Tucked along a bay on Long Island Sound, this tiny island harbors a Southern accent
There was a time I sought to become a poet, believing verse was in my soul, wanting out.
But to be a bard I had to intuit, poetry is my soul, winging about.
Carl Roosevelt Garland was born June 24, 1926, in Lawrence County, Tennessee, and died February 24, 2013, six weeks after a debilitating stroke. His official education was limited to eight years of schooling. A few years later, in July of 1950, he decided he needed to go where the jobs were, Detroit, finding work with the Hudson Motor Car Company at $1.53 per hour. Within months of moving, however, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After receiving his basic training at Camp Polk, Louisiana, he was assigned to the Army’s Heavy Tank Division, with training at Fort Hood, Texas. The truce in the Korean Conflict came just weeks before his scheduled departure to the battlefront. The corporal was soon released from service and returned home to Tennessee, in 1952, to elope with his love interest, Ruby Lurline Self, a girl he’d known since childhood and with whom he had been corresponding since his move to the Motor City.
Carl Roosevelt Garland @ 1952
Exactly nine months after marrying, he and his new wife welcomed to the world their first son, Larry Ray Garland. Initially renting shelter in whatever structures became available in the community, the family moved among several dwellings across the north end of the county, sometimes sharing quarters and costs with one of his many siblings and their families. In 1956 he signed with a local bank to purchase a small farm—“107 acres, more or less,” as the deed read, contracting to make five annual installments of $500.00 each. Had any of those years included serious sickness, a flood, drought, blight, locust infestation, or other natural disaster, he would have lost his cash crop of cotton, and the farm would have been lost as well.
Soon after paying off the farm, he saw an opportunity. The Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company—a bicycle and pedal toys production business—relocated to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, the county seat, and he went to work there on the assembly line. It was during this period that he and his wife lost their only daughter, when the expectant mother slipped and fell on a wet “steppin’ stone”—a rock used at that time at the front door of simple country homes as a doorstep. Within a year thereafter, they celebrated the arrival of their second son, Allen Lee Garland.
One evening, near the end of a cold winter, while sitting around the wood stove for warmth in the dwelling to which they had moved without the luxury of plumbing or electricity, he took out a pad and pencil and drew up a basic house plan. That spring, he began digging the trenches and laying the cinder blocks for the foundation.
Work on the new house started and stopped throughout that year. This was necessary because he had to log trees from the woods of his farm and get them hauled to the sawmill for processing into lumber for the house. That was paid for “on the halves,” with the sawmill keeping half of the lumber as payment and the other half coming back to be used in the construction. Other delays came from waiting for money to be earned at the factory to purchase nails and other necessary building supplies.
Each morning, he’d arise before daylight, build a fire if needed, and head “to town” to work in the factory. That evening, he’d return to the farm and resume his construction project, hammering and sawing as long as the light held out. Once darkness fell, he’d climb atop his Farmall tractor and plow long rows of cotton stalks until almost midnight, arising the next day to do it all over again.
He stayed on that farm and within the house and home he’d built until well past his retirement from the factory job. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, by his older son who works for a global financial firm in New York while residing with his partner in New Rochelle, and by his younger son who is married and still lives in Lawrence County, Tennessee.
Carl Garland was interred at Macedonia Cemetery in Lawrence County, Tennessee, on February 27, 2013, following a Veteran’s sendoff with 15 shots fired into a cold sky on a wet and windy day. The empty shells and folded American flag were presented to his widow at graveside.
One of the great things about Chefs to Dine For dinners is that each event is so different. I’ve attended a number of these feasts and all have been relaxed evenings—until this one. The September 2012 occasion was an action-packed, delicious feast for the eyes and ears as well the nose and palate, but the clock was a dictator in this story. With much to take in, our dinner at Redeye Grill had to start early—and still it recessed quickly to accommodate a Broadway show about the life of Charlie Chaplin, aptly titled “Chaplin.” Thereafter it reconvened, with dinner guests rubbing elbows with members of the cast and Mindy Rich, the play’s producer from Rich Entertainment Group, over fine desserts and mixed drinks prepared by renowned mixologist Brian Van Flandern. Brian is author of the book “Vintage Cocktails,” and he created a drink just for this occasion: the “Going to the Chaplin” cocktail. From dinner, to show, to after-party, the evening advanced like a tightly choreographed production—a three-act play:
Redeye Grill, Manhattan Theatre District
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
(Redeye Grill, Midtown Manhattan in the Theatre District)
Guests gather, old friends reunite and new acquaintances are struck up over glasses of wine instantly offered and quickly accepted.
Dinner is served from a menu composed by Chef Brando de Oliveira—heirloom chicory and endive salad with goat cheese, choice of prime fillet mignon or butter-braised monkfish osso bucco, Jewish mashed potatoes and steamed spinach.
[Aside] The filet mignon wins Best in Class and the potatoes are To Die For.
Sliders, one of many appetizers
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
Hostess Lynne Ryan reminds her guests that time and the rising curtain wait for no one. This compels diners to abbreviate the savoring of fine food and great conversation, and it obliges professional photographer Rodney Bedsole to curtail his photo-taking of guests wanting to preserve the memories.
(Transition from Redeye Grill to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in the heart of Broadway, where theatergoers are gathering to see the life story of comedian and cinema legend Charlie Chaplin)
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The air has a hint of early fall to it, making for an enjoyable walk (for the daring) between the Redeye Grill on Seventh Avenue at 56th Street and the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 47th Street. Finding their reserved orchestra seats, guests reassemble, exchange quick hellos, and settle in with only minutes to spare before the lights dim. Guests are wondering where their judgments will land, given the critics’ mixed reviews:
• Variety: “The most treacherous part of producing a biomusical about an iconic performer is finding an actor who can convincingly handle the role. The producers of “Chaplin” – this fall’s first Broadway offering – have passed that difficult test, with relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp.”
• The Chicago Tribune: “Despite an enigmatic, career-making performance from Rob McClure in the title role, an earnest turn from Wayne Alan Wilcox as his tag-along brother Sydney, and an engaging performance from Erin Mackey as Chaplin’s late-in-life love Oona, ‘Chaplin’ is a musical where the material is just not up to the complexity of its enigmatic subject.”
The musical reaches its single intermission without imparting that feeling of “will this never end?” Indeed, many are surprised: “So soon?” That’s always a good sign.
The show concludes to a standing ovation. Chefs to Dine For guests scurry out and turn back toward uptown and the waiting restaurant. Some are hungry again—and thirsty.
(Back at Redeye Grill, within its glass-enclosed mezzanine retreat)
Brian Van Flandern, mixologist
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
Guests return to find a regiment of restaurant servers plying a wide array of hors d’oeuvre, a table displaying a mountain of tempting desserts, and a cash bar staffed, stocked, and ready for preparation of mixed drinks for the parched.
The “Going to the Chaplin” cocktail
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
In couples and in bunches, actors and cast members begin to appear. Hostess Lynne Ryan and producer Mindy Rich are standing at the bar, near the entrance at the top of the stairs. They are welcoming guests back and greeting cast members as they arrive. Guests are soon posing questions about acting or regarding the play itself. Special guest Bill McCuddy, an entertainment reporter who is a former host of TV’s Fox & Friends and a past writer for Saturday Night Live, seems to be a favorite that guests want to be photographed with—along with the cast of Chaplin, of course. Playbills are being autographed and this writer is not ashamed to be groveling for the signature of Wayne Alan Wilcox, who played the role of Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney. Unfortunately, the amazing Rob McClure—Mr. Chaplin himself (well, the Charlie Chaplin of this play)—was unable to attend.
[Aside] Mr. Wilcox and I both hail from the state of Tennessee, and I managed to extract the promise that he’d take my calls and grant an interview once he’s a world-famous actor. His credits include performances in The Normal Heart, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Suddenly Last Summer, The Light in the Piazza, and The Full Monty. His TV/Film appearances include Gilmore Girls and Law and Order.
Cast & Crew from Chaplin, pictured with Hostess Lynne Ryan (center right, black dress), Producer Mindy Rich (center right, white jacket & scarf), and Entertainment Reporter Bill McCuddy (back row, dark jacket & blue shirt)
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The hour is late and guests begin to depart, but they leave behind their reviews of the play. The consensus is overwhelmingly positive: “High energy,” “moving performance” and “well-structured with great flashbacks” are some of the phrases hanging in the air. “Of course,” someone says, “as happens in real life, that youth [Zachary Unger playing the role of Chaplin as a young child] stole many of the scenes.” It was Unger’s Broadway debut, but he has Off Broadway and film experience, as well as TV appearances that include Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street. Alas, this after-party was being held much too late for young master Zachary Unger’s attendance. Still, guests left the restaurant feeling delightfully entertained and well fed—thanks to Redeye Grill’s Chef Brando de Oliveira, to the attending cast and crew of Chaplin, and to the extraordinary talents of the event’s organizer—Lynne Ryan of Chefs to Dine For.
The dessert table
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
Here is my review of the Broadway production of “Chaplin”:
• Of the real-life Charlie Chaplin, with his flexing cane and distinctive gait, it could be said that he lived a brave and creative interpretation of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous words on diplomacy: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Starting with nothing, Chaplin applied his negotiating skills to the world, first for survival and then for mounting success—and the whole world still lauds his achievement.
Likewise, this production should be applauded for taking on the monumental task of portraying the life of the giant “Little Tramp” in such a fearless fashion. The play opens with Rob McClure—Chaplin—walking a tightrope high above the stage. He doesn’t fall down on the stage and he doesn’t fall down in his performance. The supporting actors are there for him and we, as an audience, are there for the whole cast. Long live the memories of, and praises for, Chaplin—the man and the show.
I give up. Give in. Surrender. Capitulate. Take your pick and whatever synonym you choose will be okay by me—as long as it truly is a synonym. To my woe, there is a certain pairing that people think are synonyms, yet they are not. As an English major and an editor for a global financial firm (the views expressed herein are my own), I have fought the good fight. Yet, at some point, a rational person may find it necessary to weigh the odds and, when appropriate, gracefully concede. This is my concession speech.
Language can change like shifting sands. (Photo by Larry Garland)
Most of us try to mind our “Ps” and “Qs,” and we have pet peeves about those who don’t. The peeve that I own and love to pet is a hairy little beauty: correct usage of “affected” versus “impacted.” My dictionary informs me that the thing most likely to be “impacted” is a bad tooth. Consequently, every time I hear someone say, “It impacted me horribly,” my teeth hurt. Impacted has a meaning that is practically literal: “packed or wedged in” says my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So where did this idea come from—the notion that “impacted” substitutes for “affected?”
I suspect people think impacted expresses a stronger sentiment. It doesn’t. If you told me a hurricane impacted someone’s life, I’d be apt to ask what item the wind slammed into the flesh of that unfortunate person. Granted, that’s a stronger image than affected, but that doesn’t mean it works as a substitute. Affected is a perfectly useful, clear and appropriate word. If you desire for it to be better outfitted, then feel free to dress it up: make it “very affected” or “highly affected” or even “sadly affected” if the shoe fits, but “impacted?” Really? That’s like putting an Easter bonnet on a kitten and perambulating it all around town. It’s cute when a child does it, but let’s be adults here.
Still, it’s maddening as to the sheer number of–supposedly well educated people who are suddenly feeling impacted by all sorts of things. Poor fellows, I hope they survive the surgery to remove the foreign objects. Even the elite are now falling prey. Today, I heard a former Secretary of State abuse that poor little word—I witnessed it happen right there on national television! Even some authors have skidded down that slippery slope. All this makes me wonder what a person who strives to write well—such as yours truly, though, admittedly, sometimes failing—is supposed to do?
It’s in vogue these days to blame government for most of our woes. With that meme in mind, there is another possible explanation as to why so many in this country now abuse this simple and defenseless little utterance. A secondary, acceptable usage of impacted, again according to Merriam-Webster, is this: “of, relating to, or being an area (as a school district) providing tax-supported services to a population having a large proportion of federal employees and esp. those living or working on tax-exempt federal property.” That’s a mouthful, so an example is offered: “aid to education in impacted areas.” Aha. “Impacted” not “affected” areas. Darn those federals. There they go again trying to corrupt us. They took an innocent little word and confused it. That overstepping of established boundaries and relentless push for ever-more power makes me want to rebel, to show the feds just how I feel. Show them my independence by hanging on to “affected” as traditionally used, just as the Almighty intended.
Careful—a slippery slope could be lurking anywhere. (Photo by Larry Garland)
Besides, I can’t let my peeve die. I can’t put down a dear pet. My love for the breed—look at all that personality—is just too great. Maybe it would help if I give it a playmate. Isn’t it wrong—or at least sad—to have it live all alone? There’s this breed called “latest” that I’ve thought about bringing into the fold. Note that’s not the “very latest,” since there can be nothing later than the latest. “Very latest” developments, for example, are as rare as unicorns. News reporters claim to spot them all the time, yet we know they are only mythological creatures. Latest is latest; that’s what being a superlative means.
It feels good to know I’ll finally have a pair of pet peeves to keep each other company. Sorry, but I withdraw my concession.
Where's the Beef? (Photo by Larry Garland)
The New York Times, on Jan. 30, 2008, called “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks” “something of a Rosetta stone among fans of old New York and carnivorous foodies.” That classic piece is a 1939 New Yorker article by Joseph Mitchell. It begins, “The New York State steak dinner, or “beefsteak,” is a form of gluttony as stylized and regional as the riverbank fish fry, the hot-rock clambake, or the Texas barbeque.”
But what is it, really, and why does New Jersey also claim title to it?
Beefsteaks began in New York in the late 1800s as boisterous, community-based mass feeding events. They held sway in New York for the better part of a century before their decline. They were often political in nature—think Tammany Hall—even though political speeches were verboten. They featured unlimited servings of steak, lamb chops, bacon-wrapped lamb kidneys, shrimp, crabmeat and beer. They were also conspicuous in what they didn’t feature: the niceties of silverware, napkins or women.
Repeal of this latter item, the absence of women, contributed to the demise of beefsteaks. Women’s suffrage teamed up with prohibition to deal a one-two punch. What fun is a public dinner without alcohol? Also, once women were invited, they began requesting such unmanly dishes as pastas and other foods not traditionally served. Remember, too, that the dinners were tools of the Tammany political machine, labor unions and fraternal organizations. As they declined, so did the beefsteaks. Still, the tradition has never entirely died out.
Chef Waldy Malouf has hosted an annual beefsteak dinner at his midtown restaurant, Beacon, for the past dozen years. He believes the truth behind the beefsteak falling out of favor in New York is even deeper, saying, “I think that’s because the beefsteak is a very community-based thing, and today’s New Yorkers don’t always have a very strong sense of community. And as Manhattan eventually got more sophisticated and less blue-collar, the beefsteak may have become frowned upon here.”
This thinking leads us back to New Jersey. As beefsteaks were waning in New York, there was a burgeoning interest in New Jersey. Their version of the beefsteak harkens back to 1938 when Garret Nightingale—a Clifton, New Jersey, butcher and grocer—started catering parties that followed a set formula: Take tenderloins, grill them over charcoal, and then dip slices of the meat in melted butter. Serve the slices over white sandwich bread and call them beefsteaks.
Perhaps we should say that the beefsteak was born in New York and reborn in New Jersey, where it has become a showcase of local produce. In New York, it was always thought of as primarily a social gathering. The long late Nightingale also thought he knew why there was a decline just after women got the vote. As quoted in The New York Times: “A man isn’t inclined to eat as much if his wife or girlfriend is watching. After their 15th or 18th slice, she kind of gives him the look and makes him stop.” Nightingale Catering has now been in the family for four or five generations—and they are still serving their New Jersey version of the beefsteak.
Which brings us back to the present. It’s time to stop with the history lesson and start with the steaks. Where’s my first one?
If your curiosity is piqued and you think you may be interested in attending a New York beefsteak, one complete with the old traditions, there is an upcoming March 4, 2012, beefsteak that should satiate your curiosity as well as your hunger. For more information or to make a reservation, click here or go to the following business website: chefstodinefor.com. To get a sense of what a Chefs to Dine For event is like, read “An Ocean of Fun at Oceana,” on Rodney Bedsole’s blog, shoot&eat.
RULES OF THE ROAD
No napkins. (That’s the purpose of aprons.)
No silverware. (Okay, you can fudge on this but we don’t recommend such unnecessary tools.)
No lack of a butcher’s hat. (Maybe it will be your first step toward donning a toque one day.)
No limits as to 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths … (In helpings, of course.)
No need to be courteous. (Grab for that last steak on the platter; it’s yours.)
No shyness allowed. (This is simply neither the place nor the time for it.)
No political speeches allowed. (However, sterling conversation is encouraged.)
No not allowing women. (Contorted language, yes, but see the article above.)
No reserved seating. (Original beefsteaks furnished old wooden crates, so you’ve got it good.)
No, bread isn’t just for eating. (It’s for soaking up grease, so feel free to stack it or eat it.)
I just spent an intensive weekend with the CIA. That’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency. So, to clarify further, I was in Hyde Park, NY, rather than Langley, VA, and I was happy to be present at the CIA where the food may be grilled but the “guests” are not. My partner, Rodney Bedsole, a food photographer and blogger, was invited to a culinary competition as a VIP, courtesy of KitchenAid, and I went along for the ride and, as a writer, to broaden my experiences. What a ride it turned out to be; the weekend was amazing. I make no claims to being a chef or even a decent cook, but I do appreciate good food and know the basics. Which is why a certain incident was all the more embarrassing—but more about that later.
Plated and ready for consumption (Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The contest was the Bocuse d’Or USA 2012 competition, and it was as exciting and as much of a ruckus—complete with cowbells—as any sporting event I’ve ever attended. The tools of the trade included what seemed like tons of arcane kitchen paraphernalia and products, from All-Clad and KitchenAid equipment to Bragard chef coats and Bridor artesian breads. More than a dash of French peppered the air in the event hall, seasoning the spoken English. Added to that was a generous helping of food-related argot, presumably in English, that I’m still trying to decipher.
Never did I detect any sense of condescension or feel left out. And about that French—the event is named for Chef Paul Bocuse, who, along with GL events, “created the Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest in 1987 in order to broaden the public’s understanding of the extraordinary dedication, hard work, practice and precision required to execute the very finest cuisine.” Sixty national selections get chopped down to 24 countries that make the final cut. The United States 2012 preliminary event determined the U.S. winner for the upcoming 2013 world competition. It was hosted on the Hyde Park CIA campus on January 27 and 28. The apex event is held every two years in Lyon, France.
Three internationally renowned chefs preside over the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, the organization responsible for U.S. participation. Thomas Keller, Chef /Owner of New York’s Per Se and The French Laundry of Napa Valley fame, is president of the Foundation. Daniel Boulud, Chef/Owner of New York City’s Daniel, among other great restaurants, is chairman. The foundation’s mission statement says it aims “to build a sustainable community of young American chefs who are knowledgeable and confident in their career pursuits and will be life-long ambassadors of quality and excellence in the world of gastronomy.” The foundation backs up those words with educational scholarships and internships, as well as through access to their Culinary Council consisting of established professionals.
What is now the main campus of a worldwide enterprise—the CIA—has its roots in New Haven, CT, from where it moved in 1972 to accommodate a burgeoning enrollment. I found the Hyde Park campus to be lovely, even here in the depths of winter, hugging as it does a rolling, wooded bank of the Hudson River. Today’s expansive main campus is a 170-acre tract that incorporates the former Jesuit novitiate (seminary) St. Andrew-on-Hudson. And it looks the part of a distinguished, if smallish, university. The Hyde Park institution offers bachelors-level degrees on grounds with facilities comprising 41 kitchens and bakeshops, five public restaurants, lecture halls, demonstration theaters, computer labs and a grand culinary library. Most students—80%—live on campus. The alumni network is 43,000 strong. Dr. Tim Ryan, a 1977 graduate and president of the CIA, says, “Food is our passion and hospitality our way of life.” I experienced both—passion through the great food, and hospitality of the people during my visit. I have two examples to share.
The first example—and now we revisit that embarrassing incident that I referenced earlier—came from an encounter I had with Chef Thomas Keller. One of the many tables exhibiting exquisite foods prepared and served by students experienced a lull in attendance. I moved into line just as Chef Keller chose to do the same. Each of us tried to defer to the other, but he insisted that I go first.
Chef Thomas Keller (Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
No, no. You first, Chef,” he said cheerfully.
I was awestruck and too tongue-tied to correct him. Besides, who corrects a world-renowned chef on anything? I grabbed a plate and proceeded to make a few selections from the meats, cheeses, dips, and breads. I topped off my masterpiece with two falafels shaped like large coins.
“What’s that?” he asked me good-naturedly, apparently not expecting to see falafels in that form.
Although I love the fare and I’d had falafels many times since moving to New York City, consider that a word like falafels doesn’t just roll off the tongue of a Southern boy. This turned out to be especially true as I stood there dumbfounded—and I’m afraid that on this occasion Chef Keller indeed must have found me dumb. I answered haltingly, mispronouncing the word by accenting the final syllable so as to say, “fa-fel-ELs.”
“Pardon?” he inquired, leaning closer to hear me over the chattering, the cheering, and the cowbelling of the current competitive heat. I tried again, “fa-fa-ELs.” Sadly, wrong again.
Falafels, the discs of my undoing (Photo by Larry Garland)
“Fa-LA-fels” inserted the server with a gentle smile and, thankfully, no hint of sarcasm.
I took my charcuterie and my goats’ cheese and my flatbread and my falafels and headed for a quiet corner to lick my wounds and my plate. My fiasco not withstanding, that man—that exquisite chef—has real presence. He cares and I felt it. He’s genuine.
Which leads me to my second example of true hospitality. I learned that Dr. Ryan’s wife, who is also a CIA alumnus, was at the event and that she is from Alabama, near Birmingham. My partner is from nearby Huntsville, AL, and I lived there for many years prior to moving to New York. We had to meet her. Walking to the area where we’d been told she was observing the contest, I scanned the crowd and spied someone I thought looked the part—a lovely, golden-haired lady standing by and chatting confidently among a group of people. After confirming with a server that I’d selected the right person, I politely made introductions.
“Hi. I’m Larry. This is Georgia and Rodney. Georgia is not from Georgia, but Rodney’s from Alabama, and I’m from Tennessee. We hear you are from Alabama, as well, so we had to meet you.”
I found Lynne Ryan to be open and as charming as any Southern lady could hope to be. We had a great conversation around food, food blogging, and her business enterprise, Chefs to Dine For.
Now, the envelope please.
Judging (Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The four contestants and their commis (assistant) who competed for the honor of representing the United States at the Bocuse d’Or Lyons 2013 competition were (in order of final standings):
- FIRST PLACE – GOLD
Richard Rosendale, one proud chef (Photo by Rodney Bedsloe)
Richard Rosendale, The Greenbrier, Executive Chef, White Sulphur Springs, WV
Commis: Corey Siegel, The Greenbrier, Jr. Apprentice
Jeffrey Lizotte, ON20, Chef de Cuisine, Hartford, CT
Commis: Kevin Curley, Cornell Hotel School, Student
William Bradley, Le Cordon Bleu, Chef Instructor, Southboro, MA
Commis: James Haibach, Le Cordon Bleu, Graduate
Danny Cerqueda, Carolina Country Club, Executive Sous Chef, Raleigh, NC
Commis: Marianne Elyse Warrick, Johnson & Wales, Student
“Write what you know” has been the mantra of good writing almost forever. But does it stand up to scrutiny? It does not, argues Bret Anthony Johnston within the pages of the current issue of Atlantic Magazine—the Fiction Issue. Writing what you know, he says, is “writing to explain, not to discover,” and it negates the “opportunity for wonder.”
From whence comes a good idea? How can I cause it to blossom once it springs forth? (Photo by Larry Garland}
To wonder can mean to question, think or speculate. But it also means to marvel at, to be awestruck by or to be amazed with something newly learned. The probing wonder, the kind that prods the mind and causes it to explore the unknown, leads to the exhilarating wonder, which manifests as the joy of discovery. When the energy that a writer puts into a journey triggers adrenaline that then moves like magic into the joy of discovery, how could that joy not be transferred to the reader? The characters may be real or fictional. Their lives could be lived well or recklessly. Either way, we are pulled in. They get to us with their inspiring example or by their bad-boy antics. It is like some disease we can’t—then don’t want—to resist. Our blood boils with fever at their machinations, and we thirst for what’s still to come.
This is why no one wants a good story to end. We want to dwell in the story, to be part of the progression as it unfolds from a myriad of possibilities—for from possibilities we mine the wonder. A good writer will not attempt to corral the story, for she knows its wild spirit cannot survive if confined by the borders of her experience. It has its own life to live, and so, a good writer lets it go. This frees writers from worry that their life experiences might be less interesting than those of others. We are drawn to the mystery of what we don’t know. As readers, we are likely to have little interest in hearing the writer tell what he knows about his life—and a great deal of curiosity about the unknowns the writer explores as we go along for the ride. The human condition is a callout to curiosity, and intersecting somewhere down that curving path runs the road to great writing.
Good writers don’t recite lessons they’ve learned. They hunt for answers. They chase their illusive unknowns, and the appeal is in the thrill of the chase. Make the reader a member of the hunting party. The sweat of active participation—how that rivulet feels running down your back, the musty smell of the horse’s hair matted underneath you, the foam from your steed’s mouth flying in the wind—all these details come from the writer’s experience and make the story real through their affect on your characters. Knowledge is the backdrop, the foundation, the supporting structure, and even the sensibility for what comes next. It is the probing-stick that we use to explore the unknown. But too often it also becomes the crutch we depend on. We think the details are the story, so we stop there, and that kills the story. Details are not the story.
Good fiction writing is not storytelling in the sense of detailing what happened, no matter how beautifully we describe a scene. Good writing gives us a peek into what could happen. Experience is not the critical ingredient—wonder is. Good writers learn to let go, for the author does not tell the story so much as the protagonist lives it. As Johnston says in his superb essay, “Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things. Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.” Read Johnston’s excellent take on all this here: http://bit.ly/oe6XLx.
Famed writer Grace Paley wrote a wonderful short story called “Mother.” And I do mean short—420 words. Words made exquisite by their eloquence. The thing about eloquence is that it’s so elegant. And elegance means distilled into perfect beauty.
The story starts out this way:
“One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: ‘Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.’ By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway.”
Grace Paley was born in the Bronx to Ukrainian emigrant parents. I’m a Southern-born writer living in Brooklyn. We have nothing in common. And everything. I understand her emotional reaction to that song. The song of life and death. A dirge lamenting the passing of time and people.
My mother, circa 1952
Her mother was already gone; mine is going. Slowly walking away from me, arm in arm with Alzheimer’s. We now live a thousand miles apart—her life is in Tennessee and mine is in the great City. More than miles, though, we are years apart from the time she stood young and vibrant in doorways as she watched over me. These things we remember of those we love: A stance, a look, a melodious phrase reserved just for us. “My Sonny Boy,” is what Momma calls me still. But for how much longer?
Stand in a doorway. That’s the prime advice for surviving an earthquake if you are caught indoors when the swaying begins. Do mothers instinctively stand in doorways because they feel their world crumbling and sense the danger?
Grace Paley heard a song on the radio and immediately identified with the artist’s theme. So do I. Her sense of longing for a mother now gone and the writer’s ensuing strength of emotion—“By God!”—I get it. I make the same connection. I feel it. We all must live it.
This is the joy of the human condition: We each inhabit our own island; but when an item that is human-made washes up on our shore, we are pulled to it. We are destined to pick it up. We trace its shape with our fingers. Feeling its smoothness. Marveling at its rounded curves and abrupt edges. Focusing on its rougher spots. Reveling at its creative design. Wondering if we could do better. Thinking. Learning. Growing.
This is what a human is: We think, learn, grow; therefore, we are. Change, evermore. It is the necessary human component. Necessary, but, oh! How it hurts.
Annie Sue Dinsmore was one of my all-time favorite people. She was a New Accounts Opener at the main office of First Federal Savings and Loan Association. At the start of my tenure there, I was placed under her tutelage. Annie Sue was a doyen of the bank and the community, while I was only a wet-behind-the-ears upstart Branch Manager in training. I had much to learn and Annie Sue was the ideal person to get me started off right. This was in the early 1980s, in Decatur, Alabama, back before S&Ls were legally folded into the banking system. To appreciate the historical role of S&Ls and how they helped financially limited Americans achieve the American dream of home ownership, watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 black and white movie classic, which was directed by Frank Capra and starred James Stewart.
This week, while lying in bed on the night before my birthday and for no reason apparent to me, Annie Sue came to mind. Suddenly, I realized how much she sounded like Truman Capote. He died 27 years ago this month—August 25, 1984—almost on the anniversary of my birthday. Both Annie Sue and Capote had high-pitched voices, but more than that, they perfected a certain tone that they masterfully delivered with more than a slight nasal affectation. Their similar voices likely came out of their similar upbringing. Both personalities were products of the interplay between upper middle class Southern culture and down-home Alabama dialect. By their later lives, the author from Monroeville and the banker from Decatur had even begun to look alike: diminutive and frail, but still powerful in poise and intellect. Perhaps they always shared a resemblance. I can’t believe it took me a quarter century to see those similarities. In Monroeville, Capote had Harper Lee, of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame, to pal around with. In Decatur, thankfully for me but sadly for her, Annie Sue had to deal with me.
The view ahead is always limited but the opportunities never are. (Photo by Larry Garland)
“Honey, first you have to know when the certificate of deposit was started in order to know which method to apply to calculate the penalty,” Annie Sue patiently explained to me, adding that iconic Annie Sue grin. It was a smile that came through as honest, not mocking—and yet somehow with a hint of condescension at the same time. I read it now as carefully honed patience toward “good people” who just aren’t quite as bright as she’d hoped. Good people in the South means someone of similar station in life to you who also happens to be reasonably trustworthy. Both criteria must be met to qualify.
Annie Sue understood the worth of a good smile. How it disarms anger. Builds trust. Exudes confidence. She could stare into the burning eyes of a customer who unexpectedly needed access to funds he’d tied up for two-and-a half years and inform him with no hint of hesitation that his penalty was going to be thousands of dollars. After delivering the fateful news, that smile of hers would appear, washing across the chasm between bank and customer to extinguish his anger like baking powder on a kitchen grease fire.
“Are you sure that’s right, Annie Sue? I mean, are you quite sure-ah? It seems rathah excessive,” he might intone. Such words were last sparks of a smothered fire. The plea came complete with lips curled at the corners like tendrils of smoke—wisps fading as they realize the futility of resistance.
“Oh, I’m quite sure-ah,” she’d say. And that was that.
Annie Sue, I miss you. I am comforted when I remember your example. You have had a great impact on my life. I studied your face and actions the same way that today I read and study powerful authors. I could use your “quite sure-ah” reassurance in today’s post-911 world. It is a world so different from my 1980s Southern experience, for I live now in New York City, where the tenth anniversary of our national tragedy looms. I’m not too happy with the knee-jerk response to terrorists that we took as a country. Still, I know America will thrive and freedom will prevail. Renewal will come when America once again has the courage and confidence to look forward rather than backward. Maybe the tenth anniversary’s passing will let that rebirth of confidence occur.
America survived the racial turmoil depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and became a better country because of that struggle. In a similar vein, America will transcend her serious bout of introspection, and—like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”—America will learn to look forward again with renewed passion for the present and with trust in the greatness still to come. America remains the land of opportunity. Of that, “I’m quite sure-ah.”
Last night I dreamed I was at my aunt Dell’s house and she was washing clothes. Such a common thing, this doing the laundry. But when did I start calling it “doing the laundry?” Doing is without depth or emotion and has no life or reverence in it. No, we washed clothes and that rings right and true. Washing, like hard and honest work, is a strong and active word that gets right down to it.
My mother, hanging out the wash in 2010.(Photo by Rodney Bedsole Photography)
If what I saw in my dream is a memory, the original scene unfolded half a century ago. My aunt Dell—Iva Dell—was much younger than I am now. Much younger than the widow she is now, with her multitude of great-grandkids. Was I dreaming in class while that basic multiplication was being taught? I mean, all those new cousins who I don’t even know. I wasn’t there. I was busy building a life apart. For me, only education mattered. Family could wait. “Don’t blink,” people say, “or you’ll miss it.” Blink or not, your family members fade away and are gone. They don’t wait for you or me.
People also say, “You’ll always have the memories,” but that’s not true either. Is there anything more fickle than a memory? From its start it will lie to you. Witness a robbery—you and five other people—not ten minutes after the excitement ends no two of you be able to agree on the details. Give any storied memory time and it will ripen—that is to say, mutate. It will take what was once green and bitter, or tart and tangy, or in some other way fresh and alive and turn it into something overdone, all too sweet, verging on spoiled. And even if it crystallizes, becoming preserved like thickened blackberry jam—or like briny pickles hand packed in a jar in the heat of summer so that you can enjoy them once the cold winter comes—even then you’ll taste only a smidgen of the original. A suggestion of the natural sweetness of berries. A trace of the earthy taste of a cucumber. And with memories, at best you’ll end up witha shadow, an echo, a hint of what really happened.
Most memories fade away quickly and completely, all rotted and absorbed back into the ground, all merged with the background they sprang from. They are fruit with a bite taken out, tossed without care into the roiling fog of some morning long past. But some memories linger, even as details fade. Memories that haunt you with their distinctive voices and expressive faces. Precious memories of relatives glimpsed but unreachable from here. Here in the blinding light of the present. Rays beating down like pelting rain on bare skin, without mercy. Merciless flow carving channels in your face. Lines looking like roads going nowhere. Nowhere good.
In my dream, Aunt Dell was conversing with me, calmly and cheerfully, and adding something to the wash. It wasn’t her battered tin dipper heaped with soap powders. It wasn’t a cup of carefully measured Purex. Whatever I saw her adding seemed real, solid. And recalling the dream in my waking, I needed to know what it was. A whitener? Some kind of grainy salts meant to grind out the gritty dirt left behind from that week’s physical labor? What was it?
Later that day, I called my aunt, thankful that I still could. Water. Clothes. Tide. Purex for the whites. Nothing else. She was certain. No fabric softener, either. Softeners existed, but that was a luxury her family and mine couldn’t afford. No fluffy, clumpy, gray-white wads of cottony … what?—additive that I saw in my dream. No mysterious secret ingredient. No magical manna. Only my faulty memory, and maybe an imagination gone wild.
Why such dreams of times long gone? Why now? Why at all? I could rationalize it. I could say it’s a scene stirred up by thoughts in my wakeful world. I am shopping my big, unwieldy family to literary agents. So it’s true that I have pulled each person out of the deep recesses of my mind. I have shined my spotlight on their light laughter and on their dark shenanigans. But then, my memoir has been reduced to words for some time now. Not reduced as in less, but reduced as in flavors intensified by slow cooking. Words simmered like a stew until the broth grows rich, dark, and thick. Simmered until every word bends the present back to the past so that delicious moments almost lost can be sipped or slurped and appreciated, as they should have been from the start. This doesn’t feel like the answer, though. Somehow it’s related. It’s in the same family, a cousin to the truth. As I start to assimilate what I’ve written, to finally see it as a whole, I’m sensing something I didn’t know before. It does have to do with family. And connections.
I’m like a fish in water that gets asked, “How’s the water?” only to respond, “What’s water?” I never fully appreciated the value of my loving family. I was lucky in my birth. Not materially, certainly, but emotionally. My hardscrabble family—immediate and extended—had love in abundance, and they believed in sharing. I partook of a large helping and passed it on like a big bowl of garden-picked greens at the dinner table. Passed it on, but mostly I just took. I didn’t put in nearly as much hard work as I got back out in sustenance. In such matters, family—a giving family—does not complain. The good people in it just keep giving.
In time, if we are smart or just lucky, we learn to take the scraps of memories we have managed to salvage—faded, stained, and musty as they are—and sew them into a crazy quilt, one with a pattern that only we can fully decipher. Once our quilt is made, we have a warm and cozy comforter to crawl under. It insulates us, for a little while, from the cold current of time coursing past us. We all know that, in God’s good time, it will sweep us away as well, to show us what’s really waiting across that darkest of seas.
Loew’s Kings Theatre opened in 1929 to a Brooklyn screening of “Evangeline” and closed in 1977 with the showing of George C. Scotts’ “Islands in the Stream.” Between those bookend performances, it gave joy and jobs to many locals. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the ushers—Sylvester Stallone, Henry Winkler, Barbra Streisand? Ben Vereen danced on the stage while his mother worked there. Bob Hope performed, as did Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Sophie Tucker. Located below Prospect Park in Flatbush, Kings Theatre is about to be renovated. When finished, in 2014, the complex will showcase a baroque-style performing arts center amid an outdoor garden. With seating for 3,600, it will be Brooklyn’s largest theatre and New York City’s third largest. This $70 million development is but one example of transformative change coming to the city’s most populous borough. The head-turning location deserves discussion, but Kings illustrates this important change: jobs are coming to Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Bridge, well over 100 years and aging gracefully (Photo by Larry Garland)
At his annual State of the Borough Address in early February, Marty Markowitz highlighted plans for the Kings’ restoration. With his usual effervesce the borough president said, “We’re on our way to making that dream come true.” The reference easily could have been to the broader makeover of the borough. Indeed, at that same gathering, Mayor Michael Bloomberg uncharacteristically went a step beyond Markowitz in praising Brooklyn, telling the crowd, “Brooklyn has arrived—and it’s very much due to Marty.”
Beyond lavish political praise, look what business is saying: Crain’s New York Business recently noted that Brooklyn added more than 14,000 jobs last year and is “at the forefront of the city’s economic recovery.” Concerning Kings Theatre, the president of New York City Economic Development Corporation, Seth Pinsky, recently told NY1 News, “One of our goals is not just restoring an architectural gem, but also creating economic development opportunities, which is just as important to us.” The renovation will require about 500 workers and create 50 permanent jobs. Private enterprise then should create or expand local businesses to serve patrons taking in an expected 250 yearly stage productions.
Such revolution is coming to Brooklyn largely because of the evolution happening across the East River. Soon Manhattan’s tallest residential building, dubbed 8 Spruce Street, will open in the financial district. Some see symbolism in how the new Frank Gehry tower turns its back to the New York Stock Exchange and comes between City Hall and Wall Street. Architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has said that the tower “seems to crystallize a particular moment in cultural history, in this case the turning point from the modern to the digital age. [It also appears to] epitomize the skyline’s transformation from a symbol of American commerce to a display of individual wealth.” Manhattan goes ever higher upscale as home and playground to the rich, forcing artists, professionals, and others of the middle class to move to the outer boroughs. Brooklyn seems to be the favored one in that exodus, but favored status has been long in coming.
Brooklyn became a borough of New York City in 1898 and has, almost literally, been in the shadow of Manhattan ever since. Brooklyn accounts for almost twice the population and three times the land area of Manhattan, but Manhattan’s vertical rise trumped Brooklyn’s horizontal growth. Most jobs and upscale living have been in that high-rise domain. But the dynamics are shifting. The New York Times recently noted that Brooklyn suddenly has grown an impressive skyline. From the 51-story rental tower Brooklyner to the 40-story condo christened Oro, the investment gold has poured in.
Proof of fundamental change, though, is found beyond Downtown Brooklyn and the Manhattan-facing waterfront neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Dumbo, Cobble Hill and, recently, Red Hook. Historically, those have been bedroom communities preferred for their easy access to jobs across the river. However, the borough is turning inward now for housing and jobs, and that is the transformative element that is changing Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden (Photo by Larry Garland)
Park Slope was the bellwether, but other areas adjacent to Prospect Park are experiencing growth now. New construction and businesses are flourishing in that ring around Prospect Park—Windsor Terrace to the southwest, Prospect Heights and Lefferts Gardens to the east and southeast, and Prospect Park South down under the park.
Next in line beneath the park lie Kensington, Ditmas Park, and the rest of Flatbush. Large portions of that interior Brooklyn real estate are blossoming. On Cortelyou Road—half a dozen blocks from Kings Theatre—a new restaurant row scents the air in the Ditmas Park section of Flatbush. Dining choices include Purple Yam (Filipino fusion), Kumo (Japanese), Qathra (Egyptian), Mimi’s Hummus (Middle Eastern), Castillo Plan (tapas and wine bar), and The Farm on Adderley (locally sourced). That choice of cuisine isn’t the Flatbush of old, or the Brooklyn that many people think they know.
“In 2011, the progress we are making transforming old into new will be more visible than ever,” Mayor Bloomberg said in his January State of the City Address. Then he turned to an ongoing Brooklyn project: “We’ll see the transformation … at Coney Island, once a sad shadow of yesteryear, and long written off by skeptics, but now drawing record crowds with new amusements and new excitement.” But he didn’t stop there, saying, “We’ll see the transformation at the old piers that are now becoming Brooklyn Bridge Park, where a new carousel will open this year. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which we’ve transformed into one of the country’s most successful, and greenest, urban industrial parks, Steiner Studios will begin to double what are already the largest soundstage and production facilities on the East Coast. And they’ll partner with Brooklyn College to create the first graduate level film school of its kind in the region.”
Much of brooklyn remains ungentrified (Photo by Larry Garland)
Not all of Brooklyn is happy with what they see as gentrification, and they jeer change even when it brings good jobs. Some fear the borough is loosing what makes Brooklyn special. Last year Dvora Meyers, a freelance writer who lives in Clinton Hill, was quoted in The New York Times concerning “The State of Brooklyn.” She said, “My neighbors, most of whom aren’t from around here, can’t admit that their New York experience isn’t authentically gritty. Worse still, most have developed amnesia and have forgotten their pre-Brooklyn existence. When I lived in Los Angeles, I never claimed to be an Angeleno, but when I ask a Brooklyn resident where she hails from, she immediately answers, ‘Brooklyn.’ In a strong Southern drawl.”
Then there are the transplants who are “from around here.” Former Manhattan dwellers find—for the most part and perhaps to their surprise—that they like their new home. But it could be improved. If only it had better-stocked grocery stores, nicer shops, and more housing options, then it would feel more like home. Demand creates supply, and so the amenities follow the transplants.
Does this migration, from near and far, mean Brooklyn is losing its character? “Fugetaboutit,” many homegrown Brooklyn residents would say. They point proudly to how the flavor of Brooklyn—even down to the name as a brand—has gained appeal and marketing power. From Brooklyn Industries and Brooklyn Brew to the excitement of the Brooklyn music scene and the fame of Park Slope Brooklyn’s writers, there is muscle in the borough’s moniker and enticement in her distinctive ‘hoods.
Perhaps this new, all-things-Brooklyn cachet is a fulfillment of destiny—a return to the path providence put on hold in 1898. How fitting then that the first job of Kings Theatre, deep in the heart of the borough, will be to host a party in 2014 celebrating Brooklyn’s vibrancy.