As my 40th birthday approached, I figured I’d ease through the day. No big deal, just another October workday in New Jersey. Then at 8 AM that morning, my grandfather, Harry Gass the Cantor, called me up on the phone.
“Happy birthday! You’re FORTY!!!” he proclaimed with great gusto. And he started singing.
That happened….so many years ago. Harry, like so many other fine people we all could name, has passed on, while so many young children, including two of my own, have been born. My wife and I moved to Massachusetts and we bought and moved into a series of houses, and I published my novel. Barack Obama was elected president, twice, followed by….oh geez, it feels too painful to write.
Life is pain, according to The Princess Bride. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
Of course I’ve had plenty of wonderful events in my life, and I want to focus on a few of them. Some of them involve food.
Last August, at the Burning Man festival, I am in the tent with the 5-year-old, trying to get him to sleep. My wife pops in with an announcement. She’s always announcing something or other, usually opportunities to go here or do that. This time is no different, except the opportunity is too astounding to totally comprehend.
“Someone is coming to Kidsville to cook us a steak dinner. You want some steak?”
Dear God almighty.
The story is that a woman with some connection to Kidsville (the name of our low-budget, no dues, kids-friendly camp) is a professional chef, employed by some fancy-shmancy art camp to cook for them. She has lots of leftover Argentine steaks and doesn’t want to see them wasted. So….
Heavens, this is a treat. The most amazing cuts of beef I’ve ever tasted, cooked over an open grill on an evening in the desert, with a dozen or so of us hearty and lucky souls to share the steak and potatoes and the wine and the company, all served, at least in my case, on the cheap plastic beverage cup that I had handy, and eaten with a plastic fork.
Turns out the chef is from Minnesota, my home state. Her family ran a clothing store at 50th and France in Edina, near where my father lives, and she also lived in New Prague. “Schumacher’s Inn,” I announce, which impresses her greatly. Only a fellow Minnesotan of a certain age would ever name drop Schumacher’s.
Her husband is an artist in the art camp, and he shows us a photo of his installation. It’s a huge statue of a topless woman with a detached head in a diving helmet. Very impressive. I’m sure it cost tens of thousands of dollars to build and install.
I discuss my own art project, which is Peggy’s Wash & Fold, a parody of a laundromat. It cost me about $600, out of pocket, plus the upgrade of the vehicle rental from an SUV to a pick-up truck.
After I say good-night and went back to the sleeping five-year old, I never see the chef or her husband again. Dang I can’t even remember their names, although it would be easy enough to look up. The evening has become a mirage of pure pleasure and civilization in the midst of a trip of dust storms, porta-potties, broken string lights, banana chips and applesauce.
The five-year-old is now in Kindergarten, and the experience is going very well. He enjoys riding the big yellow bus that collects him in the morning and deposits him in the afternoon. He recites for us the Pledge of Allegiance and the names of some classmates and games played at recess. At night we are reading from his favorite books, which have included titles from the Thomas the Tank Engine series, Winnie the Pooh, and Dr. Seuss, but the current favorite is that old classic “Tie Your Shoes With the Paw Patrol.” And it comes complete with red and blue shoelaces and holes in the cover for lacing them.
For the unaware, the Paw Patrol is a cartoon series based on the winning premise that the dogs of various organizations (police, fire, ambulance, construction, science publishers. OK I made up that last one) have banded together to assist citizens in need. Their motto: “Whenever you’re in trouble, just yelp for help.”
With the five-year old, we managed Blippi, we managed Sammy Slime and his headless friend Sue, we managed pre-teen Ryan and his incredibly obnoxious and wealthy parents. (“Are you ready to play? We’re ALWAYS ready to play!”) But the Paw Patrol broke us, we just couldn’t deal.
The main problem is that the Paw Patrol show DOES NOT END! There are no episodes per se, instead it’s a dovetailing series of interlocking vignettes of the adorable puppy dogs rescuing a never-ending parade of hapless humans and their stranded pussy cats and sunken boats and missing hairpieces. SERIOUSLY, those episodes go on and on and on. After the completion of one successful rescue, the scene would cut to the beginning or middle of another rescue. And the five-year-old would keep watching and keep watching and keep watching.
We finally confiscated the computer and turned off the television. So now his Paw Patrol experience is this extremely stupid “rescue” story about a kid learning to tie his shoes, which I’m reading almost every night. Which is fine. The book ends, you close it, you go to bed.
Early in my publishing career, I learned a few things about myself. One thing I learned is not that I have a price—I already knew that—but how low that price really is. I could easily be pacified by free food, of which there was quite a bit. Special dinners and lunches at fine restaurants, to commemorate various occasions—they were lovely. But I also appreciated the catered lunches of sandwiches and potato chips. Someone else was paying for them.
And of course, the paid travel.
From my first few months at my first publishing job, and with increasing frequency for almost ten years thereafter, the companies I worked for were eager to pay my way to various locations across the country, including airfare, hotel, cabs or rental cars, and whatever food I wanted. In return, I was expected to….well, in some cases it was merely attending a conference or a focus group. Later I was doing sales presentations and visiting customers, and often wining and dining those customers at fancy restaurants.
Helluva life is you can deal with the banality of it. And the banality never bothered me all that much.
By 2002 I was flying so much that I had earned Platinum Elite status (bow in my presence) on Northwest Airlines, my preferred carrier in part because of the opportunity for easy stopovers to see my family in Minnesota. With no ado at all, Northwest always bumped my coach tickets, always purchased at the economy rate, up to first class. I’d enter the aircraft at my leisure and claim my wide seat in row 1 or 2 or 3, and the flight attendant (or “stewardess”, as I would call her in my head only) would ask me “Can I get you something to drink?” My general response was “You know, I think you canl” And I’d request and receive a Bailey’s on the rocks, which I would contentedly sip before take off.
The only way to fly.
Those days are long gone, not just for me but for pretty much everyone at my level in the world of educational publishing. I am working out of my house, where the food is available around the clock but not exactly complementary. Because of the pandemic, no one has been paying me to travel so much as across the street, but even before 2020 the business trips had dwindled down to maybe once a year, with no fine dining included.
My airplane travel is now on my own nickel, and I’m back in steerage with everyone else.
But I don’t really miss first class. I mean, it was nice, it was fun, and it was by far a great way to fly, but no, I don’t really miss it.
What, or who, do I miss?
I miss Harry Gass, my grandfather, who helped me begin this essay. I miss his wife, my grandmother Minnie, and I miss my paternal grandparents, Reuben and Isabel. I miss plenty of other people who have departed, and a couple (yes, at least two!) who still are trodding the boards but we are no longer in contact. I am very, very grateful for the people in my life, beginning with my wife and our two sons, and my parents and younger brother and other family and good friends….but if you ask me what I miss…or more precisely, if I ask myself, at this moment, tonight, as my birthday is coming to a conclusion for another year…..it’s these people who are absent, and mostly without so much as a phony excuse note, like Juan Epstein tried to pass to Mr. Kotter. That was a fun show, wasn’t it? Launched John Travolta’s career, you know.
Be well, and I’ll try to do the same.