How I learned to make salsa and chop vegetables
I feel like telling a story tonight. It has nothing to do with anything, but it does have the singular virtue of being mostly true.
In the mid-1980s I sold my first business, a one-person typesetting shop, and set about (with the help of a friend who actually knew how to do such things) remodeling a 1967 Dodge van with three on the tree so that I could follow William Least Heat Moon’s lead and travel the byways of America.
Having been cast out of college into the depths of the Reagan Recession (which now seems a comparatively happy time), I was baffled by his re-election. And so I hoped to learn something of the country in which I lived. (I did not, mostly, come to answer that riddle. I did write a third of a novel which lurks to this day unfinished in the file cabinet across the room.)
This same summer my father had masterfully played the academic grant game and gotten himself money to live in Italy. His second wife, who had been partly raised there, was to join him. As my roommate and oldest friend had finally gotten married, I moved my stuff into my mom’s house and myself into their home (it was nearer to work), and prepared to house-sit in their absence.
A few days before my stepmother was to leave, she casually announced (in something rather different than the rhapsody with which she accompanied a recording of the Ganelin Trio I played for her one night) that her niece was coming up from California, and would be staying in the house, as well. As would her middle son, but I knew him and it’s a big house, and that was all fine.
So the niece shows up, with a boyfriend, driving a hooptie that shouldn’t have made it out of their home neighborhood, much less up I-5. But it did. The boyfriend had stories which involved: (a) his time in a Malaysian prison, which was why he counted every grain of rice on his plate at dinner one night; (b) the scar on his neck from an emergency tracheotomy performed with a ballpoint pen off the shores of Viet Nam; and (c) the perfidious nature of his ex-business partner who had stolen his ex-wife and the pile of money buried in their backyard. He was also able to stand on the bannister and strike the stork pose from Karate Kid.
He was not exactly welcome, but there was no getting rid of him. Though those were my instructions, my stepmother not having the stomach for such things. In turn, he asked me where could he score some blow, and though I was not entirely innocent to the existence of that world I was also happily unable to assist him in this matter.
So. Stepmother headed to Italy, stepbrother moved into the master bedroom, step-cousin and her boyfriend took whatever surface they flopped on, and then disappeared for a few days. Foolishly, I thought the adventure over.
They returned with a third partner, a friend they had stashed somewhere in Oregon, who did nothing but sleep for three days. Meanwhile, I planned a close-of-business retirement party, complete with small kegs from the then independent Red Hook Brewery, and a donation from a fellow who’d written a book about beer that I’d typeset. (In those days I threw an annual party and invited all the people I knew, who didn’t know each other and had nothing in common. One year we ended up on the floor drinking moonshine & lemonade while watching Gumby shorts, or some of us did.)
On the fourth morning this new friend awoke. He was a larger man, beefy, and engaging. We talked for a couple hours over coffee. And he had a story.
It went like this: In the town where he came from, he had been the man who bought pounds and converted them to ounces. Apparently he had been the only middleman in that position, or so he represented the case to have been. All was well until one night he and an obliging female were in a hotel room doing what came naturally with such raucous enthusiasm that the folks in the room next door called the police.
Which would’ve been fine, except he had several pounds of product under the bed.
So he had jumped bail, gone on one hell of a binge (though I’ve no idea how he supported it; I suspect he’d just run out of money when he landed in the house I was theoretically caretaking), and finally sobered up.
We talked. I was sober and sensible and uninvolved, and I had read a lot of procedural detective stories and watched lots of “Hill Street Blues” or whatever was on that season.
His principal concern, which seemed at the time unreasonable (and seems more plausible now), was that the police would beat the hell out of him if he turned himself in. Which, he admitted, was really what he was eventually going to have to do.
I suggested that he get an attorney to accompany him to the police station, believing that this would ensure better treatment. Even if it was to be a public defender, as by now he had no money. (In hindsight, I suppose his real concern was that he was going to be put in the position of having to do hard time or turn in his suppliers. But, in truth, I simply wanted the whole lot of them out of the house I was responsible for.)
Talked out on that subject, he allowed as how he’d been a chef, and since I had a party going off that night, what was I planning to serve?
Uh, well, beer?
No, no, that wouldn’t do.
So off we went to the supermarket with $50 of my money. He was, suddenly, happy, a man with a purpose, and skills.
And I became his prep cook.
It was the middle of summer, hydroplane season, and so we made salsa. Very patiently he showed me how to hold a knife, how to cut and dice vegetables. He ransacked my stepmother’s well-stocked spice racks, added a little of this, some of that, and produced the first salsa I remember having cared enough about to eat too much of.
These many years later, I still think of him this time of year. Today I stood cutting peppers and slicing onions and dicing tomatoes, sneaking in a wee bit of garlic that my wife doesn’t think necessary, wacking up cilantro and putting in just not quite enough salt. And I am still grateful for the lesson.
As it turned out, that was the only time I saw the man sober.
He called home, once the cooking was done. His mother, to whom he had not spoken for a great many years, was the only person he could think to call to pick him up at the airport. Alas, her attendant had answered the phone and explained that she had Alzheimer’s.