Never mind the wind.
Never mind that its passage was due northwest from Canada, a spiral of brazen cold hard facts. The pines above our heads bowed and swayed. The barrier between outer layer of jacket and inner passage of flesh compromised, jabbing at the rib cage: ‘you’re alive, you’re exposed.’
It’s not the cold. Not here. It’s never that cold. It’s always the wind.
Soon two other children found Clover’s Hill with just enough snow to their liking and joined my son. No matter from what starting point they launched their sleds, the children found each other at some critical intersection of velocity, portending a collision, that was averted at the last moment.
The sleds were abandoned. A wrestling match ensued until the coup de grace: a sideways roll down the hill covering their bodies in what snow remained.
“Go on, Dad,” my son told me with conviction. “I am going to walk home with them.”
Walking home is life’s negotiation. My junior statesman had entered the fray!
No it’s not the cold, not even the wind, that makes me shutter now thinking of this moment. It’s that I kept my car creeping along, at the factory preset idling pace, looking in my rear view mirror as negotiations commenced.
The street. The curb. A crossing. Oncoming traffic. Newtown, Connecticut.
We cannot simply let our children walk home alone, or even in the arms of their brothers and their sisters and their friends.
They must be driven.
Every once in a while I drop in here to see if I’ve written something.
Nope. Nothing to report.
Science has an explanation for procrastination. It can be traced to the neurotransmitter dopamine. When dopamine levels are low, so say the lab coats, we tend to procrastinate.
There is another explanation. Writers cling stubbornly to the belief that it is better not to write than to write badly.
In between falling dopamine levels and not wanting to write badly, our minds continue to fire, giving and receiving messages.
Anything. That might provide a spark.
Happy Election Day everyone.
Did you vote?
Wait a minute. Don’t tell me. I don’t need to know.
I remember a time when it was considered, to say the least, inappropriate to ask someone for whom they had voted for.
It’s not that politics were more civil back then. They just did not preoccupy us as much, since the majority believed less in the body politic and more in the person.
Perhaps this is all nostalgia. And today I am feeling nostalgic.
On the commute in today, I saw a father hugging his son while they waited for the school bus. The son-not a boy- but a teenager caught my attention. I am not a drive-by diagnostician. So please, forgive me if I am lacking in knowledge of the full spectrum of developmental disabilities.
Permit a time-honored way of describing the son…something was just not right.
The man held his son as if both their lives depended on it. The son returned the father’s touch by leaning into his father’s shoulder and then I saw, despite the son’s obvious handicap, a true resemblance of their jaw structures.
No truer embrace had I ever witnessed, outside of funeral home. The brilliant autumn leaves of the trees nearby attempted to upstage this scene with their evolutionary resplendence.
I had been served a far greater gift by the father and the son.
I will hold you son until the very last moment, until I have to let go, and you fall your own way, like those red and yellow leaves. The trajectory of your life beyond my control.
The house I grew up in possesses two vestibules- one front, one side. It is a Dutch Colonial, 1,400 square feet in total, on a modest block in a distressed city. I remember my mother explaining what the term vestibule meant (other than how we came to know these intimate spaces as our defensive position for a game of hide-and-seek).
My playmates all had vestibules in their homes, too. They served their purpose elegantly. Off with your snow boots, hang up your winter coats in the closet, check yourself, and then enter someone’s living space with respect.
These vestibules of my youth contained another attribute. They all carried a peculiar smell, peculiar to the family in possession. Here we will not name names as to offend but for narrative sake you could be certain of your destination by the particular smell of the vestibule in question.
As I put my shoes on to depart this old Dutch Colonial on a recent visit, I confronted the smell of my own family’s vestibule. It smelled like my mother, like my father, like my sister, like the past fifty two years, give or take a few months, of lives lived beyond the door ajar from the vestibule.
The McMansions of today open wide upon entrance. Look, here. Our great room!
How uncivilized that vestibules are built less frequently. That we have surrendered the one cordon sanitaire between our family and the world outside.
“….I am haunted by waters…”
from Norman Maclean’s, A River Runs Through It
While Maclean was not writing about this river in particular, never have more appropriate words been chosen to describe the most haunting river of them all - the Niagara River.
Pictured here: the lower Niagara river between the Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole
When I was in the restaurant business, the 2nd or 3rd day of January was a default freak-out moment for me. The crush of the holidays had ended, the sales tax check cleared, and it was back to square one with the restaurant, wondering if we would ever get busy again.
I’d walk in and open the kitchen, look at my staff -tired and hungover - and the bile inside me would multiply: ‘Are we ever going to get busy?’
Winter stretched out as far as my mind contemplated.
Back in the slap-happy days of August, I had vowed to take the first week of January off, get out of town, so I could avoid this choke of anxiety but of course I never did. I was too preoccupied on whether or not we would be busy, and if so, when.
That’s when I spotted Walter at our bar, eating lunch. Same order, same half sandwich minus the mayo, 300 days of the year.
By the time he sat down and untangled his coat and scarf, his order appeared before him; the staff biologically attuned to his unchanging dietary habits so much so that his order was fired, executed and served in record time.
That’s when I broke down and hugged him.
Walter looked at me sideways: ‘What’s your problem?’
I could not reveal the true nature of my problem. He wouldn’t understand the sheer panic of a restaurant owner on the 2nd or 3rd day of January.
You don’t remember the big checks, the record weeks, the specials that sell out.
You remember the regulars who show up when nobody else does, reminding you that you will be busy again, not today, not this week, but soon enough.
Soon enough to get you through those first wretched days of the New Year.
It was an unusually quiet mid-week night in December that set off Bobby DeMunda.
He stared at the few tables lingering in his dining room, Clyde (a regular) nursing his Manhattan at the bar, before Bobby decided to scoot out the back door. He needed a drink of his own to calm his nerves-in someone else’s joint-preferably as slow as his.
“A quiet night in December!” Bobby wondered aloud in the car on the way over to his destination. “What’s next, another Russ Salvatore commercial on cable?”
Of course, Bobby wasn’t alone when he reached the bar. There were other restaurant owners, who were all equally slow on that mid-week night in December. None of them would admit to it.
“I hear the caterers are down 40%,” one of them said to Bobby. “It’s hit or miss out there.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said. “Is that why I seem to be missing a lot these days? I got another theory.” “What’s that?’ “It’s called restaurant sprawl. You know how these urban goody two-shoes complain about suburban sprawl. Well, I got a beef about how many new restaurants are opening up. Not even counting the chains.”
“That’s old news, Bobby. The old timers said that when you were coming up in the business.”
“Yeah,” Bobby shot back. “But now it’s true. More restaurants, less population = less business for everyone, except if you are a chain.”
Bobby looked down at his drink. It was half empty. He didn’t even remember taking the first sip. Twenty-five years in this crazy business. Where had the time gone?
He had come up through the kitchen. His father taught him how to clean fish and repair broken sinks. The building was paid for. The parking lot did not need to be re-paved for another five years. His kids all had degrees and none of them wanted the business.
He would never go on cable television and mangle lobsters and steaks and shout into the camera. Some thought of him as ornery but Bobby felt the bruises of life on his feet, even if they didn’t sting as much now on the downside.
He was a glass half empty guy, and the way Bobby DeMunda figured, that’s OK on a slow mid-week night in December. It gets you through to the next day.
The bartender, hustling tips, came over to Bobby’s group.
“Another round, gents?”
Bobby put his hand over the top of his drink.
“Nah,” he said. “Let me finish this one first.”
Increasingly, I’ve come to recognize that all I hold near and dear in foodservice began when I was left to my own accord at the snack bar at Twin Fair.
It would happen like this.
My mother-flush with her paycheck-would drag my sister and I into Twin Fair on Saturday mornings. This occurred after I had participated in some athletic endeavor at an uncertain hour of the morning, and she would then hoist me onto a stool, purchase a bag of popcorn or snocone, and tell me in no uncertain terms to stay right there until she had completed her shopping.
Fine with me.
The snack bar of any major department store in the 1970s was a spectacle to behold. To my mind, it employed the most colorful characters (generally those unqualified to work in Auto or Guns), provided real time drama to the boredom of female-driven consumerism, and allowed me to glimpse into the world of how our great nation worked.
The self-important deal seekers, the aristocrats with their newly minted plastic credit cards- they were all shopping with unrestrained savagery in the aisles of Home and Beauty.
The snack bar contingent was an altogether different demographic. The customers who gravitated to the snack bar seemed to be troubled and brilliant, all at the same time.They had turned their backs to the modern department store experience and sat nursing cups of coffee, exchanging tales of union shenanigans, and smoking cigarettes.
Years later, when I came upon a snack bar in Target and experienced a weird rush of anxiety and deja-vu, I realized how profound my snack bar disorder had become a part of me. I stared at the menu board, dreamed about the utter simplicity of the operation, and questioned my very entry into the foodservice industry. I sought help from a counselor.
‘I was always more suited to open a snack bar’, was how I attempted to explain myself to the analyst.
Small inventory, certain food cost, high margins, limited seating and a single employee working the entire operation. My therapist challenged me on these assumptions, wisely asking if I understood the great real estate implications of a profitable concession.
My therapy included a significant amount of time on the website of the Gold Medal company of Cincinnati, manufacturer of concession equipment. I would input bogus numbers into their profit calculator and dream about opening a snack bar. The numbers always came out on my side.
People ask me-with some expectation of insight-what’s new and exciting in the restaurant industry. They would think less of me if I revealed the true nature of my troubles. That on some nights I am apt to roam about a city filled with great restaurants and superb dining choices, and instead retreat to the snack bar, my back turned to people, reveling in the sparseness of the menu board, each option worse than the next.
As with any disorder, there is treatment.
But no cure.