Monday, September 25, 2006

That Swoon

“His macaroni and cheese” would make me swoon” my friend Linda said over lunch the other day at Eisenbergs luncheonette. “And what about his lamb, Swiss potato casserole?” I said between bites of my egg salad sandwich which was pretty damn good in itself. We were talking about our friend Tom who was a great cook and who pretty much wined and dined his friends up to his very last days on this planet. Tom lived in a tiny little dirt-cheap apartment on the Lower East Side in the days when it was still rough and not so ready, but certainly more interesting than it is now. His apartment was in one of those sometimes well kept and clean tenements that lined the lower streets and like most everyone I knew back then he lived on the top floor of a 6 floor walk-up. When visiting you would have to call him up on the phone on the corner or yell up in your loudest voice that you had arrived and down would come the key that would open the front door in a well worn leather glove with fur lining. Sometimes one of the hot young Puerto Rican boys hanging out in front of the building would unlatch the front door for you, but most of the time, you would wait patiently as the glove slowly made its journey down to meet you and up you would climb. Tom would be waiting to greet you outside his door, as smokers and non-smokers would make the climb huffy and puffy. But the climb was worth it, as you would be greeted not only by Tom, but also by the most wonderful cooking smells imaginable. His tiny kitchen was in full swing, with many pots and pans taking up space on and in his small stove, his tattered and food stained Julia Child cook book propped up on the counter. This tiny cluttered but neat apartment was Tom’s world. His everything, his social center. He had very few interests outside of cooking and entertaining his many and varied friends that most New Yorkers collect after a lifetime of living in this complex and sometimes crazy city. He didn’t own a television, which was beyond my comprehension. “How could you not have a TV.” I would ask. “Easy” he would reply. He also had no interest in movies, which is of course one of my great passions. I think I went to one movie with Tom in all the years we knew each other. He would spend his evenings reading, cooking and entertaining his friends and writing letters in his unique hand (he would write with a straight edge under his hand, so that the lines of his letters were straight and perfectly lined up) to old friends who lived in other parts of the country and around the world. I thought I knew him well, but not really. I did know that he adored me, but I also knew that I could try his patience especially when it came to my eating and cooking habits. Our few and far between arguments were generally about cooking and food. When he came to visit me for several weeks in San Diego where I was teaching he was appalled that my apartment was practically empty. I had a fold up futon, a borrowed big wooden table and chair and a few pots and dishes that I had bought at the local thrift shops and that was it. I just didn’t see the point in getting all new things when I would only be living in the place for 6 months. Tom thought otherwise and when I casually asked if he would like to cook a meal for us, he flew into a rage. “How the fuck should I do that.” “What would you have me cook on Ira Joel?” That ended that. There was in San Diego at that time a chain of restaurants called something like California Pot Pies, and although the food tasted like cafeteria food with a touch of hospital cuisine thrown in, I sometimes chowed down there because it was cheap, campy and I could walk there from my apartment in Hillcrest. I took Tom there one night because I thought he would find it fun. We ate in silence as the surly waiter dropped the food in front of us. On the way home, Tom said, “I have never been so depressed in all my life” and went to bed immediately sleeping through the night and most of the next day. So much for kitsch and Tom. Being invited to his house for dinner was an event and even though he was poor and lived like a church mouse he never pinched pennies when it came to ingredients for his suppers as he would call them. He required perfect etiquette and manners from his guests. Wonderful conversation would have to be supplied and it definitely helped if you were talented, gifted in some way and attractive. I worked my way sexually through his many male gay friends that I met at his suppers like Sherman’s march through Atlanta, and when I asked him about any new male friends he might know to invite to his dinner parties he gave me that look of his and said “Oh Ira Joel I’ve run out of friends for you to sleep with.” One of the most important things for Tom was to be properly thanked for having supper at his house. You could either call the next day to thank him for the lovely dinner (not hard to do) or you could drop him a note in the mail. In any event woe to the person if they failed to thank him properly because they would never be asked back. I sometimes would wonder what he would do if I failed to call to thank him. Would he banish one of his best friends from ever eating his Cape Cod Lobster stew or his Pear William Bavarian Crème again? In 1981 after he had painted his kitchen he decided to have eighteen intimate celebration suppers for his friends, two at a time. This “celebration” would last from Sept 1981 to Jan. 1982 and he sent out invitations to all 36 invitees, which listed the other person who you were going to be having dinner with along with the menu. I was simply amazed by this undertaking and asked him if I could come to all 18 dinners. He laughed loudly and said “Ira Joel of course you can’t.” No one said my name as sexy or sweet as he did.

The painting used in this post is titled "Friends" and was done by me in 1968.


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