The coffee machine is easy. There’s no magic to it in the kitchen. No alchemy or conjuring. No A little of this and a little of that – just a tiny bit of this and a handful of that. It has three parts. It’s made of heavy steel and locks together the way a muffler does. It works like the valves of a carburetor or an engine block, with its pistons sliding in and out and up and down, making a seal. The machine is simple and easily understood. Twist hard enough. Use enough coffee – the right number of scoops and the right amount of water. It is immutable. You can’t go wrong. It is mathematics, not poetry. There’s none of the church’s incense here, or the magic of the flames and the aromas, the smoke, drifting up to heaven.
Market Basket is a frenzy. There is no calm to this supermarket, no free samples of carbonated tea, no mounds of olives and cheese. No smiles. Meat moves fast. Vegetables move fast. The mark-up is fair. All business. There’s never a good time to be there. Everyone is desperate and red eyed. Carts lurch. It’s a different world from the Whole Foods a block from my house. Where rents are going up all around me all the time and where, suddenly, all of a fucking sudden, there’s a Porsche parked out on the street, a blue convertible Porsche. One of my neighbors drives a convertible Porsche.
I get grossed out sometimes by my life and where I live it. What it feels like. How did I get here? I ask myself. What do I have in common with the people around me? I don’t have answers all the time. I feel like one day I picked a direction to walk and just kept on walking. This is where I ended up. Maybe that’s everyone’s story. Market Basket reminds me of family, of my childhood, and lots of uncomplicated shit. I buy a pork loin there the size of a fire hydrant. I slice it up. I freeze the cutlets two to a bag. I think of bargains and mom cutting coupons on the round kitchen table where we had dinner every night. Pride over getting a deal. Having it matter. Eating well for smart money. Paying attention.
Market Basket is a place where money matters and you really shouldn’t fuck with anyone. You can be hurt there, and in its parking lot too. There’s the sense that something’s on the line. Food is not recreation there; food is sustenance and life. It’s not TV chefs and chocolate-covered bacon strips. I’m not going to kiss your fucking ass you fucking bitch, a woman shouted at the top of her lungs on my last trip there. She backed away, so slowly, from the meat counter and the men in white coats. I’ll be back motherfuckers. This woman was in pain. She was limping, and she was looking at the price. I looked up at the woman bagging my stuff. Her nametag told me she’d worked there for 23 years. Crazy she said with a small smile, jabbing away at the keys.
After 40 days and 40 nights, the workers of Market Basket got what they wanted, what they demanded at great personal risk, and what they deserved. I feel a bulging pride in my chest to have been a tiny part of something honest and true and brave in the face of the machinery of capital and greed. I can’t wait to get back in those wild aisles next week. I welcome the frenzy.
I went to the Cambridgeport Saloon when I got really lonely. It was only a few blocks from my quiet, leafy corner of the city, but it was a different planet. Lunatics and malcontents sat at stools and in seedy neon corners. It was a dive bar. Not a pretend dive bar, but a real dive bar.
The drinks were cheap and the lights were bright and it smelled always of vomit and old smoke. I never once left the place sober. It wasn’t the kind of bar where you sat to read a novel, or the paper. You didn’t stare off into space and mind your own business. You took sides, and jumped into conversations. I talked to a man who was fresh out of prison for shooting another man with a flare gun, and once heard a shaggy down-and-outer sing a version of Let’s Stay Together so beautiful that it brought an unusual silence with it.
Things went on in the restrooms that you wouldn’t believe. The pool table was crooked and covered in cigarette burns. I remember a woman. She had enormous fake breasts and painted-blonde hair. Jagged horrible scars puffed out on both of her wrists. She told me about the horrors of her life as a part-time stripper and full-time hooker, and I listened. I walked home alone and wobbly-drunk, through the shadows of early morning and back to earth. I am certain that woman is not alive today.
One day, years and years ago, the doors were pad-locked. It’s a hot section of the city, ripe for business. Fancy restaurants and cocktail bars open up right and left. The old candy factory is modern glass and steel now. It’s home to an upscale bakery and wine shop, and infinite rows of expensive condos. For some reason, though, the old yellow-green sign of the Cambridgeport Saloon still stares out dumbly at Massachusetts Avenue like a bad neighbor. No one seems to know who owns it or why they don’t snip the pad-locks and make room for some clever thing or other. No one can tell me why the rats and roaches, and all the ghosts that madhouses harbor, are still in charge.
[Photos: Cambridgeport Saloon by Elliot Foxprince]
The thick black wires that bring Internet and TV into our home bounced up and down. There was something large using the cables as a walkway. They slapped together like jump ropes on blacktop where they slip through crotches in the maple tree trunks. It was just after 4am. All the lights of the world were off and the rows of houses behind ours were visible only in moving blackness and sound. I couldn’t see the animal, but I could hear it in heaving grunts that sounded like wild boar or small bear. A shallow breathing and snorting. Huge sections of tree branches bent in the dark, exposing streetlights and sending shadows recoiling in a rush of swooshing leaves. The slamming of heavy garbage can lids and the angry rattle of tree branches left me wondering if beasts are out every night, squealing through the neighborhood alleys in a frenzy, hunting for a meal. Our maniac neighbor’s horrid rendition of Fever on the piano was the only other sound. I pulled the window down, leaving just enough open for the cool breeze to get in. But some of the rustle of brush, and a madness of misplayed notes, got in too.
[Painting: The Abbey in the Oak Wood by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808]
My grandfather didn’t eat much fruit. But every evening of summer, after dinner, with the sunlight passing slowly at diagonals through the trees, he sliced a peach into a wide tumbler and poured in his red wine. But Bruno, they’re not ripe yet my Nonna protested, knowing the peaches might need a day or two in a paper bag on the countertop. Doesn’t matter he’d say. The wine ripened and plumped the fruit, whose sugars softened the sting and fizz of the homemade wine. I remember the parties of late summer, the Labor Days when smoke from a cinderblock grill whirled in the air, and there was always a glass bowl of someone’s red wine with slices of perfect soft summer peaches bobbing in it. Young kids would ladle cups full of the wine and peaches, in full view of their parents, because it wasn’t a drink. It was a dessert.
[Photo: Summer Peaches by Nina MacLaughlin, 2014]
Tomatoes are alive for three weeks in August. They absorb the rays and warmth of the sun at its hottest, and taste like the last two hours of light on a summer day. They bloom and blush a deep red. In these few days we know that the tomato is as much a fruit as a peach or a plum. It is no longer a half-formed thing in costume, a pale sponge leaking an embryo-slush of seed and flavorless water. These weeks are all sleepy Sundays. We have adapted and changed and the heat no longer stings our skin or melts our brains. Our freckles and tans have blossomed on our skin and the sun has melted into our veins and our flesh and our hair. It has changed us. We know how to move now. We drink our afternoon drinks more slowly, having found a lurid pace. This all comes just in time for passage into something windier, a moment of longer shadows and rising breezes. Wind chimes will become alarm bells and green-alive leaves turn to paper, scratching at the pavement. The tomatoes, a fine dust on their skin, are alive only in these last days of summer. Their lives are short. My mother gathers bushels to boil and peel and cook in oil with onion, freezing it all against the white-blank of coming winter. She will stir pasta into a remnant of the hot, steaming sun in the center of a table when the world outside is blanketed in snow and bathed in false light. She sends frozen packets of the last summer’s plump fullness to me and my sister to help our own bleak times. The rays are only frozen, suspended. They are still alive and will, with luck, survive to the next August when slices of tomato, raw and fully themselves, are lunch and dinner again.
[Photo: Farm Stand on Rt. 2, Mass by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]
The Bottles of Autumn: Part Four
A car pulled into the driveway, bouncing on its shocks in front of the open garage doors. Bruno knew the sound of the motor before he looked. All the way up the road he knew it. He knew what everyone’s car in his life sounded like. He knew it like he knew a voice or a face. The way Mike Nero’s old bummer truck choked and coughed. Romolo’s flashy Lincoln squeaked when it turned left into the driveway. The little Spider Gigi used to impress the girls was forever breaking down. Bruno’s son-in-law up the street had the big Volkswagen camper van; the wobbly belt in its air-cooled engine put-put-putted like a toy.
Pete opened the door of his big gray sedan. He looked out at the yard and all the glass bottles dangling like strange fruit from the trees. “It’s not Christmas for a while, Bruno,” he laughed, walking over to his friend. He sat down on a short cinder-block wall, admiring, a paper bag on his lap.
“You want a drink, Pete? Bruno asked his friend. They were the first words he said all day. The first words he said since he sat in the church getting nauseous off incense fumes and listening to strangers talk about his wife. They wiped away tears from their faces. They blew their noses like trumpets.
“Pope shit in the woods?” Pete replied with a happy smile, hopping up the walkway. “I’ll get my own glass,” he said. “Don’t get up, I swear, I got it.”
Bruno laughed a little through his nose as Pete bundled into the house, through the screened-in porch leading to the kitchen. Pete opened the fridge and there was nothing but sadness, emptiness in it. Piles of casseroles and disposable tins of pasta brought by other peoples’ wives and mothers. They were all unopened.
He pulled a glass down from the cabinet over the sink and opened the paper sack he’d brought along. It was full of dark brown chestnuts, an X carved into each one before they were boiled to make them easier to peel. They were Bruno’s favorite. Balotoli he called them, and he told stories at The Club of men pushing carts down the street full of them, when he was a boy in Italy, in the green hills of Toscana. Pete poured them into a bowl.
“Look what I got, Bruno,” he said, sitting down next to his friend. “Balotoli,” Bruno whispered, blowing smoke through his nose. “It’s early for those.”
“Early, late, who gives a shit?” Pete said, putting the bowl down on a small table. “Tell me again, Bruno, how do you like your chestnuts?” Bruno smiled on one side of his mouth. “With red wine,” he said.
“I thought so.” Pete said. “So should we have some red wine then?” Bruno nodded, finishing off his scotch and handing the glass to Pete, who rinsed it off at the garden hose snaked by the surviving green beans in vegetable garden. “You still got any left from last year, Bruno?” Pete asked, pulling open the squeaky cellar doors that were rust-proofed a bright green. Pete shuffled down the steep steps to the cellar. “In that crack in the wall you call a wine cellar?” Bruno didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. Pete knew where he kept the wine he made every year.
Pete came back up with a gallon jug. He screwed off the top and poured a little for Bruno and a little for himself. “Salute,” Pete said and Bruno lifted his glass. They took a sip that fizzed in their mouths the way wine made by amateurs in unreliable climates does. “It’s getting better,” Pete said with a straight face.
Bruno laughed from deep down in his chest, from deeper than he had in a long time and from deeper than he wanted to or even knew he could. “Let’s have a few more and it’ll get even better too,” he said to Pete, peeling a chestnut with his thumbnail.
The two sat until the sun went away, and the wine did get better as they finished the chestnuts and listened to the wind and the clinking of glass. The pears had begun to grow already, Bruno told Pete. He told Pete if he listened close he could hear them coming together, becoming, assembling inside the bottles.
In a few weeks Bruno would cut the bottles down, most with a pear grown to full size behind the glass. Some wouldn’t grow and he’d throw them away. Some would be lumpy and some would be rotten from the bugs. Maybe an early frost would cause problems. He’d fill each bottle with clear liquor, a grappa he made every year with the seeds, stems and stalks left from making his bad wine. The pears would flavor the strong clear booze over time. The more time, the more flavor.
[Painting: The Chestnut Gatherers by Georges Lacomb, 1896]