Trouble’s on the way.
I receive a warning as clear as a roar and rumble created in 1850 by 50,000 buffalo as they stampede across a wide plain towards a rickety wagon jammed with fever-blasted settlers. Listen! Here comes trouble: duck and cover, and hope for the best.
My indicator? Kathy is up at 6 a.m., at the piano, singing “No Ways Tired” at top volume, an octave too high. I cherish the Barrett Sisters’ version of the song; the only time I wept without restraint at a concert was when I heard the Barrett Sisters perform this song in the early 80s. Kathy’s rendition this morning could shatter glass. The tension is palpable, disaster of some sort looms.
Kathy might be the target of the trouble on the horizon, or she could be its source. No telling at this point. She has been known to cause trouble, and many times I’ve encouraged her suffering if she owns the problem. I have never been well behaved, and she was raised by fundamentalists. Ours is a raggedy fit.
But, there are occasions when she neither suffers the problem, nor causes it — times when the trouble is other than that. The woman’s sense of such things is incredible.
My partner is a Cassandra. With little warning, she enters what can be described as a “trancelike” state, accompanied by Broadway show tunes and traditional Protestant church music. She is receptive to all manner of signals not perceived by ordinary humans — much like a law enforcement canine that catches the scent of meth stashed inside the door panels of a decked-out Escalade, a bat as it follows sonar clicks bouncing off a cicada.
She pounds the keyboard. Kathy’s in full voice. It’s a hymn, an old, loud hymn. I take a sip of the weak coffee she’s prepared for me, and I realize: things are going to get grim, pronto. Best to flee to the basement, Karl.
I wonder on what level the trouble will take place, micro or macro?
I go online and check local and regional television and print news sources. I find the usual crap about abandoned mines polluting rivers, bulletins touting “industries” that Chamber of Commerce shills claim will relocate to Siberia With a View next month to save the community from otherwise certain collapse; reports of dump fires, of the alleged contamination in school buildings that frantic parents are convinced will cause little Heather and Zach to grow tails.
There’s been a murder or two. Regular stuff: knives, handguns, no high explosives. No news of raging wildland conflagrations that will consume entire subdivisions and kill pets. Not a peep about aliens emerging from secret bases under nearby mesas, to kill and eat pets. I know this is happening, but media types won’t report it for fear of prompting panic in the growing community of comfort animal owners.
I also know Kathy’s warning isn’t about global happenings, since there’s nothing interesting going on; it’s all old news. The Amazon rain forest is on fire; North Koreans and Iranians crank the centrifuges, whip up new weapons, test malfunctioning missiles; China builds a highway to connect all of Asia and Europe, to allow for easy conquest, and the transport of cheap goods and human cargo; climate change accelerates at a rate much faster than anyone predicted, and major coastal cities will be under water next year. The king of Thailand is banging an air force general. A hunk of ice as big as Indiana breaks off of Antarctica, polar bears struggle to adjust to tropical conditions. The odor of burning tires and methane settles over Detroit — but not Ann Arbor.
Hurricane on the way to Florida or the Carolinas, maybe Nova Scotia. I know about this. Record-setting national debt on the horizon, but our economic genius of a president assures me it’s the fault of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, so no problem. The Pinhead in Chief switches gears, and announces his demand for further tariffs on Chinese goods, orders American industries to leave China, and assures farmers and Jews he loves them. So, what’s new? Love is a wonderful thing.
Mass shootings? How’s the thoughts and prayers strategy working out?
Business as usual in the good ol’ USA.
So, what does Kathy detect? She does not enter this state for entertainment’s sake. That would like a Pythia issuing a dire warning, working Athenians into a total lather, then saying, “Hey, only kidding. Too much retsina last night, you know?”
When the trouble is not global or national, not about Kathy or caused by Kathy, it most likely befalls me.
And, this time, it does. In a way that proves disastrous for a gourmand.
To ease into things, I preface a detailed description of the situation with a likely scenario.
I am old. I expect that someday a young person whose phone has malfunctioned, and who has nothing better to do, might ask for my advice, request a taste of whatever wisdom I’ve garnered during a long, most often murky existence.
Thrilled by the attention, I’ll have an answer ready. I lean back in my chair on the veranda at Happy Acres Assisted Living, put down my juice box, try to remember something, anything, then say:
“Well, shucks, Chip, thanks for asking. You’re the first person who imagines I learned something during the many decades I’ve been somewhat conscious. Here’s what I’ll tell you, and anyone else who probably won’t ask me the same question before I die.
“Remember this, Chip: never assume that a package of supermarket ‘sushi’, in particular the ‘Cajun Special Sushi’ a second or two this side of it’s sell-by date, will make a fine breakfast as you begin a long road trip. True, it’s finger food, attractively packaged, suited by its engineering for consumption while you’re behind the wheel, but mark my words Chip, don’t succumb to the urge. Ever!
“That’s it. That’s pretty much all I know. Well that, and always split the purple tab of acid in half. Don’t take the whole thing.”
It has taken me 73 years to learn something of value to pass on to the young folk. Part of what I know came to me in a recent educational experience. It was a harsh one. Let’s review.
I speed east from Siberia With a View, downing a load of gummy rounds of nori-wrapped crap that include what the label promises are “shrimps.” The “sushi” has an odd flavor, but I attribute this to the “Cajun” mayo-based sludge drizzled in curlicues atop each disc. Nothing to worry about, I tell myself, as I polish off ten pieces.
As usual, I am wrong.
But, I won’t know this until evening, when my gut begins to make noises heard by people standing across the room. I won’t fully realize the extent of the problem until the next day, when truly horrible things occur.
After downing the hybrid treats, I arrive in Denver in the late afternoon. My brother, Kurt, and I set immediately to the task of determining where we will eat dinner. Even though he now teeters on the edge of cardiac disaster, Kurt intends to ignore the advice of his physicians, and we analyze our options. My brother is always up for a great meal, even if it means that he dies as he dines.
The classic, shopette Chinese noodle joint, run by an elderly couple, the man the cook, the woman tyrannizing the front of the house, inclined to kick you out just after you’ve swallowed your last bite?
No. Love the place, and the Xiao Long Bao is superb, but something novel might do the trick.
What will it be?
Kurt discovered a recently opened Thai place located across town. The prospect of the drive and its frustrations dissuade us.
The Vietnamese restaurant with the incredible stuffed chicken wings?
Same problem: the drive, the urban anxiety.
A new Northern Italian place?
Well, then, let’s return to something familiar. A favorite Indian cubbyhole, frequented almost exclusively by South Asian computer geeks?
Oh, my: a distinct possibility. The Konaseema Goat Biryani is hard to beat; the Kadai Chicken has no peer in the Denver area. Kurt’s wife, Kathy, nixes the option, alleging “dirty” conditions. She goes on to make a number of remarks about the availability of powerful, modern cleaning products, and the need to send a note regarding sources to the owners of the restaurant.
We are momentarily stumped.
“I know just the place,” I say, at last. “It’s a new Turkish restaurant, located in the same complex as H Mart, my all-time favorite Korean etcetera market. I read about it online.”
I rarely hit a home run. This one goes soars out of the park, across the street, and arcs over adjacent, tall buildings.
We find the restaurant at the end space of a long complex containing a roast duck emporium, an Iraqi bakery, the gigantic H Mart, a shop specializing in Taiwanese flip-flops, and this eatery.
We enter. The establishment features a cooler/counter at the front of a long, narrow, sparsely decorated room. The case holds trays of meats: chunks of marinated beef, chicken, and lamb, ready for the skewers; raw minces, beef and lamb, some of the wads shaped as kebabs, some as “meatballs” that are, in fact, thick patties; piles of sliced peppers and tomatoes.
As we approach the entrance, we notice a couple of old folks sitting on folding chairs placed on the sidewalk next to a side door. The woman wears a long apron and a small, white hat, obviously of her own making. The man, bearded, with longish gray hair, is clad in a red chef’s jacket. They smoke cigarettes, and drink tea from small, narrow glasses.
As we enter, the two put out their cigarettes, and return to the kitchen. All is ready.
The joint includes an eight-top at the back, several four-tops along one side of the room, three two-tops on the opposite wall. The space smells of grilling meats and spices. A good omen. I never eat at a small restaurant if I can’t smell food cooking.
We scan the limited menu. Its limitation is its strength; the kitchen staff does not stray from familiar territory. A color photograph accompanies each item on the menu. A solicitous waiter hovers. Finally, we reach decisions.
We opt for two of the three available appetizers: Yaprak Sarmasi, the grape leaves rolled cigar-size around a filling of ground meat, grains and spices; and Kibbeh-Icli Kofte, a remarkable, deep fried, bulgur-crusted, football-shaped mass the size of a fist, stuffed with spiced ground beef.
Kathy selects Lahmacun for her main, tagged on the menu as “Turkish Pizza” — a sizeable oval of thin crust, slathered with a spicy meat, tomato, and red pepper sauce. The oval could satisfy three hungry people.
Kurt goes for the Iskender Kebab. A large piece of freshly baked pide is cut into smallish rectangles and put on an oval plate. The bread is covered with flavorful beef, Doner Kebab, the flesh cooked on a vertical spit similar to those used to grill shawarma or al-pastor, then sliced thinly. A two-layer blanket of meat is flooded with a remarkable tomato-red pepper sauce, and the concoction is graced with a grilled half tomato, completed with a mound of labneh.
I zero in on an order of Pasa Kebap, the lamb kebab. Two long, flattened batons of grilled, spiced minced lamb arrive atop a large piece of warm pide, the juices from the meat soaking into the flatbread. On the side: a heaping portion of Ezme, a chopped salad with tomato, onion, Bell pepper, parsley, garlic, olive oil, and spices. And a charred Serrano chile.
The food is hot, flavorful, the ingredients prime, the presentation straightforward, the service excellent. The owner arrives at the table as we eat, and asks if everything is satisfactory.
Oh, yes, more than satisfactory. Outstanding.
She clasps her hands in a prayerful gesture and smiles. The owner is a young woman, thin, wearing large dark-rim eyeglasses, a hijab, knee-length long-sleeved shirt, tights, and a pair of Chuck Taylor red high tops.
She explains that, as with any new restaurant, the situation is tenuous. She says the number of customers has been increasing, though this night there are only four other diners in the space, all of them seemingly familiar with the cuisine. Homies, as it were.
As we finish the meal, the owner arrives carrying a narrow tray, on which sit three small glasses filled with tea,
“Please,” she says. “Take this tea as a gift.”
Then, she asks if we will have dessert. We each lean back in our seat, and prepare to decline due to the fact we are fully sated, but she short-circuits our routine.
“Please, we have two excellent desserts, and I want you to try them, as a gift from me. I am so glad you are here.”
Squares of Baklava, and a triangle of its cousin, Sobiyet. Perfect sweetness tempered by the rich tea.
As we prepare to leave, the owner appears tableside. She asks again if we are satisfied. We assure her the meal was superb, and wish her and her enterprise the greatest success.
“Thank you, thank you, “ she says, clasping her hands before her chest.
“Please, pray for me.”
In any other situation, if someone says “Please, pray for me,” my response will be, “You gotta be kidding; you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Not this time.
“I will,” I say, and I find myself holding my hands in a prayerful position at my chest. This is one of the rare times when I find it impossible to be a jerk.
That night, Kurt stands across the living room from me.
“What’s that noise?” he asks.
The trouble begins, on a low note. Or notes.
I sleep fitfully. In one of my dreams, I am chased down a dark street by a pack of angry lambs and a gigantic shrimp with legs.
I have a plan the next day: snack my way across the city of Denver. I have several stops to make in order to acquire supplies — acrylic glazing mediums and titanium white paint, items at a polish butcher shop, a Russian grocery, and H Mart. I know of restaurants near each store where I can eat something delicious, but nothing so filling that I don’t have room for the next tidbit.
I begin with two empanadas— chicken chimichurri, and ham and cheese — with sauces, at Maria Empanada, an old favorite.
I put a mental check mark next to “empanadas” and head off to the art store. My next snack stop: Seoul BBQ, for a kimchi pancake, right after I prepare a couple of coolers for input of goods.
The “sushi” and the trouble catch up with me as I stand at the customer service counter at a supermarket, watching Lewis, the attendant, prepare to fetch the dry ice needed to keep purchases frozen during my trip back to Siberia With a View.
Lewis is a large man. He moves slowly, and speaks with a pronounced accent.
I say: “Lewis (he wears a name tag), it seems you’re from back east. Where might that be?”
Lewis says: “The Bronx. Moved here with my mom three years ago, cuz of her CPOD. Didn’t help. Forgot about the altitude. Altitude ain’t no good for COPD. She died, I stayed. I got her car, but I can’t afford the gas to go back. And what would I do if I got there, huh? What?”
Lewis weighs at least 350. It’s little wonder that he lumbers.
“You ever go to Lou and Ernie’s?,” I ask.
It’s like a bolt of lightning hits Lewis. He spasms, and when a 350-pound man spasms, it is memorable.
“Whaaaa… you been there? Lou and Ernie’s? In the Bronx?”
“Indeed, Lewis. Crosby Avenue. Eggplant parm calzone, every time. Used to ride up there in a hearse with our roadie Indian John when I lived downtown. He grew up on Middletown Road, made the drive to buy smack from his boyhood connection, who was also his second cousin and his step brother. I took the ride for the calzone.”
His voice goes up a notch. Lewis is excited, flush with nostalgia. “Me: fresh tomato slice with mozz, three or four of ‘em (who would have guessed?). Ma: a slice of Sicilian, cause it reminded her of Nonna. I don’t want nuthin’ reminds me of Nonna. A real bitch. Smelled bad, like ammonia, used to pinch me till I was bleedin’.”
“We all had one, Lewis.”
Lewis and I bond. I am his new, best friend.
I tell Lewis I need several bricks of solid CO2. Stat.
“Stat,” is a meaningless term to Lewis.
As the man waddles from place to place behind the counter searching for the “special dry ice gloves,” a major event overtakes me.
An event in my digestive tract. Alarmingly close to the exit
It comes on suddenly: my heart rate increases, I begin to sweat. I salivate, I feel dizzy. Incredible pain and pressure develop in my lower abdomen.
“Uh, Lewis,” I say, employing an urgent tone of voice, “can you hurry it up. I’m having a bit of problem here.”
“I think I took on a load of bad food, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, yeah, I know about that. One time, my uncle Amadeo got some bad spaghetti vongole and he was on the bus goin’ to Astoria to see my other uncle, when …”
“Lewis, I’m about to crap my pants. Can you hurry?”
It takes Lewis about five minutes to walk to the chest next to the counter and retrieve four blocks of dry ice.
“Got no scale here, pal. Gotta go to one of the checkstands to weigh these.”
As I watch Lewis inch toward an empty checkstand, the chaos in my intestinal tract pumps the crisis to Defcon 1.
I can’t believe it: I’m not going to be able to hold this in!
I turn, gripping the edge of the counter to steady myself. There are seven or eight people in line behind me, waiting for the glacier named Lewis to move.
I am going to shit my drawers in front of a crowd!
I am doubled over at the counter when Lewis returns. He enters the purchase on the computer.
“Damn, I never get this right the first time. Gotta do it again.”
I emit a primal, animal noise, signaling an amygdyla-prompted survival response. I am going to die in a pool of waste, watched by a group of disgusted shoppers. Guys wearing latex gloves and respirators will heft me to the coroner’s van in a bag. Being pros, they’ll find the situation amusing, and they’ll review the incident at lunch, laughing as they devour Subway sandwiches.
I struggle to hold back the flood as Lewis returns to the counter and takes my credit card. He has trouble with the chip reader.
“Damned reader’s on the blink,” he says. “Gotta take this over to a register. You can pay for it there.”
Five minutes pass, and Lewis makes it to a register. He picks up the paging phone.
“Eric? Eric? Need a register reboot on four.”
At last, I pay. I am semi-delirious. I’ve been squeezing my butt cheeks so tightly they are beginning to cramp. Lewis waves as I crabwalk to the back of the store, to the restrooms.
There is a crude sign taped to each restroom door: “Out Oder, Sory for Incoivence.”
The turbulence in the nether world grows more ominous.
The only business adjacent to the store is a hair salon. I could dash in, lock myself in the employee restroom and make the deposit, but I would be arrested, and hauled off by the cops as hazmat workers put crime scene tape across the door. The incident would be featured on local TV evening news broadcasts.
What can I do?
Make a run for it? Try to make it to Kurt’s house, five miles distant?
It’s all I’ve got.
I jump in the car and rocket at 55 mph down a two-lane avenue, speed limit 30. I figure if I get pulled over, I hand the cop my license, registration, and proof of insurance, then I explode, a cloud of waste vapor enveloping the two of us. He’ll think again about the decision to go into law enforcement.
I shoot through several major intersections on the late yellow. I’m in the clear, I think, the molten mix boiling at the portal like magma in a caldera.
I’m in the clear until the avenue narrows to one lane, and I pull behind the worst driver in the history of automotive travel: a woman of certain age, wearing a goofy hat as do so many of her ilk, driving a Subaru, as so many of her ilk do. A gruesome pug stands on the passenger seat of the Subaru, it’s mutant mug pressed against the side window, the glass smeared with ugly dog drool.
The woman reaches a top speed of 14 miles per hour. She yammers at the beast on the seat next to her, slowing every few seconds to pet the hideous little thing. A steady stream of oncoming traffic prevents me from passing. I want to kill her. And her dog. In fact, I want to make her watch me kill the dog, slowly, before I kill her. Slowly.
I begin to scream. Then I stop, realizing the strain might cause me to blow a load in my wife’s car (I am driving Kathy’s car, since my 1993 Chevy pickup with the doors that won’t fully close, and the starter that works one try in every ten, is not up to the trip).
Somehow, I make it to Kurt’s house. I come to a screeching stop in his driveway, move as quickly as is advisable through the front entrance, wobble across the living room, telling Kurt I will explain when I have time, then lurch down the stairs to the guest bathroom.
Where something truly awful takes place.
I’ll cease with the details, here. Let’s just say the disaster is immediate and violent, and my moans are audible outside the house.
When all is done, and the extensive mop-up complete, I feel as if I’ve run a marathon. (I’ve never run a marathon and the only time in the last fifty years I broke into as much as a trot was during an attempt to beat a family of fat people to the buffet line at Bellagio. I had scored well at the tables, downed at least ten gin and tonics, and it was Surf and Turf Extravaganza Night. But, I imagine I’d feel like this should I ever complete the 42.195 race. While I have no Kenyan ancestors, I’m convinced I would do quite well.)
I’m depleted, weak. I need fluids. Kurt makes me a triple vodka tonic, and I collapse in a chair on his patio in front of two lushly flowered plants that Kurt and my nephew, Carter, hope will produce seed stock that leads to them being named “Colorado Clone Masters” at the annual Cannabis Growers and Vendors Convention.
Resting between hallucinations, I map out the remainder of my day as I drain another vodka tonic, made with Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water. The expensive tonic water rehydrates me more effectively than a common product. It has to — it’s made in England.
Here’s how it goes, once I recover and hit the road.
- A jaunt to a favorite polish delicatessen to inspect the sausages for possible purchase. It is a sad experience. Where once massive freezer cases and coolers were jammed with pierogies of all kinds, and expansive shelves held jars of sauerkrauts and a variety of cool-weather, on-the-Steppes condiments, there is now nothing. Nothing at all. The cases at the meat counter once overflowed with sausages of all kinds, fresh, the casings glistening. Now, all that remain are a few withered meat tubes. The young woman behind the counter resembles a despondent sales person at a Stalin-era state store in Warsaw, the few trashy sausages enough to make a meat lover weep. The place is not long for it. Such is the price of gentrification. It won’t be long before a Bikram Yoga studio or specialty tea shop (“shoppe”) occupies the storefront.
- As I make my way to a Russian/Eastern European grocery, I stop at a Thai joint for an order of Tod Mun — fish cakes with a snappy sweet/sour dipping sauce. Something to be eaten in the car while at a full stop. This is parking lot fare.
- To a Russian/Eastern European grocery for a jar of Bulgarian red pepper sauce, packages of Hungarian paprika (one sweet, one hot) and a nibble or four of the sausage and cheese samples available on a large platter set atop the meat case. The woman at the register is predictably cool and disdainful. I like that about the Russians. I sense passion lurking beneath her icy surface.
- Off to the southeast, to the land of amazing Asian, Indian, middle eastern restaurants and stores. I am on the prowl for curry leaves, odd vegetable matter, fresh spices, Red Boat Fish Sauce, black bean and garlic pastes, assorted frozen Korean and Japanese treats.
- First, however, a detour to another fave restaurant for a bit of Kimchi-jeon. I’ll eat half and take the other half to Kurt.
- Curry leaves and spices at a Pakistani shop.
- A snack break at the restaurant next door: an order of Onion Bhaji, equal, but not superior to the hand-cut and hand-battered onion rings at Josephine Street, in San Antonio. Perhaps an order of Dahi Poori, as well. Why not? I feel so much better!
- On to H Mart, a wonderland offering food products of many nations. Hands across the sea! While collecting a basketful of goods, including several bags of frozen Korean and Japanese dumpling treats, I make a point of trying the samples available at tables located throughout the back side of the store. The elderly Korean women who work the stands are, like the Russian at the register, dependably scornful, without the sneer. I sense no passion beneath the surface, only disgust. The sample of the kimchi snack dumpling leaves a taste in the mouth that persists for three days.
When I return to his house bearing a load of goods, Kurt tells me we are going to dinner with my Aunt Audrey, and my cousin, Bob, who has driven to the city from his home in the mountains. My aunt is 96 years old, and is always up for a night out. She is not a timid eater.
Where to go?
Kurt and I consider the question, look at one another, and immediately know that each of us has the same place in mind.
Back to the Turkish place!
I fuel up with a couple V and Ts, Kurt refreshes his neurons with a blast of THC; we snack on some olives and Spanish cheeses, and we’re off!
The same appetizers, two of each. This time, we request a side of the tomato sauce that stunned us the night before. The waiter seems confused, until Kurt makes it clear we intend to dunk hunks of football in the sauce. The guy’s eyes light up; the idea hits the right note with him. I imagine him hurrying to the kitchen to try the dunk himself.
I’m not all that hungry following my snackapalooza, but I can’t help myself: I must have more of that damned sauce, as much as possible. I order the Iskender Kebab.
The owner comes to the table. This night, she wears a pair of orange high tops. She brings two bowls of sauce. My meaty, bready, labneh-capped platter overflows with goodness. I finish off the sauce in the bowls with a spoon.
After we return to Kurt’s place, I hit the sack, but before I drop off I ponder a version of the sauce and the kebab that I can make once I’m home.
The morning of the event: drain a carton of Greek yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined colander. When it stiffens up, add a bit of grated garlic, some parsley, a bit of mint, salt, pepper, olive oil, and refrigerate.
For the sauce: sauté a wad of tomato paste in a mix of butter and olive oil, add a couple cups of grated fresh tomato and a small amount of ketchup, some paprika, a bit of oregano, salt and pepper. Cook down to the correct consistency. Wait! Add some microplaned garlic with the tomatoes, just for good measure. For the meat: partially freeze a hunk of rib eye or tenderloin. Slice very thin and marinate in grated onion, garlic, oil, salt, pepper, a bit of paprika, a flutter of oregano.
Cut some pita into squares, put ‘em on a platter. Sauté the meat, medium rare, and layer it on the pita. Blanket the combo with plenty of sauce. Lay a big glob of the yogurt at the end of the platter. Hey, why not char several Serranos on the grill and toss them on the pile?
My strategy complete, I sleep fitfully. In one of my dreams, I crap my pants while delivering an uplifting Career Day speech to bored high school students.
The next morning Kurt and I adjourn to a French bakery for coffee and pastries. I wolf down a substantial savory pastry, filled with feta and spinach. The coffee is French, as in good. I drink three cups of the java. I tell my brother that while the traumatic event I suffered the day before was violent, it was short-lived. I assure him I’ve refilled my tank, so to speak, and that I feel great.
As usual, I am wrong.
I pack the car, hug whoever is nearby, and I hit the road.
I am two hours out of Denver, just past South Park on 285, crossing the incline, heading towards the Collegiates, when it happens.
I have made hundreds of trips on this route, but was never fully aware of how few establishments with restrooms are located between Fairplay and Buena Vista.
As in none.
Or how few are located between Buena Vista and Siberia With a View.
Actually, Chip, now that you ask, there is one other thing I’ve learned that I need to pass on to you. If you suffer an intestinal meltdown, before you make another five-hour road trip the next day, what ever you do…
Allow me to repurpose a cliché: Haste, my friend, makes waste. A whole lotta waste.