April 23, 2013 | by Jonathan Wilson
In March 1975, a couple of weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday, I accompanied my girlfriend Tina on a trip to Russia. At the time Tina was a graduate student at the University of Essex pursuing a thesis on “Dostoyevsky and the Russian Orthodox Church,” under the benign supervision of the eminent scholar and translator Angela Livingstone. Londoners both, we had been living together for almost four years in the village of Wivenhoe near its estuary, close to the college campus, far from the big city and the disapproving glare of our respective widowed mothers.
My mother, a conscientious objector to interfaith relationships, had long ago banned Tina from visits to her home. “It’s bad enough you have to go out with someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said, “but why did you have to pick a girl with Christ in her name?”
“Her name’s Tina,” I had replied.
“And what do you think that’s short for, idiot?”
For her own part, Tina’s mother, dressed always in Greek Orthodox widow’s black, was opposed to our living together on moral grounds, which had, I could see, a superior logic.
Our workman’s cottage in Wivenhoe featured no bathroom, a decidedly unpoetic outside toilet, and walls so thin that the neighbors’ voices came through no softer than our own. The wife could be harsh. “Pick, pick pick,” we heard her yell at her husband as we sat down to eat. “You stick your finger so far up your nose that you’re gonna pick your bloody guts out one of these days.” Our kitchen table doubled as a work desk, and was covered with books by obscure (to me) Russian saints and philosophers, Tikhon of Zadonsk and Vladimir Solovyov among them.
Angela Livingstone was already in Russia working on a translation project, and she invited Tina to come and visit her. I tagged along for the ride. We booked onto a group tour through Intourist, the Russian travel agency: it was not easy in those days to move without an official guide in the Soviet Union. We planned a few days in Leningrad, to be followed by a train journey to Moscow, where Angela would meet us at our hotel and, we hoped, spirit us away from our minders. Read More »
April 22, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
April 17, 2013 | by Alia Akkam
Every morning, I would start the day with the Smashing Pumpkins—haunting “Disarm,” anthemic “Today.” Over and over, in a bedroom still mired in childhood, where a mound of carelessly tossed stuffed animals crept up my white wood dresser, I relentlessly played Siamese Dream. This, I thought, is how one becomes a teenager.
When the sun was at its hottest, late in the afternoon, I would stand at my front door, forehead pressed against the mesh screen, waiting for some friend’s mother to pull up in a beige Nissan and carry us to the mall. Here, I would spend hours in too-short shorts in too-cold air conditioning deliberating between pungent Plumeria or Freesia lotions at Bath & Body Works, scarfing down greasy slices of food-court pizza, and buying a hideous glittery cropped tee my mother would take one look at and matter-of-factly proclaim I would never wear. Until I was called for dinner, I’d read Seventeen, wondering if, once my dreaded braces came off, I’d be as beautiful as the young girls staring back at me with their wisps of charcoal eyeliner rimming their almond-shaped eyes, the ones who looked like they hadn’t cried since they fell off pretty pink bicycles with white baskets and streamers flowing from the handlebars. After that night’s iteration of chicken and rice, the phone would ring. For the next hour and a half, I would talk about nothing with the person I had had nothing to say to at the mall just a few hours before.
It was the summer of 1993, and I was bored. Read More »
October 11, 2012 | by Alia Akkam
Liquor has never touched my Middle Eastern father’s lips. Or so he claims. In the late sixties, when he lived a spell in Munich, embarked on spontaneous sojourns to Italy, and dated a Finnish broad named Helvi I once saw in a faded wallet-size photo—activities that made him sound so much more alluring than the stern killjoy I remember—I like to think he nursed a few carefree beers just like any lonely expat. When he made his way to New York a few years later, renting a dingy studio on the upper reaches of Broadway, when he was still the man my mother fell for—an Arab version of Adrian Zmed with a rustling gold chain around his neck and swarthy looks that back then meant you were handsome, not a possible terrorist—he used to smoke cigarettes, my mother tells me. Perhaps he also took nips of whiskey from a flask.
But the only father I know, the real one, returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia when I was eight years old a sudden gung-ho Muslim. He was no longer the aggressive moderate who was content with me just saying Bissmilah at the start of each meal. Now, every moment he wasn’t holed up in a Hilton for work or stuffing fried eggplant into pita bread at the dinner table was spent hunched over a miniature Koran, recapturing the lost Islam of his youth, of his family, of the native Syria he hadn’t called home for more than two decades.
Freshly brewed mint iced tea. Distilled water from the Poland Springs gallon bottles that lined our laundry room. Dr. Pepper, when its effervescence became a salve for the wheezing that permeated my bronchitis-ridden childhood. These were the beverages welcome in our teetotaler home. Although my mother, a Catholic girl from Queens, didn’t have religion propelling her consumption habits, she harbored something worse: distaste for even innocent bubbles. “Champagne burns my ears,” I remember her whining—and she rarely invited company over for anything more than a cup of Earl Grey.
September 17, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
The half-mouse—the good half, the half equipped with a smell memory validated by neuroscience, the half mortally known as the half that never saw it coming—shot across the kitchen floor, headed due west with a decent but final glimpse of the front yard. The back half landed somewhere near the sink.
My brother had split the mouse in two with a nine-iron. According to witnesses at the scene, the creature’s separation was cartoonishly neat. I recall thinking this was a flawed method of pest control for someone with no short game to speak of. The linoleum gopher hump that rose from my grandparents’ kitchen floor—a distortion from water damage—did place the moment in a Goony Golf warp. But from my understanding, the murder was more reflex than act of cruelty. It wasn’t like my brother teed up and put the mouse through a window. (I imagine a similar instinct overtaking him the time he allegedly potato-slammed a palmetto bug on the kitchen counter, knocking it out of its exoskeleton, quivering.) He just grabbed the first thing within reach—a legendary chemistry teacher’s nine-iron—and let the mouse have it. Having once hurled a toaster oven at a cockroach, I can relate.
February 6, 2012 | by Chris Wallace
This is a story about the life and death of a Hollywood icon—much of it myth, uncorroborated hearsay, and patchwork nostalgia, but it’s all how I remember it.
In its day, which is to say from around 1996 to 2003, Les Deux Cafés was the brightest starlet of the Hollywood nightlife scene, and like many of her sexy habitués, she was famously unpredictable, hauntingly seductive, and seemingly hell-bent on her own destruction.
Hidden in a nondescript parking lot, behind an unmarked steel door, the “the two cafés” girded a pair of Provençal-style gardens dotted with mosaic-top tables and dripping with night-blooming jasmine and eucalyptus. Around the old magnolia tree dropping its leaves on the slate slab floor, past the mobile garden bar (and tables 20-23), you approached the main house through the patio—an elevated porch, covered by a canopy of grapevines and three species of Japanese wisteria, and heated year-round by an outdoor fireplace. These were the most coveted tables (numbers 50-62), each of them handmade glass-tile arabesques—where Al Pacino shot double decaf espressos and Six Feet Under shot episodes, where Tim Roth and his family ate most Sunday nights, where Heath Ledger, Djimon Hounsou, Nicole Kidman, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch ate Hama Hama oysters and drank Veuve Clicquot on quiet nights, and Lenny Kravitz and Bill Murray chopped it up and table-hopped on the busy ones.
Inside the house, a two-story white clapboard Craftsman bungalow, you came to the walnut-paneled banquettes (tables 70-101), where romantic couples would be getting engaged. The House, which was placed on a trailer and moved several blocks to this site, had reportedly belonged to James Cagney in the thirties. Designer Paul Fortune—who, after his masterful work at Les Deux Cafés, would famously revamp the restaurant at the Sunset Tower—hung his own portrait of the actor over the indoor fireplace.
Behind the house was the cavernous kitchen, and down a long, poured-cement corridor, past the bathrooms where TV stars did cocaine, was the Trapeze Bar—a jazzy, high-ceilinged modernist boîte where, long after the California smoking ban, performers still puffed through their sets, and, right after the Grammys, Puffy would dance on tables and buy out the bar’s collection of Krug Clos du Mesnil.
But, though the café was Siren-song beautiful, the real draw—what we lurch for with the electromagnetic descriptor vibe—was felt more than seen. The service was abysmal (infamously, and intentionally so), the food was okay, but the scene ... the scene was the thing. It was lost on no one that the garden tables were arranged as an amphitheater, the better to watch everyone else. Owner and guiding spirit Michèle Lamy casted the staff more than hired them, and, consciously or not, we all performed in her play. Read More »