A while ago I listened to an audio book called “Blood, Bones, and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton. In it, she talks about her career path to becoming an acclaimed chef and successful restaurateur, describing the fractured childhood, the dingy kitchens and crummy jobs of being a caterer where she worked, all the while dreaming of, and procrastinating at, becoming a writer. She tried, eventually – leaving New York to attend the University of Michigan, where she received a Masters degree in English – and realized something along the way, finding herself, after all that time, much more at home in a commercial kitchen. She answered, perhaps as well as anyone can with any certainty, if anybody actually has a life of their own choosing.
I’m a firm believer in free will, but I realize now, that sometimes free will means being free to bang your head on a wall or slam your fingers in a door. I’m more a firm believer that you can not fundamentally alter who you are at the core. Life chooses you, inevitably, to become something much larger than a career choice or the material goods you’ve surrounded yourself with.
After listening to her narration of her book, it’s obvious Gabrielle Hamilton truly is a phenomenal writer, a vibrant and thoughtful story teller. I’m guessing her success in the culinary world isn’t because of her years in various kitchens. More likely, somewhere along the way, she’s learned to tell her stories through cooking and the experience of dining at her hand, instead of text.
The simple admission that one never actually has a life of their own choosing is profound. Life always seems to shape you in someway or the other, from the things you do in your spare time and wish you “could be”, to the circumstances that befall you. Beyond that, there’s always some core, some thing you will always be in spite of your best efforts. Just as a fish will always be a fish and a cat will always be a cat – there are some things you can’t ever change.
I’ve always wandered – literally. At any moment that I could run off, I would. The Sunday sermon was exactly the right moment, I thought, to dive under the pews and crawl 3 or 4 rows away… I ran full speed towards the ends of piers on Lake Michigan, ending up always in a last minute neck tackle, saving me from frigid waters, by my out of breath Father. I’m guessing, though, it was the day I climbed over the railing on a steamboat cruise along the Mississippi River, holding on with one hand while reaching out to see if I could touch the water, that my parents had finally had enough. I was given my just reward. I was outfitted with a harness and a leash.
It wasn’t only the need to wander and explore, it was my literal appetite that was alarming in its own right. Stories from my childhood include the odd temper tantrum at a restaurant, where inexplicably one day, I began pounding my fists on the tray of my high chair demanding beer. “did you want Root Beer?”, “NOooooo! I WANT BEER!”. I was the child who, at the age of 6, ate enough ribs at an all-you-can-eat buffet, that I was charged as an adult. I made my great grandmothers 80th birthday party memorable for all, when I took advantage of the darkness and distraction of a slide show to sneak into the kitchen, where I ate all of the skin off of 2 buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I ended the feat, of course with an encore performance, consisting of regurgitating the entire contents of my feast, only moments later in the middle of the living room, dramatically standing up, then doubling over in front of the screen fully spotlighted by the projector.
A trip to the doctors office or waiting in a lobby somewhere, I looked forward to. It meant I’d soon be fishing through the nearest ashtray where I’d routinely pick up cigarette butts, sniff at them, and, if not caught in time would certainly, hopefully, put in my mouth. A trip to Kmart, where my mother refused to buy me a bag of popcorn, meant a scavenger hunt. I wasn’t interested in the toys, though I used it as an excuse to get away, to begin amassing as many kernels as I could find on the floor, even if they were stepped on. I’d eventually be ‘found’, most often after being paged over the loudspeaker that normally alerted shoppers to the impending delights of the “blue-light special”, returning with my shirt pulled out in a basket, grinning and eating the popcorn I’d gathered…
Waiting in any line always meant a tug on my mothers sleeve where I’d point out things to her, little observations that I was certain she was missing, things I felt compelled to share with her. Things such as how hairy a particular woman’s arms were, or that maybe another woman looked very much like Captain Hook. Sometimes she would try to ignore my discrete whisper of such facts. At those times, I naturally assumed she just couldn’t hear me, so of course, I kept repeating my observation louder and louder until she finally relented in embarrassment.
The usual deterrents never worked with me – I remember the time she warned me about making faces and having it “get stuck that way”. I asked her, in all sincerity, if that’s what had happened to her. She warned me about the dangers of wandering away and being kidnapped and I’d try to convince her that I’d be OK – I told her, after thinking about what I’d do, that I’d bite anyone who tried – then promptly demonstrated the technique on my sister’s arm so she could see my capabilities. I was impressed that I could bite so hard, as it easily broke the skin and welled up quickly with blood. My mother and sister, justifiably, were both horrified.
The careers I dreamt of as a child weren’t of the typical fireman, policeman, or astronaut. I wanted to be a bartender, a taxi driver, a cartoonist. While all the other boys were playing G.I.Joe with each other, I was huddled up with a ‘baby beans’ doll and playing with the girl from 2 doors over. The only thing that ever shut me up, stopped me cold, or occupied me fully was a piece of paper and pen.
A defining moment, or era, of those years, perhaps, was borne from the day I got thorn stuck in my scalp while playing in the orchard at my grandparents house. It was a large, Tudor style house, built of brick, situated in the western suburbs of Chicago. They owned two lots, one with the house and the garage, the other with an array of apple trees and a garden. My grandfather wanted a farm, my grandmother wanted nothing of a farm. This was their compromise, I later learned… I was playing somewhere around a large rose bush when some part of it whacked me on the head and stuck with a clunk so hard I can still feel down to my molars. Oddly it didn’t hurt or make me cry. I pushed it away, but the thorn stayed behind, buried into the crown of my head. I could feel it there, embedded deep and flush, and went inside where the adults were sitting around the table talking. Everyone, eventually, took a turn at trying to find it but they couldn’t, only a small stain of blood in my hair. They all assured me that there was no thorn – that it was OK – and just to go back out and play. I could reach up and feel it – but thought, maybe they were right, maybe it was only swollen. In the following days, weeks, months even, when I could still feel it embedded in there, I would, from time time ask my mother or father, or a friends mom, again, if they could see it. They never could. I’d grab their hand, take their finger, stick it right on it, wiggle it around – still nothing. They’d pat me on the back and send me off to play. After a time, I stopped asking, figured it would always be there and didn’t give it much thought. It was just something that I knew, that no one else believed or could see. For the first time in my life, it made me wonder how adults could miss so much, almost purposely. They were caught up in things yet never looked very hard at anything. And most of all, I began to notice, people seemed to think I was joking when I was serious.
It stayed embedded in my scalp for at least 3 years – I know this mainly because of the ensuing events; from the days of playing at my grandparents, to when my grandfather died, when their house was sold, when we moved, to where it was finally discovered. It was at least that amount of time. At least.
It wasn’t until we moved to Seattle. The usual scene for a family with limited income, we were at a cosmetology school, getting discount hair cuts. My mother was sitting in one chair waiting, watching, while the three kids were each in varying seats of different students. The young woman cutting mine began by parting my hair with her rat-tail comb, combing damp strands to either side of my head. She worked at the part for a while, and in a few moments I felt her taking the pointy end of the comb, probing around the thorn. Over the years, I’d felt it slowly being enveloped, the skin growing over and around it. As she began picking deliberately and confusedly at it, I said, “Oh, that’s just my thorn!” She said, “What? What is that?”… I said, somewhat proudly, “It’s a thorn! It’s been in there for years.” My mother – maybe vaguely remembering my claims about it from years ago, perked up and looked at me with a grimace. As I was explaining to the hairdresser that no one had ever been able to see it in spite off all the people I’d told, that I assumed it would be there forever, she worked harder and dug her comb deeper into the knot of skin and finally extracted it. “Yup!”, she said, “that’s a thorn all right.” I could see in the arrangement of mirrors, her looking at my mother with a sort of stink-eyed glare, and felt somehow vindicated. She handed the thorn to my mother, who looked at it in the palm of her hand for a moment, said nothing and dropped it into a trash can.
There’s an odd transformation when something so innocuous takes on such polarity over the years, especially when mixed with a volatile combination of personality traits. Each moment – each layer of skin growing around and over that thorn, the moments I would reach up and touch it while being told something as fact by someone else, it was the proverbial grain of salt I began to take everything with, even if the term had never been introduced to me formally. It only cemented the certain ways I’d ever see the world from that point on.
I’ve written too much about myself lately – maybe only to justify things, explain things, give others some perspective. Today, I think I’m just done with that. There’s no need for perspective or context or reasoning or explanation. I just am what I am, sumus quid sumus. If anything, this is just meant to serve one purpose, a simple sort of love letter to myself; to remind me that I’ve happily achieved the only goal I’ve ever strived for to date; to never lose myself in the fray of becoming an adult. I’ve not done that. I haven’t changed at all.