21. Inventing Reduction

In my senior year, after Matisse left for Vermont, I rented a room in a house with some friends from the potshop. It was not a good time especially or a good situation, but Anna Lee, one of my housemates kept getting stuff from her parents’ farm. She didn’t mind if I used it so I started cooking with canned tomatoes and sometimes, if she had visited her mother, she’d come back with a mayonaise jar of cream.

I was cooking some pork chops one day when Matisse called. I turned down the heat before I answered it, but I was using a cast iron pan on an electric stove and it was a while before I got back. When I looked in the pan, the stewed tomatoes were dry, dark clumps of solid tomato. I hadn’t seasoned them much–just some garlic and black pepper–but they were almost smoky and better than any ketchup I’d ever tried.

I found out later it was called reduction.In pottery, you starve a kiln of oxygen. Iron turns jade green, copper dark red.  Driving the moisture out of the food, letting it carmelize. Changing it into something else.

20. Was a Sunny Day


Video version by: Thorrison

 “Where were you, goddammit?” asks John, opening his door. He looks past me to Christine, who is holding both bikes. He doesn’t say hello.

“I tried to call you,” I tell him.

“Well, do you have it?” he asks.

“Of course I have it.” I reach into my pocket.

“Come inside, for Christ’s sake. I don’t want the whole block to see this.”

I tell Christine it will take a minute and walk in. I give him the roll. He counts it without speaking.

“There’s $20 too much.”

“Take it.”

“It’s yours, man.” He puts it into my pocket.

“How’s business?”

“Too many people who want Colombian dope for commercial prices.”

“I have to go, John.”

“Yeah. Good-bye.” We shake hands desultorily and off I go.

“Your friend doesn’t like me,” Christine says as we ride away.

“He’s just in a bad mood.”

She changes gears and pulls ahead. I catch up and ride beside her. We’re silent for the rest of the ride home.

 Sandro Botticelli - Birth of Venus (detail)

I close the door to my bedroom and take her in my arms as soon as we walk in. No mistakes this time. Her smile is a wall. I let her go. “I don’t mean to push.”

“Just go slow.”

We take off our shoes and sit on my bed. I touch her cheek.

“I wasn’t planning,” she said. “I just went off the pill.”

“That’s OK. We don’t have to, ah…”

She pulls me to her. Enveloped by her warmth and the softness of her arms around me, I touch her gently. She smiles softly, almost sadly.

I kiss her lips, her throat, her breasts and her body. I peel off her underpants  and, like a slow blues, it’s all liquid sadness and soft surrender. She’s still for a long time after she comes, cradling my head on her belly. Then, reaching a decision, she pulls me up to her face. She holds my head in her hands, eyes searching mine. God, she’s beautiful. She lays my head on the pillow and then she’s doing it, what Matisse never would.

I touch her hair gently. The night surrounds us, rich and warm. I come, reaching for her as she fades in front of me, withdrawing into herself. She owns herself again when she looks at me.  Her head rests on my chest, thumb gently rubbing my skin.

We lie in the darkness, candle flickering and our breath the only sound in the room. I was always sure of Matisse when we were alone together.  I lean over Christine and blow out the candle.

“Sleep well.”

In the morning, the room is flooded with light and her head is still on my shoulders.

19: La Ecole – The Artist in 20th Century France

The only class Matisse and I ever took together was a night class, The Artist in 20th Century France. Since it was listed as a Comp lit class, it satisfied a requirement. Besides, it was a perfect class for us.

The instructor was young and probably hadn’t been teaching long. Each class started with a lecture and was followed by slides, music, or discussion of poetry or a novel. It should have been called The Artist in 19th Century France, since we started with the pre-Impressionists and ended at World War I. The instructor, R. Harold Black, turned out the lights for the slides and the music.

We both loved the class and Matisse loved R. Harold. The class had a sprinkling of students, plus the hippies–two guys and a girl. They sat close to the front, an Impressionist blur of long frizzy hair, sweaters, army jackets, and jeans, so they could argue with R. Harold over Rimbaud’s hashish and Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. 

Despite the dark room being perfect for it, we never got stoned before class. Matisse didn’t like to smoke pot anyway, and it was easier to pay attention straight, except for one time. Some friend of John’s from Rockland County had come by with some Orange Sunshine that afternoon. Sunshine wasn’t technically LSD, it was an analogue, ALD-52, and it always seemed more disorienting than mind-opening to me as acid. But it was more visual and auditory than acid, and when Matisse mentioned our class that night was going to listen to Debussy and Ravel, it seemed like one of those synchronicities. 

The class was a 7:30, so we dropped around 6. By 6:30, things were definitely popping and we kept checking the kitchen clock so we wouldn’t be late.  In our attempt to show we could function on acid, we miscalculated and got to class about 20 minutes early. We went to the bathroom to eat up some time, but after watching the tiles over the urinal ooze for a while, I gave up and found Matisse in the hall, eagerly pretending to study someone’s office hour schedule. There seemed like nothing else to do but sit down.

We found our seats. There were a couple of other early birds, and the hippies. The girl looked at us and nudged her friends. They turned, smiled knowingly and looked away. They know. I thought I should be paranoid, but somehow the comfort of being with Matisse and feeling like I was there to protect her made me calm.

“Debussy, tonight,” said the girl to Matisse. “Our Hal knows how to pick ’em.”

“Who?”

“R. Hal,” she said. “You know, Harold, Hal.” “Our Hal,” she said. “Our hero.”

 And then the rest of the class started filtering in. “Enjoy the show,” she said to Matisse and turned around. Our Hal entered and began describing impressionism in music and the Mediterranean coastline. I pretended to take notes, but Matisse stared at him for the entire lecture. And then, mercifully, he turned out the lights and played La Mer on the little portable record player.

In my mind’s eye, I could see that first light in the sky breaking onto the water, the waves, the rocky shore. From dawn to noon, I followed the day. I loved to watch Matisse draw, always amazed at how she created lines that had depth and shape. Debussy did the same with notes—how could you make simple notes create the picture or oboes sound like little lapping waves? What was like to hear it for the first time in a French concert hall, the men in tails and the women waving lacy fans in their formal gowns, expecting something familiar? Mike Bloomfield once said that he thought he was a pretty good guitarist until he was backstage at some festival and this guy next to him kept making the wind and animals come out of his guitar. He said he stopped playing for a year after he heard Jimi Hendrix. I imagined there were composers who might have felt the same way. Apparently, there were also a lot of pissed off music lovers. I laughed a little, listening to the waves.  There was more after La Mer, but nothing quite as striking.

Mercifully, Our Hal sensed that tonight was not the night for lengthy discussions and let us go after some perfunctory back and forth. We walked into the campus, the sounds of cars, machinery, bicycles, conversations becoming music as we walked. ‘La Ecole,’ Matisse said, and a plane streaked overhead. I turned, and a bus squealed to a halt and its brakes sent a blast of compressed air into the mix.

She asked me what Our Hal had said during the lecture. “I don’t know, I was just trying to hold it together until the lights went off. I thought you were really into it. Every time I looked, you were staring at him.”

“I was watching the muscles in his face move. I wasn’t really listening to him. ”

We walked until La Ecole wound down, then went back to her room and, in the dark, played another kind of music.

18. In the End, They’re All Blueberries

When I walk in, Bill is at the slicer, huffing madly away. I clock in quickly and, grabbing an apron, run through the dining room to the grill. “Let me get that,” I tell him, but he won’t be moved.

I’ve got the grill covered, and three fryer baskets working, by the time Bill puts the top slice of rye bread on his sandwich. He cuts it carefully in two and, cupping his cigarette in his hand, takes a deep drag.

“A CB extraordinaire,” he says. “All the trimmings.” The smoke of his cigarette is acrid and my eyes water. I nod and try to move around him for the corned beef.

“Saturday night, Danny. It’s like the old days.” I nod and fork the corned beef back into the steamtable. I slide by him, get the roast beef, and edge him away from the slicer. Two passes and I’ve got my sandwich. I reach around him to check on the fries.

“I was like you, Danny,” he says. “Young and on the go. I started with a lunch cart downtown when I was 16. That was before the war. When I got back, I wanted to open it again, but Gloria talked me into catering. Smartest move I ever made.”

I nod, flipping burgers and setting up plates, each one garnished with the patented red and green. Call for a pick-up and Christine starts piling plates on her forearms. Her eyes wander from Bill to me.

“We stayed up all night making cornucopias and meat platters for our first affair. Then we served all afternoon and stayed up all night for our Sunday affair. I don’t think I got four hours sleep in three days.

“I tell you Danny, those were the days. We had to go all over town. The smokehouse was on the West Side. We got rolls and bread from Izzy Itzkowitz, meat from Sam Normandy. We used to make all our own cole slaw and potato salad, pickle the herring and chop the liver. Boy,” he says, “we worked.”

“Why don’t you make them now?” I ask. “People love homemade.”

“It’s much cheaper to buy wholesale, now.”

“Homemade chopped liver? You could even raise your prices. We could start with a few things, specials, and work out from there. What do you say?”

“Oh Danny, people don’t want that nowadays. They want fast and they want cheap.”

“Danny,” he says, lighting a fresh cigarette, “When we opened this place, it was a cafeteria with a grocery section. We had all sorts of specialty items, frozen game, goat’s milk, kosher stuff from Montreal and New York.

Cloudberry and blueberryYou know what? Nobody bought it. They came, maybe they took a jar home, but the stuff just sat there. Marty, my wife’s brother, he wouldn’t listen. I finally had to get rid of him, bought his half right out from under him. Opened the restaurant. But for a while, we had it all. Cloudberries, lingonberries, gooseberries. You know what?  In the end, they’re all blueberries.”

“You’re doing fine, Danny. Try to come in on time, will you?” He throws his butt into the garbage and walks away.

I can see it all now. A blizzard, seventeen foot drifts. The dog team stops in front of Bill’s Imported Delicacies. The Eskimo gives his wife the reins while he dashes in for some reindeer steaks. ‘Don’t forget a quart of moose milk, dear,’ she shouts.

Remembering the other basket of fries, I wheel to check it. I pick a hot French Fry out of the oil, see that it’s not done yet, and drop it back. I wince as the pain hits my fingers.

“Are you OK?” Christine asks.

“Oddly, yes.” My fingertips are a little red, but jeeze, hot oil?

“Well, back to work. It’s Saturday night.”

“And I don’t have a date. Christine, will you have dinner with me?”

“I never take last minute offers.”

“How about lunch then?  Something simple. You won’t even have to hold my hand.”

“What did you have in mind?”

I didn’t actually. The University across the street gives me an idea. “How about a picnic?  I know a place. I’ll pick you up as soon as it gets quiet.”

“Ok. Stay out of trouble in the meantime.” She picks up her orders and goes.

 

It’s close to nine-thirty by the time it slows down enough. I come out to the register with two turkey clubs, fries, two cokes and a piece of cheesecake in a paper bag. “Bill,” I say, “Christine and I are taking lunch across the street. We’re back in twenty minutes. If it gets busy, just wave.”

I could swear a wicked gleam comes into his eye and he breaks into a smile.

“Sure thing, Uncle Danny. Have a nice lunch.”

I lead a startled Christine out of the Deli and across the street. There’s a large rolling lawn up to the Old Campus. We walk up to a grassy spot between two bushes under a maple tree. I set down the bag and lay my apron, clean side up, on the grass. We sit side by side, watching the street, half expecting Bill to wave us in.

“I hope you like turkey. I didn’t have time to check.”

“It’s fine.” She bites in. “Cole slaw!”

“Which has been properly drained, you will notice. Christine, I’m sorry about the other night.”

“You were really stoned,” she says. “And I had a lot on my mind.” She does the girl thing—push the food around a little, take a small bite, play with it to not eat too much. You can tell when they’re on a date, they all do that. The couples all just eat.

“You’re like two people. At work, you’re so funny and confident, but when you’re alone, you get so insecure. I think you smoke too much pot.”

“I talk too much.”

“You don’t,” she says quickly. “Some people don’t ever talk about themselves. Even when they have to.”

I lean over and kiss her. She kisses back. When I open my eyes, she is looking at me. She pushes me again. Caught unawares, I tumble backwards, down the slope.

“Get up. Eat your cheesecake.”

“I can’t. It’s downhill. The blood is rushing to my head. Give me a hand, will you?”

She grabs my hand and I pull her on top of me.

“Creep,” she says. “Let me go.”

I let go and kiss her. She settles her body onto mine. Through my jeans, I can feel John’s money pressing into my hip. Oh no, forgot to call.

“We’d better go.”

 

But there’s no answer at John’s. Bill and Ellen smile at me when I come back from the phone. Christine is in the dining room, working with a fury.

Bill asks how lunch was.

“OK.”

“If it was just OK,” asks Ellen, “then why is there grass in your hair?”

I reach up. My face is burning.

“All that white you’re wearing,” she says. “You stand out. Relax, he thought it was cute.”

17. The Handoff

Stanley is waiting for me in a parking lot on the old campus, feet propped up on the dashboard of his ’67 Olds. He’s staring at the Physics building in front of him, but he sees me coming. By the time I pull up to his car, he’s leaning out of the window. I stop and hand him the knapsack, then get in the car.

“How much was it?”he asks, pulling a bank envelope out of his shirt pocket, face eager behind his glasses.

“One seventy.”

He takes a five dollar bill out of the envelope and passes me the rest. “Thanks, Danny. I really appreciate this. What’s it like?”

“About the same as your other stuff.” I realize I don’t even know. A joint of commercial weed between four people–I’d be lucky to even feel it. And, thinking about it, I guess I do.

I want to get going, but Stanley is rummaging through his glove compartment for his car pipe. He finds it and opens the knapsack and the bag inside.

“Will you look at that,” he says, chuckling. “Let’s smoke some.”

He scoops the pipe full of loose pot, seeds and stems included, and lights it. The seeds make it smoke like an industrial chimney.

“Bound to have a lot of seeds in it,” I say. “It’s got a lot of buds, too.”

“It does have a lot of seeds.”

“Thirty-five an ounce Colombian it’s not. It seems ok. What do you think?”

Most of the time, unless the weed is outrageously bad or outrageously good, the seller’s presentation determines the buyer’s acceptance. Most people will not turn down a friend and most pot is sold between friends. I don’t think I ever sold pot without telling what I honestly thought of it. I never made a lot of money selling dope.

This stuff, this stuff is commercial weed, it exists just to take people’s money. I want to give the $20 back to Stanley, but that would only make things worse.

“It’s OK pot. For the money.” He nods sagely.

“I’ve got to get to work, Stanley. I’m late as it is.”

“Do you want me to drive you?”

I shake my head. He thanks me again. “Don’t mention it,” I tell him. “It was nothing.”

I get on my bike and go. As I pump, John’s money makes a stiff spot in my pocket. I should be sad, but for some reason I’m not. It no longer matters. I check John’s money to be sure it’s safe, and lean into the wind.

16. Cowboy Movie

[Consider starting at 30 seconds to avoid the unintelligible description of finding this movie on late nite TV.]

Just a sunny summer afternoon. There’s a battered white van in John’s driveway. His own car is nowhere in sight. John always hated vans, except as equipment trucks. He said they were too visible and too clumsy. He waves me in, beaming.

In the center of the floor is a steamer trunk, open and full of red-paper wrapped packages, one and a half pound bricks of pot. On his desk is a pile of torn red paper and, spread out on newspapers, a huge mound of weed.

“You did it!” I shout and there is a hoarse laugh from one of the armchairs. A fat guy in a dirty white tee shirt, a thin black leather vest and a chunk of metal for a belt buckle, holding a beer in one hand. The other rests on the knee of a watery blond woman. She sips her beer impassively and watches me. I smile nervously.

 “Sam, Dehlia, Danny,” Sam grabs my hand and we swing back and forth in a soul brother handshake. I nod at Dehlia.

“So,” I say to John, “you have any pot?”

They all laugh. “A couple of pounds,” he says.

“Like ninety,” says Sam.

He takes the rolled up bill that John offers him and swings around on the bed. John portions off four lines of Jaime’s speed on the ceramic tile on his desk. Sam snorts them noisily, two in each nostril, and passes the bill to Dehlia.

“Why don’t you roll a joint?” John asks me.

A lot of seeds, half shake. Not very impressive weed. I pick a bud off the pile and clean it. John’s joints look like cigarettes and they burn evenly. Mine have a bump in their center no matter what I do.

“There’s some speed there, if you want it.” John offers me the bill.

I make what’s left into two lines and snort it while John fiddles with the adjustment screw on his triple beam balance. I wouldn’t let him steal one from the Ceramics shop, so he stole one from a chem lab. ‘They’ll just buy another.’ The Pot shop lost five out of eight scales. They couldn’t afford to replace them. Instead, they chained the last three to the glaze bench. Someone cut one of the chains.

“Best goddamn pot in Austin,” says Sam, looking from Dehlia to John as he finishes, “for the money.” He snorts noisily and spits into the wastepaper basket. Sourly, John peels a garbage bag off the roll and snaps it open.

“Hold this,” he says to Sam. “This is for Stanley, right?”

I nod and he picks up a handful of shake. If it were my pound, it would have been a handful of buds.

The sour taste of the speed in the back of my throat gags me, but that warm and friendly energy is rising through my body. I rub my nose and smile at Dehlia. She stares through me and takes another sip of beer. I light the joint, fighting paranoia.

Sam takes the joint, sucking on it wetly. It begins to burn down the side. John puts down the handful of buds and puts a drop of spit on the paper to even up the burning.

“How much do I tell Stanley?”

“Tell him one seventy and give me one fifty.”

“I’d rather just do you the favor.”

“Nobody does this for free”

“I don’t like to make money on friends.”

John twists a tie around the baggie. “Stanley’s going to sell some, right?”

“He’s splitting it with Mike.”

“Money will change hands,” says John. “Believe it.”

I look outside the window. Yesterday’s storm is gone. Clouds are drifting lazily south. The sun shines brightly in a newly washed sky. He’s right, of course, but I don’t want to agree with him. I want it like the old days, when you just wanted to turn someone on.

“The first of the lot,” says John, tossing the pound at me. Caught by surprise, I drop it. Sam laughs.

“I’ve got to meet Stanley now. Should I tell him to bring over the money or drop it off?” I put the pound in my knapsack and buckle it tight.

“Come by,” says John. “No sense in having extra people around.”

“See you,” I say and walk out. Sam and Dehlia do not say good-bye.

15. Rainy Day, Dream Away

When I wake up, it’s mid afternoon and raining.  I make some coffee and take it out to the porch. There’s things I should do and things I wanted to do, but between the time and the rain, they’re not going to happen. Instead, I put on Side 3 of Electric Ladyland, the Rainy Day sequence, and sit on the front porch and watch the rain.

After a while, the kitchen door slams and wet sneakers squeak on linoleum.  Stanley walks into the porch with a cardboard box in his hands. His hair and goatee are greasy-black with rain and plastered to his head. His glasses are so streaked with water that I wonder how he can see out of them.

“Look at what I got,” he says, offering me the box. Inside are a bunch of coleus and geraniums. The box is awash with dirty water.

“Did you steal those from the New Campus?” I ask.

“They planted them right in the ground,” he says. “They were going to die anyway. I did them a favor.” He runs his fingers through his hair and cold rain splatters on my arm.

“Hey, come on, Stanley. You’re dripping all over me.” Continue reading

14: Four AM Streets

We walked along the brownstones and tree-lined streets of Allentown, the street noise still sounding like the concert. Then, we left Allentown and walked out onto Main Street and suddenly I was thinking again, wondering what I could say to her. I’m sure I said something, but mostly I remember listening to Matisse.

She’d grown up in Brooklyn, in her grandparents’ house until they moved to the Island when she was eight. Her grandfather was a sign painter, among other things, and she loved to hang out in his shop in the basement. He’d work on signs and she would paint using his sign paints and brushes.

He showed her the basics and then paid for lessons at the Art League. She loved to paint. Drawing was OK, but watching lines form on the page thrilled her. She loved colors, too. During the open house, at the end of the class, they hung everyone’s work on the walls. Her grandparents came with her mother and father.

“My mother was proud, of course, but she would have been proud no matter what. My father said he liked them. But my grandfather stood in front of them a long time. ‘You’re good, Stephanie. You really are. Better than…’ He swung his arm around the room and shrugged. My mother shot him a look. ‘What? It’s true.’ He knew, he really knew. Not just because I was his granddaughter.” Continue reading

13. Turn On Your LoveLight

In March 1970, the Grateful Dead played at Kleinhan’s Music Hall with the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra in a “rock-classical fusion jam.” John Cage pieces and the Grateful Dead. John and I went with some of his Rockland friends, Keith and Linda. The only acid we could find was two hits of blue Pentagon, so we ate a half-tab each when we parked Linda’s car.

Kleinhans was the home of the Philharmonic and they didn’t have many rock concerts there. That night, it was mobbed. There were two distinct groups on line–the “Patrons of the Philharmonic” in full evening dress, and the acidheads, in full freak regalia. There was an air of expectancy and the smell of pot on line.

We got to our seats, but there was still time before the concert started. Keith and Linda wandered off to look for friends. John and I left our coats and made our way to the front of the stage to watch them set up. The Orchestra had the full stage, and the Dead had the right pit. Roadies were still moving amps and arranging drum traps.

“I wish we had some more acid,” I said to John.

“Do you need LSD?” asked a woman behind us. We turned. A short woman, with electric brown hair and a wire earring in her nose, was standing in front of us. She looked pleased with herself and very very high. She held out a small plastic box.

“How much?” asked John.

“For free,” she said. “They told me to give them out and I have.” Inside the box were about 20 peach-colored tabs, so fresh that the dust was still flaking off them. “They’re really good,” she said. I believed her.

We each took one and she watched us swallow. “Thanks,” I told her. She smiled proudly and disappeared. “Hey, wait,” I said, remembering Keith and Linda. Too late. Continue reading

12. Attics of My Life

I pull ahead, make the turn and glide up my driveway. Christine pulls up. Bob’s light is on and faint sounds of Joni Mitchell follow us from the garage to the side door. The light is on over the stove and Christine stops in the kitchen to look around. I close the door behind us.

“Well,” I say, “this is it.”

I follow her eyes from the red trim to the pegboard behind the stove, laden with pots and pans, Bob’s wok, ladles and spatulas, shelves of tea and spices, to the Deli House apron hanging beside the stove. To the dirty dishes in the sink.

“Roommates,” I say, though half the dishes are mine. “Are you hungry?”

She shakes her head, and I lead her into my room. I turn on the desk lamp and fumble with some matches. When the candle is lit, I close the door and look around. Christine has a bowl I made in her hands. Unglazed brown on the outside, shiny turquoise on the inside. It has a wide flaring rim that turns over on itself so that the color spills out over the bowl. Continue reading