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.
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 killer chimichurri 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.
Like so many things, it comes when I have given in, given up the search, released the desire, turned my attention elsewhere. It comes in crumpled-up moments – in splintered, fickle doses.
It’s as if my expectation of it is the very thing that prevents it. I might be on the town running errands, ticking them off the list one by one, when something else happens, something unplanned, something unscheduled, a canceled appointment that cracks open a half-hour like a chest of impossible jewels.
This is how it comes to me. Not on my knees begging, no, but rather when I have laid down the obsession gently on the ground and carried on.
Yet even then, stillness (like an alley cat or a bird or a whale or a poem or sun on a cloudy day) might show itself, or it might not.
May I see through the dark, without even looking.
May I hear above the noise, without even listening.
May I know beyond a doubt, without even thinking.
May I trust in myself, without even trying.
We live in the crook of fortune’s flexible arm, an arm that winds up at a predetermined and rigid hand. We live both sides, both ways, each a tiger, surveying from ripples wound about the tightened stake of natural selection.
We’d love a look at the other side without going through, a rare and much sought-after mystical optometry, but it’s better not knowing.
We live as long as our hearts pump blood and not a minute longer. Science reclaims us when the coast is clear, our little magic motor shot.
Then we exit through the door, move down a new path, maybe without a top or bottom, maybe without sides and in-betweens. There are no maps or manuals, though we have spent our lives hearing about the place.
Sometimes a rainstorm reminds me to sit in easy solitude as you have shown me. They might assume you were once a bohemian clown with squash blossoms braided around your ankles, the way you lean back and cross your legs, bringing that demitasse cup to your lips, followed by a forkful of smoked cheddar omelet with saffron and wild scallions. They might assume I was a one-eyed raven sitting atop a totem pole beneath frayed curtains of gray cloud.
Sometimes a rainstorm puts me in the mood for bread and butter, stew and beer, after which I madly wipe the table clear like Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces famously ordering a sandwich. Then I unroll the scroll of an old tattered map with torn edges, eyes burning like a gold-prospector’s, at which point I try not to forget that empires only do two things: rise and fall.
Dear Diary, rainy morning, early, dreary. The light coming through the water’s surface was the loveliest I’ve seen. I’m exhausted, drained. Aphrodite took it all out of me, then she took me on a wooden ship and showed me the absurdities of Men. Now the mermaids are upon me again, but this time my hair has grown white. I never wanted the mermaids, but do you think my brother cares about anyone but himself? Even my prayers are swollen. A flaming heart is like the milk of a flower, and the feathered followers of nine-hundred moons take shelter in the shadow of Fate’s wings, throwing themselves upon their dreams of Achilles, as if the dreams were swords.
Mary, who helps us remember tenderness when we find an insect on our pillow, or a bat in the house.
Mary, who reminds us of a hundred walks in the wilderness, even as we stare at lamp-lit sheetrock and worry about work.
Mary, who tells us what we knew the moment we were born but have forgotten.
Mary, who makes us feel less alone beneath the ripening grapefruit moon.
Mary, honor student of botany, biology, ornithology.
Mary, whose words are chosen and ordered as if by a kindly saint.
Here’s a little something I wrote in honor of my high school English teacher, Constance Person. It was a big class in a big high school in the big city, and I was terrified of being called upon. I was a shy country mouse who was used to small classes in a small school in a small Oregon town, but after my mom passed away I went to live with my dad in Portland.
Mrs. Person had a habit of arranging the desks in the shape of an enormous square, with an opening at one side so she could access the chalkboard. She spent most of her time in the center of the classroom, lecturing and facilitating discussion.
Mrs. Person was getting along in years. I later learned she had retired the very next year, and passed away only a few short years after that. I am deeply grateful to have been counted as one of her students.
Always at the center, whirling, twirling, you set minds ablaze, a fountain of sparks, wise queen who ruled your class with knowledge and experience. Small in form, colossal in spirit. Next thing I knew, you stood behind me, your gnarled gardener’s hands upon my shoulders, driving home the possibility of what I might become – a writer. I reddened and sweated.
You addressed the class, gripping my shoulders, steering me. A boy slides down in his seat, feverish, cloaked in black, blown apart, wrecked. A boy’s heart cries out Mercy, Mercy!
Your confidence unfolded the delicate paper of my awkwardness. I, a drooping flower starved for water, restored to health by the nourishment of your faith and sight. Now I turn toward you as a sunflower to the sun.
A man stands up and says thank you, thank you, thank you.
In our little country house in the sopping-wet Willamette valley winter, heat radiated from the woodstove as my mother rubbed a cast-iron pan back and forth upon it, one hand holding a lid down tight to make popcorn the old-fashioned way. I’d lay on the floor and play with the cat, listening to my mom’s old vinyl record “A Christmas Carol”, featuring Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Mom would tie little bundles of cinnamon sticks with red and silver ribbon, nestling them among the boughs of the tree. She would press cloves into oranges, covering their entire surface to make pomander balls. I lit candles and kerosene lamps, and mom put up vintage Christmas cards from the thirties and forties all over the house. We always had a real tree trimmed with old-fashioned ornaments, and a wreath on the door. My mother’s holiday aesthetic was a fusion of country-living, bohemian, and vintage.
We’d always open one present on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we’d go to church, sometimes not. Every year we’d drive around the well-decorated neighborhoods looking at light displays and singing carols together in the car. Then, on Christmas Day, it was off to my great-grandparents old farmhouse, over the hill and through the valley, where I would feast, play, and listen to the way old people talk.