Tuesday, June 19, 2012

New York Postcards #4 -- Two Views of Park Avenue

June 5th, 2012.  Twelve hours apart.

Manhattan, Park Avenue at 31st, 3:36 am

Manhattan, Park Avenue at 31st, 3:36 pm

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day - A memory of dad, but not my own (memory)

I had lunch this week with a friend from elementary school.  We hadn't seen each other in thirty years, but had reconnected online.  After finding out I sold books, he was kind enough to ask me to help him build a library for his management group - then he traveled to Alameda to say thanks for the list I had compiled when of course I should have been thanking him for his custom.

We spent lunch catching up, talking about our families.  We sounded like two old guys discussing how important family is - how important our families are.  I know he's still close to his mom - but he hadn't said much about his dad - not today, and not in the various messages we'd sent each other over the past few years.

High School Graduation, Hiawatha, Utah.  1950
With Father's Day coming up, though, my Dad was on my mind - even more than usual.  Aside from wishing I could tell him just once more how much I loved him, I had come to realize that, even with the passage of time, the ache of his death hadn't eased.  I thought it would - but there, as in so many things, I was wrong.

So I mentioned my Dad, talked about how my friends - especially the ones Karen and I have made who also have children in the range of our Elizabeth and Kristina - give me a bad time for having a father who never raised his voice.  It's something I've mentioned before, but continue to marvel at.  I try not to raise my voice - to yell - at my kids.  I'd prefer that I didn't.  Of course, right?  But - invariably - I do.

Karen had the girls make me Father's Day cards to mimic the ones the preschool prepares for Mother's Day.  I think it's a gyp that Moms get the card, but because school lets out a week and a half before Father's Day, we're overlooked.  Karen rectified that - even copied the font of the official Bayside Montessori Mother's Day Card.  Inside the card is a series of questions, and in answer to:  What do you like best about your dad? Kristina had responded, He still loves me even when I'm naughty.

So she knows that, even if I holler.  But I'd still like not to get exasperated - not to fume and raise my Greek voice.

Strive, strive, I'm striving, ok?

I mentioned that to my friend, though, my dad's equanimity, mentioned it while I divvied up the spring rolls, and he was quiet there for a minute inside the Thai restaurant across from the bookstore.  Quiet while he poked at his rice dish served inside an entire half of a pineapple.  Then he looked up and said, You know what my strongest memory is of your dad?

I didn't say anything.

Your brother Dean and I had just crossed the street from my house.  Your dad was outside watering the lawn.  The weekend, it must have been.  He was spraying the water from a hose back and forth across the grass.  God, it was hot.

And I sip from my Diet Coke remembering how hot those Modesto summers could be.

Right after we crossed the street, some kid - none of us knew who he was - also tried to cross Sherwood, but he didn't make it.  He got hit by a car.

And it was my turn to get real quiet.

The kid, he didn't die or anything - but it was bad.

What I remember most is how your dad didn't even look for other cars coming, he just threw the hose down and ran out in the middle of the street and picked up that little boy.  Picked him up and cradled him in his arms.  You know how big your dad was - and at that age, I don't know, I must've been eight?  Maybe nine?  Your dad was huge to me, to all of us.  But he held that little kid so gently, telling him he was going to be ok.  That he'd be ok.  Talking to that little boy so gently, holding him so gently for such a big man.

My friend hadn't been eating while he said this.  But at that point, he started cutting up one of the crab cakes that was left.  Halved it, then quartered it. 

That's the memory I have of your dad, when I think about your dad.

I'm just looking at my friend, because this is not a story I know.  How could I not have been told this story?  Or if I had heard it, when I was ten, or eleven - how had I forgotten?  I don't forget things, not usually.  Not things like that.

Later, when our plates had been taken away, he was talking about his mom again.  The love he has for his mom is palpable.  And he mentions his stepfather - something else I didn't know about.  Didn't know his parents got divorced.  Didn't know his mom remarried - happily - to someone who loved her back, hard.  That she was fortunate enough to be able to spend some good years with a good man.

And that's when I realized I didn't have a strong memory of his father, not really.  I see a man with dark hair, almost black.  Slicked back - with Brylcreem?  But even with Brylcreem in his hair, I have a sense that it was a little messy.  And that's it.  Nothing more.  A man in a t-shirt with messy black hair.

Still later, my friend mentions, just offhand - Well, you know my dad was an alcoholic - and the statement was apropos of nothing, yet it said so much in so little.  And I wish I could make some grand connection between the disparate elements of our conversation during lunch.  But I'm not one for grand connections.

I'm left knowing that it was good to see him again after so long - so easy to talk to him after three decades of not.  Talking to him.  And friends like that are select and rare, people you can just pick up with regardless of the time that has passed.

But it's Father's Day.  And I'm remembering.  I'm remembering, and reminding myself how lucky I am to have had the parents who raised me.  How lucky I was to have had my soft-spoken father in my life - my father often acting more than speaking.  Showing the world what he was about more through his deeds than his words.

My dad was a big, strong man. But he never abused that strength. He’d use it, sure, to easily pick up a small boy from the street, to hold that boy gently in his huge arms while calmly assuring him everything was going to be ok. And that’s the difference between use and abuse. Between showing and telling.

My dad never told me that story - why would he? Even though it is the defining image of my dad in my friend’s mind. Just another time when my father showed instead of told. 

We're different in that respect, my dad and I.  Too often I rely on words when actions are so much more important.

But I'm striving, have I mentioned that?  I'm striving.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.  Miss you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New York Postcards #7 -- Booker and Dax

Momofuku Ando was a Japanese businessman who invented the Ramen noodle.  True story.  And the great New York restaurant, momofuku?  When David Chang opened it, many of his crazywonderful concoctions centered around that noodle - so that's where he found inspiration for the restaurant's name (that and the fact that it sounds a little bit like mutha$&@*#!  Another true story).  But then Mr. Chang went all DEFCON 1, took that beauty of a eatery to maximum readiness, and the rest is now an ongoing chapter in the book of Sweet Science.

When we arrived in New York with the rest of the Books Inc. crew, all that Andy knew was that a friend of his managed a bar in the city.  I'm game for bars, and we'd already hit a few, so we had of course decided that we'd check out the joint his friend ran.

Turns out the joint was Booker and Dax, the bar attached to momofuku ssäm.  This iteration of momofuku?  It's been named one of the 50 best restaurants in the world three years running.

Not a bad joint Andy's friend was associated with.

Andy texts Robby, let's him know we're headed over - 'we' being Andy, me, Jerry and Korje.  A more motley crew of booksellers would be hard to find - unless Book Expo America were taking place in the center of the known universe.

Oh, wait.  It was.

So we head over to East 13th, and being from San Francisco, we can't find it.  Until we do.  And when we open the door, I'm reminded that some of the greatest places in New York are small.  There are a couple other tables, but what you see is what you get - one six-top table there in the middle, a couple others off to the sides.

Image stolen from gothamist.com
And when we walked in?  Four of the six seats you see at that table?  They had been set aside for us - white napkins at each seat proclaiming, Taken.  As soon as we enter, Robby comes out from behind the bar and gives Andy a hug and shows us to our seats - and the two New York blondes already sitting at the table are checking us out, trying to figure how we rate such treatment.

Robby continues with the the gracious-host thing, and he doesn't steer us wrong inside his beautiful bar - this bar with fire on the walls and fire behind the counter.

The drinks?  Think nectar. 

nec·tar   n.   1.  Greek & Roman Mythology  The drink of the gods.
                   2.  A delicious or invigorating drink.

I started with a Manhattan because I started with a Manhattan everywhere I went in Manhattan.  Except for the Blarney Stone.

I think there are about a dozen Blarney Stones in Midtown, and I hit them all.  Some twice.  This one was on 9th at West 29th.  Andy had mentioned gin earlier in the evening, and it had sloshed around in my head ever since, so when we sat, I ordered a Martini.

Ok, hon, the bartender says. You can have a Martini - it's like only the second one I've made here - but you can't have olives. Only a twist. This is the freakin Blarney Stone, a'right?

Except for that Blarney, a Manhattan always started me off.  So I do that, order it from one of the three drinks listed under stirred - the others were lady of the night and laurel and hardy.

Robby's laughing when he brings the Manhattan.  Brings one to Jerry, one to me.  He asks if we'd like to know how they cool the glass that the Manhattan is served in.

Naturally, we do.

Nitrogen, Robby says.  Liquid nitrogen.

Which would explain the huge tank of the stuff right outside the front door.

It's true, then.  Dave Arnold - in collaboration with David Chang - has in fact brought science to the bar.  And in doing so, has raised that bar wonderfully.

The Manhattan is perfect.  Cold - thank your, Mr. Nitrogen - with the ideal balance between the rye, vermouth, and bitters.  I can get my balance off at home - but I only play a bartender on tv.  Robby and his crew are the real dealers.

Next up might be my favorite drink of the night, something they call the jenny & scott.  We're talking Yamazaki whisky that is - in the parlance of the bar - served on the rock.  They say rock, singular, because the rock in question is at least two inches square.

This?  This is a thing of beauty.  What sends the jenny & scott over the top?  The bitters mixed with the whisky - both mole and hellfire.  It's difficult to explain how exquisite the concoction is.  The mole bitters add a touch of earthy chocolate.  But the hellfire bitters?  Oh, lord.  The spicy habanero doesn't overpower the drink - it just magically adds heat.

Order jenny & scott if you're in the city.  Really.

The evening begins to haze just a bit around now, but it's a sure bet I next went with the sure bet because one of its ingredients, the lavender, reminded me of one of my favorite cocktails, the Aviation.  And I'm thinking about the Aviation because I just that day ran into a friend on the floor of the Javits Center.  Amber - another Aviation fan - this one's for you.

The sure bet has banks rum, lavender, crème de mure, toasted almond orgeat, lemon - and egg white to froth things up.

What's crème de mure? I ask Robby as he's walking by (that night, Robby was wearing many different hats and excelling under the brim of each).

He begins to explain but then stops and instead grabs a bottle from behind the bar and pours a finger of richly purple heaven into a glass.  It's easier to taste, Robby says.

So I do.

Crème de mure would then be a blackberry liqueur.  That and the rum and the lavender and almond make up the sure bet, and the sure bet is listed under the shaken portion of the drinks menu because you have to shake things up when you're dealing with egg whites.  It's served in a champagne flute, so it's a tall column of cool lavender cotton.

A sure bet?  Indeed.  One of the two New York Blondes sitting next to us oohs over the drink and asks if she can sip.  Everyone wants to sip, so she does and we do.  Wow, she says.  And her friend says, So who are you all anyway?  You walk in, the table's waiting, that guy - and she pouts over at Andy - gets a big hug.  What gives?

So I explain about Andy and Robby and New York Blonde Number Two is nodding her head as New York Blonde Number One is eying Korje's sure bet and Korje sees the eye and offers Number One another sip.

I thought New Yorkers were supposed to be cranky?

Robby stops by - the lights are even lower now that the sun has long since shuffled off its daily coil - and he wants to know how we're doing.

I have room for one more, I say, and I ask what he'd recommend.

Well, he says...one of our most popular drinks is the mustachi-ode.  It's going to be leaving the menu soon only because we like to keep things fresh.  It's got this pistachio syrup that we make ourselves.  I'd go with that.


When Erik Ellestad at the Savoy Stomp tweeted Booker and Dax for the recipe, he got this response:

1oz 101 bourbon .5 Becherovka .5 nardini .25 lemon 1 pistachio syrup (ours is centrifuged) ango decoration. Cheers!

So go on and centrifuge your own pistachio syrup and then recreate the mustachi-ode.

About now, as we're bidding goodbye to the New York Blondes - Robby shows up with my cocktail.  He places it on the table with a flourish. 

Yes, it's a handlebar.  Hence mustachi-ode.

Nick, Robby says.  Please enjoy the final mustachi-ode to be served at Booker and Dax.  We used the very last of our pistachio syrup to make yours.  Cheers!

I do enjoy my drink.  How could I not?  It's brilliant.  And I'm happy the evening here is ending with bourbon - I need energy for the rest of the night, after we drop Korje at the Larchmont and head back up towards Penn Station and our hotel.  Probably not headed to the hotel, not just yet.  Still.

Andy's picking up the tab, and while I try to throw money at him, all I can think is - bourbon and friends, old and new.  The beginning of a week in New York where books and more drinks await.

All in all, yes, a sure bet.

Friday, June 8, 2012

New York Postcards #3 - Well, this is awkward...

Book Expo America kicked off on Monday morning with feisty remarks by Richard Russo - Russo reminding us all about the 600 pound gorilla in the room.

That'd be the predatory Amazon, the oh so evil entity that everyone uses because, um, they're cheaper and for many, that is the only consideration. I'll rant more when I speak of Russo - that's Postcard #2, but Postcard #2 got swallowed in the electrical malfunctions of the Javitz Center.

New York, I love you, but my Apple products do not.

Anyway. After the Russo call to arms, there was a panel of editors telling us about the biggest Buzz Books of BEA. And I'm sitting there next to a cohort in the hall where the editors are about to buzz, and my cohort looks up at the huge screen there on the right, and emblazoned on the screen is 2012 Editor's Buzz. And then it says the name of the respected bookseller who will be moderating the panel.

That's when my cohort shakes his head. That guy? I hate that guy, he says.

I'm a little taken aback because while I don't know the Moderator well, our paths have crossed and our exchanges have always been courteous and professional - unlike some of my compadres. Booksellers? We can be a nasty bunch.

Why? I ask.

Why do I hate that guy? my cohort says. He's a jerk.

Really? I say.

Oh yeah. I've met him at a couple of author dinners, and he's just flat-out rude.

That guy? I say.

Yeah, that guy. He might not be rude to everyone, but to me? He can't remember my name. Ever. My cohort crosses and then recrosses his legs, agitated. The second time we met, I got the impression he felt I wasn't important enough to acknowledge.

I'm just shaking my head. Again, that description fits some people I can think of - buy me a few drinks and I'll spill, sister - but it doesn't fit my perception of That Guy.

My cohort wonders if he should even stay for the panel. Why would they have picked That Guy for such a high-profile gig?

And so right now? My cohort is good and worked up. He's preaching the Gospel and picking up speed.

Jerk, he says.

We both try to change the topic - try to talk about the week ahead, the many fabulous booksellers and authors and industry people who have gathered here in, yes, yes, the Center of the Universe. I never visited New York because I worried that I would like it too much, and do I. Do I ever.

But in the midst of this chatter words keep erupting from my cohort - jerk, fool, egotist - my cohort's become a bookseller with Tourette's.

But then, then! The editors take the stage. A heady bunch - Millicent Bennett, the very funny Millicent Bennett, to talk about the very serious Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan; or The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, shepherded along by the amazing Kendra Harpster; Eli Horowitz, from San Francisco's own McSweeney's, will trumpet A Million Heavens by John Brandon. Have you read Brandon's Citrus County? Why not? Then there's Lauren Wein to tell us about Panorama City by Antoine Wilson. And when she's done talking, we all want this book in our hands. The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu?  This has none other than Alexis Washam to sing its praises.  That's like Ella doing your songbook. Be happy. Be very happy. Finally, there's the terrific Trish Todd who will speak about In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. I was lucky enough to have dinner (thanks for the invite, Cheri!) with Ms. Ratner, where we spoke long into a chilly Oakland night about her arduous journey from the Killing Fields to acclaimed debut author.

So there they all are, these amazing escorts of the Word. And following this great group onto the main stage? Of course it's That Guy, our moderator for the afternoon. And as That Guy takes his seat, my cohort says something that I don't quite catch.

What's that? I say.

Well, he says again, this is awkward.

What's awkward? I say.

That Guy? and my cohort points to our moderator as he sits down in front of the gathered bookies.

That Guy? he says. I've never seen That Guy in my life. I was totally mistaken. The name rang a bell, but the wrong bell.

That Guy? I say. You don't think That Guy's a jerk? I told you, this is awkward. I don't know who That Guy is.

So instead of continuing to hurl stones at That Guy, we instead listen to six impassioned editors tell us why their book should be championed - and it's refreshing after our momentary lapse of reason to be reminded why we're here. That it's the books that bring us together. And That Guy? Whomever That Guy is? We shoujldn't let That Guy get us down. Should instead focus on the words, fiction and non - should focus on those incredible scribes who keep us entertained and informed.

And then we'll have a drink.

Monday, June 4, 2012

New York Postcards #1 -- C'mon pal, we ain't got all day

I start my day, every day, with a bagel. Why would I change that routine just because I'm in New York? And my God, right? New York! I'll get a real bagel. Never had a real bagel, my New York friends tell me.


So I'm in line at the Bagel Maven checking out all the heaped bagels in their bins, when the guy behind the counter - he's got his hair under wraps with one of those white scrunchy hats that his boss makes him wear - and the guy calls out, C'mon pal, we ain't got all day.

I love New York.

My normal bagel is a chocolate chip. If I want to calorie splurge, I'll get cranberry (less calories in chocolate chip - true story). My problem here, in New York? At Bagel Maven on 7th? I'm not seeing chocolate chip. Or cranberry. They got plain. Maybe sesame. Wheat? Maybe wheat. But no chocolate chip. I love New York.

Pal? the baker says. And naturally I dare not ask if they've got any chocolate chip hiding in the back. Not with this guy. If my local bagel shop - Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy - is sold out of chocolate chip, my fallback is to ask if they have anything warm. I'm a sucker for warm. The problem is - in Alameda, California - there are rarely warm bagels. They pull em out around five, throw em in the bins, and that's about it. So since I'm standing here in line, at about 10 on a rainy New York Monday morning, I'm fairly certain I won't be getting warm, but it's my fallback so I ask.

My guy looks at me for a heartbeat. Looks back at the bins overflowing with bagels. Looks back at me. Pal, he says, they're all warm.

New York, how do I love thee? Very very much.

Andy and I - I'm rooming with Andy, he runs our joint in Berkeley on Fourth Street. Check it out - great place.

Andy and I head out, bagels in hand. And a couple Diet Cokes for me.  We pass a shoe shop. Footaction. And there's a line in front. Bunch of guys waiting in the rain, ramshackle encampments set up to ward off the weather. Umbrellas canted left to deflect the drops. Huddled there in nylon sleeping bags. Hands cupping hot joe, faces brought close to the steam rising from the coffee. I'm thinking homeless. But it's kind of weird, they're kind of orderly in line, and it's a shoe store.

Last night I'd seen the huddled masses taking refuge in the columned doorways of St. Michael's - and under scaffolding set up to refurbish skyscrapers. Scaffolding scaffolding everywhere. But those souls I had seen last night had disappeared this morning, awaiting the night somewhere, surely, when they could lie down again and rest, again.

Yet there they were, on 7th, in front of Footaction. Andy sees me looking at these men and he laughs. Must be a new Jordan coming out, Andy says.

What? I say.

The line, he says. They must be here for a new shoe.

So the penny droppeth

Huh, I say.

And I'm about to throw stones, to mock these guys waiting for a new shoe. In the rain, have I mentioned that? But before I chuck any rocks, I remember that in my luggage, back at the Affinia Hotel, is a copy of Wheel of Love And Other Stories by Joyce Carol Oates.

Wheel of Love contains one of the most anthologized stories of all time, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Read it, please. It's creepywonderful - and Oates? Plain wonderful. But I brought that book because Ms. Oates will be signing her new book this Thursday and since I read she'd be doing that I brought my old book because I'd love her to sign it because I'm weird that way.

So I realize that come Thursday, I'll be in line for a signature very much like these guys are in line for a shoe (the shoe, by the way? I asked one of the Waiters, why the line? and he said, Sneakers. And I said, Whose? And he said, Blake Griffin.)  He's a baller, I think?

And then I said, It's Monday. When's the shoe come out?  And he said, Saturday.  And I said, Saturday?  But instead of answering he goes back to his game of cards - he and the two guys next to him are playing Five-card draw.  In the rain.  Waiting for Saturday when a sneaker will be released.

Clearly, with these guys - it's all about passion. And where they put it. So instead of throwing stones I think about Joyce Carol Oates and look down at my can of Diet Coke, raindrops collecting on the rim, and I crack open my can and drink.

It's all about passion, right? And where we put it.