Center of the Universe (1)
Part I: Party of the First Part
Six thousand miles from our town of 7,000, Gleb Lisichkin packs a small bag. He doesn’t need much, beyond the occasional change of rock t-shirts, and is only traveling for a month. Gleb, who lives in Moscow, is going to California. And our son, who is his friend and co-worker in Moscow, emailed to ask if we could offer Gleb a little hospitality.
My wife and I live 23 miles outside San Francisco in a small town she refuses to call a suburb, and for good reason. “Suburb” evokes the 1950s, the Age of Conformity, master-planned Levittowns, trimmed grass and broad, spongy streets that meander — but strictly according to the architect’s Bézier curves and developer’s density requirements. Compared to the stereotypical suburb, our town is practically medieval, with bumpy, crumbling streets that zig-zag up 30-degree hills and are narrow enough that visiting drivers never imagine they’re two-way, a town with not a swatch of residential grass — unless you count what’s growing in countless sheds, back bedrooms and barely freestanding one-truck garages — nor a whit of planning, master or otherwise.
Much like a medieval village, our town was built willy-nilly — homes, shops and infrastructure — proudly jerry-rigged atop hiking trails, bootlegger roads, deer paths and Miwok burial grounds through a redwood forest on the lee of Mount Tamalpais, by the residents themselves, amateur contractors all. No matter how accurate it may be, demo-geographically, to designate this town of 7,000–7,441, to be demo-geographically precise — as suburban, Fairfax, to Roni’s point, evokes nothing of the kind. In the only US town with a Green Party majority on its council, the 2000s remains the 1960s, when Fairfax was host to a storied softball contest between the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and the Sleeping Lady club swirled in the psychedelic post-game jam, a wrinkle-in-time Valhalla where — militantly, defiantly, wistfully — it is still and forever the Age of Non-Conformity.
Fairfax first shot to public notice as the site of California’s last political duel (assemblyman Showalter over assemblyman Piercy) in 1861, but didn’t bother to incorporate until 1931. Which may have had something to do with Prohibition when, in search of pliable government and a convenient staging area for Bay Area booze distribution, the Mob muscled in. We stumbled onto this west-coast micro-Chicago in 1984, by which time it was better known as the home to Wildwood Foods and distribution hub for Bay Area tofu.
Driven out of New York City by the ludicrous economics of a freelance rock critic married to a painter, an existence made all the more risible by the arrival of pretty-precious, I had snagged a bottom-rung copywriting job at Bank of America in San Francisco. When I flew out early to try find an apartment in the City, I discovered that a scruffy New Yorker lacking local references, with a rental history no less murky than his resumé, spooked city landlords. In a panic, I found a friend of a friend who knew a guy who managed a complex in Marin County. But even with that pseudo-inside track, I was forced to ask my pathologically honest father-in-law to pretend to be my former employer, which he did badly enough that it almost cost us the deal. Still, from the git, the Marin apartment was too pricey. And weekends, with a six-month-old in the backseat of a new, well-used Saab, we set about exploring our exile’s environs — its extraordinary displays of nature and exasperating housing stock — looking for escape. It was opening day of the Fairfax Festival when we found it.
The scuffed, brown Swede was stuck in traffic behind the cutest parade ever seen, outside of Main Street, Disneyland. But it was not a pretty scene. Dad was starving and baby was screaming and mom was getting a migraine and the trippy processional was neverending: Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Little Leaguers, Dance Theater Seven ballerinas, Tae Kwan Do warriors, wave after human wave of Deer Park Daycare and Manor School tykes on trikes, the fleshy femmes and bony boys, undulating together in harem garb, of the belly-dancing academy, Freefall the Clown in whiteface and blond dreadlocks juggling bowling pins, a pirate on a twelve-foot bike weaving through stilt-walkers, the mayor, on the back of a red Camaro convertible, a pair of state legislators (safe from intra-legislative gunplay) in a suicide-doors Lincoln, and Nave’s Italian Patrola (sponsored by Nave’s bar): nine old bar-flies with big, fake mustaches, fake rifles and real beer bellies, in boots, army drab and World War I helmets, who would periodically erupt into a comedic drill routine culminating in a catastrophic crash and nine fatsos flat on the pavement. As lunchtime loomed, a merciful constable took pity and let us slip into a parking spot on the side street opposite Spanky’s.
Though the swirly Fillmore-poster typography of its sign might suggest (to a New Yorker) unhealthy hygiene and inedibly healthy recipes, Spanky’s turned out to be perfectly tidy and the food — familiar greasy-spoon fare with grains on the side — tasty as any all-American breakfast. Best of all, it had a model train that, at irregular intervals, or when a frazzled parent pleaded, did a few urgent laps around the room on a track near the ceiling. After we realized that — because it was a jerry-rigged hippie town, an hour in rush from the city — Fairfax was as cheap as anywhere in the Bay Area, we connived to buy a jerry-rigged house and went to Spanky’s a lot.It became our place.
Spanky’s was one of a half-dozen restaurants in town. There was a deli, a hole-in-the-wall burger joint, a mom-and-pop diner that featured silhouetted Polaroids of Fairfax residents (including, eventually, us) in a dollhouse diorama in its front window. There was an old-school Cantonese that lasted a decade, even though I never saw anyone inside, and an old-school Italian called Pucci’s. We tried them all in the early days — except for the Chinese, partly because it seemed so sketchy, partly because it was two blocks further. But it wasn’t so much distance that became the problem with Spanky’s. It was crossing Sir Francis Drake, the main east-west thoroughfare in mid-Marin, while cradling pretty-precious, who had gobbled up our lives and dreams and was not only the focal point, but the Marshall amplifier of all our fears — the cars were too fast, crosswalk too poorly marked and the downside, well, that could never be.
So we switched places.
I always have to have a place. Actually, two places: a bar place (and, owing to its boozy heritage, Fairfax offered a half-dozen of those, too). And a restaurant place. And Pucci’s was now the latter.
First of all, we could get there without crossing any major traffic arteries. Sidewalk all the way. And once she started eating solid food, you could never go wrong with spizghetty. So Fridays, when I got home from copywriting for Bank of America, the three of us would stroll down to Pucci’s. When there was a special occasion or an out-of-town visitor, we’d stroll down other evenings, too. Twice we dined next to Don Novello, the comedian who played Vatican gossip columnist Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live. It was his neighborhood Italian, too. One time he filmed a Father Guido piece at the big round table, which he pretended was a big, round tavola in his fake-native Italia.
After he painted out Mario’s name on the awning (I want to say “angrily,” but can’t, definitively, since I wasn’t there), Pucci’s restaurant was solely owned and operated by Enrico Pucci. Mr. Pucci was an Italian emigré of late middle-age who bore an uncanny resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield. (Or, if you’re Roni, Ernest Borgnine.) As a guy who stereotypes Italians as emotionally warm, I can confess — now that it’s no longer my place, now that it’s changed hands and my spizghetty-eaters are grown and the padrone has gone to his reward — that Mr. Pucci was a letdown. A place isn’t your place unless the place’s owner knows your name. And in all the years — eight? ten? — I went weekly, he never indicated he did. I think he recognized my face and, after a few years, figured out my favorite table. A couple of times he may have tried to smile. But he never said my name. Or Roni’s. And on birthdays or anniversaries, never sent over a complimentary glass of Chianti. Instead, ol’ raccoon-eyes hunched over a two-top in the corner swigging his and, occasionally, by way of hospitality management techniques ported from the old country, making agitated gestures at one of his servers.
But for a while, Pucci’s was the only game in town, spizghetty-wise. And if the joint wasn’t the warmest and fuzziest, it was close by. And ours. So we stayed put. No doubt we were ripe for the picking when a competitor landed, two full blocks closer.
That location had been a gas station in the Forties. Not sure when it permanently ran out of gas, but in the Seventies, some enterprising visionary covered it in canvas and offered the town’s first fine-dining experience. It was doomed from conception, but spent five years limping to the grave. Whereupon another local visionary hallucinated a more casual place, half-Chinese, half-Japanese, Szechuan in the front, sushi in the back. But even as lovers of both halves, we found the effort surprisingly half-hearted. Or maybe not so surprisingly. Over the dank decades, little Fairfax — where rent is cheap, weed plentiful and the metal detector store closed last week, to no audible lamentations, after less than a year — has regularly hosted some of the most woebegone experiments in retail ever undercapitalized. And after Chez Half-and-Half got a tad too stinky, the hippie helicopter-parents’ hotline alerted us that some unspecified patron — a friend of a friend of a friend — had come down with food poisoning (a common, arguably racist rumor in those early days of eeewww-raw-fish!), and that was that. And gets me to the point: we have a new place.
So does Gleb Lisichkin.