Places We Ate with Z (Pt.1)
Well…here goes. Below, please find part one of a new novella, the lead story in my ALL HAPPY PEOPLE project. There are all kinds of things I could share with you about the writing of this. But I think I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe in a future Q&A post, if you have any Q’s.
I’ll post the concluding part next week.
Any resemblance to actual people or places, living or gone, is…resemblance, of course. But none of these people are any one person, and the places are actual places folded into memories or dreams of places.
Thanks to the fabulous Jonas Yip, yet again, for the cover image.
And thanks to you for letting me show you around…
Quick clarification note: Much of the content on my Substack is free, including the substantial preview you can read below. To read all of this post, though, you will need to pony up $5 to subscribe. I am charging only for the new fiction I post here. Thank you very much.
Now then…off we pop…
PLACES WE ATE WITH Z (Pt.1)
1. The Ideal
Did we really eat that? Oh, we did. We so did.
It came in the skillet in which they fried it. We never understood the underlying concept, there. Maximize efficiency by eliminating plate-transference? Maximize space by eliminating plates? The Ideal sure as hell needed the space. Even then, we used to wonder how they could possibly pack enough clientele into that 400 square-foot diner to afford the rent on 71st and 1st. This was back when there still were such things as 400 square-foot German diners within forty blocks of 71st and anywhere.
The skillet always seemed like a recipe for burnt patrons and lawsuits. But none of us remember being careful as we slathered on stoneground mustard and swooped down on our Farmer’s. And the lawsuit that did eventually doom the Ideal involved a decades-long real estate dispute with the Viennese bakery next door, not injured customers. That bakery was famous citywide for its Semmeln. The sugar-dusted strudel and sachertorte and pink punschkrapfen on the windmill carousel in its window seemed to twinkle like houses in a snowy fairy world. Not a single one of us ever set foot in that place, though, out of loyalty, even after the Ideal was gone. The bakery’s gone, too, now.
As for the Farmer’s:
We still call it that when we talk about it, which isn’t so often even on the rare occasions when we see each other now. Back then, we did it to taunt Z, and even more, to delight him. Every time we attached the apostrophe ‘s’, he’d slump into his flea market bomber jacket. His head would snap back and forth on his spindle-neck like a weathervane in a whipping wind. He’d gesture at the SPECIALS chalkboard posted so high on the wall over the counter that we couldn’t imagine how the staff got up there to erase or change it. Good thing they never did. Then he’d hold up his skillet and wave his long, stick-insect fingers, pointing out the bits of potato bubbling through inch-thick egg skin like ground-up knuckles, the sauerkraut and red cabbage threaded everywhere like arteries and veins, the bulbs of weisswurst like organs or eyes.
“Farmer,” Z would say. “Full stop.” If you didn’t know him, you might have mistaken his grin for a smirk. Lots of people did, then and later. But Z never smirked. He was always too excited, too proud of the latest little taste of world he’d rooted out and brought back to share with people he loved. He’d slide a fork between skillet and food, lift a knobby yellow egg-wedge, and glare around at each of us. “See? Farmer.”
As if that proved anything. As if we were eating a farmer. German farmer.
You’d have eaten him, too. Mustard, stray sausage casings, orange rind garnish, and all.
We were already coming from all over the city, though we were all still in the city at that point. Kev and Kat had their studio—they called it their none-bedroom— way over at the western edge of Hell’s Kitchen. They had roaches they named and talked about like pets. “They’re our friendliest neighbors,” they’d say. Then they’d laugh, or Kat would, that sonic boom she had (and has) that clears whatever space she’s in of anything that isn’t laughter, so Kev must have been laughing, too. She so rarely did that, even then. Raunchy Bronxy street-kid Kat and gentle art-school Brooklyn Kev with the onyx skin and bones like bridge pilings. Kev and Kat. They were both working for the new mayor, documenting living conditions in the slums he’d vowed to upgrade or raze. “She snaps pictures of the piss pools in the halls,” Kat would say. “I measure them.”
Were Kat and Z still a couple at that point? They were, we think, and sometime in there Kat left the none-bedroom and moved to Z’s first post-CCNY apartment, that windowless basement on 111th and Lenox. Pretty quickly after that, though, they discovered what Kat deemed their “incompatible likes.” It’s one of the few subjects neither she nor Z has ever elaborated on, and we’ve never asked them to. Sometimes, Kat claims they lived together for exactly one night. When one of us suggests it was more like a year, Kat unleashes that laugh and says, “Well. It was a hell of a night.”
We weren’t calling ourselves the Parliament, yet. We weren’t even aware of being a group. We were just continuing the meet-ups we’d started in college. Obviously, there were fewer of us than now, though that’s not how we remember it. Rae was already there, for sure; she was a little younger than us, a CCNY friend of one of Kev’s cousins. She’d just arrived in New York from Detroit or Milwaukee or somewhere. But she already seemed older, which just means she was already Rae. Less wriggly in her skin than any of us except Z. More intent on each moment passing. We can all picture her at the edge of our circle, talking low but laughing, face pale against her blacker-than-black hair, flashing those silver-blue eyes we’ve never seen on any other human, let alone an Asian human. Luminous in retrospect; we didn’t so much notice at the time. Also, just occasionally, especially when breaking into impromptu recitations of Richard Pryor routines, she could be loud.
So strange to think of Rae loud, now.
At school, she’d launched a stunningly successful northern Harlem literacy campaign that swept campus and got city grants, which is probably how she met one or the other of us and got sucked into Z’s churning whirlpool of perpetually hungry young people out to change it all, remake the city.
Such plans we had. We have them still, in spite of living long enough to know better. She was definitely among us before the Ideal died; she says so, too. As a matter of fact, though we all talk about the legendary Flying Farmer Fight as Kat’s doing—she’s certainly the one who beaned our coffee server and swept the wait-staff into the melee and got us all banned for a month—Rae started it. We always forget and then remember that.
The Warbler was not part of our Ideal crew. Actually, she must have come once or twice, but only at the very end. We always try to edit her out, even Rae. That isn’t fair to Z, let alone the Warbler, so let’s just say she showed up a couple times. As a matter of fact, she had to have come at least twice, because the second time, she did the unthinkable: she stopped our waitress and asked for a menu. Then, while we all gaped, she canceled the Farmer Z had ordered for her and got herself almond waffles in raspberry sauce.
It’s not true that that was the day of the Flying Farmer Fight, or that the first flying Farmer got winged at her. We liked her, then, or at least were awed by her. She was so beautiful, already headlining at the Circle in the Square down in the Village and getting raves in the Voice. Z was sure as hell awed by her, and this was years before their years together.
That little jittery guy was there, too, toward the end. We liked him fine, but we were never sure he liked us or how he fit. He was riding a full-scholarship to Columbia Law, and he could cut you to pieces in an argument, though none of us remember him actually doing that, certainly not to us. He and Z were distant relatives; they’d met at some Passover Seder at the house of an aunt six times removed from both of them. They’d swapped New York Mets lore all night. Seth was his name. If you’d stuck Jane Jacobs glasses on him and dressed him in flaking brown bomber jackets with the stuffing popping out, he’d even have looked like Z. And God, that’s right, he’s how Ligia came to us.
Were those two married, then? Not for long, that’s for sure; Seth left the city before we left the Ideal, though Z of course stayed in touch with him. Once subsumed by or elected into Z’s Parliament, you don’t leave even if you leave. Except for the Warbler, and she was only expelled by us, not Z, and he was right and we were wrong.
Shannon, too. She’s the other one who left. But that was different. None of us have ever uttered this aloud, but sometimes it seems like Shannon was never really of us. She was less our fellow or our friend than our queen.
Like Rae, Ligia, who couldn’t have been more than 22, was unmistakably herself from the moment Seth brought her to us: a howling Romanian wind, a force of nature to marvel at and cheer on and tease—carefully—but never impede. She was also of us from the second she sat down. Much more than Seth. Even now, we all marvel and shudder at the idea of that marriage. We still sometimes try to imagine that sweet, jittery guy, smart and tart though he was, going home with Ligia to…what? What had those two done with evenings? Watched tv? Walked a dog? Doing domesticity with those two, and especially with her, must have felt like camping on the rim of a volcano.
She scared us, Ligia. She fascinated and thrilled us, Z most of all. “You don’t have to eat the whole thing, Hon,” we remember Rae telling her, touching her tiny wrist the very first time a skillet full of Farmer got laid before her. We remember the look Ligia gave in response, blowing her own black hair out of her eyes with a single, slow exhalation. We hadn’t known there could be blacker hair than Rae’s. In our memory, Ligia ate her entire first Farmer with her hands. Probably, we’re making that up. Definitely, though, that was one of the mornings we remember basking in Z’s delight. His amazement. We all amazed Z. That was one of the keys to his hold over us, maybe the most important one: he delighted in us.
Was Shannon ever at the Ideal? We think so. Right at end, at least once.
But the thing is…how can all of that be? Because what we really remember is all of us always there together. Where else did we have to be, back then? By the time the Ideal closed, we really were the Parliament of Z, and the Ideal was our capital. But it’s impossible. We wouldn’t even have fit. That place was almost entirely counter, the seating a row of tightly packed red stools. There were one or two cushionless wooden booths jammed against the long wall that made getting to the unisex bathroom in the back a sort of walking Twister game. But those booths couldn’t have seated more than four. The biggest actual table—the one up the steps above the bathroom, so tightly wedged onto that balcony that the balcony had to have been constructed around it—seated maybe five, six if Kat or Ligia sat on the table or in someone’s lap. Kat actually did that sometimes, so let’s say six. And though Z would always tell us to meet at “his table,” meaning that one, we didn’t get it half the time. Certainly, no one saved it for him or us.
That’s another funny thing about Z. The haunts he found and claimed as his own were only his to him. And to us, sure, but mostly him. No matter how regularly he ate in those places, no matter how much he talked about them or how fiercely he loved them, the people who owned and worked there never seemed to know him. All those years in all those Ideals, and we never once heard a waitress ask Z, “The usual?”
It makes us sad when we think about that. Breaks our hearts, sometimes.
It never broke his. We’re not sure he even noticed.