Excerpt from my novel, Chasing Cinnamon

 

 

I'm a goof, easy to admit. I like that part of me. When I was little my mom always said, “Biggunz, you’ve got one hell of an imagination.” Biggunz, she called me, cause I was a big boy, always with my fingers in the cold cuts, the olive jar, lifting the glass cover off the Celle Sur Belle sweet butter hidden behind the chocolate milk. And when I wasn’t eating, I was falling out of reality – wandering in my mind through the French countryside I’d read about in Brillat-Savarin’s, The Physiology of Taste, which I received for my 11th birthday, (my food obsession began almost as soon as I learned to read), or driving a milk truck up First Avenue, near our apartment, cream sloshing in the back. I was always daydreaming.

That goofy part stays with me, still --  I’ve survived decades of daydreaming. 

Just now, as I walked home from The Tower, a company man on his way back from the office (well, a quick meeting at the office – I usually write at home, or on the road), was I thinking about important things? Like how much I didn’t want to obey my editor, Itaska Russet’s, absurd order to write about the dining preferences of this celebrity couple that acronyms their names into a cute tabloid headline: Renee+Alan=REAL. (Watch out Brangelina. Take that TomKat.)

“I’m counting on you to bag them, Peter,” she’d said.

Or how the only way I was going to hang on to my job in this brutal market was to do exactly what the boss wanted?

“It’s a tough world right now,” she reminded me.

Nope. I wasn’t thinking about any of that.

Instead, I spent the whole walk – including a hairy moment crossing 34thagainst the light in the face of an oncoming Boar’s Head deli meat delivery truck (it’s horn of death putting a momentary skip in my step) – imagining myself crossing Basque country in an old Citroen, stopping here and there for cod cheeks sautéed in parsley butter, and tuna and potato marmitako washed down with dry white Txakoli. Biggunz. Imagination. That’s still me.  

But there’s one thing that can draw me out of the deepest reverie. Just as I imagined the Citroen breaking down in front of a simple wooden home in lavender country where a woman beckoned from an outdoor table laden with pinxtos of roast peppers, garlicky baby eels, burnt almonds and other delights (the delights including her amazing rural face, freckled and taught beneath masses of rust colored hair), the smell of pig snapped me back into reality, and Basque country shifted like a screen saver to reveal the East Village.

After all, what is more real than a pig?

I was surprised to find I’d walked down Avenue A again. And it was lunchtime. A deadly combination for me, because of the Pork Lady. I think I’ve gained five pounds since she opened her hole in the wall at the corner of 3rd Street, just a block from my apartment. It’s a basic place, with just one item on the menu: braised kurobata pork belly on top of garlicky slices of roast suckling pig inside a yeasty roll. But not just any roll. This one comes from that shop in The Village where the guy sits up all night singing Bulgarian folk tunes to help the yeast along.  The sandwiches are so good and so rich that, generally, for the sake of my own belly, heart and peace of mind, I avoid the intersection of 3rd and A, knowing that the tantalizing aroma will seize me with a grip every bit as strong as a beauty queen’s pheromones, and I won’t be able to stop myself from going in for a taste. Heart attacks and extra sit-ups be damned, I cannot resist that sandwich: my brain on pork.

As I neared the shop the aroma swirled like a languorous tornado on my tongue and I turned into a cartoon gourmand, eyeballs wide with anticipation. Saliva pooled, a hollow grew in the depths of my belly. It had been, what -- weeks? -- since I’d eaten here.

I gazed into the lashy Elvis eyes of the roast pig in the window.

“Ay papi, you back already?” the Pork Lady said with an open smile.

“Don’t tell anyone, ok?” I said, rubbing my belly, which, thank goodness, felt flat enough to accommodate the sandwich.

She winked.

And that’s when I saw it again: the little songbird, about two-inches square, drawn in simple lines with a silver Sharpie on the edge of the counter just below the pig. It was a beautiful, straightforward graffiti, modern only for it’s classic look, and for the fact that I’d seen it recently in several other odd establishments beloved by food obsessives such as myself: the Uigher Noodle house on Ave. J; Samuel’s Squirrel Q on West 127th Street; and a nameless Korean speakeasy on 34th that serves only crispy jelly fish and other translucent seafood snacks with its cocktails.

What was this club that I was not a part of?

“For here?” the Pork Lady asked, indicating my sandwich.

My cellphone rang. It was The Twit, Itaska’s assistant, calling from The Tower:

“Our source says REAL will be eating at Khubs 31 in Dallas tonight. You’ve got to head straight to the airport.”

Saved by work. (My belly would thank me.)

Or not.

I got the sandwich to go. The graffiti bird seemed to wink at me as I left. Cinnamon would love this, I thought.