrup into a mixing glass.  Add large ice cubes and shake vigorously.  Strain into a chilled rocks or Old Fashioned glass over large ice cubes.  Garnish with the orange and cherry.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happy 75th Anniversary, Mr. Boston!

I've written about my fondness for Mr. Boston before, and explained why this particular cocktail book is such a favorite.  Mainly, it's like a beer stein being offered by a St. Pauli girl of yore - overflowing with goodness.

Not until the Volstead Act - that idiocy, that scourge - had a stake driven through its heart by the 21st Amendment, not until then would we be graced with the first version of Mr. Boston.  So it's this year, 75 years from the grey days of Prohibition and Depression, that we see the publication of the Diamond Anniversary Edition of his Official Bartender's Guide.

With 200 brand new recipes - and 1500 total, this iteration is fatter than you're used to.  And that's why Mr. Boston should be in everyone's home - at least in the homes of you stumbling sots out there.  It covers everything.  You don't go to Mr. Boston for depth, but for breadth?  He's your man.  So get thee to a bookery and then put the Mr. in someone's stocking - or just keep it for yourself.

I was going to keep it for myself until I handed it to my brother over Thanksgiving - but not before I used it to find a suitable drink for the Fall.  I wanted a recipe that didn't require me to buy some esoteric ingredient that I'd use just the once.  My bar is well-stocked, but it's not by any means encyclopedic.  I've been trying to keep it under control by, say, finishing one bottle of gin before buying another.  The bourbon's out of control, though.

Come, please, come over and help me bring the bourbon and rye back down to manageable quantities.

So, after positively deciding that I'd only pick a drink for the Fall that I could make with fixins from my pantry, I of course selected a concoction called Autumn Leaves.  Did it require the purchase of some stupid ingredient that I might use only once?  Sure it did.  But what's the point of making a decision if you can't break it?  Besides, wait'll you take a sip.


3/4 oz. Straight Rye
3/4 oz. Apple Brandy
3/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth
1/4 oz. Strega
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Stir with ice and strain into ice-filled old-fashioned glass.  Garnish with an orange twist.

I used Laird's Applejack.  We've used Applejack before, you and I, when we mixed Laura's November Manhattan.  A year ago?  How did a year pass?  Laura's married now, taking care of a baby.  It's been a year since we shared Applejack in that wonderful Manhattan?  Too long.  It's been too long.

The second time I unfurled Autumn Leaves - it was near midnight, and the drink banished some of the dark and cold as it accompanied this writing - I used a touch more Vermouth and a bit less Strega.  Just a touch more, a touch less - but it's the touch that counts, yes?  Also, I did the shaken-not-stirred thing.  It's the Bond in me.

The idiot ingredient for Autumn Leaves is the Strega, an Italian herbal liqueur.  Or I thought it was the idiot ingredient.  Turns out it's not.

Detour with me?

The Strega Prize is Italy's most prestigious literary award.  Guido Alberti, owner of Strega Liqueur, was part of a social group in Italy in the '40's that met on Sundays to eat, drink, and attend a literary salon hosted by Maria and Goffredo Bellonci.  They had hoped that by bringing the literati together, they could help to heal the wounds wrought by WWII.  These Sunday Friends then launched, with Alberti's backing, the Strega Prize.  The Sunday Friends - now a jury of 400 - still nominate and select the winner.

I think I'd like to drink with the Friends.

Anyway.  Strega the booze, as opposed to Strega the prize?  It's beautifully yellow, and its color, when combined with the rich brown hues of the Rye and the Applejack, with the rose-red of the Sweet Vermouth, its color and these colors give the drink a soft, autumn blush.  Strega's medley of herbs adds a wonderfully complex hint of flavor to the drink - I taste mint, for sure, but I'm terrible at breaking down taste notes.  I know if I like it, know if I don't.

Autumn Leaves?  I like.

So again - come.  Come and we'll pour some of my abundant Rye, mix it with the Strega, and watch the leaves turn.  Salute!