Big Bad World

It’s easy to feel grateful when things are going well.  Much harder when things are unraveling around you.   I recall trying for gratitude when I was 17, but it was tough to really feel it after losing my mom, who had basically been my best friend growing up.  I went to high school in a town comprised of a K-thru-12 school and a rundown bar, about an hour’s drive from the Oregon coast.  My mom passed away just as I was finishing my junior year, and I went to live with my dad in the city that summer.  Away from my friends (all three of them), I turned 17 and began my senior year in a school whose halls were so long I had to squint to see the opposite end.  “It sucked” would serve as a good in-depth summary.  I donned a black trench-coat and roamed the streets of Portland in the rain with my earphones cranked, a flask in my pocket, and a cigarette hanging from my teen-angst lips.

To live in northwest Oregon, where I grew up, is to have an understanding of rain in your bone marrow.  But I was used to that.  Somehow I pulled through until graduation, when – eager to start my life – I rushed across the stage and collected my diploma.  How I was going to start my life, I had about as good an idea as any teenager who didn’t want to go to college – none.  I hiked part of the Oregon Coast Trail with my best friend from the sticks, and then I just bailed.  My hair was getting past my shoulders and I had my tie-dyed Moody Blues shirt.  I’d read all about hippies and had a hippie upbringing so, predictably, I found myself walking along the side of the road with my backpacking gear, a hatchet hanging from my waist, and my thumb out.  I didn’t give a damn that everyone said the days of hitchhiking were long gone – I was gonna do it anyway, and see where I ended up.

A guy named Mike, in his late twenties, slowed his VW bus to pick me up.  Mike was from Stockton, California, and had hit the road after having a nuclear meltdown with his wife.  I hopped eagerly into the clunky seat two inches from the almost-flat windshield.  He fired up a joint, handed it to me, and thus began our “bromance”.

We traveled together for three weeks or so, doing odd-jobs to make enough cash for food and gas.  We went to these amazing hot springs in the Cascades east of Eugene and helped some dude drink his home-brew…until a cop showed up.  Note to self: never drink home-brew in a hot spring for longer than ten seconds.  We crawled reeling from the spring in the dark while the cop shined his flashlight in our eyes.  I’m pretty sure I received a fine that I never paid.  Who the hell knows.

From there, we wound our way to Crater Lake, around southern Oregon and down into northern California.  We lived out of his bus for a week outside of Eureka, out on the south jetty with a bunch of other vagabonds, eating government peanut butter and listening to Crosby Stills and Nash.  Finally, he returned to his wife, and I went on to San Jose, where I spent a night behind a Denny’s up in a tree with enormous limbs.  How many trees are there in San Jose?  Sometimes I think that might have been the only one.  It sure felt like the only one at the time.

I rode the BART into San Francisco and bummed around a while, deciding I wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.  A cop stopped me and took away my hatchet.  “You can’t be walking around here with that,” he scolded me.  I walked across the bridge, wind blowing against my face.  At the other side was a viewing area.  I chillaxed there for an hour or so, and wouldn’t you know two deadhead girls appeared and we started talking.  They had partied the weekend away in the city and were headed north.  A few minutes later I was riding in their back seat listening to American Beauty, on the way to Cave Junction, Oregon – their hometown.  I spent at least a night and a day with them, but then comes a hole in my memory.

The next thing I remember, I’m swollen with shame, calling my old man.  I ask him if he’ll buy me a bus ticket to come home.  It’s out of my system, I say, I’m not quite ready for the big bad world.  He buys me a ticket and I go home with my tail temporarily tucked between my legs, where I end up getting a job in a restaurant and sign up for community college on the first day of the rest of my life.

 

 

 

Impaled Digits

Growing up, I had the privilege of enduring several ingrown toenail surgeries, which culminated in having a third of the nail removed on each of my big toes.  Of course, by that time I was reading a magazine and whistling to myself while blood spurted across the room like a Monty Python skit.  Yet I was not always the stoic Sam Elliott of toenail surgeries that the doctor saw before him that day.  I had journeyed down a long and excruciating road of impaled digits.  I had paid my dues.

The first time I had it done, I yowled like a cat in heat right from the git-go.  My dad – sitting on the other side of a drawn curtain – passed out cold.  The doctor was administering the shot to numb my toe when, THUNK!, something hit the floor.  The “something” turned out to be dad’s head.  Thinking he may have had a heart attack or something, both the doctor and nurse raced to his side, leaving the syringe sticking out of my toe and the needle buried.  Next thing I knew, they had placed him on a stretcher, wheeled him over alongside me, and deduced that he had simply passed out while listening to his son – who had come to live with him for the school year – cry so damn pitifully.  I remember laughing about it for a minute before the doctor returned to my toe and began the extraction.  Tears of laughter turned to cries of pain – the kind of pain that makes you want to run wildly and throw yourself off a building.

When you have an ingrown toenail, the first step is to be in denial as long as possible.  “It’s not an ingrown toenail,” you tell yourself as you carefully un-stick the fabric of your sock from the nasty red infection on the corner of your toe and clean off the blood and pus.  Weeks later, when you can’t take it any longer (or someone steps on your foot, prompting you to wail like a banshee) you finally break down and go to the doctor.  “That’s an ingrown toenail,” he says, fully aware that you waited as long as humanly possible before coming in and having it removed.  “Why don’t you hop up on the table here?”

The first thing they do is soak your foot in that brackish, stinky, iodine-and-whatever-else water bath, to soften up your flesh.  Usually, as you sit there with your foot in the liquid, you quietly reflect on how screwed you are.  This is typically followed by cursing your family for passing along such a terrible hereditary trait.  The doctor then pulls out the needle to administer the numbing agent.  The needle always seems awfully long, considering it’s about to penetrate one of your “little piggies”.  You’re tempted to ask if he’s sure he’s got the right needle, but the pain of the injection derails any thoughts half-thunk, as your toe feels like it’s been placed in a vice operated by a mobster you owe money to.  Then, while your toe numbs, the doctor chats lightly with the nurse while at the same time producing a few slender silver weapons of toe destruction.  You look away, doomed.

Now begins the surgery proper, and the pain is so excruciatingly sharp that your first silent mental scream is “I thought you numbed my effing toe!”  Somehow you get through it, though, and they bandage it up, and show you the nail before they dispose of it – a sort of medical “treat” I guess.  You leave the office with your foot in an over-sized slipper, because cramming it into a shoe is out of the question.  You’ve never tread so gingerly in your life.  And for a few days you hope – oh, GOD do you hope – that nobody steps on your foot.

 

 

Bittersweet: A Portrait of Professional Cooking

The kitchen end of the restaurant business is a fascinating industry to work in, if you’re fascinated with minds warped by the toll of long hours, intense stress, and hearing the same songs ooze out of grease-addled radio speakers.

Then there are the bodies attached to those cerebral cortexes – bodies beaten into submission over time, driven to require daily doses of pain pills, anti-inflammatory drugs, and – in the case of a couple of Bosnian guys I worked with – horse tranquilizers. In every cook’s toolbox or knife roll, a bottle of something nests between the tomato shark and the channel knife, especially if the cook is upwards of forty years old. He or she may likely find themselves in physical therapy, trying xi gong, having surgery, or all three.

Of course there are chef gigs that are purely administrative, but there will still be days when you find yourself back at the burners because your sous chef couldn’t make it, and tonight’s service will likely spiral out of control if you don’t step in and run the show. C’est la vie.

Do you fancy yourself a foodie, keeping up with the trendy, the unusual, or whatever recently photo-shopped ingredient excites you from brains to bowels? Do you adore playing with multifaceted colors, textures, shapes, and flavors? Gastronomically phenomenal – come and join us.  Just be warned: it may not be quite what you think it is. Kitchens worldwide are havens for burnouts and criminals – there are plenty of weeds among the flowers in the garden of Food and Beverage. I’ve seen fresh hires on day one go out for a smoke and never come back. I’ve seen room service guys offer up sexual harassment to their co-workers, regardless of gender, the likes of which cannot be uttered here.

Once I had the privilege of watching a cook from Argentina throw a knife at a busboy from Peru: the result of some sparkling insults. The knife missed the busboy and they were both promptly fired.

Another time, working at a ritzy hotel chain, I asked where the head chef had gone for vacation. I’d only been there two weeks, but hadn’t seen the chef for days (the sous chef was running the kitchen). I learned that the head chef wasn’t on vacation. This man – who had interviewed me, who I viewed as professional, who everyone addressed as “chef” – had been promptly fired and escorted off the property, after a female dishwasher complained that he had taken out his genitals and shown them to her.  I guess the ugliness of the human race can’t be stifled by the simple construct of a glamorous establishment, even with its lush fountains and marble floors.

But a big part of me loves the restaurant business, and you might too, if you’re crazy enough. Just know that hunkering down to clean out the grease-trap while you gag on the smell (the dishwasher no-called no-showed and there’s nothing to do but roll up your sleeves and do it yourself) might be a hard pill to swallow. Stomping down the overflowing trash in the dumpster because the owner of the restaurant won’t pay for an additional weekly garbage pick-up – well, it might leave a bitter taste in your mouth, one that doesn’t jive with that voluptuous polenta you so enjoy making. You may not be able to cope with an old-school chef giving you a public-school ass-chewing, but hey, you probably asked for it.

It is certainly true that a wisp of satisfaction and a share in the stock of Art graces the shoulders of the chef in a spare-no-expense operation, or a high-end restaurant with its own garden out back, cheese ripening in the cellar, and cooks who are so passionate and dedicated to their craft that they are like mini-chefs themselves. This circumstance affords the chef an opportunity to touch tables, hob-knob, sponge compliments, urinate leisurely without any sting, and take more fully into consideration the feedback of the orally anal diners (or privately choose to write off their comments as trite excrement).

Other than that, my young Trotters, it’s back to a never-ending onslaught of administrative tasks mixed with cartilage-grinding labor, traditionally served with good ol’ American bureaucracy.

 

Paint, Woman, Evening, Darkness

It’s not the painting itself that I enjoy so much

but rather the look of the paint, and the touch,

and the feel of it on my hands and fingers,

and the way a dusty canvas lingers.

 

It’s not the young woman, lovely in her chair,

but rather the shade and the shine of her hair;

how her skin begins where her clothing ends,

and if skin is the thing upon which she depends.

 

It’s not the stalks of wheat swaying in the sun,

but the calm of the field when day is done,

while a cup waits for the singing kettle

and seems to demand that the twilight settle.

 

It’s not the desire to cut through the wood,

but the weight of the axe and the heat of my blood,

it’s the taste of the darkness beneath my coat,

and pausing to burn up a page that I wrote.

Night of the Fresh Tattoo

Slitting the throat of our contemplation, let delusional lamps cast luminous strands to defend us from this sleet, a thousand unwanted shards of poisonous candy, dying breath of March.

Let oil burn the paint away from winter’s walls, bereft of ornament.  Let the couch be stained and full of purpose.  Let lust claw at our twitching spasms of crave, our lonely lonely lonely, our waiting wanting maybe getting.

Pretty people ink their necks and ankles, take their medicine, reinvent themselves in the sauna or while traveling another country, one-eyed Jacks and pin-up Jills whose winks and wry smiles are reason enough for catastrophic hopelessness, for giving up completely, for the preacher to carefully undress and eat a pastry.

 

Wedding Song of the Faeries

My heart shines from its place in my breast,
a candle in a mist-bound wood,
to know you’re not like all the rest,
to sing your name soft as I could.

To sing of sage and stout tealeaves
while we roll among the heather,
to wander over root and branch
on woodland paths that wind forever.

Where every thicket hides a sprite,
and daffodils float here and there.
Where moon and star shine twice as bright
and wise ones council everywhere.

To sing your name soft as I could,
to know you’re not like anyone.
A wedding in a lighted wood,
a first kiss given beneath the sun.