Gino and Julian. If you run across these two guys hide your virgins and jewels, gird your loins, and run like hell. You will be gavaged (is that a verb?) a steady stream of bullshit and have your pockets picked. Buy one of those club things for your steering wheel, too. 

Naturally, I went to work for them. 

My house was in escrow; I had determined to leave California and move to Memphis, Tennessee. Work to be done on my hundred-year old farmhouse meant that I'd be in escrow for a while. I saw that a restaurant was opening in Lafayette, an upscale bedroom community between Walnut Creek and Oakland, just a few miles from home. Never being one to learn from experience, I decided to give another restaurant a go before I fled the state. Besides, I had to uphold my culinary masochistic manhood.

So, I dropped by and introduced myself to a young man named Gino. Also present was his younger brother, Julian. As you will see later, these may not have been their real names. 

I did not ask the name of Gino's tailor. His clothes looked expensive, but awful: tight pants and a shirt with a couple of buttons unbuttoned that most resembled remnants from a disco awning. He was short. Julian was tall; he seemed to be a nice kid.

I asked what kind of operation he intended and if he needed an executive chef. He said yes, he wanted to have the best restaurant in California. Well, yeah, you'll probably need a chef for that.

Inside, there was room for maybe twenty guests at most, so the majority of the seating was outside in a -- hastily constructed, obviously -- Plexiglas-enclosed patio. Three space heaters stood tall.

He seemed to be impressed with my CV and said he'd call me.

Fasten your seatbelts.

Gino hired me as executive chef. He had no idea how to run a restaurant. (He later made me general manager, too, akin to curing a migraine by driving a railroad spike into your forehead). 

Lafayette is as suburbia as suburbia gets -- the suburbiest. While I'm sure there were dope dealers and other nefarious types hiding somewhere, they were under deep cover. Soccer moms, investment bankers, attorneys, stock brokers: these would be our clientele.

I told him I could start in a week. I had a date in Southern California.

+ + +

I was to be on a quiz show called Sale of the Century. My old friend Jim Miller had agreed to put me up for a few days. I had last seen him it was in New York; he had put me up for a few days then, too. He was a pretty clean-cut kinda guy, just back from some kind of gig teaching in Turkey.

Now he had a Volkswagen repair shop in an alley in LA. His hair was down to his ass and he lived with several dogs. The night before I was to be on the quiz show we headed down to -- hell, I have no clue where we went -- but he picked up a hooker and took her back with us to his place in Echo Park. There is actually a park in Echo Park and it has a lake. The hooker pointed out that this was where they had filmed Gilligan's Island. 

We rapped a while, but I had to get some sleep. I lay down on the couch and turned my back. A few minutes passed -- I may have dozed -- when I was awakened by an eerie creaking sound. You got the picture? Good, take it away from me!

In the morning, I went down to Burbank with my five changes of clothes -- in case I won five times. Turned out I only needed one change, but I did win that first day and came away with a bunch of booty:

- Washer and dryer
- A portable, battery operated mini television set
- A week-long trip to Hawaii, including airfare.
- A sewing machine. 
- A small amount of cash.
And a case of Dinty Moore Beef Stew.

+ + +

Gino, like every other restaurateur wannabe in Northern California, wanted to recreate Chez Panisse. He asked if I could do that. I showed him what I had done at Mudd's and allowed as how I could. 

Gino had run across an Argentinean baker, Alex, whose specialty was croissants. So, now we were going to have a bakery/bistro. And the place now had a name, too -- Le Croissant. Gino was maybe 25 and Julian about 21. I had also figured out by now that although Gino claimed to be Italian the native language he spoke with Julian was Turkish. They claimed their father was Italian. 

I had only known a couple of Turks in my life. One was the wife of a friend. The other worked for me as a lead line cook and was quite good and very responsible. I liked them both. I could not associate them with anything like Midnight Express. Gino, on the other hand . . . 

To go along with our Argentinean baker, we hired an Italian waiter who spoke fractured French and said "oo-la-la" about ten thousand times a day. A nice middle-aged Italian woman ran the bakery counter. Alex hired his son to help him in the bakery. Gino's "assistant" was a Chinese woman of about 45. We hired two young French waiters. We hired a Croatian waiter. We hired a Belgian waiter. We hired a Brazilian waitress. I hired an American pastry chef and a half-dozen line cooks, some of whom had worked with me before. I hired several Mexican dishwashers. I should have hired a linguist.

I came up with a constantly changing menu. It consisted of a half-dozen appetizers/salads, a soup or two, a half-dozen main courses, and a half-dozen desserts daily. I bought fresh food every day and typed the menu myself. We made all our own fresh pasta, pizza doughs, and, of course, croissants.

The food was very good.

The main décor was the large professional baker's oven in the middle rear of the restaurant and a reversible full-size sheeter just behind the counter. (Big mother)

My cooks were good -- they were pros. The pastry chef was good; Alex could make some dough. The dishwashers could wash. But I truly believe all the waiters had been mercenaries in some African war before they came to the Golden State. Maybe they were acquainted with Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. I sometimes wished I had his gun. The word venality does not do them justice.

The Italian waiter got his job by showing Gino a bogus letter of recommendation from Maxim's in Paris. I'd seen them before -- it was a kind of boilerplate. I checked out some of his references. He had none. 

All the others claimed they had waited tables before. I doubt it. But Gino was very into anything "Euro" and that was enough for him.

All the waiters wore tuxes, by the way, and carried napkins over their arms. No socks or underwear, but they had tuxes. 

Since the Italian had appropriated "oo-la-la," the French waiters had nothing to say. Oh, they slung around copious "Madames" and "Monsieurs," but they hated the Italian for taking their best phrase. (They would use it when he wasn't working.)
I don't know what to say about the language we spoke. I knew menu French and a little Spanish. I could lumber along in German, but that was one nationality we had somehow neglected to include. I would say we spoke Anglo-Franco-Italo-Turkic-Porto-Serbo-Hispanish. The Chinese woman didn't speak very good English and nobody could talk to her. But everyone knew how to smile and say "yes." We would have meetings where I would discuss the menu items. I got lots of nods when I asked if everyone understood. 

But brooking the babel was not the hardest part. This joint was like a garden where paranoia was cultivated.

The French guys and the Belgian didn't like each other. Nobody liked the Italian. Alex didn't trust Gino. Gino didn't trust Alex. Alex and his son, as is the wont of bakers, worked at night while the restaurant was closed. Gino and Julian used to park across the street and watch. I don't know that they ever learned anything. The only people I trusted were my cooks -- to put out good food, though the Croat was actually very affable and I liked him. We sold a lot of pizzas. He would always order it pronouncing it "peach-ka" -- which he said was Serbo-Croatian for pussy, then laugh. And though all was not well in the land of Babel, we did have international relations going on. Several of the cooks, waiters et al were banging each other and switching beds willy-nilly, sometimes before Willy was finished with Nilly. Strife. 

We were doing a quite brisk business, but it was soon apparent that we were falling behind on things like, for instance, paying bills. It seemed to me that there was ample money coming in the doors. 

Gino and his Chinese concubine were handling the loot. The Chinese woman was assigned to clean out the registers every night. 

Gino was nothing if not a party animal, out at the bars every night trying to pick up broads. It turned out that Gino was also coming in every night just before closing and picking up something else -- handfuls of cash out of the register to fund his nightly bacchanals. 

First I talked to the Chinese woman -- no easy task -- and told her this had to stop. She said she'd talk to him. She looked up from the money she was counting and also asked me to prepare her some "big meat." (It took me about a week to figure out what she meant when she ordered "big meat." I led her in the kitchen and she pointed to the steak.)

The unrecorded withdrawals didn't stop. And the Chinese woman had come in looking a little the worse for wear: she was adorned with several bruises. I suspected Gino of boxing her around and hoped it wasn't because she had confronted him about the cash. 

I decided I had to go to Gino. I told him he was killing the restaurant. I told him I was going to walk out. He said let's go over to my apartment and talk. We got in his black Mercedes convertible and headed over there.

He should have called Julian and told him to hide the crack pipe before we arrived.

About this time the city of Lafayette decided to take exception to Gino’s having thrown up this Plexiglas shield without getting a building permit -- and in fact the joint was not licensed to serve folks outside. Hearings ensued. I went along and tried to help.

During this period I learned some Turkish. Well, one word to be precise. Baksana. I must have heard it a thousand times as Gino and Julian yelled it at each other. As the creditors circled and closed in they each would hide and if one of them was nabbed he would say that particular area fell within the other's purview. As I understand it, baksana means "look" or "see" or "pay attention." At Le Croissant it meant red alert.

In the meantime one of the French waiters decided he wanted to be joint general manager along with me. So he threatened to quit unless that was implemented. Gino said sure.

Then came the inevitable time when Gino stopped paying employees. 

You may not believe this, but very few people in this modern era will work for nothing. I started losing cooks and dishwashers. Then I didn't get paid. "Chef, you know I will pay you." I heard that a bunch of times. Gino would then insist that I take a ride with him in his Mercedes -- with the top down. He seemed to believe the fresh air was going to clear my head and reveal to me why I should work for no money.

I did for a while -- a little over a month. That will come as no surprise to those of you who have read some of my other stuff. You already know I'm dumb. 

Now we're ready to enter another chapter -- the one titled Chapter 11. I'm not an attorney but at least I've yet to shoot one, either. I do know that when a business enters Chapter 11 all payments cease, all debts are held in abeyance. They are "stayed" as it were. Unfortunately, this includes all past wages.

All the sane rats had already deserted this sinking ship; only us loonies were left. 
Gino assured us that now we would all be paid weekly and the business would make up the owed wages over time. I didn't see an alternative. If I were to have any hope of collecting the 7K he owed me, I'd have to hang on a while longer. 

Shut up. I got one week's pay. 

Gino and his attorney had to file a plan indicating how they were going to pay all the debts. Gino had a plan all right: he displayed heretofore unknown -- and considerable -- talents as a magician. Poof. He and Julian and the Chinese woman disappeared with all the cash on hand. Not only that, but he made his uncle's Porsche disappear too! Poof.

I doubt that being a polyglot would have helped me much. 

What did I learn from all this?

Just before I left for Memphis I sold all the quiz show appliances at a yard sale. And, in a pinch, you can eat Dinty Moore's. A whole case of it.

When I moved into my house just outside Concord in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was intent on being a gentleman, quasi-hippie, organic farmer. I immediately rented a tiller and started a quarter acre organic garden. The folks who lived there before me had apparently at one time raised chickens. There were “wild” chickens roaming about the property and roosting in trees at night. They laid eggs under bushes in out of the way places. None of them ever survived. Various varmints would get to the eggs and devour them. I decided I wanted to raise chickens in a more controlled environment where I would have access to the eggs.

For me, anyway, the question as to which came first the chicken or the egg is a moot or, more precisely, a cluck point. It was chicks for me, baby chicks, that is. Ain’t nothing cuter. I ordered a couple of dozen through the mail. Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks – all hens, of course. Both breeds lay brown eggs. And their eggs are larger than the white Leghorn eggs. The girls are nearly twice as large as Leghorns – six or seven pounds.

This was when I was young and energetic and as idealistic as I have ever been. It was the 70’s and I was in the Bay Area. I owned and operated a restaurant in Oakland, California at the time. And, later opened Mudd’s for Virginia Mudd, as executive chef.

I bought a couple of books on organic chicken raising and studied them. While they were small I kept the chicks in the house in a plastic wading pool. Had feeders, waterers heat lamps etc., changed their litter. Lots of contented peeping going on.

Meanwhile I was building a chicken house and yard in my back yard. This involved lots of 2x4’s, scrap lumber, plywood, tar paper and lots of chicken wire and cursing. I ciphered the square footage so as to have happy hens. I attached it to my Quonset hut. (Yes, I had a Quonset hut.) . Chickens will never roam vary far from their house. The only reason I had a fenced in yard was to protect the chickens from predators – mostly neighborhood dogs. Oh, and don’t even ask me about my Lop-eared rabbit fiasco!

Let me move ahead a little here…

The girls’ principal diet consisted of a 55-gallon can liner full of restaurant-rejected vegetative organics (garbage to you) I brought from the restaurant a couple of times per week. Had a separate can for this stuff. I supplemented this with feed, grain and egg shells for calcium. They thrived and became fat and sassy. Don’t be too disturbed by the egg shells, they are a good source of calcium. If chickens are forced to live together under really crowded conditions – mine weren’t – they will not only peck, but also consume each other. Yes, those cute little peepers can grow up to be cannibals. Fade to black.

When my girls got a little older - they had begun to lay eggs – I decided it was time to introduce them to a gentleman chicken (little did I know there was no such thing.) I’ve never been one who knows when to leave well enough alone. My readings indicated that fertilized eggs were lower in cholesterol. My neighbor had a small flock of Araucanas. This breed was introduced to the USA from Chile in the 1920’s. There was a claim that Araucana eggs had lower cholesterol, too. This turned out to be wrong. The hens lay a light bluish or greenish egg. Now, these varmints are a smaller breed than my girls, but my neighbor assured me that would be no problem. So, one bright morning when my girls were promenading around their yard, clucking, soaking up some rays, preening, my neighbor brought over a burlap sack containing a young Araucana cock. 

I opened the door to the yard and let him out of the bag. Hmmm. He was half their size. The girls stopped their contented clucking and there was dead silence. They surrounded him. One let out a squawk. There was another squawk. Then lots of squawks. No demur sotto voce here. It was like a slumber party run amok. One where all the girls were armed to the teeth and taking speed. Screeching – I didn’t know chickens could screech. Then lots of dust and violence. Accompanied by much barbaric yawping. They jumped the poor little clueless adolescent bastard. The hysterical cackling was deafening. They pecked him mercilessly. These broads were large and in charge. He fled for his life – into the chicken house. The total disaster resulting from my matchmaking attempt put me in mind of a couple of blind dates I had experienced.

I had built a roost of 2X4’s in the house. There was a kind of trough underneath where I could rake out the chicken droppings from the outside by means of a small door I had inserted on the side of the house. That was I could clean without going in. Poor little bastard got in there and I could not retrieve him. He was immediately placed at the bottom of the pecking order. Yes, Virginia there is a pecking order. 

There will always be a top chicken. This chicken gets the best of everything in ChickenLand. It eats first. It gets the best spot on the roost. It gets to peck all the other chickens at will. And peck they do. All the chickens get to peck anybody below them in the pecking order. And, in turn, get pecked by anybody above. The sine qua non of corporate structure. How they establish the order is somewhat opaque to us. Where there is no – mature - rooster present the Alpha Hen is in charge. Some species have more clearly defined signposts. I read about a study where these guys tried to figure out orangutan hierarchy. They finally decided the guy with the bluest ass was at the top of the heap. So they took the guy with the palest ass and painted it bright blue. (Hey, I’m just the messenger here!) Sure enough, he shot right to the top rung of the corporate orangutan ladder. CEO’s take note.

At any rate it ain’t so clear with chickens. But, what was crystal clear was my poor little guy was at the bottom. My neighbor said not to worry, we had just introduced him when he was too young to handle the girls. A kind of chicken version of an acne-ridden, squeaky voiced gawky tweener. He said he’d wait about a month and bring me a mature rooster. I said okay - somewhat skeptically, though.

A month later…

Another bright, crisp day and my neighbor shows up with another burlap sack. I am dubious. For one thing I’ve recently read that one rooster can only comfortably handle 7 or 8 hens. Clearly the little guy already in there can’t handle anything. He is a terminal nervous wreck, an avian Don Knotts. I’m thinking even a big super stud like Foghorn Leghorn or Rhode Island Red might well be over matched here. And I’m going to get another 4-pound weakling – my girls will just kick sand in his face. I am having thoughts of one of my favorite Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. The Dog (“I say, Dog…) has just tricked him into going through a hay baler. He comes out the other end buck naked, completely plucked, carrying a large, neat bale of all his feathers. With as much aplomb as a naked chicken can muster, in typical, optimistic Foghorn fashion he turns to the camera and says, "“Fortunately, ah keep mah feathers numbahed for just such an emergency.” The boy I had introduced earlier to do a man’s job had no such organizational skills and was looking pretty plucked. I really feared for the new guy in town.

With much trepidation I once again entered the yard with the sack. The girls stopped what they were doing - you know, chicken stuff - and looked at me with those cocked heads and sideways glances with jerky head bobbing. I let him out and backed out of the yard fearing the worst. They gathered round him and sized him up. He was nearly twice as big as his predecessor, but still much smaller than the girls. The squawk! The horror! They jumped! There was a huge pile of dust and the scuffle was on. It was truly Wagnerian. 

When the dust had lifted I saw what had occurred. Casey was swinging for the fences, only connecting with this at bat. Home run! Much to my amazement, they had fled, almost as one – well, all but one – to the fenced sides of the chicken yard. They cowered – or chickened - there with much cackling, squawking and flapping of wings. He was on top of the one doing what roosters do, and I don’t mean crowing. The cackling was subsiding. He proceeded to go around the yard kicking ass, taking names and boinking them one by one. That day everybody moved down one in the pecking order. There was a new sheriff in town.

My girls were content. During the season they each laid an egg a day, more than I could eat or use at the restaurant. I had dozens in my refrigerator in the Quonset hut. All was as peaceful as it ever gets in ChickenLand. 
Fifth in a series.

Though my presence in Vietnam was apparently essential to the military, they weren't quite sure why. There was no job for me. Finally -- I had witnessed hundreds of soldiers passing through on the way to a job somewhere -- I received orders to report to the post exchange (the PX), where they gave me a job ordering stuff: just about everything you'd see in a supermarket or drugstore. I hated the place, and my sergeant, a real starched-brain dickhead, hated me. 

One day I came in to find my Vietnamese assistant crying. She had serious scarring on her face from napalm; I think she must have been given the job as a token reparation. She said her brother, an ARVN, had been wounded and was in hospital on the base. I said "Let's go!" My sergeant wasn't there, so I told the folks in the office I was taking her to the hospital. We hopped in a Jeep and were off. 

My sergeant was all over my ass when I got back. I'd taken a vehicle without authorization. I'd gone AWOL. I was in big trouble. He was going to court martial me, blah, blah, and blah -- not exactly a love fest. 

That was it for me. In case you haven't figured it out –- I had –- sergeants run the army. In the end, it doesn't matter what any officer decrees, the sergeants make it work. They'll nod and say "Yes, Sir" and then go do whatever the hell they think should be done to obtain the desired result. If it works out, the officer gets the credit and a promotion. If not, the NCO's ass is in a sling. Usually, of course, it works.

I marched myself over to the division information office –- just about the only thing I had to do in the transient company had been to read the division newspaper, The Tropic Lightning News -- and found the sergeant in charge, a kind of managing editor. I told him that my talents were wasted at the PX and that I wanted to be an Information Specialist. They had a job opening, and he asked me about my educational history. He liked what he heard, but warned me that I would have to take photos as well as write. Did I have any experience in that arena? "Sure," I lied. He gave me a Nikon and told me to take a couple of days to take photographs around the base camp, then bring the film back to be developed. So I did. He must have liked what he saw, because a couple of days later, I received orders for reassignment to the 25th Infantry Division Administration Company. Report to the Information Office. Whew. 

One of the guys took me over to the hooch that would be my home for the next nine months or so. While he showed me my cot, I noticed that my corner of the building -- actually, it was a screened-in tent with a wooden frame and a plywood floor -- was newer than the rest of the hooch. I asked about it as I was unpacking my gear. It seems that a mortar round had hit that corner and there had been "casualties." So that's why there were job openings.

I got into the job, and actually enjoyed most of it, becoming fairly proficient with the cameras. I wrote a few stories; learned my way around. Once I got my boots wet and got my war legs, I was fairly autonomous. I would tell them were I was headed –- I could always flash my press card and get transportation, usually by helicopter -- and be off. As long as I returned with photos and stories, they left me alone. 

In typical subtle military soft-sell jargon, there is just one thing missing from the Army's official, peacefully-written job description of my position, "Information Specialist" the getting shot at part. They carefully avoided mentioning the related civilian occupations "War Correspondent" or "Combat Photographer." 

From my first foray out in the field with the grunts, I decided that's where I belonged. Not because I was brave. It was the same infernal impulse that has propelled my life: I had to know what the fuck was really going on. I wasn't going to be at the war and not be at the war. I did the same thing at one time or another with just about every drug known to man. If you're curious, I can help you out here. None of them contains "The Answer."

I saw my first combat with the Wolfhounds, in an area known as "The Pineapple Patch," an overgrown pineapple plantation. I was just walking along with the infantry rifle team when all hell broke loose. Two men dropped in their tracks. Then a third was hit. We slid down into one of the water-filled irrigation ditches that ran between the weedy plant rows. Eventually, some soldiers threw a few grenades into the hidden bunker the automatic weapons fire had come from; a couple of Viet Cong, still alive, were extracted from it. 

I became pretty good at my job. From June of 1967 through April of 1968, I spent much more time in the field than in the base camp, and most of the time, I was dirty. I was often out for a week or two, since there was a lot of actual war going on out there. You all may not be aware that it takes nine support people -- soldiers who never do any fighting -- to support one soldier in the field. I wanted to be with the 10%, in the action whenever possible. I was seeing it for myself –- up close and real personal. I spent much of my time with the 1/27 and the 2/27 –- the First and Second Battalions of the 27th Infantry, called "The Wolfhounds." These guys were hardcore, always looking for a fight; this, of course, was their job. Their daily gastronomic regimen included, for the most part, C-Rations.

The Meal, Combat, Individual, is designed for issue as the tactical situation dictates, either in individual units as a meal or in multiples of three as a complete ration. Its characteristics emphasize utility, flexibility of use, and more variety of food components than were included in the Ration, Combat, Individual (C Ration) which it replaces. Twelve different menus are included in the specification.
Unofficially: awful stuff, though I must say they were often better than some of the food available to the rear echelon troops in the base camps. (Of course, it was entirely possible for a base camp troop to go through its entire tour without coming into contact with C-Rations. This was strictly field-troop cuisine.)

And there was some really bad stuff in those cans. 

C-Rations came in a case of 12 meals. Everything was in olive drab containers with the contents printed on them. There were three groups: B1, B2, and B3. B1 had a couple of premium items -– peanut butter and fruit cocktail. B2 contained one ostensible "meat" main course that couldn't be given away: the universally despised Ham & Lima Beans. 

Each group contained an "Accessory Pack," which may well have been the most important item in the case. Officially, again: 
Accessory Pack:
Spoon, Plastic 
Coffee, Instant 
Creamer, Non-dairy 
Gum, 2 Chiclets 
Cigarettes, 4 smokes/pack 
Pall Mall 
Lucky Strike 
(Interrupting here: not all the above cigarettes were in every case: brands were serendipitous)
Matches, Moisture Resistant 
Toilet Paper

Not mentioned is the most important item in the case –- the P-38. This was a small, flip-out can opener with a small hole in it; we wore them around our necks on our dog-tag chains. The C-Rations were inaccessible without this essential tool. (I wear mine on my keychain to this day).

There was a final olive-drab-wrapped item: a block, about a foot long, of C-4 plastic explosive. This was how we heated the C-Rations: Break off a small chunk and set it on a rock. Open a bread can (wider than it was tall -– and dry inside) with the P-38 and dump the bread. Perforate the unopened end of the can with a church key. Light the C-4 with a Zippo and set the bread can on top. Cook. The old hands found it endlessly amusing to watch the look on the FNG's (Fucking New Guy's) face as they explained they were lighting C-4 on fire. Unless he was a combat engineer, the FNG didn't have a clue how C-4 was detonated. In usual circumstances, you needed det (detonation) cord, but pressure could also detonate C-4. It wasn't a good idea to stomp on the fire to put it out.

The best meal I ever had in the field I cooked myself. We'd marched all day without drawing any fire. When I went out with an infantry unit, we'd usually make a series of eagle flights, and if we didn't stumble into some action, Hueys would swoop down and spirit us off to another location. Not this time. As we went through the village, I bought a chicken, a duck and some rice from a farmer, and carried the two birds – still alive -– on my belt for a few kilometers. Id bought a couple of pounds of peanuts --they were for sale everywhere. I made a fire that evening and cooked the birds with the rice and the peanuts in my steel pot (helmet to you rookies,) seasoning the stew with salt, pepper and Tabasco from the C-Rations. We had a couple of watermelons we'd bought from the same farmer.

Beer was the beverage of choice. Cold beer was best, but any beer would do. (Ice was like gold. We traded for it.) We knew it was sterile and had some carbs. It also helped one swallow the chloroquine-primaquine tablets with which we were dosed. I don't know if it was these pills or constant exposure to shigellosis, salmonella, etc., that caused the constant diarrhea, but I got to the point where I seriously mused about having a spigot grafted onto my asshole. When I'd been assigned to the PX, I ordered pallet upon pallet of beer. Dozens of pallets were stacked in the yard at the PX, under tarps, baking in the sun and rusting. Yes, rusting, in steel cans: nothing but the very best for our troops. (Another example of that would be C-Rations; they were often dated in the 50's. We got leftovers from The Korean War.)

The shantytowns that sprang up by every base camp in Vietnam were rife with thin-skinned hovels whose walls were sheets of steel stamped with brand names of American beers. In Cu Chi my favorite watering hole/whorehouse was emblazoned "Girls Beer Bazaar Car Wash": Warholian walls with thousands of flat Budweisers everywhere one looked. Interestingly enough, these places usually didn't serve American beer. Biere Larue was the most common beverage offered.

Not all libations were potable. Nowadays, whenever I find myself drinking some Rumpolian plonk, I hearken back to the day we'd been lost for most of the day on an S&D and had run out of water. Not good. Hyperthermia is not a pretty thing. Some guys were vomiting and most were cramping. We hadn't seen the sky for hours, and the Hueys above couldn't find us to drop us water, despite the several smoke grenades we'd set off. Then, there it was -– eau de vie. We stumbled out of the jungle into a rice paddy. Like everyone else, I plunged face-first into the sludge and drank deep. These paddies were fertilized with just about every kind of mammalian excrement: Chateauneuf du Poop. Parasite Paradise. It didn't matter in the least. There are priorities. Let's just say that today I'm tolerant of corked bottles of wine. 

I also went on what were called "Civic Action" missions. They comprised a combination of medical, military and PR purposes. While the villagers were being fed and examined by medics, soldiers would be looking for arms caches or signs of the enemy. I don't believe the chow served on these missions had a healthy effect on the "hearts and minds" of the locals. Hell, they didn't like our rice. Invariably, the stuff found in the infamous rice caches was American rice. They considered this stuff starvation rations: in case of emergency A. Break Glass B. Eat American Rice.

We often ate with the village chieftain on these excursions. I learned not to be in the least picky. These people were, after all, sharing their food with us: most often, some small amount of grilled or fried meat (learned not to ask what) or poultry, with a plate piled high with greens, some dipping sauces, like nuoc mam, and a pile of softened bahn tran (rice paper rounds). You wrapped everything up in the rice paper like a tortilla and dipped. Bahn tran: I didn't know what the hell these were when I first got to Vietnam. They were everywhere! Bamboo racks were covered with these round white things. Sometimes we had bowls of noodles, too. I became fond of Vietnamese food. 

I took a shine to ethnic Hawaiian food. Typical of my luck, when there wasn't a skirmish going on somewhere on the planet involving the American military, the 25th Infantry Division was stationed in Hawaii. In Vietnam we had the good fortune to be planted firmly atop the largest complex of hand-dug, inhabited tunnels the world has ever known.

Ethnic Hawaiian food is not the stuff that is fed to tourists. The one food probably consumed by more Hawaiians than any other single foodstuff is Spam. I'm not talking about the stuff you find your inbox crammed with every morning. I'm talking Hormel lunch meat, used in every conceivable culinary concoction -- that three-dimensional rounded rectangle of minced chicken and pork with ascorbic acid. It prevented the Russians from starving during WWII. When we had a barbecue in Vietnam the center of the plate item was usually Spam. At the PX, I'd ordered literally tons of Spam. I grilled a lot of Spam. (I found out that Hawaiians did eat other stuff when I spent my R&R in Hawaii with Suzan.)

Our cookers were 55-gallon drums, cut in half longitudinally. These drums were ever-present in Vietnam, and I still see them for sale today. (It would have been a good idea to avoid those with an orange stripe around them –- they had contained Agent Orange. I don't remember using one myself, but I'm sure many did.) They were used to cook the food -- and served as the final receptacle for the remainders. When cut in half latitudinally, drums were slipped under the holes cut in the boards that made up the latrines: screened-in hooches featuring one step up to a long board with maybe a dozen ass-size holes cut in it. Nothing like communal dumping. Kinda intimate. 

Every morning great plumes of black smoke rose from all over the base camp; contributing, I'm sure, to the pollution that made the early evening sky so many pastel shades of beautiful. Ode on an American commode –- in shit, beauty. These were the shit burners at work. They poured gasoline on the excrement, tossed in a match and stood back. When their day job was done they went home, put on their black pajamas, headed out to the jungle and lobbed mortar rounds into the base camp. You can see which career path offered the most opportunity. 

I hope this serves as a segue -– getting me from Indiana to California. I can't see how, though. It is just what it was and where I was and what I did for a year of my life. Maybe it explains some part of my brain I'm not able to elucidate in another manner. Much has already been written about Vietnam, and much of that by those who were there. None of my scribblings will add significantly to that oeuvre, because war can't be described with words to those who have not been privy to the experience. Folly, waste, carnage and idiocy do not do it justice. Wars are always fought by the young with no power on behalf of the old who have something they want to keep or get something they don't have. All other reasons are mere lamination.

Fourth in a series.

Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse the same year I opened The Ordinary. She named her restaurant after a character in a film by a French director she admired. I named mine after -- well, nothing. About that name -- The Ordinary -- I liked the definition: a public house that served a fixed meal, at a fixed time at a common board. Of course, that was absolutely nothing like what I ended up doing with the joint. I also liked the irony since I had nothing ordinary planned. 

The two restaurants were just a couple of miles apart, but worlds apart in terms of clientele and cuisine. That gulf grew as time went by. At the time the only interaction I had with that group was going to a spaghetti party held by the Chez Panisse crew; it turned out they had someone they wanted me to hire. We were both interested in organic gardening and sustainable agriculture. Her focus -- and her location -- was a lot better than mine. And of course, Chez Panisse is still there. The Ordinary has followed Gertrude's famous pronouncement: there is no . . . Ordinary there.

The first thing you should know about The Ordinary is its location: on a side street off a side street in North Oakland, smack dab against Berkeley. It had all three of the components for success in a restaurant, with the slight addition of a modifying adjective after each, location (bad), location (worse), location (worst). With a catchy name like Ordinary and a rotten location, hey, how could it fail?

The building was solid and tall. Thick concrete walls. A smaller, newer building stood in front of that one, and the two were connected by a roofed stoop. We made the front building into the kitchen and office, with a loft above the office. It had originally been a power station or a water pumping station (I heard both), but I don't know about all its various historical incarnations, just the two immediately preceding my occupancy. In better days it had been a day care center. Immediately before I took it over it was a mess -- trashed -- a crash pad for hippies attending the California College of Arts and Crafts, which was just a few blocks away. The inside of the building was broken up into a dozen or so small rooms painted with a series of psychedelic murals. The first thing Campbell and I decided to do was dismantle all these rooms and open the place up. We filled about four large dumpsters. A loft that covered approximately half the square footage of the larger building became the upstairs dining room. Campbell was very handy with his hands; it would be an exaggeration to say I was a "rough" carpenter.

The second thing you should know is that I didn't have enough money to open a restaurant. I had never opened a restaurant before. (I have since opened a dozen; some are actually successful.) I had no clue what I was doing. The Ordinary was my graduate degree. But, I could cook good. I had cooked professionally. Hell, I'd been to France! The trip to Paris had made up my mind to be a cook. I had devoured the Larousse and Escoffier's Guide Culinaire. I read the Picayune Creole Cookbook and The New Orleans Restaurant Cookbook, and literally dozens of others, both professional and amateur. (If you've read any of my other maunderings you know I have this misplaced belief I can figure out things by reading about them.) I even subscribed to many of the USDA's agricultural bulletins -- crop reports, commodities bulletins etc. -- they used to be free, folks. I was a pretty good pre-Internet researcher. I was energetic. And I have always been a fan of the impossible. I like to plunge into things before too many people tell me all the ways it can't be done. In the years since, I have had many students smitten with what I call "The Restaurant Fantasy." I certainly was. Stripped of all its decoration "The Fantasy" is basically the belief that if one is passionate about cooking and has a strong work ethic, one can be a restaurateur. 

So. I had no equipment and a very limited budget. I decided auctions might be one solution. At the first one I attended, I bought a large antique brass cash register that had been electrified: 350 bucks gone. So. I was underway!

Because of the heft of the building, I decided I needed a very large bar for scale, but had no clue where to get one. Browsing the San Francisco Chronicle one day, I noticed an ad mentioning that there would be many things for sale through The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, as they were demolishing a number of old downtown buildings. I called and was told to come on down. The director was a lovely middle-aged woman who handed me a set of keys to vacated bars and restaurants. I set off wandering around and peering into boarded-up buildings.

One of them was really dark inside, but I wiped away some of the city-by-the-bay grime on the window and saw what appeared to be a bar. I went in and was blown away: a huge bar ran nearly the length of the building. It was obviously very old, and still had the full tile trough along the bottom front bar. I had brought a flashlight. I peered up under the front of the top rail and saw there a kind of decal: "Brunswick Balke Collender Company." This meant nothing to me at the time. Man, this was it: the bar I needed. The back bar was 15 feet tall and the whole thing was about 35' long. It had four square columns supporting a three-foot tall full-length pediment. My brass cash register would look great in the middle of this thing. The only question was money.

I returned the lady's keys, and asked what the procedure was if I found something I liked. I gave her the address. She allowed as how she had to put an ad in the paper and solicit bids. She gave me the bid forms, and said I had to bring a cashier's check for 1/4 of my bid amount. The ad ran a week later. I think she liked me -- it was a very small, nondescript ad, saying something like "old bar for sale."

I was in her office on bid day. I had a cashier's check for $500.00, pretty sure I would lose my bar. I waited in her office until the last minute to see how many competitors would show up. Nobody. At the last second I filled in the amount of my bid on the form: $500.00. I don't think she was happy with me, but I got it! Now, I just had to figure out how to move it without destroying it. I called Campbell.

This find turned out to be a greater decor boon than I ever could have hoped for. Campbell had an old Dodge pickup, and we were going to section the bar to transport it. We made a plan and set about carefully dismantling the bar. On breaks I wandered about the building. Bonanza! It had a basement, where apparently they had held furtive card games. Eighteen massive round wooden tables hunkered in the dark -- we saw all this with flashlights, as the power was off -- cloaked in padded felt. The tables became the tables in my bar and downstairs dining room. When we removed the felt, we discovered the padding was newspapers from the 30' and 40's. We saved them, and with a coat of shellac, they became the wallpaper in Sangria and Pickled Eggs. There was also an ancient refrigerator with the compressor sitting on top. Turned out, it worked. This became the first reach-in in my kitchen. 

I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to take anything out of that building but the bar.

We were almost finished with plundering and pillaging the place -- in fact, we were on our last day -- when an old gentleman with a cane doddered up and introduced himself as the joint's former owner. We asked him about the bar, and he told us that the owner before him had bought it from the Palace Hotel, which had decided to remodel after the rocking and rolling in '06. It had been brought around the horn.

+ + +

After a day of demolition , I often cleaned up and went back to San Francisco with Campbell -- North Beach, mostly. My favorite joint was Vesuvio. I sipped Pernod at the bar and occasionally stumbled across the alley to browse at City Lights bookstore. I bought Howl there and read it while perching at Vesuvio -- I'm sure I wasn't the first. Yeah, I admired the beatniks. Another bar I enjoyed in North Beach was just up the street from a neat little Basque restaurant, and was frequented by a bunch of lesbians. I used to idle away the hours in there playing pool with the ladies. They kicked my ass.

I also loved Vanessi's on Broadway, part of a neighborhood that's rife with good Italian restaurants. Vanessi's is peculiarly San Francisco Italian. Anybody who knows the Bay Area will recognize the "Joe's"-type joints: combination lunch counter with stools and a cooking area behind the counter and white tablecloth restaurants. I always sat at the counter; I liked to watch the cooks work. Veal piccata and scampi were two of my favorites here. Vanessi's is just up the street from what was called America's first topless bar, The Condor, at Columbus and Broadway. Carol Doda was very big there. I think you might trace the proliferation of plastic tits on display everywhere in the good old USA to this time and place. But the Beats beat the tits there, and before them came the Italians. 

On San Pablo, The Pot Luck was a really nifty little joint with a great wine list. They had a several-course "gourmet dinner" on Monday evenings. Brace yourself -- it was six bucks. I ate there every Monday I possibly could. Ed Brown, the founder, closed the Pot Luck shortly after I opened The Ordinary. I went to the subsequent wine auction and bought several wines for The Ordinary, including a sparkling wine from Beaulieu that everyone assumed to be over the hill. I bought 3 cases of half bottles for $1.00 per bottle. It was the best sparkling wine from California I had ever had. 

+ + +

I was learning all I could about health and fire codes – what I really needed to know was the bare minimums for everything. My budget was already feeling the crunch. I only had about $9,000 to do this with. (Yet another way Ms Waters outdid me -- she had ten.)

I was still studying and reading. I had come up with a concept and a menu: dishes from my New Orleans youth. Campbell and I painted and built and cleaned for a few weeks. Suzan and her friends helped me strip and refinish the bar out back of The Ordinary. Campbell and I rebuilt the bar and he built a great wine rack out rough redwood. We built tables for the upstairs dining room and put shutters on all the windows. Later on, George, who was really into gardening, prettied up the outside of the joint a bunch. Lots of flowers. I dug up a big rectangular section of the asphalt, about 10' by 30', out back and we planted a garden around a little pool I built. I bought a couple of koi -- carp to you fisherman -- and stuck them in the pool and called them Heckle and Jeckle. Planted water hyacinths so the fish would have shade. I built a gazebo under an acacia tree. I built an arbor and planted it with bougainvillea. We set up tables under it and served lunch out there.

It seemed like we were making progress, but I was running out of money. My good friend, college teacher and now noted cookbook author, Denis Kelly, made a small investment in the deal. I borrowed $2500.00 from the Co-op Credit Union. I was going to be able to get the doors open.

It didn't take long to figure out that I was going to have to have music to keep the place open. I met a lot of musicians during this period (I think I mentioned my song writing thing in an earlier story). Even before I opened they were asking about live music. My original plan was no, but I did have an old upright piano, which I put in the joint. I had also purchased a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder for aid in writing songs. One day when Campbell and I were working, we went to get a cheeseburger for lunch (the best food for building restaurants). While we were out, the basics of my sound system and the Revox were stolen. I went out and bought a pistol -- a .38 police special.

What always pissed me off is the place became better known for the music than the food (although New West magazine did say I made the best salad in the Bay Area). 

My office -- behind the kitchen, under the loft, with only a curtain separating it from the kitchen -- served as the green room for the musicians. (I usually fed them a bowl of jambalaya or gumbo.) Furnishings were just a mission-style couch, a desk and a couple of chairs. On my desk was The Drinking Gorilla; the laughing box (the only remaining part of some scary laughing doll); a framed antique sepia-toned photo of a naked man and woman in a standing soixante-neuf position, he holding her up; and assorted business-related stacks of paper. The Drinking Gorilla was a battery-operated toy gorilla that was supposed to lift his glass and drink, then recycle the beverage in a loop. The glass would fill up automatically and the procedure would repeat -- except he malfunctioned and missed his mouth with the glass and spilled the liquid all over himself. I had to keep him in a bowl to avoid a mess. I would turn on the laughing box while he was drinking. It was a metaphor for me. If anyone asked about the photo I would say it was the only photo I had of my mother and father together. This usually shut them up.

+ + +

I bought the food. I went to the Oakland produce market -- just south of Jack London Square -- a couple of times per week. Since I had to be there early lest the big supermarket buyers gobbled up everything, I usually just stayed up. It was dark when I would arrive and light when I left. My regular purchases were avocados (we could get all kinds there – Fuertes, Bacon, Zutano and, of course, Hass), artichokes, onions, tomatoes, lettuces, celery, whatever fresh herbs were available and citrus fruits. Always on the lookout for okra.

At first, I was lost there, and easily tricked, but I did a whole lot better after I socialized a little with the guys. This meant having an after-work drink or two with them. (Naturally, there was a bar smack in the middle of the market.) "After-work" for them was about 6:00 am, and this made for some long days. The regulars -- mostly Italians, all produce guys -- introduced me to Fernet Branca one early fall morning, claiming it was great for a hangover. They laughed their asses off watching my face as I struggled to keep it down -- and to keep my cruller and black coffee from anointing the top of the bar in chunky taupe hues. It's a bitter beverage, folks. 

I would totter away from the market and head to downtown Oakland and a place called The Housewives Market, a great European-style place with a Louisiana slant: dozens of open stalls hawking produce, meats, seafood, sausage, and cheeses. I don't know how it came about, but there was a large contingency of black folks from Louisiana in Oakland. The seafood market had buffalo and a freshwater drum called gasper goo (supposedly from the French, casse burgau -- "mussel breaker"). They also had fresh crawfish, blue crabs and shrimp -- all from Louisiana. Next to this seafood stall was a sausage stall. He made my andouille and boudin blanc, both of which I had on my lunch menu. I bought some of everything.

Joe Pucci & Sons Seafood was also in downtown Oakland, and sometimes I would swing by and see what Steve Pucci had that day -- usually good prices on Mexican shrimp and oysters.

Now it was about 9:00 am and I was ready to begin my day.

+ + +

Once, I bought a couple of goat kids from my meat guy to barbecue for a wine dinner we were having. At first I got just one, nicely dressed and all. But we got a lot more reservations than anticipated, so on the morning of the dinner I called and asked him if had another. He said, "Yeah, but . . . " I told him I'd be right down -- where I met the meaning of "but." My meat guy was on his way out the door -- he had my goat, but he really had to go. The thing was, this kid was looking a lot like a live baby goat. Oh, it was dead, but only very recently expired -- I suspect it had been alive when I called. Its entrails were intact, it had hair, head, all the fixin's. 

I had already prepped the first one, and had it lying on a shelf in the walk-in. I hung the newcomer on a meat hook in the walk-in while I thought about what to do with it. I set a bus bucket under it to catch anything it might exude, and reminded myself to replace the burnt-out bulb overhead soon. It was nearly lunchtime. I was sitting in my office right next to the walk-in. My early waiter -- Jimmy, a little teeny gay guy (and a great waiter) -- came in, said hi, and started setting up the waiter's station. He went to get butter, cream and, you know, waiter's station stuff, and disappeared behind the refrigerator door. A loud crash immediately preceded a blood-curdling scream. Hmmm, guess I forgot to mention the dead goat hanging in the middle of the walk-in. He had stepped in the bus pan, slipped, grabbed the beast and pulled it down on top of him. After lunch I took it out, hung it in the gazebo and skinned, decapitated and gutted it. We had a good wine dinner that evening.

As long as we're on evisceration, I'm reminded of a cocaine dealer quite near The Ordinary: Hugo, a swarthy, stocky Hispanic. He called me one day and asked me to come over to his third floor walkup and help him with a little problem. I huffed and puffed up the stairs. He opened the door and welcomed me, ushered me past a couple of scantily clad young ladies -- they were always around dope dealers -- and into the dining room. There on the table, lying on a bed of newspaper, was a dead deer. He had no back yard to take it to and wanted me to do a number on it right there on the table. I told him it was going to be a hell of a mess. It was. I did it. He paid me. Not money.

+ + +

Spencer cooked and tended bar and helped with just about everything. Denis did a few stints. The lunch shift was the one that was killing me. Often I had not slept at all. This was the period during which I began my now lifelong habit of the afternoon nap. Spencer and George tended to come in around the time I was completely exhausted. They saved my ass for a few years. 

The bar was very busy on weekends and I usually helped out after I closed the kitchen. Spencer and George became bored with checking ID's. We were under constant assault from minors -- the music brought them in. So they started checking fingernails instead. I think it began with just the suspected minors, but grew. When someone ordered a drink they were asked to present their fingernails and were told that if they were clean they could have a drink. It befuddled them.

One Friday night, we were jamming behind the bar. The noise was deafening, but when the phone rang around midnight, I could still hear it. It was Bunkie.

He said, "Joseph, I have it!" 

I said, "Well, I hope you feel better soon."

"No, I'm not sick. I have the answer!"

"To what?" I gingerly queried.


"You have the answer to everything?"


"I'd love to hear it."

"Everything is everything. It's all so clear now."

"That's it? Everything is everything?"

"Yes, that's it."

"What kind of drugs are you taking?" I was trying to listen to this over the sound of the music.

"Just a few hits of acid."

"How few?"

"Oh, maybe a dozen."

I thanked him for the answer to everything and suggested that he go lie down a while. He was missing in action the next day. Later, we got the report from the cops. Bunkie had tried to manually uproot his neighbor-lady's tree shortly after he got off the phone with me -- seems it blocked his light during the day. It was about a foot thick. And oh yeah, he was naked as a jaybird. After he'd been out there grunting and mooning her for a while, she called the cops. By this time he had decided he was, if not the, at least a god. He was handcuffed, upside down naked in the back seat of the cruiser, kicking and warning them all the way to the looney bin that vengeance would be his. They kept asking god not make so much racket.

+ + +

All the while we were cranking out good fresh food, and got a couple of good reviews. One evening a producer of a radio talk show came in for dinner. He liked it a lot and asked me if I'd like to come cook one night on KGO radio. I said sure. (I say that a lot, don't I?) 

The show was on at 1:00 am, but at the time I think this was the most powerful station in the Bay Area. I packed up all the stuff I needed to make gumbo and shrimp Creole, put in a couple of bus tubs along with pots and pans and a couple of bottles of red wine, and headed off for Baghdad by the Bay. They actually let us in -- I had my girlfriend with me.

The host was toting a large sheaf of papers and reached out to shake hands with me. He dropped the sheaf and the papers went everywhere. As he bent, and I bent to help him pick them up, I whiffed a really strong smell of scotch. Whoa, I thought. This might not be bad after all.

We started talking and I, cooking, and pretty soon the phones were ringing off the hook: calls from Canada to Mexico. In the middle of the night? I answered a lot of questions about New Orleans and cooking Creole food and then popped the wine. I had been told we were supposed to be on for 20-30 minutes. 

Two and a half hours and two bottles of wine later -- the host was kind enough to help us with the wine -- we were done with our radio cooking show. There had been dozens and dozens of calls. Most of them were not from the Bay Area, though, and I had no idea if this would have any impact on business. I hadn't eaten all day, and was really drunk. We drove back to Oakland.

The phone started jangling at 7:00 am and didn't stop all day. Apparently, there were a lot more insomniacs than I ever dreamed existed. We did four times the business we had ever done in a single day: the best of times and the worst of times. We were blown out of the water and had people waiting for hours. I think we made an equal number of friends and enemies that day. The air in the kitchen was thick with an irritable string of fucks and shits and goddamn yous. Perspiration flew about the stoves as we fired volley upon volley of Creole cuisine at the waiters. It was war -- war that feels so damn good when you win it. When it's all over: one of my favorite things about cooking in a restaurant. A shiver runs up my jaded old backbone every time I think about it. Everyone who loves it knows exactly what I mean.

Finally, we had a brief fling with becoming an international naval power: The Ordinary Navy. I bought a boat, dry-docked in the Oakland Marina -- close enough to the A's stadium that, if the wind was right, we could actually hear the game. Stoned, we scraped and painted the hull and heard the Oakland A's win the World Series. Spencer and George were shade tree mechanics and were going to work on the engine. Alas, much like the Ordinary, the boat -- a 40-foot captain's gig -- never quite floated.

Third in a series.

Slow nights -- a phenomenon that is cause for considerable despair in the restaurant business -- at The Ordinary were the worst. Waiting for the customers. And staying focused while waiting. It can be an interminable period. Unnamable pain. Hopeful Vladimir, Alors? On y va? And the dour herbal Estragon, Allons-y; biding their time, discussing doing something, but not moving, filling the hours with nonsense. The waiters -- well, we were all waiters waiting --I mean the service personnel, bartenders and waitrons depend on traffic for their livelihood. Part of the chef/manager/owner’s job is to maintain morale during these moments.

And while the motivation of the kitchen staff may be somewhat different, waiting is every bit as painful for them. Most chefs and line cooks are adrenaline junkies, never happier than when they’re up to their asses in alligators. They want to move. They want to go! And even the dishwasher, the final receptacle for the detritus of our business, is hoping the restaurant will be there tomorrow, so that he may have a paycheck. There is nowhere to go. No exit. Everyone praying that the game is not up. We need asses in chairs and bellies to fill! Bag ‘em, gag ‘em and tag ‘em!

Even the most successful of restaurants have these moments. They are horrific. There is only so much prep one can do, and once one is comfortably ensconced in ennui, a massive energy surge is required to come up to speed. 

Now, there are some restaurants on this planet that have professional waiters. Usually, these joints are in the “food-destination” cities: New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas, where service personnel can make a very handsome living. The last time I ate at Galatoire’s in New Orleans, for instance, they no longer knew me (it had been years and years since my Aunt Maye had taken me there) and I was assigned a waiter who had been there a relatively short time and had no seniority to speak of. He’d only been there 17 years. But, this is the exception; on the remote possibility you’ve never booked an eating tour to Oakland, California, let me clue you in -- it ain’t a food destination. 

So, what most restaurants do for service personnel is try to find people who possess some social skills, half a brain, and clean up pretty good. Honesty is a good thing, too. Experience would be an added bonus. Without exception, these folks are transient, trawling culinary concubines in the wine-dark seas of gastronomy on their way to riches and fame in a real profession. To them, the restaurant is a temporary money machine to tide them over until they score in their real occupation, so loyalty is something of a problem. Slow nights will cause them begin seeking other employment. These nights, did, however, give me the opportunity to get to know some of these people. Here are some sketches of the front and back of the house at The Ordinary.

Partial dramatis personae. Well, lots of gays. I had two guys who were a couple early on, both very moody artists. Trouble from the get go; one in particular. I had just closed The Ordinary one night -- it was very late. He was zonked – and driving me and my girlfriend home. A cop saw him driving erratically in the parking lot. This was at the height of the Black Panther era in Oakland. Running in a couple of hippies was as welcome as a coffee break -- with a doughnut -- for these guys. They rummaged through his purse and found a bunch of drugs. I piped up and said we were just in the parking lot on private property and they had no right blah, blah, blah. They told me to shut up and to pull my legs into their car or the door would be slammed on them. I shut up and pulled my legs in. My girlfriend piped up. They told her to shut up. She didn't. They opened the door, told me to get out, put her in my place, and took the both of them off to the jailhouse, letting me go. I got them out. No charges were filed against her. 

I also had a black gay guy -- Booker -- who was 6’-8’’. with an Afro on top of that. He decided he knew my white musical taste and once gave me a copy of a Jack Jones album -- this during the early days of The Ordinary, when I played nothing but New Orleans jazz on the speaker system. I never really understood how he came up with the cultural leap to Jack Jones after hearing me play King Oliver (he had a pretty good horn player named Louis Armstrong), and Jelly Roll Morton. Maybe someone gave it to him, and he decided I would be more appreciative.

Conrad, on the other hand, paid closer attention than Booker. Conrad was straight, an excellent waiter and a very handsome guy who resembled a young Omar Sharif -- and was also a music critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. He gave me tickets to The Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco. This was my favorite rock band. Although the night of the concert -- Thanksgiving, 1976 -- had all the earmarks of a very slow night at the restaurant, I had taken reservations for about 20. I was making a special menu featuring a dish of duckling with cherry sauce, and I didn’t know anybody who could pull it off in my stead. I had to give the tickets away. I sigh every time I watch the video of the evening, directed by another favorite of mine, Martin Scorese. Conrad died a very unusual death. A car pinned his leg between two bumpers one night and he developed a wound that wouldn’t heal -- the suffering went on for months. He died of a staph infection.

Then there was Richard -- ah, Richard -- straight, but not so you would have known it. Great waiter, but, like many, avaricious. A skinny little guy, he got laid a lot by acting gay -- had it down to an art. (Logic dictates that he got laid by Geena Davis – many times, as he was her first husband.) Richard was very East Coast, cynical and hip. He grew up with some of the East Coast mobsters, and I recollect he was mentioned in the book Murder Machine. He escaped that life, though.

One of my waitrons, Tre, was a very gifted potter. She made me a series of neat blue and white bowls for presentation (she later sold a bunch of her stuff to Neiman Marcus.) I still have one of them -- it holds about 1-1/2 quarts, and has a series of happy-looking blue frogs in various postures arrayed around the outside of the bowl on a white background. On the bottom of the bowl is two frogs going at it doggie- . . . er . . . froggie-style. On the outside bottom of the bowl is the legend: Bufo bufo in amplexus, axillary. I didn’t (and don’t) give this bowl to just anyone. (The rest of the series was G-rated, I might add.) Note: For decades I have been calling this “The Frog Bowl.” I only recently found out just how ignorant I am of amphibian anatomy. Bufo bufo is a toad: the common toad.)

I had my own Mexican beer connection -- Mr. Ceballos, a truly nice human who for some reason took a shine to me. When they were in short supply, he still kept me in Tres Equis and Noche Buena (this is an end-of-the-year bock, featuring poinsettias on the label). George and Spencer, with some small assistance from me, insured that we never made a profit on these beers. We were also one of the first places outside San Francisco to have Anchor Steam on tap.

Then there was my wine connection. My house wine, a closely guarded secret -- Chateau Rege-- was loved by all. To get the discount, I had to pick it up -- ten case minimum -- at their storefront on Powell in San Francisco, at a price of $10.00 a case -- plus tax. Later I moved up to their premium wine, Chateau Rege Reserve: $12.00 per case. It only came in gallon jugs. I served it in carafes. 

We had a couple of near misses with Hollywood around this time. The first came right after I opened. A location producer asked about using The Ordinary for a week or so for a shoot. Something called Klute. He decided against it at the last moment. Later, a producer approached me about being a consultant on a film about Vietnam. Gave me the script (titled The Prisoner; not to be confused with the Patrick McGoohan thing) to read, and told me they would pay me handsomely. Robert Blake was to star. It sounded great, and this starving restaurateur could sure have used the loot. Calls back and forth for several months. The last call I got said the project was on hold: Blake had accepted an offer -- though he was pretty sure it would be short-lived -- for some television thing called Baretta. Guess the cockatoo got my money.

Line cooks were in short supply in Oakland at this time. Mostly I took what I thought were smart people with little experience. Hell, no Bay Area cooks had experience with Creole food, anyway. Well, these were the people I knew: poets, writers, sculptors, painters. They became cooks, kinda. Unlike most of the restaurants I was to do after The Ordinary, where the entire menus were a la carte, most of my items were what we call “batch” items. I settled on a menu that I thought most of my cooks could handle. 

Spencer had owned gas stations and had been a mechanic. He’d quit all that and was a hippie living in a commune when I met him. Spencer became a very good cook, and went on to have his own restaurants.

Denis, who helped out when he could, had always been a good cook. He didn’t make fans of the black ladies to whom he sent out some not-spicy-enough gumbo -- they could be heard throughout the restaurant, shouting “Who done cooked this trash?” In addition to teaching college, Denis taught wine appreciation and wine-making classes.

Then there was Bunkie, former air force officer. (This may scare you, folks. Just don’t dwell on our country’s security too much and you’ll get through it.) He was easily addled. He had the attention span of a bipolar gnat -- except when it came to drugs. Psychedelics were his favorite. Lots. Often. He did have his charm though. He had a succession of attractive girlfriends. 

One of Bunkie’s string of sweeties was Susan, a Foster, the first of four memorable sisters about which, for some reason -- we could speculate that drugs play a part here -- I don’t remember much. 

Susan was freshly sprung from a German prison -- something to do with borders and contraband. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the Foster convoy rolled in from Chicago: Ellen, Mary and Janet, hard living, brash broads, and all attractive. I’m sure they sucked the air right out of The Windy City when they left there. Berkeley wasn’t ready for them. They didn’t care about political correctness, or fitting into the Berkeley culture. These girls just wanted to have fun: sex -- a man a minute, and no commitments. Mary, given a quarter of a chance, would, upon being introduced to a man, whip out her tits and say, “How you like them puppies?” They were cute and pettable. Kinda large for puppies, though. She and Ellen went on to work for Spencer at Mama’s Royal Café.

Nestor didn’t want to work out front -- just in the kitchen. His real name was John and he became a very good friend. He decorated the employee bathroom walls extensively with clever graffiti, drawings, “sandwiches,” and silly slogans, some of which elicited surprising responses. In particular, what Nestor had scribbled about the SLA attracted the attention of the feds: things like, “Call me Cinque,” and “Meet me out back at 11:00, Patty.” One day they came to look at the wall and photograph it. Somewhere in their files are these examples of your tax dollars at work.

John lived with me for a while. Nestor Marzipan was his . . . alter ego, or maybe better, his alter id. Most of the time he looked sorta like a hippie -- John, not Nestor, a bright, educated guy. The Nestor part of him wore a fedora, a zoot suit and tie -- or sometimes, a nurse’s outfit. He talked about having an office in a dingy hall in a building in Monterey and sitting behind a desk with a pint in the drawer and a sign on the door, “Nestor Marzipan, Private Detective.” He became obsessed with one case he was working on. A missing emotion case -- what ever happened to tenderness? He became a very good cook. He died too young. I miss him a lot.

One last slow-night amusement: throwing a damp plunger at a wall 20 feet away and making it stick. Spencer says he can beat me; I dispute this claim. 

It’s hard to wrap up this section. Maybe I’ll let Beckett do it for me. From Waiting for Godot. This time in English.
Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.

Second in a series.

1968 - 1971

Try as I might (and I really have tried!) I can’t seem to completely separate my life in food from politics. I think it has something to do with the beatitude/vicissitude imbalance in my experience. Or maybe I’m just gullible. Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about here.

In April of 1968 I was released from military servitude in Oakland, California. I spent a couple of days reveling in San Francisco (I liked it there. A lot.) before flying to Chicago. Suzan was teaching in Chicago and we had determined to move to San Francisco when the school year was up, so I needed something to do for a few months. I had known Jeff Sharlet at Indiana University. He was a political activist and Vietnam veteran. I was neither when I met him, but Vietnam had changed my mind. I got in touch with him: he and Davy Komatsu and Jim Wallahan published theVietnam GI, a pro-GI/antiwar newspaper. We had a few drinks and they asked me if I’d like to join them. I usually remembered to put on my turn signal when I was about to make a left turn. I forgot this time. They put me on the masthead and published several of my photos. They paid to print and mount about 60 of my black and white photos (relevance on the way).

My most indelible dining memories of Chicago are Diana's Grocery, a Greek restaurant -- there was a grocery in front and you had to walk through a beaded curtain at the back of the store to get to the restaurant (had my first fresh octopus and Retsina there) and a little French place, Michel's.

The school year ended and Suzan and I headed west in July of 1968. Davy had made arrangements for Barbara and Marvin Garson (Marvin published a local counterculture newspaper, The Express Times; Barbara was a playwright) to put us up. We all went to dinner one night at a black barbecue joint -- I love good barbecue. Marvin explained that they had three levels of sauce: hot, medium and mild. All my companions ordered the mild. He told me that if I liked really hot food (I do) to order the medium sauce. I’m thinking, huh, what does a New York Jew know about hot food? I’m from New Orleans! -- and ordered the hot. They brought everyone else’s ribs out before mine. We were facing the kitchen -- what I call a "semi-exhibition" kitchen -- where you get a glimpse into the kitchen through the pass-through window. Usually you can see from a little above waist high to just below the top of the head. I looked up as my plate was set down in front of me. Five black faces grinned at me. Oh, shit, I’d done it again. I sweated. I cried. I tried to say I was fine in response to multiple inquiries. I wasn’t, of course, unless it’s fine to play host to a small army of hyperactive pyromaniacal Romanian mercenaries wielding torches and doing dervishes in your mouth, throat and esophagus. I ate the damn ribs and a half a loaf of what they call in the south "light bread." I drank several beers. If you’ve read anything I’ve written before you’ll notice this kind of thing forms a leitmotif in my life. After much mulling it over, I've decided I just ain't very bright.

Barbara and Marvin lived in North Beach. We’d been there about a week -- had just begun looking for apartments -- when the boys called me from Chicago and asked if I’d like to go to Paris. The occasion, I inquired? A "war crimes tribunal" I was told. Shades of Nuremberg. Sure, I said. Marvin said he’d like to publish a few of my photos. Sure, I said.

The boys said they’d get back to me with the details. A day or two later Rennie Davis called. I was "interviewed" as to my appropriateness, I suppose. Why do I make people with agendas so nervous? He said he'd get back to me. The boys called back and said I needed to get to New York in three days. I said I had no passport -- and my birth certificate was still at my father-in-law's apartment in Evanston. A friend agreed to pick it up and meet me at O'Hare. I packed up a couple dozen of my mounted photos -- and not much more, and embarked. I was to go to the offices ofLiberation Magazine when I arrived in New York. A ticket to New York -- with a stop in Chicago -- was sent to me issue-wire. That all worked. Barbara was very helpful through all of this facilitating here and there, pretending to be my secretary or assistant in those cases where I had to appear to be important.

Once in New York, birth certificate in hand, I took a taxi to Liberation Magazine, and met with Dave Dellinger. He gave me my Air France tickets and got me to the passport office, in Rockefeller Center as I recollect. I got a "rush" passport, since I was to fly that afternoon: my fifth ocean crossing -- the other four had been related to the unpleasantness in Southeast Asia.

A Dr. Kahn picked me up at the airport and took me to his place, where I was "interviewed" again -- this time by Tom Hayden. Somehow, I passed again. (For those of you keeping score: within the space of a few days in July I was vetted by three men who were to head to Chicago in less than a month and become three sevenths of the Chicago Seven.) By this point, I was very tired, but the "tribunal" was to be that evening. Dr. Kahn gave me something so I could sleep a few hours. He woke me and said it was time to go. He gave me something so I could stay awake for a few hours.

One of the first people I met that evening was Maria Jolas. I knew of her, but what I knew was totally unrelated to antiwar activities. She was mentioned in Richard Ellmann’s book James Joyce. She had hobnobbed with Joyce (and took care of his crazy daughter, Lucia), Beckett, Gertrude Stein and all the expats who were my English-major heroes. She sat next to me on the stage; since I didn’t speak French that was not related to food or genitalia, she translated for me. The tribunal was under the aegis of Laurent Schwartz, mathematician, staunch antiwar activist and cohort of Sartre. Much of the proceeding was in French, so I was lost after trotting out my photos and delivering a brief spiel about my experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam -- just one of many times I would be lost over the next several years.

The next few weeks in Paris expanded my universe considerably. The quick tour: I was introduced to the North Vietnamese Minister of Justice (his translator had been a company commander at Dien Bien Phu); was taken to lunch at a great Vietnamese restaurant by the head of the North Vietnamese News Bureau in Paris; met Arthur Miller at a seminar; got my ass royally kicked in the Latin Quarter by the CRS (French national police force) -- they also smashed my Nikon and stripped the film I had been shooting. I was arrested briefly and let go by a supervisor who was tricked by my not-yet-out-of-date-signed-by-General Westmoreland press card; was interviewed by a Turkish reporter for a feature article in France Nouvelle, the Paris communist newspaper; was treated to a bunch of wonderful meals by Maria Jolas who also made me iced tea on my last Sunday in Paris and invited her neighbor, Mary McCarthy. We looked through all the volumes Joyce had personalized for her; almost had sex with an Australian babe (we literally slept together); ate a bunch of lunches with guys who worked for Le Monde; had two "dates" with a beautiful Russian woman, one at a movie theater and one at her apartment and that’s all I’m saying about that; met and talked with French photographer Roger Pic, who had been in Vietnam photographing the war with the Viet Cong -- we had taken photographs of the same 1967 battle from opposite sides of the lines.

Sadly, I was somewhat hampered in Paris. I really wanted to walk around and see a bunch of the stuff I’d read about. I couldn’t. I was hobbled. Like the moron I am perfectly capable of being, I had brought just one pair of shoes -- a new pair of kicks just for my Paris trip. I got around as best I could, spending most of my liberty in The Latin Quarter. Within limping distance, I found a little place that had great escargot and soupe a l'oignon. I could also trundle to a kinda French fast-food joint that had a great grilled entrecote. Around the corner from my hotel was a bakery -- a boy on a bicycle brought warm croissants and baguettes every morning. I wolfed them down with strawberry preserves and good French butter.

I can't think of a better way to introduce my post-Vietnam, post-Paris life in food than to start with an excerpt from my old friend Spencer’s newsletter. He is an unrepentant hippie (although some Food Network toady bestowed him with the title "King of Salsa"). Spencer and I worked together for many years, many years ago. He now owns a restaurant, Mama's Royal Cafe, in Cabo San Lucas. If he wants to, he sends this newsletter out on a monthly basis. While he may be a little shaky on dates and places, he’s right on ambience:

Any of you who have eaten at my place have undoubtedly noticed the heavy Louisiana influence on my menu. Mexican style Jambalaya and a Mexican style Bouillabaisse that sounds a whole lot like a New Orleans gumbo. This is not an accident -- these two great cuisines have a lot in common and my very first involvement with a restaurant was back in the 60’s with a little Creole place in Berkeley called The Ordinary.

My friend Billy Kirschen has said, "If you can remember the 60’s -- you weren’t there!" The Ordinary was opened on a shoestring by a late-twenty-something Vietnam vet named Joseph Carey who was rapidly burning out, trying to do it all himself. Do the shopping in the morning -- cook all afternoon 'til 10 p.m., when the restaurant would turn into a live music bar. He would then tend bar until 2 a.m., go to sleep in the office -- wake up and do it all again. Ah, Berkeley in the '60s . . .

The streets . . . even had their own smell -- a funky mix of spent tear gas and patchouli mixed with the sweet smell of Columbian marijuana and burning bras and draft cards. I would like to tell you that The Ordinary was an island of sanity in this boundless sea of madness, but you wouldn't believe me. Besides, I’m inclined to believe that we were at the very epicenter of it all. In fact the madness of the '60s may have been spreading from the Ordinary like ripples from a rock tossed into Lake Merritt.

The Ordinary

Suzan and I had separated. I was still living in Berkeley; she was teaching in the Oakland Public Schools and living in Oakland. She was having an affair with a married black school administrator and I was proceeding through her friends (I think the one I missed got mad at me for neglecting her), schoolteachers all. Hey, it was a different time and place -- what can I say? I cooked a lot. I read cookbooks, had joined a book club, when I wasn’t teaching or doing anti war work. Oh, yeah, I was writing songs, too and plunking on my Martin 00-21. I considered Suzan a good friend -- still do. She and her friends helped me with the work of getting the building in North Oakland ready to be a restaurant. I remember them helping me strip the bar I had found in the San Francisco redevelopment area -- it had been in The Palace Hotel during the big earthquake. We got the settlement from the motorcycle wreck and I opened The Ordinary in April of 1971. Damn, I forgot to tell you about the motorcycle wreck.

We were living in the flatlands of Berkeley on Chestnut St. and Suzan was teaching at an Oakland junior high. My income was a grant from The American Friends Service Committee to operate a draft-counseling center in southern Alameda County. I'd bought a Triumph 650 murdercycle and went to pick her up after school one day. We got as far as Berkeley and were broadsided at a yield sign by the Dean of Women at the Berkeley West Campus High School -- just a few blocks from home. Knocked us about 40 feet. Suzan landed in a bush; I landed on my right shoulder on someone’s concrete front porch. 

They took us to the Kaiser hospital where Suzan had her insurance. I found out later I was in shock. She had an obvious broken leg -- they took care of her immediately -- and I was limping a little and couldn't lift my right arm. But when they asked if I could walk to x-ray myself, and then return to the emergency room with the x-rays, I said sure -- and did so. My right shoulder was beginning to hurt quite bit. When I returned, the nurse smiled at me as she inserted the film in the light box. She turned to look at them and gasped. “Sit down, I'm getting the doctor!” The humeral head of my right shoulder was broken all the way through. I was in two pieces: my right arm and the rest of me. There was therapy, agony, blah, blah, blah, poison oak from head to foot, blah, blah, blah. Took a couple of years to get the settlement. Back to our story.

I built a loft, about ten by twelve feet, over the restaurant kitchen and furnished it with a bed, a few books, a television set and a Modigliani nude -- had to climb up there with a ladder. I told the health and fire inspectors that it was dry storage; they didn't want haul their government-nurtured beer bellies up those rungs. This was to be my sometime home for the next few years. Suzan's apartment was just a few blocks away and I took long daily baths there, or showers at her friends' places. (For several years I was super-anal, having spent weeks on end without bathing while photographing the war in Vietnam.)

I hired a local artist to carve some signs for me -- going for a rustic look. I didn't want to scare anyone. It was to be a Creole restaurant. He was the inamorata of an old friend, Michelle, from Indiana University. Unfortunately, he was also, how can I put this delicately? Stark raving bonkers. She called us one day when she couldn’t handle him anymore and a friend of mine and I coaxed him down the stairs and hauled him off to the loony bin. This was a bad sign -- literally. The restroom signs weren't completed by opening day. On the restroom doors, I put up two of the signs that were finished -- Pickled Eggs and Sangria. Never changed them. It was a source of great amusement to the bartenders when stodgy folks would ask which restroom was the men’s -- or women’s. I always answered, "What do you feel like today?"

While working on the building I had been assisting a friend of mine, Don Campbell, a sculptor, in completing some pieces of sculptures for which he had a contractual agreement with a large gallery. Paid me a hundred bucks a week. He, in turn, was helping me build The Ordinary. Laser sculptures: a mirrored top with three motors mounted underneath. Each of the motors had three small mirrors attached to three facets. As the motors rotated, the mirrors would reflect the laser beam, which entered from the cabinet below, hit one small stationary mirror that reflected the beam onto the rotating mirrors (got that? I attempt to commit mathematics as infrequently as possible) in what I presumed to be an infinite variety of patterns. There was a tube in the side of the box containing the mirror through which we blew cigarette smoke so you could see the laser beam. Kinda nifty. I kept begging him to let me build a pinball machine with mirrors on the flippers. He didn’t. At any rate when I opened I hired Don as a bartender -- at a hundred bucks a week.

I was regularly seeing a friend of Suzan's at this point and took her with me to many really good Bay Area restaurants. Campbell and I also went out a bunch of times. We had one night at Trader Vic's where we had just finished a bunch of demolition on the building to house The Ordinary. We were really funky in dirty t-shirts and jeans. The headwaiter gave us both ties to put on -- proper decorum is important. The bartender then gave us a bunch of Mai Tais to put on. And we did. I think we forgot to eat. Not sure.

Don's wife was Greek and taught me how to make Avgolemono. After she and Don separated, she also taught me that the menage a trois (er, two-girls/one guy!) was not necessarily a good thing.

Damn, this piece was supposed to be about The Ordinary and I haven't even opened the doors and invited you in yet! I really am trying to stop interrupting myself and get to the Ordinary. Really. You believe me, don't you?

First in a series.

A whorehouse was responsible for my nascent career as a lifelong voracious reader and too-long career as an English major, though I did eventually trick Indiana University out of a degree. My stepfather’s family had once owned a bakery, and they still owned the ancestral property on which it had been housed. They wanted to sell it and had to clean it out, and I was recruited to help. The second story had been a whorehouse: my job. 

Victoria’s Secret had nothing on these babes. I was awash in an ethereal sea of garter belts, bras, mesh stockings, panties, nightgowns and shoes -- boxes and boxes, overflowing with them. It was a real learning experience for a teenager. But, lest you think that there was no cultural aspect involved in the evisceration of this enclave of iniquity, the walls of the Madame’s room were lined with books. She was a reader. She had hundreds of volumes: classics and hardbacks. My stepfather told me to heave them. I asked if I could have them and he just shrugged. I took them all. 

In Richmond, my stepfather got me a job. It was January and very cold when I began working for Glen and his son, Stanley Bybee, at the Bybee and Son Casket Company. It was situated in the middle of the block -- I mean, really in the middle, surrounded on all sides by houses, one of which belonged to Glen Bybee. It was just a few steps up from the factory door to their kitchen. 

Bybee and Son consisted of Bybee and son, me and a part-time welder who came in occasionally. Let’s see, there was Bybee, that’s one, and then there was Son, that’s two and then there was me. Guess who was the turd? I bought a pair of overalls, something I'd never owned. This thing just gets more and more Dickensian, folks.

Richmond, Indiana is something of an afterthought on the species -- except for Earlham College, a nifty place. Jim Jones honed his preaching and Kool-Aid making skills on the street corners of Richmond. I never did drink the Kool-Aid.

So, I made baby caskets during the day and read Strindberg, Ibsen and LeRoi Jones and listened to all nine of Beethoven's symphonies (Toscanini) and Frank Sinatra at night, often falling asleep in my overalls. I was trying to get in the pants of a cheerleader who lived in an apartment in the same complex as did my mother and stepfather. Didn’t have much success, just a little making-out. My credentials were scanty at the time -- a third-string field goal kicker could out status me. Not a hell of a lot of panache in being the turd at a baby casket factory.

The snow was to the top of my boots. Promptly at noon every workday, Glen and Stanley would climb the few steps to the warm kitchen (it was cold in the factory.) I put on my coat, gloves and hat and trooped five blocks in the snow (yes, it was uphill both ways) to the Spudnut Shop where they made doughnuts with potato flour, to eat my lunch, which consumed about 15% of my daily wage. I made $1.00 an hour.

There was a sheet metal ceiling here. I didn’t see much room for advancement, unless Stanley and the welder died. One of my jobs was sawing little pieces of wood on a table saw. I mean little. Tiny blocks that were wedged into the sheet metal rims of the caskets for the lining to be tacked to. I spaced out one day -- cheerleader fantasy, as I recollect -- and ran my left thumb through the saw -- I’ll show you the scar. Blood spurted everywhere and Glen was downright irritated with me: Down time. Lost efficiency. I’d no car so Stanley drove me to the emergency room. Several stitches later and doped up I was on the couch with Frank Sinatra. I took the rest of the day off and Stanley picked me up for work the next morning. My days in the baby casket industry were numbered.

Glen pissed and moaned about my speed over the next few days. I saw the mene mene on dirty concrete block walls.

I’d saved enough money to buy a 1954 Mercury convertible. I quit before he fired me -- just barely, I think. I found the best restaurant in Richmond, Indiana. It was in a motel, the chef was Austrian, the manager German and the sous chef a redneck. I was first cook and dishwasher. Me -- flunky émigré from the baby casket industry, now first cook and dishwasher.

But, it was a real restaurant. I learned some stuff.