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I grew up in New York City, very much a city kid. When I joined the cub scouts the only sleep-outs we ever had were on the 7th floor of the 92nd street Y. We’d build a fire in the fireplace and turn up the air-conditioning and tell ghost stories and fall asleep in our sleeping bags and in the morning pack everything up and trundle downstairs and take the subway back home.
My mother’s father, who spent his life in Philadelphia, had been a professional gambler and bookie—on his death bed, he griped about the parimutual betting act of 1937, which had put him out of business—but after the government forced his hand, he and his brothers opened a used car dealership and repair shop. My mother’s parents were estranged, though never divorced, and whenever my mother needed a car, he would give her one from his lot.
And it always broke down.
This extended after my parents married and I came along. For a portion of every summer, we would get a car from Grandpa to take a vacation.
And it always broke down.
We never got a car that didn’t. Even the summer of ’73, when my mother, Matt Gaynes and I were in Nantucket (mom was doing a John Guare play, Marco Polo Sings a Solo; the exploits of Matt and I that summer are chronicled elsewhere in this blog), we were in one of Grandpa’s cars when we took the car ferry to the island and drove all over the island and took the car ferry off the island, and on our way back to New York found ourselves driving through a horrible rainstorm when Matt Gaynes remarked that this car, of all the cars he’d seen my family drive, had never broken down.
Whereupon, as if on cue, it promptly did. We managed to push it under a bridge and waited, sopping wet, for two hours in those pre-cell phone days for the cops to come, call in a tow truck, and get us someplace with a phone.
The minute I went to college my parents finally bought their first car, a big-ass ‘70s Monte Carlo, a no-joke 17-foot long, 4000-pound blue two-door monster with a majestic sweep of steel from the rear wheel well to the headlights, an 8-cylinder turbo-boosted engine under a hood the size of a drawbridge, a trunk big enough to comfortably house a Shetland pony, a full-on couch in the front, and a cramped back seat with no legroom and a fake little rear window you couldn’t open or close.
This car was a beast, the kind of car America will never make again. The ideal customer Chevrolet had in mind when they designed this thing was someone who liked to drive really fast, and if they crashed into anything they’d destroy it and walk away without a scratch.
They’d obviously designed it, then, expressly, for my mother.
I have stated elsewhere in this blog that my mother loved to drive. I always thought she was a superb driver; it turned out others didn’t think so, but they were wrong. I once saw her miss an exit and simply turn off the highway, rip over 40 feet of grass and gravel to the service road, all without the slightest pause in conversation. She drove fast, with one arm and a constant stream of chatter. We had some of our deepest and heaviest talks clipping along at 75 miles per hour on speed-limit-55 roads. And when she got pulled over, which she often did, she would charm the shit out of the officer, and sometimes it would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t, but it was always worth a try.
If you were going to drive as fast as my mother, the occasional ticket was just the price of doing business, in some respects akin to the ante one threw in to get into the game.
Anyway, with me packed off safely in college, the first thing my parents did after they got the car was started to rent country houses in upstate New York with friends. (At the time I was mystified: if we’d had access to the country when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have been learning about plant lore on 92nd street; now, as my peers become empty nesters, I can see it as a well-deserved return to and indulgence in adulthood.) The small towns south of Kingston, New York have a great many very nice stone houses, and gradually the urge to rent gave way to the urge to buy. They started out, in the middle ‘70s, looking for a small stone house to purchase on the west side of the river. They ended up, in 1978, buying Wildercliff, a large clapboard wood house on the east side of the river. (It turned out that under the clapboard was brick, probably made of local mud and a kiln onsite, which is how they did things in 1799. But brick was unfashionable and thus was covered with wood. Having a brick house covered with wood made rewiring anything rather complicated.)
The house was on the river, on a plateau high above the railroad tracks. It was close enough to the local train station that mom could be sitting on the porch having a glass of wine, see the train pass heading north, get in the blue beast and meet the train at the station, about four miles upriver. This was how she would pick up my dad, when he would come up at the end of a week of writing One Life to Live.
While this was delightful when it worked, the Amtrak trains speeding up the river from New York were often off-schedule, which is polite Amtrak talk for being late. Mom liked sitting on the porch and waiting for it when everything went like clockwork; when it didn’t, her legendary impatience kicked in. She realized she needed an intelligence system to inform her of the arrivals of trains about which she cared. To that end, she began chatting up the two young men who ran the Rhinecliff train station, both of whom were named Walter. They were gay without being a couple; they both knew Mom from Dark Shadows, and pretty soon she had them eating from the palm of her hand.
They would call her when Sam’s regular train was late, and call her again when it was five minutes from the station. If she had friends coming up, they would call when those trains were near arrival. They would have tickets printed and waiting so she could sweep into the station and cut to the head of the line. And at all times she treated them like the world’s sleekest and finest groomed sea otters behind the grillwork of their little cage.
One time, she spent the afternoon with friends in Hudson, an hour upriver from Rhinebeck, where we lived. Invited for dinner, she longed to stay and have Sam join her, but the drive was inconceivable. So she picked up the phone (again, all this was pre-cell phone), called the station, and told whichever Walter answered to radio the train to tell Sam Hall not to get off in Rhinecliff, but to go on to Hudson. And sure enough, they did it: Sam, minding his own business after a week of plotting the lives of Asa Buchanan and Dorian Cramer and Victoria Lord, was suddenly mortified to hear the train speaker crackle into life: “Passenger Sam Hall, do not get off in Rhinecliff, repeat Passenger Sam Hall, do not get off in Rhinecliff. Your wife will be waiting for you at the Hudson station.”
It made him want to curl up like a roly-poly bug and disappear under his seat, but he got off at Hudson and was met at the station by the group of friends Grayson had cajoled into joining her and immediately handed a glass of wine and that made it all better.
Another time, Amtrak was experimenting with offering free dinners in First Class. (This didn’t last long; Amtrak was many things, but it was not an airline.) Sam, who would reserve a first-class ticket so as to be assured of having a seat on the Friday afternoon train, would routinely forego the free dinner, as better food was awaiting him at the house. One day, mom was lounging in the station with the Walters, when one of them piped up with the complaint that the passengers got free food on the train, but the Amtrak workers never got anything like that. Mom, because she always held in herself the incalculable power to change things she thought unfair, decided to fix this. So the next Friday when Sam called her to tell her he’d be making his regular train, she put in a request. Were they still offering free dinners? Could he pick one up and bring it up to the station house for the Walters?
Bring his free dinner up to the Walters?
Well, Mom said, it would be great if he could bring two, but he probably couldn’t. (She’d’ve pulled it off, but that’s another story.) Yes, when they asked him if he wanted the free dinner, he was to say yes, and then bring it with him up the stairs to the station house when he got off the train.
So he did. Presented with a menu, he ordered the chicken, because he thought it would be more splittable. And when the tray of food arrived, he asked for it to go.
The conductor looked at him, incredulous. You want to take this off the train?
Yes, I want to take it with me when I get off in Rhinecliff.
No, the whole thing.
But nobody’s ever asked that before.
Well, Sam asked, impatient now at the idiots in front of him and at my mother for putting him into this position, I own it, don’t I?
Well…yes, the conductor admitted.
Well, when I get off the train, I want to carry it with me. Whole. Uneaten. Exactly like this.
Radios crackled, secondary conductors were summoned, conversations were had. Finally it was agreed that Mr. Hall could take his dinner with him.
And so he did. When the train stopped in Rhinecliff, he got off with his workday Hunter’s World bag dangling from his shoulder, carefully carried the tray of cold chicken up two flights of stairs into the station house, and presented it to the Walters.
Who were in shock. They had just been kidding. They had never had the slightest expectation that anybody would actually do this.
By the time my father saw my mother, he was absolutely furious. The Walters, however, said the chicken was very good.
One more story: One night, when mom was doing a play, she took the last scheduled Amtrak up the Hudson river. The blue Monte Carlo had by then become the car they left at station parking when they both were in New York; it was after midnight when she arrived at Rhinecliff. She was tired, she was grumpy, and she wanted to get to the house and sleep.
The Walters were not around that late; the station was closed. Mom trudged up the two flights of stairs, took the door to the street, went up more stairs, and looked around the parking lot for the blue Monte Carlo.
At last, there it was. It was a cold night, and she had trouble with the key, having to wiggle and jiggle it for an absurdly long time before the lock finally gave and she opened the door and got in.
And there next to her was a book she’d seen around, and she thought to herself: Oh, I haven’t read that, and I’ve been meaning to.
Whereupon she realized she’d just broken into somebody’s car.
My parents, Grayson and Sam, came to New York to recreate themselves, as millions have before and after, and in that giddy rush of love and freedom they discovered food.
Serous food. Food they’d not had in the mid-century culinary wastelands of Philadelphia and Ohio.
Food like snails.
At that time in America, French cuisine was making the first breach against the hegemony of pot roast. Perhaps it was a postwar thing—a generation of American men had fought their way through Europe and came back deep in thought about what they’d seen and helped protect. (My father, who was DDay + 2 and walked from Normandy Beach to Munich, describes French villages offering calvados to the entering American troops—it was all they had left; the Germans had taken all the wine.) After a lengthy gestation, these shifts in American taste would manifest in the runaway success of Julia Child’s two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961. And my parents were swept along in the rising tide.
I grew up eating snails—escargot, in the argot. And I loved them. Bathed in butter and garlic and parsley—hell, you could serve drier lint in that sauce, with a crisp white wine, tell people it’s seaweed or corn fungus, and most everyone would larrup through it. My steak-and-scotch used-car-dealer maternal grandfather (about whom more elsewhere in this blog) would mock me when I ordered snails in restaurants; I would experience the sharp wedge of internal recrimination at his casual pointed contempt, and then the snails would arrive, bubbling hot in their shells in their metal serving dish, served with an elegant tong utensil with no possible use outside of snail consumption, and I would know I was right and he was wrong. These were delicious. And my mother, across the table, ever evolving in her own complicated dance of enmity and need with her father, would take in my enjoyment versus her father’s incuriosity and smile with something approaching pride.
Until I, perpetually fighting overweight, would reach for that second piece of bread to soak up the remains of the butter. Then the balance would shift and I’d get the stern glance.
In New York at that moment, 9th avenue was the foodie mecca. Chic east side matrons might buy their imported canned products at Maison Glass or Copenhagen, but the truly intrepid would find the real deal for less at the much more earthy butchers and provisioners on 9th. And one day my parents learned that their favorite such store had brought in crates of live edible snails from France.
This was new: every snail we’d ever eaten had come from a can. The recommended recipe was simple: soak the snails in a mixture of brandy and heavy cream overnight. The snails suck up the cream, the brandy kills them, and when you cook them, the cream and brandy transmute into texture and flavor.
Sounded hard to resist. Dad went to 9th avenue, used the excuse to pick up a couple of bottles of serious expensive brandy, got the cream and returned home with the snails in a rustic wooden crate, leaking straw. They set it on the counter and turned their attention to a more pedestrian dinner; no doubt steak Dianne, steak in a shallot/butter/cognac sauce; we made it a lot, and if they had purchased an expensive brandy to cook with, I can see them trying their standard recipe with a new twist. My parents being my parents, wine was served.
And then, once the dishes from that had been washed and put away, they turned their attention to the snails. They poured themselves an after-dinner brandy, consulted the recipe, opened the crate and began the process of picking the snails out of the straw, rinsing them in the sink and putting them in a ceramic bowl. And it was at this moment that the fact that these were living creatures, each individual, each yearning, intent on survival, trying to thrive, began to weigh heavily on my mother, whose empathy toward all things trapped and cornered, whether gastropod or human, was an unwavering burning flame. But more brandy and the thought of the final triumphant snail feast rallied her past the self-doubt, much as the sheer goodness of the metal dish of snails in butter had allowed me to metabolize my grandfather’s contempt.
So: the snails were ready, in the bowl. They added the brandy. They added the heavy cream. And with one last snifter of brandy, they toddled off to bed.
But they forgot to cover the bowl.
And when they woke up the next morning, bleary with a sharp brandy hangover, they stumbled into the kitchen…
To find the walls covered in trails of brandy-cream slime, and at the end of each, a drunken, cream-soaked, dying snail.
And so they spent the morning with a ladder and stepstool plucking down snails and scrubbing brandy-cream trails off the walls.
And then, finally, when the entire ordeal was over, they went back to bed.