Archive for category: Parenthood

Father’s Day Redux: Pickles & Cream

21 Jun
June 21, 2015

A repost in honor of Father’s Day and the redoubtable Bernard Simon, gone these five years but I feel as if I am talking to him still.  This was published in Lucky Peach #4 and while it is food writing, per se, it comes around to my father soon enough.  Yeah, I back into it.  But Dad, I miss you.

 

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I want to embrace the best of the kitchen.

But if DNA is destiny, and genetics holds any sway at all over the human palate, then I have much—probably too much—to overcome.

The Simons come from peasant stock, and by that I don’t mean the countryside of Alsace or Tuscany or any other place where cuisine makes the days true and beautiful, where gardens and orchards and farms and village butchers conspire for a cuisine both purposeful and ingeniously simple. We are not the progeny of any agrarian ideal worthy of Impressionist paintings.

No, my father’s people were kicked-to-the-ground-by-Cossacks peasants, wandering Pale of Settlement Yids who lived with one or two bags always packed and spent the early moments of the last century running ahead of whatever Jew-hating militia was on whichever side of the Polish-Russian border. Like fodder for an Isaac Babel story, we hauled ass from pogrom to pogrom, dragging our huddled mass west until a sign said NEW JERSEY.
My mother’s people ran, too, first from the Hungarian countryside to Budapest, where my grandfather changed his name from Leibowitz to Ligety, stealing the latter from an Austro-Hungarian family of some repute, hoping to blend. Didn’t work, though—a Jew by any other name. So Armin Ligeti—the extra i was acquired at Ellis Island amid a rush of incoming Italian stock—kept running until he felt a bit more welcome in Williamsburg, and later, in the Bronx.

The story ends—and begins—with one grandfather a salesman for Breakstone Brothers Dairy, slinging butter and cream to mom-and-pop stores all over New York, and the other ensconced behind the counter of just such a store in Jersey City, selling pickles out of a barrel and borscht out of the jar.

Both households kept kosher. They had one foot on a new shore, but still trusted in the world of their fathers. They raised children amid a Great Depression, teaching them the value of a dollar and the notion that when it came to food, there could be nothing new or clever under the sun. This sensibility endured well into my youth.

“Your mother makes better,” was a credo of my childhood. We dined out infrequently and only on special occasions. There was a favorite Chinese dump. There was an Italian joint where we gathered once or twice a year. And then, when someone graduated or relatives came to town, there would be a rare pilgrimage to some grander palace of white tablecloths and wineglasses, with mine always promptly removed. Experimentation was at a minimum, so much so that once, when I was eight years old, I tried and failed to order raw oysters at a downtown restaurant. The Blue Points. A half dozen, please.

“Davy, they’re raw.”

“I know.”

“That means they’re not cooked.”

“Right.”

My father frowned. Who eats oysters? Who eats anything uncooked? Who goes to Duke Zeibert’s downtown, even on a special occasion, and pays these prices for food that no one even bothers to put on a stove? What mishegas.

My mother turned to reinstruct the waiter.

“He’ll have a shrimp cocktail.”

It wasn’t that we kept kosher—that wall had crumbled twenty years earlier, when my older brother, a notoriously reluctant eater, was treated to bacon by neighbors in a Brooklyn apartment house. As a two-year-old, Gary Simon took to craving pig as he craved no other sustenance, and finally he began putting on weight. Every dietary law in Leviticus was henceforth repealed.

But as a household, we were residually kosher. Shellfish was suspect, and aside from morning bacon, pork was never on the menu. More than that, exotic dishes—new cuisines, new ideas about food—were problematic if they took more than a half-step away from the known and fixed. My mother was an excellent cook, but almost all of what she served would have been recognizable and acceptable to her parents, if not her parents’ parents. Brisket, roast chicken, chopped liver, chicken soup: food was good and plentiful; it was not a mutlticultural adventure.

By the time I was born, my parents had moved to Maryland and the shores of that great protein factory, the Chesapeake Bay. Yet I did not taste a raw oyster until I was thirteen, or a raw clam until a year later. And, in my fifteenth year, I finally sat down with a knife and mallet and began breaking apart a dozen steamed blue crabs—and only then because my sister had taken a waitressing job in an area crab-house.

When I was in college, my parents offered to take me out to dinner one weekend. I chose a French bistro and ordered a plate of sweetbreads.

“Davy, do you know what sweetbreads are?”

“Sweet bread,” I deadpanned. “Something like a cinnamon roll, right?”

And my mother, not seeing tongue lumped in cheek, turned again to the waiter to rescue her youngest unschooled child from imminent and avoidable disaster.

* * *

My father was all about salt, which is to say, he ate Jewish.

Matjes herring was better then Bismarck, but both were preferable to herring in any kind of cream sauce. The very idea of cutting the salted, pickled-­without-pity taste with anything vaguely neutral or sweet was the mark of the apostate. To my father’s reckoning, a Jew caught dipping a piece of herring in cream might as well just slather mayo on fish sticks and crawl to the nearest baptismal font.

Pastrami, with the fattiest parts untrimmed, was lean corned beef perfected. The trick to great borscht? Salt that sucker down. The trick to great shav? Well, salt helps, but there is no such thing as great shav. A hot dog was a hot dog with brown mustard and boiled kraut. When my brother married a Wisconsin girl and brought her back to the family preserve, she punched a hole in the known universe by attempting to dress a Hebrew National dog with ketchup.

My father dryly threatened to notify the rabbinate and there was talk of a bet din, a religious court of inquiry. Spinoza, my father explained, had been excommunicated for less, merely because he greeted the Enlightenment by questioning the very idea of the Hebrews as Chosen.

“This is worse,” said Bernard Simon, intimating that absent an immediate repentance, a Biblical stoning might be regrettable but necessary.

In 1977, my father was downtown, working at the B’nai B’rith Headquarters in Washington. Armed members of a local Muslim sect, a breakaway from the Nation of Islam, seized the building along with other DC locations. As the day dragged on, a nearby Hilton hotel prepared sandwiches, which were brought in to feed the hostages. Sitting on the floor with nearly a hundred others, with a half-dozen armed men hovering, my father unwrapped the cellophane from a corned-beef sandwich to find that it was on white bread, and sullied even further by a schmear of glistening white mayonnaise. He turned to a coworker and said—and this is not mot d’escalier on my part, this is an actual quote:

“Sid, they’re trying to kill us.”

To my father’s tastes, cuisine was sodium and chloride and only one possible permutation of those elements. It was belly lox before nova. And if the Parkway deli down the block had lox wings—the fatty part of the salmon near the fin that somehow retained even more salt than the sliced stuff ever could—well, pick up a half dozen of those and we can nosh. No bagel. No cream cheese. No tomato. Why trifle with such blandishments? Just bear down on strips of heavily salted, fat-greased fish on a plate. Maybe some seltzer to wash it down.

This was my birthright, my inheritance.

In the summer months, my mother—having some sense of food groups in which brine did not feature—would often start a meal with fresh berries and cream. Not crème fraîche, mind you—that stuff was for Presbyterians. No, the berries were made to swim upstream in a fat dollop of Breakstone sour cream—my maternal grandfather asserting himself from beyond the grave. But in whatever total war was being waged against the sweeter side of my father’s tastebuds, even this concoction was too close to some sort of salt-neutral Switzerland.

As a countermove, my father invented his own appetizer. He went into the kitchen, pulled out a sharp knife and a jar of Ba-Tampte brand (“tasty” in Yiddish) half-sour kosher pickles. He chopped two pickles into small cubes, and then mixed them with sour cream: Jewish tzatziki. Except more bitter, and more better to his way of thinking.

(Before proceeding further with this tale, I have to pause to remark on the fact of my father entering a kitchen anywhere, grabbing a sharp implement and a food item, then rendering that item into a different form, mixing that element with a second substance, and serving it. It’s impossible for me to convey the singularity of this event, except to reference another childhood memory, one in which my mother went to New York to visit her mother and sisters for a week. I was subsequently taken to the Parkway Deli for seventeen successive meals.)

When I first sat at a dinner table and peered over my summer berries to see my father’s bowl of dissent, I could only respect the depths. I thought I had seen the besalted Hebrew cuisine in all possible forms. What, I asked my mother, is that called?

Pickles and cream.

As a ten-year-old in the suburban Washington of 1970, the phrase “what the fuck” was not entirely unknown to me. But somehow I managed to suppress my initial reaction.

“Dad, you’re gonna eat that?”

“It’s good. Try some.”

I picked up a spoon.

Cornichons et crème. À la Chef Bernard.

* * *

I found the wider world, or perhaps, the world found me.

And now, at fifty-one, I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, as they say. Been to New York, Paris, London, Capetown, San Francisco, Napa, New Orleans. There have been meals, oh yes, there have been some meals.

The Bristol in Paris. Le Bernardin. The French Laundry. The River Café in Hammersmith. The Ivy in Soho. Momofuku. Gotham Grill. Tasting menus from Dufresne or Mina or Colicchio, omakases from New York sushi lords and Los Angeles sushi nazis and Nobus upon Nobus upon Nobus Next Door, wherever they are to be found.

And, too, I’ve had time enough to hunt down perfection without pretense, on back roads and back streets. A slice of Di Fara’s. A T-bone and tamales at Doe’s in Greenville. A burnt-end sandwich at Arthur Bryant’s. Pork ribs at Smitty’s in Lockhart, Texas. Fresh, soft tacos from La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara. Malva pudding at that joint on the road south of Capetown. Brisket from that no-name shack in Georgiana, Alabama. In New Orleans, I’ve tasted the chicken à la grande at Mosca’s four times in a single life. In Baltimore, I’ve stood at the Faidley’s bar with a crabcake platter at least twice a year for my entire adulthood. And thanks to this Bourdain fella, I’ve wandered a campground in Opelousas, Louisiana, and watched an entire living pig transformed into serving sizes, tasting all and loving all.

I don’t claim to know a damn thing about food—about why a dish works or why it doesn’t, about ingredients or seasonal menus or wine pairings. My credentials are akin to someone who likes to drive a beautiful car at high speeds but sees no point in opening the hood and looking inside. I know when something new explodes in my mouth and messes with my brain; I have no clue how it comes to be, and my incuriosity when it comes to the world of the kitchen is, at this point, just embarrassing.

But I do love a new taste, a new experience. I know what I don’t know and yet am content to put just about anything in my mouth on even a little bit of say-so. My father, as you can imagine, found this appalling.

First of all, some of the stuff I ate didn’t have enough salt. And some of it was from countries whose cuisine was unknown and uncertain in say, 1955, when the invention of food was largely complete and fixed. And, too, some of it was ridiculously expensive.

My father was a generous man, a liberal, charitable man. But he also knew what he knew, and he knew the value of a dollar. Walking my father into Le Bernardin or Nobu would have produced apoplexy. Money was only money to my father; he would not begrudge anyone their pleasures, their luxuries, their extra expenses. He hoarded hardback books, for example. Cheaper paperbacks brought him no pleasure at all. A book was worth whatever anyone asked for it. But food? How good, how unique could anything worth eating really be? For my father, a child of the Great Depression, high-end cuisine was all pomp and presentation, and, he feared, a great scam perpetrated on a public easily impressed and hungry for status.

I remember the first and last time Bernard Simon tasted sushi—a cuisine that should have appealed to a man who had embraced fish and salt as an essential combination for life.

“People pay for this?”

Or the time my LA agent took us out for brunch at Barney’s on Wilshire, where my father ordered lox and eggs, a deli staple. Alas, it came with crème fraîche and Osetra caviar and was priced accordingly.

“Your mother makes better.”

And the idea of journeying to find the perfect fried-oyster po’ boy or the perfect pizza slice? The miles-to-go-before-we-sleep hunt for the barbecue place that has no name, no phone? The whispered rumor of a food truck that’s killing it according to Chowhound?

To my father, the world had lost all sense.

In New Orleans with my parents, I once tried to drive out of the city, west to Houma, Louisiana and a little shack named A-Bear’s, a place said to be serving a fried-catfish sandwich that made even full-blooded Cajuns weep with gratitude.

“Dottie,” he grumbled to my mother, as we rolled down I-10 and the city skyline receded. “Don’t ever tell anyone we went to Houma, Louisiana to eat catfish for lunch.”

When I told him that catfish might actually be dinner, that we might first stop for lunch in Thibodeaux for boiled crawfish, he began to panic. He knew there was no hope of a delicatessen in such a wilderness. Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out a coupon for a run-of-the-mill Italian joint in downtown New Orleans, a place where, if he had to eat Italian, he could at least order his preferred dish: veal parmesan, without the cheese.

“You’ll get a good meal here,” he said, waving the coupon.

“Dad, did you ever eat there?”

“No, but I got a coupon. And Italian is Italian.”

He died two years ago. Toward the end, he was invalided and his world was limited to the meals my mother brought him at bedside. Tellingly, as he began to fail, he lost his taste for salt, for delicatessen, for all the heart-stopping glory of pastrami or lox wings or knockwurst and kraut. The bypass surgery years earlier certainly provoked some of the moderation, but something else was at play. In the end, he was eating less and less, and most of it very simple, very basic, very bland. He developed a sweet tooth, of all things. Ice cream became one of his few remaining favorites. Regardless, and to the very end, if my mother made it, it was better.

* * *

Two weeks ago, I found myself exhausted after a long day on a film set. My family was back home in Baltimore, and the house was empty. I’d been eating late meals all over New Orleans, and of course, as anyone familiar with Crescent-City cuisine is aware, a string of late New Orleans meals will kill a man dead.

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing down here, and the only way to survive the local fare, good as it is, is to retreat now and again to one’s own kitchen. A salad here, a broiled piece of chicken there, and maybe, just maybe, you come off a 120-day film shoot with a body weight that is moderately less than planetary. So I drove to Breaux Mart, the neighborhood grocery, just before it closed.

And there, in the deli section, I glimpsed a jar of kosher half-sours. Not Ba-Tampte, but close enough. In the dairy section, I found Breakstone sour cream. And late that night, alone in the City That Care Forgot, I sat down and ate something that my father, a man who knew what he knew, had invented.

The first spoonful threw me back to childhood, a Proustian moment of remembrance and joy and, yes, sudden grief. I sat there eating and crying, finally admitting to myself that, for all the great chefs and magnificent dishes and wondrous journeys toward a finer and newer meal, this was, for me, utterly perfect.

I had seconds.

* * *

EthanBernie

 

My father holding my son, Ethan.  1995.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Intrinsics: A parental kvell

05 Mar
March 5, 2015

band

The young man with the knowing smile above — and trust me, he already knows much more than me about a growing pile of stuff  — is my son, Ethan. He plays piano and keyboards. His professional debut was at Sidney’s Lounge on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans, where the estimable Kermit Ruffins, tending bar that night, made him sit and play four songs on the battered upright. He nervously gave up two Fess standards and some Fats Domino. He was fourteen. Somewhere on the internet, if you google Ethan Simon, you’ll find an audition video of him playing bop for admission to an summer jazz camp. He goes to work on Kern’s “All The Things You Are” and Charlie Parker’s “Now Is The Time.” He was seventeen then.

He’s now just shy of his twenty-first birthday, and his band, The Intrinsics, of Cambridge, Mass. and whatever parts of greater Boston require the services of a Memphis-style soul outfit, has just dropped its first recordings.

For those doing the math, this means that apart from all the fixed and certain father-son pride that ordinarily prevails, I have had the additional pleasure, the lagniappe if you will, of watching my kid grow as a musician for nearly a decade. Those who know my overbearing love of American music will hear no hyperbole when I say that I couldn’t be more proud if this kid rolled into Yale Law or an internship at Goldman Sachs. Actually, if you really know me, you’ll understand that I am having trouble conjuring alternate post-graduation paths of glory, as the ones I just mentioned would vaguely shame much of my left-leaning family tree. I don’t know if music will be the life he chooses; I do know that making people dance is always rightful endeavor. In these times, especially so.

Anyway, the first two tracks below are composed by Mr. Simon and Rachel Horn, the alumna with whom he carefully retooled a Motown-heavy campus band into grittier, horn-heavy R&B outfit. Following those tracks are a workup of the ballad “Killing Me Softly,” and the Irma Thomas classic, “Wish Someone Would Care.”

I’m going to expend one more paragraph to thank three fellows who, in the following order, got hold of my son when he was flaming out on a diet of Mozart and Chopin and ready, at age twelve, to chuck the piano for the guitar, or girls, or video games or whatever. Davis Rogan, thank you for teaching him the New Orleans rolls of Fess and Fats. Lafayette Gilchrist, thank you for so carefully mentoring him in jazz improvisation and composition. And Tom McDermott, thank you for showing him that of which a left hand is capable, and, more important, just how much precision and dedication there is to the entire musical journey. But mostly, congrats, Ethan. If your grade-point average skims anywhere above a 3.0, I’ll know you guys aren’t rehearsing enough.

The rest of The Intrinsics:

NADIA URREA      VOCALS.

JEREMY SABATH       VOCALS+TROMBONE.

TREE PALMEDO      TRUMPET

BEN SOBEL       TENOR SAX

JOHN BASS TOURNAS      BARI+ALTO SAX

ALEX GRAFF       GUITAR

JORDAN LAGANA         BASS

MAX SEISS        AUX PERCUSSION

MATT GOLD        DRUMS

And if you need a professional R&B outfit for an event anywhere near Boston, visit the website where these tunes are also embedded, along with their performing schedule and other info:  www.intrinsicsband.com.   And once there, as Eddie Floyd so aptly put it, if there’s something you need, just raise your hand.

Off The Record (Music and Lyrics by Ethan Simon and Rachel Horn)

Shoulda Known Better  (Music and Lyrics by Ethan Simon and Rachel Horn)

Killing Me Softly   (Written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel)

I Wish Someone Would Care   (Written by Irma Thomas)

 

 

Ted Lippman (1929-2014)

17 Dec
December 17, 2014

M

It’s hard to scale the heights of requiem without stumbling into a deep ravine of sentiment and cliche, and I know some will measure what follows against the known place of the old Baltimore Sun in the pantheon of American newspapering. No, we were not a Washington Post of the last late century, with Bradlee’s feet on the desk and Watergate dueling scars adorning a set jawline, or a New York Times for the Middle Atlantic, our paper-of-record certitude enshrining our every effort. We certainly weren’t some rough-and-tumble tabloid squealing about headless bodies in topless bars, or even a Chicago broadsheet or Hearst rag for which Hildy Johnsons might labor with gin on their breath and cigarette burns between their typing fingers.

We were pretty staid. Too staid, perhaps, and a little too proud of a noble, grey history. We were often accused by our younger sibling, the Evening Sun, of pretense and pomposity. H. L. Mencken, who we vaguely claimed but who had in fact labored for most of his career at the evening edition, remarked famously that the morning paper’s scribes wrote like accountants. Even when I arrived in 1982, there was still some of that. And yes, we puffed ourselves up with the idea that what we wrote mattered.  The wall-sized photograph of the Baltimore skyline in the fifth-floor conference room was crowned by The Sun’s light-for-all masthead and underlined by the affirmation: “The Baltimore Sun.  One of the world’s great newspapers.”

Evening Sun wags — and every last one, even the hacks who couldn’t write a lick, thought themselves a wag when compared to the morning paper’s Brooks Brothers-wearing, Washington-bureau-coveting pecksniffs — quickly fashioned a savage, get-over-yourselves reply: “The Evening Sun. One of the world’s newspapers.”

Having been hired straight out of college by The Sun, I might have done better, in the short run, to have landed at the evening paper, which held local coverage to be its bread and butter. By contrast, the morning staff was intensely hierarchical, and a boychild hired to be the junior cop reporter was staring at a couple years running the police districts, then a three- or four-year sojourn in a county bureau, then perhaps, an extra hand in Annapolis during the legislative session. If you jumped through all those hoops without falling on your ass, if you looked and dressed the part, and if you showed enough level-headed temperment to master The Sun demeanor, a Washington posting might just beckon. Or perhaps even one of the coveted foreign bureaus.

In previous decades, the newspaper had put a premium on Harvard men, and yes, there were a lot of bylines with waspish names, right down to the juniors and thirds, initials for given names and old family monikers lodged somewhere in the middle. There was, at the old Baltimore Sun, a certain code of employ.  The place smelled of a certain gracious, dry rectitude, with just a slight trace of formaldehyde. I think I smelled of something else, something more common to ordinary newspapering.

But damn, I was proud to be there in my twenty-second year, and yes, I aspired to join that long grey line. And yet the guardians of the old Sun, while polite and even tolerant at points, could be intimidating. Nothing made the young metro-desk proles go slack-jawed faster than the vision of a Price or an O’Mara gliding through the newsroom on home leave from the Paris or Jerusalem bureaus. These were men who closed hotel bars in Beirut and Rome, who buttonholed world leaders, who strutted through coronations and shooting wars.  And even more whispered and enigmatic was a newsroom visit by one of the kohaneem of the Sun’s inner temple, the editorial writers.

Mostly, these men — and for a long while they were mostly men, and very much white — would only deign to journey up from their fourth floor Holy of Holies and maneuver through the newsroom maze to consult with the National Desk or the Foreign Editor, or the top editors in their corner offices. There was nothing that a metro reporter could tell these gents about something as pedestrian as Baltimore, Maryland. The whole of the city was self-evident to these men, as were we who scurried through its political wards and police precincts.

I say this with no cynicism whatsoever.  I was a kid then, and the resumes of these giants were speckled with the great postings of American journalism. They had seen great happenings at close hand. And they had written of real spectacle and history, the stuff of real purpose.  Me, I was still waiting for the State Police barracks in Hagerstown to identify the second victim in that three-car fatal.

My favorite of the high priests was physically unprepossessing.  In fact, he was elfin.

Theo “Ted” Lippman, Jr. was a man who I managed to pass in the hallways and corridors three or four times a week.  He was never without a scrap or two of paper, always in mid-assemblage of a pithy column on politics or current events that ran to about 500-600 carefully chosen words and was lodged at corner left on the opinion page beneath the totem of staff editorials.  I wrote it long, goes the old newsroom saw, because I didn’t have time to write it short.  Lippman’s column was always so disciplined and tight, so keenly edited, that I imagined beads of blood forming on his forehead as he trimmed his way into ten or eleven column inches.  He was always worth the read.  Even more so when compared to many of the droning, this-bears-watching, yet-on-the-other-hand staff editorials perched atop his signed column.

Mr. Lippman was also an expert on the life and work of Mencken, the great essayist and skeptic who bestrode the joint Evening Sun-Morning Sun newsroom like a colossus. The Baltimore paper had not produced anyone as elemental to American culture and, though many had ceased to read Mencken as part of the literary canon, he remained the essential icon for those of us on Calvert Street.  For one thing, Mencken could turn a phrase; his memoirs and essays are often brilliant and, at points, genuinely timeless.  For another, we were all of us wandering the dim halls of an ancient ink-stained cloister, and such places demand at least one founding saint.

Ted Lippman’s editing of Mencken’s work, published several years before, marked him in my mind as more than one of the paper’s better political columnists.  He was an Author, a man of letters capable of assessing and framing the legendary work of the Great Sage.  That he had published other political biographies of Ed Muskie, Spiro Agnew and Franklin Roosevelt compounded my awe.

Moreover, Mr. Lippman’s knowledge of the American presidency seemed to be without peer.  He could conjure trends and historical precedent in fresh ways, and his column became a veritable provocation of theory and argument in presidential election years.  Before arriving at The Sun in 1965, he had been the Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution, the great Southern citadel of progressive change in the civil rights years. He had covered the March on Washington and King’s great oratory at the Lincoln Monument.  He had covered the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missle Crisis.  Old Axe-Handle himself, Lester Maddox, had derided Ted Lippman in print and by name as one of the “pinks, punks and eggheads” who were so foolishly serving godless communism in advocating for social justice and integration.

When we passed in The Sun’s hallways or found ourselves sharing an elevator, Mr. Lippman would invariably nod, offer a quiet how-are-you and proceed past. Never do I recall having the effrontery to venture more than a “good column today” or  some bland muttering about the weather. Mostly, I just smiled back and considered myself wanting in the eyes of one of the old Sun vanguard.  Not that I could bear to say much more to O’Mara, or Price, or any of the priestly class; I was still unwashed and unpromoted, still running the police districts and gathering string on ghetto murders, still donning blue jeans and polo shirts, still unable to sustain myself for more than twenty minutes straight as an apostle of The Sun way.  I was a reporter.  I worked with reporters; we spilled soup and coffee on ourselves, wrote too long for the newshole and then had our last grafs trimmed away.  This Lippman fellow — he was a journalist.

A Brunswick, Ga. native, he had a perfect, gentle drawl. He wore seersucker in the summer. And bow ties, for the love of Christ.  That’s right: The man could come correct in a fucking bowtie, looking as if he was ready for either the Scopes trial or the Pettis Bridge. Watching him, I actually conjured an entire fictive backstory for the man: Lippman, Jewish name. Southern heritage, though. A great great grandfather who was one of the sutlers following Sherman’s army into Georgia, then settling to embrace life on a small town square. Maybe a dry goods store. Then a couple generations of gentle assimilation along Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, until finally, young Theodore rebels just enough to tell his father that the family business will have to do without him, that he is a man of letters. And eventually, he writes his way to the top tier, an advocate for a new South and a careful, thoughtful observer of real history. Not that I had the courage to inquire directly. As I said, I don’t think I ever formed any sentence longer than a basic greeting or compliment, but it was enough: The sight of Ted Lippman moving past me in a hallway made me proud to work at my newspaper.

His daughter got to Calvert Street about six years after me, hired off the San Antonio Light by the Evening Sun.  She was a tall drink of water, too, seemingly towering in heels over her father in the rare moments when I saw them together. But don’t go there yet: She was married and so was I, and of course, she was Evening Sun. Our early interactions were spiced with the requisite amount of soft, familial snide that passed for inter-edition collegiality. The woman actually thought she worked for the better newspaper. Or at least, she carried it like that.

When the papers were merged and we were working on the same metro staff, I got to know her a bit better. I once spilled a coffee on her desk blotter and earned some playful wrath for it. I offered to buy a new blotter, she asked for a hardback copy of Homicide instead. When she published her first novel a few years later, I happily blurbed it. We did a bookstore signing together once in White Marsh. That sort of thing.

Years later, I was separated, out of a marriage. Her, too. Ignoring the fixed newsroom wisdom that for good of the human species, veteran reporters should never mate or reproduce, we began to date and, at some point, it was time to face the lady’s parents. The scenario, fraught enough under the usual circumstances, takes on added comedy when an ex-metro desk scribbler, and a cop reporter at that, shows up to claim the hand of the daughter of an old Sun sachem.  On the Calvert Street of Ted Lippman’s day, an editorial writer and signature columnist wouldn’t wipe his ass with a police reporter, especially one as badly dressed and unevenly tempered as some we might name.

By then, both of us had left The Sun. I was among the youngest journalists taking a 1995 buyout offered by the newspaper chain that had purchased the paper; Ted Lippman was among the oldest. The fact that I had taken up with Laura after publishing a couple books helped my cause somewhat; the television work was, of course, tinged with apostasy. And even for as much of a progressive as Ted Lippman managed to be in his own era — his 1970s beard alone was enough to make his insurance-salesman father apoplectic at the idea of his son’s possible leftist allegiances — I’m sure I was a lot for him to swallow. Once, at a family gathering in a Baltimore restaurant, I made a remark about having been called a Marxist in print by someone. My father in law didn’t hesitate.  “Well,” he asked, his face offering only bland curiosity, “are you a Marxist?”

It turned out the version I had fabricated of the Lippman family history had only small shards of truth. My wife’s great grandfather went to the southland a Jew, and was even a president of his Alabama temple. But his son got wise to his environs and reached adulthood as a Methodist, and the grandson, Ted Lippman, was so far removed from the sons of the covenant that he fairly broke out in a sweat at being confined to a synagogue for the exhausting, three-hour duration of my son’s bar mitzvah. Nonetheless, I spent my years as Ted’s son-in-law engaged in a prolonged effort to bring him back to the tribe, if only for comedy’s sake.  Cinephiles will remember the running gag in Cat Ballou, in which Cat’s rancher-father is convinced that his Native American farmhand is, like all of his race, certain to be among the ten lost Israelite tribes. “Shalom,” he continually greets the kid, much to the farmhand’s annoyance.

As it was with me, arriving at my father-in-law’s Delaware shore home, taking a seat on the sofa and interrupting his perusal of the Sunday morning political talkfests with as much Yiddishism as I could cram into ordinary sentences. “Gevalt, what kind of narishkeit is this you’re listening to? Wolfowitz is a behaima. This whole thing with the weapons of mass destruction? Bupkis. So, nu, what else is on? You have the remote?  Geviss.”

Alas, Ted Lippman never broke character. None of it stuck. Not a word.

His wit was dry, and always with that laconic Southern windup.  It was not the call-and-response banter of the East Coast; his best lines would be carefully set up, much as in his columns. Once, when Laura was trying to prevail on him to order carry-in sushi with the rest of us, her father refrained from any single negative assertion with regard to the eating of raw fish and seaweed, merely conveying looks of increasing perplexity and dismay.  And then finally, an hour later, eyes twinkling, as he opened the box flap of his dissenting order from Mancini’s:

“Pizza. Now this is American food.”

He was ever agreeable, unless either of his daughters wanted to argue with him, at which point he delighted in playing the provocateur. He would often back into outrageous statements and positions, then profess shock when Laura or Susan would go for the hook. Then he would reel them in with even more indefensible outrageousness. He consistently denied any childhood memories in which he was complicit or guilty in their eyes, insisting that he had no recollection of any such circumstance. When he let you know him, he was hilarious. And damned clever.  And just as I was proud to work at his newspaper, I was proud to find myself in his family.

I tried to hug him a few times. Jews hug. We do it with relations that we love and we do it with those that we don’t much like, because, hey, with the ones you don’t like, a warm wrap-around puts the schlemiel to shame for whatever mishegas he’s done to annoy you in the first place. And, too, family is family. At any moment the Cossacks may ride into town and carry off one or two of us.  So hug while you can.

I would throw an arm over Ted Lippman now and again because I loved him. And yeah, he would squirm a bit; Protestants aren’t adept at physical embrace, though to be fair, my mother-in-law, Madeline, took to it fine. But her husband? Cornered prey. Finally, on a morning of doorstep goodbyes, my sister-in-law broke everyone up:

“Well, if David’s going to hug Daddy, I suppose I’ll have to do it, too.”

And she did. After which her father looked on me as if I was turning his own children against him.

For fun, we debated politics. I would stake out a position to the left of the Democratic party and then fight from that fixed position against the encyclopedic knowledge of my father-in-law. By standards of my own argumentative family dialectic, it was gentle stuff. Mostly, we talked about The Sun, the newspaper’s struggles and the many buyouts that followed our own. We marked the departures, the forced retirements and finally the firings of so many people that we knew and cared about. There was no schadenfreude. Ted Lippman had been a Sun man in the halcyon era, when it meant something. And as a kid, I had at least been allowed a brief glimpse of the garden before the hissing snake of out-of-town ownership, the bite of the bad Wall Street apple, and the long fall from grace. In the last couple years, it pained me that I could offer less and less newsroom gossip to my father-in-law, or that what gossip I knew was about people too young to tickle his memories.

“Shame,” he would say, the single word sufficing for all that had happened to the newspaper.

He had tried to keep a hand in, to write a column or a book review now and again, to keep those muscles sharp.  But it got so bad that at one point, the op-ed editors — on orders from Chicago — were no longer paying even nominal fees for columns and essays. And Ted Lippman was a professional, and no professional writes for free.  When the paper was slow to pay for one of his last printed columns, my father-in-law, with Southern pride and patience, repeatedly called to inquire about the missing check. Finally, after months, he called the newspaper’s editor in chief directly:

“Tim?  This is Ted Lippman  I know now that you’re not going to pay me for the column, but I’m writing my memoir, and I’ve reached the exact place in the story where I need to know why you won’t pay me for the column.”

The check arrived a couple days later.

But he was a forgiving man, and if a fight ever wounded Ted Lippman, he never showed it. Not to me. He held no grudge against that editor slow to the petty cash drawer; in fact, the story of getting paid at last was worth more to him than the fee itself. The Lester Maddox column that railed against him stayed framed behind his desk for his whole career and into his retirement. Even the bosses with whom he had tangled at The Sun on matters of real significance were, in the end, benign colleagues when he spoke of them in memory.

As for me, the proto-Marxist, bear-hugging, television-hacking member of the rabbinate, I knew I was near enough to his heart when he gifted me all of his heavy clay poker chips and two decks of vintage playing cards featuring the high and mighty of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. These were touchstones of Herculean, late-night card contests featuring Price, O’Mara, Jenkins and the other grey legends, sacred relics rescued from a lost, fallen temple.

They are deeply prized.  As was he.

 

 

 

It’s carnival time

04 Mar
March 4, 2014

A carnival season memory from the other night:

I am walking with my daughter, just shy of four years, from what we know as the Sugar Store toward the Krewe D’Etat parade.  She has mango sorbet on the tip of her nose as she negotiates a fat cone of the stuff.  Three blocks away, the drum tattoo of a high school band gives way to a passing float and the throw-me-something cheers of a crowd.

She squints down the block, sees the lighted float cruise through.

“We missed that one.”

“There’ll be another.  It’s a long parade.”

“Okay.”

Long pause.

“Can everything stay just like it is now?”

“What do you mean?”

She examines her sorbet cone, then looks directly at me.

“Everybody dies.  You’re going to die.  One day I’m going to die.”

My breath leaves me.  Try explaining the ultimate tragedy of life to a four year old.  Try doing it without falling back on the tropes and cliches of theology.  Try telling the truth at this moment. I don’t even know how to begin.

Instead, a calico bounds off the porch of a shotgun double.

“Oh look,” she says.  “A kitty cat.”

And she rushes toward it, laughing.

*   *   *

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone.

 

A rugged individualist punches into the Disney compound.

10 Nov
November 10, 2013

Three year old daughter acting up in a restaurant this afternoon.  Child extricated before meal arrives.  Time out on the sidewalk bench in front of the bistro.  Three year old pouting, arms crossed.

“You know, you can’t be a princess if you don’t use your manners.”

“Why I can’t?”

“Because princesses are nice to everyone.  Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella…they always use their best manners.”

“Well, Daddy, I am a mean, mean princess.”

“Princesses are good. How can you be a princess if you are mean?  There’s no such thing.”

Three year old thinking hard for a long beat.  Then, softly, wearily, as if sad for me:

“Silly, Daddy.  You just don’t know princess things.”

Oy.

In for a bumpy ride with this one.