“You Can’t Have Both.”

posted in: Art, Chicago, Day In The Life, Story 1
It was kinda like this place. Image: Wikipedia
It was kinda like this place. Image: Wikipedia

When I was new in Chicago — this is fifteen years ago, now — a friend of mine helped me get a job as a hostess at a downtown restaurant. The restaurant was a citywide chain so popular, Saturday night at the host stand felt straight-up dangerous. Elbows were thrown. Twenty-dollar bills were passed to the maitre-d’ for special treatment (woe betide the tipper if the guy from out of town waiting three hours already spied the exchange.) Wine was sloshed. It was loud. And it was an hour commute on the train from my tiny apartment in the middle of nowhere.

I had learned to eat well in college. I worked as a waitress at a cafe there in Iowa City and got my culinary education — and dating the head chef for most of that time meant I got, you know, tutoring help and stuff. By the time I got to Chicago, I actually knew a little about wine. I could make a pan sauce all by myself. This small-town girl not only knew what sweetbreads were, she would order them if she found them on a menu. Aside from the occupational hazards, being a hostess just felt wrong. I was in a restaurant but not doing what I could do. I knew a restaurant job was what I would have for awhile, but the role and the restaurant had to change.

There was an ad in the Chicago Reader for a waiter at a two-star (Michelin stars, that is) restaurant on Taylor Street. Let’s call it The Fancy Napkin. This place was gorgeous: an upscale French bistro owned by a Moroccan man who looked like a swarthy James Bond. The cafe sat sixty, tops, outfitted in impeccable white linen; the waiters wore impeccable white bistro aprons. Each wine glass was spotless and the lights from the chandeliers glinted off them all. Steaming bowls of boulliabaisse. Crusty baguettes. And if you wanted to spend north of a grand on a bottle of wine, the restaurant would be happy to help you do that.

I applied. There were no female waiters, just three dudes, one of whom had been there over ten years. I had to take a wine test. I had to answer serious menu questions. I forget what the owner asked me, but it would’ve been things like, “What is canard? What is mille-feuille? Pair wine with the caviar plate for me.” I got an hour with the menu and then had a quiz. I did very well on everything and the owner offered me the job. But I had a problem.

The theater company I was a part of was producing our first show. I had a small part in the second act. There was zero money. And I had rehearsals at night. As a hostess at the chain restaurant, I could be in the play: I’d just work the lunch shifts. But not at The Fancy Napkin — there was only dinner six nights a week. I told James Bond I would be thrilled to take the job and then gently broached the little matter of needing Wednesdays and Thursdays off for awhile, then swapping those out for the Friday and Saturday nights I’d need for the play. But not for long! Just four weeks or so? Sir?

This did not go well. After expressing his extreme displeasure over taking so much time to vet me, he told me something I will never forget: “Marie, you can be a poor artist. Or you can make a lot of money at this restaurant. But you can’t do both. Decide now. Do you want to be poor and in a little play? Or do you want to live?” I was speechless. I needed money. But the play. Theater was the reason I came to Chicago. But money. But art. But rent. But love. Oh, no, no, no. I was twenty-two years old.

So you know what I did? I took a walk around the block. Someone had told me once that if you have to make a big decision, take a walk around the block and say to yourself firmly, “By the time I get back to where I started, I will have my decision.” It works. You speed up the decision-making process. You get closer to the end of your loop and you’re still in a quandary and then bam! The solution presents itself. The whole way around the block, walking slowly, I didn’t know what to do. But when I got to the door, I did.

I quit the job.



Karen, Nicole, Popcorn + Me.

posted in: Day In The Life 4
Adobo and Peanut Roasted Popcorn, from Nicole at PopCorn.org's discomfittingly up-to-date blog.
Adobo and Peanut Roasted Popcorn, from Nicole at PopCorn.org’s almost discomfittingly up-to-date blog.

I made popcorn on the stovetop tonight. To me, this is the only way to have popcorn at home.

Many years ago, my friend Karen Kowalski showed me how to make stovetop popcorn just right. I had (very) recently moved to Chicago and into the strange-but-cheap building where I paid just $420/month. Karen chose the same building for the same reason, and we met one night because she heard me crying in my apartment all the way from inside own her apartment. In the fuzzy, despair-soaked fury of my tears, I heard a little “knock-knock” on my door. I opened it to find radiant, twenty-something Karen looking at a scrubby, wet, twenty-something me with deep concern and compassion.

“Do you want a beer or a cigarette or something?” she asked. We were pretty much best friends after that and we lived in that building for two years, more or less together, sharing our units like one space.

We were broke. Karen was an AmeriCorps teacher, I was a poet and a waitress. Pride kept us from asking our parents for anything — my mom bailed me out exactly once on rent and Karen never even asked her folks. We did fine, though, and we had good snacks on Friday night to go along with our bourbon + Cokes. Karen showed me one of those Friday nights that the best popcorn is made on the cheap, on a gas stovetop with a pot and some muscle. Here’s how it goes in ten easy steps:

Karen’s Stovetop Popcorn (serve with bourbon + Coke for everyone)

1. Set out a big bowl for your popcorn. Have it nearby your little work station. Then, get a big metal pot with a lid. An actual stockpot is a bit large; go with a large soup pot.
2. Put in some olive oil. Generous tablespoons, roundabout. Heat the oil a minute or so. Get it hot. Keep your flame on high and be careful: you’ve got a flame on high.
3. Put in popcorn kernels. You’ll make a lot of batches before you figure out how much popcorn to put in, but note that the kernels always seem to make more popcorn than you figured. So err on fewer kernels than you feel like eating. It’ll come out about right and if you don’t put in enough, hey, just make more when you’re done with the first batch.
4. Put the lid on the pot. Get some potholders or some oven mitts; grab hold of the lidded pot on either side.
5. Swoosh it all around.
6. Lift the pot up a bit and rotate it side to side and around a bit so that your flame hits the bottommost edges of the pot. You’re going for a pressure cooker, here, and this helps get the pot heated high, heated evenly. It also means the kernels inside the pot are getting coated with the oil.
6. Set it back down on the flame. The do the rotate pick-up again. Just work with it. Feel it.
7. When the popcorn begins to pop, smile. It’s happening!
8. Listen carefully and continue to manipulate your pot. Watch that flame. It’s gonna be going gangbusters. You also need to make sure your lid doesn’t pop right off with all that beautiful white, fluffy, oily corn coming up the sides. Yum! When the popping winds down and you hear just one…one more…pop…p-p-paaaaap, then you quick as a wink, throw the lid into the sink and you DUMP that corn into your big bowl. We do not want singeing corn.
9. While the corn is still hot and the oil hasn’t all seeped in, yet, salt generously.
10. Enjoy hot, with a bourbon + Coke, while Karen tells you about her crazy family. You are so lucky right now.

In my search for an image for this post, I discovered Popcorn.org, which is exactly what you might imagine: an association for makers and distributors of popcorn and popcorn-related products. Everyone needs a voice; the popcorn industry’s no different. I had some fun there, especially when I spied the association’s “Encyclopedia Popcornica.” “Popcornica” is a delicious, ridonkulous word that someone has to use somehow on a large scale so we can all go ’round saying it. (Any aspiring sci-fi novelists out there? Popcornica might be a character name or a distant galaxy. It’s yours! Go!)

On the Popcorn.org site there are FAQ’s and projects, and there’s a blog that is maintained with sincere dedication by a person named Nicole. Week after week, though there are few comments to encourage her in her task, there are posts about one thing: popcorn. Usually, Nicole posts recipes, and they all sound fantastic, including the pictured Adobo and Peanut Roasted popcorn, the Coconut Ginger Popcorn Truffle, etc.) But there are glimpses into Nichole’s life, too (e.g., she fell off her diet, she watched the Times Square ball drop with friends Susan and Todd, etc.) and then you also get her perplexing/fascinating take on things like winter:

“Could it be that winter is the new summer? Once defined as a time of quiet hibernation, winter has come into its own, in a social sense.”

Hm. I’m open to this idea. I need more. But I’m open, Nicole. You bring popcorn, I bring the beverages. See above.

Flyer Man.

Coulda been worse, right?
As a rule, street flyers are to be avoided. Especially this one.

If you’re in Chicago in the early evening, any time of year, walking south on State Street just past Monroe, you will be offered a flyer by a tall black man. This is not an omen: it will absolutely happen, I can almost guarantee it.

This is because there is a dude that stands there at State and Monroe and hands out flyers. He’s always there. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night* keeps this guy from hanging out at his spot. I have passed him countless times in the past two years and said, “Nah, not today,” when he tried to give me his handbill. But in a city filled with hysterical street preachers, insane/vocal itinerants, and the jingling cups of a thousand beggars, here’s what’s interesting about this guy:

– he’s well-dressed
– he can’t be over 30
– he never says anything
– I’ve gotten tiny glimpses of the content on his flyers and have never detected hate speech, “Repent Now!!!” stuff, etc., which is typically the only content covered in such tracts.

Still, I never took what he offered — until tonight. My choice of evening was not great. I was walking with way too much stuff to carry by myself. It was eight degrees. I was hoping I could make it to the bus stop before the bus did, but it didn’t look good. I passed the dude and said “No thanks, man,” as usual, but I noticed he was offering a thick, perfect-bound book, not just the usual 8×10 photocopy. Hm. I walked a few paces, stopped, turned around, and went back.

“Hey, man. You know, I’ve been passing you for like two years, now, and never taken your stuff.” The plastic bag in my hand was about to rip open and was full of bedding that surely weighed twenty-five pounds if it weighed an ounce. The dude started to speak but I interrupted him. It had to be done. Remember, it was eight degrees.

“Wait, wait. The book. Is it full of religious stuff? Like, a lot of God stuff? I really wouldn’t be into that, so just tell me now.”

Up close, the guy did not in fact appear insane. He said, “Okay, well, there is God in there, I mean, but I write about all kinds of things.”

“Okay, cool. How much?”

Here was the pitch, which was to be expected. “The original price is $19.95,” he said, “But I’m selling it for ten right now.”

I hauled my bag over the other shoulder and dug into my purse. I opened my pocket book. I had exactly seven dollars. I showed him. “I got seven bucks, man. That cleans me out. Will you take seven?” He gave me dirty look but acquiesced. I gave him the dough, he gave me his book, that was it.

It’s pretty bad. For example, in the appendix (?) he talks about his process and says the following (all sic):

“The time inbetwee epipanies and lyrics will represent concentrated thought…absorbed by the reader and can be extracted or deduced or deconsentrated. For example, they would wonder what made you go from this idea to the next…This is how I write some of my literature.”

You see what I mean. But there’s heart, and in the dedication the guy thanks his elementary school teachers, saying that they, “did the best they could with whatever resources they had, to give us a quality education.” He also thanks his mother for her “constant home school lessons” and ends with a solemn and sincere, “This book wouldn’t exist without you all.”

Keep writing, man. I will if you will. And stay warm out there.

*Some may recognize this language; I’ve annexed the gorgeous U.S. Postal Service creed, which goes: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Stunning.