Who would think that wandering aimlessly throughout Midtown could be calming? It is not quiet, it is not serene. Perhaps it is a melding with the constant movement of the masses that is trance-inducing. Whatever it is, I find it odd and pleasant. But, why question what works?
Rizzoli Bookstore catches my eye. Here I am in the city at last, and I can’t shake the habitual need of a good book and a place to crash. Rizzoli’s is the quintessential bookstore.
Built-in oak bookshelves run from floor to ceiling in the three-storied space. The open staircase and rooms are lit with chandeliers, although the interior is flooded with natural light from windows that make up the entire front façade. I would shop here for no other reason than to take pleasure in the sheer beauty of the place.
I browse the children’s section and try to find a gift for the kids.
Some of my earliest memories are related to books. Curled up in her lap, Mother would read to me, coax me into following with her; running my finger across the words, I trailed her motions from left to right. Moving through the book, we spent as much time discussing the illustrations as we did the meaning. Always busiest during those days before I entered school, I knew this was precious time she set aside especially for me.
I cannot help but smile when I come across the Miroslav Sasek collection. THIS IS ROME reminds me of a dear childhood friend. How many times, I wonder, did she carry it and others back and forth between our houses tucked away in an old yellow Samsonite suitcase she had covered with stickers?
Scanning the section further, I notice they don’t have a copy of Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 ALABAMA GHOSTS and JEFFREY. There isn’t a bookstore in all the South that doesn’t have it and Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD up front and on display. With good reason – for gifted storytellers are held in much esteem in our region. Storytelling seems a talent bestowed before birth, rather than being acquired with time and knowledge.
Books brand within the heart a place that is all their own. As a child, Beatrix Potter was my favorite author and was an easy bribe that Mother would use to get me to behave during church services. If I managed to mind my manners throughout the sermon, she would let me visit the tiny library while she straightened her Sunday school classroom.
One afternoon she took longer than usual and as I sat there turning the glossy pages, I thought how wonderful it would be to take the book home. Not check it out, but take it, for it to be mine. Sliding off my Mary Janes so they didn’t click against the hardwood floor, I tip-toed to her classroom and peeked through the door. Sure that she was thoroughly preoccupied arranging art projects and cleaning away the paints, I took the book and slid it under the backseat of our car. After my bath that night I reread it, ran my fingers over the same glossy illustrations then tucked it away underneath my bed. But, when I rolled over to say my prayers, I realized I couldn’t.
The following Sunday I returned it to the library and apologized. Home from church and still filled with guilt, I walked down the road to my best friend’s house. Since it seemed we often wound up in trouble together, I thought she might be the best person with whom I should confide. Sitting at the kitchen table, we made pineapple sandwiches and listened to her mother carry on a conversation with Ricardo Montalbán who was on TV.
We slathered mounds of mayo on soft white bread, tore slices of pineapple to fit, then crammed our mouths full. These were our favorite summertime sandwiches and they had become an afternoon ritual. In between mouthfuls, I told her what I’d done then asked her the all-consuming question. “Do you think I am going to hell?”
Laughter in the living room rose above the noise of the TV. Zandra’s mother came into the room, walked to the table and sat down with us. She asked if I would make her a sandwich.
I nodded yes and was glad. It gave my eyes a place to go, helped to ease my embarrassment. She took the sandwich then and tried it, saying between bites, “People from Alaska don’t eat pineapple sandwiches.” I almost reminded her that she was Mexican, but took another bite instead. I knew that by trying my sandwich, she was being nice. Besides, she couldn’t fuss with a full-mouth.
“Now, your people are Baptist, right?”
“Yes mam,” I said, trying not to look down.
“And you are saved, isn’t that right?”
“Yes mam,” I responded quickly.
“Then why do you worry that you will go to hell if you are saved and your church believes that once saved always saved?”
I had to think about this for a minute. I had heard this quoted often enough, once used in defense after a certain man in my family stated without thought that Sunday morning fishing was better than fishing any other day of the week. And, then I told her the truth. “Because, I don’t believe that people who keep doing bad things get to go to heaven just because they once got saved. Unless people who do bad things are really, really sorry and pray for forgiveness, I think they go to hell with all the other people who do bad things,” I explained.
Putting her hand on top of mine, she laughed and said, “Child, you are not Baptist at all! You are Catholic!”
It would be years later before I realized that, for me, comparing the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and my conservative Protestant Church was much like comparing the platforms of the Democratic and Republican Parties. While I agreed with many beliefs and issues from each, I could not agree with all from either. This shared meal and conversation is my last memory of the family with whom I was so close. At the end of summer, my parents purchased land for our new home and we moved from our small neighborhood out into the country. My friend and her parents returned to Alaska. But, our common, once shared love of books continued.
Back outside into the city and noise, the sun is shining and I decide that sightseeing, squeezed in with the few stores I want to visit, might not be a bad thing. On Madison Avenue, I pause to take in the Roosevelt Hotel New York. Built in 1924, it was dubbed the “Grand Dame of Madison Avenue.”
I make my way inside. A stairway leads guests up into the lobby. The magnificent chandelier, marbled floors and the black ironwork immediately remind me of New Orleans. How wonderful it would have been to be a guest here during the twenties, engulfed in the bustle of gay nightlife!
Not having anything else nearby I care to see, I head for Bergdorf Goodman, and wish again that it was the holiday season, that their famous storefront windows were decorated for Christmas.
Basement Level, I find the beauty department and perfume.
I think my love of perfume began with an obsession for bottles. Later, it was an association of scent. There have been times when I have caught a sliver, a hint of a scent; I remember it, but cannot at that moment place it, rather it is only the pleasant sensation of association I recall. Chanel No 5, fox fur and pointy high heels remind me of my GrandMosie readying to go out on the town; short platinum hair curled and pinned. Lemon and verbena lotion mingled with an earlier dabbing of Chloe remind me of my Grandmother Libby, always elegant, even when tending her flowerbeds; auburn locks tucked beneath a wide brimmed straw hat.
Looking about, I could make a wish list a mile long. Everything about this place calls out to the female in me; white marble floors, colorful glass jars set atop white, French-style cases. The place is both very modern and chic. Moving from counter to counter, I find myself lingering over the Coco Mademoiselle. Hints of patchouli and orange have me walking away wanting.
Next I head to Takashimaya for the flower arrangements, tarry for a while admiring the gardenias and orchids, ponder a pot of ginger tea and finger sandwiches, then decide I’d rather have real food and so hail a taxi to Lower East Side. Arriving at Katz’s, I pile my belongings onto the table and slide into a chair.
Katz’s Delicatessen opened in the Lower East Side in 1888. The aroma, so wonderfully rich, is agonizing. I look about. It seems nothing has changed since I was here in the early 90s! The establishment opened over a hundred years ago and became a favorite neighborhood eatery. They even provide the same military shipping for our soldiers overseas that became so popular during World War II with the slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army.”
The menu offers too much! “New York Egg Cream with chocolate or vanilla syrup” jumps from the menu. Mixed with milk and a little seltzer it is listed as Heaven on Earth. Surprisingly, it doesn’t contain egg. Smiling, I notice it is only offered in Large or X- Large, so dessert will be first. When it arrives, the waiter pauses to ask, “Well, what do you think?”
“It is very similar to an old fashioned ice cream soda, but better,” I tell him, not just being polite.
It is impossible to be unhappy while eating anything that holds even the slightest semblance to ice cream. I remember stopping at a cafe for a sundae after a day of shopping with my aunt Karen on my first trip to New York. The waitress had set before us a monstrous dessert unlike any sundae I had ever seen. Of course, this was long before there was such a thing as Coldstone Creamery or Maggie Moo’s where ice creams and toppings are blended into strange and wonderful confections. My favorite way to eat ice cream however, is the way my Pop-Pop prepared it. He would pack a tall glass with store bought chocolate ice cream, then fill it with cold milk and place it in the freezer. He left it there just long enough for the milk to ice over. The chocolate took on a thick frosty consistency, icy around the edges. The mix of almost frozen milk against the icy chocolate was incomparable.
I wonder how many valuable memories I have lost along the way. So many I am sure. And yet, the memories where food and family are intertwined are most often remembered.
Scanning the menu a second time because I cannot choose, I notice they offer tongue. I thought only Southerners still ate these things? Tongue, tripe, knuckles, ears, feet or snout, some things are meant to be thrown out! That is unless they are cooked down, rendered unrecognizable, and provide the rich base for black-eyed peas, pintos, or stew. Liver is a delicious exception.
I decide on the corned beef, which the menu states requires a full month of dry curing. A gentleman seated at a neighboring table is presented with his cheesesteak just as I’ve placed my order. If he were still within earshot, I’d recall my waiter, but he is too far away and caught up in conversation with someone who must be a local. I sit and sip my dessert. People watching, I try to pick out other tourists. We are easy to detect.
Nearby, a couple argues and it is apparent by the disdain with which they regard each other that an agreement may not be reached any time soon.
For every problem, is there a solution? I have been told that there is and I have sat long in debate on why so often it is that people refuse the answer. Dismissive of the solution, people instead cling to anger or personal agendas. My friend and I had discussed it at some length when in closing he tied the answer up neatly, stating, “For there to be a compromise, something has to be more important than self. In choosing one thing, you must be willing to give up the other. Rarely do you get the cake, the platter it sits upon, the china, the silverware and someone to feed it to you.”
Elbow deep in corned beef, I’ve yet to eat so much that I cannot hear when I notice the already raised voices of the impassioned pair rise yet higher. The next question comes quiet and fierce, “What do I have to do for this to be over?” The query matches the scowl on his face. She says nothing, just stands and walks away. And, I look past them to the waiter who lingers, as if searching for something to say.
What is necessary to gain emotional independence? Can it be removed like shellac, this film of need -scraped away, flaked off, filed down, down to nothingness? In reality when you are guarded from the pain that can be inflicted by another, there is only so much happiness you can allow. When you begin to deaden an area of the heart, can it be contained? Or, once allowed to set in, does the deadening continue to spread like Gangrene and rot away at what little good flesh is left? Packing away the remaining majority of my sandwich, I head back out into the streets, southward again.
The streets become more brilliant in color, and heavy with scent. Teenagers loiter around the storefronts. No one attempts to send them away. Chinatown! Fish and turtle fresh from the boat line the walkway and crabs with brilliant unbound blue claws move about within tattered baskets, hapless, oblivious to their demise.
Rummaging through the piles of trinkets in a souvenir shop, I realize I am at a loss. Shuffling things, I call the children. Telling them where I am and describing everything, I ask what they would like, then purchase a flat screen print fan for Anderson and a variety of Chinese coins for Isaac.
A sign in a restaurant across the street advertises crispy fried soft shell crabs and steamed mussels. Another lists Dim Sum. I will have to return! The streets are full of people and full of stuff. I like this overcrowded, busy feel, with people smiling and chatting in the warm sun. The place seems so contained; a contradiction I admit, because you side step something strewn across every curb.
A fantastic shop catches my eye. From floor to ceiling, there are wares stored in clear plastic containers and bins. The place appears almost a mix between an herb shop, modern apothecary and a county farmer’s Co-Op where planters purchase feed and seed. One could teach science from this shop or Macbeth!
“Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
Bins are everywhere, filled with wax gourd, cassia bark, abalone, tiandong, turtle shells, shark fins, dried octopus and sea cucumber, cordyceps! All these would seem so odd had I not grown up in a region chock-full of home remedies, and medicine based on so much tradition and mountain folklore. How I remember afternoons spent foraging for persimmon to rub on skin blistered with poison oak or ivy, digging up sassafras root to steep for a cleansing tea, rolling slim rabbit tobacco and clove cigarettes to smoke so that our lungs would be strong. Queen Anne’s Lace and honey are supposedly wonderful for ulcers -which it is that truly aids, who knows. For years, we kept English honeybees not just for the love of that golden sweet substance but also to ward off regional allergies and treat burns. The idea is that the honey produced from the same pollen laden plants will reduce one’s allergic reactions during hay fever season.
Many of the plants we used as medicine were toxic in their raw, natural state. So, as children, we were taught to be wary. Foolish it is to go foraging and prepare the unfamiliar. I once knew a man I will not name who kept a jar of Clay County moonshine laced with wild bilberry that floated around bruised in the bottom. It was reported to be an ailment for the eyes, but somehow the concoction seemed to defeat its proposed purpose. And, of course, there is Southern Elderberry wine made from the plant’s delectable fruit. Certain species are as noxious as the polk weed we boil off in the beginning preparation of polk salat.
A rule of thumb learned early in rural life is that if you don’t prepare it yourself, you don’t eat it. Old Man Waldrop used to pluck the poisonous berries from the polk stalk and chew them. “To cleanse the blood,” he would explain. Our mothers said this was foolish. But in this case, we children were the wiser; we knew that man was so mean the devil didn’t even want him.
Last year, when I began planning this trip, I purchased three guide books of the city. While mapping out Chinatown, I was surprised to find that there are almost 300 restaurants within the neighborhood’s boundaries. Some sounded better than others, and although I had my list of wants written out well before I left home, I have found that once I get into an area several things tend to dictate choice. The first two are my mood, and the prolific bragging of locals. Often as not, however, I choose a place to dine based on nothing more than the way a place feels.
Today, I am looking for an eatery called Sweet-n-Tart Cafe. My new friend Karen suggested I try the congee, a type of rice porridge. In the South, there is a particular fondness for a dessert that is also considered a staple. In our home that staple was rice pudding. It ranked right up there with the various biscuit topped cobblers: blackberry, peach or sweet potato. Rice pudding even held its own at the table when presented along with butter pound cake. All these family recipes were handed down over the years. Along the way, others crept in. Some were come across accidently and yet others long searched for -like the recipe for Lillian Carter’s Peanut Butter Pound Cake.
Rice pudding back home is a buttery, dense pudding loaded with vanilla, sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. The overall consistency can be described as velvety. Usually it arrives at the table crusted with a browned sugar and butter topping. It is wonderful hot from the oven, at room temperature and even straight from the fridge, ice cold. Like banana nut bread, rice pudding is a staple breakfast food as often as it is dessert.
During my childhood, rice pudding appeared most often when times were lean. Those were the days when a summer evening meal consisted of fresh scrubbed vegetables from the garden and fish from the trotline. Lean dinners in the winter were often bowls of pintos and cornbread or skillet fried potatoes with onions. As the seasons changed, fish gave way to game: fried dove or quail with gravy, braised rabbit, smoked turkey or venison. All of these could be taken within a five-mile radius of our home. The variety may not have been great, but there was usually plenty. Biscuits with butter, cornbread with sorghum, molasses or honey -these were present at almost every meal. Other times, they were the meal. More staples. How often I sat at the kitchen table during the late evening with Grandpa, feasting on only this and black coffee.
I wish I could remember the things we talked about and the stories he told as clearly as I remember the food. Just as there was always Grace before dinner in one grandparent’s house, there were always stories in the other. Rice pudding, however, was common at both dinner tables.
Cash Only is posted on the door to the tiny restaurant. As of yet, this has been the hardest adjustment I’ve had to make in the city. Thank goodness the guidebooks warn tourists up-front. If not, it would probably be as close as you could get to having a Southern woman in true distress. At the counter, I order the Congee with Hong Dou. “Good for you,” says the man nodding his approval and making a circular motion with his hand around the stomach.
“Thank you,” I tell him. It is all I know to say.
Congee is made by cooking rice with water until it breaks down into a porridge-like consistency. It is usually flavored one of two ways: salty and robust with flavorful meat, or glutinous and sweet with red beans, dates and palm sugar. I am in want of the latter.
The congee arrives and the serving is more than I anticipated. It is a meal and has the wet consistency of porridge rather than the thickness I associate with rice or bread pudding which, when scooped, holds together. I have to admit to being somewhat put-off by the addition of beans. Trying it though, I am pleased and notice a chewiness that regular rice pudding does not have. It is warm, sweet and heavy, very much a comfort food. Admittedly, it is probably healthier than the rice pudding I grew up on because it is cooked without butter and cream.
I hail a taxi, but after several blocks the feeling of being caged consumes me so I ask to be let out. I need to move, to walk. There are so many people out and about. It is hard to get used to.
Rosy peaches the size of my fist catch my eye. Walking through the open store, I concentrate on breathing in the clean smell of fresh produce. Although the rich scent of dirt has been washed away, there lingers another that calms; describable only as the scent of things from the earth, the smell of memories. The farthest corners summon. There are so many packages! I purchase a box of fortune cookies, pay and walk back out into the crowds.
This visual shopping, or window-shopping as Mother calls it, is a method I use to fill my tank. When I find myself stuck in a funk this uncomplicated appreciation supplies a quick jump-off, a charge that sets me back on track. I do not need to own these things to enjoy them and because there is no predetermined direction or reason, only leisure, it provides relaxation. The textures and colors I absorb and inadvertently my needs are filled.
The warmth of the sun is veiled again by the gathering of storm clouds. Collectively they attempt to blanket out the last sunlight of the day; as if in protest, colors along the street burst against this ruddy light.
Are there fixed stages to this madness we call life, I wonder. At varying times we are consumed by different needs, different worries and different desires. Is there a pattern? I believe there is. My life is not as different, has not been so different, from that of so many women. Many of us face similar obstacles and we draw strength and understanding from each other’s experiences. The discoveries that lie between us, between the layers we create together –this is life! Yes, I believe there are patterns, just as there are with the weather, the seasons, the stages of life.
But, why is it that I have spent the majority of my mature existence trying to improve myself, my place in life, only to look back longingly for the person I used to be?
As a child I did not worry about the past or the future. I did not look so severely upon myself. Nor did I fret over the actions of others. Every day was looked forward to.
The trip so far is proving relaxing, but I am far from understanding what I need or even being sure how I feel. I cannot let go of the immense disappointment I feel, the anger or even the resentment. My confidence has been destroyed. Everything had seemed just as it should.
Journaling is supposed to help, but I can feel waves of angst rising within me, threatening to overpower all rational sense. Emotions how quickly they can consume! When happy they elate the soul, when unpleasant they can drown even the strongest.
I must focus on the positive –I am healthy. My children are healthy and happy. I have wonderful parents, a brother and sister-in-law and nephews. The city is exciting and I am here on a trip I’ve always dreamt of. I have had two good days. I will have another tomorrow. I will be o.k. This feeling will not last; the bad passes just as quickly as the good. It only seems to remain longer.
Recognizing that I must have something to distract myself until I am able to sleep, I quietly put away my journal to read, think on the words of others for a while, then discover my old journal, unknowingly packed and so I begin to read and reflect on it as well. Back and forth I move between the novels I love and the journal, trying to find some understanding without getting too caught up in the memories.
It is impossible to see things clearly when you are too close. Clarity comes with distance and time.
Elizabeth Mozley Partridge
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