March 2011

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The Ginger Man

In the morning I walked down to the foot of the Ace Hotel to Stumptown for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The barista behind the counter wore a purple wool vest and a newsboy cap. He pulled me a deep, thick espresso and I took it and the papers and sat in front of the window looking out. The fashionistas were rolling their wares to the garment district. Students went by going up to the law school, or down to NYU. Broadway was busy with taxis and people going to work. From the café I walked up 5th Avenue. I passed the man with the jumping frogs and the man with the boxer toys. I stepped aside to avoid walking into the thread with which his girl assistant manipulated the boxers. She was standing looking away, the thread in her folded hands. The man was urging tourists to buy. Three more tourists had stopped and were watching. I walked on behind a man who was pushing a luggage cart with knock-off designer purses on it. All along people were going to work. It felt pleasant to be going to work.

Upstairs in my room I read the morning papers and then sat on the couch tweeting. I knocked off about 11 and decided to go to lunch. When I got off the elevator in my lobby, Bobby Gold was standing there. “Well, hello, Dave,” he said. “I was just coming up to see you.”

“I’m just on my way to lunch.”

“Fine. I’ll join you. Where shall we go?”


“How about The Ginger Man? They’ve got good beer there.”

In the restaurant we ordered a plate of German sausages and beer. A thin, good-looking woman wearing a white apron brought the beer, tall, beaded on the outside of the steins, and cold. There were three or four large sausages on the plate as well as sauerkraut, potato salad, and black bread.

“How’s the songwriting going?” I asked.

“Rotten. I can’t get this album going.”

“That happens to everybody.”

“Oh, I’m sure of that. It gets me worried, though.”

“Thought any more about Leonard Cohen?”

“I’m serious about that.”

“Well, why don’t you just start off that way then?”

“Francis. It isn’t the sort of thing she likes. She likes Lady Gaga.”

“Tell her to go to hell.”

“I can’t. I’ve got certain obligations to her.”

He spooned up some grainy mustard and spread it on the black bread and took a knockwurst.

“Say, what about this Cuba idea?”

“What about it?”

“I’ve been thinking I might go.”

“You’re not invited.”

“Why not?”

“Too late. We’ve already made all the arrangements. You missed the boat.”

“Why don’t you just tell someone else you made a mistake and forgot I had agreed to go on the trip?”

“Why don’t you just go to hell.”

Bobby stood up from the table his face white, and stood there white and angry behind the big plate of German sausages.

“Sit down,” I said. “Don’t be a fool.”

“You’ve got to take that back.”

“Oh, cut out the British prep-school stuff.”

“Take it back.”

“Sure. Anything. I’ve never heard of Cuba. How’s that?”

“No. Not that. About me going to hell.”

“Oh, don’t go to hell,” I said. “Stick around. We’re just starting lunch.”

Bobby smiled again and sat down. He seemed glad to sit down. What the hell would he have done if he hadn’t sat down? “You say such damned insulting things, Dave.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve got a nasty tongue. I never mean it when I say nasty things.”

“I know it,” Bobby said. “You’re really one of the best friends I have, Dave.”

God help you, I thought. “Forget what I said,” I said out loud. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. It’s fine. I was just sore for a minute.”

“Good. Let’s get something else to eat. Maybe the cheese plate.”

“Fine. And two more beers.”

After we finished the lunch we walked down to Franchia and had coffee. I could feel Bobby wanted to bring up Cuba again, but I held him off. We talked about one thing and another, and I left him to go back to my apartment and tweet about the afternoon.

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Bobby Gold had been listening to Leonard Cohen. That sounds like an innocent occupation, but Gold listened and listened again to “Suzanne.” “Suzanne” is a very sinister song if listened to too late in life. Its erudite songwriting is both lyrical and fatalistic. Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river. You can hear the boats go by. You can spend the night beside her. That all sounds great. Until you discover that she’s half crazy. And she wears rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters. And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers. Which is not so great. Bobby Gold, I believe, took every word of “Suzanne” as literally as though it had been a Bloomberg Report. You understand me, he had some reservations, but on the whole, the song to him was sound. It was all that was needed to set him off. I did not realize the extent to which it had set him off until one day when we had a conversation.

“Hello, Bobby,” I said. “Did you come by to cheer me up?”

“Would you go with me to Dean & Deluca to buy some tea and oranges that come all the way from China?” he asked.


“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really like tea. Besides, you can get all the tea you want at the corner QuikiMart.”

“It’s not real tea.”

“It looks awfully real to me.”

He looked up into the sky and said, “The sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour.”

“What do you think of Britney Spears new album?” I said, hoping to change the subject.

“It stinks. Now listen, Dave. If I handled both of our expenses, would you go to Dean & Deluca with me?”

“Why me?”

“You know your cheeses. And it would be more fun if you sang backup vocals to Sisters of Mercy with me while we were at the deli counter.”

“No,” I said. “I like Ry Cooder and I go to Cuba in the spring.”

“All my life I’ve wanted to write a song about oranges and tea that comes from China.” He sat down. “Now I’ll be too old before I can ever do it.”

“Don’t be a fool,” I said. “You can go write any song you like. And your dad will make a CD of it. He has plenty of money.”

“I know. But I can’t get started.”

“Cheer up,” I said. “All songs sound like Edith Piaf.”

But I felt sorry for him. He had it badly.

“I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really writing anything as great as Hallelujah even if Rufus Wainwright sang it better.”

“Nobody ever sings as great as Rufus Wainwright except Prince.”

“I’m not interested in Prince. He’s neither male nor female. I want to sing like Leonard.”

“What about Paul Simon?”

“No; he doesn’t interest me.”

“That’s because you’ve never heard an album by Simon and Garfunkel. Go on and listen to a Bridge over Troubled Waters. Particularly when you’re weary, feeling small.”

“I want to go down to her place near the river and hear the boats go by.”

He had a hard, Brittish, stubborn streak.

“Listen, Cam, go to Cuba with us. There are snookers there and you can get tight.”

“But I don’t want a snooker. I’ve got Francis.”

“Bring her along too.”

“I don’t think she’d go. Why would she be interested in snookers?”

So there you were. I was sorry for him, but it was not a thing you could do something about, because right away you ran up against the two stubbornnesses: Leonard Cohen could fix it and he did not like snookers. He got the first idea from an album, and I suppose the second came from an album too.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve got to go upstairs and do some writing.”

“Do you really have to go?”

“Yes, I’ve got to Twitter and post some photos on my Facebook page.”

“Do you mind if I come up and sit around watching you tweet?”

“No, come on up.”

He sat on the couch in the outer room and read a review of “Famme Fatale” while I put on some music and tweeted about him liking Leonard Cohen and then Photoshopped several photos of me and uploaded them to my Facebook page. When I was finished I went out into the other room and there was Cam asleep in the big chair. He was asleep with his head on his arms. I did not like to wake him up, but I put my hand on his shoulder. He shook his head. “The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…”

“Cam,” I said, and shook him by his shoulders. He looked up. He smiled and blinked.

“Did I sing out loud just then?”

“Something. But it wasn’t clear.”

“God, what a rotten dream!”

“Did my playing Sarah McLachlan put you to sleep?”

“Guess so. I didn’t sleep all last night.”

“What was the matter?”

“Famous Blue Raincoat,” he said.

I could picture it. I have a rotten habit of picturing my friends singing maudlin songs in the shower. We went out to the Hotel Chantelle to have a drink and watch the evening crowd on Delancey Street.

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The Princeton ballet dancer

Bobby Gold was once a ballet dancer at Princeton. Do not think I am very much impressed by that, but it meant a lot to Bobby. He cared nothing for ballet dancing, in fact he disliked it, but he tried out for it as part of a freshman hazing prank for a fraternity that he then quit though he continued with the ballet company. He learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of brutishness and derision he had felt on being mocked as a rugby-playing Brit at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could perform a grand jeté, his legs at a 90 degree angle as he jumped the height of a small pony, knocking down any one who was snooty to him with a sharp blow to the chest, although, being rather gentle and a nice boy, he never destroyed someone’s liver except by accident. He was Christopher Fleming’s star pupil. Christopher Fleming taught all his students to plié, even if it destroyed their meniscus. Christopher promptly cast Cameron as the chicken in “Pelea de Gallo” and he was in mid-performance when he heard the audible click signifying he’d torn cartilage in his right knee but continued dancing. This increased Cameron’s distaste for ballet, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort that he could damage himself more greatly in ballet than in rugby and the ensuing limp gave him a certain je ne sais quoi with Princeton coeds. In his last year at Princeton he took to staying in his room and playing his guitar too much but that only added to his mystique.

I mistrust all Brits and attractive-looking people, especially when they know how to tell a good story, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Bobby Gold had never been a ballet dancer and that a biking accident had caused the torn cartilage, or that maybe he had stumbled into a fire hydrant while drunk, but I finally had somebody verify the story with Christopher Fleming. Christopher Fleming not only remembered Bobby Gold. He had often wondered what had become of his poco pollo.

At the English school where Bobby Gold prepped for Princeton, and played a very good back on the rugby team, no one had made him conscious of his nationality as all the other lads were British as well. It was only when he went to Princeton that people began saying, “Oh, you’re from England then.” He was a nice boy, a friendly boy, and not at all shy but it made him bitter. He took it out in ballet, and he came out of Princeton with a faux-American accent and the damaged meniscus which he refused to have surgically repaired since it seemed to help him attract saucy chicks like a labrador puppy on the end of a leash in Central Park.

He had a certain reputation with the women at Princeton, not totally undeserved, so when he fell in love with an art history major two years his junior not even he was surprised that she failed to take him seriously. At a party, influenced by more than a little a gin, they made out together for the first time while their dates stumbled about in the darkness looking for them. After that they unceremoniously dumped their not-so-privileged amours and took up with each other fulltime.

Graduation soon followed for Bobby Gold and he went to New York City. In Manhattan he fell in with gay literary people and, as he refused more than a modest stipend from his father, took up bartending. His first night working he was derided for not being fast enough or quick enough and though he pointed out that his torn meniscus made it difficult to carry large trays full of drinks through the bumping-and-grinding crowd, he was sacked. He was sorry to give up his new profession.

By that time, though, he had other things to worry about. He had decided to be a songwriter-composer and needed to learn how to sing. He took up with a record producer who told him he might consider vocal lessons if he hoped to actually make a record. The vocal instructor was very forceful and taught him proper breathing and vibrato that strained his cords the way Christopher Fleming had strained his meniscus. Nevertheless his quirky style of singing attracted the attention of a certain number of young ladies, including the red-haired beauty from Princeton, the same one he’d made out with at a party while his date waited for him, coat in arm, at the frat house.

The lady, whose name was Francis, found towards the end of her second year at Princeton that her looks attracted boys, all of whom looked alike, like frozen peas attract coral fish, yet her feelings for the pale and rather haunted-looking Brit, Bobby Gold, only seemed to increase and she began to take a proprietary interest in his budding musical career, going so far as to be an occasional muse. In the summer after his graduation he and Francis became an item and after that I do not believe that Bobby Gold looked at another woman. He was fairly happy, except that, like many ex-pats living in New York, he would rather have been in London, and he had discovered music. He wrote several songs and put together a CD, though it was not really a very good CD as he had not yet learned the breathing and vibrato techniques from the voice teacher, but it was an okay CD. He read many books, played guitar, drank, and spent his weekends in the city with Francis.

I first met Francis at a party in London held for his mother’s birthday. It was a theme party and everyone was dressed as a sheik or a belly-dancer or a merchant from the souk. Francis was in a simple but elegant white dress, like a fashion designer’s version of a toga, and was introduced to me by Bobby who then disappeared to go for drinks. I told her I was a friend of the Gold family and vetted all love interests. She smiled and said, “Oh, really.” I asked her about her family and about art history and we discussed Damien Hirst’s sharks and tango dancing and the difference between Arab belly dancers and Indian belly dancers. I suggested she come to Cuba with me. My wife, at that point, dug an elbow into my rib.

“Oh, well,” I said, “perhaps Bobby would like to come as well.”

My wife hit me harder. Bobby came back with the drinks.

“I’ve just invited Francis to join your father and me in Cuba.” After an awkward pause, I added, “And you’re invited along as well.”

“That’s awfully good of you,” said Bobby, “but I’m rather busy at the moment trying to finish my CD.”

“Oh well. Perhaps Francis would still like to go.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” Bobby said.

“Well, let her think on it,” I said. I bowed to her. “See you on the dance floor?” I watched the two of them walk back to their table, he carrying both their glasses of Montrachet. I rather liked him and evidently she led him quite a life.

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Stealing our cigars

Usually I’m the one who gets stopped by the customs officer or pulled into a small, hot little room to be questioned by an immigration official who invariably says Momento and then leaves me alone in the room while he goes to get a supervisor or two. But yesterday it was Greg’s turn, the customs official pawing through his luggage with her blue latex gloves, digging like a dog after a bone until she’d unearthed what she’d been searching for: two boxes of Cuban cigars.

I had passed safely through customs and was standing on the other side, waiting for him, but when I saw him arguing with the official and pointing towards me, I hurried over. Here, as best we could understand it, was the problem: Greg was carrying a wooden box of Cohibas and another box of Montecristo NO. 4s, Che’s favorite.

Usted sólo puede traer 25 cigarros en el país,” said the customs official brusquely, holding the two boxes of cigars in her hands as if they were plastic explosives.

“But one box is mine,” I told her. “Here, I’ll put it in my bag.”

“No,” she scolded me, wagging a finger in my face. It was too late for that. The cigars were in Greg’s luggage; the cigars were his. This was, she said, “irrefutable.”

I asked her to get an English-speaking supervisor. He was even less patient about the matter. The cigars could not be mine because the cigars were not in my bag. I had passed through customs. I should not be here. I needed to leave, now.

Greg tried a more diplomatic approach. What can we do here? he asked the customs official who looked both bored and angry.

It is simple, he said. Either you pay the custom’s tax, which is 475% of the value of the cigars (approximately $275) or leave the cigars with the officer.

Esto no está bien,” I said. This is not right.

The officer shrugged and looked off, tired of the argument.

It was agreed that the officer would write a letter acknowledging that he had confiscated the box of Montecristo cigars. This would take a little time. The officer went off with the cigars. Greg and I waited. Ten, fifteen minutes later, the officer presented the letter.

“Did you enjoy Cuba?” he asked when he came back.

“It was lovely,” I told him, still angry. “The people there are very gracious.”

The officer nodded and smiled. “Some day I must go there,” he said.

“Yes, and when you do, perhaps you can buy your own cigars,” I said.

And so we left Cuba behind us. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

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The cheese mule

The next morning, as we are checking out of the Hôtel Lutétia, a messenger arrives from Madame Cantin’s fromagerie. He has a very large bundle for me. Two vacuum-packed parcels wrapped in tissue paper. About 10 kilos of unpasteurized cheeses, including all four rounds of the Epoisses Madame Cantin had in her shop.

I also have Camembert de Normandie, Langres, Vacherin Mont d’Or, and a dozen different fresh chèvres, some covered in ash, others rippling with a pale blue mold, all completely and totally illegal to bring back to the States.

My wife looks at me with alarm. “What’s that smell?” she says as I hand her the packages and ask her to carry them for me.

“It’s nothing,” I tell her. “Just a little cheese.”

“Is it okay to bring back?”

I do my little French snort. “Of course,” I lie. “It’s nothing. Rien, rien, rien.” And then, as the taxi pulls away from the hotel, the precious bundles of cheese sitting prettily on her lap, I give her a kiss on the cheek. “Trust me, darling.”


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