YESTERDAY WAS THANKSGIVING, but Cathy and I ate no special meal. Last year we also skipped the feast, sent money to Oxfam. The year before we ordered in dinner-for-two from Whole Foods, their overpriced Thanksgiving veggie package. But yesterday there was no special meal.
Living in the world’s most gluttonous country I have a problem with feast days. Truth is that lately I also have a problem with going to fine restaurants. When I have gone, to be with friends we rarely see, who don’t get my ascetic tendencies and wouldn’t consider doing storefront Tex-Mex, there are images that will come to me while chat-chatting over the white tablecloth and the silver, clink-clink how’s the family, images like world famine is standing at the restaurant window, its face pressed to the glass. Ethiopia, Eritrea, Niger, Sudan, Zimbabwe. That vision might qualify me as mad in the world’s most gluttonous country. Okay, I’m mad.
Yesterday, Thanksgiving, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast and a bowl of cereal for lunch. Dinner was a blandish pasta, blandish out of my inability to digest garlic. We did open a bottle of merlot. Maybe next year we’ll do even less and give money to Oxfam.
Not feasting on Thanksgiving can clear the head, and out of that clarity a concept can emerge: giving thanks. How strange on Thanksgiving, but that’s what happened to me yesterday; it wasn’t planned.
Out of boredom and Cathy’s insistence that I leave the apartment, we drove to Venice Beach. In seven years there, between 1968 and 1975, I lived in seven apartments. I was poor, a starving actor, who resembled a starving drunk, and survived because friends fed me and cared for me. Shirley and Ernie, Brian, Mary and Jamie and other good people whose names I’ve forgotten. But walking around Venice yesterday I thought about those good people as I photographed my Venice apartment buildings and buildings where good people had taken care of me.
I give thanks to those friends.
There was another place in Venice, a restaurant on Ocean Front Walk, The LaFayette, a space now occupied by a dress shop named Sunny. I’m sorry that I’ve forgotten the owner’s name, the owner of the LaFayette, it could have been Josť; but I ran a tab with him for months, for years. He didn’t have to feed me; he didn’t have to trust me. When The LaFayette closed I took them a case of wine and thanked Josť for his kindness. One of the waitresses was named Ruby—seventy or so with dyed black hair, dear Ruby.
I give thanks to Josť and to Ruby.
There was another good man who fed me, years before Venice and in a different part of the country. I won’t even guess at his name but do remember that he was Greek and owned a diner on Elmwood Avenue in Evanston, Illinois. In 1957, at nineteen, I had quit Northwestern and was working in a bookstore—Chandler’s on Davis Street. I wasn’t a drunk yet so I wasn’t drinking away my wages but still had no money, a lousy economizer, two days after payday. I was paid on Friday and by Monday I was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my room, a rooming house on Grove Avenue, across from the YMCA. When I had money, and by that I mean on weekends, I would eat at the Greek diner right around the corner.
Isn’t it reassuring to know that given the absence of angels there are good people about? Isn’t it reassuring to know that there was for me, around the corner from my boarding house, in cold, cold Evanston, Illinois, a diner and a dear Greek man who, for several weeks after I started that job at Chandler’s, would see me come into his diner for meals on weekends and then notice my absence during the week?
What did this good man say to me when I came in one payday weekend, after my weekday absence?
"We miss you during the week. What happens? You taking the El down to Michigan Avenue? Eating fancy?"
Is that what he said, something like that? And what did I say? At nineteen, a year out of Alabama, what did I say?
And after an exchange that could have been something like that, he fed me and then told me that I could run a tab during the week and pay him on payday.
I give thanks. The Greek owner of a diner on Elmwood Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, 1957.
Last night, after my day in Venice, and the evening's meal, the pasta and the merlot, I put myself in my La-Z Boy and closed my eyes. I saw a colorful tent sitting on the sand in magical Venice at night. And a long table with a white tablecloth and fine china and silver. Sitting at the table were Shirley and Ernie, Brian, Mary and Jamie, Josť and Ruby from the LaFayette and the dear Greek from the Evanston diner. All sitting at this beautiful long table, and I was there. And with music and excellent food I served them all. Until the morning, giving thanks. ###
Published originally on 24 November 2006