One Eye on the Winter

A moving series of photos from Pripyat -- sentinel photographs really, telling us this, too, is a human possibility, showing us one version of the future -- 20 years downstream from Chernobyl.

(Photo: Pedro Moura Pinheiro via:villageofjoy.com)

(The subject line's from Shona Laing's 1987 Soviet Snow.)


Humiliation du Jour

One Friday afternoon some eighteen years ago, I punched my time card to begin my shift at the Cafe at Brooks, a now-defunct restaurant on Providence's East Side. I was nineteen years old, a rising college junior with a double major in English literature and philosophy, who was looking forward to hitting the books -- Proust, Joyce and Faulkner, that semester -- in the fall with a nice cushion of cash in the bank.

The cafe used to advertise on local radio. Each spot would end with the tagline, "The Cafe at Brooks! Where you just might fall in love with your waitress."

Well, you might, I suppose. The waitresses (all women) were typically Brown undergraduates: bright and articulate, with good middle-class manners and enough level-headed wherewithal to get a three or four-course meal to your table and then deliver the check, usually calculated correctly, without mishaps.

Most of the time.

The afternoon was slow, and we were seating folks in round-robin fashion, distributing comers among the handful of waitresses on the floor. When my turn rolled around, I delivered menus and water to a couple whose aura of ill-will -- toward themselves, toward each other, perhaps toward the fact of simply being alive -- strongly suggested to my admittedly quite mercantile mind that I should not expect much by way of a tip.

Two choices are available to a waitress in this situation. First, you can start doing schtick. It is intrusive, but sometimes a charming smile, a joke, a little extra solicitousness can make the difference, tip-wise, between a five percent insult and a twenty percent gift. Or you can resolve to work as quietly and professionally as possible, leaving the couple space to work out whatever nasty business is between them. This second strategy is more useful when the vibe is really angry, because in that case, being exceptionally nice means making yourself a target for the bad energy that's already going around.

Snap decisions are everything in restaurant service. That night, I really didn't want anyone to be mean to me. I had just escaped a rotten argument with my mother, who'd interrupted my reading of Stanley Cavell's latest in order to harangue me about the nerve I'd shown in dropping to a size four that summer. (I'd been on a steady diet of coffee and crusts leftover from bread baskets at work, because I was too cheap to shell out for a real meal at the Cafe where employees got only a fifty percent discount.) In short: I didn't want to be an emotional lightning rod for this angry pair. I was feeling tender enough already. So, naturally, I went for strategy #2: all business.

After giving them a minute to look at the menu, I readied my pen over my order pad. "Have you decided?"

The woman placed her order; I no longer remember what she wanted. The man said, "Pepper steak."

"Pepper steak," I repeated. Pepper steak was what went into a grinder in the sub shop near my house on Wiseacre Drive. Chopped steak and peppers heated on a grill and dumped into a hoagy roll, cheese and onions optional. You couldn't get a pepper steak at Cafe at Brooks. The fare was fancier than that.

"That's not on the menu," I said. "But if you tell me exactly what you'd like, I'm sure I can get the kitchen to make it for you."

"Pepper steak!" he said angrily. And then, more carefully: "Steak oh pwahv."

What in the world was steak oh pwahv? I'd never heard of steak oh pwahv. And he really sounded strange. I looked at him closely, wondering if he was having a stroke.

He pointed to a line on the menu, at a dish for which I'd never taken an order: Steak au poivre.

"Oh!" I smiled. It was all clear now. "You mean steak oh poyvree!"

Well, I didn't speak French. And growing up, though I'd read a lot, I didn't often discuss my reading. Difficult words could take on strange phonetic identities in my imagination. I wasn't always able to correctly infer the sound of a word from how it looked on the page.

Something flashed in his eyes: faint amusement, tinged with ridicule, or maybe it was just the sun pouring in through the skylight, hot as a pretentious cafe in hell, hot as the shameful blush that I felt spreading from my neck to my hairline. His wife looked daggers at me over her Perrier, as if she'd finally found incontrovertible proof of some hypothesis she'd been secretly entertaining for a long time: Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses -- and the ones who don't wear glasses, at least not while on shift at the Cafe at Brooks, are pathetically seducing your husband by screwing up his order for steak oh poyvree.

Or maybe I'd just punctured her hope that a meal on the town, in this town, might for once be a not completely shabby and cut-rate experience.

I don't know where I got the courage to follow up properly and ask how he'd like his steak au poivre cooked, but I did.

I wrote it all down and scuttled into the back, where my boss, who'd heard the whole exchange, was bent double with laughter. I laughed, too. Because otherwise I might have jumped into the fryolator.

Afterward, the angry couple wanted neither coffee nor dessert, and for this small mercy I was heartily glad. I dropped the check and they left, silent and sour as ever. My tip was ten percent exactly.


Another Day, Another 750 Words

A good result. I shall not push this. The material -- the title story to Malediction -- is fragile and still forming.


Two Pages, No, Make That Three (Plus Idea)

A story's been in my head for month and I can't say what has kept me from writing it. Distance from mind's eye to screen seems impossibly far sometimes. But now that I've started, I'm reasonably happy about it, meaning happy enough to look forward to doing more with it tomorrow. Need to start a sentence and not finish it -- leaving myself a sort of trail to follow on my way back into the work. Tomorrow.

Later: Took a walk, came home, wrote another page. Yay.

On a wholly unrelated note: a commenter on Betsy Lerner's blog notes that writing letters is, among other things, an identity-building activity: "My brother, in and out of prison, never responds to family letters, but, I can vividly imagine him writing someone he doesn’t know, has never known, in the hopes of becoming someone else in the exchange."

I like this idea.


The Right Place

Yesterday, I found my new office at BU.

It is in the same building as Agni.

The lobby floor is tiled, in the tiny tiles characteristic of turn-of-the-century buildings in this part of Boston. The ground floor is a warren of tiny rooms. My office is one of them.

The office is bright. There are three windows, of which one opens. Another is a big bay, a little like the one that graced my first apartment, in Back Bay, years ago.

All windows still have the original moldings, complete with dentils.

A bay window! Dentils!


The office also has a French door, with period hardware, and a transom window over the door that looks like it might actually work. I don't check, though. Period fittings can be fragile.

Fragile as academic jobs.

As I make my way out of the building, headed for my class, a young man holds the door for me.

"The last gentleman!" I say, grinning. Does he get it?

He smiles back, then smiles bigger. Yes, he gets it. He does.

If I don't outlast the fittings, I hope at least to give them a good fight.


Reasons, Claims & Warrants

J is just out of the bath. M is braiding her hair.

"L and I have arguments at school," J says.

"Oh?" I worry about this. Arguments between first graders can be brutal. "What sorts of arguments?"

"Well, L says we have to do one thing, and I say we have to do another. And that is the argument."

"Hmm. That sounds more like a disagreement to me." Another teachable moment. I have already admitted my weakness for these things. "If you want to have an argument, you have to provide reasons for what you want. And reasons for those reasons."

J looks at me. "Reasons for the reasons?"

"Those are called warrants. Like right now, Daddy is braiding your hair. Why are you doing that, M?"

"So it doesn't get tangled while J sleeps."

"So that is your reason. But why," I press, "is that important? What is motivating your argument?"

"It will take ten minutes tomorrow morning to brush J's hair if it is not braided, and it will hurt. So we are saving time and aggravation."

"So those are your warrants."


J mulls it over. Then she burps.

"That," I say, trying not to giggle, "was unwarranted."

"No, it wasn't," J retorts. "I made you laugh, and when someone laughs, that is the end of the argument."

So there.