It is late autumn, the aspen have turned. We crest the summit of the pass.
A strong tailwind pushes us as we begin our descent.
My new name, according to my wife, Kathy.
I come by the first name following a visit to a Russian market in Denver.
My new surname is prompted during a road trip with extended hours at the wheel, and ill-fitted underwear. As a man gets old, precious body parts sag, and when caught up by similarly sagging inner thighs and fabric…
Kathy prefers the surname Balsac. Her spelling is intentional, the alteration and barely hidden reference there for anyone in the know. It reflects her sense of humor, as well as a deep immersion in classic French literature (read in French) during her student years. She likes to trumpet her scholarship and language skills at car repair shops, high school sporting events, social gatherings, and funerals. She is able to correct me when, in France, I mistakenly order dog butt terrine at a restaurant.
In addition to speaking and reading four languages, and working as a professional pianist and teacher, Kathy is also adept at creating tension when it is time to travel.
I mention the night before we depart for Denver that we should leave Siberia With a View by 9 a.m., but Kathy is adamant, demanding we evacuate by 8 a.m., “at the latest.”
I am ordered, “not to dawdle, like you always do.”
It is 9:30 a.m. before Kathy is able to gather her gear, pack her essentials (it seems she’s making a transatlantic ocean crossing) put sliced apples and pistachios in a bag to consume “in case my blood sugar dips,” and find her way to the car.
We stop at the local bakery so Kathy can load up on decaf; we order and eat breakfast, because, she says with a sweeping hand gesture toward an empty table, “why not, we’re already here.”
We cross the town boundary, and motor east toward Wolf Creek Pass and the Continental Divide at 10:45.
I’m in a hurry, I’m agitated: I contacted my friend Jim and arranged for a visit at his home west of Denver, and he’s expecting us.
Jim is the legendary “Jim Steele,” the frenetic sales genius who forty years ago joins with me (Alvin “call me Al” DeTerio), and the late Kip Farris (Spazzio Spazzaturra), to create the notorious, first-year of the Rocky Mountain Oyster – Denver’s short-lived, weekly satirical smut sheet.
Spazio jumps ship early, but Steele and DeTerio go on to carve a trench through Denver’s Sleazeville, foisting the tabloid on club owners, adult bookstore proprietors, pimps and madams, freelance hookers, the operators of massage parlors and other advertisers, as well as a multitude of readers huddled, tools in hand, in hovels from Fort Collins to Pueblo and west to Grand Junction.
The first Oysters include hallucinatory copy cranked out by DeTerio (as well as under my other pseudonyms – Merle Box, Carla Fursberg, and Renata Santini), and ads for cheap, mail order sex toys, some of which promise electrocution to the simps who use them while driving. There is a warning printed on the AutoSuck package, and it is shocking to learn how many guys plug their plastic pal into a car’s cigarette lighter, then spill a Slushee in their laps during a spasm at a stoplight. One such disaster is detailed in a Page 10 story in Denver’s morning daily.
Our rag also features a personal ad section that connects avid sybarites of all stripes, promoting in-home events as well as swingers’ clubs (under no circumstances should you use the hot tub at one of these joints, and it is wise to steer clear of anyone wearing a fake Egyptian serpent arm bracelet).
Steele and DeTerio get sideways with both the authorities and the lawless, teeter at the edge of major legal confrontations with the City and County of Denver, know a legion’s worth of unsavory and dangerous characters, stroll into too many potentially injurious situations, and pay bills with the quarters collected from news boxes scattered across the region, all the while staying baked to the tits on a variety of intoxicants, eating lunches on trade-outs with bars, and generally having a ripping good, deranged time. There’s little profit involved in the enterprise, but there is a shitload of interesting fun to be had.
We part ways when we sell the Oyster to people who take it seriously, and conduct their business without senses of humor, the louts fueled by fewer stimulants, but far greater greed. It is the end of a unique experiment, for the tab, and for us.
Jim moves on to sell things, create and manage businesses, and make a ton of money. He ends up running a Fortune 500 company, is named to an industry Hall of Fame (he gets a snazzy trophy) and retires at age 49, financially secure from that point on. He paves his own road, and steers his way to enormous success.
I go into exile, and am lucky to secure a minimum Social Security check when I come of age.
Jim heads for the big time; I head for Siberia With a View.
Jim says, “I can monetize anything.”
I say: “I can’t. Not even money.”
Jim and I have stayed in touch via e-mail for some time now, but we have not been together for nearly four decades.
We are the ideal team for the project years ago. Now, it’s time to gather the team for a reunion.
He e-mails me the day before I travel, and asks if I’m up for a 2010 Barolo.
It is definitely time for a visit. The man knows his wine.
If there were an awards ceremony for a Nobel prize for smutty satire, we could hold our reunion in Stockholm, with King What’s-His-Name in attendance to laud us for our accomplishments in his disjointed and heavily-accented fashion. As it is, there will be no medals, no rented formal wear or decrepit royals doddering about the venue in the company of small dogs and sycophants. The living room in a house in the mountains west of Denver will have to do.
Jim and I suffer cases of metastasized prostate cancer, his more profound than mine, so we have things to talk about right off the bat; old farts love to exchange descriptions of their maladies and ordeals. Who’s suffered the most, and the most often? What is your experience with avaricious oncologists, insurance companies, probes and catheters?
We chat briefly about tests and treatments, discuss rectal adventures, the surgeon’s blade, chemo and radiation, then stop.There are better things to do.
As in to reminisce, eat the snacks Jim prepares (including chilled shrimps to dip in his homemade black garlic sauce) and drink a bottle and a half of Barolo. We recall some of our escapades, tell stories about the people we knew, the places we went together. It makes for a wonderful afternoon.
Jim tells the best story of the day, recalling his plan for department store Christmas windows. The story conveys the essence of most of our dealings during our time together.
In Denver, as in most major cities in days gone by, the downtown department stores make a big show of decorating first-floor windows with elaborate, holiday-themed scenes – snowy landscapes featuring fluffy bunnies, friendly polar bears, and ecstatic kiddies with sleds; Santa’s workshop; the family living room, sparkly with colorful lights, gifts stacked beneath the tree, a plate of cookies, one of the treats half-eaten by Saint Nick before the old rascal wedges himself up the chimney, on his way to visit millions of other (Christian) boys and girls around the world.
People by the thousands trek downtown to check the windows at the May Company, Denver Dry Goods, Joslins, Daniels and Fisher, and others.
We’re loitering one day in the art gallery and studio Kip and I operate, when Jim has an idea. He is good at ideas.
He and I remember his scheme as we drink the Barolo and devour the shrimps. Kathy listens, and cringes.
“I realize the window decorators are stuck with the idea of a small scene,” Jim says. “My approach was to use consecutive windows to display separate elements in a longer story, like the panels in a comic strip. Hell, they had the mannikins, they had the supplies, all they needed was a new and exciting concept. Seemed like a winner to me.”
Jim provides that new and exciting concept: a series of four or five adjacent windows detailing the phases of a violent car crash that takes place at the peak of the holiday season.
“Fucking brilliant,” I say, recalling the day he came up with his plan. I couldn’t participate at the time, since I was deep into writing a lengthy piece about Al DeTerio and his plump and comely wife, Carmen. The couple was kidnapped by a deranged Lutheran minister and a gang of sadomasochistic lesbian parishioners, the coosome twosome imprisoned in a reinforced refrigerator box in the church basement, their cardboard cell guarded by three, vicious Rottweilers – all with AKC papers, all from the same litter.
I peel another shrimp. I dip. I eat. I listen. Kathy cringes.
“I went to the woman in charge of window decoration at Denver Dry Goods,” remembers Jim, “and I give her the general idea: a sequence that tells a holiday story of a middle class family taking a car trip, going to grandma’s house for Christmas dinner. I tell her the display will revolutionize the genre, destroy the competition, crowds will flock to the windows. She will be a hero, hailed as an innovator, earn a promotion. Of course, I don’t reveal the details right away: the car crash, the bodies, the broken glass, the blood, the crumpled packages and torn wrapping paper, the store Santa and his helpers who die in an intersection during their cigarette break. I tell her I’ll be back with the full plan, drawings and all. She’s excited, she buys in.”
Jim returns from his meeting and, later that day, after loitering for a bit, Kips washes down a bunch of cheap Mexican whites and gets to work with pen and ink. The drawings depicting the scene in each window are spectacular, albeit decidedly surrealistic. Jim takes Kip and the drawings to the store for a meeting the next morning.
A bit of back story: Kip, in his prime, is an irresistible sexual magnet, an Adonis. The man is beautiful, inciting lustful thoughts in young and old, male, female, mixed, fluid, confused, etc.
The window woman goes to pieces when she encounters Kip; her adrenal glands kick into overdrive and blind her to the idea, the designs, the inevitable reactions of her superiors. She’s like a victim of blunt force brain trauma, dazzled and dizzy, prey to wild emotional swings; her system floods with propulsive hormones, her forehead glistens with a sheen of sweat.
The prospect of a rousing Farris fuckfest totally distorts the gal’s judgment; heat rises in her loins, she experiences strange reactions in and very near her birth canal, she hustles the plan and drawings to her bosses, anticipating nocturnal bliss in the company of Adonis.
She is dismissed later that day.
“So much for that,” says Jim as he completes the tale. “Damn, we were so far ahead of the times, weren’t we, in so many ways?”
“Indeed,” I reply. “It was a dandy, and it has staying power. It would be a hit today, if there were still department stores in downtown Denver.”
Jim and I laugh as we recall the Oyster “office.” Kathy cringes.
Our headquarters is located in a long, narrow space divided into a small front section and a large back room. It is on the first floor of Denver’s largest and most successful topless/bottomless club, the showroom and its stages on the other side of one of the office walls. The back room is fitted with gold cherub light fixtures, the walls covered with red shag carpet. The walls move with the sound of disco music, the floor vibrates.
“Shake your groove thing, shake your groove thing, yeah, yeah…”
“Aaahh freak out! Le Freak, c’est chic, Freak out…”
It never ceases. Eventually, though, like someone living beneath the airport runway, we are able to ignore the noise.
The club manager has an office down a short hall, and unclad, bored personnel traipse around during business hours, often straying into The Oyster space. The club’s manager, Danny, is a precursor of our current president – a large brute insensitive to any thoughts or needs other than his own, a lout wearing a Krugerrand on a gold chain draped around his neck.
One day, Danny closes the door to his room, sticks the barrel of a .38 in his mouth, and pulls the trigger.
I attribute this to the pressure of too many nude women on an ill-formed man’s mind.
By its nature, the skin trade requires that Danny and others like him, including the customers at the club, regard women as passive, willing recipients of adolescent male fantasies. The truth: on the rare occasion a connection takes place, the notion collapses. In Danny’s case, the clod has a short-lived dalliance with a dancer named Starlet (real name Dolores) and he is unprepared to move on to cooperative intimacy.
Starlet/Dolores seeks more than a Krugerrand on a chain.
But, with Danny – a crushing, narcissistic bore, like our current president – that is all there is.
Starlet/Dolores moves on.
Danny’s stunted sense of self worth collapses, overwhelmed by the superficial clutter and confusions that pass for substance in an amoral environment. He has no anchor, and he is blown from the shallow harbor.
It takes the maintenance crew at the club a week to tidy up.
As we snack and sip, we also remember Nikki Trickey, an outcall specialist who offers us sex in return for ads. We decline. We have a rule about such things – no sex with sleazoids – and we stick to it, with her, with anyone. How we do this, given our conditions at the time, I don’t know.
Her move thwarted, Nikki is invited to be The Oyster Girl, and she poses for an in-house pitch wearing only a pair of five-inch platform shoes and a clumsily-inked Playboy Bunny tattoo on her abdomen, stretching out languorously on a huge pile of Oysters.
She’s energetic (coke does that to a person) so we task Nikki with delivering some ad proofs to local businesses. She returns from her rounds the first day in her Buick Skylark convertible, the car lacking a hood, hood brackets standing straight up as signals of her expertise, and she is excited.
“I gave the stuff to the guy at the tire store,” she tells us, “and he really likes me. You guys need snow tires? I can trade him for a set, and it won’t take me any time at all, from the looks of him. It’s a real deal!”
The next day, she staggers into the office, and collapses on a chair, wiping her forehead with the back of a hand.
“Whew … hey, can you help me carry something? I got down behind the counter at a liquor store and blew the owner while he waited on people, and he gave me a case of vodka after he shot his load. You like vodka? We need to get the case outta the trunk. If you like bourbon better than vodka, I can go back tomorrow. Won’t take any time at all.”
Nikki aims to work full time for us, but the challenge is too great – not for her, but for us. We let her go, and she wobbles out of the office on her platforms, enveloped in a cloud of Avon Sweet Honesty vapor, sassily tossing her blond “just like Dorothy Hamil” hair, wearing a small tube top, her snow-white ass cheeks tumbling out the bottom of her red vinyl short shorts. She gives us the finger over the shoulder as she leaves.
Nikki is in love with a woman who runs the rental shoe counter at a popular Denver bowling alley (“easy pickings on league night”) and the two are soon swept from town by a tsunami of desire and dreams. They later rob a rural bank in Oregon, are arrested and convicted, and sent to a federal pen.
Love can make a fool of any of us, if we’re not careful.
We snack and sip, and recall Reverend Rodney, our commission-only ad salesman.
Kathy remembers him as well. She cringes.
Rodney is a perilously thin geek with a sparse mustache who wears a black suit coat, black pants, a gray shirt, and a clerical collar – interesting and somewhat self-defeating garb for a guy who spends his days hustling ads in massage parlors, strip clubs, and porn shops.
The Rev drives a rust-blighted Opel-GT convertible that burns four quarts of oil per week, leaving a black cloud of smoke behind it whenever he accelerates. Rodney is hyperactive, with a mean case of The Jits. These days, he’d be diagnosed as “bi-polar,” cozied up to one pole. But, we like him, and keep him around for a time.
Rodney is no Jim.
Jim can sell anything, to anyone.
Rodney can’t. He’s distracted. And he’s got The Jits.
Rodney is busy working on a “career” as a standup comic, and he tries his “bits” on us when Jim and I aren’t watching The Gong Show on TV – our second favorite activity while loitering, the first being the consumption of high-grade Thai weed. The Rev stands in front of my desk after he drops his latest shtick, like a puppy craving an ear scratch, a tummy rub and a treat.
He is not funny, and is regularly booed off the local comedy club stage on open mic night, but he is undeterred. And relentlessly delusional.
I imagine, if he is still alive, Reverend Rodney is the overnight desk clerk at a budget motel somewhere in western Nebraska, holding the line with the help of major league prescription meds, handing out stale cookies to traveling frackers, and telling guests about the “free continental breakfast” available in the “courtesy area” every morning from 7 to 10 a.m.
We remember these people and others as we sit in Jim’s living room, sipping, mining names from our pasts, describing places and incidents. Eating shrimps. Cringing.
It comes time to leave. Our day grows short.
We’ve got plenty more to review, and we promise to do it again. The next trip to Denver, I’ll stop in. I want to. I need to.
Jim says he’ll cook some “DeBragga” – one of the cuts of top-quality meat he orders from a world class purveyor of animal tissue in New Jersey. He regularly consults with his pal, Lydia, DeBragga’s head chef. I like Lydia: she once gave me inviolable directions on how to cook a 12-oz Japanese Miyazaki Wagyu steak Jim sent me Fed Ex. Lydia is a good person to know, meatwise, and she is a beekeeper when she’s not on the job at DeBragga. Beekeepers are special people. If they are chefs, all the better.
As Kathy and I leave, Jim stands in the door and waves, then hustles inside, no doubt to pee. That’s the prostate for you.
We drive on to Denver. My ball sack problem flares again, a few miles into the journey. Kathy tires of hearing about it. She cringes.
The next morning, Kathy takes off to shop at shoe stores and Big Box emporiums, and at her favorite stop, Nordstrom Rack. She’s like a devotee visiting a holy site, the difference being that the religious pilgrim doesn’t purchase the relics and take them home.
Ball sack chafed, I hook up with my brother, Kurt.
Kurt has prepared an itinerary. He may be plodding forward with a half of a heart, his pump ready to cease beating at any moment, but my brother is undeterred by his condition: we are going to eat some really good stuff, he says, and buy some other really good stuff to cook and eat at a later date.
He drives. I stay alert, ready to grab the steering wheel should he expire at 45 mph.
First stop: a trendy butcher shop located in what recent arrivals to the city deem “LoHi.” In the old days, before the horde swarmed and the area was gentrified, we natives knew the area as merely one neighborhood in “North Denver.” Being from South Denver, the north side was somewhere we went carefully, and only if necessary, perhaps to Mancinelli’s, maybe to Carbone’s, Patsy’s, or Pagliacci’s, but always carefully. We never went to the Frosted Scotchman: if we did, we would be murdered in awful fashion, and all that would be found would be scraps of clothing and grease stains on the pavement.
Now, LoHi and much of the rest of North Denver is overrun by fuck face goofs. The danger and fun are gone. Artifice prevails.
For example: we come upon a group of five or six middle-age white male jerkoffs riding ridiculous scooters, kids’ scooters with little motors, slaloming down the middle of a busy thoroughfare, cars backed up behind them. The jerkoffs sparkle with privilege glitter, thinking themselves entitled by race and income to amusements at the expense of others, each of them smugly self-absorbed. Each wears a cap advertising one fly fishing enterprise or another, several wear sandals, with socks. They laugh and smirk as only fuck face jerkoffs can.
I shout a few obscenities out the open passenger window, then urge my brother to run the pinheads to the curb and leave them broken, in bloody piles in the gutter, like Santa and his helpers in Jim’s car crash scene. Kurt considers the idea, but we reach our turn before he can follow through.
Another day, perhaps, we’ll schedule a fuck face safari, and bag our quota. The hats will look great on the mantlepiece, and will be an effective conversation starter during the cocktail hour.
The butcher shop is small, overseen by a muscled young woman sporting plentiful tattoos. Her demeanor indicates an intimate familiarity with animal parts. She totes a lamb carcass into the store on her shoulder, and casually tosses it to the block.
The shop specializes in “whole animal butchery” and touts its dry-aged prime beef. The prices on many of the cuts in the display cases remind me of a visit years ago to an exclusive diamond merchant’s showroom in Manhattan.
I purchase eight sausages (two sweet Italian, six hot) and one substantial “Heritage” pork chop. One chop will be enough, since Kathy will not consume, mush less talk about pork. Whenever I cook pork, she cringes.
As I concentrate on hunks of hog, I recall a day in 1997 when I drove daughter Ivy to Pasadena for her first year at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. We make the trip in a trashed Toyota SR5, its engine coughing, the vehicle absent air conditioning.
We wheel out of Barstow at 1 p.m., and head west on the 15. At the time, Barstow is ranked as the most dangerous city in California (it has since improved to No. 7). Weatherwise it is one of the hotter population centers in the state. As we turn on to the highway, a report broadcast on the radio indicates three people were shot at a club the night before – two dead, one in the ICU – and the temperature is holding steady at 110 degrees.
I check Barstow off my list of places to move when I tire of Siberia With a View.
Traffic comes to a standstill several miles west of town. The accident of the century has occurred some distance ahead and the highway is closed in both directions. I bring the Tercel to a halt two feet behind the rear of a massive semi trailer.
A livestock hauler.
Specifically, a pig hauler.
A double decker.
To survive the incredible heat, we must keep the windows of the Tercel open. Ivy regularly splashes herself with some of the bottled water we have on hand. As she does so, I remind her of the Donner Party incident, and other similar tragedies that resulted when careless travelers depleted their resources too soon.
To survive the heat, we sweat.
Pigs don’t sweat well at all, with few glands to do the work.
When overheated, pigs wallow in mud or cool water.
Absent mud or cool water, they die.
There’s no mud and cool water in the double decker.
The hogs in the truck are not calm as they fade: they set up a tremendous racket, a heart rending chorus one might say, were one not suffering heat stroke.
The pigs begin to shit uncontrollably as they reach the tipping point.
Stalled in close proximity to the proceedings, I imagine this is what it’s like to live in a battered singlewide next to and downwind of an industrial swine operation’s sewage reservoir. When the ambient air temp hits 110 degrees.
We’re stalled behind the pig hauler for more than two hours; the tortured squealing ceases, and an eerie and odorous calm sets in, heat waves rippling off the asphalt next to the Tercel. Ivy blabbers incoherently and moans, a skill developed during the crisis that serves her well in Hollywood.
I remember this event as I select a Heritage pork chop for purchase, and I relate the story to a bright-eyed salesperson. He appears to have graduated recently from the Junior Butcher Institute, eager to make his way in the trade. I figure the tale of mass pig agony will do him some good, elicit compassion for the creatures whose primals he daily slices, dices, and dispenses.
I ease into the story by asking the lad about the ‘Heritage’ pork he offers me. What, exactly, does this mean?
Butcher Boy dishes the standard spiel about enthusiastic porkers running free, consuming a strictly vegetarian diet consisting of non-GMO plants. I ask him if the farmer places speakers in the verdant fields, to relay recordings of Mozart quintets to the pigs as they cavort, enjoying their rich and full lives, clustering in the rosy light of a Heritage sunset.
“Pigs are reported to be fairly intelligent animals,” I say. “Surely, they pick up on Mozart right away. Twelve-tone works would be a bit much, though, don’t you agree?”
Butcher Boy is confused.The Institute did not include Music Appreciation 100 in the curriculum.
Then, I streak in from the lad’s blind side and put the hammer down: I ask if he has ever heard and smelled 300 pigs suffering heat prostration as they squeal and shit, the pathetic porcorum expiring while crammed tight in a double-decker metal trailer, in 100-plus degree heat, just outside Barstow, California.
“The mass pig death was one of the most disgusting things I experienced in more than a quarter century,” I say. “When I was a newspaper reporter and editor I saw a man burn to death in a crashed plane, viewed more murder and suicide scenes than I care to count, covered meetings of the Republican Central Committee, but this was near the top of the list in terms of gruesome experiences. I think of it every time I cook and eat pork.” I close my eyes and nod my head for effect, like a minister finishing a funeral sermon.
A woman standing behind me whimpers, and flees the building.
“Oh, god,” the kid says, and looks away as he hands me the package of meats. For someone who labors one step from the abattoir, the youngster is unacceptably weak. He should seek employment at an ice cream shop.
Kurt enjoys the story, since it involves me suffering.
Second stop: A small space next to the meatery: a sandwich shop, where I devour an excellent Rueben sandwich. It’s a Heritage sandwich, corned beef sourced from the butcher, the meat cured in-house. The sauerkraut, likewise, is a hands-on, homemade product; a sign posted on the back wall makes sure customers know this. The dressing and cheese are kept cool in a case at the back of the store; another sign tells me so. I wait for the counterman to inform me that bib overall-clad staff members milk cows at daybreak to the sound of Mozart quintets, and make the cheese in a rustic shed behind the store, using wooden curd cutters carved by Amish craftsmen in the 19th century.
Everything is so knife-edge hip in LoHi, I feel my asshole tightening to a point where it might not open again. Too often, the “Kickstarter artisanal, we-did-it-ourselves with the help of faeries” come-on is a con, a tactic designed to chum in halfwit condo dwellers with cash to burn and personae to maintain. In this case however, the come-on has heft: I concentrate and relax the aft aperture, then burp corned beef and sauerkraut all the way to our next stop. I make a mental note: take a second Omeprazole, as a precautionary measure.
Third stop: Kurt informs me that my planned trip to H Mart is off. Instead, we head to Pacific Ocean Marketplace – as big as H Mart, and just as packed with goodies and rude customers. In place of a Korean/Chinese emphasis, the store tilts to Vietnamese and Thai.
Dear god, the place is spectacular! I get hit several times with shopping carts piloted at warp speed by glowering, silent old women, and I spend ten minutes staring at a tank filled with writhing eels. One of the eels and I make extended eye contact, neither of us blinking more than twice during our relationship. I wonder whether eels can live in a fish tank in the living room, as pets. With names. What name would be appropriate for an eel?
“I have read,” I tell Kurt, “that it was a practice in certain Nordic and Saxon tribes to take a live eel and fix it to a tree with a spike driven just below its head. The skin was then pulled down and off in one piece, the eel convulsing in its agony. After the Nords took a few minutes to enjoy the show, the eel’s head was severed from the body, the body cleaned and cut into cylinders, the cylinders soaked overnight in fermented sheep’s milk, then simmered in mead in the company of a large bouquet of borage. The result was said to be bony, a bit oily, but unusually tasty.”
“Hmmm,” says Kurt, “I have some galvanized nails at home. I’ve got a big hammer, and several trees in my back yard. I have a source for mead, one of those clowns with a long beard, and discs in his ear lobes; you know, the kind who wears a knit stocking cap twenty-four hours a day. If he couldn’t work magic with mead, he should be sent to some sort of re-education center. The rotting sheep’s milk and borage might be a problem, but since you’re leaving in the morning, we don’t have time to source the stuff, or for the soak. I like the idea of nailing eels to trees. Eels are the worst of the fish, and they deserve to suffer. When we were kids, I thought eels were reptiles, but I discovered otherwise when Mom bought that set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas from the door-to-door salesman.”
“Was that the salesman she had a crush on?,” I ask. “You remember: she’d invite the guy in, and she’d sit on the couch while he did his demo, crossing her legs and giving him a view of her knees then, when he was done, she’d offer him a dram of creme de menthe. Being a teetotaler, she wasn’t too savvy when it came to booze, but she had extremely attractive knees.”
“No, says Kurt, “I think that was the vacuum cleaner guy, maybe the fellow who sold TV tubes. Anyway, the eel was one of several things I looked up in the encyclopedia, but I got bored and never made it past H. I absorbed a lot of info through G, nothing at all after that.”
I check the impressive offerings in the flesh cases at the store. Ox tails? Sure, there’s a rank of tails, each length skinned and oozing goo. Hack a tail, flour, season and sear the sections, then braise them for hours in red wine and stock, with a mire pois, garlic, thyme, some root vegetables, a bit of tomato. Oh, my.
Calf heads? You betcha, skinned, cut in half, brains scooped out and put in a pan, ready to be sold to customers who prefer a custardy texture. The brains leak milky liquid, and this reinforces my suspicion that the Ensure forced on unwitting nursing home residents includes quite a bit of pulverized calf brain. I’m not looking forward to it.
Pork glands of all kinds? Pork uterus? Who doesn’t enjoy a pile of uterus now and then? The finest of medieval manuscripts were inscribed by overworked monks on vellum uterine – a parchment allegedly made from a cow’s uterus, or the skins of fetal or stillborn animals. After examining the pork uterus in the display case, I doubt it could serve the purpose. So, no illuminated codices for Karl in the near future.
Pans full of unidentifiable innards? Yep. Hooves, feet, bladders, eyeballs? Right this way. Put ‘em in a pot and magic happens. Or doesn’t. I don’t have room in my cooler, so I pass on these items.
I purchase condiments to sock in for winter: several bottles each of sesame oil and fish sauce (Red Boat, if you please), a big jug of Yamasa shoyu, garlic and chile paste. I corral five big packages of Thai extra-wide rice noodles. I search for a bottle of Indonesian sweet soy, but goods from this part of the Pacific region are missing from the inventory. Perhaps there was conflict at some time in the past. I’m told grudges persist for generations at the far turn of the Pacific Rim.
We leave, Kurt has a plan.
Fourth stop: “Right over there,” he says as he points to an adjacent shopette, “is one of he greatest Vietnamese bakeries in the city. I stop in frequently, and I don’t tell my wife or my cardiologist. The shop has fantastic Bahn Mi, but since we just ate lunch, there’s an array of beverages and less filling snacks to choose from. I recommend Vietnamese coffee, and room-temp crispy egg rolls. We can eat the egg rolls in the car while we sip iced coffee and drive to the next stop. It’ll hold us until dinner.”
The egg rolls and coffee are excellent. I make a mental note: return for Bahn mi, bring Omeprazole.
Fifth stop: Kurt and Boris go Russian. We motor to M&I International Market, enter the store, and it is like we’ve been teleported to a neighborhood establishment in Volgograd. The joint is crammed with Russians – customers and staff.
Kurt and I resonate with these folks since, with a Swedish side to the family, we forge fictional links to the Rus – old Norse for “Men Who Row” – the Swedish vikings who invaded the vast land across the Baltic, sailing up its rivers in order to trade with and/or terrorize the indigenous peoples. The Rus were quite good at trade and/or terror. As far as Kurt and I are concerned, the patrons and staff members at the Russian market are our distant cousins -cousins gone politically awry at times and, like us, mutts at this point, but relatives nonetheless.
We stop as we enter, and we breathe deeply. The smell of the place comforts us.
“How do you say ‘Hello” in Russian?” I ask Kurt. “I think it involves a word that includes sounds like ‘straw’ and ‘vooy.’”
Kurt doesn’t respond. He is transfixed by a smoked sturgeon that sits wrinkled and stinky atop a center island counter, then by tubs of caviar before he moves on to fondle a three-foot long dry sausage, cooing softly as he runs his hand along the casing.
A female employee chastises Kurt and demands he unhand the tube. She does so in Russian, but her meaning is clear. Her name tag indicates her name is Ksenyia. Kurt attempts to pronounce her name. Ksenyia scowls. Kurt hurries to the pelmeni freezer where he scans nutrition information for sodium content. He can’t read anything printed on the package, but he rightly concludes there will no pelmeni for Kurt in the future.
I, too, wander. There are odd foods and Russians everywhere I look!
Since I have no cooler space, the fresh sausages and the frozen dumplings are out of the question. I have to occupy a vehicle with Kathy the next day during a long ride home, so smoked fish, whole or in hunks, is not an option. I am limited to canned and jarred goods.
There are a hundred or so shelves loaded with colorful products in sealed containers, and there is not a word of English to be read on the labels. I find a large jar containing items packed in a cherry red-colored brine. On close inspection, I spot bristles and nostrils. It’s a load of pickled pig’s noses! I look around for someone who speaks English, so I can reprise the Barstow Pig Death Saga. I figure if anyone can enjoy the story, they’re likely to be Russian.
After a half hour or so, I pull a bottle from the shelf. A breakthrough: the label indicates it is “Georgian Barbecue Sauce.” The ingredients are, however, printed in Georgian Script, a form of writing used by native speakers of the ancient Kartvelian language, so I have no idea what is in the sauce, but the top of the glass bottle is covered with a little canvas cozy, tied in place with a piece of rough twine. I’m hooked.
I have wanted to visit Tblisi since I read an article about a restaurant in that metropolis that serves what are said to be the tastiest Khinkali in the republic, so I lug the bottle to the checkout stand, imagining the sauce to be the condiment favored by Khinkali aficionados.
I hand the bottle to the sturdy young man at the register. He looks up and smiles, a bit too warmly for my taste, and begins to chatter at me in machine-gun fast Russian.
He totals the sale and looks up at me. My confused expression is the giveaway.
“What,” he says with a thick accent, “you speak no Russian?”
He appears as confused as I.
Kurt and I hop in the car, me cradling my cozied Georgian barbecue sauce, and Kurt says, “The kid thought you were a Russian Mob boss. Google Russian Mob bosses in America when you get home, check their photos. It’s you.”
I remember a Russian store and deli that I stumble on twenty years ago, on Santa Monica Boulevard, east of Fairfax in West Hollywood. The sitting area next to the bakery counter is occupied by overweight older men dressed in black, each sporting a short gray beard and a sour facial expression. They discuss things of importance (I suppose) and drink cup after cup of strong coffee while ominous thugs slouch against the walls behind the elders, the goons’ eyes scanning anyone who enters the building.
I do the Google when I return to Siberia With a View.
Kurt’s right: they’re me. I’m them.
Everything’s there, but the thugs. Though, at one time, long ago, Alvin “Call me Al” DeTerio and Jim Steele had contacts who could rally a cohort of violence-inclined face busters in no time flat.
I am Boris.
The barbecue sauce is a major disappointment. It tastes like V8.
Boris hates V8.
I rethink my obsession with Tblisi, and vow to make my own Khinkali.
I complain about my ball sack.
“Pour some of that Russian crap on it, Boris” says Kathy, as she nibbles apple slices and pistachios, and gazes down at the new pair of shoes she purchased “at a bargain price” in Denver.
“You might as well use it that way,” she says as she chews. “That’s probably all it’s good for. You’ve always been a sucker for a pretty bottle.”
She’s right. I accept the defeat. We Russians, after all, are long-suffering, on intimate terms with failure and despair.
Thankfully, all is not lost. At least, I have memories of a wild, bright time, back when I was the aged and dissolute Italian-American editor of a sleaze rag, with a partner who could sell anything to anyone.