Thursday, December 4, 2014

Back Door Men

“You will not eat that in this house.”

I froze in place, my finger still tucked under the sardine can opener. I looked at Mom. I looked down at the can, as if to verify that that was what she meant. I looked back at Mom.

“It’s okay—it’s food,” I replied hopefully.

“I know what it is. You’ll spill it. They stink. You’ll stink up the whole stinking house and the stink will never stop stinking. We will not live in a house that stinks.”

She was right. Earlier that summer I got hit in the mouth by a bluegill and the fishy taste didn’t leave my lips for days. Sardines are worse. Still, I was crestfallen.

Dad was undeterred. He took the tin out of my hand, tucked a sleeve of Zesta saltines under his arm and grabbed a fork. “Outside, Moose. Back porch.”

Dad built the back porch a few years earlier. The original tiny cement steps were now underneath a roomy four foot square of thick redwood. I liked sitting on its long steps, as strong and reassuring as my father. Each step was a good height, I thought, as I wrapped my arms around my gangly legs and pulled my red Keds up tight. Dad’s legs arched over two steps.

Dad was conservative at the dinner table, but certain bold foods delivered him to a drooling delirium. Oysters. Rocky Mountain oysters. Sardines. Occasionally he’d bring home a tin of sardines packed in oil, tomato sauce, or mustard—my favorite—and scan the room with a look of unmistakable “who’s with me?” He used to enlist one of my older brothers or sisters, but they were all beyond that now. I got the nod. Back porch. Just Dad and me, the way I liked it.

He let me open the sardine tin, which I did with great ceremony. Each can came with a key that peeled up the face and rolled it away like sheets off a bed. The inside of the can glistened green and copper, precious oil dripping back onto the neatly stacked fishes inside.

The sardines were perfect. Uniform. Identical. This bunch still had their heads—sometimes they don’t—and the eyes looked up at nothing, a row of stoic soldiers before their king.

With a shrug of his palm, Dad let me go first. I broke the perfection, lifting the first sardine out gingerly, trying not to break its soft body or tear the delicate skin.

Once I bit a sardine in half so I could peer inside, to see the guts and bones, perplexed that they all taste and feel just like the flesh. But it was better not to look, and I didn't want my uneasiness to show.

I carefully laid the slick morsel across its cracker bed like Dad had taught me, handling it lightly as nitroglycerine, my mom’s words in my ear.

I ate the whole sardine: the tiny head, the black eyes, the limp fins, the soft bones. It was smaller than my pinky. 

We didn’t talk. I was aware of the quiet crunch of saltine, listening to the sound of chewing inside my head. The salty cracker stung atop my tongue, soothed by the comforting sardine oil. Without thinking, I wiped the back of my hand across a small drip on my lip, then realized I couldn’t rub it on my pants. I left it, careful not to touch anything.

A neighbor’s car drove by, crunching through the alley gravel. We waved sheepishly. We were the Outside Guys. The Back Porch Club. 

I kept an eye on Dad’s hands, watching every gesture in case I might need it one day. I smelled his after-shave. I selected another sardine, careful not to spill a drop lest I forever stink up this moment.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

You Are Where You Eat

Some say you are what you eat. That’s fine, I get it: if you eat carrots, you feel good. If you eat a cheeseburger and waffle fries, you feel better. If you eat gluten-free paleo tofu, you feel like a sucker.

I’m offering a different take on that old saw. If you tell me what you’re eating, I, the great and powerful Campbellini, can tell you where you are. Kind of like a tongue psychic. For example:

If you’re picking wee bits of meat off a boar’s head while a farmer, who still has the rest of the boar in the back of his pickup, sits at your table and tells you blissful tales of its former life (“He was a shy piglet, an orphan, but his aunt loved him and looked after him as if he were her own”):
You’re at: The Boiler Room

If you’re eating rabbit sautéed in duck fat after enjoying an appetizer so small it was brought to you on a spoon, but the real reason you’re there is because the chef is so goddamn good-looking:
You’re at: The Grey Plume

If you’re eating a $45 steak:
You’re at: Sullivan’s
If you don’t care because the bill is going on someone else’s Amex Black credit card:
You’re at: Omaha Prime

If you’re filthy rich but you went to a cheap steakhouse where every dish comes with a side of spaghetti:
You’re at: Piccolo Pete’s
You’re not filthy rich but you’re politically connected:
You’re at: Cascio’s
You’re neither:
You’re at: Venice Inn

If you’re surrounded by autographed photos of famous people from the 1960s in a room that’s shaped like the steak you’re eating:
You’re at: Johnny’s Café

If you’re eating mac & cheese made with a blend of five cheeses you’ve never heard of:
You’re at: Marks Bistro
If the mac & cheese is bright orange and has hot dog chunks in it:
You’re at: home, you’re high, eating out of the pan

If you’re eating Mexican food in a restaurant where there isn’t a Mexican in sight:
You’re at: Cantina Laredo

If you’re eating a cheeseburger at 11pm surrounded by noisy actors:
You’re at: Goldberg’s

If it’s 2am, you’re drunk and you shout out the first thing you see on the menu:
You’re at: Burger King’s drive-thru

If you’re eating ice cream with bits of fresh spinach and sage in it:
You're at: Ted & Wally’s
If they offer to put your name on a pint of it:
You're at: eCreamery

If you’re drinking a gin and tonic that’s brown and tastes like patchouli:
You’re at: Lot 2
If it’s brown and tastes like lemonade:
You're at: Side Door Lounge
If it’s clear and tastes like straight gin:
You’re at: the Green Onion
It tastes like straight tonic:
You’re at: Harrah’s Casino
If you don’t care how it tastes, you’re just there to get laid:

You’re at: The Interlude
If you waited 20 minutes for it because the bartender carved mountain spring water ice into the shape of his own head, then made you say please and thank you before he gave it to you:
You’re at: Berry & Rye

If you’re drinking PBR while telling everyone around you that you were personal friends with Conor Oberst back in high school:
You’re at: Pageturners

If you’re drinking wine from a tap:
You're at: Brix
If you’re drinking champagne from a tap:
You're at: The Homy Inn
If you’re drinking sangria out of a pitcher:
You’re at: España

If you’re eating authentic Italian food delivered by a waiter who insists on mispronouncing it:
You're at: Spezia
If he pronounces it perfectly even though he’s from Sarajevo:
You're at: Avoli

If there are only two things on the menu but you took five minutes to decide which you wanted:
You're at: Amsterdam Falafel

If you’re choosing between chicken fingers and fried mozzarella balls with Ranch or honey-mustard dip, there are retro signs on the wall, your server is wearing a red Oxford shirt with black pants and just finished singing a customized version of “Happy Birthday” that had the restaurant’s name wedged into it:
You’re west of 84th Street. I’m sorry, but I can’t be any more specific than that.

Reprinted from Food & Spirits Magazine

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Cotton Candy: Into Thin Air

Me at the Buffalo County Fair, 1972: “Please can I have some cotton candy?”

Dad: “No.”

“Pleeeeeze? Pleeeaaaauuuuzzzhhh?” As if adding syllables would help.


“ I’ll never ask for any…”

“Fine—just shut up. Here’s fifty cents. Get outta here.”

“It costs seventy-five, Dad.”

“What? Seventy-five cents?! For air? For sugar air?”

I shrug. Dad flips me another quarter.

The best part of getting cotton candy is watching them make it. It can’t be concocted in advance—it spoils too fast. They have to summon it like a swami before your very eyes.

First, they heat sugar in the middle of a device that looks like an empty washing machine tub. A needle valve spins, flinging thin strands of sugar-glue into the open drum, whipping the sweet stuff senseless until its natural crystalline structure is beat apart.

Troll-doll pink hairs start appearing, ghost-like along the edges, growing like a fast-motion spiderweb from a Water Willie.

With a few deft twists of the wrist, the vendor whisks a long cardboard toilet paper tube through the air, gathering and cultivating strands on the baton like an orchestral conductor, building to a tippling crescendo: he hands me a teetering pile of Barbie-colored fluff as upswept and sparkling as grandma’s beehive hairdo.

The cotton candy machine debuted to public awe at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Its inventor, William Morrison, was a dentist. Of course. He gave his creation the unappetizing name “fairy floss.”
Cotton candy is 100% sugar. Sugar is hydroscopic: get cotton candy wet and it shrinks immediately
back into crystals like the devil from holy water. I spit onto my cotton candy to watch it retreat in craters, fairy-floss pink collapsing into blood red drops, sticking like flies in a web.

I couldn’t bite into my cotton candy because the cloud of it was bigger than my head. I’d tear furry strips away like corpse skin and stuff them in my mouth.

Nothing there.

I saw it go in. Yet my mouth is empty.

Another wad of a bite. The cotton candy disappears before I can chew it even once, dissolving into wee drops of sugar spit. My teeth turn red. They sting. August flies abandon the blobs of ice cream spilled on the fairway dirt in favor of my sticky face. The giant cloud of pink sugar-air is soon gone, leaving nothing but a sticky cardboard tube, fuzzy-bald as an old man’s head.

There are a thousand ways to disappoint a small boy. This is one.

Perhaps it wasn’t quite nothing. I begin to feel a ringing in my ears and an acute mental clarity. Then, hyper-alertness. I’m extremely focused and energized. In a rush of renewed hyperactivity I head straight for the Zipper.

The Zipper is my favorite amusement park ride. It’s a combination of Ferris Wheel, bulldozer track, blender and shark cage. It is an assault on all your senses as you somersault from 200 feet in the air toward the littered ground, an end-over-end spin that rips coins from your pockets and then pelts you with them as if you were inside a popcorn popper.

Although I’ve eaten seemingly nothing, I barf. Pinwheels of pink gastrointestinal lacquer fling through the cage grate out across the midway. The clanging of loose coins quiets as they begin sticking to the gluey gum that lines the ceiling and floor of my chamber. I watch passively, heavy-lidded, noting that some of the coins and candy wrappers are not mine. I become dimly aware of the collage of matchbook covers and ticket stubs stuck to the periphery of my cage, a scrapbook to be hosed away at closing time.

The ride stops with a yank. The carny unlocks my cage door. My seatbelt raises automatically. My bare white legs make a velcro sound as I peel myself off the black vinyl seat. A dollar’s worth of pennies, nickels and dimes are stuck on me like buttons. Halfheartedly I stoop to pry a few coins from the floor, but the attendant barks at me to move along. I clear out, making room for a pale pink, pimple-faced boy at the front of the line, stoic as a soldier awaiting D-Day. He is tearing at a giant cloud of cotton candy on a stick.


Reprinted from Food & Spirits Magazine

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Heck on Wheels

My first tricycle was taller than everyone else's. It was a hand-me-down, apparently owned by someone who rode it at age fifteen. My feet barely reached the pedals.

But kids were less judgmental then. We rode what we were given. I was given that tricycle, and I didn't think about anything except how to grow into it.

Because its front wheel was so much bigger then on other trikes, mine was astonishingly fast. Due to its height, it cornered like a fifteen-high stack of hay bales, again and again planting me face first into the neighbor's scratchy zoysia grass.

My best friend Eric and I were curious and handy. Soon we discovered we could disassemble our trikes into a pile of curved pipes and greasy bearings. Goofing around one day we discovered we could successfully reassemble a trike upside down: put the front wheel where the handlebars should go, and vice-versa. Flip it over, put the seat between the back wheels and—geepers! We had invented the Big Wheel! Only we called it a dragster.

When the other Big Wheel made its debut, I felt we were being watched. The Big Wheel was smaller than my trike, and Barbie-colored, but it sure looked similar. I had grown a bit by the time it debuted, so tall that my knees banged into the handlebars and its back axle sagged— turning the fat tires pitifully inward—but nonetheless I had to give it a try.  It made a weird rattly drum sound as I pedaled, like the empty plastic it was.

One odd day my dad offered to take me to Western Auto Hardware to buy a bicycle. It was another random act, in keeping with his parenting style, entirely independent of any begging I had done here or there. But when you are one among six kids and Dad is giving, you take.

I picked out a honey-gold Schwinn Sting-Ray with long banana seat and high handlebars we called "ape-hangers." It featured a treadless "drag-racing" back tire they called a "slick."

It was a two-speed: crazy cool technology that shifted when you kicked the pedals lightly backwards, giving the pause-and-go feel of a real car. Kicking backwards also engaged that fat back tire brake, so I had to master the hairline difference between the upshift and the somersault.

It was new. It was mine. Not a hand-me-down, but my own bike. It was gold. It was beautiful. In two weeks, it was stolen.

My father railed and spit at how careless I had been to park it in front of our house, where I had parked every riding toy I had owned since birth. For years it was my parking lot. Today: how could I be so stupid?

After lots of stomping and spitting and ranting that I'd never own another thing as long as I lived if I didn't take care of it, he took me back to Western Auto. I picked out a gleaming purple Sting-Ray, a single-speed this time, in humble penance.

After a spate of thefts not limited to our front yard, Dad built a metal shed with a locking door. He bought us each a bike lock too, as double insurance. Soon after, my brother's three-speed English Racer was stolen, and we all twittered and whispered about who might have broken into our tin Fort Knox. The bike lock was melted through. Melted! Surely it was my older brother's creepy friends, we murmured, hands a-wringing. God, how I loved the drama.

Weeks passed. Our fair city's flock of Sherlocks turned up nothing. His bike was gone for good.

Then it appeared out of nowhere.

The Orange Krate.

The Orange Krate was a revolutionary bicycle of the 1970s: dual hand-brakes, front and rear shock absorbers, and five speeds controlled by a shift knob. Not a little flick-lever—a real 6-inch long shift handle with an engraved ball on the end, suitable for a Camaro. The front tire was half as big as the rear, clearly to take advantage of the aerodynamic forces one could achieve exploiting this technology. The front tire featured a drum brake, because no mortal bicycle brake would stop this hot witch. It even had a flared rear fender to keep the bike under control at supersonic speeds.

Having a drum brake and gearshift in the '70s is the equivalent of having x-ray vision and nuclear missiles on your bike today. Without them, you are flaccid and meaningless.

As a boy viewing this ad, I noticed the word "Champion" in the background. I noticed that the boy on the Orange Krate was ahead of the dragster.

The bike came with other color-coded names: Cotton Picker Apple Krate, Grey Ghost, Lemon Peeler, and Pea Picker. What kid wanted a bike the color of peas?

In wide-eyed admiration I touched the shift lever. Instantly I was pummeled with a screaming chorus of 15-year-old car-alarm voices: "Don't touch it! You'll strip the gears! You'll strip the gears! You'll strip the gears!" I never touched it again, but I began to wish someone would steal it.

"How could you be so stupid?"

Older people say that as if little boys were supposed to be born forty years old.

But I wasn't stupid. Not even then. I invented the Big Wheel.