Hell’s Kitchen

    Third shift to-do list: mix chocolate chip and butterscotch cookie doughs, bake off twenty-four of each, mix and cut cider and old-fashioned doughnuts, fry twenty-four of each, brownies and oat bars, mix and bake one half tray each, prep and caramelize shallots for line cooks, mix and portion twenty-four apple Gruyere and sage, and lemon, ricotta and poppyseed scones, mix and bake off chocolate espresso muffins, glaze and sugar doughnuts, bake and glaze scones, mix and bake off plain and herb biscuits, clean and ready a transport box for the café’s second location, plate and display the rest front of house, wash and store utensils, dishes and baking trays, wipe and sanitize counters, mixers and equipment, sweep and mop floors, take out garbage and recycling, turn off oven, fryer and lights, clock out before front of house personnel arrive. Engage security system. Grab bike, walk outside, bolt door.

    The cold hit me like a brick. I jumped on my bike and wove cautiously around the sidewalk stragglers, pumping the break all the while in order to avoid another wipeout on the black ice. At this hour, the weekend traffic was predictably sparse unless you counted the frat boys stumbling out of the bars, idling their cars, windows open and music blaring, ready to cruise down East Wash like it was Melrose Boulevard. Snow began to fall as I coasted downhill, and a fierce wind whipped the delicate flakes into swirling currents across the pavement. I reached the corner, paused momentarily to check for oncoming traffic, and blew through the red light.

    The sweat on my forehead evaporated as I released the break and picked up speed. As I got farther from the center of town the street lights became scarce and I found comfort in the dark solitude. Turning onto East Wilson, the road leveled off, and I veered into the left lane and pulled up to the light beside a beat up white pickup that reeked of marijuana. 

When the light finally changed, I let the driver turn in front of me, and racing across South Blair, I cut sharply onto the bike path, which was laid out exactly parallel to the railroad tracks that ran through the center of town. During the day, the trains crawled cautiously over the tracks and if you were going at a decent clip, you could ride side by side with the Wisconsin & Southern, horns blaring and bells ringing, starting downtown all the way to South Baldwin.

    The snow melted instantaneously as it hit the streets, but on the empty, tree-shrouded stretches of the bike path it settled into a blanket of powdery, phosphorescent white. I couldn’t tell where the asphalt met the grass and intermittently slipped off the path’s raised edges. Through the winter stillness I could hear the sound of my own rhythmic breathing as it kept time with the tik, tik, tik of my bike chain and the faint howling of coyotes far off in the distance. 

    I’d arrived in the Midwest the previous year, after nearly a lifetime in a freelance film production job on the East Coast that over the course of a year had effectively crashed. Defeated and longing for a fresh start, I reached out to an elderly aunt who agreed to let me crash in her tiny bungalow, which I reasoned was within a compromising distance from both coasts. I convinced myself things would get better – in a year I’d be on my feet again and move back to New York – that this was just a brief detour on the unpredictable trajectory of life. Encouragingly, I scored a pastry job at a fine dining restaurant where I’d initially thrived, but after a few months I became impatient with the pretentiousness, the mind-numbing repetitiveness, and a salary that left me wanting. I moved on.

    The way I saw it, the restaurant employees in this town essentially worked for weed money. Hidden behind the gaping duplicity of the network cooking shows, exploitation ran unchecked in the industry, and to soften the blow, so did drug and alcohol use. High on Adderall and moonlighting as death metal guitarists, slicing, dicing, chopping and frying, they worked without complaint at the hand they had been dealt, and upon returning home late at night, took the edge off with a nice, thick spliff and a couple of beers. They’d start off at one place, a few months later move to a restaurant down the block, and a few months after that resurface at the food co-op across the street because it promised health insurance – forever searching for the one good job that could provide some stability and an end to the continuum of revolving doors.

    As I slipped into a similar pattern, I began to feel suffocated by an intensely visceral feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world. I had always lived near large bodies of water, the very estuaries of the Atlantic being steps from my Midtown apartment, with weekends in Paris or London just a plane ride away. Though I had never been a stranger to feelings of alienation, it became a constant companion, exacerbating my anxiety to the breaking point. My once infrequent panic attacks became bi-weekly events, leaving me feeling raw and vulnerable against forces I felt were beyond my control. My only refuge – it didn’t matter the weather – was to lose myself traversing the prodigious network of bike paths that crisscrossed the town’s environs.

    There were a few moments of clarity: something as random as say, an errant thread, or a number on a scrap of newsprint at the bottom of a box of produce could bring an unexpected connection to someone thousands of miles away. I thought of the millions of migrant workers who gathered the harvest each season, and marveled at how a piece of their lives, by mere happenstance, had found its way into my hands. I had once driven past these workers toiling under the unrelenting sun of the San Joachin Valley as a passenger in an air-conditioned SUV, feeling both heartbreak and shame. This microcosm of laborers – pickers, porters, drivers, dishwashers and cooks – made up the invisible army of servants that populated this country and fed its masses. I had fallen into their ranks.

    The bike path opened to the sky again and the power plant came into view, its hulking shadow leering ominously. A few blocks farther down, the city buses had started their routes, filing clumsily out of the garage on East Main, spewing fumes of grimy exhaust that trailed their elephantine frames. Just past the deserted skate park, the path merged again with the street, where the snow had already melted and formed slush puddles near the curb. The wind became even more intense now, and large flakes of wet snow flew almost horizontally into my face and eyes, blurring my vision. I lowered my head so that my visor would intercept them, every few seconds glancing ahead of me to avoid crashing.

    As I cut through the residential neighborhoods, the picture book houses were still hushed with sleep, and the spent embers of woodsmoke from their fireplaces scented the frozen air. Christmas lights and the odd menorah decorated the windows, diffusing their radiant colors upon the snow. Announced by the sound of the air whistling through their wings, a vee of tundra swans suddenly entered my eyeline, soaring toward the frozen lakes to the south, their underbellies lit by the flare of city lights below. I glided past the street maples, their fractal-ed branches already heavily laden with snow, and then a cedar house, like a dacha straight out of a Tarkovsky film came into view, its windows glowing with a seductive warmth, as if gaslit within. Though pulsing with life, I had never seen a soul in or around it, but as I rode past, I noticed that a fir wreath strung with tiny white lights had recently been affixed to the front door.

    By this time I was soaked with sweat underneath my ski jacket, while my fingers and toes had begun to sting from the cold and the wind generated by the speed of my bike. The snow suddenly stopped falling as I turned off the bike path, and rising high above the treetops I saw Venus, the morning star, shimmering brightly against a sky so cold and crisp and clear it seemed it would shatter. 

    I rolled up the driveway, wheeled my bike into the garage and bounded up the few steps to the back door. I fished the house keys out of my bag and unbolted both locks. Silently easing my way into the kitchen, I lit the gas burner and boiled water for tea. The clock on the stove read 6:11, which somehow felt reassuring. I hung my jacket on a chair to dry and sat down at the kitchen table, and the acrid smell of the shallots I had caramelized hours before wafted upward like steam and assaulted my nostrils. Outside the kitchen window a roseate light crept up in anticipation of the rising sun and made an absurd contrast with the darkly silhouetted homes as in L’empire des Lumieres, the series of paintings by Rene Magritte that I vividly recalled from a worn second hand coffee table book I’d once owned and after many moves later, finally lost track of.

    I poured boiling water over the tea bag and let it over-steep. I stirred in milk distractedly and removed the spoon from the mug, hypnotized by the refractions of the overhead light in the swirling liquid. At that moment I had a vision that in a few short hours Venus would begin her ascent over those same field workers that I’d seen as a passenger on that California highway as they descended from a van to begin their day. In my mind’s narrative, they were carrying paper cups or perhaps thermoses of hot coffee and I wondered what they had packed for lunch. I thought of the invisible thread between them and myself, both in the sky and on the Earth below and it renewed my faith in life. I finished my tea, rinsed out the mug, and placed it in the dish rack. Walking down the hall to the bathroom, I peeled off my work clothes and threw them in the hamper. I turned on the shower, stepped into the tub and closed my eyes as the warm water ran down my face.

*Originally published in 86Logic, Issue #4, May, 2021


It’s early morning and the artisanal coffee on which I’ve recently splurged combined with the blinding sunlight are making me hallucinate. I know that sounds weird, but a single cup of coffee can do that to me. Maybe I need to knock off the qigong. Anyway, I’m watching the sweet potato latkes on my breakfast plate breathe. They rise and fall, rise and fall, gasping for air like two fish out of water. Suddenly, I hear three caws from a crow as it flies south and its shadow disappears from the window. Caw! Caw! Caw! I hear with my normal hearing, but Abattoir! Abattoir! Abattoir! is what I hear inside my head which is also where I hear the text alert notification sounds at night whenever I’m being sent some kind of cosmic warning from who knows whom or what. Ding! Ding! Ding! Sometimes I have to ask it to stop or I can’t sleep through the night. The voices, too. Whoever sends them obviously has no perception of time, but apparently time is a construct that doesn’t actually exist. Even physicists believe that. So, my bad. You might also ask why sounds come in threes. Next, I put down my fork and walk toward the window, thinking the crow had been sitting on the outside ledge, but there’s really not much of a ledge out there on which to sit. When I happen to glance up at the sun, it’s being halved horizontally by the telephone wire that lines the street, and that is where the crow had to have been perched in order for its shadow to have been projected smack dab in the middle of my living room window. As strange an experience as when you find yourself underneath the shadow of a passing airplane but you don’t live anywhere near an airport. And once, reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival (aloud) because as an actor this is my habit, a crow, possibly the same one (there’s a murder of five or six of them who live in the neighborhood), let out a blood-curdling shriek outside my window at the exact moment I uttered the lines:

  feathers from a crow

  that screams

  from the furnace

Now, don’t tell me all this is a coincidence, my relationship with crows (not to mention geese, robins, jays and cardinals). And furthermore, I made a recent appeal to the ancestors (no particular ones) for assistance with dreamtime knowledge. I also ordered a book on the subject online and I immediately felt its power rattle my kitchen as I opened the box in which it arrived – not because a stack of bound paper has any intrinsic power, of course, but because the power of one’s intentions which have been projected upon it does. Intent = manifestation of desires. Not to be confused with magical thinking which, IMHO just unhinges people even further, and in a sanitized form is fraudulently promoted by popular talk show hosts who are completely full of shit. Oddly, I’ve never considered a tattoo before, but three artfully arranged crows in mid-flight sound intriguing as a dermal talisman of sorts. From the chair in which I’m sitting I can see them shadowed against a brightly lit window. 

*Originally published in Leon Literary Review, Issue #9, July 2021,


Me and Brooke Shields

    Brooke Shields and I keep running into each other. I, of course, am aware of this but she isn’t. That’s the problem with only one of us being famous. When I was a teenager, I boiled with envy the first time I saw her in a Vogue fashion spread. Next came a trillion covers, then the infamous Calvin Klein jeans commercial. “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvin’s?” That one’s gotta be a mess, I thought, perched on my Ethan Allen-framed twin bed and calico quilted polyester bedspread, obsessively leafing through photos of her and Andy Warhol at Studio 54. 

    When I turned eighteen, I moved to New York City and through an incredible stroke of luck I found myself working as a “model” on the same L’Oreal presentation as Brooke. She was the star, of course – I was just filler. It was me, about twenty other girls and Brooke. None of us could possibly have held a candle to her. She had a better face, hair and body than all of us combined. I thought, now there’s a world-class beauty. She was also really nice. Bitch. Afterward, I caught the R train back to Bay Ridge feeling like a total loser.

    A couple of years later, I was working at a fancy pharmacy on Madison Avenue and Brooke stopped in one day. All the famous celebrities like Cher and Joan Collins shopped there. Well, it was the eighties. In fact, one morning, Johnny Carson came in really early, ostensibly to avoid the crowds, but when he saw that he was the only customer in the store, he did one quick turn around the place and he was out the front door again. Didn’t buy a thing. And since we’re talking about Joan Collins, a couple of decades later, when I was makeup artist to the rich and famous, I worked with her on a Harper's Bazaar shoot commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the TV soap, Dynasty, of which, she, of course, was a star. Well, I really worked with Linda Evans, but Joan was there. Anyway, one of the photos featured Joan and Linda engaged in a kind of pencil-skirted, stiletto-heeled tug-o-war with a Louis Vuitton bag on the fifth floor corridor of the Plaza Athénée. Even Neil Lane, the jeweler was there, with his big, fancy diamond rings. He was really nice. And Linda Evans was really nice. And Joan Collins was, well, Joan Collins. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

    Anyhoo, back to Brooke. Crazy thing was, I had a whole conversation with her about hairbrushes because that was what she had stopped into the pharmacy to purchase, and mission accomplished, I sent her home happily clutching a mini Mason Pearson. Oddly, I didn’t even recognize her until the end of the transaction, I guess because you just don’t expect these people to be strolling around and also because she was wearing a pair of sunglasses that covered half her face. As she left, I was like, damn, that girl is gorgeous. Then the owner of the store walked up to me and said, “that was Brooke Shields”, like I was stupid or something. “Uh-huh”, I said, looking down my nose at him, pretending not to give a fuck. 

    Later, still in my makeup artist to the stars phase, I scored a job on one of those morning TV chat fests. I was hired to do makeup for one of the hosts, and one day Brooke was a guest. I was also kind of famous myself in those days in a viral internet video kind of way (don’t ask), and to my surprise, Brooke emerged from her dressing room that morning and said “hi” to me while I was chatting with one of the producers in the corridor. I mean, she said it like, “hi-i-i-i-i-i-i!!!” like she was really excited to see me. But because I’m an asshole, I just said “hi” wondering why she had said “hi” and then went right back to talking to the producer. Later I had to remind myself that I was kind of famous.

    That’s the way it always was – I could never really wrap my head around why people sometimes smiled at me on the subway, or why once a fireman screamed my name out the window of a passing fire truck as I was walking down 5th Avenue. I always had to slap my forehead and say, “oh, right – I’m famous!” That’s probably because I’m an Aquarius. So it might have seemed like I was rude to her, but I just couldn’t fathom why the Brooke Shields would want to talk to me, and I’ve been consumed with guilt about it ever since. But not as bad as the guilt I’d suffered the time I burnt the toupee of a legendary old-school crooner who will remain nameless, because, frankly, who needs a lawsuit? I mean, let’s face it – they all wear wigs. And how was I supposed to know it was synthetic hair? Anyway, I’d just once like to sit down with Brooke for a cocktail, or heck, even a coffee so we girls can have a chat. Oh, and Brooke, if you’re out there and you see this – HOLLA!!!

*Originally published in "Grattan Street Press: Intermissions", November, 2021

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