She was the wife of a fire chief, she was introduced to me as Mrs. McQuayle. I don’t remember the occasion, but we were seated next to each other at some banquet dinner in Westhampton Beach. We didn’t have much in common, and conversation was a bit strained. At some point, recounting a story, I said, “—and I suddenly had a feeling of déjà vu.” “Excuse me,” she said, smiling, I don’t think I know that expression.” “Déjà vu,” I repeated, “like you’ve seen it before.” The smile bcame a frown. “What do you mean?” I tried to explain further: “Didn’t you ever have the feeling, for instance when you walk into a strange room, or turn the corner in a strange town, didn’t you ever have the feeling you’d been there before, that it felt somehow familiar, even though you know for certain you’ve never experienced it? Well, that’s déjà vu.” She blinked at me, as if trying to recall. “Doesn’t ring a bell,” she said.
My friend Les treated me to a fancy wine tasting in 1992, back when Drew Nieporent was running a restaurant called Montrachet in Tribeca. When I say fancy, I mean it, because admission to this event was $1,195.00 per head.
The evening was run by Daniel Johnnes, who had started as Drew’s sommelier and was now opening a wine importing business. Tonight he was pouring top-o’-the-line Burgundies, wines most of us would never have a chance to taste because bottles at this level were so horrifically expensive –not to mention rare. There were twenty of us, mostly men, seated at a long table in a secluded corner of the restaurant. Before each place had been set a dozen, sparkling glasses. The evening began with a white Chassagne-Montrachet from Niellon, a top producer, and you knew immediately you were traveling first class: the wine reached down your throat and embraced you, caressed you, as if your esophagus was being sexually stimulated by the delicious blend of honey and velvet. Two more whites followed, and then, about eight-thirty, we started on the reds: we moved through Morey-St.-Denis, Pommard, Clos Vougeot. “What do you think?” Les asked me, waving his glass, “Cherry or black plum?” I smiled. “Les, you’re always safe if you simply say, a mix of black and red fruit.” Les nodded slowly, sagely. We were into our second hour, and he was beginning to get a little snookered. Well, he could afford to, but I was determined to keep my wits about me and define every flavor, every nuance. I was keeping a legal pad on the table, making notes to share with my wife, Suzanne, when I got home. “Les,” I said to him, “it’s amazing how sloshed we’re getting, considering the tiny amount they pour us—now what’s this?” Mr. Johnnes had been announcing the line-up. Now he held up a magnum with a yellow-beige label: “Musigny, Vieille-vignes,” he told us. “Nineteen-sixty-nine. From the Comte de Vogue.” The waiters began circling the table, pouring perhaps two fingers-worth into each glass. As I tilted the glass to my mouth I shut my eyes, the better to concentrate. I tilted a small amount onto my tongue… …and suddenly the room dropped away and I was standing on a river- bank, under a moonlit sky. Across the river was a church with the squat onion-spire of a Russian cathedral, and I knew instinctively that this river was the Don. The air was cool and moist and the river made a quiet whoosh as it flowed majestically along, a few yards from where I stood. The grey clouds moved slowly above my head, and I was aware of a great feeling of peacefulness. It felt both foreign and comforting and at the same time it felt like dying. “What do you think, John?” Les’s voice broke into my fantasy. “Raspberries and black cherries?” I thudded back to reality with a jolt –there was the restaurant, the twenty men, Les to my left, looking at me quizzically. “Les, I…I…” It was actually difficult to speak. I had been yanked back from something immense and profound. And it was the wine, this Musigny, that had done it. I needed to tell Suzanne. However, when I got home, Suzanne kidded me about my experience (“You Winos, you’re on another planet.”) I explained the extraordinary vision I’d had, but she was skeptical. “You were drunk, that’s all.” This irritated me: “I was NOT drunk, I deliberately made sure to stay sober so I could record my impressions!” To avoid an argument, she finally acceded. I felt dissed. “Wait’ll it happens to you,” I chastised her. She was about forty years behind me in terms of tasting, so what did she know? To keep herself on an even level with me, she would, through the next two years, make a remark which bordered on the snide: “Oh, John here claims he can detect nutmeg and notes of underbrush in cream soda. Even when he’s drinking water, he swirls the glass.” My smile would grow tighter and I’d say to myself Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.
And then we got to Paris. We’d saved our pennies to blow on one extravagant meal, and we chose Taillevent.
The restaurant is housed in a mansion just off the Champs-Elysees. There’s a feeling of expansive graciousness that you don’t get in any U.S. restaurant. The waiter was perfect: a smiling formality that let you know you were in good hands, without being overly familiar. Then came the wine steward: they were pouring something special tonight as a bar wine, he said -an Auxey-duresses rouge from the Comte Armand; would we care to try a glass? Well, I knew the producer was one of the best in Burgundy, yet the vineyard location -the appellation- was an extremely minor one, about the third rung up on a hierarchy of ten. But, if good, it would be a value, and save us the expense of a bottle, which, in this place, would cost a lot. “D’accord,” I said, and a moment later two glasses were set on our table and the steward returned with the bottle, carefully displaying the label. He poured, and we each took a sip. Mmm. Very good. In fact surprisingly so. In fact, there seemed to be a lot to examine in this, ha, minor wine. I sipped again, and looked at Suzanne, just putting down her glass. She was staring fixedly at the tablecloth, seemingly lost in thought. “What is it, honey?” I asked her. She didn’t change her focus, she spread her hands in puzzlement. “I hear an orchestra,” she said, with an expression of wonder. “It sounds like Scarlatti; shh, please, I need to concentrate.” Well, I had to hide my smile behind my hand. So, finally, I thought. It’s happened to you. Now we can communicate about wine…and perhaps some other things as well.
Manhattan subway platform, 103rd and Broadway. Two-thirty on a Thursday afternoon. I see a Latino father and his boy, the kid couldn’t be more than eleven years old. “Manuel,” I hear the man say to his son –his English carries a heavy Puerto Rican accent- “take these, get us a paper.” And he hands the kid three quarters. The news-stand’s in the middle of the platform. Kid crosses over, looks down, sees the array of newspapers laid out at his feet. But he doesn’t want El Diario, he wants the paper that speaks English. My immediate thought, observing this, was: Dad wants his boy to assimilate, to speak the language of the new country. The kid is pondering it. He’s got seventy-five cents. That’ll buy The Post -and The News is a quarter cheaper. If he bought the News, he could bring one of those quarters back to his father. So which one? The Post has a headline about Mayor Bloomberg and a possible fare hike. The news has some gossip about Lindsay Lohan and her DUI arrest. Both papers scream Tabloid, Wuxtry, getcher Schlock Tabloid right here, only fifty cents. Watching this kid’s indecision as he hesitates over the choice, I feel something move me. Here’s a young mind, a blank canvas ready to receive impressions. What he learns now, at eleven, will color his whole life. Impulsively, I reach in my pocket, drag out a couple of singles, hand the dealer two-fifty. I pick up the New York Times. “Manuel,” I say to him, commandingly. Kid looks at me, wide-eyed, wary: I thrust the paper at him: “This is The Times, Manuel,” I tell him, “it’s the best paper in the country, maybe in the world. I’m giving it to you. But I won’t be here tomorrow, so it’s up to you to stick with this, all right? Every day. You won’t go wrong. Make it a habit, Okay?” The kid, astonished, takes the paper and runs back to his father. And the train comes and I get on a different car so they won’t see me crying.
Betty’s mother Addie died pushing Herbert’s wheelchair up the ramp of the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington. She simply keeled over. A man named Kormer grabbed the chair as it threatened to roll backward down the ramp. Herbert’s reaction was primal and childlike, as always: looking down at Addie’s thin, crumpled body, he sensed she was dead. “Who’s gonna do my laundry?” he whimpered. It was the same high-pitched, strangulated whimper his voice had become ever since he’d been gassed in the first World War. Mustard-gas. He’d been in that chair since 1936…with only half a mind, reduced to the level of a eleven-year -old. Betty had to do something with him. He couldn’t manage by himself and there was no-one else. She sold the house and moved him into a new VA Hospital in Tarrytown, New York. She was on the East Coast now, trying to make it as a singer. “I’d like to go visit him,” she said to me one hot, broiling Saturday in July. “Just take him down by the riverbank, let him look at the Hudson. Could we?” That was the summer I had a brand-new Pontiac convertible –I’d won it on a quiz show. So I took Betty up the Henry Hudson Parkway and waited in the VA parking lot until Betty came down with her father. It fell to me to lift the frail, eighty-nine year old Herbert from his chair into the passenger seat. I remember thinking, God, he’s just a bag of bones. He had a stainless-steel canister which he needed to press to his groin. They’d given it to him because he was incontinent, couldn’t control his urine. I remember thinking, Don’t piss on the seat, you old bastard. We set off, and I drove slowly so we wouldn’t jar that canister loose. Slowly, slowly, foot on the brake, inching down the hill to the river, the blazing sun nearly roasting us. “They making you comfortable there, Daddy?” Betty asked him from the back-seat. I glanced sideways at his drawn, sunken face to hear his response. He had a three-day growth of white stubble and I wondered who shaved him, or if he could do it himself. “They put me with this other fellah,” Herb said. “He’s always in the bathroom when I have to go.” Betty had learned how to deal with these querulous complaints: don’t try to address them, simply go on to the next question. “How’s the food?” she continued now. “The what?” I found that whimper of his, produced without breath from the front of his throat, almost comic, like the voice of a cartoon character. It was nearly impossible for me not to break into laughter each time he spoke. I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. Jesus, it’s hot, I thought, must be in the nineties. I glanced surreptitiously at my watch. We’d been sitting there for over half an hour. “The food, Daddy,” Betty repeated, “when they give you dinner, what do you get? Soup? Meatloaf?” In reply, Herbert made a sound of urgency: “Aanh.” “What is it, Daddy?” “Aaanh.” He pointed to his lap. He kept muttering Aanh. I saw his eyes begin to fill with tears –and then I sensed a wave of embarrassment emanating from him. He was jabbing his finger at his groin now, in a steady motion, Point, Point, Point -all the while crying Aanh, Aaanh. Something was painful, something he couldn’t -or wouldn’t- articulate. I put my hand on the canister, even as I realized the problem –Oww! The damn thing had heated in the sun, become too hot to touch, was even now searing the skin on Herbert’s groin! Christ, how bizarre! “Betty!” I cried, “get the Kleenex! In the glove compartment!” Herbert was squirming in agony. With a wad of Kleenex protecting my fingers from the sizzling can, I slapped it away from Herb’s lap. It bounced, leaking, to the floor. The harsh smell of urine wafted into my nostrils as, wrinkling my nose in distaste, I placed the Kleenex under his genitals. I put the car in gear, shaking my head in disbelief, and headed back up the hill, faster now. In the drive-way, a VA attendant lifted Herb back into his wheelchair. I pointed to the canister on the floor. “And take that with you,” I said, keeping my voice under control. I headed back towards the Parkway. We rode in silence for ten minutes and then Betty said: “You were planning to sell this car, weren’t you?” I gave Betty a twisted smile. “Mm hmm.” She started laughing. “I think my Dad may have depreciated it –by about ten thousand dollars.”
I’ll have more to tell about Betty in future posts. She was an amazing character.
Never accept a favor from someone you find insufferable. Korman was going away for a week and he offered me the use of his sexy two-seater Mazda Miata, while he was gone. Naively, I took him up on it. This was a mistake because now I was obligated to him, and he felt he had the right to commandeer me each evening the minute I got up from the piano. I had a job entertaining, singing Gershwin, Bernstein and Cole Porter at Starr Boggs fancy restaurant in Westhampton Beach. His name was Bob Korman and he wanted desperately to be part of the Musical Theater. He was one of those people who tried to impress you by requesting obscure songs from forgotten musicals: “Can you play His Girl Back Home? You know, the song they cut from South Pacific?” I could. I did. “How about It’s Bad For Me? From Nymph Errant?” I played it. With the verse. There was something seductive about this game, getting the answers right, never letting him stump me. Trouble was, when I got off the stand, he wouldn’t leave me alone. “Got an idea I’d like to discuss with you.” he said one night. “I’m getting the rights to My Man Godfrey,” he told me, naming a classic thirties screwball comedy, “and I think I can interpolate ten Cole Porter songs and make it a musical.” I sighed. It was one of those half-baked ideas that amateurs come up with. You can’t shoe-horn established tunes into a play, it won’t work, it’s like trying to graft an armadillo kidney into a swan.
“I’ve got the filmscript at home and the Porter songbook. Would you come take a look?” Damn, I thought, why did I ever use his stupid Mazda? “See, here where she gets a crush on Godfrey, You’d Be So Easy to Love would fit perfectly. He was like a shy schoolkid, seeking teacher’s approval. “Except, Bob,” I countered, “at the end of the song she says It does seem a shame/That you can’t see/Your future with me.” Korman’s face fell. “You think that invalidates the idea?” “Unless you want to re-write the lyric.” “No, no, I don’t want to touch the lyrics.” “You could try You Do Something to Me in that spot.” I offered, and immediately regretted abetting the idea of this dumb project. It would still come out like Frankenstein’s monster, forced and lifeless. And, just to make matters even more fun, in addition to his amateurishness and his insistent pushiness, Bob was a drinker. By the end of the any given evening he was close to falling-down sloshed. In fact, he’d run his lovely little Mazda into a tree one night, heading home. The cops had given him a summons and he’d had to pay a stiff fine. Still and all, I couldn’t entirely dislike him. He was so earnest in his desire to make a contribution to musicals –and, of course, this was my obsession as well. I wanted to create original shows. So, in a way, we were bonded. And then one night Herby the lawyer came into Starr’s with his trumpet and set off an incident. Herby Westheimer was a personal injury lawyer. He had a pronounced Brooklyn accent and a wife to match, Gloria, with big, dark bouffant hair and long, blood-red nails. In his youth, Herby had been a club- date musician, and he wondered could he bring in his instrument? “Maybe I could sit in for a few tunes?” “Sure,” I said, “what do you like to play?” “It Hadda Be You,” said Herby, “Original is G,” he said.
I gave him a four bar intro, and he swung into this great, well-known standard, one of the songs my friend Margaret Whiting referred to as an Ah Tune –when the audience hears the first few bars, they go Ahh. At his table, I saw Korman wince. This selection was too plebeian for him, not from a show, just a pop tune, and not even by one of the great composers like Porter, Gershwin or Rodgers. Herby played just like his persona: loud and buoyant, without subtlety, hitting a clinker now and then, boisterously good natured, having a great time. He loved the music.
Well, this display infuriated Bob, who was already onto his fourth drink. He waved at Herby disparagingly, impatiently. “Sit down!” he cried. “Let John sing.” Because, in an effort to showcase Herby, I’d left out my vocals…to let his trumpet take center stage. I was having fun, listening to Herby and his bumptious, innocent style. The customers loved it when an impromptu performance like this happened. Gloria, the bouffant wife, was beaming. It was a good exercise for me to play familiar tunes in unfamiliar keys. But Korman was glowering into his glass. “Jesus,” he muttered, “the people they let in here.” He rose and confronted Herby, weaving slightly. “You’ve gotta stop that.” he told him, “it ruins the songs.” “Who are you?” Herby asked him. “John’s here to play showtunes,” Korman continued. “He doesn’t need any trumpet. Let him sing the lyric.” “Nobody’s stopping him,” Herby countered. Bob stumbled back to his table and finished his fifth drink. Herby wanted to play I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter. “Original’s C.” he informed me. But suddenly, Korman was back: “You gotta stop it—“ he muttered, and simultaneously put his hands on the bell of Herby’s horn and gave an ineffective yank. Herby tightened his grip, Bob yanked again and suddenly an insane struggle erupted in the midst of the dining room. Bob, holding the trumpet in one hand, took an ineffective swing at Herby with the other. Heads turned, forks dropped. Herby gave Klineman a shove and sent him crashing into a table of four near the piano. “Jesus—“ someone said, and I rose from the keyboard and grabbed Korman. “Hey, Bob,” I said, seizing him by the shoulders, “you don’t want to do that.” I walked him firmly back to his table. “I’ll sing the lyrics, okay?” Bob’s eyes filled with tears. “Without the lyrics, you’re only getting half the song…” he said. “I mean, Johnny Mercer, Lorenz Hart, Jesus…” In that moment, my heart went out to him; he cared so very deeply, and he was never going to be part of it. All that week, the incident haunted me. The following Friday the jitney dropped me off in Westhampton Beach…and Korman was waiting for me. “John,” he said, “you’ve got to help me. Look:” He proffered a letter. It was from a Herby’s office in Brooklyn –and it was a summons: you are hereby ordered to appear November 20th to answer charges of assault against the plaintiff, Herb Westheimer. If convicted, the summons continued, Herby was requesting damages of one hundred and twenty million dollars –plus court costs! In addition to quoting this outrageous sum, the summons had to be answered in a courtroom in Staten Island. On November 20th, three weeks from now. Klineman was staring at me helplessly. “What am I gonna do, John?” “I dunno, Bob,” I countered. “I guess you’ll have to appear.” He put his hand on my wrist: “Would you talk to him?” I had no idea what to say. “I’ll think about it,” I finally managed. That night, Herby and Gloria came in and I sat with them. Gloria couldn’t stop talking about what a jerk Korman was. Herby smiled. “Did he get my letter?” “Did he get it?? I said, “he’s practically under the table!” “Yeah, well he’s got to learn he can’t act that way,” said the lawyer; “I decided to teach him a lesson.” “Herby,” I asked him, “you’re asking for a hundred twenty million, right?” Herby smiled. “Would you settle for sixty?” I inquired. Herby’s grin got wider. “Tell him to write me a letter of apology –and make it sincere.” And you know what? Korman, so relieved that Herby wasn’t going through with the suit, wrote the most profound and beautiful letter. Whew.
She had taken me to court, so there was a distinct lack of cordiality when we ran into each other on the elevator. On the day after our adjudication, she got on at the fourth floor and I decided to try a pleasant overture: “Hello, Jayne,” I ventured, but she averted her eyes. All right, I thought, if that’s how you want it. Her complaint had been Unnecessary noise. The judge, a woman, had asked me: “Mr. Meyer, is there any reason you have to play your piano after eleven in the evening?” I felt like saying, Look, Judge, you can’t schedule musical ideas to arrive before eleven pm. I’m a composer, and if I can’t work my ideas out on the keyboard I could very well lose them by morning. “Two hundred dollars fine,” ruled the judge. “And if you come before me again, I’ll double that.” Jayne had found an ally in female solidarity. Though I doubted that being female was doing Jayne much good. She was in her mid-forties, stocky, with dark, bushy brows. Her face was set in a determined, I’ll-get-through-this, expression. I was reminded of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. I never saw anyone accompany her in or out of our building on West 57th street, certainly not any men. Jayne worked as a nurse at Roosevelt Hospital, just up the street on Ninth Avenue. Maybe she was warmer with her patients than she appeared on the outside. It was as if she was encased in a sheath of suspicion and negativity. How bizarre then, to come home at two-thirty one snowy January morning and find her sitting alone and vulnerable, in the corner of our small lobby. She seemed distraught; her hair, usually in a neat, black bun, was hanging over her face, and her eye make-up was smeared. Strangest of all, her naked calves protruded from beneath a navy bathrobe…and she was barefoot. “Jayne,” I cried, involuntarily. “What are you doing down here?” Bill, the night elevator man, threw me a significant glance. “She’s been like that since ten-thirty.” Jayne didn’t seem to react to the fact that we were talking about her. She seemed totally disoriented. “Jayne,” I said, kneeling before her, “what’s the matter?” She stared at me without seeming to recognize me. I couldn’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, floating in the stream. I held her blank but intense eyes for a few seconds, and then she said: “If you come upstairs, you can hear them.” “Who, Jayne?” “The rats.” Jayne’s eyes went funny with fear. “They’re in the walls.” I had a shivery moment. Rats in the walls. It was like something out of Poe. “How do you know, Jayne?” “I can hear them. They’re scratching.” Suddenly she stood up. “I’ll show you.” she said, reaching for my hand. “Come upstairs, you can hear them.” This was the first time she had touched me; I had the instinct to recoil, but at the same time a wave of empathy washed over me and, notwithstanding our courtroom hostility, I found myself feeling sorry for this suddenly helpless woman who had been victimized by…what? A chemical imbalance? Paranoia? An epileptic seizure? We stepped inside the elevator, Bill closed the door, drew the gate and we rose to the fourth floor. Her apartment opened directly onto the living room, just like mine. Boom, and you were inside. No foyer, no hallway, you were simply there. There was a standing lamp, two table lamps plus an overhead fixture, and Jayne had every light blazing. Bill stood respectfully outside the open apartment door as Jayne led me to the sofa and pointed to the wall above it. “Hear them?” she asked me. “Can you hear them? They’re in there.” I stayed motionless for a long moment, not daring to breathe. I couldn’t hear anything. I turned to Jayne. “Are they anywhere else? Maybe the kitchen?” “No, the bathroom, I heard them in the bathroom.” I let her lead me into the bathroom and stood by the tub. She pulled the shower curtain aside and gestured towards the pink tiles. “Keep still,” she said, “you’ll hear them.” Again there was nothing. “Jayne, I’m sorry –I don’t hear them.” Her eyes rolled wildly about the bathroom. “Scratch scratch, scratch scratch, they’re in there!” It was then I decided her condition was beyond any aid I could give. She needed professional help. I heard Bill’s voice come in from the hall. ”I have a call, I’m going down.” “Just a minute—“ I yelled. I turned to Jayne. “Where are your shoes?” She frowned. “What?” “Put on some shoes, Jayne, we’ll go and get help.” Her eyes fixed on me with a light of hope and then, suddenly obedient, she left the bathroom and disappeared into another room. I realized she’d been waiting for an authoritative voice to tell her what to do. It was ironic, given our history, that the voice should be mine. Jayne returned, wearing her bedroom slippers. She looked at me expectantly. “You have your keys?” I asked her. She nodded. “Okay then, let’s go.” I led her into the hall, where Bill had been waiting with the elevator door open. “I’ve got a call,” he repeated. “Two seconds,” I told him. “Lock up, Jayne.” Jayne turned the key in the top lock, the bottom lock, and we joined Bill. He gave me a quick, quizzical look as the car descended, but I couldn’t have answered his unspoken question. I had no idea what I was going to do with Jayne. As we reached the lobby, it hit me. I needed to get her to a doctor, get her some kind of sedation. Maybe she would need serious therapy eventually, but for tonight she had to conquer her irrational panic. I guided her through the abbreviated vestibule and stopped at the door. “Wait here,” I told her. I stepped out onto chilly fifty-seventh street. Three-oh-five in the morning, a lone taxi cruising slowly towards me on the wide, wet street, with its yellow light. I waved him to the curb and ran to the window on the driver’s side: “I have a lady who needs to get to Roosevelt Hospital.” I said. “You know where the Emergency entrance is?” He nodded, and I ran back to the vestibule door to fetch Jayne. “Okay, Jayne,” I said, “we’re gonna get you some help.” It was slow going, Jayne would not be hurried. Twenty-five feet from the building to the street, it took an eternity. Shuffle, shuffle, one slipper-clad foot after the other, in the slush. I got in first, it seemed easier, but when Jayne was too disoriented to pull the door shut, I had to hop out and do it for her. “Are we going to the exterminator?” she asked me. “We’re going to get you some help.” Jayne didn’t appear to recognize the emergency room of the hospital in which she spent her work week. There was the usual complement of damaged New Yorkers slumped in their plastic chairs, awaiting treatment for knife wounds, drug overdoses, seizures. The woman behind the window asked us to have a seat and told us someone would be with us shortly. “This woman is one of your employees,” I told her. “Just have a seat.” I sat with Jayne for ninety minutes. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. This is a woman who took you to court and would’ve been glad to see you pay a heavy fine. She’d love to see you evicted, for God’s sake. You don’t owe her anything. Why are you sitting with her at four in the morning? Finally an intern in green scrubs called us from the doorway. I took Jayne’s arm and walked her over to where he stood. “This is Miss Harlan,” I said to him. “She’s experiencing a little disorientation.” I went back to the window to clear up the question of Jayne’s insurance. “It’s all right,” said the lady behind the glass. “I found her in our data-base. She’s covered.” She glanced at Jayne’s file. “What’s her problem?” Well, how to define this? “She’s hallucinating.” “Are you a relative?” “No,” I said, “we live in the same building, that’s all. I don’t really know her.” “Really.” She looked at me for a moment. “She’s lucky to have a friend like you.” I smiled, thinking, You should have seen us in court.
He died last Thursday, Robert Treboux, the owner of a classic NY restaurant: It’s called Le Veau d’Or, the Golden Calf -one of Manhattan’s first Bistro’s. It was not a Destination Dining spot, you went there for dependably excellent cooking, when you didn’t need to dress up or be part of a Trendy crowd. Steve Gordon and I went in there one night, and sat down beside a tiny lady in her eighties at the adjoining table. “Hi,” I said to her, being friendly, “we’re your in-flight companions for this meal.” “Oh, isn’t this just the most wonderful place?” she replied. “I always have such good food here.” “What did you have tonight?” I inquired. “Let’s see,” she said, “I had the veal ragout, with those wonderful little carrot batons -no, wait -it seems to me maybe I had the sole meuniere with the garlic mashed potatoes. I was thinking of the kidneys in red wine, but you know, organ meats aren’t good for you -too much cholesterol.” She paused a moment, considering. “Sometimes I have the bass en croute, but I don’t think I had it tonight, because I’m in the mood for a red wine…” The waiter approached: “Alors, Madame, “he said to her, “are you ready to order?”
Big tent -fancy h’ors d’oeuvres from name caterers. Quite a few impressive names: Robert Caro, David Baldacci, Dava Sobel -each had a new book to plug; I had a funny incident with Dan Rattiner, publisher of Dan’s Paper, a Hampton’s fixture for forty years: his book reviewer, Joan Baum, had given me a great pre-publication quote -which was printed on the back of my new thriller, Operation Ruby Slipper -so to say Thanks I showed him my only copy of the novel, which he grabbed and tried to appropriate, under the impression I was giving it to him. I had to yank it back, an embarrassing moment for both of us. I personally knew a couple of the authors -Robt. Klein, with whom I’d worked at the Improvisation, and Dick Cavett, who had featured Judy Garland on his show when I was with her. So we had a brief reminiscence, and my wife Suzanne got this photo.
D’you suppose Jerry Herman is suffering Survivor Guilt over Marvin Hamlisch? Good God, Why wasn’t it me??? I was standing right next to him!
Yeah, I know I’ll probably take flak for this, but it made me smile.
Readers: thanks for your patience; blog entries resume now that I’ve returned from Europe. Of all the towns we visited on this Holland-America cruise, Stockholm was the winner.
The buses there are boats -they run on water, you Hop-On and Hop-Off and these charming little launches putt-putt around the town, depositing you at any one of a dozen locations. The gulls and ducks in the harbor fly and paddle cheerfully alongside the variety of sea-going vehicles: launches, skiffs, catamarans and yachts; you glide by office buildings topped by steeples, residences crowned with turrets -the architecture expresses a buoyancy of spirit, the optimistic character of the inhabitants is revealed through the cityscape, it’s simply enchanting. The amusement park gives a kind of Pleasure Island feel to the place, with kids happily packed into roller coasters or dropping from immense heights from stomach-wrenching towers. There’s one of the most dramatic museums I’ve seen, the Vasa Muset. The Vasa was a 250 foot warship that sank in the bay minutes after being launched. For three centuries it lay on the harbor floor until raised and reconstructed in the 1960’s. You think the Titanic’s impressive? This ship hangs suspended, looming over you in a cavernous space three stories high, theatrically lit as if by Natasha Katz. A towering leviathan, floating twenty feet above your head. On the second level you can see the carved wooden figures decorating the hull, from cherubs to kings, with the proud Swedish lion under the bowsprit. Simply breathtaking. And of course there’s a gift shop, with mugs and place-mats and T-Shirts all displaying the ship’s image. Do yourself a favor -search Vasa Museum on Google. Monday I’ll post evaluations of the other cities we visited, plus, in future, a critique of Holland-America.