Chicken Not-Soup for the Soul

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The kitchen smelled delicious today because I made soup. I found the recipe for pumpkin soup with Devon cream, crouton, and toasted pumpkin seed garnish on the BBC Good Food website and I decided to try it. Until today I hadn’t made soup since the first year we were married.

It seemed like a good time to try again. After all, in the quarter century we have been married I have learned to make seven or eight different kinds of jam from fruit grown in my own garden; I can bake moist and tasty muffins bursting with luscious fruit; and my cakes are so light and delicious that they rival Balthazar’s. Obviously, I am not completely culinarily hopeless.

So I decided to try soup again. And I had much better results today than I had twenty-seven years ago in the little ecru kitchen with the blue Laura Ashley wallpaper.

When we were first married, I was naïve enough to think that I could learn to cook and it would be fun. Even if some meals turned out . . . not so well . . . we would eat them together cheerfully. Then, as I learned, it would get easier and the food would get better. I have no clue why I thought that would happen but I did; I always had the idea in the back of my mind that I would somehow magically know how to cook, probably because, growing up, both my mother and father consistently cooked gourmet meals, even on school nights.

When the bus-stop conversation turned to last night’s dinner, I was the only third-grader standing there who had eaten escargot and garlic toast points.   Peanut butter and jelly never visited my lunch box; it was filled daily with sliced, homemade date-and-nut bread spread thinly with cream cheese or homemade chicken salad.

My father cooked, too. I recall coming downstairs one Christmas morning to the aroma of Chinese food cooking; he had awakened early and decided to make egg foo yung – from scratch – for brunch.

Holidays were an especially foodie time for my mother. She baked every weekend in December, but not just peanut butter blossoms like other kids’ moms; she made at least seven kinds of cookies – sugary wedding cookies, dark chocolate stained glass windows, sticky molasses balls, buttery pecan sandies, vanilla cookies topped with brightly colored sanding sugar, rum balls, mini pecan pies, and completely decorated gingerbread people to populate her gingerbread houses – plus her favorite Christmas cake, a seven-layer almond flour Viennese torte with dark chocolate ganache tucked in between each wafer-thin layer. At Easter she built three-dimensional lamb cakes and once for my cousin Susan’s birthday, she crafted a freestanding beehive decorated with tiny sugar bees. My mom did all this while working full-time.

Somehow, though, this great love of and skill for cooking seemed to have skipped me.  From childhood onward I displayed no epicurean ability beyond licking the beaters completely clean. When I was in college I lived on fried eggs on toast and Spaghetti-Os; by the time I had my own apartment on 58th Street I had moved only slightly on the gourmet scale to the point where now I ate Cap’n Crunch for dinner.

When I got married, however, learning to cook seemed like the adult thing to do. I decided to start with chicken noodle soup. Everyone loved my grandmother’s soup. Between them, my mother and my grandmother had made it dozens – hundreds – of times, so I expected that I could do it, too. One President’s Day, when I was not at work, I called my mom and asked her how to make chicken soup.

“Open the can.”

“No, I want to make it from scratch.”

I could hear the skepticism in her voice. “You know that you have to touch raw chicken?” she asked.

I shuddered and swallowed. “Yes, I know. I have latex gloves.”

I could hear her trying to stifle a snort of laughter. “Okay. First you have to quarter the chicken.”

“Quarter?”

“Cut it into pieces. Split it down the center then cut each joint separately – thighs, wings, breasts, and drumsticks. Leave the skin on. Put it in a stockpot and cover it with water. Throw in some salt, pepper, celery seed, and celery leaves then cook it.”

“Cover with water,” I mumbled as I wrote her directions on my scratch pad. “Cook . . . on what temperature?”

She sighed. “Put it on high until it boils, then turn it to low and let it simmer until the chicken is cooked, probably about forty-five minutes for an average sized bird.”

“Simmer forty-five minutes . . . “

“Then take the chicken out of the liquid and put it in a bowl until it is cool.”

“In a bowl . . . cool.“

It went on like this until I had transcribed my grandmother’s entire recipe including my mother’s final words, “Then just throw in your noodles.”

I followed the instructions precisely, slicing, chopping, boiling, simmering, shredding, and straining until I realized why Campbell’s was such a big company that it employed all of Camden, New Jersey. Finally, I dumped an entire bag of Light ‘n’ Fluffy egg noodles into the pot, and dropped on the lid. I turned the flame to low and wandered into the living room to read my novel. The aroma was captivating. I couldn’t wait until Jamie arrived home and we could eat.

About an hour later he opened the door and tossed his topcoat into the sofa.

“Mmmmmmm, something smells really good. Someone in the building is making chicken.”

“Yeah, me.”

“You?”

“Yes, me.”

“You cooked chicken?” I nodded but he asked again anyway.  “You cooked?”

I was growing testy. “Yes. I cooked. I cooked one of my grandmother’s recipes. Do you want to taste it?”

“I sure do. It smells terrific.” Jamie pulled off his tie, tossed it on top of his coat and turned to enter the kitchen.

I remained on the sofa. I could hear him clinking plates and utensils, then I heard the metallic tang of the pot lid opening. Expecting him to rave, I was unable to wait another second. “Did you taste it?” I called. “Do you know what it is?”

He exited the kitchen with a soup bowl and a fork. “Yeah, I tasted it,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

I was puzzled at the sight of the fork. “Well, do you like it? Do you know what it is?”

“Yeah, it’s good.”

“But do you know what it is? It’s my grandmother’s chicken noodle soup.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s your grandmother’s chicken noodles.” He forked another serving into his mouth. “There’s no soup.”

“What do you mean?” I jumped from the sofa and looked into his bowl.He was right; it contained noodles but no soup. I ran into the kitchen, lifted the pot lid, and peered inside. It was stuffed with enormously swollen noodles. While it smelled like chicken, it looked like a giant squid had fallen asleep in the bottom of the pot and now lay crumpled like soiled laundry. I was crushed. “What happened?” I cried.

Jamie looked over my shoulder into the pot. “Did you cook the noodles before you put them in the soup?” he asked.

“Of course not. Then they’d be all soft and soggy like Campbell’s are.”

“You don’t cook them that long; but you do cook them. Otherwise you get,” he lifted his bowl as illustration, “chicken noodles. That’s what Campbell’s does,” he added helpfully.

I was crushed. Tears sprang to my eyes. “Shit.”

Jamie put his arm around me and pulled me into his chest. “It tastes good. It tastes great.”

My voice was muffled. “ But I spent all damned day on this. And now it’s ruined.”

“It’s not. It’s good; it’s just not soup.”

“Not soup. Great. I made chicken not-soup.”

My disappointment lingered for months. I stopped cooking completely, which wasn’t a problem since Jamie loves to cook and is excellent at it. But I felt like a failure. So when I saw pumpkin soup on a restaurant menu I decided to find a recipe and try to make it. It turned out to be fun – I even got to use my little red stick blender as the last step.

But best of all, it tasted great. So now I can make jam, muffins, cakes, and fresh creamy pumpkin soup. It makes a nice alternative for when Jamie is out of town and I don’t want to eat Cap’n Crunch.

BBC Good Food Pumpkin Soup

4 T olive oil

2 finely chopped medium onions

2.5 pounds peeled, deseeded, and chunked pumpkin

25 oz vegetable or chicken stock

I cup Devon (or heavy) cream

Handful of raw pumpkin seeds

Heat 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan; then gently cook the onions for 5 minutes, until soft. Add pumpkin to the pan, cooking for 10 – 20 minutes stirring occasionally until it starts to soften and turn golden. (It may take longer if your chunks are large.)

Pour stock into the pan, then season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes until the pumpkin is very soft. Pour the cream into the pan, bring back to the boil, then purée with a hand blender. For an extra-velvety consistency you can now push the soup through a fine sieve into another pan. The soup can now be frozen for up to 2 months.

While the soup is cooking, heat the remaining2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan. Add the handful of pumpkin seeds to the pan, then cook for a few minutes more until they are toasted.  Season with salt and pepper if desired.

Serve soup with a dollop of Devon cream (or a drizzle of heavy cream) and a scattering of croutons and pumpkin seeds on top.

Start as You Mean to Go On

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Jamie and I got married in February so we could go somewhere hot for our honeymoon. I don’t remember any of Jamie’s suggestions, but I was holding out for Hawaii. As a little girl I had been addicted to the televised exoticism of Hawaiian Eye and Hawaii Five O, but after visiting the islands with my parents a few years before I was completely seduced by the warm sand, the clear water, the waving palms, and the relaxed atmosphere so we booked three weeks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach.

Our wedding was fantastic but the reception was interminable. No one wanted to go home. The band kept playing so the guests kept dancing for two hours longer than my dad had presumed people would desire to linger.  Since we weren’t leaving for Hawaii until early the next afternoon we had no excuse to leave, so we stayed and stayed.

When we finally made it to our hotel, we no longer resembled the shiny top-of-the-wedding-cake bride and groom we had been that morning. It had flurried and the dampness had made my hair curl weirdly; I had raccoon eyes. The eight-foot train of my elaborate Victorian gown had long since snapped the satin buttons meant to contain it and it crawled after me like bedraggled and recalcitrant swan as I staggered from the limousine. Jamie’s tie and cummerbund were crumpled and stuffed in his jacket pockets; his shirttails billowed behind him like a sail in the winter wind as he accepted the congratulations of the doorman. We looked exactly like what we were – exhausted newlyweds.

The desk clerk took one look at our disheveled appearance and nudged her manager. Seeing this I panicked, thinking momentarily that I hadn’t actually made the wedding night reservation; perhaps I had only imagined that I had. Oh, shit. Oh, please don’t let me have forgotten to make the reservation, I prayed silently; I just cannot face going outside to hail a taxi then driving to my parents’ house for our wedding night.

It turned out that I hadn’t forgotten, however, neither had I informed the hotel that the room was for our wedding night. The desk clerk was surprised to see us and wanted to upgrade us; the manager agreed. The nattily dressed bellman led us to the Secretary of State Suite, which took up most of one of the top floors of the hotel. It was breathtaking, decorated in muted blues and creamy beiges, and with more rooms than our Upper West Side apartment. Sinking into the plush pile of the carpet and staring through the glass wall at the view of the entire city twinkling beneath us, I rather thought I might like to honeymoon there. As lovely as the suite was, though, we didn’t get to enjoy it long past our room service breakfast, as my parents were coming to take away the formal clothes and drive us to the airport.

The flight was long but mostly uneventful; I had never flown First Class before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were a few more honeymooning good wishes (the crew presented us with a bottle of champagne upon disembarkation) and then we watched movies and dozed. It was early evening when we landed at the open-air Honolulu International Airport and immediately upon reaching the baggage claim felt the sultry island atmosphere.

We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel. I had chosen the historic Royal Hawaiian on Kalakaua Avenue specially because it aligned perfectly with my romantic image of Hawaiian honeymoons and it had ever since I had first seen it in From Here to Eternity. It was one of the oldest hotels on the island, a huge pink stucco structure built by Matson Lines in the Moorish style; it had acres of landscaped grounds, a garden, a pool, the Cazimero Brothers performing in the dining room, and that world famous beach just outside.

I grabbed my tote bag and scrambled out of the taxi as soon as we pulled under the porte cochere. While Jamie and the doorman handled the luggage I entered the open, airy lobby. I was so thrilled to be there I was practically vibrating. Although it was still early evening, the time change coupled with the excitement of the past twenty-four hours was making me quivery.

Jamie and I held hands in the elevator as we followed the bellman to our spacious room in the original section of the hotel. After the bellman left I snapped off the air conditioning and swung open the balcony doors, then threw myself on the king-sized bed and gazed outside. The azure waves weren’t crashing but lapping gently at the nearly-empty sand and glittering in the fading gold and pink light of the setting sun. King palms swayed gently in the slight evening breeze. Musicians were playing soft island music in the barefoot beach bar under and slightly to the left of our window. It was an abrupt change from polar New York. In minutes I was asleep.

Jamie, however, was unpacking. He has never been able to enter a hotel room, toss the suitcases on the bench and relax. Or go out. Somehow he finds it impossible to do anything except unpack. It must be some deep-seated neurosis because it is the same thing he does with the groceries when we return laden with bags from the supermarket.

He woke me when he was done. “You hungry?”

I pushed my hair from my forehead and yawned. “Yeah, sort of.”

“Do you want dinner?”

“Mmmmmm, yeah, but not a lot,” I had eaten quite a bit on the plane. I glanced out the window at the sky; it was a deep grey darkening to velvety midnight blue. “ Do you want to just get room service?”

Jamie thought for a moment. “No, but I am too tired to shower and change for the dining room. Do you want to go for a walk and see what we see?”

“Sure.” I rose from the bed and turned toward the spotless dresser in the immaculate room. There was no sign that there had ever been luggage here. “Where are my shorts?”

We exited the hotel and turned right onto Kalakaua Avenue. The stores were closing and the sidewalks weren’t as busy as they would be during the day. We wandered along the street front and past the one hundred year old banyan tree anchoring the International Market, peering into darkened shop windows and hearing snatches of music from restaurants and bars. After about a half hour the events of the week began catching up to us and we were both exhausted. Having reached the end of the byzantine Market path we turned to face each other.

“Anything in here interest you?” I asked.

Jamie shook his head. “Not really. Not for dinner, anyway. That cinnamon bun place smelled great, though, didn’t it?”

I laughed. “Yeah, but not for dinner.”

“It can’t be; it’s closed. I’ll stop by early tomorrow morning. You’ll still be asleep.” His voice sounded hopeful in the dim tiki torchlight.

I pulled his hand. “Come on. We’ll worry about that tomorrow. I want to eat something light soon or I will chew up the pillow in the middle of the night.”

We wandered back through the Market and crossed the street, then entered a small open-air shopping center near a huge fountain in front of a Borders Books. Jamie thought it might be a short cut. Everything was locked and dark except for a rectangle of light at the far end of the plaza, so we followed that. Reaching it we saw that it was a small old-fashioned coffee shop called The Princess Kauilani. We both smiled simultaneously and looked at each other.

“Here?” Jamie gestured with his left hand, the hand that was holding my right one.

“Sure. Why not?”

“You don’t want something fancier for the first dinner of our married life?”

I thought. “Technically last night was the first night of our married life and we had a pretty fancy dinner at the country club. Are you sure you don’t want something fancier on the first night of our honeymoon?”

“No. But I am not the sentimental one.”

I grimaced. “Don’t I know that?” I muttered ruefully.

“Come on,” he yanked my hand and reached for the glass door.

So we went in, chose a booth, and had BLTs for dinner on the first night of our married life. And it was perfect.

The British have a saying; ‘Start as you mean to go on.’ So we did. We have had a lot of posh vacations and an even greater number of humble dinners in the past twenty-seven years. And we are still here.

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Cafe au Lait

DSC_0891The week after I finished graduate school, my husband, Jamie, and I went to Europe together for the first time. Excluding our honeymoon years before, this would be our first really long trip and, as my overly romantic imagination took hold, I envisioned us wandering arm in arm through moonlit Roman ruins; munching les marron glaces at Laduree’s tiny bistro tables; and elegantly sipping steaming Lapsang Souchong at Brown’s Hotel. So powerful was this vision that I completely ignored what I already knew about the reality of travelling with Jamie; specifically, I read the tour books and look at the sights while he clutches a telephone to his ear, talking to his office as he unconsciously tidies things. Years earlier we had accompanied my parents on a cruise to Bermuda. Since there were no international cell phones then, Jamie spent an entire day on the dock in Hamilton talking on a pay phone on the pier. As I skipped away for a day of shopping and eating with my mom and dad, the last thing I noticed was his saying “No, Kenny, I think if you open the bids again, you’ll find that . . . “ as he dabbed idly at a barely-visible Diet Coke spot on his khaki shorts.
I have never understood his affection for telephones or cleaning. Being rather a Luddite, I didn’t get my first cell phone until long after they’d become common. Perhaps my husband’s addiction to it put me off.
While I suspect that the telephone thing is work-based, the cleaning is something he does reflexively. Most of the time it seems harmless, quirky: sometimes it’s even been charming, like the sunny July morning my visiting childhood friend, Patti, excused herself to go to the bathroom during breakfast. By the time she returned, Jamie had cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, and scrubbed the griddle, all with his trusty Motorola Razr pasted firmly to his left ear. “Seriously, Danny, you can’t honestly think that . . . “
The days passed, our suitcases were packed, and the morning of our departure arrived. My heart pounding, we boarded the plane to London. During the flight Jamie didn’t use the Airphone at all but he did tidy all of the newspapers on the steward’s cart. As we began navigating our carry-ons down the Jetway, however, his cell phone rang and it took repeated scowls from the Immigration officers to convince him to disconnect. It rang again as we settled into our black taxi and Jamie chatted throughout the drive from Heathrow to Mayfair. As he executed the U turn on Carlos Place in front of our hotel, the driver – no slouch on the mobile phone himself, by the way – commented wryly that he hoped I’d be okay visiting the Tower and Harrod’s on my own since my husband would no doubt be up in our room talking on the landline, having exhausted his phone’s battery.
We wandered through European capitals, Jamie and I, chatting and reading, folding and plumping. The evening before we were scheduled to leave Paris, Jamie prowled the room, hunting for errant objects with his cell scrunched under his chin. I reclined against pillows on the bed and watched the 1936 Warner Brothers classic Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn dubbed to sound like Yves Montand.
We needed to arrive at the station no later than 7:15 a.m. to retrieve our reserved tickets and make our way to the carriage of our 7:45 a.m. train. Because I am not at my most alert in the morning, I had taken the linen jacket I intended to wear and purposefully laid it across the back of a chair before I retired. The chair stood next to the door. Regardless of my level of catatonia, I would see it..
Just after our 6:00 a. m. wake up call Jamie shoved me toward the shower and called Room Service for café au lait and pastries. Despite the caffeine fortification, I dawdled and Jamie prodded me to hurry. Exiting into the misty Champs Elysees morning, I grumbled about the chill air. Jamie assured me I’d find hot coffee waiting at the station. Comforted, I promptly fell asleep in the back of the tiny taxi. By the time we’d reached the station, however, I had awakened shivering. I searched my carry-on bag for my jacket.
“Did you pack it in your bag?” I asked Jamie as the taxi drove through the crescent to the wide-open glass doors of the Eurostar terminal.
He twisted his neck to hold his phone while he spoke to me. “Hold on, Kenny. Pack what?”
“My jacket. My beige linen Moschino jacket.”
When he didn’t answer, I poked him. He shrugged and gestured to the metal object adhered to his ear. He continued talking until the taxi stopped at the doors, then disconnected and glanced at the meter.
“Where’s my jacket?” I asked.
He counted Euros. “Do you have any money?”
I emptied the front pocket of my jeans into his waiting palm. “Here. Where’s my jacket?”
“I dunno. Did you take it out of the closet?”
“It wasn’t in the closet. I threw it across the back of the blue chair by the door because I knew I wouldn’t see it otherwise. “ I could almost feel the little cartoon light bulb suddenly switch on above my head. “You hung it in the closet, didn’t you?” I cried accusingly. “Last night when you were on the phone with Kenny you tidied it away! We have to catch a train in twenty minutes and my jacket is in a closet in the hotel!”
He swung open the taxi door dragging the carry-ons behind him. “Call the hotel and tell them to send it to Jose and Diana’s house. Use my office’s Fed Ex number. I have to call Kenny back.”
After paying the driver and claiming the tickets, there was barely enough time for my errand. Fed Ex number and hotel receipt clutched in my sweaty palm, I scurried down the train steps and looked around nervously for an old-fashioned public telephone sign. Finally locating it on the outer wall of a tiny coffee bar, I trotted into the smoky room. Reaching for the handset, I ran my eyes all over the phone’s body looking for the coin slot. With a shock I realized that it didn’t accept cash, only phone cards. I turned and dashed out of the warm, dark bar and into the bright, chilly station searching for the tabac stand. There it was, against the far corner. I trotted toward it. Facing the clerk squarely, I tried to act out my request as I fumbled with my poor French. “Je suis . . . une telephone card.”
Her brown eyes widened.
“No? Um, voulez vous une telephone card?” She frowned. Apparently that wasn’t right, either.
I mimicked dialing and chatting gaily. She cocked her head like a puzzled squirrel. Nearly frantic, I lapsed into Italian, the only foreign language I know. “Per favore, vorrei comprare una carta del telefono.” She smiled and answered something like, “Vous voudriez . . . une carte de telephone” lilting at the end so I assumed it was a question. I nodded. She asked something else and the blankness of my expression must have assured her that there was no way I knew the answer to that one. She repeated it, louder. Realizing that raising one’s voice at a foreigner seemed to be a universal reaction to coping with one, I chewed my bottom lip and nodded slowly, hoping that was the correct response. She sighed, shook her head, and turned to a locked cabinet where she slid in the key and chose a green telephone card with a French cartoon character printed on it. I held out all the money I had left. She picked out the price of the card, placed in it my hand , and then smiled.
I turned and raced through the station back to the smoky bar. Yanking hard on the glass door handle, I heard a loud, metallic binnnnnnng-bonnnnnnng. It reminded me of the televised Avon Cosmetics commercials from my childhood. Nervously, I laughed aloud at the thought – Avon Ladies in Paris – and grabbed at the telephone handset. I had no idea how much time had elapsed, but connecting to the concierge, waiting for the head of Housekeeping to travel to our room and retrieve my jacket, and then verifying the Basel address and the Fed Ex number, seemed to take hours. I guessed I was safe, though; I hadn’t heard the Basel train called.
I exited the café and turned toward the track where my train was . . . no longer waiting. Disbelieving, I ran along the empty platform, dodging suitcases, strollers, and other people. I really needn’t have hurried since I could see the train’s distant lights as it turned a curve about a half-mile away. Realizing that the Avon Lady sound had probably been my train’s departure signal, I slid onto a cold wooden bench and considered my situation. A tear leaked out from under my lashes. Another one followed. I wiped them away with the backs of both hands (my tissues were in my tote bag on the train) and, feeling distinctly like Lucy Ricardo, I decided I’d better find the stationmaster.
The office was at the top of a flight of metal stairs. The stationmaster was a very kind man; after listening politely to my admittedly ludicrous tale – preoccupied husband; forgotten jacket; no phone card; no ticket or passport, either (both were with the Kleenex in my tote bag on the train), his only response was a small sigh “I am sorry to hear that, madame, however, you are in luck because there is another train in three hours’ time. We simply have to get you on it. Please sit down and allow me to assist you.” He paused and gestured to the blue plastic chair in front of his desk and pursed his lips slightly. “I know what we will do. I will radio the conductor on your train and ask him to verify that your husband and your ticket are indeed on it. The conductor will then assure your husband of your safety.” He slid a small pad of paper and a pen toward me. “Now if you will please write out for me your name, your husband’s name and the location of your seats.”
When I was done, he lifted one of the many radios that cluttered his desk and spoke rapidly to someone in French. He listened to the response then turned back to me. “The conductor says that he just passed through the carriage containing your husband and that he was talking on his mobile phone but that he had two tickets in his hand. In a few minutes, when he finishes his round, the conductor will return and ask your husband to see your passport. Then he will confirm your identity and assure your husband of your safety. Afterward, we will issue you a new ticket. Please make yourself comfortable. We have only a few minutes to wait.”
My husband was talking on the telephone. Surprise. No doubt he’d be tidying the carriage in a few minute’s time.
I stared idly through the window while we waited. When the radio crackled in garbled French, the stationmaster lifted it to his ear, listened, looked at the pad, and then smiled. “Now we will provide you with a new ticket and somewhere to wait until the next train.” He reached for a cell phone and dialed. After a few seconds he began chattering quickly. I understood almost nothing of what he said, just “Americain” and “mal place”. In another few seconds, the stationmaster disconnected the call and rose. “My assistant is coming. He will provide you with a new ticket and remain with you until your train boards. In the meantime, I must go to the train-shed. Please remain here in comfort. If you will excuse me.” He was gone.
I sat and chewed my right thumbnail pondering my own idiocy. In about ten minutes, the glass door opened and a young man entered. “Are you the lost American?” he inquired politely.  Now I had a title.
The assistant stationmaster asked me to wait while he completed a few of his duties. Since I had so much time, I took a taxi to the hotel to retrieve my jacket then met the assistant stationmaster again when he came to reclaim me. Since it was time for his midmorning break, he led me to a cool Parisian bar where he bought me a pain au chocolat and café au lait, then leaned against the scarred zinc counter and introduced me to his friends as the lost American. At the correct time, he escorted me to my train and asked the conductor to be sure that I got to my seat safely. He probably also suggested that it would be best if I didn’t leave my seat until the train stopped in Switzerland, although I can’t be sure of this because I didn’t understand their conversation held entirely in French. Regardless, I made the trip to Basel in safety and comfort, albeit without my second honeymoon groom.
In retrospect, it all worked out fine. True, I missed the romance of a train trip with Jamie but I had a Parisian adventure that I’d never have had any other way. Plus I learned a few things; I learned that I can survive with no passport, no money, and no facility for the local language. And I learned that all my years of living inside books wasn’t wasted; Tennessee Williams really was correct about the kindness of strangers.

The Movie Star’s Shoe

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New York has some pretty big rats. (I mean the ones waddling along the stone walls of the Park at night, not the ones showing up on the front page of the Post.)  When my husband took a job running a Hollywood film production facility I presumed we had left New York’s rats, pigeons, cockroaches, waterbugs, and the rest of the gritty zoologica behind; we were going to live in ocean-fresh Santa Monica with California brown pelicans and Pacific spinner dolphins just outside our door.  It never occurred to me that rats would also share our So Cal paradise until our neighbor, Debbie, told me how relieved she was that Jean Pierre, another neighbor, was having his twenty-foot tall Washingtonia filifera palms pruned.  Not understanding, I asked why.  “Ask the tree guy when he gets here” she replied knowingly.

Later that day I had a long discussion with the man pruning; he told me that rats like to live in untidy palms, the ones with the dead fronds hanging down; they enjoy the protection from the elements and the close food source that unwary humans provide.  To forestall this, the trees must be pruned twice yearly.  Chilled, I spent the rest of the day grateful for Jean Pierre’s garden diligence.

That night sitting at an outside table at The Blue Plate Oysterette, watching the sun slip behind the forty-foot King Palms lining Ocean Avenue, I idly relayed the conversation to my husband, Jamie, as he perused financial statements from the studio.  The idea so captured his imagination that for the entire time we lived there – literally, until we returned to the East Coast – every time we passed a palm tree he’d grab my arm and yell “rat!”  At first it creeped me out, but since I never saw one, eventually I concluded that there couldn’t possibly be rats in every tree. Nevertheless, those invisible rodents remained secreted inside a small, dark sliver of my mind and I cut all palm trees a wide berth .

Still rat-less, weeks later, in mid-July we were lying on our bed watching the 11 o’clock news when I heard a loud thwack. I turned to Jamie.  “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“A smacking noise outside, like a bird hit the window.”

“So maybe a bird hit the window.”

“Jame, it’s . . . what, 11:20; what bird flies at that time of night?”

“Maybe it’s a bat.”

“Oooooh, do we have bats here?”

“Maybe it’s a rat jumping out of Jean Pierre’s palm tree.  Remember what the tree guy said.”

“Ewwwwwwwww.”

“He’s coming to get you!”  Jamie grabbed my arm.  This time I did shriek.  What if the much anticipated, palm-tree-rodent had finally arrived?  He laughed.  “If you really want to know, look out the window.”

Ours is a small house, a landmarked turn-of-the-twentieth-century beach cottage, barely ten feet away from an identical landmarked house, across the paved walkstreet that forms the center spine of the historic bungalow colony.  If that long-expected rat had appeared, he was sprawled on the porch roof, really close, maybe four feet away from the mattress.  I slid Spencer, our marmalade tabby, off my lap and faced the windows; approaching warily, I poked one finger tentatively through the blinds.

Peering through the slats, I saw that something sat in the center of the pitched porch roof; it was sleek-looking with a long slender growth from one end, too sleek-looking to be a rat, even one in overly groomed LA.   And while it was kind of rodenty in color, it appeared to have a red stomach. Was it a bloody rat?

Grabbing a long plastic back scratcher I yanked at the blind cord, then slid up the window sash and leaned out.  I poked at the object with the scratcher.  With a clunking noise, it rolled over and displayed more of its red stomach.  Feeling somewhat safer – rats don’t generally clunk and roll – I leaned out farther and tried to drag it toward me with the curled end of the scratcher.  It turned and clunked again, this time toward the edge.  Leaning out so far I feared tumbling out to join it on the small rooftop, I swatted again.  This time it caught.  I reeled it in.  It was a brown alligator Christian Louboutain stiletto.

Once I had the window closed, I sat on the rug examining my catch as it dangled expensively from the scratcher’s curved end.  It caught the light dully on its sable matte finish.  I lifted it gently and placed it beside me on the pale carpet.  It gleamed; it was a left pump, its sole smooth and crimson, not yet scratched from use.

I knew this shoe.  I had wanted a pair like this but saleswomen in every shoe department from Barney’s to Saks had sighed unctuously and inquired why I had not visited them sooner.  After all, it was the most important shoe of the collection and my size, six, was the most common in all of LA.  Covetously, I slid my bare foot inside the foundling’s cool newness.  I hobbled around to Jamie’s side of the bed.  “Look at this.”

Intrigued by the news broadcast, he ignored me.  I removed the shoe from my foot and waved it in front of his face.  “Jame, look at this.  It wasn’t a rat; it was a shoe on the roof, a brand-new Louboutain.”

He glanced up distractedly and nodded.

Perching on the edge of the mattress I twirled the shoe by its five-inch spike heel.  “How would this get here?” I mused.  “It’s expensive.  It’s alone and they come in pairs.  It’s big, too, look . . . size . . . oooh, eleven.  Wow.  And, anyway, they can’t fly, so how . . .” My voice trailed off.

Jamie looked up from the Marie Callendar commercial and jerked his head to the right. “Her,” he said.

“Her who?”

He looked at me intently and spoke slowly, punctuating his words with a pointing index finger. “Her – across the walkstreet.”  Then, just before he returned his face to the TV screen, he added, “And they can fly, by the way.”

Her Across the Walkstreet was an Oscar-winning actress known to the tabloids as America’s Sweetheart, a Chiclet-toothed girl-next-door, who earned tens of millions of dollars for every movie she made.  None of the neighbors knew her any better than the average reader of Star or People because, while she and her manager-husband owned the bungalow opposite ours, they rarely stayed there, since they also had an estate in Malibu and another in the Palisades.

After waiting for the next commercial to begin, I asked, “What are you talking about? What does she have to do with a size eleven flying Louboutain?”

“It’s her shoe.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I have met some of its relatives.”

“You can’t have; it’s here alone.”

Jamie shook his head, amazed by my naïveté.  “More distant relatives, then – a red Jimmy Choo, a black Givenchy, and . . . I am pretty sure the first one was a crème Manolo.  And they all knew how to fly, although some didn’t land too well; I thought the last one was gonna break the living room window.”

My lips formed a little “o”.  He tapped my chin and grinned.  “Close your mouth or you may catch the next one.”

It transpired that our neighbor – America’s Sweetheart – possessed the interpersonal communication skills of a thirteenth century Mongol.  Whenever she didn’t get her way she threw a screaming tantrum.  “Threw” appeared to be the operative word, too, because a shoe often accompanied the shriek; she wound back and hurled, although with less precision than enthusiasm, apparently, since no one had admitted to seeing her husband with a black eye.  And as our house sat immediately opposite theirs on the narrow walkstreet, the shoes landed most often on our porch.

I was amazed at Jamie’s story.  “When does this happen?  Where have I been?”

“I don’t know where you are.  It happens at all different times.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t really think about it.”

“Where are they?”

Jamie swigged his Diet Coke.  “I gave ‘em back; what do you think, I kept ‘em?”

“How?” I envisioned his knocking on the door and bowing, ‘Your shoe, madam’ like some Post-Modern Hollywood Sir Walter Raleigh.

“Usually I leave them on their front steps on my way to work in the morning.”

“Really?”

He stared.  “What else could I do with them?”

I considered.  Fill them with lemonade and freeze them, making shoe-shaped granitas. Plant them with dill and tarragon for a fashionista herb garden. Amusing, yes, but highly impractical, and nothing that my husband would have thought of.

“I don’t know.  I just . . . wondered.”

“Yeah, well, toss it down by the front door and I’ll drop it off on my way out tomorrow.”

“Okay.  I guess.”  Somehow it seemed wrong to throw it again, so I carried the shoe to the narrow staircase and descended into the inky darkness.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to return the shoe, although I certainly couldn’t formulate a reason for keeping it.  It was . . . associated glory, of sorts, like bidding on a star’s detritus at those Hollywood auctions Julien’s in Beverly Hills was always promoting.  This shoe was my own little brush with celebrity, except in this case the celebrity’s Us Magazine life had been found wanting.  Stars!  They’re just like us!  They feed their kids and phone their therapists and argue with their spouses, but their nameless neighbors have to help them find their matching shoes after they have pitched them across courtyards.

A tiny part of me wanted to feel morally superior and be sorry for America’s Sweetheart, as though my life was somehow more meaningful than hers – after all, I didn’t throw shoes – but I couldn’t quite manage that level of hypocritical envy. Regardless, for the first time I considered that beneath the great clothes and red-carpet events it must be pretty weird to be her.  She may well do all those real-people things but she does them with an aging Sober Life Coach rolling along behind her and guiding her hand while a phalanx of photographers angles to capture every misstep for posterity.

No, she is nothing like me.  I teach high school English and worry about rats in palm trees, not rats clutching cameras waiting patiently for the unflattering money shot to define me to all of America.

I sat in the darkened living room thinking until the entire colony was silent, then gently opened the door.  I tiptoed across the paving stones and lay the shoe on the doormat.    Treading softly down the wooden steps I gazed up at Jean Pierre’s palms wondering how many eyes were observing me as I completed my stealthy mission.  However many there were, it was fewer than the number that watched my neighbor park her Prius in the Whole Foods parking lot.  Maybe all the rats in LA didn’t live in the trees.

Why I Love Manhattan

Laura Driving

Native New Yorkers view the world through the grimy lens of cynicism.  Expecting and preparing for the worst possible result from all people and situations seems to us the most sensible way to travel through this life.  And travel we do – on buses, in taxis, on ferries, and through subway tunnels, all within close proximity to our fellow citizens.  Because of these myriad public transportation options, most of us don’t have a personal relationship with the internal combustion engine; after all, if God had intended for New Yorkers to drive, He wouldn’t have provided Alfred Ely Beach the idea for an underground pneumatic railroad back in 1869.

And the subway works just fine, thank you.  More or less, anyway.  Okay, it’s sweltering in the summer, stifling in the winter, and crowded all the time, but, it’s so much easier than taxis or buses.  Relatively few things can go wrong.  It runs on tracks from point A to point B; it can be fast or slow or stuck in a tunnel, but it will never deviate from its path leaving you stranded in a strange neighborhood.  And for those occasions requiring personal transportation there’s an Avis Car Rental garage on East 43rd Street.

My grandfather owned a car in the city which he used for both his business and to drive upstate for weekends; my father had one, too.  Although I had learned to drive, I rarely saw the need to actually do so.  I had always commuted to school and work in the more traditional fashion – strolling to the subway stop, passing the firehouse, chatting with the firemen and petting the dog, picking up a newspaper and coffee, and observing the theatre of the city’s streets along the way.

Like most New Yorkers, I’ve seen pretty much everything life has to offer on those walks – from the homeless man lying on a dirty plaid sofa watching tv under the Queensboro Bridge to the bride in full white wedding regalia boarding the B train. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve seen it often, and right now it’s blocking the entrance to the building where I need to go, dammit.  And no one in New York has seen more than its police officers.

In the early years of our relationship, my husband Jamie’s office was in Brooklyn Heights and we lived on the Upper West Side, just a few blocks from Engine Company 76.  Jamie’s was an inconvenient and time-consuming commute so Louis, his boss, thought a company car was in order: that’s how a blue Mercedes C class entered our family immediately enroll ing us in that subset of city dwellers whose lives are governed by the New York City Department of Transportation Alternate Side Parking calendar, downloadable in various languages including Chinese, Russian, and Haitian Creole.  (Believe me; woe of apocalyptic proportions betides the ignorant fool who leaves his car on the wrong side of the street when a Department of Sanitation street sweeper is due.)  Months passed with Jamie driving to work and my hopping on the train, each of us pleased with the arrangement. Then came the summer Saturday that we were invited to dinner with friends in Chappaqua, out of the city, one of those occasions that the car was supposed to make easier.

Around noon, Jamie wandered into the living room where I was watching a film I’d recorded.  I pushed the pause button  when he began to talk. “I have to go to meet Stu at Hudson Street at 3 o’clock so why don’t we get ready early, I’ll go to the meeting then call you when we’re through and you can meet me and we’ll head to the Damiano’s.”

I considered the suggestion, then shrugged, unimpressed with the idea. “What’ll I do while you’re with Stu?”

“Go shopping in SoHo.”

I wrinkled my nose. “No, I don’t want to do that. It’s a schlep from Hudson to any stores I like and I was going to wear the blue suit with high heels tonight and I hate walking around outside in nice shoes.”

“Take the car.”

“Yeah, and park at Hudson Street and I’ll still have to walk all the way over to West Broadway.  No, thanks.”

“No, you take the car, park on Broadway and I’ll walk over and meet you when Stu and I’re done.”

Pause.  “Me drive?”

“Yeah, you know how.”

Exhale.  “Yeah, I know I know how but I don’t parallel park real well.”

“So learn.”

He was using that tone, that ‘What’s wrong? Can’t rise to the challenge?’ tone that I hate but remain unable to resist.

Two beats, then three.  I blinked.  He blinked.  I sighed.  “Okay, fine.  I guess I’d better get in the shower now then.”

By 2:45 pm we were downtown.  Jamie exited the car in front of his friend’s mid-block office building and I slid behind the wheel.  Before slamming the door he leaned in and said, “I’ll call you when I’m through and you can tell me where you are and I’ll come find you.  Then we’ll drive to the Damiano’s.”

“Humph, I’ll probably be in traffic court.”

“Nope, you never get a court date the same day as the offense.” Grinning, he slammed the door and strolled away.

Using my walker’s geography I tried to figure out how to pilot this monstrous vehicle back toward Broadway.  I knew that avenues run north to south and streets are east to west but I am an Upper West Side baby; except for attending NYU, I had little experience with southern Manhattan and even for that I exited the subway at West Fourth Street and walked.  I knew that Hudson Street met West Broadway somewhere around Chambers Street and that it runs both north and south so I could find the stores I wanted easily enough, providing I could get to that point.  The problem was that all of this was in the direction opposite of where I was headed and I didn’t have the vaguest idea how to get back to where I wanted to be.

Guided only by rudimentary New Yorker’s geography – east are the beaches of Long Island and west is New Jersey and everywhere else until you reach Los Angeles – I nosed into the thick Saturday afternoon traffic, slowly, nervously, inching what I hoped was eastward.  So many people, so many cars, so many trucks, so many One Way signs sprang before me that in no time I was completely discombobulated.  I don’t know what I did wrong but  I found myself crushed in the middle of the New Jersey-bound Canal Street traffic jam crawling toward the open, leering mouth of the Holland Tunnel.  Damn Jamie and his bright ideas.

Even the thought  of the tunnel panicked me.  Obviously it began in lower Manhattan but I had no idea where it ended.  My mind conjured images of Lucy Ricardo’s first driving lesson when, panicked, she attempted a three-point turn in the tunnel and reportedly stopped traffic all the way to East Orange, New Jersey.  Determined not to befall the same fate, I looked nervously for someplace, anyplace, to turn out of the stream.  It wasn’t going to be easy; all of the streets seemed to be one way, feeding into the four lane bottleneck approach to the double-tube tunnel. My palms grew sweatier with each street I passed.  About a block before the actual entrance I noticed another one-way sign pointing toward Canal Street but the street itself was blocked by blue NYPD sawhorses.  Rejoicing, I switched on my right turn signal and began the laborious process of exiting to the right.  I swerved around the sawhorse and saw three New York City police officers standing by identical sawhorses at the opposite end of the street; they were waving away all traffic attempting to turn into the street.  Hearing my approaching engine, one broke from the cluster and sauntered toward my car.  He gestured for me to stop, so I did; I lowered the window and waited expectantly, hopefully.

“Lady, did you see the one-way sign?”

“Yes, but I’m lost.  I was getting forced into the tunnel traffic and I didn’t mean to go there. I don’t want to go into the tunnel.  I don’t even know where it goes.  I was trying to get over to the left to go to West Broadway but nobody would let me over.  So I turned here to go around the block and try another way.” I smiled.

His eyes narrowed slightly.  “Lady, this is a one-way street. You’re going the wrong way.”

“Yes, I know.” Hadn’t I just explained that?

He flexed his jaw.  “You’re going the wrong way on a one-way street. You have to turn around and go back”

“No, I can’t go that way. I’ll get pushed into the tunnel.” My hope was fading.

“Look, lady, either you turn around or I am going to write you a ticket for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Now turn around.”

“No, I’ll get pushed into the tunnel.  If you have to write the ticket, then write it but  I can’t go back that way. Nobody will let me over and I’ll end up somewhere in New Jersey, I don’t even know where.” At this point all hope was gone and panic was creeping into my voice, not for the ticket, but for the possibility of getting lost in New Jersey.

He pushed his cap further back on his head as he stared at me staring at him.  He sighed. “Lady, what do you want me to do, stop the traffic for you?”

“Yes, please.”

His eyes widened.  My choosing to take his sarcasm seriously meant he was now stuck, as stuck as I was.  He sighed again.  “All right.  Turn around and follow me.”

I executed my three-point turn successfully and followed him up the sight grade.  He stepped into the first lane of traffic and held up his right palm toward it while gesturing for me to follow with his left.  He repeated the process through the lanes until all approaching cars had stopped; I followed behind him an inch at a time like a tentative but obedient dog.   After I had cut diagonally across the stopped  traffic I braked near the officer.  He lifted his left arm and pointed theatrically in the direction I needed to go, then swept his right arm across his chest, brushing past his face, then dropped his head in a dramatic courtier’s bow.  I yelled ‘thank you’ through the closed window and accelerated slightly.  As I passed him I could see the grin on his face.

Yes, we’ve seen it all here in New York.  And there are reasons why many of us choose not to drive.