Sunday, December 11, 2016

At the Edge of the Middle Kingdom

What would you expect from a city that sprang from a small town back in 1982? Thirty-four years ago there was a sprawl of military structures on the border. Today Shenzhen is rumored to be the richest city in China; “If you want to feel poor, go to Shenzhen” is the ending or a modern day proverb. It stretches for over 700 square miles and is divided into ten districts, four of them recently added.
There are two central business districts, one which has supplanted the original. There are beaches (one of them four miles of white sand) and mountains and what claims to be the world’s largest bookstore. Although geographically in Cantonese territory, Shenzhen is a Mandarin-speaking city with a trilingual subway system. Citibank ATMs are found in 7-Eleven and Starbucks isn’t hard to find.
Two of its beaches are a little over 800 feet from one of my favorite Hong Kong islands, Peng Chau. A subway whisks travelers from the airport to the border in an hour, which is about what it takes to go from JFK to Manhattan. Trains leave every twenty minutes to Guangzhou and the journey takes an hour--no reservations necessary.
Zara provides clothes for well-padded Western women, just like in Bangkok, but Cantonese food is harder to find than the cuisine from other parts of China. Food streets are common.
The Shenzhen Library has a black granite waterfall wall that can be seen from the second floor and a collection of books in English on the third. Western magazines are easily bought, except for The Economist and those of that ilk, and there is an English language newspaper that costs one yuan, which is I think somewhere around fifteen cents.
I began to write down places I wanted to go and how to get there in a notebook and had to stop after an hour. This city is going to be as surprising to me as Bangkok ever was, and probably every bit as frustrating. It even has illegal taxi drivers for that ultimate blood pressure elevator.
I can’t wait.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

One Man, One Act at a Time

Yesterday I went to Chinatown and as I walked through it, I saw a small Asian woman carrying a black garbage bag across Jackson, with no regard for traffic lights. A huge collection of bags and a heavily laden large wheeled suitcase waited for her at the curb and she was rather small. After I went to the bank, she had brought everything to the opposite corner of the street and was carrying it, a bag or two at a time, down to the bus stop at Bartell Drugs.
That was my next destination and as I followed in the woman’s wake, I saw a tall familiar figure walk toward me, pulling a very large, very deep black wagon. “Marcus, how are you? And shouldn’t your wagon be red? Tis the season after all.”
“I bought it for her,” Marcus replied, stopping near me and the mountain of bags. He upended the wagon and drained the rainwater that had dampened it on his walk. “She carries those bags around every day so I went down to Home Depot and picked one up.”
“You’re a good man,” I said and he answered, “Making up for past transgressions.” The small woman had returned for more belongings and Marcus said, “Here. Put them in this.” She swept past him without slackening her pace and walked back with another burden of bags.
“This is for you,” I said, “he bought it for you.” I reached out to touch her arm and she spat “No!,” like an angry cat. As she walked away, I said “I can’t speak Chinese,” and Marcus said “She speaks English.”
“I should leave you alone. She knows you and maybe she’ll listen,” I said and Marcus’s response was “No. Don’t go.”
He is a tall man in his midyears and although his smile is contagious and his voice is gentle, he takes up a fair amount of space and he is black. “Maybe she’s frightened,” I told myself, “Maybe having a woman with him will make her more at ease.” I stayed.
After minutes of quiet persuasion, finally she stopped, turned in Marcus’s direction and responded to him. “I can’t get that thing on the bus.”
“Yes, you can,” I argued, “it’s like a wheelchair. You can put it on the ramp.”
Marcus held out a new red rucksack that Santa might well envy. “This too,” and he dropped it in the wagon. “And here. I just found this on the street. It’s not mine. Take it,” and he held out a folded, obviously new, bill, its denomination carefully hidden.
“Please take the wagon. You’re a little woman and this is all so heavy,” I said as softly as I could. She glanced at me and then back at Marcus. “He is a good man,” I told her and she nodded almost imperceptibly.
Her eyes assessed him and were met by that glorious smile. “Take it,” he repeated in a tone you would use with a frightened child. He put the money in her fingers and she didn’t drop it. When Marcus picked up some of her bags and put them in the wagon, she didn’t object.
I left them and went on to finish my errands. When I walked out of the drug store some minutes later, there was a red wagon, filled with bags, a red rucksack still empty, and a large wheeled suitcase, all belonging to one of the figures that leaned on a metal bar that served as bus stop seating.
One man, one woman, a cold street, and possessions that once had obviously known a place to hold  them--I walk past this almost every day and do not help. Marcus didn’t only help; he looked, found a solution, and didn’t step on that woman’s dignity. And although I may not find his grace within me to conduct  that same sort of action, I know I have to try.
I hate the term angel when applied to humans, and saint is not in my lexicon either, but I know goodness when I see it and from the first minute I saw him, Marcus has radiated nothing but good. He was sitting on the landing of the International Apartments when I first moved into the building and introduced himself with that radiant, sweet smile. We found that we share a passion for travel and had chats in the hallway based on that.
He invited a friend who had recently gone off drugs and needed a home to stay in his apartment while he was on a journey. The man took everything Marcus owned and broke a window before he left with the last of the loot. “He even took my leather jacket,” Marcus told me, “I had just bought it. It cost me 400 dollars. I hope I don’t see him because I want to kill him.”
I had just returned from Asia with an editing payment and it was Christmas. I put 100 dollars in a card, wrote a little note, and left it with the building manager to give to Marcus when he saw him. He returned it with thanks.
And after that, several times, a bouquet waited for me outside my apartment door, from Marcus.
Still my neighbor, in a neighborhood that is still mine, this quiet, kind, compassionate man is a signpost without noise, goodness without stint.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Apocalypse Day After Tomorrow?

At the end of this coming week, I will turn 68. Whether I celebrate this occasion or not depends on what happens in three more days.

My birthday has always come four days after an election but I have never felt as though that would blot out my happiness at entering a new year. This year is different. This year threatens to darken many of the ones that follow it and I have been sickened by this for months.

For me my 67th year has been one of mixed blessings. There have been too many deaths, but on the other hand I received the friendship of three girls, two small and one almost grown, who make me feel hopeful about the state of the world to come. For more than a quarter of 2016  I went through my days without smiling, but during that time I was sustained by my children, my friends, and a cousin whom I hadn't laid eyes on for half a century. Later that same cousin and I ate ice cream and rode a carousel together in Manhattan, the city where we both were born months apart. Her renewed presence in my life has been a gift and an unexpected one, which is always the best kind of present.

I discovered the excitement of traveling in my own country this year and that was another joyful surprise. New York and Los Angeles are as much fun to explore as Bangkok and Beijing. We have not yet become a homogeneous country and for that we can thank immigrants. Please give us more. They, like my grandparents and great-grandparents in the past century, bring texture and vibrancy to a country that has always been sustained by its new waves of population. Current threats of wall-building nauseate me to the point that I feel waves of vertigo. This is not what the United States does. From an economic standpoint alone, this is madness. And from a cultural standpoint, all anyone needs to do is go to Jackson Heights in Queens or Boyle Heights in Los Angeles and feel buoyed up by the energy and life that comes with new arrivals to our country.

Facebook's annoying little yearly memories were particularly poignant today. Four years ago, I posted exultant cheers at President Obama's swift victory, one that had been by no means assured. On Tuesday night, what will be said? The terror of what might happen is tarnishing the afternoon sun and the glint of light on leaves that are still green and shimmering through the window that I face right now.

By no means will this election be the end of the horror that has come home in the past year. No matter who wins, the repercussions will be difficult. Victory will not be a band-aid no matter who achieves it. We are too divided a country to lapse into any sort of peaceful complacency.

I won't be in the United States for the inaugural ceremonies but I won't stay in the country where I will spend the beginning of next year. One of the other gifts that I received this year is the understanding that I do have roots, and they are found in the eastern corner of the U.S. It's an odd thing to learn as I approach the last quarter of my life (if I'm lucky). But when I make shoofly pie, a dish invented by my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors who have lived in the Lehigh Valley for three hundred years, when I laugh with a woman whose blood and humor and joy of life are all things that we share in spite of fifty years of distance, when I think of the energy that I get only on the Eastern seaboard, I know this is a true fact of my life.

This is my country and that is my corner of it. And that is a present that may well change my life, once again. Whatever happens on Tuesday may blight my birthday celebrations but it won't send me to Mexico or Cambodia. It may make me and many other people like me bitterly unhappy but it won't make us quit. We are all better than the stereotype and it is time to prove that, win, lose, or draw.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Back to Life as I Know and Love It

Almost two months ago my dental debacle was completed. Suddenly I had my complete face back again, smile, grimaces, and all. My world enlarged to its normal size once again, no longer truncated by missing teeth and I reclaimed my usual enthusiasm for life and all it has to offer.

It was a source of complete exhilaration to talk and laugh without covering my mouth, speaking to strangers and going outside of what had become my comfort zone. Within a month I was on a plane to New York to reacquaint myself with one of the people who had been a mainstay of kindness during the past months, a cousin whom I hadn't seen in fifty years.

I'm still warmed by our visit,  by the friendship that we're claiming, and by the ties with family that were never a part of my life when I was growing up. It's a gift that I never expected and am overjoyed to have received.

Along with this came a rekindled love of the city that I was born in, in a section I'd never explored before. Although Manhattan has become bland, Queens is more vibrant than any other part of America that I have yet seen. I wandered through the Chinese city of Flushing, the invigorating diversity of Jackson Heights, and the windblown shore of Far Rockaway, and began planning my next visit long before I checked in for my flight back to Seattle.

Los Angeles is my next destination where I'll be staying in the still-Mexican community of Boyle Heights, exploring that as well as many other parts of that far-flung and exciting city. Although summer is almost gone in Seattle, I'm extending it through these journeys, chasing the heat and light that I incompletely enjoyed from April to August.

But my withdrawal from the world and my rediscovery of it has pointed out a very jolting truth. I have lived in my new home and have explored my new neighborhood since the beginning of this year. I've enjoyed both the house and the area around it but the novelty is wearing off. It's been replaced by a feeling of familiarity and comfort; I've found "my" corner of the living room, "my" favorite walks and places to eat. I'm beginning to recognize people in the neighborhood and we greet each other as we pass by. And as this began to happen, I began checking up on different cities on Craigslist.

"Philadelphia!" I began announcing to friends. "I can afford it and it's only an hour or two from New York."

Last night I lay awake, juggling finances in my head, trying to figure out the most economical way to move me and the cat across country. Then this morning something slapped me hard. Every time I begin to feel at home somewhere, I look for ways to move away from it.

I have no idea why this is so deep-rooted but I've felt this way ever since I can remember. It's not just a flaw. It's an illness. And it really has to stop.

Traveling doesn't mean a prelude to uprooting--or it shouldn't. I've called myself a geographic trollop but that's too gentle a description. In truth this is more akin to geographic nymphomania and it isn't cooling with age.

But it is time to let myself learn that comfort is not a prison sentence and that a trip has a beginning and an end, both of which are equally satisfying. As I approach 68, this is my goal--to go somewhere, enjoy it, and come home without saying "I want to live there."

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Shaking on the Inside

I feel sick to my stomach and it would take very little to make me begin to cry. When I look at my hands, they are steady but inside I'm trembling. I should be hopeful but there have been too many glitches in the past four and a half months to keep me from feeling that way. Instead I'm scared, perhaps not to death, but closer to that than I would like to feel.

My two bottom front teeth were pulled in early April and it is only now, in early August, that they may be replaced. This has been a time of inertia. I finally even stopped writing because all that came to the page was my missing teeth. There are places I haven't gone, people I haven't seen, and things I haven't done because I have felt disfigured.

It doesn't matter that friends have said they haven't noticed the gap in my mouth. The most difficult thing I have done perhaps ever was to leave the house and speak to people without clapping my hand over my mouth. And yes, people have noticed, in the same way that I in the past have noticed other people's missing teeth, with a mixture of pity and revulsion.

At first I castigated myself for being vain but that isn't really fair. This has been like walking through the world with any sort of visible disfigurement; it's not like leaving the house without wearing eye makeup. The best that could be said was that this was temporary; the worst is that it was not temporary enough.

Other people have said they have friends and family who have gone through the same thing, with a gap in their mouths for months. It seems to be normal dentistry. But if that's true, this is a profession that needs serious revamping.

There is a temporary disposable denture for these situations. I've read about it in Dentistry Today. Apparently my dentist has not, since she insists that any denture used in the beginning will then become the permanent one. I've stopped discussing it with her, but if I ever see a dentist again, that will be at the very top of my agenda before submitting to care.

I have gone to this office before, eager to have a permanent crown or this same damned denture put in my mouth, only to learn that something else went wrong and there will be another delay. This is why I'm shaking now. If I go tomorrow and learn once again that this isn't ready, I am truly afraid that I will hurt someone.

Wish me luck, please. If all goes well, I'll be smiling, if I can only remember how.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Getting and Spending

Custody of the eyes was what the nuns called it, with the elegance of language that was imposed upon them by the church’s original Latin regulations and, at one time, its daily speech. They used it to caution against eye contact with men, the gateway to lust along with that pesky reflection from patent leather shoes. As I age, I understand this phrase to mean a restriction against visual greed, against the snares and beauty of the world that entrance and entrap, distracting from the inner life that can lead to dismal piety.

“Mine eyes hunger for you above all things,” a Tudor wrote, probably Henry VIII whose visual appetite knew no restrictions. My eyes have always been hungry and without custody; I feed on what they give me. Every morning I take my pot of espresso to the table on the porch and I gaze—at the increasing greenery of new leaves, a new splurge of blossoms, the soft and gentle blue of a fresh sky that’s not yet set into blaze by the sun.

This morning the air settled on my skin and I felt no difference in temperature; it touched me like another layer of my own flesh. It’s what I imagine shatoosh would feel like, the forbidden scarf woven from the hair beneath a goat’s chin and many parts of the world that I have lived in, it’s as luxurious and as highly prized. In Bangkok the air goes swiftly from pre-dawn chill to a furnace of heat; in Seattle I usually flinch from stabbing coolness when I go out to survey the morning landscape of my neighborhood.

The physician and essayist Atul Gawande says we learn to embrace the present moment as we grow old, rather than yearning for a yet unattainable future; nobody seems to know if that change is due to wisdom or a decline of chemicals in the brain. I’ve found that as some hungers leave me, other appetites grow fiercer with the strongest being the visual. The sprays of pink blossom outside my bedroom window refresh me when I look up from my computer; the shadows on the house next door are photography in flux and make me wonder if those plays of light and darkness were the inspiration for motion pictures. The luxury of so many shades of green in the backyard remind of how my eyes would lock onto random  patches of greenery that emerged from Bangkok’s cement, physically feeling the relief that those cool, bright hues would bring.

Appetite is the easy loss in aging. At one point, as I approached fifty, I was terrified of losing the sensation of physical attraction. What is known as the sexual peak had been so overwhelming and gave such affirmative pleasure that when I thought of life without it, I could only see days of black and white. I had no idea that other colors would intensify when that particular hunger left me, and that the lack of that consuming yearning would give me powers of concentration that drugs had never offered.

The power of being happy in the moment is a guarantee of lasting happiness. The only other time I remember anything close to this was when I was little on a good day when the sun was bright, the dirt was warm under my bare feet, and there were no mosquitos. Still something always came between me and that particular feeling of joy—the annoying call of a little sister, a mealtime, or some small chore. Now very little gets in the way of my happiness, except for loss and its accompanying pain.

I know I’m luckier than most. A doctor’s visit has no unpleasant surprises for me and the backaches that had me crawling on the floor over the past few years seem to have gone with the purchase of my new desk chair. My mortality still seems abstract, although people I love have died and the pain of missing them should remind me that my turn’s coming. Even so, when I look at the extravagance of light, color, and shadow that’s separated from me by a millimeter of glass, it seems impossible that I won’t always be around to love it.

I can never remember a time when I was not in love with what I see and there are still few things that can distract me from that. Yet last week I looked without seeing, caught in a jail cell of grief for a physical part of me that had died and had been tossed away.

Teeth have been a problem from the time that I was seven or so, but they were always fixable, replaceable, filled, or crowned. I knew one of my bottom front teeth had become perilously loose but certainly there had to be a solution for that. There always had been. But when it came to my mouth, my check, as a good friend has said about physical ailments, had bounced. I’d overdrawn that account and my gums had paid the price.

Both of my bottom front teeth were taken away, slipping from my mouth in a way that horrified me with its ease. The gap where they had been for over sixty years felt Grand Canyonesque, and it couldn’t be filled until all of the work on the bottom of my mouth had been completed.

Ordinarily I only cry when I’m angry but as cotton gauze was packed into the bleeding holes where my teeth had been, I was surprised to feel tears on my cheeks, and more slipping to join them. It was an action as involuntary as a sneeze, a physical reflex to something that my mind still hadn’t understood.

It took longer for that mental numbness to wear off than it did for the anesthetic that had been shot into my mouth. I walked home in an eerie fog on a bright day. My hand was fixed over the face mask that I’d been given to hide any blood that might seep through it before I could replace the gauze in privacy. In my bedroom I stared at the “bare ruined choirs” and the teeth that still surrounded them, tinged pink with blood.

Those teeth had been with me for years and they would never come back. Eventually bits of porcelain would fill the space that had been theirs, but they would never be part of my living bone. They had died, and what came with that knowledge couldn’t be escaped or ignored. I had begun to die.

“He not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan told us in his tuneless croak when I was young, but who had time to think about that in those days? As I looked at my mouth on the morning my bottom teeth left me, his words pierced me and II was lost in a wave of sadness that nothing could distract me from. I stayed in bed for two days.

When I woke up today, a week after those 48 hours of grief, my tongue felt the mournful emptiness at the front of my mouth, but my eyes had other plans. Light warmed the fabric of my bedroom curtain and I got up to pull away that barrier, eager to see what the world had to give me. Surging back came the curiosity, the delight, the impetus to love. Even though I was toothless at a crucial spot, I felt the energy of joy, springing from who knows where? As the Beatles said,”I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sentient? Hell Yes...and Divine

“Loving is a habit and takes practice, like any other,” Martha Gellhorn said when she rescued a small cat on a West Indian island. She bought it a little basket and carried it with her as she hopped about by boat in the Atlantic during WWII. Before flying back to the States, she realized the absurdity of what she had done and gave the cat to an Air Force base while realizing it had been much happier in its original forest home.

A judge recently decided that a dog was a sentient being, not a lesser creature, which is a fine thing to recognize, and high time too. But still that dog is subjugated to the whims of its owner. What and when to eat, where to sleep, even the elimination of its body waste is on somebody else’s schedule--and then there’s the true crusher. Dogs and other animals aren’t admitted to into heaven. Even Buddhism allows that to happen only after a human incarnation, although dogs, far more than many people, exemplify the Buddha nature like nobody’s business.

Cats of course go way beyond sentience into omniscience and divinity, a state that no doubt existed long before humans could record their speech in writing. Among modern deities, Shiva is the one they are most closely related to, but cats would rather destroy worlds that others have created than to take that energy to create one themselves. That is what humans are for, and lurking in the dispassionate gaze of any cat is the sad truth that we are doing a piss-poor job in that ongoing act of creation.  Still we are the best that they’ve got for the task and they continue with their silent directions which we ineptly follow.

People who dislike cats are the ones who are most closely attuned to the power that felines wield, although they fail to articulate that vague knowledge. “Dogs love their owners; cats tolerate them,” is usually as close as they get to voicing their unexamined knowledge that cats rule the universe. And what’s more, cats are certainly not going to let us into whatever heaven they may have constructed.

Like Martha Gellhorn, my life feels incomplete unless it includes a cat for me to love. Still I have never really believed that my love is reciprocated in the same way that I bestow it upon any of the felines that have shared my bed and board. When I do their bidding, they emit approval that at times I can almost convince myself is affection. Even the small black feral kitten that I adopted in Bangkok never gave me the same regard that he had for his counterpart, another small black kitten who found him and became his partner in crime. I was always the warm lap, the pair of opposable thumbs, the imperfect instrument who made sure that he had what he wanted.

In The Summer Book, Tove Jansson just about sums it up when she describes the hopeless passion that a little girl feels for an impervious tomcat. For a long time I thought this was the perfect depiction of the flawed nature of human love, but now I know I was wrong. It’s a recognition of the despair that we feel when we realize that our divinities are impervious to human demands and desires, especially the feline variety.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Story for Every Wrinkle

When Jacob persuaded Esau to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage, my sympathies were with Esau. I had to ask what it was that exchanged hands and although pottage sounded unappetizing, let alone a mess of it, it was obvious that Jacob was the conniving little chiseler who would be shunned in any schoolyard. Only a weasel would convince his brother to relinquish something he had the right to own for a temporary pleasure. It violated every rule I’d been taught about fair play and I was shocked that Esau, not Jacob, was punished.

I read the Old Testament in the same way that I devoured Grimm’s Fairy Tales and after encountering Esau, I absorbed its lessons in a twisted fashion, tempered with moral outrage and skepticism. The foolish virgins made complete sense to me; why save that damned lamp oil for a day that might never come when there was a party going on right now? I lived in a household of lamps, fueled with a byproduct of oil, and nobody ever said turn out the lights to save fuel for tomorrow. We used what we had and did without when it was gone.

It is probably a stretch to blame the Old Testament for what’s going on with me as I approach my 68th birthday but I’m fairly certain that it comes into play as an influence in my formative years. Wiser virgins flossed and used sunscreen. Moisturizers were part of their daily rituals, and as information emerged about skin cancer and sun damage, they cultivated pallor, not a solar-induced tan. But not me.

I took great pleasure in absorbing as much sunlight as I could and only burned on tropical beaches, when light bounced off saltwater. I went beyond bronze to brown in a nanosecond and soaked up direct sunlight every chance that I had. Sunscreen seemed to be a big waste of time and counterproductive to a woman who felt that summer began only when her tan was secured.

When the subject of wrinkles arose, I countered with the unassailable beauty of Georgia O’Keefe.

Then came the day that I smiled at myself in a mirror and almost screamed. The crowsfeet that I had always thought brought character to my face had become pterodactyl tracks and below them on either cheek were small lines that had gone rogue. It was as though on the night before, as I slept, my skin had been sprayed with battery acid.

Moisturizer, I discovered is not retroactive, although I have wondered more than once about glycolic chemical peels. When I do, Germaine Greer comes to mind, scoffing that in fending off the effects of age, women run the risk of turning into petulant, querulous old girls. Two images come to mind: Georgia O’Keefe and a curdled old Scarlett O’Hara, still flashing her earbobs and stamping her feet, and I know it’s time to ante up. I bet and I lost. That particular lamp is out of oil.

High blood pressure has turned me into that dreary old broad who squints at sodium labels in the aisles of grocery stores. Loss of bone mass makes me spend the equivalent of a perfectly good Happy Hour on a single pill that I swallow once a month. But that is not the worst of it.

The best that can be said about the worst is that it is temporary and it certainly isn’t life-threatening. The worst is that it will have lasted for three months by the time that it’s finally over and those three months have been a portion of my life that has been truncated as never before.

When spring burst into flower, I was diagnosed with gum disease and because of it, two of my teeth had to be removed. Since they were my two front teeth on the bottom, I have not smiled since the beginning of April and their replacements won’t be ready until mid-July.

My face has never been my fortune but my personality has. I’ve always had a voice and I’ve used it, getting by on wit of sorts and a smile. Now I dip my head when I speak in public and my smile is closed-lipped and inauthentic. I had to restrain myself from buying a burka to wear on trips to Trader Joe’s and I only spend time with the people whom I know best. Not only has my travel been curtailed, so have my local excursions, and that is difficult.

Paying for past sins is one way of looking at this, so are those foolish virgins, and poor old Esau staring at an empty plate and a bartered future. But the only sane point of view, as far as I’m concerned, is this is my life, all of it. Some women use sunscreen, some women don’t floss. Whether we have spent our days being prudent or happily squandering everything we have, we all face vanished waistlines and sagging necks. Some of us however come away with much better stories than our wiser sisters. And for some of us, the stories are worth the physical loss that comes with reckless adventures or satisfied appetites, and I’m positive Esau would agree with me.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Desperately Seeking Fried Rice

Some days all you want to eat is simple food and you don’t want to cook it for yourself. Whether you call it diner food, bistro food, or street food, it’s all based on comfort. Why else would a grilled cheese sandwich prevail as a popular menu choice well into the 21st Century? Why is macaroni and cheese making a sudden resurgence in chicken and waffle joints across Seattle, if not the country?

When I lived in Thailand, an American friend and I would play a sad and masochistic little game called What Will You Eat First When You Go Back Home. Surrounded as we were by one of the world’s greatest cuisines that waited for us right outside any hour of any day, we had humble yearnings for our introductory meal. “Chicken fried steak,” was my friend’s usual answer while mine was “A meat loaf sandwich.”

Simple food can’t be confused with food that’s indifferently prepared. Nothing is more disgusting than a burnt grilled cheese sandwich or mac and cheese that’s soggy, except perhaps a meat loaf sandwich that’s been made with overly fat ground beef. Simple dishes are perhaps the most demanding of all food choices, because they rely on only a few ingredients without a lot of culinary flourishes.

Like most foreigners in Thailand, I found the gateway drugs to what became my lifelong street food addiction were dishes that were comforting, easy to find and to pronounce, and somehow familiar: wok-fried rice and noodles with chicken and soy sauce. Gradually my choices became more adventurous but these street food staples remained as two of my favorites. The stinging miasma of garlic and chile sizzling in a hot wok would lead me to the places that would give me what I wanted, where I knew I’d find my Bangkok version of simple, satisfying comfort.

It had been a long cold post-holiday season here in the Pacific Northwest and as we neared the end of January, I needed Thai fried rice. In Seattle, this isn’t an easy dish to find. The almost toxic cloud of garlic and chile frying at high heat would cause an entire restaurant to flee the premises and wok cookery isn’t just an art—it’s hard, hot, and painful work. Many other things are much easier to prepare than fried rice, and that’s what most people make: curries, grilled meat, and braised Sino-Thai dishes. I couldn’t blame them but nonetheless, in the same perverse and nostalgic spirit that prompted me to occasionally search in Bangkok for a hamburger that wasn’t a Big Mac, I wanted khao pat that would taste as though it had been made on a sidewalk in deepest Thonburi.

To find that, I needed to find a place with woks, and Thai Tom in the University district of Seattle came instantly to mind. The owner had found an old diner and kept it intact. Cooks worked behind the counter in full view of the customers who were seated nearby on stools. Woks were at center stage and when the place first opened, people crowded to the place, eager to watch the spectacle of open flames shooting menacingly above the guy who was making their food.

Now there’s more than one wok behind the counter and each one is smaller than the original that I remembered from twenty years ago. The joint is still hopping. I showed up well after the lunch rush and two cooks were still in motion, which was a good sign. I ordered my rice and watched and waited.

“How hot do you want it?” the waitress asked me and I said, “Normal. Just please bring me some fish sauce with chili and I’ll fix it myself.” She ladled what I’d asked for from a container behind the counter and handed me a little bowl. The chili was so finely diced that it looked almost like powder and the fish sauce smelled old. I braced myself.

The cook tossed a handful of sliced pork into the wok and let it sizzle, then added an egg and tossed it about for a while. Then he scooped out enough rice to feed several starving orphans and dumped it into the wok. There was a spurt of obligatory flame and then he turned his attention to someone speaking to him from the kitchen. Then he returned to a short burst of moving the rice around the wok and then it all went on a plate—my plate.

It wasn’t the worst fried rice I’ve ever had. That honor goes to Phnom Penh Noodle House, which once brought me a plate of it that had been scorched. It was however a plate of rice that had been heated, not fried. There were hunks of warm chicken, a slice or two of onion, and some basil leaves. I could, and have, done better myself at home, and I left most of it uneaten.

It took a while before I had the strength to resume my quest but at last a day dawned that was bright and sunny, daffodils and crocus decided to bloom, and my optimism returned. On a whim I stopped at Song Phang Kong on Jackson Street, the one place in Seattle that is so much like a Thai noodle shop that I always expect to see motorcycle taxis waiting outside it when I leave.

I’ve had good food here, sausage both Thai- and Lao-style, papaya salad with a generous dash of fermented fish, and chicken that had been grilled over charcoal. I knew that the lady who had presided over the kitchen had died but her husband was still in place. Although fried rice wasn’t on his menu, fried noodles were, so I asked if he could make me what I was longing for. “Yes,” he said.

Before disappearing into the kitchen, he made me a Thai iced tea that was almost sinful, tart with lemon and tamarind and topped off with a thick layer of half-and-half. Traditional? No. Delicious? Absobloodylutely. My hopes soared a little higher and were nourished by the view of one of his arms, visible through the kitchen doorway, moving in the St. Vitus dance of a seasoned wok user. My only reservation was the rice he had taken into the kitchen, scooped out from deep within a rice cooker. Perhaps, I told myself, it was rice that had been cooked the day before.

He brought me a plate that was heaped high with rice, chunks of chicken, sliced onion in profusion, and a generous helping of broccoli and carrots. That was fair. Although the green vegetable usually used in fried rice was sold right across the street at Viet Wah, he had no reason to have pak kana in his kitchen. I’d ordered off the menu, after all, and he’d obliged. When he showed up again to ask me how my food tasted, I told him it was delicious.

I lied. The rice was clumped together as if it had been meant for sushi. It was soggy and mushy and I couldn’t finish it. I ate enough to be polite and asked that the rest be put in a box, although I never intended to touch it again. But it was my fault, not his. I’d asked for fried rice and he had cooked fresh rice for the day to accompany the dishes he had on his menu. I told him I’d be back soon for his sausage and I certainly will be—but fried rice will never be my request again.

I was still hungry. Slowly and sadly I made my way up to the end of Broadway on Capitol Hill, where Rom Mai has been for decades. Full disclosure: I’ve known the owner for over twenty years; we became friends long before he opened his own restaurant. So when the waitress asked me what I wanted, I told her I wanted to ask her boss a question.

“Can you make me fried rice with pork? Not with broccoli but with pak kana, like Bangkok? The kind where the rice isn’t soggy?” I was almost in tears and his answer was swift and reassuring. “My wife takes the rice from the top of the cooker and she works out all of the lumps. And we give people whatever vegetables they want to eat. She’ll make you Bangkok khao pat moo.”

When the rice was put in front of me, it was spread out on the plate in almost individual grains. Each bite had the flavor of the garlic, onion, and pork with which the rice had been fried. It was succulent, without a trace of sogginess, accompanied by pak kana cut on the diagonal and pork that was thinly sliced but still flavorful. In a restaurant that is almost formal in its decoration, where dining is the word that comes to mind rather than diner, I had khao pat moo that was as good as any that I’ve eaten on a sidewalk from a pink plastic plate on a table that bears a holder filled with a roll of toilet paper. And for me there is no higher praise than that.

Rom Mai offers fried rice with crab as one of its specials. I’ll be back. Soon. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Alaska: Beyond the Palins and the NRA

Although every household in the small Alaskan community that I grew up in was equipped with a rifle, it was a tool of last resort, used to bring in food when supplies ran low. Although people traveled on foot and by dog sled, a rifle wasn’t usually what was carried on a pack-board. Between wild beast and mankind existed a form of peaceful coexistence, unless the animals were in rut, or with offspring, or needed on family dinner plates. Then all bets were off.

Scotty, a quiet, gentle family friend whom I adored, ran an eleven-mile trap line in the woods near his cabin outside of what was with some exaggeration called “town.” He was on the trail when a bull moose came out of nowhere and charged his team of four dogs. The dogs, three-year-old litter-mates and no pushovers, went for the moose, fangs bared, while Scotty, who carried only a hunting knife with him, grabbed a chain that he used in the traps and joined the dogs in their battle. The moose backed off and then came back in a second charge, kicking viciously at the dogs and leaving deep head gashes on two of them.

At this point the story takes on Paul Bunyanesque proportions. Scotty made a noose in the chain, managed to throw it over the moose’s head, pulled the makeshift lasso tight, and tied it to a tree. He drove his dogs a safe distance from the attack scene and went back to release his captive. He couldn’t reach the chain to untie it because the moose was in full panic mode, thrashing about in unsuccessful escape attempts.

With two of his dogs badly hurt, Scotty had to walk back to his nearest neighbors for assistance and four men returned with him to unchain the moose. A rifle wasn’t deemed necessary. One of the group lassoed a hind leg with an easily removed half-hitch knot while the others freed the moose from the tree and eased the chain over its neck. Once liberated, the moose charged the group again; they fought it off with the chain until it gave up and disappeared into the woods at last.

Scotty and his friends estimated the moose was around 900 pounds, full grown and uncharacteristically aggressive. It was “on the prod” because of the hard crust of ice that had formed on the snow and turned dagger-sharp when weight broke through it. With bleeding cuts from that crust, the moose was in a bad mood and Scotty and his dogs were the nearest target that it could find.

The dogs recovered from their wounds and Scotty decided perhaps carrying a rifle on the trail might be a good idea from now on. “You know,” he told a big city reporter from the Anchorage Times, “’that moose could have been a big bull.”

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An Aching in My Belly, a Craving in My Head

For the first time in three weeks, my room is filled with the scent of coffee and with my first bitter sip my mind stretches, yawns, and agrees to wake up. It is my drug. Tea is too subtle for me; espresso is too fast. I need to swallow freshly ground beans bathed in boiling water to feel alive in the world and for all of my synapses to fire properly. After over half a century of drinking coffee, the grooves it has worn in my nervous system are too deep to sod over and reseed into a refined green tea landscape. I’m addicted as my mother was before me. I’m sure that coffee ran in my veins before I was born.

Dad thrust a cup of hot sweet milky coffee into my fifteen-year-old hands when I came home from a long, wet, chilly horseback ride to pick up mail and library books. I drank it as a sacramental rite of passage but my next cup was black, and so were all of the others after that. I drank it all night as a teenager and was delighted to find that by morning I had lost five pounds—legal speed.

In New York I was always amazed to find that in that city I didn’t need it. The rush of a Manhattan street woke me into life without caffeine, which was fortunate because the coffee in NYC was vile anywhere above 14th Street. Still I drank that battery acid from the depths of hell that was sold in diners because that was what fueled the city that had given me birth.

My father was the one who bought me my first cup of espresso, down on Mulberry Street, when children still played on the sidewalks with grandmothers in shapeless dresses sitting on stoops to guard them. I drank it with a shot of anisette in a neighborhood joint where nobody questioned my age. As I sipped and felt a tinge of sophistication long before my time, a car pulled up and a man got out wearing a black homburg and an expensive-looking black overcoat. He walked in with an aura of regality and everyone in the place paid him homage with their attention. “Good morning, Large Joseph,” the bartender greeted him as he took his place at the counter and even I, who had barely ever heard of the Mafia, was in awe. Ever since then I’ve associated the taste of espresso with power.

The machine that made that first espresso for me was large and made of gleaming copper; it looked as though it could fuel a small battleship. It took skill to operate, I learned, when I went to a place in Seattle that used a similar system to very bad effect. Before Starbucks, when espresso was still Italian and barista wasn’t a word applied to teenagers who pulled shots after school, what emerged from a well-operated machine could raise a heartbeat from death to hyperspeed in three minutes flat.

And that of course is where the danger lies. I love my little espresso pot with its ceremonial undertones and its chaste little white cups and saucers, but what it makes is not really my friend. Espresso isn’t meant to be sipped; it cools too quickly in those sweet little cups and I could down three of them in the space of writing a paragraph. I need my coffee in a mug that retains the heat, the way I learned to drink it in Alaska.

My parents and their friends drank coffee the way winos clutch bottles of cheap wine, killing a pot at a sitting, their maintenance doses. It was a socially sanctioned time to down tools and talk in long conversations that ranged from the price of chainsaw fuel to the state of the world. In another time and place I use it to fuel conversations with myself and it sparks thought in a way that never comes with the gentler infusion of caffeine in green tea.

This morning I was awake before six, knowing what was waiting for me in the kitchen, and that I know is the thrill of addiction. I’m sure my blood pressure is above sanctioned levels at this moment and I do not give a jolly damn. I have had my drug, and I will have it again tomorrow, and the world is a much less torpid place for me.

And without thinking very much about it, I’ve gone past my first page this morning and am more than happy to write more. The sun is up and so are both of the guys I live with and I am in my caffeine bubble, oblivious.

Thank heaven I never tried heroin.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Been a Long Time Since I Rock-and-Rolled

Watching All Things Must Pass last night before I went to bed has Tower on my mind this morning, close and familiar. Faces I knew and others who were always invoked but never seen, the toad-like face of Stan Gomen, bizarrely normal Bud Martin, squishy-featured Michael Solomon, the anointed one who failed his father, and of course Uncle Ross, a mixture of Kris Kringle and Mephistopheles, drinking Scotch in front of a great wall of books, not records, videos, or cds. Rudy Danziger, who was so proud of having a signing with Beverly Garland by the pool at a Sacramento Holiday Inn, not Norm whose last name I can’t remember but whom I spoke to over the phone every week, who told me “We’re going to get you to Sacramento, why should Seattle have you?” and had me shuddering with disgust, and Heidi Keller, who let Rudy go during the agonizing dismantling of an empire by saying, “Rudy, I want a divorce.” Later she knew the guillotine awaited her when Russ called and asked her to lunch, because in all the years she’d worked for him, he’d never done that before.

The shocker was photos of Heidi when she was young—the woman I knew as a harridan with cold eyes was shiny and really beautiful. “They told me to wear miniskirts to work and then they all looked up my skirt,” which was borne out by an earlier story told to me by one of the old reps. “I walked into Watt Avenue and there was a pair of long legs wearing a miniskirt on top of a ladder, pulling stock.” “Leopard skin underpants and a mini skirt,” the old Heidi vouchsafes in the movie, for all posterity to remember.

“They taught me to swear, to drink, and do drugs. I was one of the guys,” she said, and I winced. That was me, except for the drugs. I too learned to be as tough as any man I worked with but not as much as the redoubtable Ms. Keller, who said, “I went into labor twice at the register.” She didn’t say when, but I would bet it was during Christmas or the 30% off sale.

If she was like me, labor wouldn’t have kept her from either of those events. There was something weirdly exhilarating about facing a line of customers that extended the length of the store and getting them all out the door in minutes flat. There was no attention given at those times, just sheer crazed efficiency.

Two little girls used to come to Mercer and I would always ask them if they wanted their own little bags. They showed up in my line during the 30% off sale and stared at me with reproach at the end of the transaction. “We want our own little bags,” the biggest one said and I quickly apologized, bagged each book, and they let the line continue.

Open to Midnight, 365 Days a Year, was the boast but a customer wrote to us in outrage
once because he came to the store at 11:55 on December 31st and the doors were locked. That occasioned more outrage from upper management than the two times that we were robbed, once at gunpoint.

We made nothing, but our employee benefits were immense. There were Tower Building Blocks that we could cash in when we finally left the company if we stayed for a specified amount of time that I can no longer remember. I think I cashed mine for about 200 bucks after five years. We had employee charge accounts that we could put rep comps on for credit, we had sick leave of sorts and a decent number of vacation days. We had medical, dental, and vision insurance that was better than any employer-based policy that I’ve had since, and the annual parties were bacchanalian. Employee meetings were always at a restaurant that served booze; so were many of the sales calls. The tab from any of those meetings was equal to what any of us made in a month.

When The Satanic Verses earned Rushdie a death sentence, we kept the book front and center on the new release table, sold every copy we had, and then took special orders, which we put proudly and visibly on a shelf behind the counter. The only caveat we received was that we shouldn’t have the customer’s name also visible, on slips of paper tucked into each book that was waiting for pick-up.

“It wasn’t a job, “one former employee kept saying throughout the movie, “It was a way of life.” Tower Culture, I called it, and it absorbed almost all of us who had ever worked there. We worked and ate and drank together at Mercer, just one big dysfunctional family. Even after leaving by choice, I still dream about the store that is now a bank, vivid dreams where I walk in and try to make it the place it used to be.

There were people who made real money there, all of them in Sacramento. Everybody wanted to be a manager but not for the money, which was laughable even at that level. We wanted our own stores, and it was Russ Solomon’s peculiar genius that made us feel that the store we would manage would be ours.

I was given a 250 dollar bonus once for launching a reading program in several Seattle elementary schools. I could well have used the money but I was outraged. “They can’t give us raises but they hand me this for something that I couldn’t do without the support of this store?” I spent the money on an expensive Krupps coffee maker and a grinder for the beans which had a place of honor in the backroom until some idiot burned out the element.

The best part of the movie was in the outtakes, when Gomen told the story about an elephant they dyed pink and brought into the Watt Avenue store for a Big Pink promotion. He claimed the elephant peed on the floor and drenched the carpet. Russ’s version was when they put the elephant back in the truck to leave, it let loose and he watched a river of urine rush down the street toward the store. “That’s not what Stan said,” someone remarked off-camera, and Russ wheeled upon Gomen. “Well that’s what so-and-so told me had happened,” was his defense and Russ roared “You weren’t even there.” And then two old men were laughing their asses off on a street corner where a beginning of an empire once stood and reigned and went to hell.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bangkok Is Not Thailand

This is Mukdahan, on its walkway by the Mekong. When I first went there, the walkway was empty; the last time I was on it, it was crowded with vendors. The view is still exhilarating and two years ago, I could still buy coffee from this truck and watch the river as I drank it.

Across the river is Savannakhet, another favorite spot, where Laos people are separated from their Thai relatives only by the border formed by the Mekong. The language, the food, the friendliness is the same as it is across the Friendship Bridge that takes me over the river into another country.

Along the river, a short van ride away is Nakhon Phanom, I still miss that lovely, peaceful place.

And there's Korat, where I always stop and spend a day or two before going on to the Mekong cities.

Then there are the people and places I see from a bus window as I travel through Isaan. They haunt me as much as the places I've spent time in.

I think of the small towns that the buses pull into at dusk, where I think briefly of getting off, finding a room, and staying for a while. Someday I will.

But for now, I'm grateful for the knowledge that Bangkok is only a pale reflection of the rest of the country. All that is being erased there is still thriving and vital in smaller cities, tiny towns. Next time I'll skip the capital and go to Thailand.