In the summer following college graduation, my primary occupation was driving.
Not for Uber or Lyft; no taxis or any other respectable means of earning money. No, I just drove. In August that year I drove across the country to Arizona, and then on to San Diego, up to the Grand Canyon, south into Mexico and weekly trips to San Xavier Mission down Route 19.
And I ate my way around. I loved trying the local food everywhere, whether served at the fancy restaurants in cities or dusty dives in places barely registering as villages. In Nogales, Mexico, I ate weekly at La Caverna. It was the first time I ever had guacamole mixed in my salad, and sour cream, and I was hooked. In another Mexican village further south I used to knock on the door of a woman I met at La Caverna. She would make me paella for a few dollars. I’d eat on her porch next to her beagle, and she’d tell me everything I said wrong in Spanish. In Tucson I ate lunch in a park near the old mall on the southside of the city where old women sold fireplace-log sized burritos for fifty cents. Authenticity at its most mejor. For breakfast I went to Irv’s deli, transplanted from Manhattan with signed pictures on the wall from everyone from Alan Alda to Stephen Sondheim, all exclaiming, “Good luck in Tucson, Irv!! I’ll miss your bagels!” He had water flown in from New York and the bagels were as good as those in Brooklyn.
I drove to El Paso and had tacos. To New Orleans and had beignets. Back near home the following summer I had Carolina barbeque and Chesapeake Bay softshell crabs. I kept rolling, eventually to the Sterling Inn in Massachusetts where I worked when not at the health club, and where I ate bowls of New England Clam Chowder and schrod (a white fish—with the “h” it is usually haddock, and without the “h” it is usually cod), “Vineyard” style—coated with a Dijon/mayonnaise spread then breaded. Hence the need for the day job at the health club.
But along the way I spent some time at my dear friend Sean Cullen’s apartment in Brooklyn which he shared with a friend of his, Mike. I had an interview with Theatre Arts Magazine to be a staff writer—they had read a file of my work I had sent and asked to meet with me. I went to Brooklyn, parked in a friend’s driveway in Bay Ridge, and headed to Presidents Street and 4th Avenue—today a mecca of café glory—forty years ago a death wish.
The day of the interview I was flying high. I had worked hard back in Virginia and had saved money for adjusting to a move to “the city.” Sean had a PA job for some commercial and several auditions for parts, so I told him I’d see him that night for pizza at Vinny’s on 7th Avenue, and I boarded the subway at 9am for a 3pm appointment at the magazine. By 10 I was walking all over midtown, strolled into NBC and stood next to Walter Matthau on an elevator, walked to the park, and realized I still had several hours to kill when I decided to treat myself to lunch at Tavern on the Green. What a way to start my career as a writer in New York City, by eating in one of the landmarks of the Big Apple. This place was in Beaches, Ghostbusters, the Out-of-towners, Arthur, and more.
The maître d showed me to my small table near a window, just next to a table occupied by Marvin Hamlisch. I ordered a glass of wine, sipped some water, and nodded to one of my favorite composers of all time. “I love your work,” I said, quietly, then put my hand up to indicate that was all I was going to say. He thanked me earnestly and ordered a club sandwich.
My turn, and I perused the menu looking for something distinctly New York, particularly since I was starving. I knew I wouldn’t find black and white cookies on the menu, and nearly every item listed was out of my price range. I was about to order an appetizer only when I saw steak listed for $18.95. Wow, I could afford that despite it seeming pricey for a 1984 lunch, but I couldn’t order the club sandwich. Marvin just ordered it and after my nod and comment, to do so seemed too stalkish for me.
“I’ll have the steak,” I told the server, who took my menu and said, “Oh, very nice choice,” in the same manner he said it to Marv for the club. I so fit in here, I thought.
“I will bring you a tray of spices, sir,” he said.
“That’d be fine,” I replied, noting how unique it is for the chef not to put them on himself during the cooking stage,
“And crackers,” he added.
“Of course,” I said. “Steak and crackers.”
I sipped my wine, looked out at a couple standing in the park-side entrance, at the tall buildings across the park, and the brilliant blue sky. I was disappointed I mentioned pizza to Sean since the steak was probably going to fill me up, but I’d be walking a lot, so I knew it would be fine.
The server returned with a round tray of spices and a separate tray of various style crackers, and water. He also put down a small fork—slightly bigger than a shrimp fork, but not like a salad fork. “They’re preparing the Steak Tartare now sir,” he said, and left. Looking back I think he relished the fact I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but at the time he was just probably doing his job. He brought Marv his sandwich with chips and an iced tea, then smiled at me. Marvin smiled at me too.
I sat quietly looking at the spices and the crackers and thought of Ponderosa Steak House, where you stand in line with a tray and pick out your meal from overhead menus. I usually got a New York Strip, baked potato, corn, and fresh bread. They’d put a plastic marker on your tray indicating “MR” for medium-rare, and we’d find a table made from fat wood and sit on the bench, and I could smell the meat grilling like I was on some Texas ranch at suppertime. I don’t once in any trip to that place or Steak and Ale or Bonanza Steak House or Links on Long Island recall crackers and spices.
Then the waiter slipped a plate of raw meat in front of me. A round, Derby-hat shaped lump of ground beef–raw, like they just sliced open the cellophane and took this pile off of the green styrofoam and flipped it onto the China plate. A sprig of parsley fell on the top. I looked at it a long time, thinking about the small chunks of raw meat my mother would let me have when she made hamburgers for a picnic, and how with each small amount she would say, “Not too much, you can get very ill from raw meat.”
This has gotta be a better grade, I thought.
I took a small pinch of one of the darker spices and some grated cheese and sprinkled it gently on the meat dome. I sat a moment looking at it, then overturned the spice tray onto the meat, feeling better, but resisting the urge to knead the spices into the meat as if making a meatloaf. I also resisted the urge to ask them to heat it up, or, you know, cook it; I’d wait.
Instead, I picked a cracker, picked up my odd fork with two prongs, and gently slid some chuck onto a saltine. I enjoyed it. A lot. But you know after a few small crackers of raw meat, it gets a bit tiresome. I chewed a bit for a while as Marvin looked over and smiled. I swallowed. “A Chorus Line is by far my favorite,” I said, then, “have you ever had the Steak Tartare here; best I’ve ever had.”
“I haven’t,” he said through a laugh as he paid his bill. I laughed, which I think he appreciated. He stood to leave and picked up his plate which still had one quarter of his club sandwich on it, and placed it on my table. Then he looked at my plate and quietly added, “They never cook it long enough for my taste,” and left. Best damn club sandwich in Manhattan.
My stomach hurt in the elevator on the way to Theatre Arts Magazine, but I think it was just in my head, plus nerves. I met a wonderful editor whose name I have long ago forgotten who said she absolutely loved my writing but wanted to talk to me about what I knew about the technical side of the theatre.
It was a very short conversation. Nothing. I insisted I could learn but she insisted she had several other interviews that day and she’d call me. I knew she wouldn’t. I stopped on the way back to Brooklyn and had a hotdog and some chocolate Italian ice, and that night Sean and I had pizza from Vinny’s.
At dinner, Sean asked how everything went in the city, and I sat quietly swallowing a thin slice of pie, where I had to bend the edges to hold it together, and some oil dripped onto the plate, and I said, “You know what? Kiss the day goodbye and point me toward tomorrow. I did what I had to do.”