Archive for the ‘Hometown Issue’


An Off the Beaten Path Guide to Las Vegas — by Kate McCombs, Shelby Allison, Kristin Unger, Viktor Vanbramer, and Rhonda Turnbough

See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue

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When someone finds out you’re from Las Vegas, the response is often, very predictably, “Wow, what was it like growing up in Las Vegas?” BOR-RING. Actually that question and the answer to that question are the same. I have never lived in Phoenix, Arizona, but I imagine it isn’t too different—tract houses, strip malls, and sprawl. But I guess the key component to Las Vegas is the two other Strips: The Strip, and Strippers. The barely-legal, barely-clothed billboard beauties, and that seemingly never-ending beam shot nightly from the Luxor Casino’s crown (the world’s strongest light of its kind) can be bewildering to a teenager, with long-lasting effects.

The youth of Las Vegas are a creative bunch, though. Some of us survivors, now all of gambling age, have pulled together an Off the Beaten Path Guide (From a Local’s Perspective) to Las Vegas. Many were hesitant because they had trouble thinking of what to recommend in our hometown. Many of our favorite record stores and restaurants have gone out of business. The places to see live music change constantly due to strict ordinances protecting the teens of Las Vegas from the seedy nightlife. So some of our favorite places and memories just came out of our own ingenuity…

I remember one summer Rhonda went to a local high school and painted all of the cement bricks that denote parking spaces for the students with gold paint. “A Parking Lot of Solid Gold Bricks!” She was very excited. Jesse Jackson would play impromptu shows on his three-string, plastic guitar in places like the dumpster behind WOW Electronics. We would all gather around and watch intently, seated on the cement…

This guide is not meant to be comprehensive. Some of these places we visited often, others just once, but we feel all are worth considering for one reason or another. You might have just transferred to UNLV (or as us locals call it—The University of Never Leave Vegas), be planning a bachelorette party, or maybe you just got the awful news that your mother has been transferred to Vegas for work. Whatever the reason, we hope you find what you are looking for, and you win big.

 

THE GUIDE

Cowtown Guitars
2797 S Maryland Parkway Ste 14
I’ve never known a musician who could afford anything here, but Cowtown has an impressive collection of used vintage gear. I’m not a musician myself, but I know because my musician friends continue to visit this shop whenever they go through Vegas, just to look, perhaps in the hope that it’s become more affordable since their last visit. If gear-gawking is your thing, it’s definitely worth a stop. If you have the cash, even better.

 

Duckpin Bowling at Hootie and The Blowfish’s Shady Grove Lounge in the Silverton Casino
Silverton Casino, 3333 Blue Diamond Road
My parents discovered this bar and took my husband and me here as a bonding experience. It really has something for each of us, and we’ve been back many times. A typical Las Vegas casino bar, it is a floating oasis between card tables and jingling slots. The facilities became slightly confusing, but sort of cool, when on a routine visit we observed the décor had experienced renovation and changed its theme to “Hootie and the Blowfish.”

But this is not the only special thing about the Shady Grove Lounge. In fact, the best part is the duckpin bowling. Tucked in the corner is an indoor Airstream trailer, which houses two fully functioning mini-bowling lanes. No need to change your shoes, this is duckpin bowling. Everything is about half the size of a normal bowling lane. The balls are fed to you from an arcade-like vending machine, and they rest in your hand a la pétanque.

Cocktail waitresses poke their heads inside the Airstream to take your drink orders, and you even have the option of ignoring the people you came with and flipping channels on the television mounted near the scoreboard.

 

Lance Burton
3770 Las Vegas Blvd
“Hi, Folks.” That’s his catch phrase.

And why would Lance Burton, one of the most marketed Las Vegas Entertainers, be off the beaten Path??? Not to generalize, but I fear there may be some of the Take the Handle readership that, without a little encouragement, would leave Lance and his very special show off of their Vegas itineraries.

When my family first moved to Las Vegas, we would frequent Lance’s dinner theatre show (then at a run down casino in Henderson, now at the Monte Carlo without the dinner). Though his venue has changed, his show has pretty much remained the same. This is a testament to his ability as a magician and entertainer, and an unabashed respect for craft. He starts each show with a musical number accompanied by his “lovely ladies” which takes the audience through the lineage and forefathers of Magic, and wraps up the night with a disappearing act involving a kid from the audience and a Corvette. But I’ve already told you too much. Mr. Burton has been doing the same act for over a decade, and I still can’t comprehend how some of his tricks are possible without him having a twin brother. No, it’s not mirrors. It’s magic.

 

Little Chapel of the Flowers
1717 Las Vegas Blvd South
It isn’t that difficult to get swept away in Las Vegas; hop a cab to the closest chapel you can find, with the most recent love of your life. Lucky for mine, I knew about the cool chapel in town. Lucky for everyone who made it to our real wedding, we cooled our heels and reality set in just as we were paying our cab fare. Ronnie Vannucci of The Killers fame was the wedding photographer here before rock and roll swept him away.

 

The Gun Store
2900 E Tropicana Ave
Ever want to fire an Uzi? Wonder what it feels like to stand behind a fully loaded MP40? I let curiosity get the better of me, and agreed to accompany my father here on my last trip home. The Gun Store in Las Vegas is a place where tourists and locals alike can make their gun fantasies come true. Not feeling like the standard gender/race neutral human body outline target today? The Gun Store is about options, and that is why they offer actual photographs of men and women from countries all over the world. For the child at heart, one can also choose to aim at a cartoon drawing of Osama Bin Laden as a zombie. As per The Gun Store’s website, there isn’t technically an age limit, but all minors must be accompanied by an adult.

The shop provides the ammo and machine gun rentals start at just $50.

 

Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts
315 S 7th St
A common bond linking all the contributors of this article, the Las Vegas Academy is a magnet high school in downtown Las Vegas, sort of like Fame. You get to choose an artistic or linguistic major starting from your freshman year and follow it through for the next four years.

Our alumni include theatre students, Matthew Gray Gubler, now of (500) Days of Summer, and, cooler, Rutina Wesley, aka my girl Tara on HBO’s True Blood. This school was a saving grace for many Lost Vegas teens.

With an open campus during lunch, we would walk across the street to our nicknamed “Crack Head Deli.” Deli? Not quite. It was actually a run-down motel filled with drug addicts and prostitution. It served its purpose for us because the lobby had a cigarette machine, MTV (Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer” is on repeat in my memories of this place, and I’m eating a Snickers), and you could buy frozen french bread pizzas from the lady at the reception desk, and she would microwave them for you.

 

Red Rooster Antique Mall
(Recently renamed Charleston Antique Mall) 307 W Charleston Blvd
A wonderful place to find ashtrays and poker chips from bygone casinos and hotels, a ceramic butter dish shaped like a hotdog, or a hand-stitched leather pipe holder for your stoner roommate’s belt loop. Of course, the best part of this antique mall was always the fact that it shared a name with a notorious northern Nevada brothel, so every recount of a trip to the Red Rooster was met with a pause, a raised eyebrow, and an “Oh, really…?”

 

Artisan Hotel
1501 W Sahara Ave
The Artisan is my personal version of the Bermuda Triangle. Though it is located right off the freeway, I always manage to get lost between the exit and the parking lot. I’ve often heard about their beautiful pool, but despite many attempts at wandering around what feels like the entire property, I have never been able to find it; the same goes for the wedding chapel and restaurant. The one place I always found with minimal navigational trouble was the bar–straight through the lobby (outfitted with five houses worth of the gaudiest furniture you’ve ever seen), past a giant gold fountain, and into a room covered top-to-bottom with paintings in gilded gold frames and black leather. If you make your way through a cellar-like tunnel to the secret outside patio, make sure you have all of your drinking companions with you, because there is no way they’ll ever find you.

 

Karaoke at Dino’s
1516 Las Vegas Blvd S
Danny T. has been the KJ at this Las Vegas Boulevard karaoke bar every single time I have ever visited, no matter the hour or the day. He accompanies every singer’s selection with a personal anecdote from his karaoke glory days. He also provides backing vocals. Or, if you’re like me, by the end of The Bee Gees’ Tragedy, you’ll be the one singing backup. The drinks are absurdly inexpensive, the seats are plentiful, and the song selection is infinite—even on the rare chance your favorite song isn’t listed, Danny T. will help you through an acapella version, as he once did with a particularly earnest Goo Goo Dolls fan. Also, it’s across the street from The Olympic Garden where, on the evening of my bachelorette party, all the male dancers had the night off.

 

Bonnie Springs
Old Nevada
1 Bonnie Springs Rd
My grandmother often took me to Bonnie Springs in my pre-teen years, during the insanely hot Las Vegas summers. There are a couple of things about it that I remember fondly, and with a tinge of fear.

Here are some particularly vivid memories:

1. Being chased around the petting zoo by a llama that I was trying to feed terrible little pellets that you get out of the candy machines for a quarter.

2. Staring directly into the huge, wise, old face of a buffalo with fly-covered eyes.

3. Badly wanting one of the guinea pigs that they always had for sale.

4. And finally, the “Old West” play, in which they made a spectacle out of the dentistry of the times. In this lovely reenactment there was a huge pair of pliers, lots of screaming, bottles of liquor (to numb the patient of course), and fake blood (which may be an embellishment on my part).

Overall it’s well worth it to visit Bonnie Springs, if only to get out of the place to have a lovely picnic in the beautiful Red Rock Canyon.

 

Spring Mountain Ranch
8000 Blue Diamond Rd
Aside from being a state park, SMR is home to a refreshingly modest outdoor theatre. The sprawling lawn welcomes your blankets, picnic items, alcoholic beverages, and tiny tots. Shows start at dusk, and while they may be known mostly for their Jazz Fest and one-off Oingo Boingo bookings, the theatre is also host to a summer program of family-friendly, community-driven musical theatre. I spent a few summers doing my chorus girl bit there, and it was the closest I got to an actual feeling of community in my hometown. A great excuse to drive out of the city and surround yourself with natural beauty and guilty pleasures.

 

Liberace Museum
1775 E Tropicana Ave
If you gravitate towards Sin City’s glitzier aesthetic, then look no further than the Liberace Museum, a flamboyant tribute to “Mr. Showmanship.” Located off the strip in an unassuming shopping center, the museum is home to Liberace’s Rolls Royce, collection of rhinestone-encrusted pianos, and a variety of outlandish stage costumes. Liberace loved to shop, and his collection was so expansive that this museum actually occupies two separate buildings within the strip mall.

 

Champagnes Cafe
3557 S Maryland Pkwy
Tucked away in a sea of strip malls along Maryland Parkway, the spinning lights surrounding Champagnes are the only clue of what lies within its modest exterior. I started visiting Champagnes long before my driver’s license said 21, ducking in the back door and blending in with the heavy haze of smoke, desperate video poker locals, and kids ten years older (and ten years cooler) than me. With dark red velvet-flecked wallpaper, dimly lit booths, and well drinks cheaper than most cups of coffee, a night at Champagnes is like dying and going to dive bar heaven. Bobby Shawn, the most handsome and delightful old man in gold chains you’ve ever seen, hosts a jaw-dropping karaoke set every Friday and Saturday night, giving preference to pretty girls and anyone who requests Sinatra. I had the pleasure of Mr. Shawn’s backup vocals at the start of many adrenaline-fueled evenings during my time in Las Vegas, a sweet and somewhat sad remnant of the “old Vegas” entertainer he’s rumored to have been in decades past.

 

Gandhi India’s Cuisine
4080 Paradise Rd # 9
The. Best. Indian. Food. I’ve. Ever. Had. While I’m not certain it’s actually the “best” by official Indian cuisine standards, Gandhi was my first Indian experience, so it has defined my idea of perfect food ever since. Nothing has ever measured up. With an endless lunch buffet and both á la carte and all-you-can-eat dinners, expect to leave in a saag paneer and navrattan korma coma for a cool $15. We’re talking unlimited garlic naan. It’s just heaven. While an Indian buffet might conjure up images of fluorescent lights and outdated heat lamps, Gandhi really classes it up with 30-foot ceilings and a gorgeous embroidered circus-tent tapestry, which I’m sure has more cultural significance than I’m giving it credit for.

 

Pinball Hall of Fame
3330 E Tropicana
The Pinball Hall of Fame is a dream place. The first question people usually ask when I take them there is “can you actually play the games?” The answer is “YES. Of course you can.” How terrible of a place would that be if you couldn’t play the games?

Nobody would want to go there.

But, in fact, anytime I go, there are plenty of people playing their hearts out, yet it’s never packed!

It’s great fun and you can get away with spending less than $10! They have a lot of super old pinball machines—I’m talking from the 1950s—that are fantastic to look at, although most of them are not that fun to play. Those ones cost only 25 cents, though, so you can’t complain. The newer ones that span up to the 1990s dominate the place and cost 50 cents.

There are many funny, ridiculous machines that are hard to believe anyone wanted to make: Rescue 911, Shaq Attack, Canada Dry, and Johnny Mnemonic, to name a few. But that’s just the beginning, they have all the classics and rarities that will make any pinball connoisseur drool.

If for some reason you want to take a break from pinball, there is a whole slew of old arcade games—all of them historical treasures such as Tron, Asteroids, and Paperboy. And let’s not forget AIR HOCKEY.

 

Luv-It Frozen Custard
505 E Oakey Blvd
Luv-It is a small place, run exclusively by one guy. There is no inside or place to sit so you have to either stand around, sit in your car or—my choice if it’s during the day—go for a walk around the neighborhood and look at some of the neat 1960s ranch houses in the surrounding neighborhood. It’s like a walking tour of Las Vegas architecture with frozen custard!

Vanilla and chocolate are available all the time with special flavors changing every day. You can check the website to see what the flavor schedule is for, like, two months into the future! You can really plan your life around it!
It is very close to the strip: just a 1/2 block east on Oakey.

 

Square Apple
1000 E Sahara Ave # 105
A lot of stuff goes on throughout the week at the Square Apple but I am specifically recommending Saturday nights. I have never been disappointed by the place. I went there one Thursday night on a whim and it was actually more crowded due to an open-mic audition. That night was amazing too. It’s definitely a place you just need to experience, but I will attempt to describe the magic of Square Apple.

First of all, you will want to dress up when you go. It’s not a very fancy joint but everyone else does, so it’s fun. The crowd is mainly older (40+), but they are very welcoming to everyone who walks in. The man you will probably meet first is quite a character, Frankie C. He’s a super Italian, Jersey-esque guy. He’s always looking quite spiffy in a suit of all blue. He wears shaded glasses and has hands full of sparkling rings. He is the maitre d’, comedian, and singer extraordinaire!
There is a rotating cast of musical acts for Saturdays; none of them have ever let me down. My favorite is Touch of Silk. They mainly do Motown covers and occasionally one of their own while dressed in matching outfits. Later in the night, Frankie C. will generally get up and do a couple numbers with the group, which is funny and charming.

If you get there around 10 you will have no trouble finding a table. The music goes until 1 A.M., but it’s open 24 hours a day. There is usually some dancing on their front-and-center dance floor. Even if you are a terrible dancer, your efforts will be appreciated here. You may get lucky and see some real cognoscente in attendance such as members of the Platters, the Coasters, the Marvelettes, and prizefighters. Yeah… they hang out there. And don’t be surprised if they are forced on stage to perform a song or two. Well… not the prizefighters.

Slant Six on the Saw Mill — by Anna Wainwright

See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue

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I grew up on 82nd Street and Broadway in New York City, two blocks north of Zabar’s, three blocks west of Central Park. When I was little, I called the Museum of Natural History “my” museum, and like all Upper West Side kids, I ran underneath that giant whale for hours on rainy Saturday afternoons.

I’m a second-family child. My father, fifty-eight when I was born, raised his first family in Bedford Village, one of the posher towns in the leafy stronghold of Westchester County. My half-brothers and sisters, a whole generation older than me, learned to read and drive and drink in the suburbs. Twenty minutes south county, in New Rochelle, my mother and her seven Irish-Catholic siblings swam at Wykagyl Country Club and said the Rosary every night with their father. They lived in a big rambling house they couldn’t afford, and when my grandfather couldn’t sell his short stories to the New York papers anymore, they packed up and moved across the country to Hollywood.

From my mother’s bedroom on 82nd Street, I could see the Empire State Building and miles of water towers on rooftops. From the kitchen I could see the park and the dome of the church next door. When I was six, my father died in the apartment. My sisters drove in from Westchester and my brother took the subway uptown from the Village so we could all be together. Our five-room home was filled with family for days.

After my father died, my mother and I started going to Westchester a lot more. Our car was a 1974 red Dodge Dart with a Slant Six engine, a broken gas gauge and a distinct smell of wet dog and fake leather. The dog, Jack, sat in the backseat with my niece Lucy and me, and we sang our way up to Katonah, the small town next to Bedford where my grown sisters lived with their children.

When I was eleven, my older brother told an audience that the word “Katonah” meant dysfunction in a Native American language, and I believed him until I was thirteen. But to me, Katonah felt wholesome and safe. My big sisters ran a bakery on Katonah Avenue called The Bakers Café, where there were pastel silkscreened t-shirts on the walls and warm poppy seed bread and zucchini cake behind the counter. We were allowed limitless free grape sodas from the industrial refrigerator, and I was treated like a VIP by the beautiful young women in the kitchen with flour-dusted hands. In Katonah, Lucy and I learned how to dig for worms and avoid poison ivy, and my nephew Sam, born three days before I was, showed us how to hide in the bushes and avoid enemies from foreign lands and Mars. He and his little brother Gabe would roughhouse and run around playing football barefoot, and their father George would dangle us upside down by our ankles and make his thumb disappear before our eyes.

Thirty minutes away, in the less melodically-named hamlet of Armonk, my mother’s sister Susie lived in an enormous house with her husband, my four giant football-playing cousins, and a threatening-looking boxer. They lived the way I imagined the rest of America lived, or at least the way Americans were supposed to. They had a pool table and a dartboard, a den, all the cable channels, and carpeted floors. My cousins were handsome and loud and funny, and they had beautiful girlfriends who got to spend the night. My cousin Chance tried to start farting contests with me, and taught me how to throw a baseball. Overwhelmed and slightly frightened by the exuberance of the household, I always managed to escape to the safety of my aunt’s waterbed to play with her doll collection, which my mother said she thought was a little creepy. She wasn’t one for dolls.

We rarely spent the night in Westchester for some reason. I think both my mother and I felt more comfortable in our own beds in the city. Car horns have always been more comforting to me than crickets, and there was something reassuring about landing back home on the Upper West Side late at night and finding a parking space right on our block. Around 7 or 8, after an early dinner of burgers in Armonk or Bakers Café sandwiches in Katonah, we’d say our goodbyes, load the dog into the car along with fresh apples or watermelon or poppy seed cake, and drive down the Saw Mill Parkway back to Manhattan.

Sometimes, when my mother was feeling nostalgic and Lucy and I were in an obliging mood, we’d take a detour on the way back to the city and drive by the house in New Rochelle that my mother’s family left behind in 1957. It looked like a mansion to me, a Georgian red brick pile with a big terrace and a gate. There was a basketball hoop on the driveway, which had been added by later owners; my mother’s family sport has always been swimming. We’d get back on the highway after stopping for gas and a bathroom break, and Lucy and I would beg my mother to tell us stories about when she was our age.

Once we’d cleared the toll at Spuyten Duyvil on the northern tip of Manhattan, my favorite part of the drive home began. The West Side Highway curves to the left there, and our car would swoop left and right and down, until we were driving right next to the Hudson. New Jersey glittered on the other side of the river and the George Washington Bridge towered before us, welcoming us home. Back in the city, we’d park the car and walk the dog around the block before going inside for the night. When those burgers and sandwiches hadn’t been enough for us we’d buy bagels, and on special occasions we’d order Chinese food and eat broccoli with garlic sauce, saving the dumplings for breakfast the next morning. Lucy and I would get into our pajamas, sit on my bed with our dolls and invent stories about war and hiding from aliens. Sometimes my bed became a sailboat and sometimes the bathtub was a cellar where we hid from an evil crone. Car alarms screamed and moaned outside and we could hear laughter and yelling fourteen stories below. Before we turned out the lights, we’d take my father’s old binoculars and inspect the city laid out before us, training our eyes on the bright windows of apartments across the way and pedestrians on the street. We were hoping to see murders, and burglaries, and maybe people having sex. But all we saw were other people eating, brushing their hair, smoking and staring out their own windows into their neighbors’ lives. Then my mother would come into my room and Lucy and I would get ourselves under the covers. She would sing to us until we’d both fallen asleep, while competing horns blared below.

The Ghosts of Carmarthenshire — by Siân Evans

See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue

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When you cross the Severn Bridge you are greeted by a sheet of rain. The bridge was built in 1966 and traverses the Severn River, separating South Gloucestershire from South Wales. As a child, I would cross it once a month on my way from London to Carmarthenshire in the backseat of my parents’ Volkswagen GTI. Late on a Friday night, my brother and I would watch the headlights and taillights on the M4 prism through the droplets on the windshield. We’d pretend they were streams of miniscule white angels and red devils pulsing through the countryside’s capillaries.

The lush foliage of rural Wales appeared almost neon green in the headlights due to the sheer amount of rainfall per annum. As my father swiftly navigated the one-lane roads that bent and curved through the soggy evening, I’d focus on the horizon, trying to calm my stomach and stop my head from spinning.

Every month it was the same: we would arrive late at night and my parents would carry my brother and me—swaddled in blankets—into the dark, two-storey house my grandfather lived in alone. He would wait in the doorway, his hands resting on his suspenders. When we approached, he’d mutter in a thick Welsh accent, “Duw, duw, duw you’ve grown!” Moss, the Border collie would bark from the garage, waking the ten other people who lived in the hamlet of Crugybar. Dan and I would then fall asleep head-to-toe in Dad’s childhood bedroom, under an itchy wool blanket that was the color of split pea soup and rife with moth holes.

Rural Wales is Merlin country: a mythic place covered in moss that I imagined was populated by elves, gnomes, and fairies. It is a world my American friends cannot comprehend—an ancient hilly landscape colored by Lord of the Rings allusions and eerie Welsh hymns and folk songs. The sky is heavy with humidity and seems to cling to the crests of the Black Mountains in the distance. As I grew up, though, the dreams of elves were replaced by visions of ghosts. They were everywhere, mapped across the small amount of countryside we would traverse in our weekends there. My father’s hometown is a catacomb of memories.

They were there when we woke up in the morning. My grandfather would be downstairs watching my mother make him tea, enjoying the luxury of having a woman in the house again. My brother and I would peek into his room, which was a reliquary to his late wife. The dusty closets were filled with her old jewelry and handbags which were, in turn, inhabited by trivial notes—laundry lists and so on. Years later, while sorting through my grandfather’s posthumous affairs, my father would find the letters she wrote as she withered away in a cancer treatment facility at the tender age of twenty-six. They rested beside letters from the various lovers he took after her death. We all hoped that the truth behind my grandfather’s stony face, hardened with rosacea, would be found here, in these dusty layers of fabric and paper. But, as with all ghosts, all we ever found were tall tales and mythologies. Our imaginations filled the spaces in between with faulty memories and make-believe.

My grandfather, John Edward Evans, met my grandmother, Patricia Marshall, when her parents retired to a small estate in the rustic countryside. He was the son of a farmer and the farmhand on his brother-in-law’s land next door. When he was just thirteen, John’s father had walked out into the damp Welsh night with a shotgun one evening with every intention of killing himself. He lost his nerve. The history gets foggy from that point on; he reportedly ended up in some kind of institution with “pneumonia of the brain,” leaving his sickly wife and six children to fend for themselves at Cwmcynwal: a dank, hobbit-sized stone farmhouse dating back to the fourteenth century.

Patricia was a wealthy young woman with a lovable but unhinged sister who developed epilepsy after an equestrian accident. She had been attempting to run away to London on horseback as a teenager. They were heirs to a declining salt fortune, one that had been whittled away by the particularly Victorian notion that work was unfashionable among the aristocracy. The last vestiges of this dynasty now lie in my father’s faded photographs of English gentlemen hunting in Africa, an enormous elephant’s foot in our living room (concealing a mini-bar containing gin and brandy snifters) and a few seventeenth century commodes.

The love affair between my grandparents always seemed something of a fiction to me: too strange for this world and too romantic for this taciturn, portly man of five feet and four inches. The letters could never explain it. All they did was highlight the different worlds they came to inhabit: Patricia dying alone amongst the wealthy while her husband sat in a chilly house with two young boys who were getting bigger and louder every day. She is doubly distanced in my mind: an imaginary grandmother my own father cannot remember.

After furtively exploring my grandfather’s room, Dan and I would go downstairs and I’d steal lumps of sugar from the table as my grandfather fiddled with the wood-burning stove. After some breakfast, we’d usually get back in the little GTI and drive to Cwmcynwal, where my great uncles Joe and Will still lived. My grandfather wouldn’t come because he was rarely on speaking terms with any of his siblings.

About two miles into the drive, at the midway point between Crugybar and Cwmcynwal, on a bend near a church, we’d hit the exact spot where my Dad’s brother, at twenty years old, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He had been abroad for a couple of years and was driving on the wrong side of the road.

This was more than a tragedy; it was a collision between modernity and a world steeped in tradition. It’s hard to imagine long-haired Tom, having worked as a deckhand on ships in the Americas in the 1970s, suddenly thrust back into a world that the onward-marching trajectory of History left behind.

There are traces of contemporary society everywhere in Carmarthenshire, but they are rusted like the tractors in the yard and the zinc-roofed barns that line the fields. Wales is a world defeated: let down by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and stripped of its rich history by Edward Longshanks in the thirteenth century. It hasn’t had the same tumultuous modern history as its Celtic counterparts, Ireland and Scotland. After hiding in the hills and staging a few unsuccessful rebellions, its population rolled over in submission very early on in British history. The country’s subjugation is evident in the ruins of Norman castles that dot the countryside—like Carreg Cennen, where my family and I would eat raspberry tarts on the occasional sunny summer afternoon. The people of these rainy hills were the original inhabitants of the British Isles; before the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans arrived, some form of Welsh or Gaelic was the language of the land. Now, a measly 600,000 people speak Welsh. Many of them live in the Brecon Beacons, in the lush, hilly countryside of South Wales. Many of them don’t have an education above grade school level. Most of them have drinking problems.

Carmarthenshire is a county built upon sheep farming, an occupation that seemed as though it had been on its last desperate gasps for at least half a century by the time I started visiting in the mid-1980s. By then, the meat market had discovered globalization and, with it, cheaper New Zealand lamb. Most of the farmers who knew no other livelihood were barely living off of government subsidies. Years before I was born, my great uncle Dai drowned himself in a stream after agricultural disasters lead to government cutbacks that ruined his land-drainage business. I was never shown where. Some deaths are just too cruel, some ghosts too vivid. Some things have no place on our mental maps; they are relegated to that liminal space between remembering and forgetting. Deaths like these serve as a cruel reminder that rural Wales is lost somewhere between back then and now with no alternative, no back-up plan. Agriculture is all they have ever known.

My two great uncles never married. They both lived well into their eighties. In their twilight years, they could still be found stumbling back to Cwmcynwal from the local pub at midnight on any given night in early spring to make sure none of the ewes had gone into labor in their fields.

My mother, who is five feet and two inches tall, was just small enough that she didn’t have to duck to enter the stone doorway of the farmhouse. This is after making it past the blue-eyed bitch, Mona, who would pull on her chain and bark rabidly as you passed the entrance to the horse stables. During particularly rainy weather, we would have to wear Wellingtons in the living room. Pots and pans would float on several inches of water under the sheep carcasses and sides of ham hanging from the ceiling, ready for the butcher. One year there were puppies in one of the sheep sheds. Another year we went to see Uncle Ken’s steeplechasing horses that his blacksmith wife shoed and raced herself. Most years we’d watch our sturdy cousins shear hundreds of sheep in an afternoon while their sisters and wives brought them Welsh cakes and tea. Entering the farmhouse always felt like returning to the Middle Ages, not in the least because the house itself was directly attached to the cow shed; you could smell the manure as you were making your afternoon tea. Not that anyone other than city folk like us would notice.

I’m In Love With Massachusetts — by Christopher Walters

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Fenway Park opened on April 20, 1912, five days after the sinking of the Titanic, and six months before the Red Sox beat the New York Giants for their second World Series title of the century. It was the beginning of a great run. The Sox would go on to win the World Series three out of the next six years, in 1915, 1916, and 1918. In 1914 it was the crosstown Boston Braves who took the title. Fenway Park played host to the Braves’ home games, since their own ballpark, the South End Grounds, was too small to accommodate a World Series crowd. Those must have been good years to be a Boston fan. There was a lot of winning going on. There was a World War going on as well.

My great-grandfather fought in it, on the Italian side. Have you ever read A Farewell to Arms? Apparently it was just like that. “It’s true!” my great-grandfather used to say. “Everybody always says that the Italians ran away at the first sign of gunfire. Well it’s true! We did. And I was the first to run.”

I never knew my great-grandfather. His name was Luigi Rossi. So how do I know about the things he said? My mother told me. My mother tells me all the time; she talks about him. How do you get your information?

My great-grandfather never lived in Boston either. He wasn’t a Red Sox fan. He was born in the small village of Vignole Borbera, just north of Genoa. He moved to America in 1920. He moved to New York City. A few years later his wife, my great-grandmother, moved there to join him. They lived in Manhattan, on Prince Street, long enough to have a child, my grandfather, and then they moved to Brooklyn. That was where my mother was born as well, some years after. Not me though. I was born in Boston, about a twenty minute walk from Fenway Park.

Now what did that mean, the fact I wasn’t born in Brooklyn, like my mother and my grandparents before her? I never knew if it meant anything. But I thought about it often.

Because I was from Boston. That much was certain. And so I considered it to be mine, as much as anybody else’s. But do you see how simple that is, to the point of being obvious? You’re born somewhere, you walk its streets for years on end, you develop a passion for its sports teams, or maybe a hatred; you choose to embrace or not embrace, and all that marks you, in ways you never will get rid of. Neither of my parents were from Boston, none of my family was before them, and yet I was. I am. Just like that. Why is Beacon Street different than Flatbush Avenue? Why does growing up walking that street make you different than if you grew up walking this street somewhere else?

Boston is essentially a small-town of over half a million people, with a metropolitan population closer to five million. But I’ll tell you the truth: it’s a small town. It’s a small town with a wealth of history and culture, but it’s a small town nonetheless. It was the largest city in the thirteen colonies until Philadelphia overtook it in the mid-18th century. I always used to be proud of that fact, although I regretted that it was so long ago. I’d wish that Boston had tried harder to keep up with its neighbors. But I’m not sure if it ever truly wanted to. It was small enough that its narrative could remain succinct and coherent: it was a Puritan, Brahmin town, at least until the second overlapping narrative of the Irish started making itself felt, too large to be ignored. I think of the opening lines of The Education of Henry Adams, when he describes his own birth as, “a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church, after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams. Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded.” I myself was raised Unitarian, in Boston, a member of a church whose antecedents date to 1717. But I wondered if I shouldn’t have been raised Catholic in Brooklyn. Wasn’t that where my own, much closer, antecedents lay? And yet I didn’t live there. I had heard about the place only through dreams, only through memories. I had my whole reality built up here some place else. Henry Adams knew. He knew something about the different streets making a different person. He wrote a whole book about that kind of thing.

But it’s not the street itself, right?—so much as the collective imagination that surrounds it. And that’s what brings us back to baseball. Because Boston has decided—this mass of people, all living in the same pocket of the world, has decided that their baseball team defines them. These nine men playing on a field, a very specific field called Fenway Park, are held up as the symbol of the city. Here is its heart. I don’t think that you can overemphasize that fact. In Italy you might still see tiny pictures of the saints pinned up in different people’s kitchens. That’s what the Red Sox are in Boston. It’s tantamount. It turns our Dunkin’ Donuts into small roadside shrines. And of that emotion, I am guilty with them. I am in on that mythology.

Had I been born in Boston in 1900, or before, I would have been a fan of Duffy Lewis and Tris Speaker. I would have been a fan of Harry Hooper, too. The three of them were thought of as probably the greatest outfield players of their day. Not one of them was born in Boston. Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis were from California. Tris Speaker was born in Hubbard, Texas. He broke his right arm as a child by falling off a horse—one way growing up in Texas might be different than the East Coast. He came up playing with the Cleburne Railroaders of the Texas League and was sold to the Red Sox for $800 in 1907.

Back then baseball was only played during the daytime. How hot did Cleburne, Texas get during those summer months? Tris Speaker would take his hat off and rub his forehead with the back of his hand. It cooled him down. He’d spit and lazily shoo off the flies. This was before the use of electric lights in ballparks. When nighttime came that was the end of things. Game 2 of the 1912 World Series, in fact, was called a tie in the 11th inning on account of darkness. The series would be the only best of seven that ever had to go to eight games. That eighth game was played at Fenway Park, the location having been determined by a coin flip. The Red Sox would win it in extra innings, thanks to two fielding misplays by the New York Giants. Due to the last minute decision to play the game in Boston, the crowd at Fenway that day was only about half-capacity. It didn’t help that the Royal Rooters, the Red Sox’ rabid fan club, had decided to boycott the game on account of rumors that the Sox had intentionally thrown Game 7, so they could make up the money they hadn’t received from the officially unfinished Game 2. The Royal Rooters were organized and led by Michael T. McGreevy, the owner of Boston’s first sports bar, the Third Base Saloon (“your last stop before going home”). John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, served as chairman of the Royal Rooters, at the same time that he was mayor of Boston. Cheering for the Red Sox has always been a municipal affair.

Why do I care about these things? Because I’m from there. I have the feeling it’s my birthright. But I don’t live there now. I don’t imagine that I will live in Boston ever again. I currently reside in Brooklyn—that place I dwelt upon throughout my childhood, wondered about, held up as the ancestral homeland. And just because my mother talked about it, my grandparents would talk about it. If I raise children here myself, is that the way they’ll think of Boston?

All About My Mother — Marian Thurm Interviewed by Sam Axelrod

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Marian Thurm is cooler than she thinks I think she is. Over the last 25 years she has published five novels and three short story collections of what we like to call “serious fiction.” She’s gotten good press from all the big papers and has had her work translated into many different languages across the world, and lately she’s found her biggest commercial success writing under a pseudonym. She’ll be releasing her second novel under that name in spring 2010. Thurm has also taught Creative Writing at a bunch of hotshot schools like Yale and Columbia.

But, also, y’know—she’s my mother, so that’s a whole other thing. I mean, she changed my diapers and all that.

On a balmy Sunday night in July I sat down with this hip lady in the Upper East Side apartment that she shares with her husband (my father) and their 2.5 cats, to speak with her about writing and how the fuck you can make a life while doing it, among other things…

Sam Axelrod: So, let’s start with growing up, when you knew you were interested in writing and how you knew that you wanted to pursue it and whatnot.

Marian Thurm: That’s a good question. I know I always loved to read, that’s one thing…

SA: Me too.

MT: And I always tell my students that one of the very best ways to become a better writer yourself, of course, is to read all the time, and read the best possible writers, and learn from them.

I remember—this is so silly—when I was in 6th grade I wrote something about Christopher Columbus. It was just a paragraph, and the teacher wrote, “This is a beautiful piece of writing,” and he stapled it onto the bulletin board and I remember feeling very proud. [Laughs.] By the time I was in 8th grade, the English teacher gave us an assignment where we could write a piece of fiction, and I was so excited and, of course, I’m sure I wrote something terrible.

SA: Was your boyfriend in the class?

MT: Yes he was!—your father. Isn’t that funny? That was where we first met. In Honor English, by the way. By the time I was around twelve, thirteen—

SA: You already knew then? What were your favorite books then?

MT: Oh, I was obsessed with J.D. Salinger, and the voice of Holden Caulfield. I’m mortified when I think of how unoriginal I was then.

SA: Those books are good.

MT: And then when I got to college, my favorite classes were, of course, creative writing classes, and I was so thrilled because for my senior thesis, instead of writing an academic, scholarly piece of work, I was allowed to write a collection of short stories, which I’m sure were awful—

SA: Do you still have them, you think?

MT: I think they’re probably somewhere…

SA: Maybe we’ll excerpt them.

MT: Yeah, right. Please don’t.

And then after that I got a Masters in Creative Writing at Brown. Which today would be called an MFA—it was a very small creative writing program. One of the early-ish ones. And my teacher was John Hawkes, who was actually a very distinguished writer, and someone named R.V. Cassill—he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was one of the first creative writing workshop teachers. Anyway, the single most important thing that I benefited from when I was at Brown was that John Hawkes very nicely, but graciously, let me know that I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was, and that I needed to be smacked.

SA: How good did you think you were?

MT: I don’t know, I think I thought I was okay. And I’m sure I was probably pretty terrible.

SA: You were just writing story after story…

MT: Yeah, my Master’s thesis, such as it was, was a collection of stories, I don’t remember how long it was, but, in any case—I needed to be smacked upside the head.

SA: And none of these were seen by the public?

MT: Oh, no. I was only 21, actually. It was a wake-up call—and boy did I need that.

SA: Do you think it was worth it to go to grad school?

MT: For that reason—that I needed someone to say, “You’re an idiot.”

SA: I mean, I could’ve probably told you that.

MT: I’m sorry, now, because only a few years after that I sold my first story to The New Yorker and I should’ve let John Hawkes know, and I’m sorry that I didn’t.

SA: Is he dead?

MT: Yes he is. He, and R.V. Cassill, both gone. In fact, I had dinner with Rick Moody last week, and he also went to Brown, and we both had John Hawkes as a teacher. Jack, as he was known…

SA: Coming from the south shore of Long Island, do you think that’s informed your writing?

MT: No, I don’t really think so. There’s this romantic notion—and there is some truth to it—that those who have really screwed up, miserably unhappy childhoods have much more material to work with, and I cursed my parents for giving me such a happy, normal, ordinary childhood.

SA: It couldn’t have been that happy…

MT: Well, sure, they were very good, loving parents—

SA: But you knew that you didn’t want to stay in Oceanside…

MT: Oh, God, yeah I needed to get out of there. But the one thing was, I looked around—and I’m a very big eavesdropper—

SA: Yes you are.

MT: And I realized that there was nothing interesting in my own life to write about, but guess what—there’s a whole world of other people out there and all I have to do is listen to their stories. And writers should be good listeners, absolutely. And that’s what I’ve pretty much done my whole life—listened to other people’s stories.

SA: Were you parents encouraging of your decision to be a writer?

MT: My father said to me, when I told him I wanted to get a degree in Creative Writing, of course this was many years ago, he said [affecting Leon Thurm voice]: “What, are you kidding? I’m not going to pay for something so ridiculous.” So I took out loans, and many years later, the payments were $18 a month, and it took Daddy and me years to pay them off.

SA: Please don’t call him “Daddy.”

MT: Right—your father, my husband. Many years down the line, when I got my first movie deal, my father said to me, “I apologize. I was wrong. I eat my words.”

SA: That must’ve been validating.

MT: Yeah, and also when I sold my first story to The New Yorker.

SA: So basically what you’re saying is that the child is always right, and the parent is always wrong.

MT: [Laughs.] Well, I guess I knew who I really was, or thought I knew.

SA: Okay, let’s go back to the ‘70s, so you went to Brown, then moved to the city…

MT: Got married… moved to the city, and then my husband was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Florida, and I looked for a job, desperately, couldn’t find a job, these were bad times, actually, and I was terribly unhappy—

SA: I once went to a decent bagel place in Gainesville run by Long Island refugees—maybe you could’ve worked there.

MT: Uh huh, well that was many years later. When we lived there, the place was just desolate—nothing at all—no cultural activities to speak of… nothing at all. I was miserably unhappy, but the best thing of all—I remembered every last detail of my misery, and sometime in the not-too-distant future wrote a story, fiction, of course—

SA: Of course.

MT: And The New Yorker bought it and published it. My second story for them.

SA: Would you say it was worth it then, to go through the misery?

MT: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. They made me revise it about three times, but they did buy it, and publish it.

SA: But before that you worked at Esquire under Gordon Lish.

MT: Yes, I worked for Gordon, and answered his phone. I got to speak to Ray Carver on the phone, and Joseph Heller and various other luminaries. And a lot of review copies of books ended up on my desk and I was allowed to take them home and keep them—galleys, I’m talking about—so I read and read and read and read and knew that I so desperately wanted to be a writer and it killed me, actually, to be working there, knowing that all I was was Gordon’s assistant. And while I was working there I began the story—this is now 1977—that, shortly after I left there—just a matter of months—became the first story I sold to The New Yorker.

SA: Mazel tov.

MT: That’s right, thanks.

SA: Then you published a few more stories. So you got an agent then…

MT: I didn’t need an agent, because I developed a real relationship with my editor, who was wonderful, Frances Kiernan. She’s no longer there, but…

SA: You think it’s like that at all anymore? That anyone publishes a story in The New Yorker without an agent?

MT: I don’t know. I mean, I came out of the slush pile! Except that I had my editor’s name to write on the envelope when I mailed it in.

SA: They used to do a lot more fiction, right?

MT: Yeah, they published two stories an issue, often. But, even so, I think the magazine then, there was this notion—that I had anyway—that it was open to the whole world. And that if you were good enough, you would be published.

SA: It doesn’t seem that way anymore. I feel like every issue now—it’s all big-name writers.

MT: Absolutely. It’s completely different. And there’s only one fiction editor there now, as far as I know. When I was publishing with them they had five fiction editors, and they all read everything, and discussed it and decided what to do. But that was the great moment of my life, selling that first story.

SA: Yeah, what about having your first child?

MT: Yes, of course, that was a wonderful thing, too—

SA: Whatever…

MT: … But that sense of accomplishment. And I was 25. And, oddly, I had decided if I didn’t sell something by the time I was 25, I was going to quit, I was going to stop writing and just walk away.

SA: Do you think you really would’ve done that?

MT: I don’t know. I wonder, I mean…One thing about me: I’m very stubborn…

SA: Yes, I know.

MT: But somehow I feel as if—I was young—and people were interested in me because I was young, I think. And one of the things I discovered is that once people begin to know who you are, and you have a couple of stories in The New Yorker, then other magazines become interested in you in a way… The Atlantic Monthly bought one of my stories, Redbook

SA: Did you have an agent by then?

MT: No, no, I didn’t need one. I was very lucky. I sold all my stories then. I sold a few stories to Ms., to Mademoiselle

SA: It’s an exciting time.

MT: It was, but what happens is, after a while, you begin to think, “Oh well, this is my life, this is what I do…”

SA: You say it like it’s a bad thing…

MT: No—it was a wonderful thing. But you should never take anything for granted.

SA: Oh—tell me about the time you met John Updike.

MT: This was after a reading he did at the Boston Athenaeum, and it was a great thrill to be introduced to him because he was one of my heroes. We had a mutual friend, so she introduced us, saying something to the effect of “Oh, Marian’s recently had a couple of stories in The New Yorker, you might’ve recognized her name.” I was probably 27 at the time, but was often mistaken for being younger, so he must have thought that—that I was a kid—so his response was, “Wow, you must be brilliant.” I laughed and my face turned bright red. It was ludicrous that he said that, but I was thrilled. [Laughs.]

SA: So, Floating was your first collection of stories…

MT: The woman who had become my agent, Liz Darhansoff, who I had been working for as a reader, she had her own agency—she now has a big agency—

SA: And you worked for her?

MT: She lived up the street. I would put you in the stroller and go to her apartment and pick up some manuscripts, and I was a reader for her. We decided I had enough stories for a collection of my own and went to a couple of publishing houses. Just a few. We went to Amanda Vaill—who is now a writer—but was then an editor at Viking—now it’s Penguin. A very good publisher.

And she said—she sent a letter—“We need something to give this collection ballast. You need to write something longer, so it won’t be under 200 pages.” So I wrote something like a 38-page story, and it was the longest thing I’d ever written. And the book came out a year later in 1984, and one very exciting thing was I had my photograph taken by Thomas Victor, who, unfortunately is no longer with us, but was the preeminent photographer of authors in those days. He was a lovely man.

I don’t know what the reason was—maybe because I was young—and a lot of the stories, many of them, six were from The New Yorker— [lowers voice] which was a big deal, actually. And it got reviewed everywhere. Even airline magazines. We were going to Florida, and I picked up the in-flight magazine… it was very widely reviewed. And it got, really for the most part, very good reviews.

SA: Cool.

MT: So I was unprepared when my first novel was published and it got a bad review in the Times… [Laughs.]

SA: So how did you make the transition to writing a novel?

MT: Right, well, what happened was, my agent said something to me like, “No one wants to publish short story collections.”

SA: They don’t put asses in the seats.

MT: Right. They don’t sell. So I said, “All right, I better write a novel.”

SA: Begrudgingly?

MT: No, it was just that for me the short story was my natural form, and I hadn’t written anything longer than—

SA: 38 pages.

MT: Right. For every writer there has to be that “a-ha” moment, where just the right story presents itself or falls into your lap and you know you can run with it, and that’s what happened to me.

SA: Why don’t you refresh my memory what yours was…

MT: Okay. I was taking you to nursery school every day and I noticed there was a man in the building next door to us sitting under the awning in a lawn chair. I was in my early-thirties and I thought of him as old, and he was—God—he was only in his mid-forties. And it should have occurred to me, “Why is this presumably able-bodied middle-aged man sitting in front of his building every day doing nothing but reading the paper or a book, with a blanket in his lap?” I guess I was just busy with you and running home because I wanted to write. And this man and I began to smile at each other—but you and I were always late—so I was always rushing you across the street to school and I would maybe wave to him or smile at him.

One day he stopped me and I came over to where he was sitting in the chair and he said, “I just want to tell you that I… have cancer and I’m dying and your smiling at me every day really means something to me.” And you can imagine what that feels like for someone to say something like that to you.

And I went home and I cried and then I think I called my mother because I had to tell somebody. And then I began to write a novel.

SA: A-ha.

MT: And we became good friends. And I sat with him every single day after I dropped you off at school and we would sit and talk, and around this time I was pregnant with [TTH contributor] Kate [Axelrod] and we would go to [Central] Park. I think our relationship really meant something to him. And I never told him I was writing the book. It didn’t take me long to write—maybe a year and a half.

SA: But, of course, in the book… the character based on him has an affair with… the young woman…

MT: Yeah, yeah, it was completely fiction. And then I found out that the book [Walking Distance] was going to be reviewed in the Times, and I said, “Oh my goodness, he doesn’t know I wrote this book, and he’s going to open the paper, and he’s going to see this, I better do something.” So, I was very apprehensive. You know, fiction is always—most fiction writers, if they tell you the truth, will be honest and say generally it’s always a mixture of real life and fiction, but sometimes we do take our experiences and transform them into art.

So I left a copy of the book with the doorman in his building, and I didn’t hear anything, and I think he read the whole book in one day. He called me on the phone that night and said, “That I lived to read this book is so wonderful to me.” And he said “You sly dog, you,” or something like that.

And then the book came out, and the next day I was devastated, because I had never gotten a really bad review like that in my life. And especially not from The New York Times! Michiko Kakutani did not like the book, and I’d never, ever gotten a bad review like that and I was completely unprepared.

But as I tell my students, it’s like having your heart broken: it’s like the first time this happens, your heart is broken, but no critic can ever hurt you again like that. You get over it, and you realize she’s just a critic.

SA: Can’t expect everyone to like everything.

MT: Yes. But, fortunately, eighteen months later I had my second collection of stories [These Things Happen], which also got a daily review in the Times

SA: Thanks for dedicating that one to me.

MT: You’re welcome. And she really liked the book, so that was a very good thing…

SA: I remember being in Florida, at Grandma’s, when [the man who inspired Walking Distance] died, when you read the obituary in the paper. How much later was that?

MT: The book came out in April of 1987, and he died in March of 1988. I felt terrible that I missed his funeral. And this was in the days before cell phones and all that, obviously, and I don’t even know if we had an answering machine. His wife told me she tried to call me 30 times—and I felt—ugh, just thinking about it now…

SA: Ugh.

Can you tell the one about how you got your work done when Kate was young?

MT: Well, what happened was, you were already in school full-time, and Kate was a year or two years old and was very, very attached to me. We had a housekeeper, and that was the only way I was going to be able to put in a good day’s work. So every morning the housekeeper would come and I would say something like, “Oh, we have to go to the laundry room—I left a sock there.” So the three of us would get into the elevator together, and I would get off on the first floor and I would say, “Mommy has to go to work today, so you go downstairs and look for the sock that I left in the dryer.”

SA: Did you actually leave a sock there?

MT: No. [Laughs.] And I would just come back upstairs, quickly, and lock myself away—we lived in a one-bedroom apartment—and that’s what I did. Kate would have her little friends over and I could hear everybody in the other room. I still can’t believe—

SA: This is pretty weird. What if you had to go the bathroom?

MT: Well, this is what I did—I used to put slips of paper under the door and shoot them out into the living room and hope that the housekeeper saw them.

SA: Weird. What would’ve happened if you just went into the room without hiding from her?

MT: She would have been very upset. She was very attached to me, as I was very attached to her, too. But I had to work, I had to earn a living. And of course I wanted to be writing.

SA: Wasn’t it hard to concentrate?

MT: No, no, no. I actually had five books published in a span of seven years, and during that time, the oldest Kate was at the time was six, and you were eleven.

SA: A golden era. How did you decide to have children at such a crucial juncture in your career?

MT: Well, in those days…

SA: A woman just knows.

MT: Yeah, that, and in those days they thought it would be better if you had your children before you were 30, so I decided I better get busy. [Laughs.]

SA: Yeah, you were gettin’ busy alright.

You write more novels than stories, right?

MT: Yeah, well one of the things is that people are ever reluctant to publish collections of stories. There’s no money in it at all.

SA: What about The Saturday Evening Post?

MT: [Laughs.] Yeah, right.

SA: Poetry? You ever get into poetry?

MT: No, no.

SA: You ever written a poem in your life?

MT: Yeah, I have, but I’m sure it wasn’t very good.

SA: Ah! Can I see one?

MT: No, I have no idea where they are.

Anyway, another thing is I went from publisher to publisher to publisher.

SA: In a good way or a bad way?

MT: Well, you know, you get more money, so that’s good. I went from Viking to Random House to Simon & Schuster to Bantam to a small publisher called Zoland, which is now out of business, and then that book was published in paperback by Harper Collins. Then I went from there to another small press called Delphinium. And you know the rest…

SA: Andrew Wylie was your agent for a while. He’s kind of a big deal, right?

MT: He was. It’s funny to think that—we didn’t have an answering machine in those days, and that’s actually a hard thing for a writer, when you can’t just let a call go—I’d be locked in the room there, I only had four hours while the babysitter was there, and I really wanted to get to work, and there were times when he was just calling me a lot.

SA: He’s known to be kind of a scary guy, right, intimidating? I remember going to his office as a kid. Was he good for your career?

MT: Well, he got me a couple of excellent contracts.

SA: Is that how you bought me all my chicken and toys?

MT: Yeah, right.

SA: You mentioned you sold some books to movie studios.

MT: It was just a lucky thing. The first was Henry in Love, my second novel. The book was in manuscript, actually, at the time. What I’ve heard is that there are spies from all the movie companies and they hang around publishers and agents looking for books to option.

The option was up, and then it was renewed again and they still didn’t do anything with it. And that must have gone from 1989 to 1991 or so. And then in 1992 I was sitting on my bed, where I do all my writing, and the phone rang and it was a young producer from Hollywood telling me that Clint Eastwood, in fact, was going to option my novel. And Clint Eastwood, I believe, was a friend of Lee Rich’s, who was the producer who optioned it the first time.

SA: I’ve heard he’s nuts, Clint Eastwood. When we were out at Kate’s office at E.R., they told us that someone parked in his spot on the Warner Brothers lot there, and [Clint] beat the windows out with a baseball bat. That he’s just totally nuts.

MT: Is that true? You want to hear something funny—did you know that Daddy actually parked in his spot? And they told us that, and we had to move the car.

SA: Weird. Small world.

MT: Anyway, it was very exciting. And it’s for work that you’ve already done. It’s exciting just to fantasize about the possibility of something happening. I think most writers understand that many, many books get optioned and very few actually get made. And it’s happened to me a number of times.

SA: Easy money.

Okay, tell me your philosophy on writing.

MT: Never lose sight of the fact that a writer is, first and foremost, a storyteller. And before you start writing, whether it’s a story or a novel, you have to make sure that the story you have to tell is a good one. And that you know how to tell it in just the right way. I recently heard George Saunders read, and he said exactly what I tell my students, which is, “You’ve got to grab the reader by the throat in that very first sentence, that very first paragraph, very first page.”

SA: Do you feel like you’ve always succeeded in that?

MT: Honestly, I don’t know. When I’m writing I’m generally not thinking about an audience out there, about a readership, about entertaining—

SA: What are you thinking about?

MT: Just that I have a story to tell and that I hope—and I think I do have the right storytelling instincts and that those instincts are going to take me to the right place. Sometimes they don’t, but I hope most of the time they do.

The life of a writer, like any artist, is, generally, a hard one. And, sometimes, you have nothing to go on but faith in yourself. And that can be very, very difficult. I think you need a very strong ego. You have to be optimistic. You need a real dose of optimism, all the time. And you have to be lucky. But when things are going
well, there’s nothing greater than that. No greater satisfaction.

SA: What about childbirth?

MT: Well, childbirth is very, very painful.

SA: But rewarding.

MT: Yes it is.

SA: I heard it’s like kidney stones.

MT: Right. Oh, I just wanted to add—the very first check I ever got from The New Yorker—which was many decades ago—and it was for $1,465—I memorized it. I remember thinking, “They’re going to pay me for this? I would just give them the story.” [Laughs.] But, quickly, I realized, “Hell, this is my career—this is my job—they have to pay me.” But I really would’ve just given it to them—that’s how I felt, I was so excited.

SA: That’s cute. So what does living and writing in New York mean to you?

MT: I always say this, that in contrast to the suburbs—although you think of writers like Updike and Cheever as “poets of the suburbs”—but for me I see very little poetry there. What I love about the city is just being able to leave the apartment, walk outside and, within five or ten minutes, I can eavesdrop on all sorts of interesting conversations, see all kinds of interesting little details on the street. I’m always writing things down. I’m never without my notebook.

SA: So you’re not just nosy when it comes to your family, you’re nosy when it comes to everyone. Equal opportunity nosiness.

MT: Sure, sure. I always, always listen carefully to everything around me.

SA: Could you ever imagine leaving New York?

MT: No… never.

Medicine Hat: The Name of the Place — by Kristin Hole

See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue

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In his epic novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust discusses the relationship between Place Names and Places. The names of places we’ve never been incite our imagination; we dream about what it would be like to actually go there. Our fantasies are generally disappointed when we actually go to the place in question. For Proust, cities, like women, tend to let us down. Once there, we realize that cities are ultimately all the same—material spaces filled with the mundane activity of daily life. Their reality can never match our imaginative capacity when we dream about traveling.

Perhaps this relation between names and places is the most Proustian feature of my hometown. Medicine Hat is a city familiar to most Canadians because of its distinctive moniker. But alas, even more so than the Venice or Balbec of which Proust writes, the city itself is pretty disappointing.

It belongs to that genre of lesser cities that look like suburbs with no real metropolis around to suburb up to, the kind of city rendered indistinguishable from many other North American cities by its homogenous box-store commercial architecture. In fact, Medicine Hat boasts Canada’s largest Wal-mart—the old store stands literally across the parking lot from the newer and bigger one. Its former abode now sits empty—a monument to the banality and cultural impoverishment of my childhood. My hometown is the kind of city where pedestrians or bicycles never factored into the urban planning, where people think you’re cultured if you know how to use chopsticks and the only theatre is in the mall.

Place names: the Name—Medicine Hat. The city was originally called Medicine Man’s Hat, but was later shortened. Locals call it simply, “the Hat.” Its etymology involves two battling native tribes. A Medicine Man lost his hat in the river, determining the fate of the battle. There is another story involving a merman, who captured said Medicine Man’s hat. I find it hard to imagine anyone from the seductive race of mer-people wanting to set up shop in the South Saskatchewan River in the middle of the barren dusty prairies, but to each their own. References to native culture abound in the city—we even boast the world’s largest teepee. Real native people are eerily absent from my memories.

Place names: the Place. Medicine Hat is in the province of Alberta—the richest and most conservative of the three Prairie Provinces, and my hometown is officially the most conservative electoral district in the entire country. Rudyard Kipling visited the city once and said we had “all Hell for a basement,” referring to the natural gas that bubbles and seethes beneath the city’s soil. In my experience you didn’t have to dig that deep to find Hell.

The landscape has a stark and melancholy beauty. Flat and dusty — any trees in the area are transplants from greener parts of the country and we have more than one man-made body of water in the vicinity. Golden wheat fields dance in the wind under the hot sun—I remember their beauty striking me on drives through the back roads to the huge irrigation ditch where we used to go boating in high school. And the sky is so expansive. Unobstructed by any real urban architecture, its heaviness feels oppressive, weighing down on you, even suffocating sometimes.

The Hat lies on the Trans-Canada Highway, the longest national highway in the world stretching all the way across the country from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. Practically, this means a lot of travelers pass through on their way to something more interesting. I have heard stories about eccentric Medicine Hat locals, backyards filled with dinosaur fossils and a field of abandoned toilets outside the city limits that turned the barren prairie into a sprawling porcelain graveyard. But these were not my experiences of the city; they were those of people who were passing through. That’s the difference between coming from a city and being there by choice — and that difference is everything. Proust would blame it on habit. Habit dulls the senses and prevents us from really seeing through the surface to the deeper truths behind things. It’s like that feeling you have when you get back from a trip and you want to hold on to the sense of curiosity and adventure that being away has awakened from deep within you. You ask yourself why you can’t approach your daily life with the same openness to the world, but after a few days you are usually sucked back into the numbness of routine. I wish I could have the magic of an open encounter with my city, but going back home usually entails regressing into the past, for better or worse.

My dad’s family came to Medicine Hat from Ontario. My Grandma had three children and a French-Canadian husband by the time she was nineteen. She ran away with a married man twenty years her senior, driving as far as she could across the country so that her husband wouldn’t chase after them with a shotgun — for the second time. I’m guessing that it’s thanks to the highway that they ended up in Medicine Hat. At first, they opened a corner store and the whole family lived in the back. My dad and uncle slept in bunk beds in what was basically a closet — they used to sneak potato chips from the store and hide the empty bags under their mattresses. Perhaps this clandestine snacking became too routine, because eventually the store went out of business and the family ended up on the street corner. That was when they got converted. And really — if they had never turned to the Lord I wouldn’t be here. My parents met through singing in a gospel choir. I was a love child. My dad thinks I was conceived in a parking lot in Tennessee when the choir was on tour. I guess it’s appropriate since most of my early sexual experiences were in parking lots — or farmer’s fields. My mom’s father was a pastor — and an important one — he was in charge of all the evangelical churches in the region. My conception was a scandal in the religious community and my parent’s marriage a quick failure.

My mom and I spent my formative years living in low-income housing, which in Medicine Hat is probably the closest thing there is to a ghetto. Only our ghetto is a string of townhouses inhabited by single mothers and their strange offspring who pull out their own nails and want you to come over to play and then ask you to take your clothes off. We were so happy then. My mom used to fry sandwich meat so we felt like we were eating a real dinner. Pancakes, another low-budget staple, were also popular — my mom made mean pancakes. She knew how to make all kinds of ball-shaped pancakes — soccer balls, basketballs, even footballs sometimes, and two little balls on top of a big one made a Mickey Mouse head. Eventually she got married again. We were really moving up in the world then — this guy had a vintage car and a house and everything. It seemed like a dream come true. For me, it would end up more like a nightmare, but as my mom always said, “Life isn’t fair.”

My dad left after the divorce. He ended up in bible school after a rather dark period where he worked in a funeral home in Calgary. He used to come back to visit me sporadically and would always bring me one of his old university shirts as a gift. We would spend the weekend at grandma’s playing memory games or going swimming or — my favorite — going out for french fries. I would sleep with him, which was always slightly awkward since I didn’t really know him at all. Then there was the goodbye ritual, where we would sit in the car and dad would play a song that he would tell me made him think of me. It was always an ‘80s rock ballad — usually meant to express love between two non-related adults. I have a mental image of myself — so small, sitting in the passenger seat in my huge varsity t-shirt, staring out of the window awkwardly while the stereo played, “You’re the meaning in my life. You’re the inspiration” or something else of the overproduced rock variety. Yes, Chicago was a favorite, and sometimes it was Toto — my dad was the head of the Toto fan club at his college.

I went to high school in the country after a couple of years’ hiatus (I had dropped out of a school in the city) — everyone drove pick-up trucks to school and the boys played hockey. My ride was a short yellow school bus that blasted the local New Country station. I think I was the only person from my class who left the province when I graduated.

As I write this, I realize that describing your hometown says a lot about how you understand yourself. This is the story I tell myself about my origins, the story that helps me to weave the fragments and discontinuities of my memories into a coherent narrative, the story that helps me to understand the person I now am. And there is so much more to tell. As Proust writes of our memories of Place Names and Places, “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”

Hold Me, Please, and Say This is Love — Fiction by Michael Hemmingson

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All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. —Leo Tolstoy

 

I was between jobs and I felt just awful. Karin wasn’t happy. We were surviving on her paychecks. It’s not easy for two people to live on one income.

I was sitting in my car, smoking a cigarette and sipping from a half-pint of Teacher’s. The car was parked in the grocery store lot. Karin had given me two $20 bills and said, “Go get us some groceries, enough for the week, so we won’t starve to death.” She always sent me grocery shopping. I was good at finding the best bargains and stretching a buck.

You get skilled at this sort of thing when you’ve been broke all your life. I’d been poor going on thirty-five years. It’s a condition you slowly learn to embrace and accept.

I was sitting there in my car, smoking and drinking and dreading the idea of going inside the store because I would have to interact with people. I was feeling anti-social because I was feeling like shit. The only money I had in the world was $40 my girlfriend made working her ass off and I was a lazy bum who spent most of his time drinking and smoking.

Someone knocked on my window; a man in a long dark wool jacket, holding two grocery bags. He looked familiar. “Paul?” he said. “Hey,” he said, “Paul Augustine, it is you.”

I rolled down the window and let the smoke out. “Jeff,” I said.

“I thought that was you,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

I said, “Eggs, milk, apples, hamburger meat.”

“I know what you mean,” he said.

I got out of the car and shook Jeff’s hand. He was two inches taller than me. I never liked standing next to people who are taller than me. It was cold out. Jeff was smart to wear that wool jacket.

“Actually,” Jeff said, “I was thinking of going over to the bar and having a couple of beers before heading home.” He nodded his head at the small dive bar across the street.

“I’m in no real hurry to go home,” he said.

“Home is where the home is,” I said.

“I like that, it’s profound,” Jeff said. “Hey, wanna join me? I’ll buy you a beer and we can catch up.”

“If you’re buying, I’m sittin’ and listenin’.”

 

*****

 

There were four people in the bar. Jeff and I were two of them, the bartender was the third, and a skinny woman in her fifties was the fourth. She was drinking white Russians and playing with the ice cubes like they were the most fascinating ice cubes in the whole universe.

Jeff bought a pitcher of something on draft. I wasn’t picky about beer; free is good.

“So tell me what’s new,” he said.

I said, “Same ol’.”

He nodded. “I know the same ol’.”

“You’re still married to…”

“Lisa.”

“Lisa.”

“Yes.”

“That’s nice.”

“It’s not nice.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s marriage,” he said. “We’ll live.”

“A toast!” I said. We toasted to marriage.

“And you,” Jeff said, “the last time I saw you, you were with Rachel.”

“Rachel left for Alaska.”

“Why Alaska?”

“That’s what I asked. She wanted to get as far away from Santa Cruz as possible. And me. I’m living with a woman named Karin.”

“Karin?”

“You don’t know her. She’s from Albuquerque. She came out here with her husband, her ex-husband. He’s a grad student at the university. Cultural anthropology, can you believe that? Something about Indians around here and ethnographies. She lives with me. Or I live with her.”

“You live together,” Jeff said.

“That we do,” I said.

“Still writing?” he asked.

“I scribble.”

“Poetry? Short stories?”

“This and that. I’ve been writing plays the past two years.”

“Theater!”

“One gets produced now and then.”

“In New York? L.A.?”

“Here. Small theaters. Black boxes with forty seats.”

“Well, that’s something,” he said. He nodded and drank his beer.

“Isn’t that something,” he said.

“It is something,” I said.

We drank and drank.We were on a third pitcher within the hour. Jeff couldn’t handle beer the way I could.He was getting trashed; I was getting warmed up.

There was something I needed to get off my chest. I didn’t realize it until that moment. I needed to tell someone. I have found that when you require another person to confess your sins to, it’s better if they are drunk because they won’t remember what you told them.

“I love Karin,” I said, “I adore her, but I’ve been cheating on her.”

“You have something on the side?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Three months now,” I said. “The thing is this other woman, she’s a married woman. She has a husband.”

“So you’re the other man,” Jeff said, “and she’s having an affair.”

“It would seem to be that way.”

“And your girlfriend, she has no idea?”

“If she did, she wouldn’t be my girlfriend,” I said.

“This sounds complicated.”

“Sometimes it feels complicated.”

“Who is this married woman?” he asked.

“I was teaching a poetry workshop at the adult center,” I said. “A volunteer thing. I’ve published a few poems in literary journals so I guess they thought I could teach it. I had seven students. She was one of them.”

“Sleeping with a student,” Jeff said.”Is that, is that ethical?”

“Is sleeping with a married woman?”

We were on our fourth pitcher. Jeff was slurring and could barely stand. I was feeling fuzzy.

“Speaking of married women,” he said, “I crossed paths with Jennifer Crane.”

The name was like a washabi sword in my chest.

“Jennifer.”

“You remember her?”

“Of course I do.”

“Yeah, yeah, you dated her for a while.”

“For a year,” I said, very softly and into my beer.

“She looked good. She looked happy.”

“That’s it?”

“She said she just got married.”

“Good for her.”

“She asked about you. She did. She asked: ‘How is Paul? Have you talked to Paul lately?’ I told her I hadn’t seen you in years.”

“So she looked happy?”

“She seemed happy,” Jeff said, “you know, happily married. You know, I always wanted to sleep with her. Hope you don’t mind. She’s pretty. What happened between you two?”

“This and that,” I said. I thought about her smile. I thought about the miscarriage and the life we could have had.

 

*****

 

I helped him across the street to his car. The grocery store was closed. It was a lot colder out and I just wanted to go home and get into bed with Karin and feel her warm body next to mine.

“You can’t drive,” I told him. “Want me to take you home?”

“Nah,” he said, “I’ll sleep it off in the car.”

“You sure?” I said.

“No prob,” he said.

I helped him into the driver’s side. He slouched over and was out. He snored. He had a grin on his face. I noticed the two grocery bags in the back. What I was thinking, what I was going to do, it made me feel just awful, but I was awful, so I did it. I opened the back door, grabbed his bags, put them in my car, and went back home to Karin.

It was late. We’d been in that bar for hours. I watched the cloud of cold breath coming out of my mouth and the effect was hypnotic. I walked into the apartment and it was dark and quiet. Karin was in bed and she was asleep. I put the groceries away in the kitchen. Jeff had bought almost the same stuff I would’ve bought. In my head, I calculated that it was probably $32 worth. I still had the $40. Sometimes you get lucky. I knew I was a shit because I felt absolutely no guilt. I thought about Jennifer again and the lost baby and traced back all the events of the past six years that brought me to the life I was living.

I took a piss and went to bed with Karin and snuggled with her. She made a soft sound. I kissed her and she turned and kissed me and then we made love for half an hour and she went back to sleep and I held her, my eyes open, staring at the clock, watching the hours go by until morning. She had to wake up and go to work and earn money for the both of us.

Sichuan John — by Stefan Marolachakis and Nathaniel Rich

See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue

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Xiaotu Zhang, who calls himself John, has for thirteen years owned Grand Sichuan, a chain of restaurants that is largely responsible for introducing New Yorkers to a new flavor: ma la. “Ma” means “numbing”; “la” means “piquant.” Ma la is an oil-based sauce flavored with salt, garlic, doubanjiang, and several varieties of hot peppercorns. You know you are eating ma la when: your eyes roll into the back of your head from the spice; you feel an electricity running up your spine; and tap water begins to taste unmistakably like flat ginger ale.

John, who grew up in Shanghai, moved in 1989 to Galveston, Texas to pursue a degree in International Business at Texas A&M. Three years into the program he dropped out and moved to New York. Though his restaurants are in Manhattan and Jersey City, he has never moved out of his first New York apartment, in Bensonhurst.

We recently met John for lunch at his newest Grand Sichuan, on Seventh Avenue South at Carmine Street. He ordered wonton soup and cold cucumber with scallion sauce. Neither dish was doused with ma la sauce. His doctors have advised him to stop eating spicy food. He was cheerful and modest when describing the success of his restaurants, and the emergence of the Sichuan cuisine, which has about as much in common with what Americans think of as Chinese food as Cajun cooking does with French cuisine. His frequent laughter was interrupted by quieter moments of self-reflection and wistful contemplation.

Why did you want to go into the restaurant business?

I didn’t. I came here to do import/export, but I couldn’t find any jobs. Around that time Wu Liang Ye, a liquor company in Sichuan province, decided they wanted to open a restaurant in New York. They sent somebody here, but the guy didn’t know English, so they hired me to help. I had to do everything. I opened the first Wu Liang Ye, in Rockefeller Center.

It makes sense that you started at Wu Liang Ye—that’s the restaurant that seems most similar to Grand Sichuan.

We copied everything from Wu Liang Ye. The menu is more or less the same.

Were the people at Wu Liang Ye upset you stole their menu?

Yes, of course. The boss and me were very good friends before. When I left, I believe he got angry.

Do you talk anymore?

No more. Never. He doesn’t want to see me.

Wu Liang Ye is more expensive. You must’ve made a decision to be more affordable.

I try to make the food as cheap as possible, because why would you make food so expensive? That’s my idea.

To tell the truth, when I first came into the restaurant business, I didn’t know the business. Just by chance, I had some good luck. Now I have more experience—but maybe I don’t have good luck. I lose money sometimes now.

Why did it take so long for Sichuan food to come to America?

Two reasons. First, there are many Cantonese people in U.S., but very few Sichuanese. Second, the Chinese thought that maybe Americans didn’t want spicy food.

Do they?

Yes. A little bit.

I’ll tell you what I honestly believe: Chinese food lags behind many other cuisines. I am trying to improve or upgrade or even innovate Chinese cuisine. There are many starred restaurants in New York, but very few are Chinese restaurants. We’re not as advanced as the French, the Japanese.

I used to think maybe people just didn’t understand Chinese food. Now I think differently. People know Chinese food. Business might be fine, but we have problems.

Like what?

The biggest problem is technique. This comes out of an even larger problem, which is the Chinese economy. Fifty years ago, China had an agricultural society. But now agricultural conditions have declined. There is not very good knowledge of ingredients. The society is backwards, and as a result the cuisine is not very advanced.

The cooking techniques also have some problems. Chinese don’t care about texture, about different tastes. At a French restaurant, each dish has ten ingredients, and each ingredient is cooked differently. We have ten different things all cooked the same way, and all tasting the same way. They have eight main courses. We have more than a hundred. It’s a simpler way of cooking: throw everything in the wok.

Chefs in China realize the problem more than chefs in New York, because in China there are so many different cuisines, and chefs can learn from each other. In the U.S., Chinese chefs don’t communicate with other chefs—French, Italian, no way. They’re isolated. They can’t learn anything new. That’s a problem.

Are you trying to do things differently at Grand Sichuan?

Yes. Especially at my restaurant in Beijing.

You have a Grand Sichuan in Beijing?

Yes, it’s similar to this one. But it has a different name, which would translate as “Home Cooking.” I spend half of my time there—two weeks every month for the last five years. We have a Research and Development department there. The research team in Beijing tastes new dishes.

You mean you actually have chefs in a lab?

The Beijing restaurant has four chefs. Only one of them takes care of daily operations in the restaurant. The other three are in the lab.

What do they do in this Sichuan laboratory?

We receive information from the world’s top restaurants. The first month someone starts in the lab, he reads every word of information he can. In the second month, the chefs try to magine new ways of making Chinese dishes. In the third month, they start to experiment in the kitchen. Every two weeks, when I go to Beijing, I taste the results. When something works, we introduce it, gradually, into the restaurants.

Are there any differences between the various Grand Sichuans?

I try to improve our food with every new restaurant we open. We changed some things for the Seventh Avenue restaurant. We basically stopped using MSG altogether, and we only use fresh food, nothing frozen. Also, we offer small plates, tapas-style. So we’re taking small steps.

Would you ever open a more expensive restaurant?

I want to stay at this price level, but I do want to upgrade our food. Maybe five years from now we might incorporate some molecular gastronomy. My chef can’t do that, so I’ll have to learn it first, and then teach him. Some restaurants in Hong Kong have been cooking that way for almost ten years. My original idea, in 1998, was to create an international restaurant chain. Not too big, but at least ten restaurants here and ten in China. With a chain, it would be easier for me to bring good chefs from China.

Do you have any new Grand Sichuans in the works?

Yes—I haven’t told anyone about it yet, but I’ll announce it here. It will be on 46th between Eighth and Ninth, and I hope we’ll be ready to open by the end of the year. We’ll take a big step with that one. We’ll try something new, combining western and eastern styles, putting them together. There will be more small plates, and we’ll cook them in a different way.

Like what?

We’ll have a version of what is now called red cooking pork. We’re testing it now in Beijing. It should be ready by next month.

The traditional method is to cook the pork, then add some vegetables. But in Beijing we’re trying something new. We’re separating out the skin, the fat, and the lean meat. We make the skin crispy. We mix the fat with a fried egg, cover it in flour, then deep-fry it. Then we cook the lean pork, and combine everything together over vegetables. On top we put some sauce—meat sauce, as in western cooking. On the edge of the dish we have another green vegetable sauce, and in the middle, a red sauce: two circles. Also, we put vegetables on the side, western style.

What will you call this dish?

I’ll still call it red cooking pork. We actually used to call it braised pork, but then The New York Times called it “red cooking pork.” So now we say red cooking pork.

Your website is unusual for a restaurant site. You solicit information from your customers, and allow them to post online without censorship — even if they have something negative to say. Why would you do that?

The Chinese always isolate themselves, they never communicate with their customers. It’s true even of the waitresses. No deep conversations. That’s a problem.

When the restaurant closes, everyone goes back to their community. Very few have a chance to connect with their customers outside the restaurant. The internet is a good way to change this. It’s revolutionized the way we communicate with our customers.

Many customers don’t want to talk directly to the staff, but on the internet, they can speak freely. It’s helpful to know what customers want. Sometimes they’ll get angry, and they’ll complain about the service or the food. That’s very good.

I remember a posting from one woman who had been a customer since the restaurant first opened. She wrote that the Dan Dan noodles were not good, the cold noodles not good, the fish not good, the duck not good—everything not good. She was mad. When I read her post I had a meeting with the chefs to see what was happening. We need that. No one else does that, but I think it’s important.

There’s a Grand Sichuan on Canal Street, but you don’t own it. Is it affiliated with your restaurants in any way?

That’s my first restaurant. I had two partners there. One of them, who’s still there, was one of my best friends in China before I came to the U.S.

We were friends who did business. After two years, we became enemies.

What happened?

They didn’t have any experience in the restaurant business, and it was the first Sichuan restaurant in Chinatown, so they asked me to oversee it. Most people in Chinatown are Cantonese, so they didn’t come to eat there. I lost money—every month about seven thousand dollars. Also, I paid the chef a high salary. They thought I was foolishly stupid. Why did I pay so much money? I told them the chef deserved to be paid well, even if business wasn’t good. It wasn’t his fault. It was mine.

Were you worried?

Yes. Especially since they asked me to cover the losses. At the time, I was still working for Wu Liang Ye, so I had a salary every month. My whole salary from 1997 to 1998 went to paying Grand Sichuan’s employees. I kept nothing.

How did you overcome this?

Ruth Reichl of The New York Times wrote a review of Wu Liang Ye’s 86th Street location. I was still working there. When the review came out, we got very busy. But I thought the food at that Wu Liang Ye was too spicy, too oily. I asked the customers how they felt. I went table to table, asking for their opinions, and they would say “too oily, too spicy, I’m not coming back.”

I wrote a letter to Ruth Reichl, telling her that the customers didn’t like the food at Wu Liang Ye. I recommended a Sichuan restaurant in Chinatown that I guaranteed would be better.

She got my letter, and almost immediately she came and had lunch at Grand Sichuan. She came back five or six times. Then she gave us a review, and one star. Overnight, the restaurant became a success.

That might be the reason that the people at Wu Liang Ye don’t like you very much.

Yes — I complained about their food to Ruth Reichl, while I was still working there. But it was good luck for Grand Sichuan. Were it not for that review, our restaurant was going to die.

But I still fought with my partners. They wanted to reduce the chef’s salary, and I refused. Finally I asked the chef to open a new restaurant with me. I let the chef become a partner, and we opened the Grand Sichuan on Twenty-fourth and Ninth Avenue. I gave up my share in the Canal Street location. I don’t mind that they kept the name, because the owner is my long-time friend and it’s a small restaurant. Also I did something wrong by taking the chef away.

Most Chinese restaurant owners come from country villages. They don’t have any big ideas. They just want to make money, that’s all. Stay at home, don’t work—that’s their idea. Maybe I think differently from them. I think that you have to do something.

You said you’d like to go back to school. But with all your restaurants, and splitting time between New York and Beijing, it doesn’t sound like you have time for that.

I’m taking some online courses in management.

Why?

I came to the U.S. for my PhD, and I never finished it. It’s not just about making money. If your whole life you want to do something, you have to do it.

Icelandish — by K. Thor

See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue

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Kris Thor USA
Kristjan Thor ICELAND

Kris: Hi Kristjan.

Kristjan: Hi Kris.

Kris: Thank you so much for agreeing to join me.

Kristjan: I could really say the same for you.

Kris: Indeed. Indeed.

[Pause]

Kris: So… Iceland.

Kristjan: Yup.

Kris: You are from there?

Kristjan: Ish.

Kris: Ish?

Kristjan: Yes. Grew up here in the States, but my blood is there. Family. Language. That kind of thing.

Kris: I see, I see. But you are born here?

Kristjan: Yes.

Kris: So you are an American?

Kristjan: Well, yes, but really both.

Kris: Both?

Kristjan: Strong roots to Iceland. Family thing, I guess. It’s a pretty proud culture in that way.

Kris: But… sorry to be a pest, but how can you be anything but an American if you are born here?

Kristjan: Well, don’t a lot of people that are first-generation Americans feel a strong kinship with their family’s roots as well as to the States?

[silence]

Kristjan: So they might identify themselves as both American and…

Kris: Mmmm.

Kristjan: What, mmmm?

Kris: Well, sounds to me like you are a little defensive.

Kristjan: Defensive? Defensive about what?

Kris: Nothing. It’s just that if you’re born here, you’re from here.

Kristjan: That’s an oversimplification.

Kris: Now you’re being…

Kristjan: What?

Kris: A little…

Kristjan: A little what?

Kris: Well… a little… waffly…

Kristjan: Can’t get a break—

Kris: Well. I’m just saying—

Kristjan: Please, can we move on?

Kris: Gladly. Yes. Of course

[Long Pause]

Kristjan: Such a dick.

Kris: Noted.

[Pause]

Kris: OK. Iceland.

Kristjan: Yes, Iceland.

Kris: So.

Kristjan: Not what I’d call a normal place, by your standards.

Kris: Why?

Kristjan: Size. Sunlight. Landscape. Björk. Bankruptcy. Insecurity.

Kris: Insecurity?

Kristjan: 319,368 people. Sometimes, we want to seem bigger than we are.

Kris: Meaning?

Kristjan: We may overcompensate a bit.

Kris: Meeeeeaning?

Kristjan: Point taken. Maybe it’s best to put it this way. We are small… tiny, but often too proud. I think we’d like to take up more space. We can’t do it physically, so we always try to find other means. For instance, our recent bankruptcy. Something I know woefully little about. But seeing the events unfold with my financially uneducated eyes, it makes complete sense we overextended our finances. Selling debt was what the world was doing and we found a way to do the same, only we aggrandized the scale upon which we did it. I know so many of my family and friends who’d be angry at me for saying it, but I think our financial ruin has a lot to do with powerful Icelandic men attempting to overcome certain nationalistic insecurities. Sure, they wanted to make a buck, but really, when I watch these guys, I see men with something to prove; men whose pride was bound to get the best of them.

Kris: Not a very good sales pitch for the Icelandic people.

Kristjan: I know. If I may, Icelanders really embody the old saying: “Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.” All that business I was spouting before could weirdly describe what I love about my country: an unapologetic desire to put our tiny nation smack in the middle of all things “important.” The flattering version is The Little Engine That Could, the deprecating one is the egomaniacal body-building version of a midget field mouse. We’re tiny and we’d like, very much, not to be.

Kris: So, when you—

Kristjan: Wait, sorry to interrupt. I think this helps. Rather than a “good and bad” generalization about Iceland and Icelanders, this may help. We are intrepid. Truly. A big part of living here is that one gets swept up in moving forward… becoming part of a movement… a fashion… a technology… whatever. Because of our size, it’s easy for EVERYONE to indulge in whatever’s “it.”

Kris: OK, and when—

Kristjan: Sorry, sorry. I’m gonna interrupt AGAIN! This intrepid thing. People here can be so active; they’re strong-willed, but also whimsical. It is amazing to see. When you spend enough time in Iceland today, it makes sense that a thousand years ago these crazy fuckers sailed semi-large rafts into the North Atlantic with a “just cuz” mentality. Good or bad, its unabashed bravado either way you look at it.

Kris: Got it. OK. So, let’s talk hometown.

Kristjan: Not sure I follow.

Kris: What’s it like as a hometown?

Kristjan: Funny question coming from you.

Kris: I thought it might be.

Kristjan: You and I have spent a lot of time in both countries, yeah?

Kris: No doubt.

Kristjan: I’ll say this. It scares me how easily a tiny place like Iceland could be folded into a larger “power” like those that exist today. Seems to me that given our present fiscal situation, a lot of people could try to gain a stronghold in Iceland. I mean, the first thing Gordon Brown did after we filed our bankruptcy was declare us a terrorist nation so he could freeze our assets in the UK. It was a little funny, but mostly just a douche-y move. Bullying. I’m not an expert on global policy, but it feels like the EU, IMF, Russia, the US, whoever, could wield a lot of power in shaping our future. I think it’d all look like a big, globalized blob drifting across the Atlantic and just applying Iceland to one of its many fat rolls along the way. It’s a real fear I have. I’d like it to stay… individual.

[pause]

Kristjan: That sounds a bit cheesy, yeah?

Kris: Yup.

Kristjan: I know. Sounds a little sad or pathetic, but part of me wishes Iceland would resist joining the rest of the world. It’s horribly selfish, but I’ve always liked being from a place where “no one else is from.” I’ve always liked being from the weird, tiny island that is so small the phone book is listed by first name. It’s not like any other country. I like the idiosyncrasy.

Kris: Kristjan, if I may be the whisper of reason. You are saying that you’d like to keep your hometown-slash-homeland from progressing so you can be more “rare” than the others around you at a dinner party. That’s absolutely ridiculous. And stupid. And so horribly selfish.

Kristjan: It is. Absolutely. 100%. Wanting to be the “rare” Icelander is silly. Admittedly, totally vapid. BUT. Wanting Iceland to maintain itself, on the other hand. Hoping that Iceland can remain free of all the bullshit that weighs down so many other nations, precisely because it is one of the few places that CAN be free of it. That is… well… practical.

 

Author’s Note: Just so we all know, I fully recognize that speaking of Iceland and Icelanders as somewhat megalomaniacal and subsequently having an interview with myself is pretty ridiculous. We can blame my Icelandicness for this inconsistency.

5 Questions — Tim Rutili, Dan Chaon, Diskokaine

See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue

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Tim Rutili

We love Califone, Tim Rutili’s Chicago-based band of the last decade. He used to lead Red Red Meat, who recently reunited in conjunction with Sub Pop’s re-release of their masterpiece, Bunny Gets Paid. Get excited for the new Califone record (and film) All My Friends are Funeral Singers, which comes out on Dead Oceans in October.

1 What brought your family to your hometown?
We moved from Chicago to Addison, Illinois when I was five. It’s a suburb about 20 minutes west of the city. From what I hear, their neighborhood in the city was getting a little rough and my family just wanted a safer place to raise kids. After we moved, my grandmother and my aunt moved into our house and five of her sisters and a few cousins all bought houses in our little subdivision. Our block was a zoo. Lots of screaming Italian-Americans.

2 Where’s the best place to go hide in your hometown?
When I was a kid there was an unfinished industrial park behind our house. It looked like they started building some factories and never finished. Half-done walls, cinder block walls and overgrown weeds. There was a pond back there too. That was the best place to get lost, smoke stolen cigarettes and make out with girls if you were lucky.

3 What’s the worst thing about your hometown?
It’s flat. All the houses look the same. There’s a special flavor of boredom and sadness there that I haven’t felt anywhere else in the world.

4 Where’s the best place to eat in your hometown?
Millie’s Pancake House. Mill Road and Lake Street in the strip mall next to the karate school and White Hen Pantry. Avoid the after church crowds on Sunday. Go on a weekday instead when it’s empty. They have the most horrible gift shop. The waitresses still wear holly hobby dresses.

5 What’s your strangest memory of your hometown?

The Addison Theater was about a mile from our house. I walked there all the time to see movies. Sometimes with friends but mostly I’d go on my own. They showed a lot of martial arts movies and cheap horror films. I have plenty of memories of seeing really scary movies and taking that long walk home alone at night. Usually in the winter or late fall. Feeling the fresh fear from the movie and feeling like I was being followed. The streets were empty. Lots of trees. Shadows and chilly air. Lots of places for murderers to hide. that walk usually ended in a sprint to my front door.

 

Dan Chaon

His most recent novel, Await Your Reply, was just released by Ballantine Books and is tearing up several bestseller lists. He’s also the author of You Remind Me of Me and Among the Missing. The latter was a finalist for the National Book Award. Not bad. He lives out in Cleveland and teaches Creative Writing at Oberlin.

1 What brought your family to your hometown?
I grew up in a very small town in western Nebraska, and by very small I mean less than 50 people. It was called Brownson, and it was about eight miles outside of Sidney. It was a little grain elevator town alongside the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Both sets of grandparents lived there—that was how my mom and dad met, they were neighbors in this little town—and when they got married they bought a house next door. My brother actually still lives in that little house, though now the population of Brownson is down to about ten or so.

Here’s a picture of the grain elevator that stood outside my bedroom window. It was pretty haunted-looking, and probably accounts for about 25% of why I am who I became.

2 Where’s the best place to go hide in your hometown?
When I was a kid in the seventies, the schoolhouse was this old, two-story brick building, and there was this weird fire escape on the side of the school. The fire escape was a metal chute, like a slide, and when there was a fire alarm we all lined up at the fire escape door and slid down it to “safety.” I try to explain it and most people don’t know what I’m talking about,
so thank God for the internet. It looked like this:

I always wondered what would happen if there was a real fire. Wouldn’t the metal tube heat up?
Anyway, it was a good place to hide. If you took off your shoes and socks, you could climb up inside the chute and hang out and no one would find you. It was dark and cool and wonderfully echo-y. If you pressed your mouth to the steel sides of the chute and talked, you sounded like a robot.

3 What’s the worst thing about your hometown?
There weren’t many kids. The school served the whole district, which was about the size of Brooklyn, but without the population density. Most of the kids lived on farms, miles away. I spent a lot of time wandering around talking to myself in different voices, which became a habit that I haven’t been able to break to this day.

4 Where’s the best place to eat in your hometown?
My mom’s house. She was a really good cook. Though you could also walk to the gas station and buy microwave sandwiches, with the bread kind of cardboard-y on the edges and wet in the middle. Back in the day, we were enchanted by this technology.

5 What’s your strangest memory of your hometown?
One time we had to be evacuated by the feds because a train carrying some kind of chemical wrecked nearby. I got out my Polaroid and snapped various shots, while my mother screamed at me in the background. “Get in the car! Get in the car!” My own little Airborne Toxic Event, long before White Noise!

It so happened that this was an area in which there are a lot of MX nuclear missile silos, as well. Sometimes, when we were having dinner, a military plane would fly over and the sonic boom would rattle the plates.

 

Wolfram aka Diskokaine

Though originally from St. Veit An Der Glan, Austria, Diskokaine is a DJ currently based out of Vienna. Most recently we caught him performing at the V/Marc Jacobs fashion week party, following up an Elton John-esque solo piano performance from Lady GaGa. Uh-huh.

1 What brought your family to your hometown?
My dad came all the way from the freezing North Sea to visit his mum, who spent her holiday on the border of Austria and Italy. At the first cornerstore he bought some sandwiches and that’s where he met my mum. He asked her straight away if she… and then this place became my hometown!

2 Where’s the best place to go hide in your hometown?
The forest next to our house.

3 What’s the worst thing about your hometown?
That there is no Katz’s Delicatessen!

4 Where’s the best place to eat in your hometown?
At the Butcher’s Inn!

5 What’s your strangest memory of your hometown?
Growing up was really strange. Everything around you is big. But suddenly I got bigger and bigger and then I realized that my town is so small that you know everybody. Then I took a 40-minute train to a city which is smaller than Central Park and thought it was huge! Five years later I took a four-hour train to Vienna, the biggest city of Austria. That was mindblowing. But when I visited New York City for the first time I definitely realized that my hometown is one of the the smallest things I know. Isn’t that strange that I had to grow that big to find out?