Center of the Universe (44)
When the temperature soars in Fairfax — which it does for a week or ten days every summer — Roni and I have been known to ditch the vaunted camaraderie of the town nicknamed Mayberry on Acid and escape to the studio we rent in the city, surrounded by San Francisco weather — which, if you haven’t heard the Twain chestnut, tends to the chilly when everywhere else is not. Folks who live in the town nicknamed Fog City nonetheless complain that, with sea-level clouds blocking the sun as diabolically as Mr. Burns’s giant mechanized umbrella, they never get a real summer. Well, on Friday — even as President Orange (Mr. Burns, with none of the charm) was trial-ballooning new torments for the children of brown people, and South Texas and South Asia were drowning — the top story on Maddow was San Francisco hits 106. San Francisco!
Meantime, Fairfax was 104. Ha-ha on us.
On Saturday, we slinked back for a dinner date in Fairfax, a followup — in real life — to last week’s online fable in which Jacquie Phelan said she’d never been to Sorellas because she and her injured hubby, fellow bike pioneer Charlie Cunningham, now the beneficiary of a GoFundMe campaign, couldn’t afford restaurants.
“We’ll have to take you,” I said, chastened. And just a few days later — partly in an effort to reassure a person who’s relentlessly real that I am, too — we did.
I texted Soy to call the riot squad because Roni, escorted by me and one other, was coming in — an ongoing gag I may already have explained. Soy texted back, and, in a nice bit of phrasemaking, said it was “hot hot” in the restaurant and was I “cool” with that. I countered that it’s “always hot hot at the Sisters!” But I’ll admit here, with Fairfax at 100-plus, two days in a row (SF, too), I was a little worried. Because when it’s hot, Soy and Sonia’s glorious restaurant — with windows all around, no AC, no shade, a kitchen pumping heat, zero insulation and a skimpy ceiling that used to be canvas (under prior owners, the place was called Ragtop) — is hotter. The funk of the architecture — a 1930s gas station turned into a 1970s redwood yurt — is part of the Fairfaxian charm. So I’d never want them to change it. But when Soy’s husband John was squinting up at a window by the roof, pointing out, with a troublemaking grin, that a single modest unit could cool the whole place, I assured him his plan would have the full support of this blog’s editorial board.
It was not only too hot to go any place without air-conditioning, it was Labor Day weekend, and Fairfaxites who weren’t out at Samuel P. Taylor State Park were in Black Rock Desert, if you can imagine, at Burning Man. Burning Man’s even bigger in Fairfax than in SF — where the week of the festival makes it possible to get reservations at trendy restaurants and traffic eases by a good 30 percent. And Sorellas was practically empty — on a Saturday. It was also quiet. Wendy and Steve had a fat Labor Day gig elsewhere, Dave was home with Joan (who was home with a hurting hip), and Robert Ellis, the classically trained, wickedly unrestrained keyboardist — who with white mane flying is a cross between Beethoven and Jerry Lee Lewis and who now sits, stands and kneels every other Thursday at the spinet in Sorellas, while on the rare occasion subbing for Wendy — had been sent home.
“Too hot, too empty,” Big Sister said.
Soy put us at the semi-circular booth in the corner, the famous Family Table, and while we awaited Jacquie, John joined us, trolling the table about health insurance, having recently had the chance to use his to the max, following a heart scare that required an ambulance and a battery of outrageously priced tests. A self-employed contractor and musician, he’s been paying for a Cadillac plan from Kaiser for 25 years. Never let the premiums lapse. And now, he’s almost happy to say, it has paid off.
“Cost me nothing,” he says proudly, pulling down the neck of his t-shirt to show the heart monitoring disk on his chest. “You wanna know the real problem with healthcare in this country? People don’t wanna pay for it.”
While his politics have a Republican/libertarian flavor, with a pinch of progressive anarchism in a thick roux of post-Watergate cynicism (fundamental faith of irate lefties and righties alike), John’s main ideology is troublemaking. Soy’s parents were in, but at a table in the middle, where they were in the middle of dinner with an old friend. When they joined us later, Rev. Kang told me he’d met this friend, who went on to be a photographer, when they both attended theological seminary in San Anselmo. Fellow had been a soldier in the Korean War and, on leave with two buddies in Tokyo, had come up short on a restaurant check. Restaurant lady said, Don’t worry. But he promised to come back and pay. Sixteen months later, he did. And a few months after that — Kang laughs, pitch and volume rising, finger pointing the punchline at my solar plexus — he and the restaurant lady were married! Still are. And, 40 years ago, circled back to San Anselmo, Butterfield Road, a mile-and-a-half from the Family Table where we have now convened. It’s a story he tells every time his scrupulous pal is in the restaurant, but it’s OK because I forget stuff. Anyway, I enjoy when Kang starts pointing.
The drummer from Bruce Hornsby’s band came by to say hey to John — tall, skinny shavehead in horn-rims, a regular who sometimes sits in on skins when John drifts off to grab another Peroni from the kitchen fridge or schmooze with other visiting music types. Lives in Fairfax, plays in an all-star band funded by a guitarist who was an early Valley billionaire — “Pays ’em to be on call,” said John, in a nice-work-if-you-can-get-it aside. The conversation, as all conversations this day, turned quickly to the heat, and Shavehead said something about playing a gig in this weather. “Yeah, but you’re just a drummer,” I said. “Don’t have to do much.” And the tall drumstick goggled me through horn-rims for a second, unsure if I was serious, unsure exactly who I was in the scheme, and very slowly smiled. Ah, a wise guy, he thought. Told us there was a guy once said something like that to him for real.
I guess I believe in troublemaking, too.
The sliding windows behind us were open, could go no wider — Roni and I each double-checked. But with not a breath of breeze all weekend anywhere, the front room remained, as advertised, hot hot.
When Jacquie arrived, John started in on her, challenging like a tough kid from Newburgh challenges any stranger. Newburgh is the tough town a couple hours north of Manhattan that in 2011 New York magazine labeled the “Murder Capital of New York.” Like that, tough.
“Whaddya mean you’ve never been here before?” he said.
She said something dinner-party euphemistic, whimsically arch, about restaurants not being on her agenda. And John wanted to know what does that mean. But what he really meant was: baloney.
Jacquie looked him straight and clarified: “We can’t afford it.”
And finally John said, with what passes for a welcoming smile, “Oh, you’re the chick from the blog! Now I get it.”
Our waiter was the new kid on the block at Sorellas. Except he wasn’t a kid. Appeared to have some mild hearing loss, uncorrected. And actually had emigrated as a young man from the Old Country — the token Italian among this Italian restaurant’s ethnic mish-mash. In general, I have found over the three or four months of his tenure, the Italiano autentico, in keeping perhaps with Old World custom, prefers to skip the recitation of the daily specials. And tonight when I asked for a chunk of the Grana Padano for our newly arrived guest, he brought her a glass of white wine. And when I pressed again for the specials — which don’t change much, but sometimes — he eventually reeled off the list with all the expression of text-to-voice: pork chops, gigli pasta with crab, salmon with mango salsa or white wine sauce. “And then,” he said, pausing. “And then we have the, you know…” And he held his hands about 8 inches apart to suggest the longitudinal dimension of the special. “The, ah, you know…with the eye…” And he re-emphasized the dimension, staring intently into his measuring hands. And I think it must have been John who finally bailed him — and us — by calling out “Branzino.”
And when he retreated to the kitchen, John confided, “I love this guy! He’s a curmudgeon like me. Takes no shit from no one.”
That’s around the time that Gary, who tends to show up after everyone else has already ordered — maybe because he’s looking for ideas, maybe because he’s bashful — sat on the banquette alongside the guest of honor. Soon, they were all wrapped up in a big ball of chat. Gary, who was laid off from his software job and on a tight budget himself and who might be excused for being a tiny bit downcast, had yet another problem, needing help — preferably cheap — for a young person who hates the world. And Jacquie, with her messianic streak, likes to help, especially when it’s demonstrating possibilities outside the mainstream — whether that’s free discards from the health-food store or free counseling from whom or what I couldn’t hear over the thrice-told tale of a Tokyo check-skipper. And from all those years of cheering herself to another racing victory or just to the finish of an unimaginable double-century, Jacquie’s a cheerleader. I even had first-hand experience of Jacquie cheerleading, one long-ago Thanksgiving, when I was pedaling my toddler up Pine Mountain. Recently I experienced more, when she took it upon herself to read the whole damn blog — which is why she said she ordered lasagna. And even if she’d never said anything nice afterwards, reading the whole damn blog is a compliment in and of itself.
But it was a weird Saturday. Truly the dog days. No Wendy and band and guest stars and groupies. No Kangs, not till later. No George or Flo or Melinda or Carol. No Heather. Or Carlos. At first, no Gary either. And no customers, not compared to a normal Saturday. Just Roni, John, me — and an authentic Italian — swimming in the sweltering soupy air. And I felt weird about it. It was me who invited Jacquie, and I felt responsible. But I always feel responsible when it comes to dinners, parties, nights-out or wherever and whenever people gather, even if the party isn’t mine. Somehow, long before such unholy creatures were even named, I had been born an event-planner — or maybe a herding dog, like our old Corgi Pepper. I can’t help it. I’m sure it points to deeper character flaws — probably that I’m a control freak. But I like to put people together. Foment fun. Real fun. And often that seems to involve real music, real food, real drink and real interesting people, especially those who might not otherwise meet. I like worlds colliding. And when this event headed for the ditch — or never got out of the ditch in the first place — I wanted to tell Jacquie that, you have to understand, what I write in the blog is the idyllic version. On occasion, the rare occasion, it does fall flat, IRL. And when I say “True Tales of Spaghetti and Meatballs,” I mean — and I’ve confessed it before — more or less true. I wanted to tell her to give us all a second chance.
I calmed down eventually. Or maybe the heat subsided. And scanning the table, I could see it had happened in spite of me, in spite of it all. Gemütlikeit. Bonhomie. Fellowship. Even fun. Between heartfelt soliloquies of advice to Gary — who was getting happy on both the encouragement and pitchers of sangria Soy kept sliding onto the table — Jacquie tried out some Middlebury College Japanese on Kang, all the while, to Maria’s astonishment, sampling with gusto everyone else’s food. Gnawing like an Elizabethan on John’s pork chop bone, scooping up Gary’s pasta, spearing a chunk of my trout and barely denting her own lasagna. Which, admittedly, is big enough it can be hard to tell. Big enough it moved John to tell me that when we first started coming in he used to point out to Soy how “that guy” — and I’m sure he called me that fat guy or that bald guy — could put away a whole order of lasagna! That became his thing about me, he said, with a chuckle. The Lasagna Guy.
“Yeah,” I replied, only a little peeved at the historical slight, “no wonder I got fat.”
But the Family Table was percolating. Roni regaling Maria (and vice-versa, in her chaste way). Kang regaling me. John trolling everyone (and then, getting not enough resistance, drifting off to schmooze with visiting music types). Jacquie and Gary solving the problems of the world — or at least of one drooping post-adolescent. And Sonia, newly liberated from the front of the stove, dispensing Portuguese to her parents, more sangria to Gary. There was heat, but now there was also noise. Light. Life.