Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Week (Almost) in India, New Jersey

Want to know how to stay in New York for four nights for less than the price of one night in a hotel? The answer is, stay in New Jersey. Specifically, stay in a crazy Indian-run hotel called the Haiban Inn on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, the heart of that town's Little India. And if you don't mind the room being shaken until all hours by drumming and singing and dancing, book your time in the middle of the nine-day annual religious festival known as Navratri. You won't get much sleep, but on the up-side, a lot of the restaurants are open til 5am.

And you'll want to eat at the restaurants, trust me.

I arrived on Thursday, after a chaotic series of events that made it so it took me almost as long to get from JFK to the hotel as it did for me to get from Austin to JFK. Some of it was my fault: at one point I was steps from the hotel, mis-read the street numbers, turned around, and walked a mile, with my computer bag and my suitcase. But here's the point: at least I got there.

The Haiban isn't going to make anybody's list of luxury hotels, even in Jersey City. In fact, it's barely a hotel. The current owners bought it ten months ago, rid the property of its bedbugs, and started renting out rooms with an eye towards long-stay Indian guests in town to do short gigs in the tech sector. For around a hundred bucks, I got a big room with a bed, another room with a sink, a fridge and a microwave, and a bathroom. No furniture except for a little chair that looked sad that the rest of the dinette set had walked off and left it, no glass to wash your mouth out after brushing your teeth, no desk at which to set up your computer (the wi-fi was great), and nothing much else. The walls are paper-thin and there's a chance the businessman in the next room is using Skype in the wee hours to make a deal. In the morning, basic breakfast is provided: tea, bread to toast, cereal. The people running the place are extremely friendly. And you can't beat the location:

These are just random grabs of the block of Newark Ave., a long street that starts downtown and winds its way until just past Little India. You will notice the huge number of restaurants. We will return to this, never fear. What's not a restaurant is probably a shop selling saris, a money-transfer operation, or a superette or meat market. I would have gone nuts in the superettes were it not for the fact that I have two well-stocked Indian markets right near my place in Austin. Not even they sell curry leaf (neem) plants, though. Gotta get me some of that.

Of course, my never-ending quest for great Indian food, and particularly south Indian food, would bring me to stay in a place like this, but there was another factor as well: PATH. This is a small subway system that connects places like Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City with Manhattan. Really: in very little time at all, I was able to walk to the Journal Square PATH station and, with a regular New York City Metro Card, ride as far as a block from Penn Station. This proved to be amazingly convenient, and, in terms of getting where I needed to go, not much different than staying at a non-midtown hotel in Manhattan. Except for the price.

And Navratri. I got in about 10pm, thanks to the screwups, and heard the music coming from the parking lot across the street. The enthusiastic young man at the hotel desk told me it was the most important festival of the year, nine nights long, and many Hindus spent the entire nine nights praying, not bothering to sleep. I figured that was okay as long as they let me sleep. In fact, it appears to be a festival that's been celebrated since prehistoric times, as the excellent Wikipedia article hints. I was unaware of Navratri before this trip, but the whole world's currently aware of it as a result of the Indian Prime Minister's announcement that he's happy to have dinner at the White House with the Obamas, but he won't eat. It's also a fast, you see.

Well, I didn't want to fast, so I headed up the street to a promising-looking place called Deccan Spice with over-the-top encomia from the Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsma in the window. It was a very strange, but wonderful, experience. I was with a friend from Malaysia who'd, unfortunately, just eaten. (Well, you can't expect people to wait for you when they're starving and you're two hours late). Overwhelmed by the menu, I ordered something called Special Pakora to start. This was described as "paneer and cashew mixed with spices and gram flour and deep fried." We've all had pakoras: they're bits of vegetable coated in spiced chickpea (British: gram) flour (besan) and deep fried, so I figured this would be hunks of paneer, that amazing chewy Indian cheese, treated similarly. What I got was a big plate of crunchy tidbits, a bit like a bar snack for the beer they naturally don't serve here. (I had a Limca, an allegedly lime-flavored soft drink made by Coca Cola India which contains no juice at all, just some kind of unspecified "acid," and tastes sort of like lime-scented disinfectant. I have to order Limca once a decade to remind myself how little I like it). It was, its form notwithstanding, delicious, and I had to watch myself because I am all too aware how besan expands. Next up was the house specialty, Natu Kodi Vepudu, described as "spicy country chicken cooked with poppy seeds, coconut and curry leaves," which sounded astounding. It was. It was also not boneless. My Malaysian friend said there's a very similar-tasting dish back home, also not boneless. You're supposed to suck the marrow, crunch the cartilage, and, of course, eat the meat. The spice mixture was out of this world, and I'm going to go looking for it so I can treat some boneless chicken this way. As it was, my current dentition found it challenging, especially when a bone shard got under my denture and found its way to where my teeth had been extracted. I asked the waiter if I could have some rice on the side. He said, and I quote, "No."

Bizarrely enough, this didn't keep me from returning two nights later. I went with a Jersey Citizen of my acquaintance who'd never eaten in Little India, but who is somewhat spice-averse, which is okay because I suspect the Deccans are all too willing to blast you out if appropriate. For appetizers, she ordered samosas and I ordered chilli paneer. Her samosas were definitely southern Indian style (the restaurant advertises itself as Hyderabadi) and the filling, although it contained potatoes and peas, also contained other stuff that made it sublime. No sticky sweet chutney accompanied them, because really, nothing else was needed. For a main course, she got charminar ka murgh, "boneless chicken cooked in spinach gravy and spices," and I got a goat curry from a new state that had split off of Hyderabad and isn't listed either on the takeout menu I lifted or on line. The goat wasn't boneless, either, which was okay, because I'm used to Jamaican goat curry, which isn't boneless, either. It was pretty good, although, again, dentally challenging for me. My friend lucked out with her chicken: there was far more than spinach in that thick green sauce, including mint and fenugreek and cilantro. I do have one of those little Indian cookbooks back in Texas that claims to be Hyderabadi, and I'm going to look for it. Oh: how was my chilli paneer? No idea. It never came, despite two reminders to the waiter. Finally the manager showed up and my friend allowed as how the white rice she'd ordered hadn't come, either. That, at least, was produced post-haste.

In sum, I suspect that repeated visits to Deccan Spice would reveal a bunch of superb Indian cuisine of the sort I, and probably most gringos, have never had. There would be service problems, and if you order the "goat fry" you'd have to remember it's goat brains you're eating there. They're opening various new locations, and if they'd like a tip on a strip-mall property just down from an Indian grocery on William Cannon Boulevard in Austin, they should contact me. I promise to deliver customers if they promise to deliver the full order.

(Deccan Spice, 771 Newark Ave. Jersey City, NJ, 201-604-1772. www.deccan-spice.com. Open 11am-1am Mon-Thu, Sun, 11am-5am Fri & Sat. Other locations, check website).

* * *

The next day, not having had enough, I went to a place across the street and around the corner from the hotel for "pure vegetarian" food. Sapthagiri is another burgeoning empire that can have that space down from Man Prasand Grocery if Deccan Spice doesn't want it. It was lunchtime and I was, again, hungry, and this place's menu had a bewildering number of items on it. It also had a rabbinical certificate declaring the food Kosher. It serves both northern and southern Indian vegetarian stuff, but I was going to stick to the south, since that's less familiar and, if you make it at home, more labor-intensive. 

I started out with rasam idly, two little puffs of rice flour left to ferment and rise overnight and then steamed, then soaked in that deceptively fiery thin lentil soup called rasam (which I have made, and loved: it's not hard). I don't have an idly maker, though, so here it is:

Prepare to sweat, gringo
The coconut raita, the white stuff, was exquisite. And those little puffs kept puffing when they got inside. 

Which made my next choice a little prolematic: a dosa. Some day someone will teach me how to eat one of these mammoth pancakes, which are folded like a crepe over a filling that only makes a bit of a bump in the overall dish. Mine was a Mysore masala dosa, whose description on the menu says that it's "spread with spicy home made sauce and filled with mash of potato & onion and green peas and cashew nuts." I attacked this so fast I didn't have time to photograph it until I pulled up with the certain knowledge that a stomach ache awaited me if I ate another phenomenal forkful:

Coconut raita, amazing rasam, three killer chutneys and that filling...
I kind of ripped open the dosa to show off that filling. Man oh man. 

That did me for the day, despite a trip into Manhattan and back and very good intentions to visit one of the biryani joints that was open late. But I noticed that Sapthagiri offered a breakast buffet on Saturdays and Sundays. My Malaysian friend was all ears at that -- and stomach, too. Saturday morning we were there:

Umm, let's see, clockwise from noon, fried things that had gone cold, some farina dish with onions and I think kalunji (nigella) seeds and other stuff, a cup of rasam, some fried parathas, a cup of coconut chutney, a close relative of that dosa filling, a blob of chutney, a blob of ginger chutney, two idlys and in the center more chutney. No, not real helpful. Just go get some on the weekend. 
There was excellent masala tea and less excellent masala Nescafé. This is the way to start the day, boys and girls! 

(Sapthagari, 804 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ, 201-533-8400, open seven days 11am to 10pm. Another location in Franklin Park, NJ).

* * *

There are many, many other restaurants on the block. I want to try one of the biryani joints, myself, specialists in what might be termed South Indian jambalayas, which can be fiendishly difficult to make at home, or not, depending on how complex the recipe you're making is. (I once made one with the rice in three layers, orange, white, and green, the colors of the Indian flag, each layer with different stuff in it. I almost died before I got it on the table, but, unbelievably, it was amazing. I'm not sure where the recipe is and am disinclined to go looking for it). Up the side-street from Sapthagari is an egg-based Indian restaurant, probably the only one in the US. I need to check that out; eggs aren't much eaten in India, from what I can tell. Another Jersey Citizen tells me that Dosa Hut is good, while another remembers going there -- or was it Dosa House down the street? -- and getting a dosa with a frozen center due to bad microwave technique. There are a couple of places obviously catering to a younger crowd with names like Chutney's that deserve a visit. Am I going to check back in to the Haiban when I get back on Monday so I can continue to investigate? Stay tuned. 

* * *

Of course, each night starting about 8 there was dancing in the streets, big ring dances with men and women and loud live music, although the shenai and santur and sitar and other instruments were all synth presets played by one guy. There were, however, several drum kits to keep people shaking. There was a shrine in the parking lot, one by the stage, and another down the street in the front of a travel agency. 

The main shrine

The travel agency shrine
People started dancing about 8, but things went on, with various vocalists, one of whom was a boy about 4 years old (who kept going flat, as kids do) singing pop-ghazal until about 1:30. 

Live music! Except for the presets. (Kid not shown: he came up later).

Only gives a hint of the chaos. Later: roman candles. 
Even on Thursday and Sunday, when there was no band, recorded music blared out. I was, amazingly, able to fall asleep to it, but unless you're going to celebrate, this might be a nine-day window to not stay in Little India. Of course, from Manhattan, it's the cost of one ride on your Metro Card, and the food won't break your budget at all. 

I'm writing this in a considerably different hotel in Montreal, and the second chapter of this adventure has started. I will not be eating Indian food here, although I understand it's on offer...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Minor Annoyance

I was mooching around the Internet the other day, bored and between work duties and kind of desultorily researching my upcoming vacation without enough information or money to actually do anything about it, when I picked up a kind of hint that my iPhone and iPad had something on them that I didn't want there. And sure enough, they did.

On the one hand, pretty nifty graphics. On the other hand, I didn't ask for this. Nor, to be honest, would I have.

In case you've been asleep this week, or in case you use iTunes as little as I do these days (ie, never, now that I no longer have neighbors who'll bust me for playing music through speakers after 10pm), if you have an Apple device, you've got it, too. I have no idea what your reaction will be, but I got mad.

A bit of history is in order here. Back in 1968, I started to write record reviews for Rolling Stone. In order to make sure I could keep in touch with what the labels were putting out, their record review editor, Greil Marcus, called some record labels and I got put on their mailing lists for pop music. Stuff began to appear in my mailbox before it appeared in my college bookstore's record section, which was a big outlet for testing new releases. I got Cream's Wheels of Fire from Atlantic, and Waiting For the Electrician Or Someone Like Him, by the Firesign Theater. This was memorable because it was a record that, from its cover, I'd never have bought, and covers were about all anyone had to go on back then. One night, I put it on and a whole new world opened to me: comedy made with all the resources of the modern recording studio, just like a new Beatles album or something.

I got used to free albums pretty quickly. Arguments that people who got free albums were more inclined to like them than if they'd paid for them were hogwash: with $4.98 invested in a record, you had $4.98 worth of reasons to consider that a good investment. I had no investment in a free piece of plastic, and if it knocked me out, all to the good. And it kept me abreast of what proved to be an oncoming tide of music: it seems quaint nowadays, but it was once possible to keep up with pretty much every album that came out. Or every rock album, at any rate, and more and more they were becoming the majority of what was released.

Many times I've told the story of what I don't want to call a tipping point: Rolling Stone had assigned me the new Beatles album, Abbey Road, for review. Weird as it seems, there were copies all over the country in warehouses, waiting for the release date a couple of weeks later. A promo man in Cincinnati who worked in one of those warehouses was asked to hand-deliver my copy. His main gig was for Elektra Records, though, so he brought that month's Elektra stuff with him, too: albums by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, Ars Nova, Rhinoceros, Wild Thing, and one the guy candidly told me was awful, so awful he drew on the cover. "These guys are morons," he said. "I have no idea why we signed them." They were the Stooges.

However, let us not forget Wild Thing.
It was like the past (the Beatles audibly falling apart), the present (a lot of pretension, inept rock masquerading as art), and the future (The Stooges was the only album in the pile that got to me viscerally, and I reviewed it, too, for Rolling Stone) all in one neat pile of vinyl.

The great thing about free records is that, once they started flowing in and once some of them proved to be duds, you could almost always find someone to give you a buck or two for them. With what writing about them would turn out to pay, this was a valuable asset.

Of course, this was physical product. I could hold it in my hand, hand it to you to hold, mail it to a friend, stack it in the corner. True, I hadn't specifically asked for most of it, but some of it I was glad to have. It took up an awful lot of room, but that was no big thing. (Well, until I had to move, at least).

The U2 situation is completely different, and needs to be addressed in ways I don't see it being addressed. Most of what I've seen has been "Man, I don't want an album by these guys because they suck!" type of thing, or else "Hey, I played it and liked it a lot!"

That's not the issue.

First, it's not taking up space on your device. What you've been given is the opportunity to download the album for free until October 13. I get links like that every day, since there are still publicists out there who think I'm interested in contemporary rock music, which I'm not. But I have to take the action to click on the link, deliver the product to my desktop, and then integrate it with my iTunes if I so see fit. I think that's fair.

What's not fair is deceptively placing that link on my device without my consent. I can (and do) ignore those links in the press releases. I can't ignore the existence of something I'd never ever want on my device. And I wonder how many people innocently click on the link and download this album, just out of curiosity. Apple, one reads, spent $100 million for the rights to do this, a nice payday for the corporation that is U2. How many people did this? It's important to know: an industry source I trust claims that their last album was downloaded 22,000 times. Yup: no missing zeroes there. Twenty-two thousand. No doubt the people who downloaded it paid for it, and no doubt some percentage of them played it for a while, decided they could live without it (or most of it) and deleted it (or most of it) from their devices. I'm sure that out of the majority of consumers who bought the album as physical product some traded theirs for something else, sold them at garage sales, and the like. In all cases, this is the consumer's right: you made the choice to own the music and you make the choice to do what you will with it, even something technically illegal. Or returning it to the electronic chaos.

The economics of giving music away gives me a headache, and I don't want to discuss it. The blitherers who talk about how musicians should make their money with live appearances ought to do a four-month tour of the U.S. and Canada in an Econoline van and get back to me. Extra points if you're over 45. And yes, someone sent me that article about Joe Ely and his long-standing love affair with Apple Computers (ever heard his album Hi Res?), and no, much as I love Joe, I wouldn't have been any happier if it had been his new album that was forcibly inserted on my devices. (I would, however, have been very happy for him and Sharon if they managed to get $100 million out of Apple. Hell, Sharon's never going to make that much from her posole, good as it is).

What this is about goes to the core of owning these devices in the first place. We give certain entities -- Apple Computer, most importantly -- access to them so that they can make them better: Apple constantly provides updates to the operating system, for instance, that result in better functioning and stronger security. They improve (or, well, let's just say for the sake of argument they're improvements) the various applications like Mail and Safari that come with the computers and let us know they're available. We can choose not to upgrade, and sometimes that's the right choice. What Apple is not doing is slapping a copy of Angry Birds, for instance, on our devices, giving us trial e-subscriptions to Us magazine. Some of us choose not to put games on our devices. Some of us don't care about the "content" in Us.

We all have the choice to configure our devices as we wish, which is how it should be. We choose what software to put on them, what content. The autonomy this technological revolution we're living through is, in fact, liberating, even when it doesn't seem that way at the hands of some political and religious organizations. But those entities aren't forcing themselves on us. U2 is.

I have been denied a choice. Yes, it seems easy enough to rid your device of this stupid thing, yet I scrupulously followed the instructions for erasing it from my devicesyesterday and as of a minute ago, it's still on all three -- computer, iPhone, iPad. I don't like the precedent. I don't like U2, either, but that's not what this is about.

Apple should be ashamed of itself and it should apologize for this breach of privacy.

But of course it won't be, and it won't. Welcome to the oligarchy, consumer tool.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Modest Disappointments

One of the books I discovered when I started to unpack my stuff from storage was T. R. Fehrenbach's classic history of Texas, Lone Star. I was happy to find it: after all these years, perhaps it was time to dive into what most people say is the standard history of this state.

It's a tough slog for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the narrative lurches around out of sequence for much of the book, and several long passages seem to be papers Fehrenbach presented just inserted into the book, making the idea of a flow ridiculous. It could also use way more maps than it has. Still, given the time it was written and the place it was written about, Lone Star is remarkable in a number of ways. Fehrenbach's concept of the "races" of Texas (not the word I'd use) posits that the Anglos who came here came directly from the frontier of Tennessee and Kentucky, and their ancestors had bypassed the civilizing influence of the Enlightenment thinking that was developing in New England and Virginia. They were no to much anti-intellectual as, well, a-intellectual. This put them at odds with the Europeans who moved here, and with the Mexicans who were already here. He makes the black experience sound like hell on earth, even compared to other parts of the U.S. The female experience he doesn't consider at all.

I bring this up not to mock a classic work or pretend that I know better than he (although I certainly would have added and subtracted information were it my book, and if I had the knowledge), but to give some context to what I did last Thursday. The Bullock State History Museum had a travelling show called 1968 that I wanted to see, as did my pal GB, and she, having worked as a consultant on another special show there, had a contact, so she called and got us free entry and a parking pass.

The 1969 show was perplexing, taking up very little space, and cramming stuff into it in a rather claustrophobic way. The artifacts on display -- weird to think of a year from your young adulthood as possessing "artifacts" -- were all over the map. Some of the wacky, zippy furniture and other design elements may have been available for purchase, but few bought them because they looked as ephemeral as they turned out to be. Instant museum pieces, I guess. The war in Vietnam was very well covered, and there was most of a Huey helicopter taking up part of the space, as was part of a space capsule in which astronauts had ridden. The pop culture items were well-chosen (although the dorm room with the dope in one of the desk drawers could have used with a curator who knew how to roll a joint), and the use of video was excellent: short, informative pieces you could watch and then go. The Presidential election had the requisite number of campaign buttons and an oddly moving display, down near the floor, of a bunch of china from the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was assassinated.

But it was tiny, and before long we were through. "Want to look at the rest of the museum?" GB asked, and, well, of course I did. So off we went.

Lack of space isn't a problem at the Bullock: its cavernous interior recalls the rotunda of the state capitol building, perhaps intentionally. It has an IMAX theater, a conference center, a restaurant, a concert hall, and three floors of exhibits. Which is where Fehrenbach came in handy. The ground floor seems empty, despite a good reproduction of a "dog run" house of the sort early settlers built (I thought I knew what one looked like, but Fehrenbach's description confused me). There's just not much Stuff, and after 20 years in Europe, I'm used to museums with Stuff galore. What it does have, in enormous quantity, though, is text. Text on the walls, text in documents, framed next to more text. But having read the book, this made sense: the Spanish had artifacts, but the Apaches, the dominant Indian tribe in Texas, had none becauses they had no culture, at least not in the way we'd define it. They made no art except to decorate weapons of war, and had no settlements. (Reading Fehrenbach, it seems like a miracle that they survived into the 19th Century, having no technology other than superb horsemanship skills, and, later, some marksmanship with captured rifles; it was like the Mongol hordes surviving into early modern times). As for the early Anglos, their goods were very modest, and the display that made the point that the Colt revolver had won the war against the Apaches was dull: old rusted guns tend to look very much alike, and a display of a couple of disassembled Colts, showing the original model and the model made after the Texas Rangers bailed Colt out of bankruptcy by ordering a thousand or so guns made from their suggestions would have been very welcome.

I started reading the texts, but soon got fatigued by them. GB, for her part, wanted to continue upstairs, so we ascended the staircase to the 19th century, where there was a bit more Stuff. There, the Civil War awaited us, confusing as all get-out, although the video showing comments from Texans' writings during the period had its moments. It, however, showed one of the museum's big problems. In trying to be fair to the Texas experience of Mexicans, women, and blacks, the exhibits often spend time on matters that are either trivial (some of the women's stuff) or odd (you cannot sugar-coat the black experience in Texas, which was right up there with Mississippi as one of the worst places to be a slave -- or, starting a short time after Emancipation, a free black -- and there are very few positive role models among black Texans during this period).

We drifted on, surrounded by text, which was often in black letters against a brown background, and some of that in reduced light to preserve documents and artifacts. GB complained that representative costumes would have been a good idea, there not being any before the 1920s, which I hadn't noticed, but was a good observation. I suggested that in a climate like Texas', preserving clothing against decay for a century or more might have been impossible, but more likely, it was the people themselves who didn't see the point of saving anything. Life was hard enough, after all. When the costumes appeared, they were in one of the ingenious displays that were behind a scrim, with the lighting changing to make it more or less opaque. The change, however, was fairly quick and you couldn't really get a good look at the contents of the window until the next cycle.

By the time we got to the third, and top, floor, I was frankly bored. There was an Exxon-sponsored display about the oil business, which saved Texas when the cattle boom faded, a nice old neon sign from an old movie house called the Texas, some cool stuff from NASA, a video about Texas today starring my old friend Ray Benson (who is, as he'll tell you, a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia), and, as you exited that room, a small adjunct to the 1968 show called The Years That Made Texas Weird, which was no such thing, but, instead, a tribute to a number of the great local poster artists with a small display of each one's work.

We descended the staircase into the rotunda, checked out the gift shop (filled with stuff you'd want to take home to New York or Illinois), and walked outside where, to our amazement, a thin rain was blowing in. It was, in context, the high point of the afternoon.

* * *

"Hey," said the voice on the phone last night. "Got dinner plans? Want to go get noodles with us?" It was Andrew, whose suggestions on where to get great food around Austin had never let me down, starting with, years ago, a phô place that's now in my neighborhod. It was late afternoon, so I suggested we wait a bit, and he agreed, saying he was going to grill one of his kids about where to go. This son lives up north, where a lot of the Chinese and Vietnamese places are. 

"How about Chicken Lollypop?" he asked a couple of hours later. Um, what? "Noah says it's great and he's been there a lot. It's Indian food." Okay, sure. As I have learned to do, I called up its website, which is why I know it's misspelled. Also how I knew that I had no idea what was ahead, because the menu is too small to read. But you couldn't miss those three words: "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE."

Now, I knew that fusion was the new thing. I also know that my favorite Austin South Indian vegetarian restaurant has an "Indo-Chinese" section on their menu that I always ignore. I've also seen "Szechuan sauce" in jars at my local Indian grocery store. So who knew what this was? 

The surprises didn't end there. We drove up to a strip mall. A huge convenience store shared space with a hospice. Fortunately, we were headed to the convenience store, in the back of which was a window and a menu on the wall. As it developed most people did, we hung out in front of the menu trying to make sense out of it. There were "House Signature Delights," which featured the eponymous Lollypop, spinach, and Bombay Potatoes. There were sandwiches, soups, and Naan wraps, all of which featured stuff cooked in "Shezwan" sauce. For entrees, you can get chicken, paneer (a kind of Indian cheese that doesn't melt when cooked) or shrimp, as either chili, garlic, ginger, Shezwan, Manchurian, or sweet and sour. Then there are many kinds of fried rice, more or less along the lines of the entrees, a spinach fried rice, triple Shezwan fried rice chicken or shrimp, which features "Yummy in a Separate Bowl," pav bhaji (vegetables, something called Amul butter, and pav, which appears to be a tomato concoction), and naan, which we were told by some diners we shouldn't miss. We ordered the Lollypop (of course), the spinach appetizer, spinach fried rice, garlic paneer and chili chicken. 

We then wandered the convenience store looking for drinks. It was immense. There was a decent selection of craft beers, and all manner of industrial wines, some weird alcoholic jellies, and stubby little bottles of Dublin Dr. Pepper, made in a holdout bottling plant in Dublin, Texas, that refuses to use high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. I grabbed one in solidarity: it is Labor Day Weekend, after all. Andrew got a beer, then had to put it back: they don't have a license to let you drink it. 

The food comes in round foil containers like you use for take-out. The Lollypop (four to an order) are like chicken wings: the drumlet from the wing, cut in such a way that you can jam the meat down on the bone, leaving the bone to hold it by, marinated, then probably baked. They were delicious. But, as it developed, hardly a harbinger of things to come. The spinach appetizer was also delicious and pretty copious, sauteed, the menu said, with herbs, some of which were sour. I never did figure it out, partially because it vanished so quickly. The chili chicken was in a bright red sauce with lots of vegetables. The red was, as Andrew noted, a color not found in nature, and the increasingly gelid texture of the sauce belied the presence of that ubiquitous Chinese ingredient cornstarch. For all its flamboyance, it didn't have a hell of a lot of flavor. The sauce on the garlic paneer was lightly garlicky, with herbs and vegetables in the mix, also cornstarched to within an inch of its life. The spinach fried rice, though, was lovely: covered by a thin egg pancake, the rice and spinach was complex, savory, and compulsively edible, although that might have been because the other entrees were so bad and we were hungry. The naan was a disc of cooked flour, unlike any naan I have ever had, or, I hope, ever will. 

I have no idea where this cuisine was dreamed up, although I note that the to-go menu amplifies the provenance by saying "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE MUMBAI STYLE," and I do regret the fact that in all the confusion we neglected to order a "Shezwan" dish. The man behind the window was upbeat and friendly and very concerned that we were enjoying ourselves. Twice, he noted that the spinach was local, supplied by a man in Buda, and that he went through five pounds of it a day. On the way out, the guy behind the main counter said that they were thinking of opening a place in South Austin, or perhaps downtown. I might go back and have some different stuff if so, but this was one of the most bizarre dining experiences (talking about the food, not Mr. and Mrs. Andrew) I've had in a long, long while. 

Chicken Lollypop, 1005 E. Braker Lane, Austin, 78753, 512-412-1260 or 512-909-9826 for takeout. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dog Days

It's that time again. And, inevitably, people are complaining. Look, I want to say, you knew it was Texas when you moved here. And, as summers here have gone in the recent past, it really hasn't been that bad this year. Of course, it's not over yet, either.

I used to look at the state capitol building when I lived here last and imagine the workers dealing with all that heavy stone, laying the floors, installing the woodwork, in the depth of a Texas summer. My old house had two window-unit air conditioners and there were days when I was just immobile in the living room as the unit wheezed in cold air. The kitchen didn't have one, and as I remember I ate out a lot, or else ate salads. The refrigerator worked fine; my landlord's brother owned a used appliance store. There was even an ice machine. The electric bills were frightening, especially once I went back to freelancing. The office had the other machine, so sitting in it was okay, and it connected to the sleeping porch/bedroom, a room lined with windows that was just wonderful before and after the summer and winter weather. So life wasn't too bad once you got used to not doing too much. It could have been worse: I could have been working construction.

But then I moved to a place without air conditioning entirely. You didn't need it for the 45 or so days of summer in Berlin, of course, but really, summer in southern France wasn't so bad, except maybe for a week at its height. Which would be right about now. The French cleverly invented shutters, big wooden doors that you could close without closing the windows, so that air could circulate.

The place I live now has central air/central heat, CACH, as the real-estate listings have it, and what I discovered over the winter is that the house is very well insulated. I'd unthinkingly step into the garage and suddenly it was winter, just as now I walk in there and it's like an oven. (Well, it does face east). I've got the thermostat set for 79º, which is about right. The temperature at night slips below that most of the time so that I'm not running the compressor all the time, and the well-insulated interior keeps use at a minimum, although it steps up during the afternoon.

As it should: these past couple of weeks, we've been into the three-digit range. Today's high is forecast for 102º, low of 79º. These are the dog days, the days when Sirius the dog star is above us. Might be: I rarely go out at night, and anyway, the city illumination in the distance would negate seeing it, even if I did know a damn thing about stars, which mostly I don't.

No, boy, it's not about you.
"Cane Beagle" by Ale300885 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This weather, though, has all kinds of side-effects. For one thing, it hasn't rained decently in some time. There's a general drought on, which has been going for the better part of the decade, although,  again, it's been atypically wet since I got here. I gave thought to starting a garden, or at least plants in planters, on the back deck, and a friend even presented me with four tomatillo plants he'd kind of impulse-bought during a road trip. They throve nicely (although the chile seeds I got from a friend in New Mexico never sprouted because apparently they don't in peat pots) until one day they didn't. This is something I remember from my previous residence, too. One day, the leaves start looking bad and no amount of watering will change that. In what seems like minutes (but is actually a couple of days), the whole plant goes from plasmolysis to death. Bang. 

Things aren't much better in the critter community. I was planning to write a post in which I was upbraided by the local blue jay family for writing about such lowly critters as bugs and turd-laying toads when there was such a splendid display of avian-Americans available to me. Which is true, even if the blue jays' latest family caused a bit of panic when the kids were learning the ropes and several times flew at the screen in the open window a couple of feet from my head here on the desk, but managing to grab the mesh with their claws just in time and take off again. I don't know which of us was more alarmed. When the lawn in the back yard was going, so were the bugs, including the first lightning bugs I'd seen in decades, and so were the birds eating the bugs. Corvids were popular: there were grackles, of course (Austin's famous for grackles: ask anyone with a car who's parked under a tree they use for sleep), but also cowbirds (which may or may not be corvids, but are structurally similar) and starlings. Grey doves made the scene, with their annoying cooing sounds, but also their ability, unique in the avian world, to suck up water through their beaks. No leaning back and gargling it down for them. My most treasured avian-American visitor, though, was a woodpecker of some sort -- I still haven't identified it properly -- with a body covered with bars of black and white, and a bright read topknot. His station was one of the trees, where he'd cleverly knocked a wound. The wound bled sap, the sap attracted ants, and the woodpecker had dinner. And I shouldn't neglect the cardinals, of whom I have two, male and female. At one point I thought I might have a wounded baby cardinal back there and went out to check. Nope: some bird had found a bright red cigarette lighter in the street, where it had been run over, and brought it into the yard. 

(Although there's sure no complaining about this guy, who may have been dead, for spectacular color. He landed in the driveway, shed a lot of the red, and then disappeared)

There are mammals, too: squirrels and a cat. An old cat. Black and white, and acts like he owns the neighborhood, which in some respects he does. I know when he's around because the jays tell everyone he is. I saw him just yesterday, walking stiffly across my front yard. So as to keep on the good side of my avian-American friends, I pay him no attention: no feeding the predator. 

But the weather in the past couple of weeks has cut back on all this activity. I suspect water is at the bottom of all of it: there just isn't any here because it hasn't rained. My guess is that most of the critters are hanging out near any creek or even backyard swimming pool that's got wet in it. Yesterday I almost hit a squirrel who was attempting to cross William Cannon Boulevard, a four-lane road with a center divider. He was walking oddly, and I think his tiny brain was kind of baked, but it worked well enough that, as the traffic came on, he changed his mind and went back to the starting place. I wondered what was going on, but again, the thought was water. There are no birds in the back yard, few bugs at night, the grass is largely yellow, the leaves on the trees contracted but not plasmolized. 

As the day ends, instead of the colorful sunsets of a few weeks back, we get a sort of annoying yellow light and then darkness. What it portends is the same thing the Weather Service tells me: "abundant sunshine," which sure is a nice way to put it. And hot. 

Well, I knew it was Texas when I moved here. Now for the electric bill. 

Photo by Stephen Wolfe Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I'm going to be looking out the window while writing anyway. He'll be back. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What Happens Next

One of the things I rarely do on this blog is to talk about my work life. Really: no sense in depressing you people who drop by and read this any more than is absolutely necessary. And that's really only half a joke. As the years go by, fewer paid writing gigs are available as magazines disappear and the reading public, what there is of it, begins to feel entitled to high-quality writing for nothing, just like has happened with music.

This means that those of us who want to stay alive have to either find another way to make a living (and at my age that's hard) or else figure out how to make a living off of books. And never has that latter course been harder. The small quality publishers who kept what are called mid-list writers alive over the years have been gobbled up by media conglomerates beholden to bean-counters whose only interest is the bottom line -- again, something you'll find in the music business. Hell, I believe one major publishing group is owned by a company that also includes a bunch of record companies. Structurally, it's all the same: you put out product, market it to the potential audience via targeted advertising based on research, and with luck you make a profit. Producers of product that isn't immediately profitable are let go. There's no development of talent any more: it's not cost-efficient.

Over the past five years, I've been represented by a superb literary agent at a top New York agency. Of course, during that time we've both been trying to sell something so we can each pay our rents. I came to him with a good idea, an idea he thought was good, too, but he had a word of advice. "This isn't a big book, much as I like it. You have to lead with a big book for your first book, because if you don't, there won't be a second book." And, unfortunately, I had to agree he was right. So I came up with a big book idea, or at least what I thought was one, and spent a long time researching enough of it to be able to figure out what I knew, what I needed to find out, and where what I didn't know was located. I got brilliant cooperation: my subject had somehow fallen between the cracks, and at the moment I was meeting people and doing preliminary interviews, interest had just barely started to revive. One thing I was waiting for was the publication of a catalog of a large gallery exhibit that had ignited this revival of interest. But one by one, the publishers turned us down. I went looking for a new idea. While I was looking, the catalog was published and the New York Times reviewed it, saying it was good as far as it went, but would have been greatly improved by some context. Which, of course, was what my book was: the context.

Anyway, my ship was threatening to go down, and I grabbed the first available life-preserver: do a history of rock and roll, but do it in the way I did it on my shows on Fresh Air: not so much emphasizing the big stars -- how could I possibly compete with Mark Lewisohn's immense three-volume history of the Beatles or Peter Guralnick's magisterial biography of Elvis? -- but instead concentrating on the forces within the culture and the music business as much as the individuals, successful or not, that caused things to happen.

This guy's in it
That way, I can trace the emergence of an act while talking about the other acts that were around before the name everybody recognizes got famous. Everybody talks about Elvis, Scotty and Bill mixing hillbilly and blues elements and making those trailblazing records in 1954, but not so many people realize that their fellow Memphians, the Rock and Roll Trio, the Burnette Brothers and killer guitarist Paul Burlison, who were doing this same idea earlier than Elvis.

And, as with Memphis, it's important to recognize that scenes existed, and the ambiance they created gave birth to lots of ideas as people explored ways of making music. Long before NWA were conceived, South Central was a maelstrom of musical activity, much of which is well worth your attention even today.

So's she
The problem was, in order to lay this out, I wrote a book proposal that was very, very long. I don't know that this is the case, but I suspect most of the editors took a casual look, said "Ho hum, another rock history book," and passed. The idea that my radio stuff is on a program with 4.5 million listeners, and that my archive gets 20,000 hits each time I have a piece on the air didn't seem to resonate with anyone. Me, if I were in the publishing biz and was approached by a guy with numbers like that, I'd sign him even if the book didn't seem like much. After all, do you know how many books you have to sell to make the Times best-seller list? If you're used to record-biz numbers, you'll be amazed. A friend who's taught journalism told me that one of his mentors when he was coming up told him "The publishing business understands everything but readers." Ain't that the case, though?

Two editors got it. One I talked to and he was totally on board. He went to the suits in his company and they told him it was "too ambitious." (Now there's two words people rarely use when they're talking about me!) The second guy wanted me to write a book he had in mind, but that book seemed to be one that had already been written. Not only that, but it was first published in 1984 and is still in print. That alone is a miracle. And it was too bad: this guy had no suits to report to. He was the suit.  I don't follow the publishing industry, but if I did I'd have known that he's a legend, and that a major publisher had just given him his own imprint to do with as he wanted (well, within reason). But...not gonna happen.

Except it did. Unknown to me, a friend in Oakland who had a book deal had that deal with this guy. And they'd talked a lot. The guy's daughter was going to school in Oakland, the publisher went out to visit her and hung out with his author, the author mentioned that it was too bad he wasn't going to do my book and the publisher agreed. "Why don't you split the book in half," my friend suggested, "and let the first part build the audience for the second part?" "Oh, man," the guy said, "why didn't I think of that?" E-mails flew between Austin and Oakland and New York, a phone call hashed out the details, the agent and the publisher traded facts and figures and...last Tuesday we all reached a deal.

And these guys will damn sure be in it!
It's a real good deal, the money will be enough to pay the rent during the year I have to write this first volume (the second volume is another thing entirely, and we're not even talking about it yet), but not enough that my lifestyle will change noticeably to anyone who isn't my landlord, who will be very gratified to get a check on the first of the month. I'm hardly going to get extravagant, but I am going to celebrate when the check clears the bank by buying a ticket to New York, spending a day hitting the museums, and then getting on a train for Montreal, where I'll spend a few days before heading back. I don't like to use the word "deserve," but I do need a break from Austin.

* * *
There's even a weird postscript to this. About a year ago, the guy who owns the rights to a book I did in 1983 called Michael Bloomfield: the Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero got in touch because he wanted to do it as an e-book. Since my relationship with him has always been a bit touchy (the book was in print for three weeks, and ever since I found out it was out of print and going for ridiculous amounts on the rare book market I'd been asking him to reprint it, and he'd refused), I insisted my agent be involved in any dealings. He reluctantly agreed, and we signed an agreement splitting everything 50/50. And there it sat. 

He gets his own book.

After the rock and roll book looked dead, my agent sent the Bloomfield book around -- I'd revised the text, although it needs a bit more work -- and, to everyone's surprise, got a bite. The day after we'd made our deal for the rock and roll book, he was offered a concrete deal for the Bloomfield book! That was last Wednesday. "What are we going to do tomorrow?" he asked me. The movie! The movie! (Although too bad Philip Seymour Hoffman's not around to play me...)

So it'll be a notch above broke not poor around here, but I'll still be the same old me, and you can count on the blog continuing, especially once I get some needed repairs done on the car and can drive around central Texas and over to Louisiana to visit my favorite smokehouses for some sausage and tasso. Stick around: this should get interesting. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Edontic Gourmet

Or, what to eat when you ain't got no teeth.

Actually, I used to have a corkboard above my desk in Berlin, on which were tacked a bunch of weird items, including the business card for a business called No Teeth Bar-B-Q, discovered by a friend of mine driving to Austin to visit me. He made me curious enough that we drove out there and sampled the man's wares. Yes, it was soft. Yes, it was tasty. We gorged ourselves and drove back to town, by which time I was sweating copiously and deeply in need of something to drink: the meat was just laden with MSG, to which I don't react real well. But I had his business card, and loved his motto: "You don't need teeth to eat my beef."

It's been a while since I ate barbeque, although I did go to Franklin's earlier this year and the brisket there was almost no-teeth soft. And I'm hoping to check out some of the so-called also-rans here in Austin when I have money and time to do it now that I do, sort of, have teeth. But let's start at the beginning, where we left off the last post.

I had to pick up some prescriptions after the extraction, and a friend of mine drove me to Costco, near my house. There's a Whole Foods in the same shopping center, so, still mopping the occasional drool of blood (and, I'm sure, terrifying the patrons) and still semi-stoned from the anaesthetic, I walked in while I waited for the pharmacist to fill my order. Right inside the entrance to the fruit and vegetable department was the juices and smoothies department. Aha! Something for when I got home! Then I drifted over to the soup aisle, which was pretty well stocked, and bought a small box of black bean soup, remembering that that was an item I liked cold. There was dinner.

Except...not. Whatever fruit juice-combo-drink I'd bought ($4) was just what the doctor ordered, but the black bean soup turned out to be, um, full of beans. Imagine a delicious puree of well-seasoned black beans with BBs floating in it. I swallowed the liquid. I couldn't do a damn thing with the rest, the lovely new teeth in my mouth notwithstanding.

For breakfast the next morning, I think I'd bought a Bolthouse Farms Breakfast Smoothie, strawberry flavor ($4, also available in peach). It was fantastic. Fortunately, Costco hadn't been able to fill my complete prescription the day before, and a friend offered to drive me back. So I did the same routine, with the previous day's experience in mind. First I got some more stuff from the cooler, and then I went to the soup aisle, where I paid more attention to the one-quart boxes of creamed soups. There was no difference in price, so I grabbed a couple made by a company called Imagine and tried not to think about John Lennon. As I stood in line waiting to pay for the bottled drinks ($4 each) and a couple of boxes of soup ($4.69 each), I thought back to the Monoprix I used to shop at in Montpellier, cruising its aisles and thinking about stuff I could probably eat there. One big item was brandade de morue, which is essentially whipped potatoes with onions and desalinated salt cod, a local specialty that's way better than it sounds, especially after it's been stuck in the oven briefly to brown the top. There were bunches of cold soups sold in glass, most of which I'd never tried. There was also a variety of puréed vegetables sold in plastic trays by Bonduelle, the French agribiz giant. I would think of them again.

It took a long time for me to get used to the new teeth. I had an appointment for a week after the extraction, and I was gratified that the blood was gone fairly quickly, but there were other pains. The dentures cut into my gums something fierce. Thursday night, I woke up with adrenaline coursing through my blood, my tongue working furiously at the lower denture. No biggie: it had just hit a sore place, but it had done so when I was asleep, hence the panic. It took me hours to get back to sleep. Of course, the dentist's office was closed on Friday, and all weekend, but I was back on Monday, and some adjustments were made.

Meanwhile, I wasn't enjoying dinner much. My routine was a Bolthouse product most days for breakfast, occasionally supplemented by another brand I can't remember that's not as good and costs $4.95 at Central Market, and a Thai-style iced coffee, brewed the night before so it would be room temp when I woke up. Because the nearest Chinese/Asian market is miles and miles from my house in North Austin, I didn't use authentic Longevity Brand condensed milk, but it was pretty tasty anyway, and experience showed that I wasn't ready for anything hot in my mouth yet. Downside was a sugar rush that I was afraid would kill me. Lunch was another fruit-juice combo ($4), and dinner another creamed soup. The good news was, there were lots of varieties of creamed soup, but the bad news was they weren't always good. The Imagine soups mentioned they were low sodium, which is good because as anybody who reads labels knows, most canned soups are MSG-rich. Having forgotten the very rudiments of chemistry, though, I was surprised that adding a touch of salt to the soups didn't work. No, stupid: they have to be heated or the salt will just sit there in discrete pieces instead of seasoning the liquid.

Fortunately, I discovered that there was a brand that was, compared to Campbell's, low in sodium, but actually contained enough salt to be tasty. I was already aware of Pacific because I discovered they sell chicken broth in a four-pack of 8 oz. boxes, close to the boxes of chicken broth I'd had to go all the way to Spain for when I lived in France. But it turned out that they had a whole range of boxed "creamy" soups, most of which worked cold. Especially good were the spicy black bean and curried red lentil soups. Then there was another stroke of good luck: I had to visit my GP to get some blood pressure meds refilled, and since he's quite near Trader Joe's I went over there to see what they had. What they had was the best soups I found during this whole episode. There's no question that Trader Joe's Latin-Style Black Bean Soup and Trader Joe's Creamy Corn and Red Pepper Soup lead the pack. They're also $2.95 each, which made me regret not picking up more: it's at least 20 minutes to and from that shopping center, depending on traffic.

But good or bad, I was getting tired of creamed soup, Bolthouse smoothies, and Thai iced coffee. Finally, I snapped. I poured a bowl of cornflakes, added some milk, and let it sit a while. If you would like to replicate what happened next, simply insert a wine glass into your mouth, bite down hard, and chew. Even soggy cornflakes were too much. Fortunately, there was a smoothie in the refrigerator. But that was beginning to piss me off, too: berries of every description were showing up in the markets. How much could it cost to make a smoothie? How hard could it be? I asked around to find out how to do it, and once I eliminated the recipes with kale (don't get me started), I had a formula. And, one trip to Target and $25 later (seven Bolthouse bottles, I figured), I had a blender with a special smoothie function. Then I went and bought some strawberries, some blueberries, some bananas (for texture), organic plain yogurt, and some wheat germ, figuring that was the "whole grain," or close enough, that I liked in the Bolthouse drinks. Thus:

1 part ice cubes
2 parts fruit (includes banana)
1 part orange juice or milk
1 part yogurt
1 tsp - 1 Tbsp wheat germ or protein powder or whatever

Put the ice cubes and the frozen banana in first, then the liquid, then the rest of the fruit, the yogurt, and the grains. Whiz until blended.

Chef's notes: The flavor of bananas is extremely pervasive. Half a banana is plenty. Don't forget the wheat germ or you'll have trouble later. Ignore that strange odor when the machine is working. All electric motors make it when they're getting broken in. Also when they die.

Taster's notes: It appears that all supermarket fruit is made out of cardboard except for Fredricksburg peaches, which are as local as they come. It is currently peach season.

But it's also five weeks since the operation, and I've been pushing solid food on myself bit by bit. Early on, I bought a tiny amount of pasta salad at Whole Foods. I knew it would taste awful -- their prepared food is horrendous, which is a new phenomenon -- but I had to try. First was a pasta salad. Not quite glass shards, but lots of pain. And a tiny cube of cucumber -- aiee! So that was out for a while. The gaspacho at the soup bar at Central Market, too, had those cuke cubes, but I got it a few days later, and managed to make my way through it. (Note to self: make some of that creamy God's Pacho before all the local tomatoes burn up). Then one day I was at Whole Foods and noticed a whole array of those Indian dishes that come in thick metal-foil envelopes and can be microwaved or heated in a pan, and I noticed that one of them was dal makhani, one of my favorites ever since I first had it at Gaylord's Restaurant in San Francisco 40 years ago. Surely I can do this, I thought. I took it home, zapped it in the microwave and was through it before I'd realized that this was the first solid food I'd had in a long, long time.

I'm quite sure I'd have gone to the local Indian supermarket for more (there are dozens of brands and dozens of dishes available, and they're good to have around the house for those days when you're utterly uninspired or haven't had time to shop), but this set off an overwhelming urge to cook my own food. First off was...let's see, what's not very chewy? Eggplant! So a portion of Fuchsia Dunlop's reliable Fish-Fragrant Eggplant (total cost: $2, with leftovers for a lunch) served on rice. I chewed oddly, but there was no other problem: I had conquered something at last. Since then, I've been gingerly easing back into action with Chinese and Indian dishes, pasta (which I overcook slightly), hot dogs and potato salad (Sabrett's, available at Central Market! A taste of home!), and my famous hamburger curry. I suffered through a loaf of bread for toast -- that's not quite ready -- and yet now I can deal with cornflakes. Coffee's been hot for some time. One lunchtime, I took a bag of Gaytan White Cheddar cheese puffs -- bigger, thicker, and airier than a Chee-to -- and carefully ate half of it. Verrry carefully.

It seems to me that the way to deal with this is to push the limits as often as I can (and go back to the dentist for adjustments, the next of which happens tomorrow) and accept defeat when it happens: this weekend a friend and I stopped into a place in Austin's Chinatown shopping center for some báhn mì, that irresistable Vietnamese sandwich that people love because it almost always is made with the best baguette in town (secret: if you don't like the local baguettes, see if there's a Vietnamese bakery nearby). I was defeated by half of mine, but I also realized this won't always be the case (at which point I'll go back and get one at Tâm Deli, where they're much better than at this place). Some day, I hope, I'll be eating like a normal human being again. And if I'm eating cold cream soup then, it'll be because I want to, dammit.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Travails of Toothless Ed

At first, unbearable pain sent me to a dentist in Berlin, Dr. Basic. Which is how the friends who took me there pronounced his name, like basic training or something. But when he talked, it was obvious that he was from Eastern Europe and his name was really pronounced BAH-sitch. His office was scary. So was what he said to me.

"There will be danger. There must be danger." I didn't like the sound of that. I stayed just long enough to ascertain that it was his accent. The word was "dentures."

But, at that time, there would be no danger, and no dentures. There was no money, and even scary Eastern European dentists in bad neighborhoods in Berlin have to get money for their services.

Then the pain got worse. Somehow I was referred to another dentist, an Australian in a somewhat better neighborhood. It was between him and an Orthodox Jewish woman in a really bad neighborhood -- hell, I used to live there -- who'd gone to the same dental school as my maternal grandfather (just joking about the bad neighborhood, folks). What they all had in common was that they spoke English, something I require for overseas medical problems whenever possible.

The Australian's was the highest-tech dentist's office I'd ever seen. We did X-rays and I handed him my Röntgen-Karte, a government document that keeps track of how much radiation you've absorbed. He looked at the results. "See this here?" he said, noting some white clouds where my gums were. "That's pus, and it could go any minute, into your bloodstream, into your heart or your brain and bingo! You're dead!" The solution, it appeared, was to get rid of the rotten teeth that were causing it to exist. He gave me a quote. Okay, let's do it.

There are neighborhoods in Berlin that go on and on and contain nothing edifying. Kebab stands, hairdressers, bars, dentist's offices. That's where he was, a subway ride with transfer and another transfer to a bus. No particular landmarks. Just undifferentiated ugliness, with him somewhere in it. He'd given me a prescription for some kind of antibiotic to clear up some of the infection, which meant that on my first date with the woman who was to become known as Lady Drunkula, I had to abstain. (You know the type: only drinks white wine because you can't be an alcoholic if you only drink white wine, right?) So when that was over, I made my way back to his office, my pockets stuffed with €50 notes. It was time.

He prepared a couple of needles. "This," he told me, "is a great anaesthetic. Developed in Finland. You Yanks can't get it. FDA hasn't approved it. Fools." But it was. Seconds later, my entire head was numb, but I was perfectly conscious. "Right," said the doctor. "Let's see the money." That was rather abrupt, but I pulled it out of my pocket and he snatched it from me. He snapped each bill from the roll, loudly, and held it up to the light. Then he did it again. And a third time. He handed two of them back to me. "Here. A discount for cash." And without changing his rubber gloves, he got to work. It was amazing.

Close your fist around a finger. Pull the finger out. That's what it felt like. Seven? Eight? I don't know how many teeth he pulled. Once I felt a twinge of pain. But just a twinge. The teeth were gone. Then I chomped down on some goo. "You'll have to do without your teeth for a couple of days, but we'll have your bridge ready by the end of the week, so I'll make you an appointment and you can come in and we'll get you straight." So I left, numb head and all, waited for the bus, got on, made my transfers and soon enough I was home. A couple of days later, I went in, he looped some metal around two of my molars, and there were my falsies. We shook hands and I was out the door.

Over the weekend, they snapped in two. I called him on Monday. "Get in here," he growled. He was livid. Unbelievably angry. He took the bridge, disappeared for a while and came back. "Here, this'll work. I don't want to see you here again." Fair enough: this one held except for one tooth that snapped out. I could deal with that. I was more concerned with my growing relationship with Lady Drunkula, anyway. She lived right around the corner. "Plastic teeth," I warned her before the first time we kissed. "Aaaah, I've dated older men before. C'mere."

The teeth worked out far better than the relationship. At least they hung around and never tried to kill me. About six months later, I got a postcard with Garfield on it. It was from the Australian's partner, Dr. Schreck. (This was another thing that gave me pause about him: Schreck means horror in German. The star of the incredibly creepy 1921 German vampire film Nosferatu was Max Schreck, which I'd always figured was a made-up name to capitalize on his role in the film, but it was apparently his real name!) It reminded me it was time for my checkup, which I didn't remember having been told about, and a subsequent check revealed that the Australian had vanished utterly.

The teeth and I got along well for the next few years, but I knew there was more disease to deal with. I had other things on my mind, though, not least of which was leaving Germany for France. Of course, as this blog has documented, not long after I got there, I lost my sense of taste and smell to some sinus polyps, brilliantly diagnosed and treated (although it took a year to get back to normal) by the great Dr. Jean-Claude Marrache. In 2013, though, I had a recurrence and went back to see him. He wrote a prescription, said "I guarantee you'll be back to normal in 48 hours" (it turned out to be more like four), and, when I asked him if there were any relationship between the gum infection and my problem he paused a moment and then said "Duh." He sat down and wrote a name and an address on a scrap of paper. "This guy's office is literally around the corner from you, and he's a friend of mine. Every year he goes to America and rides a Harley down Route 66, so I assume he speaks English."

But I'd already decided to move back. A couple of years ago, unfortunately, both of the molars anchoring the bridge had fallen out, so I had to be careful eating. Then two upper teeth began to hurt and push themelves out. I looked awful. Then I moved and one day one of the uppers fell out at my desk. The next morning, the other fell into my orange juice with a pretty clink as it hit the glass. I now looked like someone's meth-addicted hillbilly cousin.

This was me on Sunday. I had an appointment on Monday. Just in time: I had another tooth threatening to leave, I had only two teeth to chew with, and I was a mess. I had been to see Dr. Shane Matt and his crew,  bit down on some allegedly blueberry-flavored gunk several times and waited over a month for some dentures to be made. I was about to lose every tooth in my head, and I was glad.

I won't pretend it was fun. It was worse than the Berlin experience because some of the teeth really, really didn't want to come. A couple shattered. And when it was over, they slapped some dentures on me. A friend came and drove me to Costco to buy the antibiotics and pain-pills I'd been prescribed, and I was drooling blood all the way. Naturally, they didn't have the pills ready, so I wandered over to Whole Foods next door to see what was available in terms of bottled smoothies. Some good stuff, actually. A company with the unpromising name of Bolthouse Farms makes interesting combinations, like the breakfast smoothie I had this morning. A company named Evolution Fresh makes a delicious product called Protein Power that I bought despite the note from the founder, one Jimmy, on the side which says, in part, "You deserve to drink something you feel good about, because it makes you feel good." Nobody who puts something that stupid on packages of his product deserves to get rich.

Yes, I'm drinking three meals a day, dammit. (Please spare me the jokes.) My gums are swollen, the teeth don't fit quite right, and more importantly they don't meet right, which means I can't chew. Biting, too, isn't going to happen for a while because of tenderness. It pisses me off: the refrigerator is filled with leftovers of Indian, Chinese, and Italian food I'm going to have to throw out because no way I'll ever get to them in time. But I keep telling myself I'll be able to eat stuff I haven't been able to eat in years -- this story began over ten years ago, after all -- and that's going to make a difference. And hell, I might just be losing weight with all these damn smoothies and stuff.

But although I'm not any prettier, I do know I'm already healthier: all my nose issues have started clearing up ("Duh" -- thanks, Dr. Marrache) and my digestion will improve once I can chew thoroughly again.

Definitely no prettier
I appreciate having friends close enough by that they haven't minded taking me to the dentist's office and shopping for liquid food, and once I'm cooking real food again, they'll be glad they did. As for me, I gotta go slosh some saline solution around my mouth again and take another antibiotic.
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