Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Day

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant called Tre Alberi, in a town called Barryville, just across the Delaware on the New York side.

It would be easy to miss Tre Alberi from the road — their sign is small and weathered and set back on what is essentially a front lawn, and their three-tree logo looks like a burn mark from far away. And the name of the place is so small, and in such an old-fashioned, decorative font, that you can’t make it out even when you’re pulling up to it. It feels like the sign was part of a much smaller landscape originally.

When you step in through the front door you see that it’s really a house converted into a restaurant: there’s an enclosed white-wicker-and-chintz-pillows porch, where it would comforting to have tea on a sunny weekend morning (although at the same time there was something about it that brought to mind sore throats and headaches and menstrual cramps, and a bad relationship from my twenties), and then a carpeted hallway and a staircase going up to formal parlors or bedrooms. You hang your coat up in the hallway, off of which on the left are a private dining room (for “banquet-style dining”) and then the kitchen, but you can’t tell it’s the kitchen until you’re right there, and the smiling black-haired hostess with the non-specific Eastern-European accent is greeting you.

The seating area is two rooms: the room that would’ve been the dining room (in the front), and what would’ve been the kitchen (in the back). In a typical converted railroad-style apartment building, or an SRO (“single-room occupany”) those two areas would’ve been individual apartments, the biggest and most coveted. I lived in one like that in Chicago, in fact – my room was the back one, the kitchen. There was already a big table full of people in the front part of the dining area — a family, I could tell. The two littlest kids were dressed like something out of the past: the boy had his hair parted neatly on the side and combed back, and wore a wine-colored vest, a black bow tie, and a crisp white shirt. The little girl had on the kind of dress my mother used to love to dress me in when I was that age: black velvet top, big red sash, and red plaid skirt, plus the requisite lacy white tights and black patent leather shoes. Her hair was curled into ringlets and held back with shiny barrettes. There was another kid, a boy, maybe twelve years old, dressed in a polyester jogging suit-thing, like my nephew in Chicago used to wear ten years ago when he was trying to look like he was in the AMBROSE (“Almighty Mexican Brotherhood Running Our Streets Everywhere”) gang.

The waitress came over with our wine, and I asked her if the place took credit cards. “American Express and personal checks,” she said. I couldn’t believe the personal check thing. “You must really trust your customers,” I laughed. “We do,” she nodded, smiling. “Our customers are great.”

A group of older people came in — an elderly couple, two somewhat younger women, and two late fifty-ish--looking men in dark sport coats. All the women were wearing minks that looked like they’d been gifts from their husbands from many Christmases ago, proudly worn every Christmas since (and sometimes on Easter when it was cold enough). They wafted Chantilly or maybe Emeraude. The black-haired hostess with the Eastern-European accent embraced all of them, wished the older couple a happy anniversary, and stage-whispered “I’m very sorry,” to one of the late fifty-ish-looking men. The waitress came by, too with the same greetings but minus the hugs. The group put their coats on the table in front of ours and went into the front area and quietly greeted the big family — one of the two little kids said “Hi Grandma and Grandpa.” The men at the table got up and embraced the women. Suddenly there was a feeling of being in an old restaurant somewhere in Europe just after the turn of the century. The décor buttressed the fantasy: little painted pitchers hanging on the walls, ornate steins on ledges, and above us, in a locked case was a bottle of Moet with a red “White Star Line” ribbon hanging down from the neck.

The two little kids followed the older group back to their table by us, and were handed shiny plastic backpacks by the grandmother, who was wearing a black jacket with a pattern of embroidered leaves. Her gray hair looked like she’d had it “set” at a beauty parlor every Saturday and wore a hairnet to bed every night to protect it. The kids said thank you and walked back to their own table. Soon I heard one of them say, “Hey, there’s stuff in here!” Then they fast-walked back to the grandparents’ table and said, “Thanks for the flashlights! Flashlights are our favorite things!” One of the women, a great aunt I’d guess, said, “Now you can read under the covers!”

Yet another group came in, this time three very tall men of varying ages, and one dark-haired, dark-skinned woman, and they greeted the elderly couple and also the family at the table in the front. All these greetings and visitations, which would’ve been annoying and invasive, were carried out quietly, respectfully. I wanted to know the big family’s story.

As we were finishing dinner a group of women were seated near us. One woman introduced another to the others: “She wrote the made-for-TV Mother Teresa movie.”

Friday, December 08, 2006

From "Sic Transit" (7)

I'm starting to believe that C and D were not anomalies. Perhaps their precedent was set back in '77, by B.

A senior year transfer student, B's elfin features and pentacle necklace recalled the youthful insouciance of Stevie Nicks, while her flippant promiscuousness suggested a glamorous Los Angeles groupie. But she was different from the others, those Aerosmith-loving others who sewed Rolling Stones tongue logo patches onto their crotches and wafted a cloud of strawberry lip gloss, Love's Baby Soft, Key West cigarettes and Clairol Herbal Essence. When B threw back her head to a Foghat song she was pure beauty like a surprise of butterflies once native to these shores but now, sadly, no more. One day at lunch we sat next to each other at the counter of the Back-of-the-Yards Diner and decided to ditch classes together. It was the first day of Spring, unseasonably warm, and Bad Company's new album had just reached number one. We took the 62 Archer downtown and bummed around Chinatown. From there we ranged up State Street past Warshawsky Auto Parts, Mexican Joe's Chili Parlor, and the scrap metal pits, talking of Kiss, Aerosmith and Robert Fripp. Her ability to discuss Fripp put her in league wtih those long-torsoed teenage boy-men who were not Canadian but could've been. We ended up on the short of Lake Michigan, on the wet, sloping cement behind the Shedd Aquarium. Air guitar rhythms spilled forth from her like condensation off a carburetor. What was once sacred became familiar:

"I think all Masses should be celebrated with Stratocasters!"

(to be continued)