by Joseph Carey
Second in a series.
1968 - 1971
Try as I might (and I really have tried!) I can’t seem to completely separate my life in food from politics. I think it has something to do with the beatitude/vicissitude imbalance in my experience. Or maybe I’m just gullible. Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about here.
In April of 1968 I was released from military servitude in Oakland, California. I spent a couple of days reveling in San Francisco (I liked it there. A lot.) before flying to Chicago. Suzan was teaching in Chicago and we had determined to move to San Francisco when the school year was up, so I needed something to do for a few months. I had known Jeff Sharlet at Indiana University. He was a political activist and Vietnam veteran. I was neither when I met him, but Vietnam had changed my mind. I got in touch with him: he and Davy Komatsu and Jim Wallahan published the Vietnam GI, a pro-GI/antiwar newspaper. We had a few drinks and they asked me if I’d like to join them. I usually remembered to put on my turn signal when I was about to make a left turn. I forgot this time. They put me on the masthead and published several of my photos. They paid to print and mount about 60 of my black and white photos (relevance on the way).
My most indelible dining memories of Chicago are Diana's Grocery, a Greek restaurant -- there was a grocery in front and you had to walk through a beaded curtain at the back of the store to get to the restaurant (had my first fresh octopus and Retsina there) and a little French place, Michel's.
The school year ended and Suzan and I headed west in July of 1968. Davy had made arrangements for Barbara and Marvin Garson (Marvin published a local counterculture newspaper, The Express Times; Barbara was a playwright) to put us up. We all went to dinner one night at a black barbecue joint -- I love good barbecue. Marvin explained that they had three levels of sauce: hot, medium and mild. All my companions ordered the mild. He told me that if I liked really hot food (I do) to order the medium sauce. I’m thinking, huh, what does a New York Jew know about hot food? I’m from New Orleans! -- and ordered the hot. They brought everyone else’s ribs out before mine. We were facing the kitchen -- what I call a "semi-exhibition" kitchen -- where you get a glimpse into the kitchen through the pass-through window. Usually you can see from a little above waist high to just below the top of the head. I looked up as my plate was set down in front of me. Five black faces grinned at me. Oh, shit, I’d done it again. I sweated. I cried. I tried to say I was fine in response to multiple inquiries. I wasn’t, of course, unless it’s fine to play host to a small army of hyperactive pyromaniacal Romanian mercenaries wielding torches and doing dervishes in your mouth, throat and esophagus. I ate the damn ribs and a half a loaf of what they call in the south "light bread." I drank several beers. If you’ve read anything I’ve written before you’ll notice this kind of thing forms a leitmotif in my life. After much mulling it over, I've decided I just ain't very bright.
Barbara and Marvin lived in North Beach. We’d been there about a week -- had just begun looking for apartments -- when the boys called me from Chicago and asked if I’d like to go to Paris. The occasion, I inquired? A "war crimes tribunal" I was told. Shades of Nuremberg. Sure, I said. Marvin said he’d like to publish a few of my photos. Sure, I said.
The boys said they’d get back to me with the details. A day or two later Rennie Davis called. I was "interviewed" as to my appropriateness, I suppose. Why do I make people with agendas so nervous? He said he'd get back to me. The boys called back and said I needed to get to New York in three days. I said I had no passport -- and my birth certificate was still at my father-in-law's apartment in Evanston. A friend agreed to pick it up and meet me at O'Hare. I packed up a couple dozen of my mounted photos -- and not much more, and embarked. I was to go to the offices of Liberation Magazine when I arrived in New York. A ticket to New York -- with a stop in Chicago -- was sent to me issue-wire. That all worked. Barbara was very helpful through all of this facilitating here and there, pretending to be my secretary or assistant in those cases where I had to appear to be important.
Once in New York, birth certificate in hand, I took a taxi to Liberation Magazine, and met with Dave Dellinger. He gave me my Air France tickets and got me to the passport office, in Rockefeller Center as I recollect. I got a "rush" passport, since I was to fly that afternoon: my fifth ocean crossing -- the other four had been related to the unpleasantness in Southeast Asia.
A Dr. Kahn picked me up at the airport and took me to his place, where I was "interviewed" again -- this time by Tom Hayden. Somehow, I passed again. (For those of you keeping score: within the space of a few days in July I was vetted by three men who were to head to Chicago in less than a month and become three sevenths of the Chicago Seven.) By this point, I was very tired, but the "tribunal" was to be that evening. Dr. Kahn gave me something so I could sleep a few hours. He woke me and said it was time to go. He gave me something so I could stay awake for a few hours.
One of the first people I met that evening was Maria Jolas. I knew of her, but what I knew was totally unrelated to antiwar activities. She was mentioned in Richard Ellmann’s book James Joyce. She had hobnobbed with Joyce (and took care of his crazy daughter, Lucia), Beckett, Gertrude Stein and all the expats who were my English-major heroes. She sat next to me on the stage; since I didn’t speak French that was not related to food or genitalia, she translated for me. The tribunal was under the aegis of Laurent Schwartz, mathematician, staunch antiwar activist and cohort of Sartre. Much of the proceeding was in French, so I was lost after trotting out my photos and delivering a brief spiel about my experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam -- just one of many times I would be lost over the next several years.
The next few weeks in Paris expanded my universe considerably. The quick tour: I was introduced to the North Vietnamese Minister of Justice (his translator had been a company commander at Dien Bien Phu); was taken to lunch at a great Vietnamese restaurant by the head of the North Vietnamese News Bureau in Paris; met Arthur Miller at a seminar; got my ass royally kicked in the Latin Quarter by the CRS (French national police force) -- they also smashed my Nikon and stripped the film I had been shooting. I was arrested briefly and let go by a supervisor who was tricked by my not-yet-out-of-date-signed-by-General Westmoreland press card; was interviewed by a Turkish reporter for a feature article in France Nouvelle, the Paris communist newspaper; was treated to a bunch of wonderful meals by Maria Jolas who also made me iced tea on my last Sunday in Paris and invited her neighbor, Mary McCarthy. We looked through all the volumes Joyce had personalized for her; almost had sex with an Australian babe (we literally slept together); ate a bunch of lunches with guys who worked for Le Monde; had two "dates" with a beautiful Russian woman, one at a movie theater and one at her apartment and that’s all I’m saying about that; met and talked with French photographer Roger Pic, who had been in Vietnam photographing the war with the Viet Cong -- we had taken photographs of the same 1967 battle from opposite sides of the lines.
Sadly, I was somewhat hampered in Paris. I really wanted to walk around and see a bunch of the stuff I’d read about. I couldn’t. I was hobbled. Like the moron I am perfectly capable of being, I had brought just one pair of shoes -- a new pair of kicks just for my Paris trip. I got around as best I could, spending most of my liberty in The Latin Quarter. Within limping distance, I found a little place that had great escargot and soupe a l'oignon. I could also trundle to a kinda French fast-food joint that had a great grilled entrecote. Around the corner from my hotel was a bakery -- a boy on a bicycle brought warm croissants and baguettes every morning. I wolfed them down with strawberry preserves and good French butter.
I can't think of a better way to introduce my post-Vietnam, post-Paris life in food than to start with an excerpt from my old friend Spencer’s newsletter. He is an unrepentant hippie (although some Food Network toady bestowed him with the title "King of Salsa"). Spencer and I worked together for many years, many years ago. He now owns a restaurant, Mama's Royal Cafe, in Cabo San Lucas. If he wants to, he sends this newsletter out on a monthly basis. While he may be a little shaky on dates and places, he’s right on ambience:
Any of you who have eaten at my place have undoubtedly noticed the heavy Louisiana influence on my menu. Mexican style Jambalaya and a Mexican style Bouillabaisse that sounds a whole lot like a New Orleans gumbo. This is not an accident -- these two great cuisines have a lot in common and my very first involvement with a restaurant was back in the 60’s with a little Creole place in Berkeley called The Ordinary.
My friend Billy Kirschen has said, "If you can remember the 60’s -- you weren’t there!" The Ordinary was opened on a shoestring by a late-twenty-something Vietnam vet named Joseph Carey who was rapidly burning out, trying to do it all himself. Do the shopping in the morning -- cook all afternoon 'til 10 p.m., when the restaurant would turn into a live music bar. He would then tend bar until 2 a.m., go to sleep in the office -- wake up and do it all again. Ah, Berkeley in the '60s . . .
The streets . . . even had their own smell -- a funky mix of spent tear gas and patchouli mixed with the sweet smell of Columbian marijuana and burning bras and draft cards. I would like to tell you that The Ordinary was an island of sanity in this boundless sea of madness, but you wouldn't believe me. Besides, I’m inclined to believe that we were at the very epicenter of it all. In fact the madness of the '60s may have been spreading from the Ordinary like ripples from a rock tossed into Lake Merritt.
Suzan and I had separated. I was still living in Berkeley; she was teaching in the Oakland Public Schools and living in Oakland. She was having an affair with a married black school administrator and I was proceeding through her friends (I think the one I missed got mad at me for neglecting her), schoolteachers all. Hey, it was a different time and place -- what can I say? I cooked a lot. I read cookbooks, had joined a book club, when I wasn’t teaching or doing anti war work. Oh, yeah, I was writing songs, too and plunking on my Martin 00-21. I considered Suzan a good friend -- still do. She and her friends helped me with the work of getting the building in North Oakland ready to be a restaurant. I remember them helping me strip the bar I had found in the San Francisco redevelopment area -- it had been in The Palace Hotel during the big earthquake. We got the settlement from the motorcycle wreck and I opened The Ordinary in April of 1971. Damn, I forgot to tell you about the motorcycle wreck.
We were living in the flatlands of Berkeley on Chestnut St. and Suzan was teaching at an Oakland junior high. My income was a grant from The American Friends Service Committee to operate a draft-counseling center in southern Alameda County. I'd bought a Triumph 650 murdercycle and went to pick her up after school one day. We got as far as Berkeley and were broadsided at a yield sign by the Dean of Women at the Berkeley West Campus High School -- just a few blocks from home. Knocked us about 40 feet. Suzan landed in a bush; I landed on my right shoulder on someone’s concrete front porch.
They took us to the Kaiser hospital where Suzan had her insurance. I found out later I was in shock. She had an obvious broken leg -- they took care of her immediately -- and I was limping a little and couldn't lift my right arm. But when they asked if I could walk to x-ray myself, and then return to the emergency room with the x-rays, I said sure -- and did so. My right shoulder was beginning to hurt quite bit. When I returned, the nurse smiled at me as she inserted the film in the light box. She turned to look at them and gasped. “Sit down, I'm getting the doctor!” The humeral head of my right shoulder was broken all the way through. I was in two pieces: my right arm and the rest of me. There was therapy, agony, blah, blah, blah, poison oak from head to foot, blah, blah, blah. Took a couple of years to get the settlement. Back to our story.
I built a loft, about ten by twelve feet, over the restaurant kitchen and furnished it with a bed, a few books, a television set and a Modigliani nude -- had to climb up there with a ladder. I told the health and fire inspectors that it was dry storage; they didn't want haul their government-nurtured beer bellies up those rungs. This was to be my sometime home for the next few years. Suzan's apartment was just a few blocks away and I took long daily baths there, or showers at her friends' places. (For several years I was super-anal, having spent weeks on end without bathing while photographing the war in Vietnam.)
I hired a local artist to carve some signs for me -- going for a rustic look. I didn't want to scare anyone. It was to be a Creole restaurant. He was the inamorata of an old friend, Michelle, from Indiana University. Unfortunately, he was also, how can I put this delicately? Stark raving bonkers. She called us one day when she couldn’t handle him anymore and a friend of mine and I coaxed him down the stairs and hauled him off to the loony bin. This was a bad sign -- literally. The restroom signs weren't completed by opening day. On the restroom doors, I put up two of the signs that were finished -- Pickled Eggs and Sangria. Never changed them. It was a source of great amusement to the bartenders when stodgy folks would ask which restroom was the men’s -- or women’s. I always answered, "What do you feel like today?"
While working on the building I had been assisting a friend of mine, Don Campbell, a sculptor, in completing some pieces of sculptures for which he had a contractual agreement with a large gallery. Paid me a hundred bucks a week. He, in turn, was helping me build The Ordinary. Laser sculptures: a mirrored top with three motors mounted underneath. Each of the motors had three small mirrors attached to three facets. As the motors rotated, the mirrors would reflect the laser beam, which entered from the cabinet below, hit one small stationary mirror that reflected the beam onto the rotating mirrors (got that? I attempt to commit mathematics as infrequently as possible) in what I presumed to be an infinite variety of patterns. There was a tube in the side of the box containing the mirror through which we blew cigarette smoke so you could see the laser beam. Kinda nifty. I kept begging him to let me build a pinball machine with mirrors on the flippers. He didn’t. At any rate when I opened I hired Don as a bartender -- at a hundred bucks a week.
I was regularly seeing a friend of Suzan's at this point and took her with me to many really good Bay Area restaurants. Campbell and I also went out a bunch of times. We had one night at Trader Vic's where we had just finished a bunch of demolition on the building to house The Ordinary. We were really funky in dirty t-shirts and jeans. The headwaiter gave us both ties to put on -- proper decorum is important. The bartender then gave us a bunch of Mai Tais to put on. And we did. I think we forgot to eat. Not sure.
Don's wife was Greek and taught me how to make Avgolemono. After she and Don separated, she also taught me that the menage a trois (er, two-girls/one guy!) was not necessarily a good thing.
Damn, this piece was supposed to be about The Ordinary and I haven't even opened the doors and invited you in yet! I really am trying to stop interrupting myself and get to the Ordinary. Really. You believe me, don't you?
Joseph Carey, aka ChefCarey, is the author of Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery and Chef on Fire: The Five Techniques for Using Heat Like a Pro. He cooks, teaches and writes in Memphis, Tennessee.