Painting: "Hamlet, the Old Dog, Learns a New Trick" 2017. Acrylic on paper, 15 x 23"
[Years ago, while I was making a living as a line cook in a beautiful world, I had the determination to open my own restaurant one day. This essay explains the decision Rose and I made to not take that direction during our first years together as a married couple and parents to needy hearts and minds. It was a tough one. Not a week passes without the muse testing the life choice. I may open something up sooner than later now that the girls have grown. But I'll need your money. Invest in me. Become the Bank of Determined Passion. 4% interest, and I'll ony close during a pandemic.]
This afternoon I’m going to kill two birds with one stone. I will write about my restaurant, the one that isn’t open yet. I figure I can brainstorm an idea, write down the thinking and the dreaming, and turn out another story. It’s the best I can do considering I’m feeling more asthmatic than usual. I am also a bit nervous about tomorrow’s trip to North Carolina. I always get intense before travel.
This morning over oatmeal I shared with Marie my idea for a restaurant. Lately we’ve been getting frustrated over our lack of funds—only because it’s the one thing we don’t have for our dream business. We’re on the verge of silly now, at least I am—because I know that borrowing a considerable amount of money is a foolish thing. The Devil’s victory. The newlyweds sitting up late at night discussing business! That’s pitiful! That’s the Devil’s handiwork. “Ah sweetie, we can make twenty thousand the first year. A worst case scenario!” No it’s not. We both know it’s not. When you start dreaming about business, the worst case scenario is already in motion, with no hope of stopping it either, until long after divorce or alcoholism—and then it takes a successful exorcism, which is very rare. Otherwise, you’ve sold your soul to the Devil for twenty grand, and there ain’t no refund coming from selfish Satan.
What is it about food and cooking that turns my wisest thinking into scatter-brained delirium? My heart knows the truth. All business kills. Just a lone, seemingly innocent, profitable transaction will devastate an entire bustling city of brain cells. No business is good. You either love something enough to share it with the world—and that doesn’t know any kind of business—or you just love business for business, which means you are mostly a usurious twit.
But I love food. I love cooking for Marie and Rachelle. I love when we come together to create. It’s wonderful! The sights and smells of a happy home are intensified in a shared kitchen. The old world is born again. We’re talking to one another and moving our hands at the same time. “Marie, can you stir the risotto?” “Rachelle, now what liaison did I use to bind this sauce?” “Come here you two. Look how beautiful that is!”
The Devil ain’t in my kitchen. That’s a blessing. Now what’s next for two young lovers in America after they have everything including good food? Why yes, of course—they go into business!
Wow! Where the hell did that come from? Do you see how powerful he is? You’re happy for a long stretch of time, but with the first show of weakness or doubt, and zoom!—Devil’s at your door with a stack of papers to sign.
A sad ending for many couples. Mortgage the home, the car, the kid’s—swipe their college money, invest in yourselves, hell yea! Go into business!
You see, there he is again! The Devil’s right on top of me. He’s got Marie too. She’ll go back to work, happy and satisfied after a great meal and foot rub during lunch break, and spend the rest of the afternoon doodling logo ideas onto a napkin. At the end of the day she comes into the kitchen to empty her pockets. There on the table, the doodles will haunt us. The Devil’s got a new toy for the rest of the night. Unless I cook. In that case we’re blessed again, and after our dinner, feel the need to lay on the bed and talk about the day. That’s what happens when you’re full. That is satisfaction, and it is what anyone who goes into business lacks.
You begin pure. A fawn born in a wood. You run and play, still with a purity undaunted. It’s true that it can last a life time. You can keep your childlike energy and longing if there is another child to share your dreams. That’s how you feel in love and wanting to give. You begin pure in the wood. Stay there, find a lover, make babies, and eat. The only difference now is responsibility. That should not make you an asshole. Don’t take anything besides what you already possessed when you were born, a lover, and children. Run and play. Lay about in the den when the snow falls, and feed your family.
What else? Nothing. Well then, where does business sneak into the picture?
It comes after giving birth. You’re a mammal and love your seed. Unfortunately you’re a human mammal, and must also nurture worrisome dreams about clothing, soap, transportation, housing, heavy cream, dustballs, clean sheets, gasoline... You had these things as a human child, and believe wholeheartedly they are necessary for your child’s proper physical and mental development. Now you think money is the first necessity, and the other stuff will follow neatly behind. That’s where business begins. You leap into the poisonous stream of business, and the shorter days of death begin. Business flows and you begin drowning.
You forget that you’re alive, and imagine all life is for the taking. It’s the Devil in disguise again. You have the kids and the food, and a thousand other things, and yet, you’re not quite where you want to be. Devil’s sitting at your kitchen table. You took a job, and got good enough at making money to eat and purchase the thousand things that have dragged you far away from your dreams. Devil says that’s good, but not good enough. “You can do it better yourself,” he says. “You can make more selling yourself, and feel proud that your hard work bought all this stuff. You are not a slave,” says the Devil. “Sign these papers. Sign this last paper here.” You ask “What is it?” Devil says, “It means you’re accepting premature death. You’re not physically dead—you just can’t love with passion anymore, now that you’re in control of the money. Oh yes, and I own you.”
That’s the beginning of business.
The Devil’s got a damn good case. He offers several solutions, the most pleasant one bringing a welcome relief from drudgery and boredom. Who doesn’t want to be his own boss? It must be every man’s dream since the time he lost the strength and stamina to procure his own food. At least a slave got a pick of the crop he planted. The tenant farmer, indentured servant, even the serf who didn’t know what letters were, got to sign his “x” to the creation which kept him. Unless he plants coins to grow paper money, today a man who doesn’t own a business is being whipped. There is no pretty way to look at it. Whether he is sweeping floors, installing floors, cutting those handsome square tiles for floors, he’s not signing his name on the floor, and that’s the wrong way.
As much as I hate to admit it, the Devil’s got the right w—
Ah! There he is again. Jesus, get him off my back! I want to think clearly. He’s got Marie too, I know it. She’s at work picking up the pen to doodle. She talked about the Devil last night. She knows. We feel the same. He’s wooing us both, although I believe for different reasons. That’s not a concern with him as long as we sign the same contract. The Devil doesn’t care about our reasons. She’ll oversee the front of the house. I’ll be in charge of the kitchen. And we both agree that Peasant Stock is a good name for our restaurant. We will draw up a list of our individual duties and mark specific points where we cannot cross over into the other’s space. We’ll work very hard at avoiding divorce. We’ll work twice that hard trying to avoid the inevitability of hating each other. Working long hours, night and day, signing our names to Peasant Stock. The telephone will ring and ring—Oh my God, he won’t leave me alone. That persistent red bastard! That lying, devious angel! He knows damn well that I’m afraid of the phone. He knows that I know he doesn’t care, and yet, I’m still thinking about the restaurant!
Well it’s a good thing we don’t have any money. Almost down to nothing. When we hit zero, I plan to take a minimum wage job (or just slightly above that) cooking in one of Oswego’s food businesses. Without money one can plan and dream all he wants. The wise Devil knows he’s beat and turns his sights on the real takers. Just like our real estate broker. He’s given up. He showed us a hundred thousand dollar building and we pretended that money was not an issue. Ha! I haven’t made a hundred thousand dollars yet in my working life. I’m a trillionaire dreamer. That is, money is never a concern when I don’t think about it. Buerre Blanc is a world of concern. It doesn’t cost a penny to cut cold butter once I have the butter. I didn’t get the butter on credit. I didn’t walk into the bank with my head down and offer the tubby bank manager a thirty thousand dollar indenture—hoping she’ll take it so that I can owe the bank for life and pray to God every night that thirty people will come to our restaurant for a butter sauce. Whoa, wait a minute... God ain’t listening. He gave up after I made that deal with the Devil, remember?
So our broker took us on a free tour of an old building. He had to mention the staggering utility bill, high taxes, regular maintenance, the leaky roof that hasn’t been repaired since the fire, the shared stairwell with the Born Again Christian Alliance, ripped walls, broken fire escape, four inefficient boilers... All for just a hundred thousand dollars. No mention of the art of cooking. No discussion about the price of butter, the chopping blocks, kitchen sink, walk-in cooler, purveyor schedules, the hourly pay of my first cook, Marie’s chances of having a sane baby, my duty as a father and a husband, another Saturday morning spent cutting inch cubes off fifteen pounds of butter... No, the broker wants to work, and his work declares that he make a deal. He’s in business. It doesn’t matter how we get the money, or why we get the money—he suggests how we can get the money; I could kill someone for the money, and he would still take the money. He doesn’t know or care especially that after our little meeting, I’m going to shop for butter and wine. It will cost a small fortune for the dinner I’ll prepare. No successful businessman would waste a penny on such a meal without cutting as many corners as possible. He won’t need butter. Margarine looks like butter and is a quarter of the price. Wine? Really, is it necessary? Just add more salt. Flavored vinegar? Tarragon? Naw, more salt. Wait, let’s just forget the ber blanky and serve hot turkey with fries and gravy. $5.95. Geez, I can’t see more than a dollar going into it. That’s under 18% food cost. If I have the dishwasher make it, and give him a ten cent raise... And thirty people order that? Wow! Do you see what a stupid waste of time your art is?
So we paid a hundred thousand for the building and fifty thousand for renovation, and once upon a delicate time a man and woman were happy. It’s all over after that. It really is. Everything. If your marriage survives, your kids must be emotionally pathetic creatures, or they were never born because the man couldn’t get an erection to put into that sorrowful place! You never dreamed that the first time lying down with her warmth while the snow fell heavy out your door, would be the last time you ever laid pure together. Once you walked through the storm with a bag of groceries. One bag might have cost you a third of your paycheck, but you cooked all day, got steadily drunk on wine, wrote a poem, shoveled the walk, and served her like a queen. Of course she is a queen! Not after a hundred thousand, however. No, after that, she’s a machine. You’re a machine. The child becomes a machine completely out of whack. The machine has to make a living by postponing life. Business does not sleep; you cannot sleep while the pipes freeze, the toilet overflows, the compressor bites the dust, the waitress slips and falls, hitting her head and suing your business. You can pretend to rest. You can take a week’s vacation to North Carolina leaving the business to a man you employ. Is he a reliable machine? No—well, yes. He’s a machine while he’s getting paid. But he gets turned off at eleven p.m. and walks home in the snow, meeting up with his beautiful wife shoveling the walk. “How was your night, my love?” she asks, her cheeks cold and flush. “Oh baby, Ron is sure to have a heart attack this time. The pipes froze and burst, the toilets backed up, a woman fell on the ice and cracked open her forehead... Oh geez, forget about work. Not our problem. Let’s go inside and get warm.”
Absolutely! Stay right where you are, hired help. You are fortunate if you can still see the beauty that she is. You rich man with a love of food, cooking, and watching the snow fall out your window! You have no idea how far gone the businessman is. You envy the man who doesn’t get his hands dirty. You think you want that for her because it looks secure, and profitable enough to buy a wall of windows and French doors opening out onto a terraced garden. No. She cannot possibly have this if you want to cook for her. It’s a life of business, a signed non-voidable contract with the Devil, that will eliminate the memory of an empty head. You will forget the beauty of walking home to her in a snowstorm carrying two bags of groceries which you was needed to create one dinner. You will forgo a true eagerness. You might want to get up, but for all the wrong reasons. You will have to get up when you don’t want to.
Two menus, prix fixe— two separate paths:
Your day off: Rise when you open your eyes. Take your hand off her back. Walk downstairs, thinking of dessert, since that is the most difficult task for the day. It’s a sunny morning to welcome the first blasts of autumn, when you can count more than five colors to a tree. That will keep your brain and heart dancing, your eyes alert and shining. Fine. Take some money and shoes, and start walking. I’ll keep it simple since you have a purpose, and not mention the many muses singing sweetly on your way to market. It’s right to call it a market when your mind has the sense to call it that.
To the market then, without a list or an idea. Ooh, it’s the harvest season, there are ripe pears and you smell the powerful presence of arugula. Okay for a garnish. What else is my fancy? Some staple garlic—I think we’re low in the wood bowl at home. Hmm. Bananas and chocolate. I’m thinking different for dessert. Forget all plans. I don’t want to watch a cake bake this afternoon. We’ll take the cats outside instead and run a stick through the fallen leaves. Sauté the bananas with lime and cardamom. A chocolate sauce and ice cream. Simple. That’s done. Yams. We’ll puree those with butter and maple syrup. No, because a gravy won’t go good with that. And Rachelle loves gravy. Roast chicken and mashed potatoes. I’ll need two chickens. One for a stock and one for the oven. Cream for the chocolate sauce and gravy, butter for anything, eggs for the morning, orange juice, and Rachelle’s favorite ice cream. Now back to produce for potatoes. Oh, those apples look nice. Applesauce. Ah, we need peppercorns for the stock. Thirty-nine dollars? Fine. A thousand dollars? Hmmm. Pretty steep. I’ll have to bring one of the chickens back.
Another menu. Devil’s path:
Your day off: Rise at five a.m. Shave and shower. Walk downstairs and make coffee. Sit at the desk and read the paper. Look for your add on the restaurant page. “Peasant Stock—Soups and such for the poor man” What a great idea that was! Low overhead. High mark-up. A professionally prepared high quality soup for $3.99. Comes with toasted bread and garlic clove. They think they’re in nineteenth century France. They think I’m just scratching by. Fifty bowls of soup a day, plus all the other treats I sell... After payout, we’re still getting rich. Thank you Satan. No I didn’t forget. What’s that? Oh, the baby’s crying. “Marie!”
Now what am I going to do today? Another cup of coffee. Jesus, it’s almost Thanksgiving! Pumpkin Soup and a personal chicken. Marie can waitress. We’ll get a baby-sitter. “Marie! C’mon, I’m working!” Wait, Rachelle knows how to change a diaper. She can watch the baby. There we go. You’re using your head. We need new tile in the bathroom. I’ll talk to Joe. Different schedule this week for Bobby—get my order in early. Mark that. A thirty soup luncheon on Wednesday. The old bags want black tea and a cherry dessert. I’ll go to Syracuse today and pick up the tea. Frozen cherries! Oh well! The leak in the kitchen—what can that be? Wait. You got to write this down. The paper wants my add tomorrow. Oh God-damn that woman! “Marie, please!” Shit! I’ll just do it myself. No! You work all week. Rest now. You’ll drive yourself crazy if— “Oh, there’s my sweet little one. Here’s a kiss from Daddy.” Keys. Where are the keys? “Marie, where are the keys? Thanks. I’m going down to the restaurant. Why? Oh, just to see if I can get ahead for next week. You can take them honey. I’ll walk down. Bye.”
Arrange orders. Roast bones. Make a double chicken stock. What a beautiful day! No time to cook. Just bring some cold soup home, and take the car to Syracuse later.
What a stinking mess. That little bastard! Time for a new dishwasher. Set that up for Tuesday. Might as well sort through those applications and toss them. Nerve of that lady telling me the soup was too spicy. I could strangle her! Almost like the time the Chilled Squash and Cream Soup was “ice cold!” Ah these idiots. Just keep coming. I’ll take your filthy money. Why not? Oh damn! Money. The roofers need a deposit. Write that down. Marie will have to oversee. Nice ass on the counter girl I hired last week. Keep them young and pretty for the bankers. She rubbed against me on purpose. She’s thinking about it.
Marie will be home. She won’t have to bother about dinner. Shit! The Pumpkin Festival. Eh. Business is business. Gotta get to Syracuse for the old lady luncheon tea crap. Man I use to live for these Indian summer days! What’s happened?
He went into business! Peasant Stock was a great idea but a miserable life. One can only scratch the surface. The true heart lies deep beneath layer upon layer of love-loss and dollar-despair. You can’t read the face of a businessman without feeling cold. It’s the evil cold of business that envelopes the businessman. Turn a profit if you don’t believe me. Your first trick has got to be an embarrassing affair. Hold out your hand to receive the cash. You’ll feel it this first time. Your face will redden. You’ll look down at the floor. You might even make an awkward bow. That man just handed you two dollars more than what the food cost you. Imagine that! A clear head might foresee the many miseries to come—beginning with the first wave of the hand, “Well, a man has to make a living!” That’s your signature signed in blood. That’s your “okay” to the Devil. You have sold your true heart for a profit. New definitions form for words and phrases. Now a “clear head” is defined as, “one who has a mind for business”. “Meaningless” might be a word pointed at your whistling dishwasher or your sweeping janitor. “Common sense” is a philosophy that will make more money. “Free time” is when the working dummies come give you their money. “Politics” and “government” must be held in check to keep your profits stable. “Change” is acceptable only if it makes you more money. The world remains a constant, wonder has ceased, and your precious life works overtime like a machine.
No one, at the time of his right mind, would desire to dedicate his next fifteen hundred Mondays to ordering coffee and paper products—his next fifteen hundred Tuesdays to food, beer, wine, and laundry service. Because what follows are fifteen hundred “rest of the weeks” worrying about paying the bills. It’s a fool’s business. But when was the right mind alive and prepared to make important life-saving decisions? When was it awake? When did it have nothing to gain?
What is really loathsome about business is what it takes away. What is gained after thirty years of repetition is a quicker path to death. All businessmen are know-it-all dead things. It cannot be helped. They have to be. Business is math. Math is man-made. Anything man-made is dead. To get ahead in this life, I mean to get to the high places that few go to, one must accept that he is a fool, a complete waste of time, a hopeless, useless, wonder absolute. He better do this with an addictive smile, because without a sense of humor, he won’t last long playing the fool. Most importantly, all dead things shot at him must bounce off immediately, without pain nor scar. This includes knowledge, money, current events, phone bills, fuel bills, credit bills and of course, all business transactions. Laughter is a good shield. Forgetfulness is wise. Outright foolishness with money is a reliable survival tactic. You must make the businessman hate you with all his might. If he thinks the sandwich is worth $2.59, offer him five dollars. If you have the choice between two identical brands of potato chips, buy the most expensive one. The dead things must bounce off you. That is when the right mind is alive. I know when I am getting overwhelmed with illusion. Usually I can catch the Devil and dollars playing their sick and twisted game in my head. The loser is the man who controls his day, not he who greets each morning on a whim. The latter follows another path of control. It is the control of no control. He has to control himself not to control. He must let go of things because those things add up too quickly and begin to hurt the head. Too many things. So many things that make the businessman start to suffocate under a heavy heap of junk. He couldn’t let death bounce off him because he went into business which demanded that he take it all in. All of it. No matter how much it hurt.
The genesis of Peasant Stock began as a dead thing bouncing off Marie and I. We knew what to do with the food we bought. We prepared it special and worth remembering. The dead thing was the constant fear of catching ourselves in the act of wasting time. So we began to wonder if together we could make cooking our life’s mission. That was the urge of creation calling to us. “Yes we can!” said the right mind. “Absolutely, but don’t you dare go into business if you want to cook and be happy at the same time.” That meant we should come together at the end of a workday and enjoy the fruits of our labor—make our own yogurt, mix it with mango, and travel to India before seven o’clock. After seven, it is time to put the shield on and experience life our way. We knew that. We lived that. And then a knock came at our door. A persistent knock that wouldn’t leave us alone. One night the pears are poaching, and the knock persists. The next night, at the same hour, there’s a guinea pig beauty contest being held on the living room floor. The knock persists. The following night we take a spring walk while the sun sprays the houses with orange-yellow hues, and wet dirt smells fill the air. We walk home thinking lemon pudding. The knock starts up again. It won’t leave us alone. Oh for God’s sake, open it!
Of course we could do it better. We could feed strangers our love and at the same time, turn enough profit to free ourselves from the present drudgery of undesirable repetition. Never have to work for another again! I see dark wood walls, maybe walnut if we’re lucky. Some old man with a violin. Men in fedoras; women wearing scarfs. The children who arrive with their parents want to read or sketch the chef in action. Every moment is an expression of the love that craves to be released. We turn a meager profit, a massive sum to us, for we believe the work we do is play and good fortune. Why make anything more of that? All the customers are enlightened human beings. Nobody is in business. We’re making this place on earth our paradise.
I walked out of my house on a fine spring morning, slaughtered a lamb and disemboweled her in my dreams. This I have sacrificed to my brethren. My children are already at the restaurant doing their schoolwork and keeping the stocks at a very low simmer. My wife greets me at the door and wraps her arms around me. All worry is bouncing away.
Come in! Come in! Cut through my skin dirty Devil. Fill up your inkwell with my blood. I’m ready to risk all future happiness. I’m ready to beat wonder with a stick. I want to control life even if in so doing I forget what joy it was to be alive. I’m ready to hate everything. Ready to take. I’m so god-damn ready to go into business. Scribble-scribble,
exclamation point! Yes!