Voices

A publication of The New School Institute For Retired Professionals

Diary of An Anthropologist

by Rosalie Frost

Note: the following story is a work of fiction and does not intend to represent actual past or present persons or events.   

I was quite taken aback to see this, the photograph I took so many years ago, enlarged to life size and placed at the entrance to the exhibition “Western Impact on Indigenous Peoples: Negative/Positive” at the Museum of Natural History. I took the picture while researching headhunter tribes in Papua-New Guinea. I felt disturbed, not entirely unpleasantly, to see the two foreground figures again standing before me. Last year, the exhibition curators had sought me out for permission to include the original print that I took forty years ago for their upcoming exhibit and I felt honored to be asked to contribute.

Forty years ago, I was a young anthropologist anxious to make my mark in the field by conducting post-doc research in a remote, relatively unexplored area in the jungle highlands of Papua-New Guinea. In that mountainous jungle of deep shadow and intermittent scraps of light, the two men in the picture had served as my primary informants about tribal culture. They somehow had acquired sufficient knowledge of a pidgin English which enabled me to learn their language and customs. Among all my findings, perhaps the most ground-breaking concerned the details of rituals conducted by various headhunting societies, which were composed of not just men, but women as well. All these memories —- and yes, even longings began to surface unbidden as I stood there, transfixed by the familiar life-size figures before me.

The privilege of making photographs had been granted me, but only after my successfully undergoing certain initiation rituals. My success allowed me to become an honorary tribal member as well as to join several hunting societies. In the picture, the man on my right is the tribe’s shaman and storyteller, with whose extended family I lived. The man on my left was a fierce warrior and headhunter. In the picture, his gaze seemed to have been attracted to something more interesting than my head hiding under a cloth hood at the camera’s back. It was one of only a dozen pictures I was able to make in the first few weeks there because all my camera equipment —- tripod, lenses, plates, films and development chemicals — quickly deteriorated in the jungle’s heat and humidity.

Some of the tribe were frightened that the tripod legs and camera resembled a person from the underworld coming to claim their souls. Others were braver and laughed like children as they put their heads under the black hood to gaze at the upside-down world through the viewing glass at the camera’s back. They said such a world was familiar to them from when they ate certain roots and fungi during ceremonies. Eventually, I too participated in those very ceremonies. I couldn’t have been happier, although anthropologists later told me that by accepting tribal membership and participating in hunting rituals I had really gone too far, giving up my professional objectivity in the process.

Finally, after almost two years, I returned to the university from whence I came. It was disappointingly dull in comparison to my lived experience in the jungle, but I busied myself with writing the papers and books based on my field experiences that quite shook up traditional anthropological research for a while. I had my fifteen minutes of fame, yet my life after returning never quite provided as much pleasure, excitement and happiness as when I was adopted into the tribe and participating in hunting and other ritual ceremonies. 

Turning my gaze away from the exhibited picture with difficulty, I began to tremble, causing me to accidentally bite my lip. The saltiness of the blood trickling into my mouth was somehow familiar, even strangely comforting. When I regained some composure, I begged a visitor to take a picture of me next to my old friends with his smart phone. The visitor then sent this image to my own smart phone. Gazing at this new picture, I felt a great contentment, as it shows me reunited with my tribe, together again after all these years apart. 

Pursuing my interest in fine art photography after retiring from decades of work in various fields, I am often drawn to write stories based on my photographs.

 

Something Lost

by Lisa Cristal

The breeze came in through the open window. Lila’s eyes fluttered awake and as she stretched in bed she felt lighter, as if something inside of her was missing.

She called to her mother in a panic, “Mother, something is gone.”

“Don’t tell me that you misplaced the necklace from your betrothed.”

“Of course not,” she said crossly. “It’s much more serious than that.”

Her mother pulled back the sheets and found a single drop of blood on the sheets.

“Who was with you last night?” demanded her mother.

“No one. Sister slept in my room.”

“No!” Her mother looked horrified, angry and sad at the same time. “The marriage imp has stolen your virginity. My mother told me about the legends.

“Your betrothed and his family will not be happy. Some do not believe that the marriage imp exists and think it is merely an excuse for wayward daughters. The best we can hope for is that your father can find more goats to add to your dowry.”

But Lila was not someone who would simply accept things. No imp was going to destroy her life.

Her betrothed, Matthew, came over later that day. “You seem different, Lila. You seem lighter and unhappy.”

Lila looked down at the ground. She whispered, “The marriage imp stole my virginity. But I know that that will not change anything between us.”

Matthew seemed startled. “Are you sure that is what happened? Of course, there are the old legends, but nobody believes such stories now. If my parents find out the marriage will be called off. According to our customs my wife must be a maid.”

Lila said sharply, “You know me. Of course, that is what happened. Technically, I am still a maid. When the marriage imp steals your virginity, he merely puts it in a red box. If I find him,I can take the box back and reignite my virginity.”

“If you say so,” said Matthew doubtfully.

“Let us go and hunt for the imp together.”

“I need some time to think,” said Matthew. “I’ll join you later.”

Disappointed, Lila began her search alone in the forest outside the village. At dusk she saw a small, wizened creature crooning to himself and hugging a red box. She quietly picked up a branch to knock him out. As she crept up, she heard him singing a song about beautiful Lila and his unconditional love for her beginning with her birth and reciting her accomplishments over the years. Fascinated, she put the stick down and listened. She began to realize that this imp knew her better than anyone in the world and loved her because of her strengths and despite her weaknesses. Then she thought of Matthew, who walked away at the first sign of trouble.

The imp turned to her and asked if Lila could forgive him. “I just wanted a part of you to be with me, even if it was for a small time.”

He extended the red box to her. She was so touched she bent down to kiss him. The spell was broken, and she watched as he turned into a handsome prince.

“I can never thank you enough,” he said. “Will you come back to my kingdom and marry me?”

She took the box and reignited her virginity. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “All of this has really made reconsider whether I want any man in my life.”

In her prior life as a trademark attorney Lisa Cristal only wrote non-fiction. The members of Writing Workshop helped her enjoy writing fiction and this assignment was writing fan fiction. 

 

A Tour of the DJT Presidential Library

by Robert Chan 

A homeless drunk tottering along the cracked, garbage-strewn sidewalk, stops, unzips, and turns toward a dilapidated loft building. Deeming the place unworthy of his pee, he zips up and lurches down the street, almost bumping into me. I must’ve screwed up the directions to end up in this seediest, most crime-ridden of all Queens neighborhoods.

Just to be sure, I knock on a rusty, graffiti-covered door. It opens with a scrotum-tightening screech. A woman, wearing a MAGA hat, says, “Welcome to the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library. Would you like a tour?” She smiles, revealing teeth like an accident in a graveyard.

Words frozen in my throat, I nod and follow her inside, as she begins her spiel.

“The original plans called for a colossal monument to Mr. Trump’s exquisite taste—marble floors, gold electroplated walls, silver plated Corinthian columns, and frescoed ceilings showing God reaching out to touch a naked muscular Mr. Trump. But when Don Junior fled to an extradition-free locale with the contributed funds, Mary Trump, the president’s closest solvent relative domiciled within the jurisdiction, completed the project on a more modest scale.

“I’d love to show you all the wonderful objects here, but due to mold contamination, the EPA has limited visits to twenty minutes. So, I’ve picked out four highlights from our collection.”

She pauses at a Plexiglas display case redolent of vinegar and formaldehyde.

“America’s Mayor left instructions that his corpse be cryogenically frozen and displayed in the atrium beside the president’s body. Unfortunately, we lacked the funds, so we scaled down to just his head and had it pickled rather than frozen. See, his head looks like its melting, just like in life. Note the authentic black streaks from the liquifying mascara he used as hair dye and the background photograph of the Four Seasons Landscaping parking lot, the Fantasy Island adult store and the crematorium, where he delivered one of his finest speeches. Lindsey Graham had asked to be displayed next to Mr. Trump, but the cryogenic apparatus, designed only for humans, rejected him due to his invertebrate DNA and lack of discernable gonads. Admittedly the exhibit is incomplete without Mr. Trump’s body, which is interred in Moscow’s Kuntsevo cemetery alongside those of other Soviet and Russian heroes such as Kim Philby and Ramon Mercader the assassin of Leon Trotsky.”

I follow her, avoiding the pools of fetid green liquid that has dripped from the ceiling.

“Here we have the scorecard for Mr. Trump’s record-breaking round at the Augusta National Golf Club, demonstrating not only the president’s golfing brilliance but also his mathematical genius. No other golfer in the world could score a 61 after double-or-triple-bogeying every hole. 

“Now we come to one of Mr. Trump’s extra-long red ties still bearing hamburger grease stains. Deep-staters have referred to him as a short-fingered vulgarian and hinted at his Lilliputian sexual endowment, but when you combine the lengths of his fingers, sex organ and ties and average them, the result is almost within the range of normal.

“Finally, we arrive at our pièce de résistance. This huge case contains Mr. Trump’s covid-19 control program; his better, cheaper health care plan; the statute creating his signature $550 billion infrastructure fund; extensive evidence of the Democrats’ voter fraud; and the $50 billion sight draft from Mexico paying for the wall.”

“It’s empty,” I said.

“Not to the Republicans who visit.”

 

Robert N. Chan is a semi-retired litigator (Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in) and author of 10 published novels–see www.robertnchan.com. This piece was written for the IRP Writers’ Workshop expertly coordinated by Charles Troob and Leslie Bedford.

 

 

Amy and Clyde

by Richard Zacks

Amy called before breakfast. “Clyde’s dead. I don’t know what to do. Please help me.”

Clyde, a twelve-year-old, lethargic, overweight Border Collie, was Amy’s only companion. They shared a studio apartment. Amy and Clyde were inseparable. At her office he slept under her desk. On weekends they walked together through the neighborhood to restaurants with outdoor tables where Clyde could sit on a chair facing Amy while she ate.

“How can we help?” I asked.

I can’t think of a decent, affordable way to dispose of Clyde’s body. I’d bury him in my garden, if I had a garden. The super and the other residents won’t let me bury him in the apartment courtyard.”

I called 311. Amy angrily rejected their solution: Just put the animal in a plastic bag, label the bag “dead dog’” and leave it out on the sidewalk on your garbage collection day.

Someone suggested cremation. “It’s expensive.” Amy said. “My vet will charge more than $500, but I’m afraid I have no better option.” We all closed our eyes and tried not to inhale as we inserted Clyde into a garbage bag. Amy put the garbage bag in a red suitcase she said she never wanted to see again. Carol, a young neighbor, volunteered to take Clyde to the vet’s office, a thirty-minute, taxi ride.

Fifteen minutes later Carol returned to Amy’s apartment, sans Clyde. “It’s done.” she told us, “And it cost you nothing.” 

“What happened?” Amy asked

“I rolled the suitcase four blocks uphill to Water Street, left it on the sidewalk and stepped into the street to hail a taxi. When one stopped I turned to get the suitcase. It was gone, stolen. Clyde is now someone else’s problem.”

For most of my life I was a lawyer who wanted to be a writer. I joined the IRP hoping to become a writer who used to be a lawyer. This essay was a Writing Workshop class assignment.

 

 

The Chef

by Doris Wallace

Marty and I met on Henry Street in New York City’s Chinatown. We taught in the local junior high school along with Jim Lee, the ceramics teacher. Jim had written one of the first Chinese cookbooks in America. All of his colleagues bought a copy and stored it away on a bookshelf. Except Marty who, one day, decided to try his hand.

First, armed with Jim’s cookbook, we went to Mott Street to buy all of his supplies – a cast iron wok, a wok cover, a wok ring, wok chon and hok, a boning knife and a cleaver. He bought a sharpening stone. He needed ’S’ hooks so he could make roast pork. The basic equipment purchased, Marty stocked his ingredients. He needed soy and oyster sauce, peanut oil, cornstarch and the herbs and spices. He bought rice and black beans.

The next step was for me to explain the recipes and measurements – capital T for tablespoon, C for cup, small t for teaspoon. Marty had never read a recipe before.

He chose his menu and saw disaster immediately; the wok was turning black! So Marty called another amateur cook who told him that it was normal when you broke in a new wok and secondly, to pour himself a tall glass of Scotch for such emergencies. Martin sliced and chopped. He hung the pork from the S hooks. He stir-fried. He sipped Scotch. My job was to wash the rice and measure the water so that it was just above my flat fingers. I boiled the rice and set the table with chop sticks and rice bowls for four. After all, Marty had invited two guests for his debut. Chi sin (crazy)! Joyce and Pete were in for a treat!

What was the first meal? Spareribs and black bean sauce, beef in oyster sauce and roast pork fried rice. The kitchen and the apartment smelled divine. But the fried rice looked like soup. Who knew you were supposed to use cold previously cooked rice? Jim hadn’t mentioned that in his recipe. We laughed and scarfed up the delicious meal.

Dinner was a success, followed by decades of many others. The aromas from our kitchen were mind-blowing. The cookbooks multiplied. Marty’s expertise grew to include sea bass, soft shell crabs, hot-and-sour soup, and yung sing chow mein. His Szechuan/Hunan repertory led to eye burning, coughing delights. The floor would be coated with oil, the fire alarm might blast, but it was worth it. I became the sous chef, or dop mah, and chief dishwasher for these banquets. An electric rice cooker took over that job.  

When Marty’s Parkinson’s became worse, I graduated to the stove. Marty would sit in his chair and run the show. Today, as I look around the apartment, I see all the things I couldn’t part with. I have the makings of a gourmet Chinese kitchen – three woks (one electric), two rice cookers. an assortment of knives, countless chopsticks and Chinese spoons. Indeed, it took until last year, ten years after Marty’s death, that I went through his Chinese cupboard and gathered his spices and condiments to throw out. I‘ve kept his cookbooks and the Scotch. We had some wonderful times. Were that I could bring them and him back.

Doris has been a member of IRP/LP2 since 2004.  She credits David Grogan’s Guided Autobiography study group for inspiring this writing.

The Talker

by Doris Wallace

My husband loved to say that I stop and talk to everyone, whether the bagel man, the hardware store clerk, the workers at Costco. I have my own fish man and butcher at Stew Leonard’s and even got invited to a Stew Leonard’s wedding when we became friends. (The marriage didn’t last.)

And indeed, I speak to strangers all the time. There’s often something to learn. Among the joys of travel is meeting new people, strangers at first, who have much to teach and guide me. Aren’t we more open when we travel? Invariably, when I sit next to someone on a plane I will know their life story way before the flight has landed. I must give off a certain vibe that says “Talk to me. I’ll hear you. I really listen.”

“You should have been a therapist,” my friends tell me. I really enjoy talking with people. I am replete with answers to common questions. I have learned not to always offer my solutions; they are often not wanted. Often I walk with a slight smile on my face; today masks are hiding this interaction.

I’ve probably initiated a conversation with you.

Only one time can I remember that was a downer. An old woman was sitting on the steps of my apartment building. She seemed confused so I stopped to help. It was winter and I brought her into the lobby. When I got to my apartment I noticed my wallet was missing. I rushed downstairs to retrace my steps. I had been pickpocketed. She was gone.  

Doris has been a member of IRP/LP2 since 2004.  She credits David Grogan’s Guided Autobiography study group for inspiring this writing.

 

Happy Birthday

by Charles Troob

On my twenty-third birthday, with a great deal of trepidation, I attended a meeting advertised on a Yale bulletin board as a “Homosexuality Discussion Group.” 

I had been slowly cracking open the closet door. I was now “out” to my housemates and to one friend in New York. This would be another baby step.  

I walked in and looked around. Everyone there looked pretty much like me—nerdy grad student—but I had no feeling of fellowship or relief. These men, I supposed, had accepted their assignment to the category “gay”—but I hadn’t. Though haunted by my attraction to the male body, I wasn’t prepared to exile myself from the world I’d grown up in. I still hoped that I was really a latent heterosexual: I wanted a future with a wife and family, my gay urges either suppressed or somehow dealt with on the side.  

Why then was I here? To get over the secrecy that was poisoning my life. I was terrified to be known publicly as gay—or gay-ish: to have the world see me as I really was. 

I’d been with a dozen men, but those sexual encounters had taken place in a shadow world, as though a second person inhabiting my body was indulging in them—think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I wasn’t mentally disordered: I knew that the carnally curious Mr. Hyde was the real me. If anything, he felt more authentic than the pleasant bland young man I presented to family, friends, and fellow students. To move ahead in life I would have to end this strange double identity—but that required me to find the courage to reveal to others the truth about myself.       

So it was a milestone to say my full name loudly and clearly to this group. I then sat silently, my head swimming, barely hearing the discussion. Though grateful for the presence of these men, I told them little and gave them nothing. Just to be here was effort enough.

The habit of hiding in fear and shame would prove to be hard to break. It took many years and birthdays before I was as comfortable in my skin as I am today. 

It has been challenging and valuable to write about myself in study groups at IRP/LP2—and to hear the stories of others as well.   

Thursday Nights at the Gardens

by Lorne Taichman

Thursday night was wrestling night at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Gardens, a sad, shabby, featureless building located at 60 Carlton Street in downtown Toronto, was the home of the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team. The “Leafs” won eleven Stanley Cup trophies playing at the Gardens. For hockey, the main floor of the arena was flooded and cooled to form a clear sheet of ice.  For wrestling however, a four-corner boxing ring was set up in the center with an elevated ramp leading from the ring to an exit on the side. This raised ramp allowed wrestlers to enter and exit without having to come in direct contact with angry, boisterous fans. The fans were there to see good versus evil, and those colossal forces, embodied in the wrestlers themselves, were clearly on display at the fights. The good guys fought clean, obeyed the rules; the bad guys fought dirty and never abided by the rules. 

Occasionally, on Thursday nights, my father took me to see the fights. I had no special interest in wrestling, but I was delighted to accompany him to one of his favorite haunts. My father loved wrestling. What is surprising is that this mild mannered, basically shy man would climb into the ring with the wresters and slug it out. I don’t mean that literally; he didn’t really enter the ring but if you saw him watching a match you would see why I say he was there alongside these gladiators. He followed each punch and every head lock with contortions of his own body. He would grimace and twist, kick out a leg, clench his fists as the fighters slugged each other. His gaze was riveted on the action. He was transfixed. There was no other display or activity that held him so entranced. He didn’t need to know the names or backgrounds of the antagonists. The mere sight of a match on the TV would stop him in his tracks and within a moment his jaw would be clenched, his body tense and his focus there in the pit. At the time I didn’t think it odd that this soft spoken, gentle man would so enjoy seeing two grown men pummel each other. I wonder what my mother thought of his going to watch fights and what she thought of his taking his son along. I cannot recall any resistance on her part.

The attendees at the fights were mostly men, working class Joe’s, dressed in the heavy clothes, grey windbreakers, featureless pants and unadorned caps. There was the occasional woman, but it was unusual. My father would often meet friends there. It didn’t seem pre-arranged. They just met by chance, fellow travelers on that strange violent road.

The best seats in the house were located on the ground floor. Occasionally we got to sit in that section, and when we did, I too would wait alongside that entrance ramp to get a close look at the wrestlers. I recall fans throwing peanuts at a bad-guy wrestler, Fred Atkins, I believe it was, as he made his entrance. I can still see the peanuts ricocheting off his darkly tanned, muscular chest as he snarled at the screaming fans. It was a good show. Usually we sat in the bleachers. 

The names of the wrestlers were quite creative. Whipper Billy Watson, a good guy, a Canadian, rather chunky in his build, famous for his sleeper hold and twice world champion. Bruno Sammartino, an enormous, muscular, clean fighter whose obituary recently appeared in the NY Times.  There was Yukon Eric, Killer Kowalski, Bobo Brazil, Bulldog Brower, The Masked Marvel, women wrestlers, midget wrestlers, even midget women wrestlers. There was an Israeli wrestler. I don’t recall his name and could not locate it on the internet. He was a clean fighter and when he entered the ring he would neatly drape a small white towel embossed with a blue Star of David over the top rope. Of course, we rooted for him. 

Unlikely as it may seem, there was a brief moment on those Thursday nights that was somewhat magical. After the announcer had introduced the wrestlers to the cheers and jeers of the expectant crowd, the referee would motion the combatants to the center, examine their hands and nails, give them brief instructions, and send them back to their respective corners. At that moment the lights in the arena were turned down and the overhead lights turned up full to light up the stage. All attention was directed at the ring and, I swear, there was a momentary glow that seemed to emanate from the pale white tarmac, an iridescent shimmer to the air above it. For that and only during that moment, the crowd hushed. The two combatants then slowly approached and at the right moment lunged at each other, usually grabbing the back of the opponent’s neck and attempting to go for a side head lock, a full nelson or a hammerlock, anything to immobilize the other and gain an advantage. 

Wrestlers were not allowed to strike with a closed fist. They could use a forearm or an elbow but not a fist. You could not choke or pull hair. If a part of a wrestler’s body was outside the ropes, the referee patted the wrestler on the shoulder, and he was supposed release his hold and move backward. Of course, bad guys never followed those rules. They struck with closed fists, often choked, pulled hair and never broke cleanly at the ropes. No matter how egregious the bad guy’s actions were, the referee would never disqualify the offending player. It was a fine show – good versus evil and evil often won. A fight between two good guys was boring. I don’t recall ever seeing a fight between two bad guys. It was widely held that the fights were fixed. It didn’t matter. We were not there for truth. We were there for victory over evil. 

In thinking back to those Thursday nights at the Gardens, I am struck by how strange it was that my father took me, his pre-teen son, to those events. I cannot imagine taking my children or grandchildren to such a spectacle. My father came from a different time. He lived through two world wars, a Holocaust, a time of overt antisemitism, poverty and a fiercely competitive marketplace to make his living. Perhaps the fights were a way for him to deal directly with some of the tensions and stresses he lived through. Perhaps the fights were the way he saw the world. He did live through times when evil was present and danger did lurk about. There were many corners of his life with which he struggled. Only now, many years after he is gone, do I appreciate them. The other day as I was surfing through TV channels I flashed through a wrestling match. Too bad he was not here to enjoy it. Had he been, I would have stopped the surfing and joined him in watching a good match. 

 

Lorne Taichman was a physician-scientist at Stony Brook University for over three decades. This essay was written in early 2019 for a class in Advanced Autobiography coordinated by David Grogan. Lorne has been a member of IRP/LP2 for about eight years. 

 

The Stranger

by Ron Russo

Mimi and I were having dinner at a restaurant called Luigino’s. The place came highly recommended by a number of friends. Twice before we’d made a date to eat here, and twice we had to cancel our plans. We were two years out of college and going out to a nice dinner was still a treat.

The waiter took our drink order – Scotch and water for each – and we scanned the menu. I looked up to see a man, laden with shopping bags, being ushered to a table. We made quick eye contact, then I turned my attention back to the menu. Mimi asked what I was going to order, and I suggested that we split an antipasto then each order a main course. My choice was veal scallopini; for Mimi, the grilled veal chop.

The man who’d just entered the restaurant was fussing with his shopping bags, trying to get them in place; they kept falling off the chair. The noise attracted me and once more I looked in his direction. We made eye contact once again and he nodded at me. I nodded back. “Who are you nodding to?” Mimi asked.

“Just some guy who looks like he bought out an entire store. He must have money; the shopping bags are from Alley’s.” Alley’s was an expensive clothing store in Bensonhurst which catered to – - how shall I say this – - a clientele that favored shiny suits in flashy colors. Brooks Brothers it was not.

“Well don’t stare at him,” Mimi said.

We ordered our dinner and a bottle of wine. I couldn’t help sneaking an occasional peek at this bundle-of-energy man. He was in constant motion, fussing the shopping bags, fixing his tie, checking his cuff links, moving his chair farther in or farther out. On one of my peeks we made contact yet again, and he nodded and said “hello.” I returned his greeting then turned my attention back to Mimi. “I knew you’d say hello to this guy. You always attract the crazies.”

The stranger stared at the platter of antipasto as it passed him, on its way to our table: a bounty of cheeses, cured meats and stuffed mushrooms. As I put a forkful into my mouth I once again noticed the man staring. This time he said, “Excuse me, can I axe you a question?” Mimi sighed quietly. “Sure,” I replied.

“Have you kids been here before?”

“No, first time.”

“Cauz if you wuz here before you woulda ordered the clams casino.  They’re the best.”

“Next time I will, thank you” I said. Mimi and I continued to eat and chat.  A few minutes later the waiter was heading to our table with a large platter.  He was bringing the main course before we’ had even finished with the appetizer. “Poor service”, I thought; but it turned out to be a dozen clams casino. 

“Compliments of the gentleman at that table,” the waiter said, pointing.

I raised my glass in a salute and said “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome. I hope you and your pretty friend like clams.” This, of course, got Mimi’s attention. She turned, raised her glass and thanked him also. “Salud,” he said.

“That was nice of him,” Mimi said. “I wonder why he’s eating alone?”

The clams casino were indeed delicious, and unusual in that they had slivers of prosciutto mixed into the breading. “Should we send over a drink, Mimi?”

“No, that’ll encourage him even more.”

We turned our attention to the main courses that were arriving and got lost in conversation. As we were finishing our meals, I sneaked another glance at the stranger. His table was filled with plates, which seemed largely untouched. He said, “Look at all this leftover food. It’s a sin. That’s why I hate to eat alone. It’s better when you share a meal.”

I couldn’t help myself.  “Would you like to join us?” I asked.

“I don’t wanna break in on your date,” he said.

 “No, really, it’s not a date, we’re friends. Join us.”

He summoned the waiter who pulled a table up to ours and started transferring the many dishes. “What’s your name? I’m Frankie Gagliardi,” the stranger said and I introduced myself and Mimi. Frankie was probably in his early fifties, thinning hair slicked back, well-fitted shiny suit. “Ya know, the name I go by is Frankie ol’ Pal. That’s because they say I’m everybody’s pal. Too friendly.”

Frankie ol’ Pal? Sounded like a gang nickname. But he was right about being friendly. For the next two hours he talked about himself, politics, family, food – but he also asked about us. By this point he’d ordered, and we’d finished, another bottle of wine. When we told him we lived in Bensonhurst, he was surprised. “Youz ain’t Italian, are you?”

 “Sure are. Mimi was born in Sicily, even.” Now he took Mimi’s hand and kissed it. “I swear, I thought you kids were real Americans, you know how they say, WASPs. I bet you went to college you’re smart, and speak so good. Let’s have a toast. You ever have Grand Marnier?” he asked, pronouncing it “Grand Man-yay”. We hadn’t. Once again the waiter was summoned and Frankie said, “Bring these kids some Grand Man-yay.  Bring the bottle.”

We drank a few rounds then suddenly Frankie looked at his watch and said “I gotta go, I still got some business tonight. My work never ends. But listen:  every Fourth of July I throw a block party on President Street. We have fireworks better than Macy’s. You kids come this year, promise?” Then he put his hand in his pocket, withdrew a business card and handed it to me. “If you ever need work, I could always use a smart young guy like you. I won’t forget.” In a flash, he and his shopping bags were out the door.

Mimi was quite drunk, and I was feeling no pain either. We called for the check and the waiter said, “Already taken care of.” We were delighted, though not surprised.

Next day Mimi was so hungover she took a sick day. I felt fairly wretched myself but made it through the workday. That night I called Mimi.  “Quite an evening we had. I think I got recruited for the Mafia. And I think it’s a better deal than working for the phone company. I’m gonna call him”, I said, only half-joking.

“Don’t be an idiot, Ronnie, you don’t fool around with stuff like this.” Of course, she was right.

Twenty odd years later, one June, I was in downtown Brooklyn and found myself walking along President Street. I saw a group of teenagers hanging out and I asked, “Do they still have the Fourth of July block party?  With fireworks?” They nodded yes. “And does Frankie Gagliardi still live here?” Now they stared at me with interest.

“You mean Frankie ol’ Pal? No, he died a few years ago. Who wants to know?”

“Just an old friend,” I replied, and began walking to the subway, thinking ….

Ron Russo has been taking writing study groups at LP2 for many years. They provide the inspiration for him to put fingers to keyboard.

Rice Balls

by Ron Russo

It’s New Year’s Eve, early in the morning, and my father is already up, showered and dressed. He’s surveying the kitchen like a general, getting supplies out of the refrigerator and pantry, neatly arranging them. Today is one of many in which my father excels in the kitchen. But perhaps today is the greatest of them all. Today Charlie Russo is making rice balls.

Rice balls are known as “arancini” to Italians, meaning “little oranges.”  That’s how they’re shaped, and thus they were named. People in Dad’s neighborhood eagerly await this day, for tonight there’ll be a party at one of their homes and my father will attend, bearing a huge tray of these scrumptious treats.

My mother awakens soon, grabs a cup of coffee and does her own surveying. “Try not to use every god-damned pot and pan,” she warns. My father takes no heed; he hears this every year, nods his head, then moves forward using every pot and pan imaginable.

Making rice balls is an all-day process. “It takes as much work to make ten as it does to make sixty,” Dad’s often said. Sixty is the approximate goal every year. He starts by boiling the rice – three pounds of it – then draining it, slightly-undercooked. Quickly he adds a huge amount of butter and a very generous mountain of grated Parmigiano cheese. He mixes it all vigorously then starts preparing the filling, which is a simple ragu – - a meaty sauce which contains onion, garlic, ground beef and a hint of tomato sauce that is simmered till it’s thick and fragrant. While the ragu is cooking, dad occasionally stirs the rice so that it doesn’t stick. When it’s lukewarm, he adds about a dozen egg yolks. Once the ragu is ready, he pulls out the ice-cream scoop, digs it into the rice, and makes a half-ball. With a small teaspoon he forms a well in the center and fills it with ragu. Then, with his hands he molds a top half, and the first rice ball is ready for frying. This is done in olive oil. First it’s rolled into the saved egg whites, then breaded; finally getting lowered into the sizzling oil and fried till the coating is crisp.  One down, fifty-nine more to fry.

When in my forties I decided to make a batch of rice balls. I enjoyed cooking, and figured I’d invite some friends over to eat them. I tried to get the recipe from my father but it was painful for him to try and note measurements. “Use only imported Parmigiano,” he warned, but when I asked “How much?” I got “You know. Taste along the way, stop when it tastes right.” I used instinct and would have done fine if I’d remembered the eggs. Without them, the rice balls fell apart when I tried to fry them. So I got a tasty mountain of savory fried rice. It wasn’t bad, but still . . . . 

A few years later my father died, and about a month after his funeral I got an irrepressible yen for Dad’s rice balls. It was Christmas season, just the right time of year. I had finally wangled a recipe, with measurements, from Dad after my first failure. I was ready to go.

I set up the necessary pots, pans and bowls. I made sure that I had the eggs separated and ready; I’d lined up the ingredients for the ragu; I took the imported Parmigiano out of the fridge. I was going the full route: three pounds of rice to make approximately sixty arancini.

I worked very slowly and deliberately; I had no other plans for that day.  Shaping the balls was trickier than I’d figured, and I created a few unidentifiable geometric shapes before I got the hang of it. Needless to say my father was on my mind as I was working. I’m neither religious nor superstitious, but I found myself talking to him, in my head. “Let me get this right, Dad. Let these rice balls taste like yours.”

That night I had my brother to dinner. He was never a chatty sort, nor ebullient with praise, but he took his first bite of my rice ball and his eyes popped. “God, Ron. These taste just like Dad’s!” He couldn’t have said anything better. This coming New Year’s Eve I plan on making rice balls once again. In this time of social distancing, I don’t know with whom I’ll share them. But even if I just eat a few, and freeze the rest, it will be worth the effort. Because to hear my father’s voice once again, as I undoubtedly shall, will make it all worthwhile.

  

Ron Russo has been taking writing study groups at LP2 for many years. They provide the inspiration for him to put fingers to keyboard.