Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Father's Advice

         The first martini I ever drank was likely a Smirnoff – shaken, not stirred – presented with a nod and a wink by a careless bartender at T.G.I. Friday's on East Sixty-Third. I would have been just thirteen on that warm, hopeful Spring evening in 1968, dressed for success in tweed and khakis and sporting on my left hand a brass curtain ring I'd found earlier in the junk drawer and polished up for the occasion. I'd come across an item in Cue Magazine about how all the single girls in the City were heading for bars like this in the neighborhood to find men and, as I was looking for tipsy single girls and had been told that I could pass for eighteen, I'd spent the day sorting through patched jeans and tie-dyed shirts, rumpled corduroys and sport-coats in an effort to find the appropriate outfit for impressing both a girl and a bartender. Friday's was the flagship of the singles' scene and only a few blocks from the house. I finally mustered the courage to walk over at around 7 o'clock and took a seat in the soft, shadowed section of the empty bar away from the revealing glare of a faux Tiffany lamp. Resting my left hand prominently on the polished mahogany and affecting my best, world-weary demeanor, I ordered a martini because I figured I'd only get one shot at a drink before the bartender wised up, so it might as well be the cocktail James Bond favored.

   Whereas the ersatz wedding band may have helped persuade the barman to serve me, I knew as much about cocktails at the time as I did about women and it never occurred to me that the ring might keep the girls away or that the martini might, within a few sips, render me too senseless to notice. After maybe forty minutes of sipping at the nasty concoction I'd gotten most of it down and made a foray towards a booth where two mod girls were playing backgammon, nursing green and yellow umbrella drinks and flashing me what I must have decided were “come hither” looks. They giggled as I stumbled on approach. “Leg's asleep...”, I offered, clinging to the brass rail above their booth. “ Where do you go to school?” The pretty one opened with, suppressing a giggle. “ What's that?” her friend asked, pointing to the ring, “ You're not married.... What, how old are you, thirteen or something?” Mortified and ashamed, I mumbled something about having to go – I think I told them my mother was dying in Albany – and stumbled out the door with the sound of their mocking laughter ringing in my ears all the way home.

   Cocktails have returned as the height of hipster fashion these days and much has been made lately of our country's upcoming entry in the global USBG Legacy Cocktail Showcase competition, the Father's Advice. An improbable concoction of rum, some sort of Sherry something-or-other, Creme de Banana and a selection of spirits and cordials I've never heard of, this deadly little trifle is bound to be the bomb of the pork-pie hat and skinny-jean set and the bane of every long-suffering bartender who's ever had to tolerate the White Russian or the Maraschino cherry. In most of the bars I learned to drink in, shots of Jack and gin martinis were about the most one could expect by way of a cocktail and even at that a request for an olive or -  God forfend – a twist, might earn a glare and eye-roll from the mixologist. Any request that might require a toothpick umbrella or even a swizzle-stick was generally made by a slumming member of the Bridge-and-Tunnel set and was invariably met with a sneer and a beer.

   My father was a gin martini man and often ordered one at lunch in those dark, obscure French or Italian restaurants that dot the side-streets in Midtown. Although I doubt he ever had more than a couple of the legendary three martini lunches, he could have at least one and a couple of glasses of wine with a veal chop and side of fettuccine without apparent ill effect. One afternoon when he was a couple of years older than I am today, he and I were walking up the hill after a lovely repast at the River Cafe. Halfway to the Heights he began to lurch and list, careening from curb to cobblestone so wildly that I was forced, against my better judgment, to fling my arms about him lest he fall. I remember thinking, with a tinge of public embarrassment, that he must be plastered; yet I knew he'd had only two glasses of Medoc with his broiled halibut. In a moment he'd regained his balance and composure and brushed my arms and concerns away. Years later we were able to pinpoint that episode as the first of the many strokes that would weaken and diminish him over the course of his final fifteen years.

    Dad never offered much advice about women or drink, except perhaps the unsolicited suggestion one afternoon that I marry Suzanne. A year or two before he died, my brother took him on a “voyage a la recherche” to his past in Duluth. At a steakhouse somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota my father ordered a martini. My brother, understandably weary and cautious after several days with Dad, jumped in. “ Be careful, Dad,” he admonished, “you know martinis make you choke.”

   “Martinis don't make me choke.” He replied with some annoyance, nodding to the waitress. “Martinis make me fall over!”

   Seems like good advice to me.

Father's Advice
1 ½ oz Bacardi Gold
½ oz    Cardamaro
½ oz    Amontillado
¼ oz   Giffard Banane du Bresil

Combine all ingredients. Stir for 45 seconds, pour into chilled coupe glass and garnish with orange swath.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Myth of Us

       Popular mythology in our community would have it that one of the Ladies was ravaged one evening by a U-Boat commander who'd rowed ashore somewhere on the blacked-out coast of Cape Small for the purpose of engaging in a bit of sport and frolic. Precisely which of the handful of likely suspects succumbed to the dashing submariner's charm may be lost forever, but I'm thinking it had to be one of my Grandmother's bridge partners if not the matriarch herself. With all the men away and much of the finer things to which they'd grown accustomed rare and rationed, it's not perhaps too much of a stretch to imagine one of these comely thirty or forty-somethings letting things get just a bit out of hand upon finding a handsome stranger at the door. In uniform, clutching a couple of magnums of French champagne, some Belgian chocolates and a wheel of ripe Camembert, the offending officer may have been irresistible even if he'd climbed in through the bathroom window. With only a whisp of shaded candle light to illuminate the scene, it might have been difficult to make out insignia on that uniform, which was presumably hastily divested of in any case, and the accent may not have caused concern if the cad had confined his discourse to tender murmurings of the bill and the coo. On the other hand, it's entirely possible the commander in question was someone's cousin; we have so many of those.

   Nearly all the myths and legends of our extended family have already melted into apocrypha and my trying to reassemble them from fragments of fact, real and imagined, will do nothing to reveal the truth. Who on earth was Cousin Gerald and did he really squander his birthright to spend a lifetime in the Himalayas in pursuit of the Yeti? Could Uncle Walter really have spent his service in the War renting out double beds to horny GI's in an otherwise empty Flying Fortress on the Darwin to Burma loop? Exactly what was Uncle Sag up to posing beneath the Arc de Triomphe in the company of Petain, a couple of Japanese gentleman in top hats and tails and some puffy guy who looks an awful lot like Mussolini? Was it only economics and the fashions of the day or some dark and tawdry misstep in her past that rendered Miss Sophie Harvey a spinster and life-long companion to my Grandmother; a lifetime spent darning socks and stockings, baking shortbread and terrifying us with bedtime tales of The Sandman related in a thick and chewy Scottish burr? There may still be answers out there, filtered through the elaboration and invention of three or four survivors of my mother's generation together with a handful born just before the War. And what they can't remember they'll make up, never letting the truth interfere with a good dish of dirt on the departed.

   My cousin Camilla will be spending the summer once again at Camp Sabino, the sprawling cottage above the beach that would have been but a stone's throw from the high-water mark to which some thoughtful Reichsmariner might have dragged his dinghy. Comparatively young by today's standards, yet nearing a point on the cosmic chronometer beyond which few Sewalls have strayed, Camilla has bounced back from a multitude of strokes and stumbles that have left her pretty difficult to understand, if no less enthusiastic to embark on perforated renderings of the family lore. The house itself is a museum, the great-room lined with figureheads, the rafters coppered like spars with massive iron anchors flanking the vast, stone fireplace. Sepia prints of shipboard scenes from erstwhile passages around the Horn in the sugar trade, mementos of our maritime past, line the walls from floor to ceiling and often raise more questions than they answer. What, for instance, are those sailors doing defiling that tomb on the Galapagos?

  Most days I'll be stopping in to check on her and, if she's awake and feels like talking, I'll do my best to tease out answers -  perhaps with the aid of champagne and Camembert - in a stroke-broken language it may take time and patience to understand. When she's sleeping I can pass the time searching through the archive that is Sabino, pondering the illusive, fading cursive on the margins of the past two centuries.

Friday, April 10, 2015

And When You Touch Down


    “There's a nice little institution up the River that might just be a good fit.” My Headmaster suggested as we sat in his office reviewing a pathetically short list of secondary schools he thought I might have a shot at being accepted to. The two or three schools he'd coughed up for me were notable for their obscurity - third tier academies I'd barely heard of that bore the whiff of misery and stain of failure in their names alone. Schools, for the most part, that had the reputation for taking boys unfortunate enough to be rejected at the sexier places everyone I knew talked about constantly in the halls and locker room that autumn of my eighth grade year. Mom and Dad smiled at Dr. Westgate; they looked at me expectantly. I knew what they were thinking, what all three of us had thought the moment the words had past his lips; my father made a stab at levity. “Would that be Sing Sing?”

    The pressure to get in to one of these prestigious schools had completely overwhelmed most of us that fall and the fact that I cared so much about my own prospects while secretly wanting nothing more than to stay in the City and live at home was a conflict that dominated and drove nearly every facet of my life. There may have been other boys who felt this way as well, but none of us would have admitted it, blustering about instead with cocky assurance that we were off to Choate or Deerfield or Andover or Groton. I wanted to go to The High School of Art and Design – a magical place I'd heard about from my art teacher – but stifled that guilty ambition under the onslaught of peer pressure. And so we left Dr. Westgate's office that day armed with the names of three apparently “B-List” schools, one of which was located in North Andover, Massachusetts, which I figured was close enough to Andover to put on my list.

    My father and I had set out from Manhattan at dawn; before we'd crossed into Connecticut the sun was up and struggling to soften the dark, foreboding sky that seemed to swell and deepen with every passing mile. We were heading first for Choate, a school I'd put at the top of my list primarily because most of my classmates wanted to go there. I had a cousin there at the time who I knew would help me out, but JFK had been a Choate man and I didn't really harbor any hope of getting in. Icy winds buffeted the Wagoneer as we drove through the massive gates and pulled up before the ivy-covered office of admissions. The boy who greeted us wore a name tag on his brass-buttoned blazer and so did all the other boys milling about the quadrangle. We must have had a tour; I must have had an interview, but all for naught as I'd determined in that instant that I'd never go to a school where I'd be so anonymous as to be forced to wear a name-tag.

   Back in the car, Dad lit a Benson & Hedges, tuned the radio to 1010 WINS and, perhaps sensing my anxiety, kept his own council as we left Wallingford and headed north for Deerfield. I didn't want to go to Deerfield either, having selected it only because I'd had a friend whose family had moved there. We ate club sandwiches at the HoJo's before getting on the Mass Pike and driving through a series of ugly snow squalls. I turned the dial, hoping to find “Eight Miles High” or “Born To Be Wild”. Dad found more news out of Hartford and we listened to some blather about LBJ, Nixon's recent victory and plans for a march on Washington I knew I wasn't going to be able to attend. Snow changed to sleet as we exited the Pike; I gazed out at the dead, russet landscape of central Massachusetts through a nicotine haze and wondered what on Earth I'd gotten myself into. The sandwich commenced to rise, the fries congealed into an oily knot and began to sink. Deerfield was a marble mausoleum that smelled of urinal puck and reminded me of a men's room I'd visited in Saratoga as a child. As with Choate, the whole thing was over before it began and I think we were both relieved to put the place behind us and head out for the highway. This time my father cracked the windows as if to better rid our nostrils of the scent of polished marble.

   By the time we'd reached Brooks, Dr. Westgate's selection, it was well past dark on that cold and bitter, November afternoon. I can't recall our mood, but given my father's volatile nature and the fact that we'd been together in the Jeep for nearly eleven hours fighting over the radio, it couldn't have been good. Far from the brick and marble we'd grown used to, this building was a modest white cape that seemed too much like a private home to be an office. After knocking and waiting to no avail, Dad opened the door and we cautiously moved through the vestibule towards a cozy, paneled parlor where a large man dozed in a cracked and battered leather club chair before a roaring fire. An equally portly yellow lab lay farting at his feet and when my father cleared his throat they both awoke with a start; the man reaching out a hand to Dad, the Lab oozing up and over to snarfle at my hand and crotch.

   Perhaps that fat and flatulent dog had made the choice for me, but after some hot cider, Pilot crackers with sharp cheddar and a long delayed trip to the toilet I felt my anxiety begin to melt away. If I was really going to do this thing, I thought as we got back into the car for the long drive home, I might as well do it here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Over the Hill


     When we'd finally persuaded my father's doctor to put restrictions on his license, the best we'd been able to negotiate was a five mile limit on his reach. We interpreted this to mean a five mile radius from his house; Dad informed us that as far as he was concerned it meant five miles from wherever he happened to find himself. Thus, he reasoned, if he had traveled five miles, then driving another five in any direction would be more or less the same as returning to the house. He was prepared to share this logic with the State Troopers should the need arise.

   In most rural communities men of a certain age are possessed of an almost overwhelming compulsion to visit the dump at least once a week. This may have as much to do with getting out of the house and having somewhere to go as taking out the trash or pawing through the junk shed. In some cases, standing around the tip trading lies with a bunch of like-minded fellows for half an hour may be the social high point of the week and if, along the way, one were to come upon the forbidden bag of caramels or cheese-curls, well, so much the better. Clad in his Town ensemble that Saturday morning - work boots, jeans, tweed jacket over v-neck sweater and gloves - my father announced he was off to the dump despite the fact that he'd been unable to muster up anything more respectable than a Ronzio box and a couple of empty seltzer bottles. When I said I'd come along and offered to drive, he told me I was welcome to join him but he'd do the driving, thank you very much. A few feeble attempts at argument drew a heated and disproportionate response, so I clammed up and went meekly towards my fate. When you're used to driving yourself around, the very act of climbing into the passenger's seat can feel odd and awkward, but to climb in next to a man you know shouldn't be driving at all requires a staggering leap of faith and at least a momentary reflection on the cleanliness of your underwear and the state of your worldly affairs.

   My father did not disappoint. Literally right out of the gate he took a left onto 194 and started up the half-mile hill towards Cowshit Corner on the wrong side of the road. At first I thought this lane error was more of a steering adjustment, but after ten or twenty yards I realized he intended to stay in the left lane for the duration despite the fact that there was no way to see beyond the crest of this long, looming hilltop. “ Dad,” I said. “Dad, you're on the wrong... Should we maybe get over...” I started to reach for the wheel, one eye on the rise, right hand on the door. I know he heard me. He offered no response, no adjustment, no chagrined swerve to the right; he gripped the wheel tightly and drove on, steadfast and determined. In that instant I felt my panic recede and a sort of eerie acceptance take its place. In the few seconds it took to review my life with Dad and realize I would apparently rather die in a fiery collision than make any further attempt at altering his course, we had shot up over the top of the hill and survived.

   Before we were married I accompanied Suzanne on one of her frequent business trips to India. One morning we had to scramble to find a car and driver to take us from Delhi to Jaipur because Air India had shut down all flights in and out of Rajastan so that Prince Charles could more comfortably attend to his polo match. An hour's flight, the drive would take six to seven and we set out at dawn with a box of fake French pastries from the Hilton, a couple of cups of undrinkable coffee in south-Asian styrene and – at least in my case, being a morning person – some enthusiasm at the chance to see a bit of the countryside. In those days the road to Jaipur had not improved measurably from the time of the Raj; mostly dirt, dust and sand, the north and southbound lanes were barely defined and any distinction between the two universally ignored. Far from the bucolic scenery I had anticipated, the roadside was a nearly continuous display of fresh, smoldering automotive carnage with crowds of young men and the occasional elephant on hand to push the latest hulks – wheels still spinning in the hot, thick air - out of the way. Indeed, passing the overloaded lorries and tilting buses had developed into something of a macho sport and our driver seemed to want to spice the game up a bit by confining his attempts to those moments he'd swung around to face us with some mindless anecdote. If he wasn't going to look, I certainly wasn't, and I spent most of those long hours with my fists clenched, my eyes shut and Suzanne, an old India hand, asleep with her head on my lap.

    The first indication that our flight back to Delhi some days later might not be any less terrifying than the drive out came before we even boarded. Mashed into a mob at the gate far larger than could possibly fit on the plane, we had no seat assignments, no boarding passes and little hope of even squeezing out the door to the runway before all the seats were taken. Bulling my way through the sea of saris, blindly clutching Suzanne's arm and dragging her toward the door, we were literally lifted up by the masses when the gate opened and somehow propelled as if by tsunami out onto the tarmac. There we were met by a half a dozen Indian soldiers in a sort of defensive line who tried to catch and pat down as many passengers as possible as they bobbed and weaved, darted and feinted in an effort to evade this hapless excuse for security in a mad dash for an empty seat. Once on board we sat for over an hour as groups of surly, plain-clothed security guys in tight-crotched slacks and Naugahyde jackets drifted slowly up and down the aisle trying to decide which of us may have placed a bomb on board in service to the separatists of Jammu and Kashmir. The abject absurdity of this was demonstrated by one fellow who crawled up and down the entire length of the plane banging about under every seat with his truncheon. This was the moment I turned to Suzanne and asked if she agreed we ought to think about getting off that plane. Of course, not wanting to make a scene, we sat tight. We sat tight when the engines finally coughed and sputtered to life and the security detail left the plane; when the jet began a rough and bumpy taxi toward the runway, shaking and vibrating so severely that the air-masks deployed and luggage rained down upon us from the overheads. We sat tight as we somehow left the ground, climbed for thirty seconds and dropped back down again before finally achieving altitude, leveling off and banking north for Delhi. By the time the stewardesses had rearranged the luggage and secured the overheads with duct tape, I had stopped waiting for the bomb blast and gripped Suzanne's hand in my own as we began our descent. Amidst a dangerous swirl of airborne carry-on, sweet tea and turbans, we landed at last in Delhi just a bit surprised to have survived.

   As I approach my sixtieth birthday after a lifetime of tempting fate with hubris and poor judgment, carelessness, acquiescence and mistakes habitually repeated, it gets harder and harder to know if I'm in the right lane or to see beyond the crest of that next rise. As for any fateful errors I may be poised to make, well, with one eye on the rear-view and both hands on the wheel I can only hope to shoot up over the hilltop and find a clear road ahead.