Center of the Universe (15)
Knowledge of Nurgeon
Sandy wants to know — again — if the salmon is wild.
I think he’s happier when it isn’t, because then he can perform his aquaculture lecture, which is based on something he picked up in Michael Pollan’s books or from NPR or from a friend who’s chair of the marine biology department at Santa Cruz or McGill or some such, or from another friend, Michael Horowitz (he always says both of Michael’s names, to reinforce the gravitas), dean at the U. of Tonga (yes, that Tonga, the tiny island-nation that puts out the collectible postage stamps you coveted during a pre-pubescent stamp-collecting phase).
Anyway, one or more of them warned Sandy about the perils of farmed, and now he’d like to warn you — if you happen to wait tables at the Center of the Universe.
So, sometimes he delivers the lecture to Heather, who we were surprised to learn he knew before Sorellas, who once scooped Capuccino Chocolate Crunch at Double Rainbow in San Rafael, where Sandy likes to hang — for the ice cream, free wi-fi, late hours and, perhaps, in the day, the tall, lissome, exceedingly patient Heather. And sometimes he says it to Carlos, who stands by the table, amicably impassive, pen poised over pad, to signify he’s ready for the dinner orders that, farmed or no, will follow — eventually — when the blah-blah-quack-quack is over.
And sometimes Sandy lectures Soy.
Soy, the hostest with the mostest, crinkles her face as if awaiting the punchline of a joke — though, having heard this lecture a half-dozen times, she definitely knows it isn’t. With 25 years in the industry, face-to-whining-face, nightly, with the retail public, Soy has surely seen it all — though Sandy may qualify, even in the restaurant biz (much as in the music biz), as sui generis.
In a sense, the lecture — which elucidates some of the less appetizing circumstances of salmon farming — is a joke. Like every Sandy lecture, it verges on tongue-in-cheek, with a soupçon of self-parody. Long before he became a college prof (of music, technology and copyright law, if I’m understanding that lecture correctly), Sandy’s discourse was already stuffed to the piscatorial pharynx with big professorial words, as well as smaller words he’d augment with Greek prefixes like “crypto-,” “proto-,” “psycho-,” “meta-,” and “trans-” and that served, indeed, as a kind of punchline to his pseudo-pedagogy. Even as a word guy, I often find Sandy’s words — not to mention his socio-cultural, historio-scientific references — sailing over my head (trans-cranial?), especially when I’m trying to duck it under the table during the seafood specials recitative.
It took Roni, raised in Brooklyn when it meant something — pugilistically speaking — to get him to stifle.
“You know it’s not wild, Sandy,” she’d say the next time we dined. “So please!”
An exasperating combo platter of compulsion and defiance, he would invariably continue. Which is when the girl from Brooklyn would tell her friend from Queens, the rock and aquaculture eminence, to shut the fuck up. In so many words. None of them, no matter the hippie Fairfax environs, peace or love.
Eventually Sandy tried a new tack, prefacing his interrogations with disclaimer.
“I know Roni doesn’t want me to ask this,” he’d begin, with exaggerated diction, small, precise gestures and a non-confrontational tilt of the hatted head, as if to suggest Roni’s the crazy one. “But might I inquire if the salmon is…”
Whereupon Roni would flash him the baby-blues and let out a growl. An actual growl.
Sometimes on Friday, our traditional Sandy night out, I’d say we should give him a ring, and she’d say: “Gah! I don’t know if I can go through all that salmon shit.”
Other times, when we did call, or he called us, Roni would stride through the restaurant door and preemptively ask if there are any wild fish on the night’s menu. And turn to Sandy and say: “There!”
Just between us, Sandy can be a pain. But I wonder if that isn’t some of the pleasure. And some of the reason why, for 40 years, he’s been hanging around my life and writing. And I wonder if I like to write about Sandy because it’s my only chance to get a word in edgewise. Or just because I find him fascinating — if not always for the reasons he imagines. His erudition, accomplishments and cult (and Cult) celebrity may, in fact, be the least of his attraction — though I always recite his CV to new folks, if only to give Sandy a lift.
I tried to recite his CV when I introduced him to our friend and fellow regular Gary. But I could barely get the name Sandy out when Gary said:
“You’re not Sandy Pearlman?!? Blue Öyster Cult Sandy?”
Turned out Gary (as previously noted) is a big fan, reaching into his Hawaiian shirt to prove it with a BÖC Kronos-symbol necklace. Next day the four of us watched the Super Bowl together.
It may be easier to love the mushy mensch behind the machine. The tenderhearted humanoid — to drop a Sandy-ism — behind the tartmouthed blowhard. The Sandy who called us in Paris, worried sick, night of the November massacre. Who loves us back. The Sandy who might make the other Sandy queasy.
But there could never be one without the other.
And a dozen years ago, I found both standing in the door of my office, hung up on a whole other fish.
Joining a discussion with Parker, my partner in ad crime, about the intimidating sea-creature a Fairfax neighbor had extracted from the Bay the night before, Sandy commenced pontification. After unspooling the most extraordinary, extemporaneous, unexpurgated encyclopedia on the topic, he paused, grinning, with a triumphal tilt of the hat — sui generis in the best way.
“You probably didn’t know,” the well-known polymath crowed, in a rare moment of naked, needy hubris, “that I possessed such a vast and comprehensive knowledge of…”
And then the engine seized.
He gathered himself.
“Nurgeon…,” he said. “Knowledge of…” — awkward beat — “nurgeon.”
He tried slowing it down:
“Knowledge. Of. Nurgeon.”
And it went on like that for a while, a long while, until Parker slung him a life-preserver:
And in deference to Sandy — every one of him — every one of us made sure not to laugh.