Part 1 of 3
Part 1: Outgrowing the Closet
Part 2: The Closet Didn’t Get Smaller
Part 3: How Jenny McCarthy Saved My Life
The scary thing about gold-star-days is that they usually come without warning or notice and being adaptable is crucial. Still traumatized by the experience of my father treating me like some stray dog he housed for a little bit and now had to release into the wild before running in the other direction while demanding I “Go! Go on boy. Get out of here!” I was actually facing this new world straight on. I knew college was going to be a blast, but I had no idea how long it would take to feel that way. Actually, after my first few days in the dorms I was skeptical the “good times” would come at all.
My first dorm room in college was at the end of the hall, level with the treetops overlooking the half-moon driveway in front of the dorm. On move-in day I watched post-pubescent students below struggling to unpack their cars while kissing and hugging their parents good bye. It was almost as if having an orgasm had given them a sense of maturity, confidence, and independence. With a fake smile and the sound of annoyance, the embarrassed prepubescent kids stood still, insisting, “I’m fine, really. Will you go now?” I think my hormones were in transition from the separation anxiety so I gave dad a campus tour before he hit the road back home. Everything was fresh in my mind, having been to orientation only a few weeks earlier, so naturally I was the perfect tour guide.
We left the dorm and walked towards the Ackerman student union, which at UCLA is like a mile up hill—both ways. That’s the Bill Cosby version my dad would tell, only he’d find a way to weave in snowy conditions and a lack of shoes so we’d really understand his struggle. With each step we got closer to campus the more he hurried through another nuanced anecdote from his Rutgers days. He spouted off, no doubt for his own benefit as much mine, trinkets of wisdom and advice to prepare me for the next life chapter of a rough first pass of a book still in desperate need of some major editing. Narratives of being in the nerdy frat that eventually merged with the frat notorious for partying, because “us nerds had the better house!” came out of him one right after another. Aside from engaging him in a political debate or what’s going on in the options market, my father isn’t normally such a Chatty Cathy. Like a mature Holden Caufield he smirked at those years of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He looked longingly at the red brick clock tower off in the distance and made piece with those Ivy league good ol’ days being so far away now. I felt sad to think his chance to reminisce would somehow cease once our tour was over. I was the last of his boys to leave the house, and there wasn’t going to be another who’d need to be dropped off at the front step of adulthood. We were all grown up now, and that fact only compounded his fear of getting old. His chance to remember the reckless abandon and wonder that are behest one’s first taste of independence may not come again and I was felt responsible for this revelation. I’m just glad we had our birds and the bees talk when I was six.
Twelve years prior, dad pulled my brothers and I into his bedroom one Saturday morning. “I want all of you to pay attention, because I only want to show you this once,” he said, taking a condom from his mid-century dutch bedside table into his had with a carrot he got from the veggie crisper drawer of our 1970’s burnt sienna Amana refrigerator. Through demonstration, he explained how to put a condom on a large carrot. It was like sitting in on a department store kitchen demo for the new carrot saver 3000. “Leave some room at the tip,” he said. Maurice seemed to understand the reason for this modern day charades with props. Even Allan seemed to recognize the relevance. I, on the other hand, wanted to know if there were more veggies I could dress up in latex raincoats to produce my very own vegan virgin version of Singing in the Rain. I thought he could have at least peeled the carrot for his culinary condom show and tell, but he was recently divorced and the kitchen was new territory he had only just began to explore. We barely had furniture in that house let alone a vegetable peelers, but I digress…
As we walked around campus we couldn’t help but remark about the manicured and maintained UCLA grounds. Freshly mowed soft rolling grassy hills peppered with students napping between classes filled the spaces between monument-sized structures or brick, limestone and cement. Walkways of grayish blue and purple blocks laid in a meticulous herringbone pattern weaving up, down and around the scattered buildings of beautifully modern shapes covered in traditional skins of East coast brick.
Everything seemed digestible—tolerable even—considering the week of anxiety and sleepless nights I’d had leading up to that moment. And all of that shifted when we reached the student union where I was to get my textbooks. The bookstore was purgatory. It was compact and unorganized. It felt like a maze filled with thousands of mice trying to find a single piece of Swiss cheese or even better “used” Swiss cheese, because that was about thirty bucks cheaper. The only advantage to purchasing new textbooks was the higher resale value. They garnered more money at the quarter’s end when the school bought them back. That money, given in cash, purchased our alcohol and marijuana for celebrating the end of finals. That same money is the reason why textbooks were stolen from campus everyday. Dad took one look at the mass hysteria inside and told me I could handle getting my books some other time. After all, he had already been through this with two other boys…actually he only did it with Maurice since Allan was introduced to Northwestern by my uncle Jack who lived in Skokie. So I guess it’s true, the middle child is usually neglected and often gets the raw end of the carrot stick.
We made it back to my dorm room while one of my roommates was moving his stuff in. His name was Mace and he was twice my size. He was really tall and really white. More white than the liquid paper nobody seems to use anymore. Ok fine, he was eggshell. But I’m less speaking about the color of his skin, and more about the home he left behind. That was so white he and his family didn’t believe in evolution and voted for Bush thinking Anheuser was just missing from his ballot. He wore basketball jerseys and slicked his blond hair back behind the cubic zirconium studs in both lobes. I noticed his legs were shaved but he didn’t look like a cyclist or even act like Armstrong, but who was I to judge. If a man wants to shave his legs so be it. He obviously had this thing for Britney Spears, because he had pinned up seventeen mini posters of the dancing diva around the room before even unloading his clothes. I didn’t mind Ms. Spears at all. I think I even appreciated her more than Mace, but for more shameful reasons. Our third roommate hadn’t even moved in yet. Couldn’t we have waited for our meeting about the room’s decorating scheme? Mace was a giant so its not like I was going to pick a fight by questioning his nesting abilities. If I did, I could see him picking my dad up and tossing him out the window. “Hey,” he said in a really macho voice.
“Hi how’s it going?” I asked him in my Nathan Lane nasal speech. There was no response so I assumed he didn’t hear me. Sometimes I think my pitch is so high that only dogs and certain African tree monkeys can, but Mace was neither canine nor African.
Using his nickname for me, dad lovingly called me “boychick,” and up until recently I hadn’t seen the irony in that. It was always cute but never in front of strangers. Then he kissed me on the forehead and left. I was alone with the un-jolly white giant. So I started to admire his Spears posters and figured eventually he would talk to me we’d be besties. I had an unnatural sense of optimism for day one of freshman year.
When Mace did eventually acknowledge my presence, it was to ask me to join him in roaming the halls to say “hi” to everyone on our floor. I couldn’t wait, and thought it was a sweet gesture, until we actually roamed the halls only saying “hey” to everyone we passed along the way. Just the one word. Where he was mammoth in brawn he was lacking in brains—not a conversationalist. I figured the best system was to start at one end and go full circle up and down both hallways and stop at every door until we got back to our own. I was so enthusiastic about getting to know everyone that if given the time, I would have baked some cookies for the floor and done all the talking, but Mace felt he should be the face of room 418 north. He assumed I’d bring up Brittany and Christina more than I should and he was probably right about that, but so what? Who cares? We’re just trying to get to know these people we’re going to see every day in our towels and flip flops with our toiletries in a plastic basket in tow. Mace had different plan. He figured it was best to only stop at the rooms boarding sluttish looking girls or jocks in wife beaters and jerseys. So that’s what we ended up doing. And that’s how we met Ronald.
Ronald was a few doors down from us and he had two Japanese exchange students in his prison quarters. They knew each other well and had no intention of getting to know their caucasian roommate. Ronald seemed friendly and we shook hands. He shook hands like he was nervous, or more accurately, like he had ADDHDDHDDD or just too much caffeine and anticipation. Once the small chat ended—to be honest I wasn’t even sure it started—Ronald asked us if we wanted to smoke. I quickly asked, “cigarettes?” and they both laughed at me.
“No you idiot! Weed!”
I nodded my head like I knew exactly what they were talking about. My mother always called it grass, so I was slow on the uptake.
I had no idea I’d be interpreting street slang on day one. How was I supposed to pull this one off? Flashbacks to sixth grade D.A.R.E. flooded my subconscious and big brother felt like he was looking over my shoulder from the ceiling of the cement-walled dorm room. Mace offered our room as a place to smoke, because of the roommates who had arrived, he and I were consenting adults.
We made the trek four doors back to our cell and all I could think was, wow I’ve been away from my dad for less than two hours and already I’m doing drugs. College is gonna be awesome! Ronald put some green leafy tea with orange fuzzies into what I thought was a beautifully hand blown Murano glass pipe and handed it to me alongside his a magenta Bic lighter.
“Oh you’re too kind you go first,” I said, and immediately passed it to Mace. This was all I could do to get a quick watch and learn lesson of how to smoke marijuana out of a Dale Chihuly sculpture. I could see them lighting it and sucking in. Seemed simple enough, but there was also this hole they covered on the side of the pipe. When they finished sucking in, they would release their finger from the hole and continued sucking for fresh air. One of them referred to that as clearing it. When the pipe made its way back to me, I cautiously thought I was ready. Well here goes nothing, I thought to myself, letting peer pressure—the real gateway drug—temporarily take control over the wheel of my better judgement.
First thing I did was burn my thumb holding the lighter over the bowl of the pipe. They both laughed at me and I tried again with my wrist turned out. The second time it worked and after a single mmmbop of inhaling smoke I did the inevitable—I coughed. But worse than the throat irritation, and lung that felt like it was leaping from my chest, I had coughed back into the pipe with my finger still on the little hole [I’ve since learned “they” call this a “carb”] and caused the brown and golden orange leafy embers shoot out like an Indian blow dart toward the floor. Mace and Ronald were pissed. All I could do was cough causing my teary eyes to jolt from their sockets. I thought I was in hell with my throat and chest burning, hoping someone would come running with water. The guys scrambled madly to scoop up the nugget of weed and get whatever they could salvage back into the pipe. They never again invited me to smoke with them after that. Talk about first impressions. I wasted some ganja almost burning down our dormitory and our relationship was forever doomed. And I thought I was quick to judge.
Since I was starting to progress out of my teenage years of naïve bliss and into the harsh realities of being a young man in the world, I figure I’d pair this story with our fantastic meal at The Progress in San Francisco—a restaurant that is free of judgment and pretension because it finds inspiration in so many different cuisines and techniques that it would be throwing a stone in its own glass house if it ever offered a critique.
The Progress is the sister restaurant to Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski the masterminds behind State Bird Provisions which happens to be next door too. Where State Bird Provisions is known for their small plates served dim sum style on trays and carts around the restaurant, The Progress is a slightly more formal affair where the food is served banquet-style. Here’s how it works. A menu that changes daily is presented to the table listing the dishes being served that evening. The list of 15 dishes is arranged from cold to hot and light to heavy. Your task is to pick the six that sound the most interesting to the entire table and then the kitchen will fire up enough servings of each for everyone at the table to enjoy. It’s a set price of $65 per person, and that can include dessert or you can always select six savory dishes only, and add a dessert dish for another $10 per person. In fact you can add as many additional dishes for $10 per person so if you’re really hungry then you can order the entire menu!
For those of you who are like me and get anxiety when you think about how many dishes you want on a menu but know that you’re limited by the size of your stomach and sometimes wallet—this is the solution. The only caveat is that you need to dine with people who eat the same things you do. If there’s one vegetarian in the group, then that could limit all your dishes to one segment of the culinary spectrum and you don’t want to resent your food-fickle friends. So my advice is to choose your table-mates in advance and hopefully they’re as adventurous a bunch as you.
And don’t forget the cocktails. The bar is fantastic and the mixologists are serving up some really interesting bevies. Stop in for a drink on a night when you don’t have a reservation just to check things out. Or if you’re waiting for a table at State Bird Provisions, you can always wait in The Progress bar and enjoy some fantastic classic cocktails and some new twists.
Here’s what we had January 21st, 2015 with one of our favorite bottles of wine, the 2008 petite sirah from Turnbull in Napa Valley.
We started with two cocktails: the Mezzanine and a Manhattan.
The cocktails were the perfect accompaniment for the amuse-bouche they served us—four small bites to get our palates warmed up.
Yuzu and olio nuovo marinated raw tuna with green daikon
Porcini and Mt. Tam dumplings with nettle salsa verde…the Mt. Tam cheese inside was gooey!
Crispy curry rabbit ‘karaage’
Black butter butternut squash with caramelized onion and swiss chard
Lamb merguez with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid
Dungeness crab, bok choy and tofu ‘stir-fry’