PlaceMap

          The colorful, plastic-coated placemat I often eat from at first looks as if it should have an ad for a tree stump removal business in one corner, a maze to be traced with a crayon, another ad for a gun shop, and a Bible verse in the center, but this placemat was not pilfered from my local diner. I bought it at the wonderful Roadside America, a miniature village housed in an old dancehall off a Pennsylvania interstate. The tourist attraction was then for sale, and now, sadly, closed. When I was there, it looked as if it needed all the support it could get, so I decided I would buy something from the gift shop. I had trouble selecting among the sparse and tired-looking wares. I finally decided on a couple of “Painless Learning Placemats.”

          One has a Mercator projection of the earth in black and white with all the country boundaries inked in but no labels on one side, and on the other has the same map with the countries colored with one of four colors and each nation labeled. (Apparently the placemat’s designer wished to give another example of the famous four-color map theorem that says no more than four colors are needed to color the regions of a map so no two adjacent regions have the same color. Go ahead. Try coloring in a map and see if this is right. The theorem has a controversial proof, but we can leave that for another day.)

          I could use this table covering to improve my knowledge. I might test myself by trying to remember what countries border Burkina Faso or whether St. Lucia is north or south of St. Kitts or Barbados, but I have not done that. My ignorance has remained even though I have been looking at this map-placemat for several years.

What mostly draws my attention to the placemat are not the continental countries, but the little specks of land dotted in the oceans. These islands fascinate me. This may have come about by the boyish, romantic imaginations of what life was like for the exiles and castaways marooned on remote islands. Of course, there was Napoleon and his first exile on Elba. I learned early the famous palindrome “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” but I had little idea where it was. I knew that Napoleon escaped this island and led armies once more, which all seemed wildly adventurous. I knew that later he was again exiled, this time to St. Helena, which was chosen because its remoteness made escape much harder. From my placemat map I now see that St. Helena is in the South Atlantic about halfway between Brazil and Angola. Yep: it would be a long swim to Paris.

          When I thought of Napoleon’s exiles, I assumed that the emperor had the run of Elba or St. Helena and was not confined to a prison such as on Alcatraz or Devil’s Island. The image of Napoleon at St. Helena did not conjure up thoughts of Dreyfuss, Papillon, or the Bird Man but of Robinson Crusoe, the shipwrecked castaway on an island off the Venezuela coast. Well…it did until I tried to read Daniel Defoe’s book. I was expecting an adventure story along the lines of the Count of Monte Cristo (fun read). Instead, I encountered ponderous prose trying to make theological points, which I think boiled down to “it is good to be a Christian,” although it was never clear what the book meant by “Christian.” Before reading Robinson Crusoe, I thought that the book was primarily about the relationship between the castaway and Friday, and I kept awaiting the native’s appearance in hopes that the prose would become readable. I was disappointed. (What does it say about Crusoe and Defoe that Robinson can’t bother to learn or use “Friday’s” actual name?)

          A real-life inspiration for Robinson Crusoe was Alexander Selkirk, who was a castaway in the uninhabited Juan Fernández Islands for four years in early 1700s. This archipelago has three main islands, now named Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk, and Santa Clara. When I first read about Selkirk, it intrigued me that there were places on this earth that had no humans. But as I thought further, I was amazed that some dots of land in thousands of miles of ocean were inhabited. How did that come about? Of course, many of these specks on my map have had inhabitants for a long time, and many of these islands were known to and fascinate me—Hawaii, Tahiti, Pitcairn, Easter, Wake, Midway, Shetland, Faroe, Galapagos Islands—but it is all those islands I had never heard of that have been intriguing me.

(continued December 1)

First Sentences

“Exactly what befell the President of the United States has never been fully understood.” Jethro K. Lieberman, Everything is Jake.

“New York’s Grand Opera-house was in the midst of a triumphant four-week run of performances by Edwin Booth, the greatest Hamlet of his generation, that Saturday in 1879 when twenty-six-year-old William R. Davis Jr. and his companion approached the huge doors of the heavily marbled theater.” Peter S. Canellos, The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero.

“A fourteen-year-old girl sits cross-legged on the floor of a circular vault” Anthony Doer, Cloud Cuckoo Land.

 “When you reach your fifties, it gets easier to notice the big ways in which the world has or hasn’t changed since you were young, both the look and feel of things and people’s understanding of how society works.” Kurt Andersen, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History.

“Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.” Matt Haig, The Midnight Library.

“Insecurity combined with arrogance is good DNA for a comedian.” David Steinberg, Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades.

“Many times since the Earth was young, the place had lain under the sea.” Edward Rutherford, London.

“Just as the first rays of dawn swept the eastern wall of the small castle, a detachment of soldiers landed on the beach below.” John Prevas, Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy.

“Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment.” Paulette Jiles, News of the World.

“In October 1846 the poet William Cullen Bryant visited the Delaware Water Gap, the spot where the Delaware River cuts through the Kittatinny (or Blue) Mountains.” Lawrence Squeri, Better in the Poconos: The Story of Pennsylvania’s Vacationland.

“Major Picquart to see the Minister of War. . . .” Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy.

“My father had a little joke that made light of our legacy as a family that had once owned slaves.” Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family.

Snippets

People can be so nice. Apparently my car warranty was about to expire, but I got (at least fifteen) “courtesy calls” about it before they closed my file. Very considerate.

How many people do you know who take almost no time to get to their wit’s end?

I have heard often of the “undeserving poor,” but never of the “undeserving rich.” Aren’t there a lot in that latter category?

I asked the kid what superpowers he would like to have. He said, “Not to have to tie my shoes.”

How would your thinking have changed if you had grown up without hearing about plantations but instead heard the more accurate “forced labor camps”?

I was on a park bench. Off to my left a man was ranting. Police were around the apparently mentally ill person, dealing with him patiently. On the next bench were people who panhandled in the park and seemed to know the ranter. One of them looked at the police, saw a blonde officer, and said, “Look at her. She doesn’t look like a cop. Why did she become a cop? She should have been, uh, uh, uh, a chemist, or something.”

I hoped it was for a law firm, but it did not say so. The billboard read: “Medical malpractice is all we do.”

It was a remarkable sight, the man wearing sweatpants held up by suspenders.

Do you remember when “Close Cover before Striking” was the most printed phrase in the English language?

In a park or outside an old house, I would come across a hand pump as a kid. Of course, I had to try it. The first couple strokes always seemed hard, but with minimal persistence they became easier. As I pumped, I would wonder if the pump still worked. Was there really water down there? Sometimes the effort produced nothing, but with others, a little water would spurt out. That sight produced a quickened, more forceful stroke. Then larger spurts, and finally, a stream without interruption. These efforts always produced a smile and a sense of accomplishment–a satisfaction that most in a younger generation will never have.

The doctor’s assistant taking my health history got to that now-routine question about sexuality.  But she said, “If you had to have sex, would it be with the opposite sex, the same, or both?” If I had to have sex?  My mind went through my sexual history. The last time someone held a gun to my head and said, “Have sex or else,” my performance must have been so inadequate that I can’t remember it.

I recently met a couple. He was six feet ten. She was shy of five feet even. What questions would you have liked to ask?

When Religion Undermines Society

          As my friend and I strolled after lunch, we briefly discussed the Covid pronouncements by Aaron Rodgers. He is the overpraised but still awfully good professional quarterback* who did not play a recent game because he was unvaccinated and had tested positive for the coronavirus. I said to Bob that people of our generation who get our news from papers, televised news channels, and other mainstream online news sources miss out on what informs much of America and that a large swath of American views, including apparently those of Rodgers’, are formed by right-wing radio and podcasts that are unheard by the likes of me. The friend agreed but then said something more important: “We are at a place in this country where many will automatically disbelieve whatever the government says. If the government says get vaccinated, this group will immediately resist. If the government said don’t get vaccinated, they would immediately get shots.”

          I mulled this over but then thought that there now is another step in this pattern. Those knee-jerk government oppositionists will claim that their belief is rooted in their religion, and constitutional freedom requires that they be exempt from whatever the government mandate is. And some religious foundation or advocacy group will bring a court case seeking a legal exemption from the requirement for the rest of society.**

          This trend raises important questions for society and the government, questions that we will visit as the courts address them in the coming months. In advance of these court decisions, though, I have been thinking about the potential effect this anti-government trend can have on religion. The religious do not seem to be addressing basic questions such as: When is a belief a religious, and not merely a political, one? If a political or personal stance is accepted as religious simply because a person says it is, then religion becomes a tool of the political and personal, and the moral force of religion wanes.  A related question: How can the good faith of a religious claim be determined? And when should a religious belief exempt a person from doing what others must do? If religious people support any claim of exemption from general societal requirements because the claimant proclaims religious scruples, religion will not have much meaning

          This trend towards you-can’t-make-me-do-that-because-it-violates-my-religious-freedoms is a negative and promotes individual preference over society’s interests. You may have to follow the societal and governmental strictures, but because of my religion, I don’t have to. This is undermining what has been a religious emphasis.

Religion has always had negatives, but a central component of religion–and a good part of Christianity–has been on affirmative obligations: go to mass, tithe, support missions, pray, read the Bible. A basic imperative of Christianity has been to “love thy neighbor.” Thus, among other affirmative obligations was the injunction to aid the weak and weary and to improve the general welfare. It was for these reasons that Daniel Webster said, “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.” Jews and Muslims have similar obligations to the practice of their religion and to the general welfare. This is lost when religion is primarily seen as providing exemptions from what the rest of society must do. The focus on I-don’t-have-to-do-what-you-have-to-do wipes out a good part of why religious principles have been thought to build a strong America.

          I recently have been reading about Samuel Booth, the guy who built my house. After his death in 1894, Booth*** was praised in editorials and obituaries and from pulpits for his good works. He was a mayor and postmaster. He provided distinguished service during the Civil War. He served on governmental commissions. He assisted bodies investigating tragedies and determining property values. He served his Methodist Church and was Sunday School superintendent for several churches. Even after he retired, he served the public as a private citizen in diverse ways including aiding young parolees. The obituaries and ministers more than once explained this public service succinctly in words that once resonated: He was a man who believed in “Christian duties.” Religion as selfless service to others; isn’t that quaint? But is there a point to religion if its primary focus is on you-can’t-make me and not on what we should do to serve God and humanity?

And I think of the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi: “Rights that do not flow from duty well performed are not worth having.”

———————————————————————————————

*I write here as a longtime Green Bay Packer fan.

** Although he triggered this discussion, Aaron Rodgers is not part of this trend. The government had not mandated that he be vaccinated to play football. The National Football League has not required vaccination either. Instead, the NFL laid out consequences if an unvaccinated player tested positive for the disease. Rodgers did not say that he should be exempt from the rules but accepted the consequences for not being vaccinated, and his public statements did not claim that his resistance to a vaccination is religiously based. And perhaps it should be noted that Rodgers has not been one of those nuts proselytizing (or is it evangelizing?) against vaccinations. His nutty views only became public when he defended himself for not being vaccinated.

**More on Samuel Booth in some future posts.

Cooking Though Some Ages (concluded)

Among the cookbooks I have that I did not get to use for cooking are ones from community or church groups that have collected recipes from their members. One of them was bought at a local antique store and is titled Mountain Ranges. The cover says that it was published by the Friendly Club of the Mountainhome Methodist Church. It does not have a publication date. However, I have had a home a mile from this church for thirty years, and I have heard of almost none of the thirty or forty businesses that advertised in the publication. One half page touts Megargel’s Golf Courses. Three locations are given, and it says “9 Holes 35c.” I thought that perhaps these were miniature setups, but they would have been unlikely to be nine holes, and I am confused by the line at the bottom: “For Amateurs and Golfers.” Was there ever a time that it cost only thirty-five cents to play nine holes of golf? The Onawa Lodge advertised that it offered summer and winter sports with a swimming pool and a dance casino. However, I did not fully understand when it claimed (or encouraged the attendance of?), “Alert Young Social Directors.”

The phone numbers for the ad’s establishments are either three or four digits. The first phone numbers I remember from my boyhood were four numbers (ours was 5978), but they aggravatingly went to seven digits around 1960. These recollections lead to the tentative conclusion that Mountain Ranges dates to the late 1950s.

Many community cookbooks give the names of the recipes’ contributors. This one does not. However, as with other community cookbooks, Mountain Ranges has several pages of “cooking hints.” I learned that to whip evaporated milk, I should partially freeze it and then add lemon juice, but I am mystified by this hint: “To shell pop corn use a large grater.”

Even though I bought the book not expecting to cook from it, some of the recipes intrigue me. I am tempted by Fried Ripe Tomatoes with Gravy, a stuffed eggplant, and the cheese patties. The three-page “Meats” section is rather skimpy. The “Cakes” portion is much longer and many look good including an orange coconut cake. Almost all the cookie recipes seem worth trying, including the Dancing Gingerbread Dolls. And when I first got the book, I dogeared a dessert page for Graham Banana Custard.

A book that holds a special place for me is the Sebring Hills Cook Book compiled by the Hobby-Club with a cover featuring a washed-out, black and white photograph of what I assume was the Hobby-Club clubhouse. The parents lived in Sebring Hills from retirement until the father died, and the book contains a recipe by the mother and is signed by her, using her first name adopted in Florida–“Jan”–rather than her given one, “Jeannette.”

Postcards addressed to the publisher are at the end of the book, which state, “Turn the enjoyable hobby of ‘Swapping Recipes’ into a big FUNDRAISER for your church, school, club or organization.” I assume that the publisher was responsible for the definitions, charts, and other information that concludes the book (I learned that it takes seventy pounds of fresh peas for 100 servings prompting me to wonder when I would ever be serving fresh peas to 100 guests) as well as calendars for 1981, 1982, and 1983, so I assume that the book, which has no publication year, dates from the early 80s.

The mother’s recipe is for sweet-sour pork, and it looks as if I would eat it and probably did. It calls for canned pineapple. I am not sure if fresh was readily available in the early 1980s, and even if it had been, whether she would have used it. Indeed, many of the recipes call for canned or frozen vegetables and fruits even though the contributors were living in Florida where fresh produce is regularly available. And not surprisingly, gelatin, Jell-o, and pudding mix were often featured. A few recipes, however, called for a fresh ingredient variously spelled calamonda, calamondon, or calamondine. I had no idea what this was, but my internet research indicates that it is the Florida version of a citrus fruit from the Philippines called calamansi. It has sweet skin and a sour pulp. One source said that the fruit was popular from the 1920s to the 1950s in Florida for the making of cakes, and two of the Sebring Hills recipes using the citrus were for cakes, but in my times in Florida I have never tasted it.

The contributors were overwhelmingly women. Men, however, dominated the beverage section, but not with what I would classify as manly drinks. Wayne Coleman offered grapefruit wine. A gallon of grapefruit juice is mixed with two cups of sugar, which is left for at least a month to ferment, and then the concoction is strained twice. Bob McDonald tendered “Orange Cordial,” where four cups of orange juice is simmered with four cups of sugar. Ninety proof vodka is then added. “Allow to age two months (if you can wait that long). Do not serve by the glassful.”

Few of the recipes in the Sebring Hills Cook Book cry out to me to be made although I would probably greedily eat the Braunschweiger Party Balls, which incorporate grated onion, mayonnaise, hard-boiled egg, and prepared mustard into the sausage. Even though the recipe proclaims “that this was a first prize recipe in the 1980 cooking under hors d’oeuvres,” I doubt I will make it myself. I like liverwurst well enough on its own without doing all the work of turning it into balls.

My most recent community cookbook is the Buck Hill Falls Cookbook created by the Buck Hill Falls Lot & Cot Association (2021), a community of which I am a member.

This is my most recent community cookbook and the only one where I am a community member. The book was prompted by the Covid quarantining when many of us were spending more time in the kitchen than we might have otherwise. It has a more modern sensibility towards cooking and eating than my earlier community books. Canned soups are less prominent and fresh ingredients are commonplace.

The Buck Hill book contains two excellent recipes from the spouse (Caponata and Paprika Chicken with Chickpeas) and many dishes that I would like to try: Eggplant with Traditional Whey (sour cream can replace the whey); Lemon Spaghetti; Linguine with Artichokes and Leeks; Slow Cooker Mongolian Beef; and Roasted Cauliflower with Pancetta, Olives, and Crisp Parmesan. And a recipe for Sauerbraten and Potato Dumplings reminded me that it has been decades since I attempted sauerbraten. Maybe it’s time to try it again.

Cooking Through Some Ages

I own dozens upon dozens of cookbooks. Almost all were purchased because I hoped to use recipes from them. But a few were bought, often at an antique store or a flea market, not to expand my kitchen experience but out of a curiosity of what the books might say about a time and place. A few of these were put out by a food company hawking a product. For example, there is Knox Gelatine: Desserts Salads Candies and Frozen Dishes (with that “e” and no commas).

The cover shows three women sitting on a hooked rug in front of what looks like a bed’s headboard but surely must be something I don’t recognize. They are inexplicably dressed from the antebellum era in bright colored frocks—one blue, one orange, one rose—with voluminous skirts and elaborate bodices, gowns that even Scarlett O’Hara might have thought a bit extravagant. One is bareheaded (the hostess?), another has on a bonnet, and the third’s head seems to have a hot water bottle on it but surely it’s some sort of hat. On a tea table in front of them sits what I assume to be a gelatinized concoction and two are about to partake.

The copyright date is 1933, which helps explain its reference to refrigeration, for the book (more a pamphlet) says it contains “not only the latest recipes for Plain and Fancy Desserts and Salads, but also mechanical refrigerator recipes, dishes for Convalescents, Children’s Parties and other Special Occasions.” One wonders who instructed them on the use of capital letters.

The book opens by instructing on setting the table, stressing simplicity, but also stating that it is “good form” to have a service plate upon which the dishes for the first courses are placed and that the service plate is only removed when it is exchanged for “the first hot course after the soup.” Knox also explains how to lay out the flat silver, including oyster and canape forks, where to place the bread plates, the butter spreader, and the napkin. It concludes, “The finger bowl is usually brought in on a plate on which there is a doily and placed directly in front of the guest after the last course. Another method is to place the doily and finger bowl on the dessert plate, and the guest removes the doily and finger bowl to the table before the dessert is passed.” Ah, simplicity. And this during the Depression.

After explaining the difference between various Knox products, giving the basic directions for using the sparkling gelatine, and providing some useful hints (always scald fresh pineapple when combining with gelatine), the booklet has sixty pages of recipes. Many of them remind me of the Jell-o salads of my youth that I assume are still prevalent somewhere, perhaps Utah. The illustrations make me specially interested in the Poached Egg Dessert, which is a peach or apricot half on Lemon Sponge Cake or Snow Pudding, which does indeed look a lot like an egg on toast. However, the only recipe that tempts me to make it is a Salmon Fish Mold (made, of course, with canned salmon) which I could see in a ring with a cucumber salad in the center and perhaps sprinkled with fresh dill. But, alas, I seldom make luncheon dishes.

Related to food company cookbooks are those from “women’s magazines” from previous eras. For example, I have the Better Homes and Gardens, Salad Book. The book’s copyright date is 1969, but my copy is the Fifth Printing in 1972. Not surprisingly, the book has higher production values than the Knox book from three decades earlier, with many full color photos. However, all the colors are a bit off, so nothing looks as appetizing as it should. The title indicates that this is a book of salads, salad dressings, and relishes with a few sandwiches thrown in. It harkens back to the Knox publication because it features many “molded” salads which require gelatin. It could expand my culinary horizons. I don’t know if I have ever had a salad from the freezer—featured in one section—but they seem to be most appropriate for a dessert course, if you like that sort of thing. The ingredients for the Pineapple Mint Freeze, for example, are a large can of crushed pineapple–no need to scald–gelatin, a jar of mint jelly, whipped cream, and a bit of sugar.

On the other hand, many of the vegetable salads, cole slaw recipes, and potato salads seem eminently eatable. I might even make the Tuna-Cream Puff Bowl, which is really just a tuna salad placed in a freshly baked pastry shell, but then again, I don’t make luncheon dishes. The book concludes with a dozen pages of advice for buying, storing, and preparing fruits and vegetables. I learned that if I do not have small marshmallows for a salad, I can snip larger ones, but I should dip the scissors in confectioners’ sugar first to prevent sticking. I wonder if the time ever comes to do that whether I will remember the tip.

Other books with recipes that I did not expect to cook from were obtained for their humor. An example is Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral (2005) by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, (2005). The book has humorous essays about Southern churches and funerals interspersed with appropriate dishes to bring to said funerals or church suppers. While neither the spouse nor I have cooked anything out of this book, it does have many recipes that I might like. Mostly, however, I look at the recipes that remind me of foods that the spouse, with her southern roots, has made–foods that I had not eaten until I linked up with her. Three stand out: First, pimiento cheese, the joys of which escape me. However, the spouse assures me that this is a southern staple, and, to prove it, this book has a half-dozen recipes for wasting perfectly good cheese. The second is tomato aspic, which the spouse used to make with some frequency. It is basically gelatinized canned tomato juice, and as tasty as that sounds. Lime Jell-o is better. However, the third is what this book lists as stuffed eggs. The spouse regularly makes deviled eggs, and they are oh-so-good, but she does not need a printed recipe to make them.

The book, however, has other recipes for the buffet table that I would not mind trying—butter bean casserole, vodka cake, asparagus casserole. And there is an artery-clogging potato dish that I am interested in. It must be good. The recipe is listed twice under different names: “Methodist Party Potatoes” and “Liketa Died Potatoes.” The ingredients include packaged hash browns, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and undiluted cheddar cheese soup. This is topped with a stick of butter and corn flake crumbs. It does not list the calories or fat content. And if I eat it, my funeral day may be closer.

(concluded November 17)

Snippets

Polls divide the public in many ways by separating us by liberal or conservative; political party; age; income; gender; gun ownership; religion; geography; favorite sport; education; race and ethnic group; and much more. However, I haven’t seen the breakdown by other factors that I think might be illuminating. Such as: Do you live in a gated community? Do you read books?

“It cannot possibly be true, can it, the story about Toscanini losing patience during a rehearsal with a soprano, grabbing her large breasts and crying, ‘If only these were brains!’” Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (Thanks SN.)

The battling bishops. That sounds as if it is an informal name for the American Roman Catholic hierarchy who want to deny some politicians communion. (Do those bishops seek to deny communion to those who support the death penalty? If so, it doesn’t seem to get reported in the press.) The “Battling Bishops,” however, is the nickname of the sports teams for North Carolina Wesleyan College. I thought that this was an amusing, slightly sacrilegious, unique name for a Methodist institution, but then I learned that Ohio Wesleyan teams are also the Battling Bishops.

The present version of the Roman Catholic battling bishops makes me think back to when John Kennedy was running for president. Many prominent Protestants opposed his candidacy. They said that the Catholic hierarchy would dictate policies of a Catholic president, and this would violate our country’s bedrock principle of separation of church and state. Now it seems as if the Catholic bishops are doing something very much like what was feared when Kennedy ran, but I have seen no Protestant outrage at the assault on a fundamental building block of this country. I cannot be surprised. Death and hypocrisy are inevitable.

“Only the little people pay taxes.” Leona Hemsley. (And perhaps another hotelier.)

Sign held by a spectator at the New York City Marathon: Jack, run fast. My water broke.

Former President Obama spoke eloquently at the Glasgow climate summit in favor of combating global warming. Was former president Trump given the opportunity to address the leaders to tell them global warming is only a Chinese hoax?

Got any Aaron Rodgers jokes for this boyhood Green Bay Packer fan?

Big Bird announces an upcoming vaccination. Ted Cruz leaps into a decisive action and denounces the puppet’s words as government propaganda. Perhaps it is beyond Cruz to recognize that Big Bird has always been a propagandist—of innocence, curiosity, and niceness, but perhaps these are qualities that Cruz does not care about. And then an even less likeable politician than Cruz (I know, I know, that is hard to believe) from the Arizona legislature labels Big Bird a communist. I wish I were making this up.

Viktor is Still Waiting (concluded)

After finding a place to stay, my young Ukrainian friend Viktor began walking New York City streets stopping into places looking for work. He went into DSK, the biergarten, and the bartender, a woman who was born in Poland, said that the place needed a dishwasher. Viktor, who has a master’s degree in marketing from the Ukraine, immediately accepted, and he is very grateful to the establishment for allowing him to work there.

After accumulating a bit of money, he moved out of the “savior’s” place. Viktor asked what he could do to repay him. “Nothing,” was the reply. “Just pay it forward.”

Viktor in a timely fashion applied for asylum on the basis that he is gay and will be persecuted in Ukraine. He had managed to avoid mandatory military service there, and if he goes back will be sent to jail.

Viktor does try to pay it forward and had taken in two gay Russians who sought asylum. Those two came after asylum decisions had been put on a faster track than when Viktor applied. Viktor, both happily and bitterly, reported that each had their asylum requests granted within short order and now have green cards. Viktor, who had applied for asylum three years before they did, was still waiting for a decision.

I am like many Americans who, on occasion, voice opinions about our immigration system but have little idea about its workings. I suggested that the delay in Viktor’s decision sounded abnormal, but he has an attorney and he said that he is content with him. “I have to be. I don’t pay him.” He got the lawyer through an LGBT organization. His lawyer’s firm mostly does copyright work, and Viktor was their first immigration client. Viktor proudly reported that they now represent1,600 immigrants.

Viktor still talks daily with his mother. At some point, he told her that he was gay, something he had not acknowledged when he left Ukraine. He said that she had looked shocked, but since that one conversation, the two had not discussed his sexuality. He does not know if she accepts it and does not know if she has told his father and, if so, his reaction.

He can’t leave the US while his asylum petition is pending, and when he told me about his asylum request, it had been four years since he had been home. He missed his parents and wanted to talk to them face-to-face about his life. It was clear that he was homesick. He told me that he looks at webcams from his hometown regularly.

I told him that I had not been to my boyhood hometown in four or five years, but of course, I said, my situation is different because I was not prevented from going. I told him that a mini-high school reunion was coming up, but that I had not decided whether to go. He said, “You should go.” He paused and said, “You should go for my sake.”

However, Covid came and that ended the possibility of the reunion. Covid also ended my appearances at the bar and my conversations with Viktor. The bar had outside service, and sometimes when I walked past the place, we would see each other. Viktor would shout, “My friend.” I would respond, “My young friend.” We would hug, but he was working, and it was not a time to talk.

Recently, the restrictions on indoor dining and drinking have been relaxed in New York City, and I have sat at the DSK bar again a few times. I asked an owner who was busy pulling beers if Viktor still worked there. She said that he had another job. I asked about his asylum petition, and she said that no decision had yet been rendered.  And I thought, “Another story left uncompleted by the pandemic.” And I wondered what it was like to live in Viktor’s limbo and what he would do if he had to leave this country.

With those thoughts, I returned to my book as I sipped an Oktoberfest beer, but then the owner joked about a model of a water tank on a display shelf next to the bar. I had won that model in a trivia contest about Brooklyn several years ago. A young man on my left asked what the owner and I were talking about. After I satisfied his curiosity, I asked where he was from. He told me that that he was from Turkey, but then he added that he was Kurdish. I said that I had enjoyed my trip to Turkey, but I had not been to anywhere near his home in the Kurdish parts of Turkey near Syria. I told him that I had hoped to go back to Turkey, but after Erdogan got power, I no longer wanted to do that. He, of course, was not an Erdogan fan. I asked if he got back to his home country regularly, and he said that he could not go there. He had asked for asylum in this country and was waiting the outcome of his petition. I said that perhaps it was none of my business, but had he thought about what he would do if he was turned down for asylum. He said that he had relatives in various parts of Europe who would take him in.

Viktor does not have relatives outside of Ukraine.

Viktor is Still Waiting

Viktor, tall with sharp facial features, intentionally or not, often flattered me. In pre-Covid days, he was a server in DSK, a biergarten in my Brooklyn neighborhood that I frequented. I am sure that I stood out in this place for my wit, knowledge, good cheer, and distinguished looks, but probably more so because I was much older than any other semi-regular. Even so, Viktor, who was in his early twenties, would often sit next to me at the bar when his shift ended, and we talked. That pleased me. At some point he estimated my age as the same as his parents, and I laughed and told him I was then seventy-three. He did a double take and, after a pause, said that was how old his grandmother was. Viktor’s mother was forty-four and his father a year older. He told me that his mother had told him that he was a “mistake,” and so I was surprised to learn that he was an only child.

 Viktor was born in Ukraine where his parents live. Without bragging, he said that he was a smart kid who graduated from high school when he was sixteen and got a master’s in marketing by twenty-one. Then he came to the United States. Like many who staffed the establishment, he had other gigs. He was helping American friends to open a restaurant in the Queens part of New York City. He told me that he also did some video editing. That had started in Ukraine where he and a friend shot videos from a drone and posted them on YouTube. Viktor said that the videos were not particularly good, but back when they did it, few had seen videos from a drone’s perspective. He and his friend got a following.

We often talked about food. He told me that a recent addition to the bar’s menu was very good—a vegan sausage primarily made from beets. He insisted on getting one and splitting it with me. (I said that I’d pay, but he told me that he got free food when his shift was done.) It was not my favorite, but presumably healthier than the bratwurst I often got. In spite of this mediocre recommendation, I listened when he told me that he had a favorite Ukrainian restaurant. Manhattan’s lower east side was once chock-a-block with Ukrainians, and a Ukraine presence still lingers there in a few well-known restaurants. Viktor said that their food was not nearly as good as his favorite, which was in a different part of New York. He insisted that we go to lunch there, and we set a date. However, Covid intervened, and the favored restaurant closed during the pandemic.

I know little about Ukraine, and Viktor was eager to answer my questions, including about the comedian who became prime minister or president or whatever the title for their head of state. (Viktor was ambivalent about the guy.)

During one of our conversations, I jokingly asked Viktor what he was going to do when he got rich. He replied seriously that being wealthy was not his goal, but he did want to make enough money to be able to buy his parents a home in America. He said that when he first came to this country, his parents indicated no desire to move to the United States, but their feelings were changing. It sounded like he missed his mother and father tremendously. He told me that he talked to his mother daily via computer. I asked when he had last been home, and he said that he had not been back since he came to the United States, three years ago. He told me that while he was expecting to get one, he did not have a green card, and without one, he was not sure that he could reenter this country if he left.

During another conversation, however, Viktor indicated that his immigration status was a bit more complicated than just waiting for a green card. He came to the US on a tourist visa although I suspect that he entered planning to stay. He had an introduction to a friend of a friend of a friend in Baltimore. With this tenuous connection, he started living with a Russian couple and had some sort of job. For some reason, however, the man thought that Viktor was sleeping with his wife—“even though I am gay,” Viktor told me. The husband went to Viktor’s employer, said that it was illegal for Viktor to work, and threatened to report the business to the authorities. Viktor’s boss was apologetic but told Viktor that he had no choice but to fire him.

Unemployed and homeless, he begged a friend to allow him to stay with her. She said that she couldn’t take him in but knew a place where he could stay. Viktor: “He was a drug dealer, but he was nice.” I don’t know how long Viktor stayed there, but eventually the drug dealer said, “You need to start over. Here’s $50. Go to a new city and begin again. You can go wherever you want, but if I were you, I would go to New York.” Viktor came to New York.

Homeless again, he called LGBT groups for help, and he got the name and number of someone. Almost immediately, that man came to the phone booth Viktor was using and gave Viktor a subway card and directions to that man’s apartment. Viktor lived with that guy for months. Viktor, without using the man’s name, said that he was Black, about 45, worked in IT in the healthcare industry, and made a comfortable living. The man was gay, and Viktor thought sex was going to be involved, but the man never even hinted at that. Viktor proudly told me, “I have never had sex for material gain.”

(concluded November 10)

Road Trip–Fallingwater Edition (concluded, finally)

          We headed off to our final stop on this trip—Bird-in-Hand, the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where we stayed in a modern hotel overlooking beautiful, cultivated fields. This is Amish country, and yes, we saw the horse and buggies, and yes, perhaps they weren’t Amish, but Old World Mennonites. I have been told that you can tell them apart because of a difference in bonnet styles, but I don’t know what that difference is. I was pleased to note that women did drive carriages.

          This was the most touristy place we visited, and we went into a place that called itself an Amish market. It had “cute” clothing often featuring logos of Blue Balls, Pennsylvania, or Intercourse, Pennsylvania, on them, and many items that could be found in similar shops around the country—refrigerator magnets, coasters, coffee mugs, framed pictures. An adjoining building had foods: pickles, jams, candies, cookies, breads. What drew my eye were the meat counters and the arrays of sausages. I have seldom spotted a sausage that I did not want to buy, but we were without refrigeration, and I resisted. But I did succumb enough to buy a not-yet-read history of the Amish.

          The area is a quilting center, but a quilting museum that we had hoped to see was not open. However, quilting stores were in business. The spouse quilts, usually baby quilts for friends’ children, and we went to one of the stores. (See the spouse’s post of June 17, 2020, with pictures. Search Results for “”piecing it together”” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog)) Fabrics, threads, quilts, quilt kits, and more. The spouse said it was too much to take in in one outing, but she was not so overwhelmed that she did not buy some fabric, a kit or two and like that. Pennsylvania Dutch country is also known for hand-crafted wood furniture, and the next day we bought a set of dining room chairs, which the spouse insisted we “needed” even though we do not sit on the floor now around the dining room table. They cost more than a few yards of fabric and a quilting kit. The chairs are custom made and won’t be delivered until next spring. I must agree that they will look good in the country house.

          In between the two buying sprees, we went to dinner at the kind of restaurant that dots Amish country—a buffet for a modest set price. A half dozen or more serving stations with hot and cold food and a carving station of ham, roast beef, and turkey. All you can eat. Clean your plate and go get another one. And try to save room for one of the dozen pies, cakes, and puddings. The list price was $24.95, but we had a coupon for five dollars off. Is the food good? Not really, but it’s not bad, and it is all amazing, and the place was jammed. And looking around at the patrons, many of whom were on bus tours, I felt, in spite of my dad bod, almost thin.

          The restaurant we chose traced its origins to the 1920s, but it was not Amish. It served alcohol. We thought that we might try one of their specialty cocktails. However, our server told us that they were short on staff, and the restaurant did not have a bartender that night to mix drinks. We settled for a beer and a glass of wine. After we got our bill, I held it and waved over the server. She looked concerned, but I said that she had forgotten to charge us for the beer. She laughed and said that seldom had she been told something like that. When she came back with our amended bill, she told us that because we had been so honest, she took something off the beer price. We paid one dollar for the drink.

          And then the next morning we headed to our Pennsylvania cottage a three-hour drive away ending this journey. All in all, it was good trip.

          Any suggestions for the next one?