Thursday, September 22, 2011

At an Italian train station: four Southerners, one bee, and an unexpected sting

When they believe no one is watching, Southerners, like any other species, are apt to run away from home now and then. Case in point: On a recent trip to Italy, I met three other Southerners at a train station platform. The encounter began with a ham sandwich, an oddly shaped Coke can, and a determined bee and it ended with an unexpected sting.

But first, a little backstory.

On the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza
There's a lengthy hiking trail that connects all five Cinque Terre towns on Italy's Ligurian coast. It's an extremely challenging trek from the towns of Monterosso to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia; the rest is easier (or so I'm told). Between Monterosso and Corniglia, which is the part of the trail I hiked, you climb up and up and up along narrow, rocky, steep trails.

Along the way, you dodge the determined 'pole people'--the no-nonsense types who dash along the trail with their walking sticks as if fleeing a burning building. If you're walking on the outside of the trail and make a false move, one of two things is likely to happen: You tumble down many feet and break something or you are impaled on a cactus the size of a Cadillac.

The steps go up, up, up
Why would anyone hike this trail? The views (and the cardio workout). The scenery is in every sense of the word 'breathtaking,' because you're out of breath when you stop to look at the distant hillside villages, the beautiful and clear sea, the passing boats, the cloudless blue sky, the vineyards climbing up the hills, the churches, the charming old houses, and I could go on but you get the picture.

After over four hours of hiking the trail, I arrived in Corniglia, drenched in sweat on this hot late-summer day. The trail from Corniglia to the next Cinque Terre town was closed due to a landslide, making my ambition of hiking the entire trail impossible (thankfully). So I decided to catch a train from Corniglia back to Monterosso, where Nick (my spouse) and I were staying.

The next train didn't leave for nearly an hour. Insanely hungry, I grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich (even at a train station, the food in Italy is delicious) and a can of Coke. Unlike the Coke cans we get in the U.S., this one was long and slender; elegant, in fact. I found the platform from which my train would depart and situated myself in a shady spot on the platform. Immediately, a large bee appeared, swarming around my sandwich, my Coke, my entire body.

"Stand still, I'll get him!," said an African-American woman of about 70, who had been standing nearby with two companions, another African-American woman and a Caucasian lady (their race is relevant to the story, I promise). Before I had much chance to react, she swatted at the bee several times with a curled-up map, smacking me on the leg and rear in the process.

"Leave that poor man alone!" said one of her two traveling companions, who was probably in her 40s and was also an African-American woman. "You'd like to kill him tryin' to kill that bee!"

I borrowed the first woman's map and, with some effort, rid the world of this particular bee. (I know: Bad karma. But when you're starving and can't eat because of a bee, you do what's necessary.) When the commotion was over, I turned to the first woman, my fearless swatter. "Where are y'all from?," I asked, having noticed their Southern accents.

"Alabama," said the swatter, who identified herself as Margaret. All three of the women were from Alabama, in fact. Once I told them I'm originally from North Carolina, the conversation kicked into high gear. We chatted about this and that for the next 20 minutes or so.

Margaret was so enamored of my Coke can that, to thank her for defending me and my sandwich against the bee, I went back to the snack stand and bought her one. She was thrilled. "I'm keepin' this as a souvenir!" she said.

Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I was extremely pleased to see three people from the Deep South in their mid 40s and older of mixed races traveling abroad together. It felt like yet another encouraging sign that there has been true, lasting progress.

And then, at one point during the conversation, Margaret turned to me and asked, "Do you have a wife?"

Her friend, Sandy, immediately scolded her. "Don't be gettin' all up in this man's business!," she said.

Not wanting to tread into the choppy waters of same-sex marriage, I said simply, "I have a partner."

Margaret studied me closely for a few seconds. "Mmm hmm," she said, with an ever-so-slight but unmistakable tone of disapproval. "I know what that means."

At last the train arrived, and it was as crowded as any Manhattan subway car during rush hour. We squeezed onto the train together, but the conversation was mostly over. When the train arrived at their stop, I said goodbye and wished them a fantastic time in Italy.

"Same to you," the others said. It might have been the crush of people or the hot chaos of the Italian train, but I don't believe Margaret had anything more to say to me. They hastily departed, the train pulled away, and I went on to meet Nick, have a Campari and orange juice, and enjoy a delicious dunk in the clear, calm sea.

I'm grateful that as a culture, we've come so far in welcoming people different from ourselves into our lives. But no matter where you come from or where you travel, the journey isn't over.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why I love Tennessee Williams' stage directions -- and Elizabeth Taylor, too

In his many plays, Tennessee Williams often wrote stage directions that bordered on philosophical, maybe even existential. Whereas most playwrights would simply write a stage direction such as, "Brick slams down another Kentucky bourbon," Tennessee would often wax poetic.

Case in point are the following stage directions from Act Two of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which I recently reread for the 5,432th time):

"Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can; but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience."

I like to imagine some fledgling community theater director, scratching his or her head, wondering exactly how to depict those particular stage directions? But really, these are instructions not so much for directors but for anyone in general and aspiring playwrights in particular (the ranks of whom I have recently joined).

Speaking of Cat, I recently watched a 1976 TV version starring Laurence Olivier (hamming it up as Big Daddy), Robert Wagner (as Brick), and Natalie Wood (as Maggie the Cat). Wagner and Wood were much better than I expected, and the TV adaptation is at least truer to the original source than the famously bowdlerized 1958 movie. That said, Wood was no Elizabeth Taylor, who played Maggie in the movie. While Wood and Taylor were both gorgeous, the latter possessed more 'steeliness,' which is vital to the character. (Maggie the Cat is basically a female variation on the Marlon Brando character in A Streetcar Named Desire.) For instance, in the 1958 movie, a "no-neck monster" throws ice cream on Taylor. Rest assured that if, in real life, you had thrown ice cream on Elizabeth Taylor, you would not have lived to see sundown.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The best new restaurant in America is in Charleston

Bon Appetit recently announced "The Best New Restaurants in America in 2011," and its no. 1 choice is Husk, on Queen Street in Charleston.

Of course, such best-of lists are highly subjective and easily contradicted. Even so, I invite you to sit down, take a deep breath, and digest Bon Appetit's description of dining at Husk: "A meal at Husk begins with buttermilk dinner rolls sprinkled with benne seeds (a.k.a. sesame seeds). You know how people tell you not to fill up on bread? When you're at Husk, you can ignore them. After that it's on to wood-fired clams with Benton's sausage, crispy pig's-ear lettuce wraps, and country ham-flecked pimiento cheese on heirloom-wheat crackers. And do not leave without trying the smoky fried chicken skins served with hot sauce and honey."

Honey, you had me at "buttermilk rolls sprinkled with benne seeds." And the country ham-flecked pimiento cheese on heirloom-wheat crackers sounds no less addictive than tobacco itself. So on my next trip to Charleston, I'm going to have to squeeze in a trip to Husk, along with Jestine's Kitchen (and the Coca-Cola cake), 82 Queen (still love their she-crab soup and fried green tomatoes), and all the other restaurants I love in one of my favorite cities in the world.

While I'm on the subject of country ham, Nick and I had Sunday brunch at 2223 in San Francisco not long ago. We've been going there for years, mostly for dinner; it's one of our favorite SF restaurants. On the brunch menu was an egg dish that came with a home-made biscuit and what their chef had the impudence to call "country ham." 

No. 1: The biscuit had never been properly introduced to butter and was, as a result, as dry as a 40-year-old crouton. 

No. 2: As for the ham, well, if you don't long to gulp down a pitcher of water (or sweetened tea) almost immediately after eating it, it ain't country ham. I went the rest of the afternoon with barely a thought given to liquid refreshment. Perhaps 2223 should call their version "city ham"?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What to do when a monkey snatches off your wig

Tallulah Bankhead remains one of my Southern heroines. Alabama-born and bourbon-infused, she conquered the London stage in the 1920s, made a dozen bad movies and one great film (Hitchcock's Lifeboat), and in general did as she damn well pleased, which, toward the end of her life, included emerging from an oxygen tent whenever she felt like smoking.

In the early 1920s, she was cast in a costume drama in London, Conchita. It was her first starring role. On opening night, Tallulah, improbably playing a Cuban heroine in a black wig, entered dramatically carrying a monkey. The monkey, apparently not a Tallulah fan, promptly snatched off her wig (exposing Tallulah's blonde bob), ran down to the footlights, and waved the wig about. The audience tittered. Tallulah's response? Despite the fact that this was supposed to be a serious drama, she turned a cartwheel. The audience roared, and the legend of Tallulah kicked into high gear.

I see several valuable life lessons in this story.

1. Never appear on stage with a monkey unless you're prepared to upstage your simian co-star.

2. Never take yourself too seriously.

3. When the unexpected occurs, go with it; don't fight it.

4. When it looks like the joke's on you, turn the tables and do whatever you can to turn it into your joke.

For instance, an old friend of mine once tripped on a staircase in a fancy Atlanta restaurant and tumbled down six or seven steps. The restaurant went silent. He got up, dusted himself off, and said to the restaurant's patrons, "I hope you enjoyed my impersonation of a slinky." They did; he received a round of applause.

I've experienced my share of highly public gaffes as well.

One of worst faux pas occurred on the morning of my first day at a new job in Atlanta. I went to the office building's elegant cafeteria for breakfast. Back then I rarely ate before noon and didn't know what to order. A hefty, friendly African-American woman behind the counter guided me through the choices, with the patience of a mother teaching her child how to walk. Overwhelmed, I went with a bottle of Coke and a hardboiled egg. (I was in my mid 20s, what can I say?)

I didn't want to eat the egg cold, so I microwaved it for 30 seconds. Still cold, I gave it another 30 seconds, and then another, and by now you probably can guess where this is heading but I had no clue. Confounded that my egg stubbornly refused to warm, I decided to test it with a fork.

The explosion shocked the crowded cafeteria into stunned silence.

All eyes were upon me. There were bits of egg in my hair, on my face, on my clothes. I glanced around to survey the damage. I saw bits of egg floating in a woman's coffee cup. The face of then-President Reagan, in a front page newspaper photo, was covered in egg.

"Talk about having egg on your face," I said to the crowd, and laughed. I thought the whole scene was hilarious and still do, but the only other person who laughed was the woman who had served me the egg. As I left the cafeteria to do some grooming in the bathroom, she caught my eye and put her hands together in silent applause.

I'll close where I stared: with Tallulah. A friend of mine and a fellow Southerner living in San Francisco, David, whom we've nicknamed The Sorcerer, is another Tallulah admirer. He and I have coined a phrase to describe the actress's bravado, wit, deep Southern style and wacky lifestyle: Tallunacy. So the next time you find yourself in a potentially embarrassing situation, whether it's on stage or in the shopping mall or in a crowded Chick-fil-A, turn the situation to your favor with a little Tallunacy. Instead of slinking away red-faced, you might receive a round of applause.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Waffle House Index, or how to use a comfort-food chain to measure discomfort

You've got your Dow Jones Industrial stock index, your NASDAQ index, and now, you've got your Waffle House Index. 

Today's Wall Street Journal ran a front-page piece quoting FEMA administrator Craig Fugate about how to gauge the impact of a hurricane or other natural disaster on a community. Fugate calls it the 'Waffle House Index,' and it works like this, according to the Journal:

"Green means the (Waffle House) restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions."

I love it: This must be the first time a comfort-food chain has been used to measure a local community's discomfort.

The story goes on to report that the suburban Atlanta-based restaurant chain "spends almost nothing on advertising" but "has built a marketing strategy around the goodwill gained from being open when customers are most desperate."

For example, the morning after Hurricane Irene rolled through Weldon, N.C., "the local Waffle House, still without electricity, was cooking up scrambled eggs and sausage biscuits." Said a local patron: "I hadn't had a hot meal in two days, and I knew they'd be open."

True confession time: I've never been a big Waffle House fan. Where I grew up, in Greensboro, N.C., we had Jan's House, which my father loved and I believe is now closed; Your House, which is still open 24-7; and the Toddle House, another all-night waffle house style restaurant that is apparently history. I loved the name, "Toddle House." It conjured images of happily overserved patrons 'toddling' out, woozy from too many waffles.

But my indifference to the Waffle House has now changed. How can you not love a business that works overtime to serve its customers in their time of need and doesn't gauge them in the process? (I checked he prices on the limited menus they offered customers after Irene; $1.40 for a sausage-and-egg biscuit hardly qualifies as price gauging.) 

Did I mention that the Waffle House is a Southern chain? (There's that Southern hospitality thing again.) And for the record, as soon I read about FEMA's Craig Fugate "Waffle House Index," I knew he was from the South. I Googled him; he's from Gainesville, Florida. There's something in the Southern soul that lends itself to making observations like Fugate's that are both down-home simple and witty at the same time.