Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanksgiving at Cavallo's

The same place can be completely different, depending on when you visit.

Take Cavallo’s.

It’s bar and restaurant in Utica. I frequented the place late in my high school career and whenever I was home from college, more often than not for Tuesday wing nights. I remember sitting around the table with three or four good friends, shooting the shit over piles of spicy buffalo wings. The place would be busy, but we rarely had to wait for a table or wait long for food. And for all the people, it remained the kind of place where you could hear one another speak.

That’s how I remembered Cavallo’s.

In 2008, I made the drive up to New York from Baltimore. I was excited for the trip. A rare visit home, not to mention time with my closest friends toward the close of my first year living in Maryland, where I’d started to build a social life, but where I wasn’t really at home, besides the fact that I’d just been dumped by one of my first Baltimore girlfriends. And the wings. I could practically smell them as I crossed the border from Pennsylvania to New York on I-81. Save for some peanut M&Ms and a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew, I’d held off on dinner in anticipation of sitting down with my buddies and ordering a plate of 20 wings upon my arrival at Cavallo’s.

By the time I arrived, it was almost 11. I should have known something was off from the parking lot. Not a spot to be found. So I parked at the bank next door, climbed out of my car, and promptly plunged myself ankle deep into a pile of slush.

I crossed the parking lot and made my way inside, where the first person I ran into was Marianne Philips. Marianne Philips, the senior homecoming queen to my nerdiest freshman self, who I had crushed on pretty hard a decade earlier. There with a cast of other beautiful people just inside the door. And there I was, alone, by any definition, foot soaked, and starving. I remembered having visions of wowing her one day. Rolling back into Utica in a sports car, sunglasses on, a beautiful woman on my arm, reputation as a famous author preceding me.

This would not be my night.

I soldiered on. The place was almost unrecognizable. The Thanksgiving eve bar scene had taken over the premises so it was standing room only in the dining room, in the cigar bar, in the ordinarily private party rooms. I exchanged a series of texts before finding my friends, dancing adjacent to the DJ’s booth on the patio area.

I hadn’t come dressed to dance, but I made do. Clasped hands with Billy and Ray and met the cast of new friends that had gathered around them. Was introduced, if not by name, to Stephanie when she bent over in front of Billy and shook her rear end right against his crotch--all but twerking years before it had fully come into style.

An hour passed. On an empty stomach, three beers was enough to loosen me up and tire me out. Stephanie had to use the bathroom, so we used that as an opportunity to collectively migrate closer to the bar, farther from the DJ. To buy the next round. To talk a little.

“You seeing that girl?” I asked Billy.

“Who?”

“The one who’s dry humping your leg out there?”

“She works with me.” He finished his drink and set it on the bar. Gave one of the bartenders the eye. “You think she likes me?”

“I think so.”

When Stephanie came back to us we migrated to the dining room, thinking it might be a little less crowded, but somehow the crowd had thickened further. Billy parted ways to head to the bathroom, leaving me, Ray, and the girl we had each met that night to make small talk. It went something like this.

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“What?” Stephanie said.

“I asked what you do.”

“I work in accounting.”

“That’s cool.”

“What?”

“I said that’s cool.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Stephanie got preoccupied with her phone and Ray I got to talking a little, all but yelling over the din. I told him about the new Ben Folds album. Told him I had a copy of it in the car and we could listen to it when I gave the guys a ride home at the end of the night.

The better part of an hour passed before my phone vibrated. A text from Billy.

Just made out with a girl in front of Marianne Philips.

I showed it to Ray, thinking he might have some sense of who our friend--by all accounts single--was making out with someplace else in the bar.

No clue.

Who?, I texted back.

Marianne, he replied.

No, who are you making out with.

You don’t know her.

I waited a couple minutes. Where are you?

A couple more minutes passed. Busy. TTYL.

Stephanie finished her drink and walked away from us, not to return the rest of the night.

A half hour passed. My head ached and my stomach growled. All that beer. None of the wings I had anticipated.

For one of those moments that only makes sense in the instant you’re thinking about it, I considered texting my ex back in Baltimore. Telling her we should give things another shot.

That’s when Billy reappeared, hands up, awaiting a high five, which I reluctantly granted him.

“Her name is Lauren,” he said. He went on to explain that the two of them made eye contact when they were waiting in their respective lines outside the rest rooms. He was getting a drink at the bar when she sidled up next to him and massaged his bicep. A minute later he was buying her a drink. A couple minutes after that, they were making out. “And I saw Marianne Philips right behind her, so I kept going. That was for you, man.”

I started to ask him how that was for me.

I let it go.

After another hour, I had sobered up completely. Billy and Ray piled into my Honda Accord. The Accord I had put well over two thousand dollars of repairs into that fall. The Accord that shrieked and then whistled from under the hood after I turned the ignition.

Virtually everything I know about cars I’ve learned from when it’s gone wrong on one of mine.

Take the timing belt.

It’s an essential part of the engine that times the opening and closing of valves.

When it’s about to break, it whistles.

“What the hell is that?” I asked.

“Who knows?” Billy said. “Hey man, Lauren just texted me. She asked what I’m doing after I have dinner tomorrow? What should I say?”

Ray chimed in. “Why don’t you put in that Ben Folds CD?”

I like to consider myself a mostly calm and composed person. Just the same, there’s a breaking point. “Will you guys shut the fuck up?” I said. “What the hell is that whistling?”

“I shouldn’t answer directly right?” Billy said. “I’ll ask her what she’s doing.”

The ride went on like that. Add in my piss-poor sense of direction and Ray trying to direct me to his girlfriend’s house, where, for whatever reason, he had left his car. Eventually, I gave in and gave Billy advice on what to text, and the long-awaited conversation between friends became a conversation between me and a girl I’d never met, over text, Billy as amanuensis.

The fifteen-minute car ride back to our neighborhood neared its end. I pulled up to the stop sign three doors from Billy’s house.

“Fuck, man," Billy said. "I forgot to close my tab."

I laughed. Sure, I cursed, too. But there’s a point at which a night is going to, in aggregate, be just plain shitty. I figured there was only so much bad fortune to go around, so the universe had might as well get it all out of its system right then and there.

So I drove us back to Cavallo’s where Billy banged on the door until one of the waiters came to meet him and tell him he couldn’t come inside. But Billy argued, and remarkably enough, he did eventually get in and got his card back. Did shots with the wait staff, too, the way he tells it.

By the time I had rolled up to the stop sign on our street again, and pulled up to the end of Billy’s driveway it was after 3:00 a.m. Somehow, my foot was still wet. My hunger had subsided, though. I suppose the body has ways of acclimating itself. Of coming to terms with the fact that it won’t get any real sustenance that night.

“It’s after midnight,” Billy said.

“That it is.”

“Well happy Thanksgiving, then.”

I ran a hand through my hair and set it back on the steering wheel a little harder than I meant to, making incidental contact with the horn so staccato beep harmonized with the whistling beneath the hood. “Happy thanksgiving."

Billy got out of the car, puked his guts out, and went inside.

I haven’t been back to Utica for Thanksgiving since.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Boston Pancake Sandwich

As I’ve grown older I’ve felt an ever-increasing weight of responsibility around my diet. Around the age of 25 I started a conscious effort to have at least two or three servings of fruit and two or three servings of vegetables each day. In the years to follow, I grew more conscious about limiting my fats and carbs, sodium and sugar. An avid soda consumer, I switched to only drinking soda once each week.

I tend to give myself more leeway on the road--when I travel for work or a cappella event coverage or vacation. I’ll pop a multi-vitamin in the morning and not worry so much about hitting all the fruits and veggies I should. If there’s a local delicacy that’s come highly recommended, I’ll indulge in some exceptions and order dishes the likes of which I wouldn’t have at home. Still, I try not to overdo it.

January 2012, I found myself seated in The Breakfast Club, a renowned diner in Boston. It was the morning after an a cappella competition, but also the morning of The Super Bowl, in a year when The Patriots had made it to the big dance.

I rolled in around 10 a.m. and the place was packed. One of the luxuries of traveling alone—I was able to find an open stool at the front counter, order myself up a cup of coffee and scan the menu.

I had settled on something in the neighborhood of a breakfast burrito. Not exactly health food, but about as low cholesterol as I expected to get away with from a greasy spoon. I propped up my copy of Best American Short Stories and set to reading, sipping coffee while I waited for one of the overworked waitresses to make her way back to me.

Across the way, I heard laughter. Loud enough to draw me from my book. On the opposite end of the counter, a middle-aged man pointed at something or other on a television screen over head while two blond-haired boys, presumably his sons, followed the trajectory of his finger, wide-eyed and smiling. They were talking football of course, all three of them clad in blue Patriots jerseys, the boys’ bright and new, the father’s, thread-worn in spots.

And when whatever was happening on TV finished, or the boys lost interest, the bigger of the boys returned to his plate. He folded his pancake in his hands, dripping with thick, brown syrup and bit into it like a sandwich, hard enough so a bit of butter squeezed loose from the opposite side and dropped to the plate.

I remembered being around that boy’s age. Just about the only times in my life I cared about football were the points in the 1990s when The Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl, only to fall short each time, contributing to my life-long love for underdogs and also-rans. We never made a big deal out of the game in my family. No jerseys. No special order of pizza and wings. Just another Sunday evening, only differentiated for the fact that we had football on the TV screen.

We didn’t have hot breakfasts more than once a week growing up. Sitting on that stool, letting the book rest on my lap, cradling my cup of coffee, I remembered how it wasn’t so irregular for my father to make pancakes on a Sunday morning. How there was every possibility that some of those pancake Sundays coincided with Super Bowls. I remembered the sticky sweet taste of it. My father wasn’t a very creative cook, but his anal focus and attention to detail paid off in those instances, when the pancakes were never burnt or blackened. Always the perfect brown.

A waitress came from behind me. “Let me warm that up for you.” She hardly waited for me to put the coffee down before she sloshed my refill. “Have you decided what you want yet, sweetheart?”

I handed her the menu. “Tall stack of pancakes,” I said. “With blueberries.”

Though I was tempted, I did not eat my pancakes by hand like the boy across the way. I sliced them to pieces, soaked them in syrup, propped by book open behind the plate and shoveled forkful after forkful of that goodness between lips.