Pearl, Pt. 1

20 Jul

Tim, Captain of the Zodiac, sent me a text telling me that he’d gotten a phone call asking for a reference for me for a ship’s cook position. He said that he’d told them that, aside from the 10 years in Leavenworth prison, he thought they’d be good to go with me. I asked how I could possibly live up to that kind of rep.

They called for the interview, down to the shipyards at Lake Union where the vessel was in drydock, preparing to head up to the Bering Sea for the summer cod season.
It’s so peculiar to drive through downtown and South Lake Union traffic, my own personal version of hell, slick and crowded, well-coiffed & well-heeled folks jostling through their morning commutes, only to find myself at the head of a dock that could’ve been plucked right out of my high school years in Dutch Harbor, AK. An oasis of diesel and low-tide, the bite of cut and welded steel, and everywhere men in the ubiquitous brown rubber XtraTuf boots. Apparently, my brown leather waterproof Teva boots didn’t blend as well as I’d hoped; the security guard who handed me my bright orange “visitor” hardhat apologized for it not matching my outfit.

I tried calling the captain to let him know I’d arrived, but got no answer. I cooled my heels at the base of the drydock, next to the steel shop, since there’s some sort of ingrained commandment that “thou shalt not board without permission” stuck in the deep reaches of my mind. I was chatting with one of the boilermakers who’d offered to escort me up to the ship after his coffee break & who’d offered me a cuppa while I waited. My Dad was a boilermaker when I was a kid, so it was kinda neat to chat and sip in what had once been such a familiar environment.
The Captain called and told me to come on up, though, so I thanked the fellas for the coffee, mounted the stairs that took me 20’+ up to the level of the deck, dodged cables and coiled lines to cross the scaffolding and boarded the ship.

Heavy machinery, painted steel bulkheads, watertight doors with cranks to seal them, you know, in case the ship starts sinking, and the same mixture of fish gut and sanitizer smell I know from hanging out on the Unisea’s processing barge (don’t ask me why my Dad was ok with 16 year old me hanging out on an old Victory ship converted to house such an industry, but I was mighty fond of the 20 something fellas from Budapest I’d met there).

I know I don’t look like I belong here amongst the guys covered in dust and grease, and the captain is quietly assessing out of the corner of his eye whether or not he’s wasted his own time by calling me down here. I can tell he’s thinking of everything else he needs to get done today.

But then we get to the galley, and he’s asking me questions, and I’m asking them right back. We’re talking about compressors and pumps and power supply, vendors & order histories, and I want to know what the guys like to eat. I ask about the barge sailing schedule, for reprovisioning produce, and he shows me the walkin cooler, the freezers, and the cook’s cabin, and I want to send Tim a note that, hey, the cook’s cabin actually has its own head, complete with private shower, nanny, nanny boo boo, whatchya think of them apples?

The Captain asks me if I bake bread, and I show him the wheat stalk tattoo on my wrist. He says that may be the first time he’s seen a tattoo work in a job applicant’s favor. I’ve worn a boat neck, long sleeve shirt that hides most of the rest of them, even though they might endorse Tim’s tales of Leavenworth. I think of the baking stones that Ian, the Zodiac’s former cook, left on board as part of his legacy, and how many loaves and pizzas I baked in that galley. I think of the first time I cooked pizza on those stones, and how I was in tears by the end of a hot summer day, trying to sate the appetite of a group of 30 teenagers and the crew, too.

After meeting with the Captain of the other ship they run, partner in the business, I am given a tentative thumb’s up and told that I should hear from them that evening or the next morning. I turn in my orange hardhat at the head of the dock, and the security guard asks how it went. I tell her it seems to have gone well, and am caught up in thoughts of par sheets and whether or not I can afford to buy decent rain gear and what the fuck to do with what remains of my stuff and with my fucking cat and how much I want to pare my life down to a single duffle bag again, and what’s my budget and how horribly seasick am I going to get in the Bering.

My head is spinning, but I Have Decided.

And as I’m walking back to my car to re-engage with the sheer hell-scape of downtown Seattle traffic, I get this email from Lissa, at Hama Hama, where I applied some several weeks ago, and she’s only just seen my resume. She calls 20 minutes later, we chat. I like her.
We message; I’m trying to move more of my crap out of a friend’s house in Seattle, since I’m sort of staying at a friend’s house on Hood Canal, and sort of still moving out of the house I’d been living in but my friend was moving into. And Lissa asks if I want to come eat with her at Manolin, in Fremont. I say sure. So I change into the tee shirt I’d tucked into my bag when I checked the weather report that morning, cuff my jeans, and throw on a pair of flats to replace the boots.
I drive to Fremont, wrassle parking again, get out of my car, find this place, and once again feel so clearly that this is not where I fit. I mean, it’s got that clean architectural sweep, and a small-plates menu.

When I go to the bathroom to pee to the dulcet tones of Whitney Houston, I realize that the tee shirt I’d shoved in my bag that morning is so old and worn that my granny bra clearly shows through the fabric, and I wrap my safety blanket sweater as high around my waist as I can safely manage when I return to my stool in the dining room.

The server wants to know what I’d like to drink. I’m scanning the wine list, and see nothing that jumps out as a safe choice. Rose is discussed, because summer and trendy. I feel Lissa watching. I give up, and go for something white and chilled, then ask if they happen to have any vinho verde, because that’s been my jam lately, and Lissa lights up and says she just ordered several cases. Oh, thank god.

She wants me to pick some things to order, and everything’s pickled and tiny and avocado and coconut crema and so fucking refined, and I feel giant and crass and crude. And a salad I’ve ordered has the one random ingredient I’m allergic to that the server mentioned as she dropped it to the table (and a good thing, because it wasn’t listed on the menu…papaya. I’m allergic to fucking papaya.) She says we should order another thing, she’ll pack this one up to go, and I am somehow mortified.

But lord, this woman knows so much, and heaven above, this woman cares so much. And I’m pretty sure she feels well nigh as awkward as I do, and is yet unapologetic about what she likes and what she doesn’t.

And I am utterly smitten with a possibility, and with someone else’s passion, that reminds me very much of my own. A possibility she has gone to great lengths to tell me she can’t make any promises about, and that I shouldn’t pass up something I could benefit from for.

She offers me the job, whatever it may be. I accept. The boat calls. They offer me the job. I say something I’m not accustomed to saying. I say no. I instantly wonder if I’ve said the wrong thing, but I Have Decided.

Her husband flies helicopters in Alaska. He was going to be in town again soon, and she wondered if I could work a couple of events to cover while he was there. I did. I picked nasturtium blossoms for a salad with her sister in law, from their family gardens, and she told me how she came to be there, part of the family, tending the books, and showing me the garden.

It was a little thing, but something I needed, and I took extra care not to bruise the petals, in spite of my calluses.




18 Sep

After everything that’s happened in the past couple of months, it was I-5 traffic in Everett, on my way to work on the ship, that finally broke me.  The clock my father built behind the seat in my pickup truck, the chime rods gently ringing against each other over every bump.  Two hours to get to the ship in Bellingham with a load of provisions, 3 and a half before hungry passengers boarded, texts and emails about insurance, rent, guest counts and the gas bill coming in, and stop and go traffic right up to 20 miles south of Mount Vernon.  Cars ducking, dodging and weaving in and out of lanes in the blatting cloudbursts of rain, hoping to gain the advantage of one or two car lengths or better.  It’s a stiff bet to take driving like that, given the worst case scenario.  Usually, I don’t mind hanging back in the second or third lane over in traffic like that.  Leave plenty of room to brake in the slick, especially with a load on; take it easy.  Best to get there in one piece, and not be a reason for that fire truck everyone’s looky-looing at to see if they can catch of glimpse of someone elses’ tragedy.

This time, after the bajillionth time of having to slam on the brakes after some schmuck who couldn’t be bothered with a turn signal dodged in front of me just as our lane was coming to a halt, the weight of my family heirlooms pressing against the back of my seat, I screamed.  Fists balled up, hurt, anger, fear, every last bit of the past six weeks tore out of my throat.

I realize that I’m supposed to keep it all sunshine and roses and hollandaise made with beurre noisette, lest you or my customers or any of the other people that I love smell the stench of failure on me…on the shop.  But.  I have traditionally gone right ahead and given y’all way too much information.  This place has always been personal for me.  I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m not going to change that now.  I’m fucking human, and learning.  I make bad calls.  I suck at staying put in one place for more than a year.  I have a bad temper, especially when I’m pushed up against a wall.  And I’ve been up against that wall for the past three years.

Man, this shit is fucked.  My Daddy warned me.  When I told him I was opening a restaurant, he told me about a family friend who did the same.  Dude ended up living in his workshop, wishing he’d stuck to his orchard.  I told my Dad it was cool, I was just opening a little place.  If it was slow, I could handle it solo.  If it was busy, great!  Right?  Yeah, no.

A little over six weeks ago, I got a call from my bank.  They were sorry they had to bother me at work, but they couldn’t reach the manager at the shop.  Two checks were trying to clear, one a paycheck for one of my staff.  The restaurant’s account was zeroed out, and my personal account only had enough to cover one or the other.  I told them to clear the payroll check from my personal account, and return the check to the restaurant supply store.  Because my cook has a kid to feed and rent to pay, and the restaurant supply store chain has the luxury of redepositing without anyone having to go hungry over it.  The bank ended up clearing the check to the restaurant supply store, and said oops about it later.  The amounts were similar.  I’m sure it was just an honest mistake.

Called the manager.  No answer.  Called the bookkeeper, asked if the manger had been checking in on budgets and balancing the check register.  Nope.  Totally not the bookkeeper’s job to make sure he’s doing so, either.  She’s a bookkeeper, not an accountant or a financial officer.  Reviewed checking account online.  Saw some shit that looked screwy.  Manager called.  Asked him why paychecks were bouncing, why he’d been using the company debit card at three different bars, and why he was spending so much on labor (60%!, to those of you who know what that means)when our sales appeared to be dropping off over the previous month.   Oh, just training stuff, and he’d forgotten about a redeposited check from said restaurant supply store, and he accidentally gave the bartender the wrong debit card.  Oops.  Won’t happen again, and he has it all under control, Mama.  Told him to fix it, to get his numbers under control, and to quit it with the bar tabs, or I’d come sort it out when I returned from the two week trip I was working.

Two days later, the eve before I was due to leave on the two week long trip to remote Canadian wilderness for my other job, I received an email from the manager demanding that, due to my mismanagement, expenditures and abuses, I was to give him control of my bank account, and remove myself as a signer.  He informed me that if I did not do so, the entire staff of the restaurant would walk out, that no one was interested in discussing it with me, and, as such, no one would accept phone calls from me regarding the situation.

Mind you, this email was sent seven minutes after the banks closed on Friday, with him knowing full well that our bank doesn’t have Saturday hours and that I was leaving for Canada in 18 hours.  Even if I had been batshit crazy enough to concede to his demands (and my personal account is linked as protection against the restaurant’s), I could not have physically done so without completely fucking over my employer by bailing and leaving them with no cook on the day of departure.

This is to say nothing of the over $6300 in overdrafted checks for the restaurant I’d covered out of my paychecks from the ship in the preceding two months.

I got that email at the end of a dinner sail, about 10 o’clock at night, just after I finished washing dishes.  I went home to my boat (yes, I bought a boat, and the monthly payment and moorage is still cheaper than the rent I was paying on a house) with Afton, who was supposed to go along on the big trip as galley assistant.  I slept on it, and got another email at 6am, a forwarded message originally posted by the manager of another area brunch restaurant (who’d once offered to buy the place) that was shared on the West Seattle Blog claiming that we were closing our doors forever that Sunday.  Afton asked me if I wanted her to go down and put the brakes on the crazy train.  I said yes, please.

For the better part of two weeks, I got up at 5am and made breakfast for 30 or so people, lunch, snacks, washed dishes, passed out bandaids, sunscreen, ginger tea, fresh sheets, dinner, and finished up my workday less than 8 hours before the anchor watch came to wake me to start it all over again.  Meanwhile, Afton did her best to run damage control while The Blog and KIRO interviewed her (and the morning news picked up the story…slow news week, guys?), and I got slammed all over and up and down.  Yes, I read the blog commentary, and yes, I saw the photo memes.  Whoever made them, I’m flattered that you think I present as a “visionary”.  That’s never been my intent.  As to the lady who apparently thought that I should absolutely be drawn and quartered because my homemade ketchup once fermented and blew up on you, you are an asshole.  Also, I agree that the whole homemade ketchup thing is kind of bullshit.  It’s good on the corned beef hash, but for anything else I have to say I like the stuff I grew up with, too.  But you’re still an asshole.  You coulda just sent me your fucking dry cleaning bill.  Hell, I woulda cleaned it myself with a little Oxyclean.  Works wonders on aprons.

Meanwhile, my now former housemate piled all my shit into one room and the garage in July to move his girl in, even though I was supposed to move out end of August.  While I do have an extensive collection of broken dining chairs that I keep meaning to get around to fixing, he managed to break even more of my shit, including Gram’s champagne flutes and an assortment of other worthless trinkets that I care about because someone I loved gave them to me.  And the cats.  Taped the cat door shut so they couldn’t come inside to eat.  Emaciated in the neighbor’s yard, so many shades of awful.  Worked at the restaurant, with all the crew.  Ceaseless shit talk, though always kind and understanding to my face.  I finally managed to get my shit out of there to a storage unit, but he lost the key for the Volvo I have in the drive, and figures I ought to pay him storage for it and the privilege of his “caring” for my cats and “storing” my things.

I’ve gotten the shop open a few times since I got back, because Afton was good enough to cover me on the boat.  Landlord ever so unhappy about a dark storefront, as a big-wig is in the process of buying the building.  Lawsuit with the guy I sublease the space from, because I paid the rent directly to the landlord instead of him after finding out that he hadn’t paid all of the rent I’d given him, leaving a balance due with the building owner.  Never thought I’d say it, but thank heaven for lawyers, at least mine and the badass champ who referred me to him.

Closed for a couple of weeks while Afton was working her other job and taking care of her toddler and I was working my job.  City Light, for the third time, turned off our electricity in error over a mislabeled meter and a neighboring weed shop that doesn’t pay their electricity.  I discovered this just this past Wednesday, at the same time that I found our cash register had been stolen by someone who apparently had a key (no forced entry).  They were, at least, clever enough to wipe the butter knife they tried to use to jimmy the cash drawer of prints.

Spent yesterday pitching everything from the coolers with Lorraine, and scrubbing everything.  It wasn’t pretty.  Let’s just say we both wore respirators.  There was a lot of disinfectant involved in the process.

And today?  Today I drove to work.  I cooked.  I chatted.  I strapped on the old apron, and I did what I do.  Tonight, I’m sitting on my boat, with my cat who’s got some meat on her bones again.

Real talk; there have been times in this that I’ve just wanted to die.  I have a kid.  That’s not an option.  So I work it out.  Part of that is asking myself why this is happening.  I do not know.  I do not know if I’m such a remarkable asshole that holy-hell should be raining down upon my head right now.  I gotta ask.  If I paid good wages, gave one woman a week’s wages so she could afford to see her Mom when they all thought she was dying, gave another guy a month’s rent and airfare to and from rehab, “laid off” another guy per his request when he was having hard times and wanted to get unemployment while he took some time to sort things out, if I’m the kind of guy who does things like that, what the hell am I doing that warrants the venom I’ve gotten in the past six weeks?

One of the former staff stopped by to chat the other day, while I was cleaning and filing a report about the stolen register.  He said that he wanted to hear my side; that he’d seen me help another staff person with rent and a deposit with an apartment because she was homeless, and it struck him that the stories that he was hearing didn’t add up with what he’d seen.  We talked.  I filled him in on my side.  It made more sense to him.  He told me that he’d been told he wouldn’t be paid, and left with the rest of the crew because they were all leaving.  He did understand that the reason some of the final checks are late is because they’d closed the shop.   He was sorry.  He’d moved on, like everyone else.  I don’t have that luxury, moving on.  I’m glad we talked, because I like him, and I wouldn’t have wanted him thinking that of me.

I have three separate bills totalling about $7k that have to be paid by Monday, or the shit hits the fan.  I can’t help but think of pumping the holding tank on my “luxury” yacht when I say that.  Poop slurry is gross, y’all.

Tomorrow, I’m going to get up early and buy provisions for the ship, and pass the baton back to Afton.  I’ll head back to Seattle, stock up on all fresh ingredients, and prep like a bitch for the weekend.  Come Saturday morning, I’ll be bright, sunny and happy, cooking.  I don’t know what comes after that, but Afton’s fond of reminding me that I have a habit of rising like a phoenix.  Or, you know, the turd that clogs the pump.  Whatever.

Think what you will.  I’m eternally grateful for the friends and family that have shown up to say they knew better.  I reread my blog post “What’s in a Name?”, mostly by accident, and it reminded me why I do this.  It also made me bawl my eyes out, and buck up.  I love people.  Even the assholes.  I can think of at least one ol’ buddy who has dicked me over for numerous bills, and shit talked me outrageously.  And still calls me for help when he really needs it.  And totally shit talked me this time around.  Next time he calls, will I answer?  You bet.  He’s family.

Things change.  The Wheel turns.  All the places I’ve really wanted to be, I had to bust hump to get to.  Maybe I just valued them more because of what I went through to get there.  There will come a day that I will find a meditative calm in sanding and varnishing some bit of woodwork on my home.  There will be a heron staring at me.  It will likely take a great, nasty shit on my work.  I will say vile things about its parentage, but if that’s the least of my worries that day, I’ll be happy.

The Hangover Part Two, Or The Importance of Hydration

18 Jan

In the previous post, I left off just after talking about being keenly aware of the privilege I experienced in my father lending me money, while still having some other business owners finding what I started out with to be laughably infinitesimal.  A friend of mine commented that, while it was a privilege to get that loan, that it was tiny and that it’s to my credit that we’ve come so far, starting out with so little.

Two things to that; one, I mostly wanted to highlight economic disparities with that comment.  What seems like an impossibly unworkable amount of capital to one person sounds like an impossibly unattainable windfall to another, and there we see that the dividing line of opportunity is really a gaping chasm.  It’s one that I straddle nowhere near as gracefully as I’d like.  You don’t easily switch from the feast-or-famine mindset (where “feast” is really just being able to buy the components of a healthy, well-balanced meal that I actually want to eat) to the maintaining responsible growth strategies mindset.  You have no idea how much it freaks me out that I am responsible for paychecks that feed several staff and their families.  If I fuck up, it’s not just me that bears the consequences.

And it’s not like I could have pulled this off on sheer chutzpah, hard work and a can-do attitude.  I had that, too, but it wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t have at least *some* cash on the barrelhead.  People with far more talent and determination than I go everyday without that opportunity.

The second; though I have no credit cards nor line of credit with the bank (I’m just happy that they let me keep my checking account open), I have not been without financial assistance.  The total is still comfortably in the laughable range, but it’s kept our heads above water when I thought I was drowning, and more than deserves to be acknowledged. In the past three years, my cousin made a loan to me, and repayment has been in smaller and slower drips than either of us like.  We also had a crowd-sourced fundraiser to finance our first move (that probably would have been a lot more successful had I not been too embarrassed to promote it), and a couple who are regulars popped out of the woodwork when they found out that I’d bitten off more than I could chew with the first move to the ginormo-space in White Center.  While I pay a comparatively high wage to the crew, there have been times that I’ve asked them to accept their pay late (and, sometimes, they do the math themselves on a slow weekend, and volunteer to wait a couple of days.  Geez.  The fact that that ever happens pains me to the point of nausea, but I am more deeply grateful than I know how to express.  They deserve more than a parenthetical statement, and if I manage to pull this off, I’ll make sure they get something more tangible than my gratitude.) In addition to that, I know that a lot of our customers very deliberately drove out of their way and chose to spend their breakfast dollars at our place, just to support us.  (Okay, I hear you all like the food, too.)

As an aside, I am listening to Patti Smith covering Rihanna’s “Stay” at her 67th birthday party.  I want to be Patti Smith when I grow up, but my spirit animal for 2014 is Dorothy Parker.  Next year, maybe, I can be as fierce as Patti without being as hard as Dorothy.  If you haven’t read Patti’s “Just Kids” yet, you should.  For me, that book felt like it could have happened a few years ago, at my old house.  But it happened 30+ years ago, and 3000 miles away.  It felt like making a new friend.

Meander’s first kitchen was pure, utter magic.  It was nine bar stools on a coffee counter that surrounded the cook’s line.  There was a tiny triple compartment dish sink at one end of the cook’s line, and we hand washed and sanitized the dishes.  The refrigerators and a freezer were in the back, and, in the cleaning frenzy, we’d kept the toys that Wah had collected over the years.  We also kept the windchimes that chimed by the door every time someone came in.  That sound came to replace, in my mind, the sound of the kitchen ticket printer.  Every cook out there knows exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s like air raid sirens, and it becomes ingrained in your subconscious.

We even kept a small, curved mirror mounted in a weird spot that had become my secret joke, once I discovered it’s purpose.  The shop was basically laid out like a shotgun house; narrow store front, but long all the way to the back of the building.  The mirror was hung midway back, near the bathroom.  One day I was situated just so, glanced up, and realized that the mirror was set up so that, if you left the bathroom door open, you could be seated on the throne and still have a clear view of the front door.  High fives, Wah, you clever fellow.

There was a spot on the wall, old plaster covered in paper board and lots of paint, that was crumbling to bits because of old rain damage from a roof leak.  I stood back and considered it.  The proper thing to do would have been to tear out the whole chunk of wall and replace it with drywall.  I didn’t have the resources to do that, and, once upon a time I’d been a sculptor.  So I knocked out all the loose bits, wire brushed it, patched in some wire mesh, and used stucco repair compound to put a patch of swirly bits into the wall.  No bits of plaster crumbling into your food, and a bit of added interest.  Win/win.  I may have even swirled a little note into it, if you were paying attention.  Someone was peering in the windows while I did it, because I never bothered to paper over the windows during renovation, the way folks do.  I think they thought I was weird.

Our red formica counter was forever peeling up in one spot.  We duct taped it.  It started coming up in other spots.  We found a note tucked under it, congratulating the finder for being the sort of person who looked in unexpected places.  We liked it, so we put it back and left it unglued and untaped.


At the very, very first, it was just me.  That lasted about a day.  First one dear, old friend came to help me get the place going, then another, and another, each as they passed through town and their own lives and their own needs, and mine.  That’s been a thing.  Old friends.

Si, Jay, Avery, Kara, Chase, Kelly, Afton, Ela, Maya, Ed, Deb, Isaac, Paula, Claire, Kelly, Ben, Grady, Lukas, Janelle, Lorraine, Rose, Sean.  Some of those are old friends, some were folks I thought I could be friends with, and hired.  Some were people I just had a really good feeling about.  Mileage varied.  Some I miss very, very deeply.  Others, not so much.  Some, I know it was time for them to go do other things, and have nothing but all the love for.  Of those from the first space, one is still here (besides me).  Isaac, you’re a fucking rock.
Every single one brought some element of their story to bear on the shaping of the place.  It has never really been just me; I get a little hinkey when folks talk about it like it is.

So I opened the door that first day, and Marcia showed up.  She’d been waiting.  Before the place had been Jade West, it had been Nate & Kate’s for 40 years, and that was Marcia’s family.  I was in her house; damn good thing she liked me.  (Helped that I was a dear friend of one of her good friends’ daughters…I joked that Marcia sponsored my West Seattle citizenship.)  Sydni showed up, too.  She noticed that I was hand whipping my cream, and using a pastry bag.  Next day, she dropped by with a whip cream dispenser, complete with CO2 chargers, ’cause, you know, she just had one laying around.  She took pictures of our french toast, helped Mama Sherri, another long time neighbor, to a seat and some breakfast.  Syd has pretty severe health issues of her own, but somehow always manages to be there for everyone else.  If there’s a fundraiser or a walkathon or a homeless encampment getting the shaft or pretty much any sort of social injustice, Syd is probably standing or walking or raising hell right in the middle of it, in spite of constant pain.  I’m exhausted just thinking about her.

These were the people who greeted me on my arrival, and they set the tone.

More tomorrow?  Or Sunday?  Soon.  I’m supposed to go to a masquerade tomorrow, so I shouldn’t promise to have anything worth saying.





The Hangover

17 Jan

I’ve been wanting to write here again for some time, but I got all caught up with settling into the new space and then the holidays hit me like a ton of bricks.  I get stuck, writing around the holidays.  Oh, sure I’m always busy.  It’s tense, too, because in the restaurant business, you just don’t know what’s going to happen around the holidays.  You expect to be blitzed, but what happens if the crowds don’t come?

We usually start getting really busy right after Thanksgiving.  This year, I nipped out for a two and a half day trip to New York just before it was supposed to hit.  The crew had the highest day of sales we’ve had in this space on the day I flew out of town, and handled it gracefully and lovingly.  Astro laughed at me because I told them not to call me with updates unless something went wrong, and then I couldn’t help but call from the hotel room right after I checked in, just to see if everything was ok.

And then sales tanked by nearly half the next weekend.  And they stayed that way the next.  Sweating bullets, I was, and heaving self-recriminations for indulging in that trip.  By Christmas week we were back up again, but it was a tough hit; one shared by many other businesses this year, as I understood it.  Then the hood fan died.  Then the walk in cooler died.  Uh, huh.

That’s not why the holidays always get me, though.  I lost my Mom 17 years ago December 21, and my daughter was born December 13 the following year.  I’ve been estranged from her side of the family since her memorial service for reasons I won’t go into here, and also from one of my two brothers.  This year, he contacted me over facebook to invite me to a chat with several of the cousins from that side of the family.  It was kind of an ambush, especially because the younger cousins didn’t know most of the history of why we haven’t been in touch. It seems like a lot of dredging up painful pasts to lay it out there when asked, and I’ve remained distant.  I’m not sure what to say.

So.  Though I wrote much about that, I’m going to leave it in the ‘saved drafts’ bin for now.  I did have a lovely Christmas Day, at home with my father & his wife Ping, my daughter, her father & his girlfriend, and his sister & a friend of hers.  We ate lots of good things, laughed and did Madlibs, and admired the tree that kiddo decorated herself this year.  I played Bing Crosby.  It was good.

I feel like I’m finally shaking off the daze and muddle that often accompanies the holidays, though, and I wanted to write about the restaurant.

I’ve had a few folks ask me how I came to open Meander’s Kitchen.  Honestly?

The short answer is, my Dad lent me money for a down payment on off-grid acreage so that I could start my ecotourism/B&B that would allow me to take guests to the farm on the way to the table.  After several offers I made fell through, funds were starting to dwindle.  I had recently come back from a summer job as a chef and deckhand on a 54′ ketch, and wasn’t sure if I should try to find a job in town, since it looked like I’d be headed out to the woods soon.  Money kept dwindling, as it does, so I started talking to the folks at the Wildrose about doing a brunch pop-up at their bar, which sounded like an awesome plan to me.  Then I got to talking with the folks at the coffee shop that was my home two blocks away from home, C&P Coffee, and they seemed pretty keen on the idea of a breakfast spot right there in our neighborhood.  Pete and Frank told me to go check out the old Jade West spot, and there we were.

I prepaid six months rent, and me and a really sweet friend went down and started scrubbing and painting.  For those of you that don’t know, Jade West was a tiny Chinese restaurant owned and operated by Wah.  Wah had been a neighborhood fixture for 20 years or so, and was much loved.  He and his son were struck by a drunk driver while unloading luggage from a family trip in their own driveway.  Wah is a little older, and was slow to recover the energy he’d had, and his son lost a leg.  Salina, Wah’s wife, was not physically injured, but has felt lasting effects.  They locked the doors and the shop sat for a year, until they leased it to me.  They are dear, sweet people, and went out on a limb for me.

After being locked up mostly untouched for a year, there was a lot of scrubbing to do.  I signed the lease in December, and by the time I opened in January, I didn’t have any money left.  I prepped my first batch of gravy, unlocked the doors and crossed my fingers.

When friends of mine ask me how I did it, I am keenly aware of the privilege of having my father loan me money.  When I talk with other business owners and they find out how little I started with, they tell me what big balls I have.  It’s a weird, in-between place.  The shop is always busy on the weekends, but we have always struggled.  I’ve never had a credit card or line of credit from the bank, and no more capital cushion than that first six month’s of rent paid off.

We’re still here.  Our three year anniversary is in ten days.  I simultaneously can’t believe it’s made it this far, and don’t have anything but vague memories of ever having done anything else.

I think that I will call it a night right here.  I gotta get up and cover a shift for one of our crew, who, incidentally, was hit by a drunk driver.  Hey, assholes, quit driving drunk.  I mean it.  Knock that shit off.

I’ll come back to this story tomorrow, yeah?

Punk House Hash

24 Oct

You know, I really meant to do a post on or around my birthday, and somehow a full month has already slipped by.  It was a big birthday for me; 39. I re-read my post on Hospitality, and think of this as a continuation of that, in many ways.

Subconsciously, I’ve been thinking of this upcoming year as the night before a big homework assignment is due.  I tell everyone that it’s my big pre-funk party, this year, but I want to have My Shit Together when the big 4-0 hits.  It’s an arbitrary mileage marker, but it’ll do.  And here 1/12th of it has already zipped right on by.  It’s cool.  I was still doing the reading, and taking notes.

A few weeks back, I had this weird date with a guy I don’t know very well.  I bought the date at a fundraiser auction, which makes it even more weird.  Whatever; he cooked for me.  That almost never happens.

We talked a lot, and he said something that stuck really hard.  We were talking about the shop, and how because of it, people sometimes talk to me like I’m someone “Important”, and how I don’t really know what to do with that.  I told him that I keep waiting for people to figure out that I’m the same old punk kid I ever was.  I’ve said that before, to plenty of people, but he said something no one’s ever said to me.  He said, “Maybe it’s time for you you to figure out that you’re not.”

Well, shit.

Then what am I?  Who do I want to be when I grow up?  Is there a deadline looming on that?  Because it kind of feels like there is.  What does a grown up punk look like?  Was I out back smoking when they rang the last bell on putting childish things aside?  ‘Cause it kind of feels like that, too.  I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

When I think of punk, I think of band names, back patches, Christmas tree spikes painstakingly applied by hand to leather jackets.  I think of my friend Doc Molotov reading political treatises in Pioneer Square in Portland, just before he drank enough beer to fell a full grown moose.  That was the day I met him.  I think I was 16.

Standing in the kitchen of a house painted entirely black, cooking tremendous batches of chopped potatoes & dumpstered vegetables with whole chunks of garlic & tons of nutritional yeast for whatever group of people had rolled into town and sung songs around our fire the night before.  I think of the bike workshop the guys built in the backyard, the stage we built out back for the pirate radio station benefit show (and no one even noticed the transmitter strapped to our chimney), the motorcycle parked out front of the house and the boy from Kansas it belonged to who taught me to bake bread, the thirty people we fed, and the stick-and-poke tattoo of a wheat stalk I got, just so that I would always remember how much love I felt with him that night.  I think of the rain coming down like a Kentucky thunder storm, the 20-odd naked bodies in the mud, the dozen at a time crammed into the shower like overgrown children sloughing off mud and pain, and the ringing of laughter when I would chase their asses out of the kitchen when I was trying to make gravy.    And I remember every time I cried because they hurt too much to stop hurting themselves.

And here I can’t help but think of my Great Aunt Leone and my grandmother again, and the stern looks and sharp tongues tempered with humor. How they fixed things when they broke, rather than throw them away.  Gramma and Aunt Leone were punk as fuck.   Because to me, being punk has always been about seeing clearly, even if the powers that be told you that your eyes deceived you.  It’s always been about taking care of your family, chosen or otherwise, doing better, reading all the books, listening to all the music, continuing to learn, laughing your ass off, fixing what was broken, and arching an eyebrow into the most eloquent “fuck you” you’ve ever seen on an as-needed basis.

I may not be a kid anymore, but I want to be a punk when I grow up.


22 Aug

This won’t seem related to hospitality at first, but follow along with me long enough to get there. 

I belong to a group on facebook that is centered around a place that offered services and a sense of family for a lot of us street kids and gutter punks back in Portland, called the Greenhouse.  (I lived with my Mom in PDX for part of my youthful days, and I ended up on the streets on and off during the ages of 16 to 18, until I moved to Seattle…totally not her fault, for the record.)  The people who staffed that place pretty much all qualify for sainthood. 

There are some recent posts in the group about some of the old haunts that bring back some heavy duty memories (Quality Pie, Rocky Horror at the Clinton St Theater and the old Witch’s House, notably), the way a scent will bring back a memory you’re pretty sure you could touch, so long as you don’t chase it away by opening your eyes. This also feels the way a nightmare does, and I’m not always sure that I *can* open my eyes again, if I allow myself to fall into these memories. 

In those days, I was questioned with friends about another friend whose body was discovered in a park.  She’d gotten a ride home after a show, and been murdered.  I blocked that memory for a lot of years, until reminded by a dear old friend who wanted me to know that her killer had died in prison.  Thankfully, he was able to deal with the sudden racking sobs in the middle of a bar when it all came flooding back.  Bless you, Ryan, and thank you for helping me to remember and for being there in the aftermath.

That was probably the worst single thing, but sometimes it felt as if the culmination of a million things every day was a constant campaign to grind the humanity out of a body with concrete and rock salt.  You never had a chance to heal, you were just constantly raw.

Bittersweet.  For a while, I lived in a studio apartment upstairs from a drag bar.  One of my roommates was probably one of those most beautiful drag queens I’d ever met, and another roommate was a good friend whose mother had sued for custody of her two children.  Her mother won after the court was presented with evidence that my friend was bisexual.  My friend was hooking to pay the legal fees to try to get them back.  I had a boyfriend then, who worked in a restaurant; he’d steal blocks of cheese, packages of tortillas, fresh garlic and chocolate for us. This has indelibly affected my eating habits, to this day.  (Again, thank you Ryan.)  When Measure 9 was on the ballot, back in ’92, it lumped homosexuality in with pedophilia and was an attempt to legally declare homosexuality perverse and against the decency and interests of the state.  I sat in a living room upstairs from that bar with everyone else in the building watching election results, not a dry eye in the house, while that measure was defeated, and gay bashers cruised the streets of our neighborhoods with baseball bats.  I was still too young to vote.


There are a lot of threads in this facebook group, about people looking for old friends.  Some of them I knew, some of them I had intense personal interactions with, and some just sound kind of familiar.  A lot, lot of them are dead, or somebody says they see them hanging out on a particular corner a lot, or they’re in prison, or they died in prison.  At least one of them was, oddly, a coworker of my mother’s, and I’m watching the thread to see if contact info for him pans out.  I don’t know what I’d say to him; perhaps hello, although then I’d have to tell him that Mom passed in ’96.  Maybe I just want another person to share memories with.

There were some intensely good memories.  Nights spent playing in fountains, chess games in all night diners, all night underwear-clad gin rummy tournaments, meeting amazing people who gave me books that trebled my brain capacity, and food.  I had an apartment for a while, furnished with a couch, an end table and a coffee maker courtesy of my Mom…the carafe had broken, so I used a beat up sauce pan to hold the brewed coffee.  And sometimes a group of folks would go get food boxes from one of the local churches.  They’d bring them to my place, and we’d play Iron Chef before we knew what that was.  What to do with a a quart of Grey Poupon and a box of whole wheat lasagna noodles?  Frankly, I think Iron Chef got the idea from us. 

Other times, I’d couch surf.  If you are couch surfing, it’s understood that you should do something to contribute to the household.  So I’d cook and wash up after.  You tell me; what do you cook for eight people when, quite literally, the only food in the place is a box of biscuit mix, a jar of peanut butter and a can of government commodity pork?  As in, the white paper labeled can with the blue line drawing of a pig on it, and the mess of gelatinous goo inside.  Anyone?  Necessity is very much the mother of invention.

I’ll be 39 years old next month.  I can’t remember, but I think it’s your 30th birthday that qualifies you for the golden shopping cart award in the punk pantheon.  It’s a real thing, with some folks.  Maybe it’s 35.  I don’t know if there’s a thing for 40; I’m not so sure that folks plan that far ahead.

When I was 24 or 25, my sister ran away from home.  She went to Portland.  I knew just where to find her.  She was really mad at me.  There was a serial killer targeting girls on the streets in PDX at that time.  She came to live with me for the summer.  I did my best, but I didn’t know much, then.  Still, it set a precedent.

The summer before I turned 30, I hitch hiked for the first time, and I ate mushrooms for the first time since I was 19. I lived in Olympia, but commuted to a fancy pants job with a large non-profit in Seattle. It was good.  I had a house, and my sister put me together with an amazing woman to be my roommate, and to help me with childcare for my daughter.  Kiddo was six then, I think.  Other people joined our house, good people, sad people, people who strove to be joyful.  My sister says that it was all my idea, and the words of invitation did come from my mouth, but I think that my sister magnetized our house & me, the way that a magnet can lend its properties to steel.  Good people who were hell bent on trying to make good things seem to find their way to our house.  I remember leaving for work one morning, and seeing an old school bus decorated circus-stylie laboring up the hill in the opposite direction; I knew, and, sure enough, they were parked in our yard by the end of the night.  For my 30th birthday, they decorated the house with a banner made of bras and tissue paper from the free box at the food co-op, and a parade of dancing clowns putting on a fire show presented me with a stack of buckwheat birthday pancakes while playing trashcan lid drums.  This life; never in a million years would I trade it for anything else.

A lot of people that I love now, I met when I was just turning 30, and they were in their teens or early twenties.  When I see the posts on the Greenhouse group, talking about who has died, I think of these friends of mine.  Some of them are doing amazing good things; raising children, adopting, taking the bar exam, fighting for good things.  One friend of mine is part of The People’s House in Olympia, the recent recipient of a $400,000 grant to open a homeless shelter…geez, Cassie, you are so starkly and beautifully amazing.  I want to be you when I grow up.  But some are in other places, and I find myself asking if folks have heard how they’re doing.  Did they manage to kick, and stay clean?  Where are they?  He still drinking?  At least one hung himself.  I don’t know if I want to keep asking.

When I think of hospitality, I think of my Grandmother’s linen table cloths, the good silver, no one willing to take the last piece from the serving platter, and how Gramma always sat in the chair closest to the kitchen during dinner.  I think of my mother and her best friend making Christmas candy together every year for decades.  I think of my father and Don’s passing a communal can of smoked oysters around the fire, eaten with a pocket knife.  I think of a bunch of  gutter punks bringing church food boxes to my teenage apartment.  I think of dumpster diving trips, blocks of illicit cheese, Gramma’s prized tomatoes, and serving food in the park in Oly with Food Not Bombs, and the pot luck punk house Thanksgiving with three turkeys and Jesse’s green bean casserole made with foraged chanterelle cream sauce.  I think of Stone Soup.  I think of how, when Mom’s cancer was really sucking, she asked me to make her grilled cheese and tomato soup, and how my daughter asks me to make her the same thing when she feels poorly.

When I think of hospitality, I think of a roof, and food, and how those things shared create a sanctuary.  I think of how the folks at Greenhouse fed us and gave us so much more, and how, 25 years later, we look to that place to find the people we can’t forget.  I think of catching the scent of my Gram’s house when I use her napkins in a basement apartment dinner party, no matter how many times I wash them, and I am so grateful.




What’s in a name?

6 Aug

So, I started a restaurant a couple of years ago.

Barely.  I mean, it was barely a restaurant.  Ed calls it the “anti-restaurant”, but I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to qualify it for such a lofty mission statement. It just kind of happened.

In retrospect, I should have started this bloggy thing years ago.  You may have to jump and skip around in time with me a bit, if you’re interested in the ride.

What I mean is that it was very literally just a kitchen surrounded by a coffee counter, and not much else.  Ring side seats, two and a half feet from the grill.  Literally.  When flipping omelets, I used to have to be careful to body-block the splash, or else whoever happened to be in seat #7 would get a face-full of hot egg and clarified butter.

The building owners (husband & wife) agreed to lease the space to me, equipment included, in spite of my wretched credit.  The husband had run a Chinese restaurant from the space for two decades, give or take, and wanted it to go to someone who would take good care of the people in the neighborhood.  He decided that I was that person, but they debated the point for a while.  While I was waiting to hear from them, I decided that I would call it the Compass Rose Cafe.  Friends of mine suggested that I call it Miranda’s Kitchen, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around that kind of self-promotion.

My Dad’s best friend Don nicknamed me Meander when I was probably about five years old, back when they decided I was big enough to go hiking and camping with them.  It described my signature style of making my way through the woods, and, with some folks, the name stuck as I got older.  Don never called me anything but that.  The last time I saw him, I was 36 years old, years separated from my husband, and with a teenaged daughter in tow…and he still greeted my as “Little Baby Meander!”  I have no way to describe the comfort and joy I took from that.

Don and my father are the reason I that I have a deep and abiding fondness for cantankerous men with too much Hemingway and an acerbic wit on hand.  He and my father poo-pooed yuppies and tourists and television and anyone without enough gumption to read a book and fix what was broken all throughout my childhood…they were my heroes, and the whole reason that I learned how to open up the guts of something broken to figure out how to make it work.  And they took me places; I rode in the back of innumerable pickup trucks with the other kids and dogs up mountain roads more times than I can count, and all along the way were wild berries, asparagus, morel mushrooms, and cornmeal-coated rainbow trout so fresh they curled up while cooking in the frying pan.

Over that Thanksgiving visit, that last time, he was simultaneously an old friend, sharing stories from the years we’d missed, and also one of the very few remaining people on earth who make me feel like a child, full of hope and brightness.

We talked and joked and laughed.  Dad went to bed early, and Don chased my cousin Kimbers (his daughter) off by asking me if I knew of any good prostitutes in Seattle in her presence. She rolled her eyes and scurried off to bed, and he and I stayed up drinking, smoking and playing cards.  He told me how much his daughter really meant to him, and he told me that I am much like himself.  He’s not one given to squishy emotional chatter; I was being kinda crass, and he called me out.  Told me that he knew I’d give anyone the shirt off my back, even to my own detriment.  That even if I am eternally disappointed, I’ll keep at it.  It was his self-assessment, but I have never been paid a better compliment in my entire life.

Point being, that was the last time I saw Don.  I got the call in December that I’d gotten the lease on the kitchen.  I was ecstatic.  A few hours later, my father called.  Don had had a heart attack, shoveling the snow from his driveway.  My father’s voice sounded as if it were coming through cold, wet drifts, muffled, and weighted.  Forty years of anchoring each other over the miles and the years.  Of driving old trucks through the mountains, girlfriends, wives and fishing trips and daughters and never having to explain, just being understood.  I think that every year was represented in each syllable that my father spoke.

Don never asked me about the missing years.  I never told him about asking strangers for spare change when I left home, or about the clubs I worked at in Kentucky, the pregnancy when I was 19, or where I went or what I did after.  He never asked, and I am sure that he knew; he allowed me the grace of always being full of hope and brightness, the comfort that the ugly bits were known and excused, and the respite of not having to talk about it.

And that, my darlings, is why I called it Meander’s Kitchen.  Because that is the best I have to give you, in his memory.  That the world is often unkind, that any of us would be fools to diminish or deny that unkindness, but that it should not make us also unkind.  That we can bury the sweetness of ourselves under crassness, under the simplistic demands of loyalty and responsibility and obligation, but that there is always a way to leave the imprint of kindness in our wake…and that it absolutely will make a difference to do so.  You will change someone’s life, with your kindness.