Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone...

Thirty years ago I fell in love with a bookstore. I am 60 years old which means I have loved this store for half of my life--and I worked in it for 0ne-sixth of the time I have been on earth. My dream was that someday I would write a book that would be on the shelves of this place that I loved, and that dream came true. I was also allowed to read there, and the wonderful booksellers that make this store the object of desire for all bibliophiles put my book on their bestseller wall and made a window for it recently. I would be blissfully happy--except for the news that this bookstore is in peril. It may move; it could close. My heart is breaking.

The Elliott Bay Book Company is part of my bones and blood and history. When I think of where my home is in the world, first I think of my sons and then I think of Elliott Bay. For it to move from the building that it has made its home from the day it first opened its doors would be a deep sadness. For it no longer to exist would tarnish the rest of my life.

"It's so far from my house." "There's no parking." "It's in a neighborhood with too many street people." I've heard all of the reasons why people don't go to Elliott Bay--unless they have visitors from out of town and they want to show them one of the reasons why Seattle is a splendid place to live. But on the other hand, my sister in Alaska ordered my book in quantity from Elliott Bay because of their support for it--even though she could have found discounted copies in other venues.

Elliott Bay has a website ( and an 800 number. It has gift certificates that it will mail to anyplace in the world. It is easy to support this place--even if you live continents away.

If all of us who have ever spent an afternoon in this store--or who have grown up playing in the store's castle for children--or who have stood behind the podium in the basement's reading room--would buy one book from this store that has been there for us since the '70s, perhaps it will still be there for a new crop of readers in 2070. Thousands and thousands of people have received hours of enjoyment from Elliott Bay Book Company. Now it's time to show how much it
has meant to all of us. Please, please buy a book or three from this store while we still can.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Powerless on the Ground Floor

It wasn't until we were approaching the Bangkok airport that I realized I had packed my house keys in my suitcase. After two weeks of roaming through Beijing, I had forgotten that I would eventually need to reenter my Thailand existence and now I was much too tired to rummage through my luggage. It was easier to call one of my housemates and ask him to leave the gate open for me, and then follow up the call with a text message once I had collapsed into a taxi.

But nothing is easy in the City of Angels and when I went out of the airport to where the taxi-stands had been, they were gone. In their place were the Airport Authority of Thailand's overpriced limousines at every exit until I reached the last one where a sign told me that public taxis had been moved to the ground floor. Obviously this is how the airport decided to clean up the tout problem--by substituting their own scam for the freelance variety. Any tired traveler arriving for the first time would decide this was the only way to get to the city and would end up paying far too much for an AOT vehicle--welcome to Thailand!

When I finally entered my house, there was an unhealthy preponderance of extension cords and plug-in strips all over the floor. "No electricity," the housekeeper chortled--and sure enough, the ground floor was in a blackout, with the refrigerator plugged into an extension cord that led to a socket in an upstairs bedroom. I was awake for a huge portion of the night, listening for the sounds of an electrical fire.

The rumor going around our household today is that "Yes, a man is coming to fix the electric problem." Although the housekeeper is completely unconvinced that this is necessary--after all, she fixed it didn't she? There's an emergency light in the entryway and the refrigerator's running. Dangerous? Oh those crazy foreigners--how they do worry...

I'm more than ready to move to Beijing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Blessings of Empire

The gates of the British Club were closed when I arrived there late for lunch and a sign clearly said No Entry, Go to Silom 18 which was a far piece from where I was standing. Retreating to the garden of the nearby library I called my host who said of course you can enter there—that sign is only meant for cars—so I did, was approved by the security guard, and made my way past the tennis courts to the covered lounge area near the pool.

At that point I felt much like a peasant as well as a barbarian at the gates and my ensuing table talk lacked zest. My host and I turned with some relief to the menu, which was mammoth and double-sided with Thai, European and British offerings. It offered a long string of morning meal choices—a true English breakfast straight out of a Nancy Mitford novel with chips and fried kidneys and baked beans and toast and eggs-- more than I can remember but there were no brains on the list—and I discovered a substantial number of buttie options, which had me entranced. I saw no chip butties, which I had thought were the only kind extant, but the one that leaped off the menu for me was the one made with black pudding.

My host looked concerned and suggested scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast instead but soon I was served an unadorned, ungarnished white plate which had at its direct center a large white bun, sliced in half with a generous yellow aura of what was perhaps butter but tasted quite a bit like very salty margarine, and two small brown hockey pucks placed in between the slices of bread.

In a state of absolute delight, I cut a small piece of this stunning example of real British food and put a fragment of the pudding, which had the consistency of very dry pate, on the end of my fork. What I tasted was salt and pepper and a suggestion of bouillon cubes. The pudding crumbled slightly when cut and there were little white chunks dispersed in it like chocolate chips in a cookie that tasted a lot like diced and boiled potato. The bun was squishy and the melted yellow substance seemed nourishing, in the same way that whale blubber is. This was more than I had hoped for.

“Buttie is for the butter then,” I remarked with barely restrained joy to my lunch companion, “Do you know what the pudding is made of?”

“Yes, I do,” he responded, “but I didn’t want to tell you until you had finished eating.”

“Please do,” I begged, and was less than surprised when he said, “Blood and fat.” I thought briefly of a friend’s hospitalization after she had eaten blood pudding in Morocco, assured myself this wasn’t delicious enough to be lethal, and decided, “It has the same shape and consistency of the Boston brown bread that comes in a can.” I was proud of finding this small and tenuous trace of the British Empire in the former colonies but my Canadian lunch comrade, while agreeing with me, looked a bit depressed.

His own buttie was supposed to contain an egg as well as ham but all that lay between it were two thin and languid slices of pink animal flesh, and his small Greek salad which he asked to have “lots of black olives” had precisely three, all of which looked like the ones that provided the same touch of class at our Thanksgiving dinners in Alaska as the Boston brown bread did and also came out of a can. My host looked even gloomier than he had when we had chosen our breakfasts from the menu, while I was possessed with a very crazed glee.

“Do have something else,” he urged with a large degree of gallantry as I chewed my way through my substantial buttie. I restrained myself from saying “Oh I couldn’t possibly. Thank you ever so,” and instead managed a polite “No thank you, this is just what I needed.”

I thought of saying “It’s nowhere near as disgusting as poutine,” and then quickly remembered that my tablemate had spent his childhood in northern Quebec. Instead I assured him that I was actually quite fond of blood and mentioned the chunks found in my soup on Chokchai Ruammit and the small frozen bits of raw moose that I used to enjoy as a child, when my father butchered a fresh kill on the kitchen table. My host muttered a reply that I assumed was a pleasantry because his manners are impeccable.

I long to come back to the British Club someday for the delights of a full English breakfast but somehow I doubt that I will ever be asked to return. I don’t think English food is expected to afford quite so much unrestrained enjoyment as it clearly did for me. Yet I take deep comfort in knowing that—in Bangkok at least—there will always be an England.