It occurred to me recently that I have frequently written about food. I don’t know if this is due to a particular obsessiveness, or maybe it’s normal: eating is an essential activity, after all. Often the location is diners, where I’ve spent a lot of time writing, eating, waiting.
LUNCH AT THE LIVE BAIT DINER
It has some other name, but the sign
you see driving by is LIVE BAIT,
which in fact is a shop around back
of the small, metal-clad diner.
For some reason, some mad nostalgia,
I’ve ordered fried clams.
There’s not much else on the menu board,
but we’re 80 miles from the ocean,
hundreds from shores free of pollution.
The plate comes out, pellets of a fishy
substance, coated in breading fried hard
in old grease. I refuse to think:
When they opened the cooler out back,
did they pick up the wrong container?
After school, with teachers pressing us poor and ethnic kids
to have good manners, and then the streets’ threat
of snowballs or insults, home was sanctuary—Mother gone,
but in her place an apple pie, her special craft.
With a glass of milk I’d eat a thin piece, a thicker piece,
and then as much as I might dare; once I ate just less
than half a whole one. In the kitchen, warm with the yellow
sun, the milk and pie filled me up.
I’m not suggesting, because the memory is appealing, that
was a good way of growing up. The sweet, soft things of my childhood
made me sweet and soft and utterly defenseless till at 12,
after Phyllis called me Fatso, I starved myself thin.
What’s made me happiest all this week was my son, at 7,
announcing his favorite cereal is shredded wheat—no sugar,
just the grain, hard and crunchy, good for children to grow up
hard and healthy and fearless in the streets.
It used to be good luck to find one.
Some were steel, some had the profile
of an Indian. Boys pressed collections
into the round slots of blue folders.
Now they are trash, a nuisance, stored
in cans and jars till they’re rolled for the bank.
Listen, kids: this copper-colored disk
could transform a summer morning, redeemed
at the corner store for a paper strip
of candy dots in four colors,
a wax bottle of grape or cherry syrup,
or a crunchy, peanut-flavored Mary Jane.
MAVIS GOTTFRIED Compassion
I saw that he looked truly miserable. Maybe, I figured,
he was disappointed his job wasn’t getting him anywhere
after quite some years; men got that way, I supposed.
But his despair showed worse and worse, and of course
men are terrible at expressing feelings, so I said,
“Come on, Fred, tell me, what is the tragedy? What’s
going on?” “You really want to know?” he asked. “Of course.
I’m your wife. Tell me.” So he tells me the reason is
his girlfriend, after five years, decided to give him the air.
She left him flat. “I’m so glad,” he said, “you wanted me
to tell you. Can you imagine how it’s been eating me up?”
He told me this, standing in the kitchen in a towel
from his shower. At the time, I was slicing some excellent
tenderloin for the boeuf bourguignon and noodles
I thought would cheer him up.
I sliced away as I thought about the pain poor Fred
was experiencing at the hand of some bitch I’d never
heard of before that moment. Slice, slice, slice,
through the juicy tenderloin. He escaped
into the hallway just as I lunged. Poor Fred.
The summer of 1959,
before senior year of high school,
we ventured to a beatnik coffee house.
This was new and dangerous:
the dark walls, jazz on a hi-fi,
black-clothed, barefoot customers.
The waitress had long, straggly hair
and wore no lipstick. One of us
ordered espresso, cutting the bitterness
with three cubes of sugar. The rest of us
drank Constant Comment tea,
which sounded safer but still exotic.
I’ve had it since, of course, its British
politeness neatly packaged in paper.
But I can still see its weird name
on the mimeoed menu, its orangey smell
still evoking dark places, forbidden
outposts, new worlds to explore.
A magic dusk in Central Park, resting from our supper
of cheese, kielbasa, and wine. Fifth Avenue buildings
float in the gray mist above the hill on which we sit,
my head in her soft lap.
Amy stretches her arms and yawns. “Oh, this legarthy,” she sighs.
“Legarthy?” I ask. “Do you mean lethargy?”
“Is that how you say it?” she asks.
And the mist blows away from Fifth Avenue
as we pack up our garbage and move on.
I worry about life; it’s like not knowing
how much of a tip to leave.
Why have I done nothing yet
for the society pages, the gossip columns,
or the news?
Most nights I sit at home,
drawing pictures and folding
the clean laundry. Music is silent in the concert halls
because I’m not there listening.
Now I push my aluminum fork
into the yolk, and yellow
spills across the plate.
43rd STREET HAIKU
In the gutter outside Nathan’s,
a dead knish.
Sometimes in the aisles of the market
you find the trail of hungry thieves:
they’ve torn a box of Chips Ahoy,
drained a cola can, or stuffed
an empty Twinkies wrapper
back of the display.
And years ago, in the discount store,
there on the shelf lay Barbie
in her cardboard bunk,
the cellophane ripped,
her halter down, exposing
the little pink cones of her chest.
I can understand creatures
driven by passion or greed
to violate our laws and ethics,
but what strange lust was gratified
here at the Pathmark, ravaging
these packs of goldfish food?
BUNNY MULLINS’ MODEST PROPOSAL
One problem is there are people
everywhere you look on the street
who I bet could use a good meal,
and another is all of these rats
all over the parks, that scurry
where you used to see squirrels,
so why don’t we ask some of the chefs
in our multi-starred restaurants
for tasty ways to prepare them?
Boy Scouts could trap thousands
every day, the homeless could have jobs
getting them ready for broiling or sautéing,
and someone from Madison Avenue
could find a French name or something Norwegian
with a lot of funny umlauts
so they’ll sound appetizing,
and at least two of our civic problems
would be solved at once!
May I light your cigarette, my dear,
Start with cocktails or a beer,
Have dinner at a fine café,
Filet mignon to crème brûlée –
Lighten your coffee
With a dash of cream,
Then sit around to chat
But no, you only drink mineral water;
You only eat salads and seeds.
You’ve stopped using drugs and tobacco
For your emotional needs.
And no more late-night adventures,
Watching moonlight through the fog –
You’re getting up very early
The coffee shop has a rule,
with a waitress on guard to enforce it:
Singles Sit on the Left.
If you’re alone you’re limited
to the tables along the wall –
one of us at each of them,
like children playing choo-choo,
all facing east as the sun sets –
each with our porkchop or coffee or pie,
lonely, resigned, or glad to be free,
as our local carries us to night.
FOOD ADDICT’S NIGHTMARE
If I ever give up the hard work
I’ll sit on the curb
with a bucket of cold nachos
or lie in the gutter, scraping
the last streaks of fudge
from a sundae cup.
I’ll be dragged away
with cake crumbs in my whiskers
and frosting on my chin.
DICKIE DO & DICKIE DEE
Or, Life in New Jersey
Because we ordered something once from a catalog,
we get dozens of catalogs a month,
from highbrow to the very low.
One of the latter offers t-shirts with the legend
“The Dickie Do Club,” detailed as follows:
“My gut hangs out more than my dickie do.”
Would someone actually buy one for himself?
Or do you send an affectionately insulting gift
to husband or friend? And when would you wear it?
On a family picnic? To the local roadhouse?
Does it help you pick up women?
What kind of women does it help you meet?
Dickie Dee’s, on the other hand, was a place in Newark
to get a Newark-style hot dog, fried in ancient grease
that was black with age, and with cubes of potatoes,
all stuffed in a small Italian loaf.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but not
as good as you might think.
Imagine making an evening of it: start with hot dogs
at Dickie Dee’s, wearing your Dickie Do t-shirt;
down some brewskies farther up Bloomfield Avenue.
Tomorrow is soon enough for an evening
of string quartets, brown rice, or a meditative hike
in the Watchung Mountains.
HENRY “SYRUP” LUCERNE
So I’m 17 and I work at this diner. It was only
a greasy spoon, but the boss had delusions
of grandeur, getting ideas for improvements
from this restaurant magazine. He decides
we’ll offer for anyone who orders pancakes or a waffle
to heat up the syrup.
It’s imitation maple-flavored sorghum or something
that comes in a five-gallon can like motor oil –
but we’ll heat some up and pour it in a little ceramic pitcher
if you want. So then it’s “May I heat up your syrup, sir?”
or “May I heat up your syrup, ma’am?”
No big deal.
Then it’s a Friday morning and this woman
comes in. Call her a babe, a knockout –
a walking jelly donut of sex appeal,
she sits at the counter, soft and pink
and oozing over the stool, and she orders pancakes.
Everyone in the place, 100 percent of whom
are male this morning, get quiet,
smelling her perfume and everything.
Now, remember, I’m 17 and naïve as you can get
in these parts – I look in those huge eyes
with all the fancy eyelashes and I say:
“May I heat up your syrup, ma’am?”
And, you know, she didn’t bat one of those beautiful
eyes. She could see I was in misery
and she was clearly a lady.
But the place fell apart – whooping, whistling,
backslapping. I ran out the front door
and didn’t come back till two nights later,
to return my apron and pick up my pay.
The rest of the time I lived here,
till I went in the service, I was “Syrup Boy”
to everyone in town. Some old timers
still call me “Syrup” but it’s no big deal.
What hurt wasn’t that they made fun of me:
I fell apart at the diner because I knew
I couldn’t help that woman when the onslaught came.
For the world I lived in, to provide the chivalry
that the situation required was too much
for a 17-year-old. Hell, it would be too much
for codgers like you and me.
LOST IN AMERICA
You enter a diner far from home,
in a state or neighborhood you’ve never visited before –
and you know the place:
it comes straight from the catalog of diners
so you’re sure you’ve been here –
the Early American formica and the brass chandeliers;
the railings and tables; you know where the restrooms are
and where the cashier sits.
When you pay at the familiar counter with its toothpicks and mints
and push open the customary door, what country
will you be in? what season? what year will it be?
and who will you be, and why?