“The best thing about organic farming is having good meals all the time.” Dave is a true believer. It is quite a change for him. If you ran into him 25 years ago, you’d likely find him enjoying a very large steak in a very expensive restaurant in a very large city. Back then, he was a senior vice president heading the law department of one of the country’s leading financial services companies. It was a career his whole life had prepared him for. He was the oldest child of four. Dave was always a very good student, belonged to a “very respectable” fraternity in college, and took an MBA at a well-known business school, after getting a law degree at a top law school. His father was an executive in a large pharmaceutical company. His mother trained as a nurse after graduating from a “society” college. She worked as a nurse for about a year until she married Dave’s father. After that, and until Dave was born, she volunteered at an old age home run by a local charity. Life for her after that was being a wife and mother, occasionally taking part in various golf club and charitable activities. In short, Dave’s childhood was not just privileged but also was singularly insular. His family lived in the right neighborhood, a gated community of large homes, each set in an acre or more of land. He went to a private boy’s school focused on athletics, good manners, and eventual admission into “the best” colleges. Dave’s family belonged to two local clubs, one a golf club, the other a “gentlemen’s luncheon club, ostensibly focusing on “doing good works.” They attended the right church (First Congregational or as they described it, “First Congo.”) As a kid, Dave never gave any of this a second thought. As Dave explains, “What the hell did I know? I thought everyone lived like my family. I didn’t know anything else.” Of course, every family has its “dirty little secrets.” Dave’s family was no exception. The most obvious was his mother’s fondness for strong gin Martinis. But she indulged in a second one only while on vacation, having dinner with friends. When she did, she got talkative and said a bit more than she might have otherwise. That’s when she might go into her husband’s family’s background, the other “dirty little secret.” “Don’t know if you may have noticed but George’s mother was of what some call ‘the Hebrew persuasion.’ They were in banking. Very rich. And into the arts.” Talking about it years later, Dave smiled and said, “For her, that was a big deal. Tres risqué. I remember how once or twice she’d go on to say how she was not at all prejudiced and was very open-minded. But when I first heard her tell the story, it opened my eyes a bit. I suppose they’ve slowly opened ever since.” Dave and his second wife were sitting on a long wooden bench on a porch looking out on fields of salad greens just peeking out from black soil. Both were wearing work clothes and Dave had on his favorite droopy hat. Given the first forty years of his life, this is not where you’d expect to find him. Or maybe you would. His private school years were successful. He did well academically and got a letter in lacrosse. He got into the college his parents had selected for him and was slated to major in American History. He met his first wife at a sixth-grade dance. He was struck dumb. Angelic. Beautiful. Beyond anything he could imagine. He just stood there grinning, so she introduced herself, “Hello, I am Julia. And what is your name?” They danced once, during which all he could do was blush, mumble and worry about his sweaty hands. He didn’t meet her again until his junior year in college. He recalls feeling at that second meeting about as socially inept as he did at that first encounter. She remembered him. He didn’t recognize her. But he immediately knew, this was a very singular moment. As before, all he could do was blush and mumble. She laughed. And, then, he laughed and then blurted out how he felt on first meeting her and still felt on their reunion. After graduation, they got married and began what should have been a long and happy life together. With a stipend from his parents, Dave took an MBA and, then, went to law school. Julia took an advanced degree in biochemistry. He was hired by a large financial services firm. Two years later, he was running their legal department. Dave and Julia had two kids. They were happy. Why not? They loved each other, had every advantage, and parents that loved and supported them. Dave had just been moved to his firm’s executive floor when his wife and his second child, a son, were killed instantly by a drunk driver speeding on the wrong side of a divided highway. “You know, it was like being shot in the head. Or waking up in another world. That was thirty years ago and I am still living it like it happened yesterday. I’ll never get over it.” Three days after the accident and even before his wife and son were buried, Dave went back to work. His daughter, then 15, stayed with his wife’s family. The firm’s CEO told him he shouldn’t be in the office. Dave’s reasoning: sticking with his normal routine would help him cope. It didn’t. He’d come in to his office, sit down at his desk, turn his chair around and look out the window. The CEO was right. Dave asked for a leave of absence. They gave him all the time he needed at full pay and suggested that he get help. “You mean mental help, like counseling? I should be ok. My wife’s parents and my daughter will be with me. It will be ok.” Dave spent the next three months trying to put his world back together. His daughter went back to school. His wife’s parents went back to their normal life. And after they left, Dave went back to work on a part-time basis, working from both home and office. But nothing was the same and, thinking back, Dave says, “It was all a blur and, then, suddenly, my daughter left for college and I was all alone in this big house.” But Dave wasn’t quite alone. He would get visits from women he knew from the neighborhood or from one of his clubs or the church. At first, he didn’t know what to make of them. They were mostly his wife’s friends. He knew their names and something about them – their children’s names and schools, what their husband did – but not much else. What he didn’t quite understand about most of them was, they saw in him what might happen to their husband, if they were not longer around. They wanted to take care of him. Or at least to give him some comfort. Baked goods, a meal to reheat, a book suggestion, just a “I can’t know what you’re going through but they say that time helps” sort of comment. Dave tried to seem appreciative and on one level he was. But he was still in shock, unable to deal with his feelings. So, he had a lot of trouble when one of these visitors offered more than baked goods. He was polite but made it clear that he wasn’t up for anything much more than small talk. Six months after the accident, Dave decided enough was enough and went back to the office full-time. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself forever,” is the way he explained it. And he got right back into his job again. Doing it helped a lot. A least during the work day. At night and on weekends, though, he was still sitting alone in his big, dark house, staring blankly at the TV. Which is how Grace, a neighbor, found him when she let herself in by the unlocked side door after ringing the doorbell without rousing him. “Dave what are you doing? Are you OK?” He started to cry. “This house seems so dead. It’s closing in on me. I’ve got to get out of here. I miss her. I miss the kids. There’s nothing here without them.” Grace said, “I’ll be right back.” She got her husband and the three of them sat late into the night talking about Dave, how he was living, and what maybe he should do. Maybe he should see about dating. Maybe he should hang out at the golf club more. Dave wasn’t sure about any of that. Dave couldn’t imagine dating. What would he talk about? He never did well in social situations. Or at least that’s how he saw himself. But one of the things that seemed to make sense was Dave should talk to a real estate agent. Why knows? Maybe a smaller house? Maybe a condo? An apartment until a better idea came along? The agent Dave saw happened to be the wife of his minister. And she had what at first seemed like a very odd idea. “You have plenty of room and I have a couple that needs a place to stay for a while. My husband married them last month. So maybe you should meet them. Why not? Could be fun.” So, the next Saturday, he was sitting at this very stylish restaurant waiting for the couple to arrive. It wasn’t Dave’s sort of place. Dave called places like this “Fern Salons.” Salads, crusty bread, and twenty-three varieties of white wine were featured. Dave was ordering a beer when two women walked in and asked if he was Dave. His eyes must have bulged because the tall one said, “Oh, she didn’t mention that we were gay. Just like her. If it bothers you, we can split.” Dave was embarrassed by his reaction. But for some reason, for the first time in a long time, he felt good. And he said something that he would never have guessed he would say, “Oh, no. Please. Sit down. This could be fun.” And it was fun. And it was a life changer for Dave. Doris and Nancy moved in three days later and the lights came on. The kitchen came alive. The two women made vegan casseroles and exotic salads. They baked bread. They made cakes and pies. And they knew how to make very good cocktails. Dave gave them the master bedroom, explaining they were just married and needed some privacy. He moved into his son’s room in the children’s wing of the house. So, it wasn’t the house. It was its emptiness. And now that it was filled, Dave began to come alive again. His daughter was thrilled. It was fun to be home again. But some of the neighbors were not so thrilled. They couldn’t figure out what was going on. Most didn’t get that Doris and Nancy were a couple and wondered whether Dave was “doing a two-fer.” They got even more worried when Dave started dating a gal he met downtown and began having her stay at his house every now and then. There were a lot of smutty jokes and a conference with Dave’s minister who explained, “It’s not what you might think and if I’m not concerned, you shouldn’t be either.” One neighbor from way down the street wasn’t so sure. “This could be some kind of cult. Or witchcraft!” He saw his lawyer who said, “Mind your business. Maybe I should meet Dave and find out his secret.” But then, one day, there was a “For Sale” sign up in front of Dave’s house. Doris, Nancy, and Dave had been talking. He wanted a new life. His daughter had finished college, was working as a biochemist, and had met a guy. Doris and Nancy wanted a vegan farm. And maybe a little restaurant. It would involve a move across country. Without really giving it much thought, he said, “We are going to do it. I’ve got the money and you have the muscle. I’m going to have fun.” It turned out it wasn’t quite as much fun as Dave had envisioned. There were a few unforeseen events that threw things off. First, Nancy got pregnant. That delayed things until the baby was born. How Nancy got pregnant was and remains a deep dark secret. But it led to a lot of jokey comments. “Nope! Wasn’t Dave. Unless he’s sneaky.” There was a onesie that said “This is not Dave’s kid” on its front. There were even t-shirts. Doris was in on the secret and she wasn’t saying either. Second, their plan went a bit off the rails. The idea was to use the internet to find possibilities, take a trip to see the options, select one, check out living situation, and buy. But the first farm they found and wanted to buy turned out to be a scam. The supposed “owner” was selling a place that wasn’t his to sell. Dave was quick to spot the problem; he didn’t run a large company’s legal department for nothing. He got the scam artist to draw up some documents, got him and his supposed attorney on tape, and had the authorities take care of the rest. But that meant they needed to find a place while they looked for a property that was legitimate. That turned out to be pretty easy. An old house that sat a mile or so out of town. And finally, it became glaringly clear that neither Nancy, Doris, nor Dave knew a thing about farming, let alone organic farming. Which is how Dave met his second wife. And how Dave became someone very different from what he was when he started out in life. Her name is Shoshana. She was running a small organic restaurant and truck farm with her son, Herman, and Herman’s wife. She knew how to cook and to raise vegetables but knew nothing about business. She was working hard and was slowly going bankrupt. Nancy and Doris discovered her restaurant on one of their trips to town. And after a couple visits, they decided they liked Shoshana and dragged Dave along for lunch. Dave and Shoshana are not what you might think of as an “obvious match.” Initially, they were both very skittish of one another. He was interested but worried that she would think him a stiff. She worried about what she called “the ethnic thing” and put on a “Jewish act.” She only knew six words of Yiddish but suddenly started using them whenever Dave showed up for lunch. But they had much more in common than they imagined. They grew up one town over from one another. They were both products of exclusive but different private schools. They both went to the same college, she graduating ten years later. But at the same time, they came from very different worlds. His was WASP and traditionally Christian, people who saw themselves as the pinnacle of society. Hers was Jewish, people who were typically excluded from his childhood world. And yet, when they settled down together, her background slowly absorbed his. There was this time when they were having a quiet breakfast and Dave said, “Stereotypes say I should be having your corn muffin and you should be having my bagel.” Over time, Nancy and Doris moved on, starting a bookkeeping service in the next town. It turned out that they liked the idea of farming more in theory than in reality. Shoshana’s son and his wife moved when he took a job in advertising. Dave’s daughter visited with her family every summer. And Dave, using what he learned over the years in a large firm, turned the restaurant and truck farm around, first hiring a farm manager who knew his stuff, then moving the restaurant to a larger place with more traffic and hiring a chef who could take the pressure off Shoshana and tweak the menu. Then, he hired a smart promotion company, got some national publicity, and a steady stream of business that grew over the years. “It’s not where I thought I’d be when I was a kid but, all-in-all, not so bad. Not so bad at all. Shoshana thinks I need a new hat but this one will do for a good while yet.”
Things are nice and peaceful these days. There are hiccups now and again but nothing that a bit of planning and persistence wouldn’t cure. Dennis’s place has a great reputation and a very loyal clientele. He calls it a “joint,” his name for any restaurant or bar, regardless of how unprepossessing or fancy it may be. He began taking ownership of it fifteen years ago from his business partner and has always made sure that it delivers more for the money than any competitor. He has a few very expensive items on the menu. And there are two or three wines that are outrageous. But most everything else is very reasonably priced and top quality. Every couple of years, Dennis closes down for a couple of weeks and the joint gets a significant restoration and upgrading. It first opened fifty years ago and, back then, it was all dim lighting, dark woods, and white table clothes. These days, it’s evolved into mostly sleek, shiny surfaces which contrast with and highlight the dark wood paneling and old-time bar that remains. Most nights, Dennis is there greeting people, solving any problem that might arise, and running the place. Every once in a while, he lets his brother come in and run things. The place is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday is quiet so they don’t open until four o’clock. They use Tuesday morning for business discussions, staff training, and trying out new dishes with everyone who works in the joint, from busboys on up. So, no one gets worn out. With a few exceptions, Dennis has a loyal staff. One reason is he pays more. Another is great benefits. In short, Dennis’s Restaurant and Bar is a well-run and successful joint. Of course, this was not always the case. When Dennis’s original business partner, Lana, bought it, it was on what seemed to be its last legs, a dinosaur among all the hip joints in its neighborhood. And, with a little less attention to detail, it might not be again. But not as long as Dennis is there. It’s important to remember: Dennis had a history of being considered aimless and a loser. And he claims he is always running scared; there were once people after him, he says. Not that long ago. And there may be again. He says he’s always looking over his shoulder. It’s a habit he learned young. Or so he says. As he tells it, he was pretty crazy as a kid. At fourteen, he robbed a jewelry store at gunpoint. He wore a mask and some clothes he had stolen off a clothesline. No one recognized him. He ditched the jewelry and kept the cash. He was never caught but says he figured they had to catch up with him sometime. Whether this story is true or not is hard to say. But, as one of the kids Dennis hung out with back then says, “Just another Dennis-tall-tale. Dennis just don’t run that fast.” Dennis likes to claim he had a very rough childhood, that he had to join a gang at an early age, was a chronic truant, and was almost sentenced to time in a juvenile facility. None of that is true. Despite Dennis’s claims otherwise, he grew up in a relatively affluent suburb in a privileged household with loving and attentive parents. His father owned a car dealership. His mother was a nurse. What does seem to be at least partly true is he wasn’t much of a student and spent a lot of time as a kid by himself, listening to rock-and-roll, and smoking weed when he could get it. He recalls how all his friends seem to know what they wanted to do when they grew up but he hadn’t a clue. He says, “It was like I was headed toward some sort of cliff and who-knows-what after I got there.” Also mostly true, the story about Dennis dropping out of high school and joining the US Marines. This disappointed his parents who had high hopes for him becoming the family’s first college graduate. His older brother had left school to take a job busing in restaurants and his younger sister was still in grade school. Based on his records and a medal he earned under fire, Dennis had a very successful and honorable tour of duty in the Marines. And he got to see a bit of the world. Stationed in Europe and in the Far East, Dennis learned something about cuisine and sex. He says he tried a lot of both. But one tour of duty was enough for him. The trouble was, once discharged, he still didn’t know what to do with himself. He was still headed for that cliff. He knew a return to school was not an option for him. But he was big and strong. And the Marines taught him how to do hard work. So, he took a job as waiter and bartender in a college bar. Which is where he says he met Melanie. She was about ten years older than Dennis and, recalling their first meeting, Dennis says, “She was absolutely amazing. Not beautiful but very hot. And very cool. I was just a jerk back then. But she must have seen something. When I think about it, she took over my world and changed my life.” She said she’d meet him after his shift and she did. He was a happy man. And from what she says, she was a very happy woman. “Dennis is gorgeous. He’s young. A little innocent. And he makes me very happy,” she said to a co-worker at her catering company. But whether all that Dennis claims about his relationship with Melanie is true isn’t clear. There’s no question though, she taught him plenty. She took him into her catering company and taught him how to run a business, to make customers happy, and to think about owning and running a restaurant. He claims she also taught him about “the fine art of lovemaking.” She only laughs when the subject comes up. “He’s a good kid. Will do any job, no matter how messy or hard. Strong. Good on his feet. And a quick learner. And maybe I helped him as much as he helped me.” Over time, their relationship became less intimate and more professional. She began dating an older man. He began seeing a co-worker named Deidre. Melanie didn’t think much of Deidre. “A bitch if there ever was one. I should have fired her ass out of here three days after I hired her.” Melanie admits there was a bit of jealousy involved. Deidre was and still is a doll and about 10 years younger than Melanie. Melanie says, “How was I supposed to compete with jailbait? But it was more ego than jealousy. The Dennis thing was getting a little old. I needed someone more my age.” The Dennis-Deidre wedding ceremony was casual and, apparently, so was their marriage. Deidre, it turns out, is what you might call a serial hook-up artist, always jumping in bed with someone she’s picked up. It was all over about as fast as it had begun. He says they parted as friends; Deidre says otherwise. While Melanie wasn’t going to welcome him home, she kept him on as an employee of her catering business. Dennis had learned well and was her best worker. When he ran an assignment, it always turned out well. And over next five years, Melanie gave him more and more responsibility. And paid him well. Other than that, though, Dennis still saw himself as a loser with no clear direction in his life. His parents tried to seem otherwise but it was clear to him that they were disappointed in him. His sister was more tolerant. She was a great student, gave her parents the college graduate they had hoped for, went to law school, and joined one of those fancy law firms downtown. She couldn’t figure Dennis out. She knew he was smart enough and a hard worker. And she knew he had good friends who saw a lot of good in him. When they met, Melanie told her he was really good at his job. Melanie also said that she was planning to close down her catering business and retire. “So,” she said, “In about six months, Dennis would be out of a job unless he could figure out what to do next.” Even with that warning, Dennis refused to plan ahead. Or even to think about what he might want to do. When Melanie closed down, Dennis was stunned. He knew it was coming. He even knew the day when Melanie would close things up. But until it happened, he somehow didn’t think it was real. He spent the first day he was on his own sitting on a bench watching cars. Every day in the next month was similar to that first day. Dennis would get up, eat something for breakfast and walk around. Dennis couldn’t figure out what to do next. He was sitting on that same bench doing the same thing – watching traffic – when a woman in jeans and a sweater walked up, sat down next to him. Her name was Lana. She said, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I need your help running a saloon I’m buying. Come on. Let me show it to you.” Dennis and Lana knew each other from some party that Dennis helped to cater. And they’d run into each other at one event or another over the past couple of years. But until that moment, she was just someone that Dennis knew sort of vaguely. He had a lot of casual acquaintances. So, when she asked him to look at her new saloon, he trailed along figuring he had nothing better to do. And, looking back, he had to admit, he was very glad he did. He liked the look of the place. He could see taking a date there. He could imagine working the bar or maybe being the host. He felt comfortable. He wasn’t so sure about Lana. He couldn’t figure her out then. And he still can’t after all the years he was in business with her. Lana’s gay so there’s no sex involved. And she is all business with him. They never spent time together outside of business. She seemed to have a lot of money but from where, who knows? He knows she’s older than him but can’t even figure how much older. She never showed interest in his personal life. Dennis met Lana’s partner once. It was quick “hello.” That’s it. A young woman dressed in black with very large sunglasses. And the one thing that really perplexed him was the deal Lana made with him. As part of his pay, he would get a chunk of the business. The longer he stayed and built the business up, the larger his chunk would be. And Lana wanted Dennis’s name on the door. She said, “If everything works out, you will own this place one day.” When he started to ask why, Lana said, “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.” One thing that Dennis did know was that, from the beginning, a good part of the clientele, especially late at night, was gay. At first, Dennis wasn’t too happy with that. It made him a little nervous somehow. But over time, he made some very close friends among that late-night crowd. One of them. George, introduced Dennis to his second and current wife. She’s George’s little sister. Talking with her late one night about his life so far, Dennis said Lana’s showing up at that park bench where he was sitting watching traffic was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Things got even better when Lana told Dennis she was selling him her remaining stake in the business. It would be over time so that she would always have some income. At first, she’d still come in and give Dennis or his brother a night off but, after a while, there’d be a month or two at a time when she would be gone. She and her partner were going to travel. And finally, without going into any detail, she announced would not be coming in at all. All she said was, “There’re reasons but I need to be out of town and gone.” When it comes to stuff with Lola, Dennis knows not to ask why. This was a couple of years back. Dennis has heard from Lana just a couple of times since then. About six months ago, a couple of men and a woman showed up asking for her. They looked like cops and they were. Federal agents. Dennis explained he hadn’t seen Lana or her partner in a while and the last message he’d gotten from them was a brief email asking him to shred and burn the contents of a box she’d left in the restaurant’s wine cellar. That was maybe a year ago. Yes, he did what she asked. No, he did not look at the contents. Yes, he did have an email address but the last note he’d sent to that address came back “Failure notice. Sorry, we were unable to deliver your message to the following address.” No, he hadn’t kept any of her emails. Dennis gave them the email address that he had for Lana. But he neglected to tell them, before she left, Lana had his bank set up a system for wiring money to a numbered account in Switzerland. After they left, he wondered whether he should have told them. Dennis talked it over with his wife. She said see the lawyer you use for your business. The lawyer’s reaction to his experience struck Dennis as odd. Maybe one question too many. “What do you mean there were three of them? What did they want” What did you say? You didn’t tell them where Lana might be, did you?” But he also tried to be reassuring, “No need to go out of your way. Maybe, if they come back, you can say you forgot about the wiring money thing. If they come back, you can tell them then. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it if you need my help.” It was only later that Dennis remembered his business’s lawyer was also Lana’s lawyer. For a while, Dennis wondered if his joint was being watched. But time went by. He had other things on his mind. There was another renovation to think about. The kids were getting ready for junior high. He missed the first story in the news. But he saw the follow-up story; the one on TV about how the FBI wanted to speak with a local woman and with a shot of the woman’s lawyer saying, “No comment. Lawyer-client privilege.” Dennis figured he better get his own lawyer, just in case
Mickey is a man with very strongly held viewpoints. He sees the world as divided between either the avaricious and dishonest and the virtuous and honest. This often conflicts directly with how he sees his role as a journalist: as a discoverer and teller of truth. Fact and strongly held viewpoints do not always mix. He deals with that conflict in a variety of ways, many of which he admits are pretty funny. He is given to long screeds delivered to friends who have heard it all before and get a laugh by egging Mickey on. Another is writing long opinion pieces in a blog that he writes under the pseudonym “Mischa Winer.” And finally, he writes occasional food articles and restaurant reviews, pastimes that led Mickey in very surprising directions, the first to a bestseller, the second to a cult following on the internet. Mickey started writing the food articles as a joke. He would take a well-known recipe and attempt to reproduce it at home in his apartment’s cramped kitchen. Quiche Lorraine is one of the first. The results were rarely good – especially in the first couple of attempts – leading him to write about “Kitchen Catastrophes,” why things went so wrong, and how to fix them. After doing this for a year or two, he bundled a bunch of these adventures together and sent them off to a book editor who when nuts, worked out a book deal, and was astounded at the result. Mickey always wanted a bestseller, but one about some burning issue of the day, not about burned food. But suddenly, there was Mickey doing book tours and television interviews. His tiny kitchen became a shrine for weekend cooks until Mickey’s wife had enough and insisted they move to a bigger, better place. The restaurant reviews were almost as successful. Mickey focused on the pretensions of “big deal” restaurants and made fun of them. At first, the restaurants screamed calling Mickey all sorts of names. But they noticed that when Mickey did a number on them, business got even better. So, they started buying advertising on his podcast, giving Mickey a significant income stream. The trouble in all this is Mickey is becoming just the sort of person that he would do screeds about. Self-satisfied, avaricious, and not always as honest as he would like. In a word, it is hampering his ability to be the kind of journalist he had hoped to be. That makes him angry. And so, he does screeds about that, providing great entertainment for all his close friends. Still, he has to admit, it isn’t such a bad life. He has a bigger and fancier kitchen now. He cooks more too, pastries and breads as well as main dishes. And so, the kitchen calamities keep coming, one after another. He’s now compiling some of them into a new book. And he still does an occasional restaurant review although not with the same verve as before. He’s gotten to know some of the restaurant owners and chefs he once mocked with such sanctimonious glee. And some are now good friends. So now, Mickey is looking for new targets. He’s thought about politicians but decided they are too easy a target and there are too many political writers anyway. But lately he’s been visiting high-end art galleries and having fun.