Saturday, February 13, 2010

chapter 7

Chef John is the main cook in the Restaurant, Phil being the fill-in for John's days off, and he is generally called "Chef" John to distinguish him from John Horne or Little John or other Johns whose last names I did not know at the time, like the one I called Silent John, who lives next door to the Blue House, on the other side from Black Haired Diane of the side spur from Little Village Road that runs down by Ruined cabin to Hummingbird cabin, who generally keeps to himself, or Red Gloves John, who lived over in Sal's Canyon, the better to hide from his ex-wife, whom he affectionately calls the Psycho Bitch from Hell, but would come here to work Up Top clearing broom, our most persistent weed, and would typically come, like Ronnie and OG, to Oaktree Circle early in the morning to bum the inevitable cigarettes, of which Maureen would give out whole packs in those days to the workers who were being paid little or nothing. But sometimes Chef John is just called "Johnny" because he is short and boyish-looking, littler than Little John, a living exemplar of the old proverb "a little pot is soon hot" when wound up. He and I would become good friends, and he is the only person in the world to call me "Mister Bob", but when we sat in the hot tub on a brilliant July night, a week or so after the day that will live in infamy, he was a total stranger to me, and so of course he told me his life story.

Have I mentioned that total strangers often tell their life stories at Lupin? I still have the boots of that fellow who stayed a weekend in Acorn tepee, which was not well sealed at the bottom and chilly at night until it was destroyed the day of the typhoon, who had never been naked in public before in his life and was not sure if he could ever persuade his wife how freeing it was, so Jean and I told him we would have to keep some kind of hostage to ensure his return, and sure enough, accidentally or otherwise, he left his boots, so we must e-mail him if Jean still has the address to make him come back and tell how the story ended up, for he was there alone to meditate about the revelation of why his mother had always hated him and told him he wasn't her son, which was because he wasn't, the father having paid the mistress to go away and forced the wife to raise him, so that only now did he learn that his real mother was only a dozen miles away, and he had never met her and was unsure how, or even whether, to make the approach. The Other Wayne, no kin to Lori and Wayne, told how he had to move out of his trailer park after witnessing an ugly death because he was tired of the lawyers from both sides asking him questions he had no real answers for, and favored me with accounts of his cross-dressing predelictions and the S&M clubs he frequented. There was the physicist who worked with a mass spectrometer, whom Maureen wanted to analyze the debris that she had kept from the day it banged down on the roof of Butterfly yurt with far more force than the usual acorns and tree litter, for she learned that the shuttle Columbia in its earlier stages of disintegration had passed directly overhead, but unfortunately she pointed out the diseased oak tree and spoke of her plans, so he said he wished he had thought of salvaging the trunks for a tree house before he took down a magnificent old oak, likewise a sudden-oak-death syndrome victim, and this set him off on a tangent about the vines he had thought so beautiful and his wearying battle to keep them from tearing his house down, and how he had his daughter and their children back at the house, and all their troubles, and he spoke no more of mass spectrometers. And there was the guy who sat in the sauna with me, whose boss had advised him to use his sabbatical to ponder his work performance, but that, he retorted, was not at all his idea of a sabbatical, which ought to be his time for himself, so on his return the boss had a lovely redhead girl from Human Resources sit in on the negative evaluation, to soften the blow he figured, although he was not one to fall for a good-cop-bad-cop routine and warned them not to interfere with him filing for disability, over his foot problems, but the disability bureaucrats were not co-operative with him: not only was this the dullest story I had ever heard at Lupin, but he told it in a slow, whiny drone.

Johnny told of his eleven-year-old, from a relationship whose brevity had been its best feature, and how his wife Rachel was pregnant, which everyone would know soon enough but I was, for some reason, the first one he told, and how he was worried because they had been having problems lately, and why did she have to watch him like a hawk all the time and not let him go out with buddies without her along, and I suggested that perhaps it was because he was a horndog who really shouldn't be trusted out of her sight. At this he laughed, and then told me some very personal things which, as with so much else that I hear at Lupin, must go with me to my grave. But he also talked about his annoyance at the micro-management of the Restaurant, for he was accustomed to being executive chef in more normal restaurants, which run by the same law as a ship, where there can only be one captain, and that captain is God so far as everyone else is concerned, but he had Wayne in there telling him what food he could and couldn't buy, and Redhead Diane stopping him from rearranging something because "that is not the Lupin way," when as far as he was concerned, the Lupin way was to run everything into the ground, and anybody who talked about "the Lupin way" ought to be gotten rid of immediately. And he had complained to Lori, "Hey, I didn't come in here on my last legs; I could get another job; you don't pay me enough to put up with this bullshit," but she told him he had it better than most, why in Gypsy cabin he had a toilet, and he pointed out that he had had a toilet in his house all his life, and had even lived in a house that had three toilets.

I was to hear only slightly variant versions of these same complaints from Chef John many times over the next months, for he considered it no improvement when Harry took over from Redhead Diane for a time, as he neither needed nor wanted a "manager" in there at all, and was pleased to tell me one day in August that Harry was "banquished", an apt portmanteau of "banished" and "vanquished" which he coined unconsciously, but of course that only meant that Redhead Diane was back, and Johnny would come to be on good terms with Harry, once he understood that Harry had been slandered in the typical Lupin way, but then built up anger against Will, who was putting everybody's name into a hat to draw a random person for drug-testing every week, and Johnny didn't think his Maui Wowie was any of Will's business, and shouldn't he be regarded as senior staff, when after all Will's name wasn't in the hat, nor Lori's? He worked particularly hard for the HAI gathering, that is, the Human Awareness Institute people, a touchy-feely group like Esalen or est with the annoying habit of asking "Are you HAI?" to anyone who they thought would be in on this joke, sometimes mistakenly, as with me the first time they puzzled me with it, and Lori promised Johnny a bonus for it which, as with so many Lori Kay promises, never materialized, and he told me that all he really wanted was a "Thank you" once in a while, but as I pointed out to Lori in my infamous e-mail, nothing says "Thank you" quite like a check. So, for the upcoming Western Naturist gathering, one of the most important events of the year, he was of half a mind to up and quit, just as the guests were arriving, but he would often be of at least half a mind to quit in the months to come, and Maureen and I got rather used to hearing that, knowing that the lovely and formidable Rachel, with whom he got along much better after he unburdened himself in the hot tub, was ever urging him to stiffen his backbone in the periodic face-offs with Lori.

None of this was at all new, I learned as I got better acquainted with Jean. I had known Jean, a buxom blonde with a face often described as "striking", due to some Native ancestry, as the lady who made fragrant healing oils, which she planned to sell at upcoming events if she could get good bottles made, and wonderful Creole-style food, for she suspected (correctly) that I was not eating properly, and Rob, her tall ruggedly handsome stoner of a husband with the mumbly voice, as the maker of either soft ambient music or hard rock, depending on his mood, and he had made a CD just for Maureen, in the ambient style but with haunting selections from the radio transmissions of the shuttle Columbia. I learned over the course of many conversations, as Jean sat in the swingy chair, that it was Rob who had first been lured to Lupin, on the promise of a landscaping job which, as with so many Lori Kay promises, never materialized, Lori telling him only after he had left his other job and moved the trailers up to the heap of the old Burn Pile that she had no work for him, and instead it was Jean who started, months later, to work there, when on Christmas the chef got fed up with Lori and abruptly walked out, and Jean stepped in to create, as Maureen confirmed, the most marvelous Christmas dinner Lupin had seen within memory, earning a standing ovation from the members. She continued to run the Restaurant for months, standing on her feet for such long shifts that she developed a nasty edema which was only now starting to unswell, constantly fighting micro-management from Wayne telling her she couldn't get the supplies she needed and Lori telling her not to rearrange things as she wanted, and while Johnny complained that he was paid too little, Jean had never been paid anything at all, not a penny, promised only free rent, but for how long was unclear.

She had quit in March after her sous-chef Greg True (I actually took that to be his last name for a while, but of course it was a self-chosen nickname) was thrown out in the middle of the night, by sheriff's deputies who were told that he had moved into Lori's trailer without permission, although Lori had in fact given him the key and he'd been working there for months, and this was of course done while Jean was out of town or she would never have put up with it, and she had to come back immediately in response to a frantic call from Greg that he was out on the streets with nothing. Now, I had heard versions of this before, for on the weekends, out on the lower lawn between the office and the foot of Little Village road, some of the members, from the Dave-and-Ardis Faction, would throw potluck dinners, and explain to me that they were boycotting the Restaurant because of the abuse of Greg True, who especially did not deserve to be so mistreated because he was a veteran and deaf, or more properly speaking hard-of-hearing, for Jean explained that only one ear was totally bad, although mostly they had to communicate in sign language, and often scarce needed to communicate at all, for they were totally sympatico and knew what each other needed the moment before it was asked, and she could not work without him. But as with so much that I hear at Lupin, there were varying versions, some members saying that Greg True could not have put in the 24- or 48-hour shifts that he sometimes did without a lot of pharmaceutical assistance, and that he was "a real piece of work" who always wanted his own way, though this scarcely seemed a unique trait at Lupin, and that they were only boycotting because they wanted Jean's food back, or because of anger at Lori's management in general, which might drive them to purchase land in Gilroy for a rival club if nothing changed by the end of the year. However, as I had explained to Lori, none of the details mattered, since any lawyer will tell you that when a pathetic-looking plaintiff walks into court in a military uniform and asks for a sign-language interpreter, you are toast, regardless of what the facts of the case are, though I wished I had spoken to Jean more before I had written Lori about the potential for disastrous litigation here, for Jean told me she was holding Greg back from suing as long as she was still at Lupin.

Odd as it may sound to a non-Lupinite, Jean was still trying to get along with Lori if she could, and though she would not set foot in the Restaurant, she would still do bits of work for Lupin, putting out fires Up Top when Red Gloves John or one of the others was careless with the inevitable cigarette, making coffee and putting out food, bought out of her meager unemployment checks, for the ill-paid or unpaid staffers who haunted the Community Kitchen, although the food she wanted to make sure of keeping for herself she kept in her own refrigerator, marked with a big PRIVATE -- KEEP OUT sign which usually but not invariably deterred invasion, at one point drawing a reply sign, "Private in the Community Kitchen ain't happening!" The Community Kitchen is half a building, the other half towards Oaktree Circle having been demolished after the Loma Prieta quake and replaced with Chez le Ronde yurt, which is supposed to mean "roundhouse" in French but actually means "at the home of the gender-ambiguous round person", or "Fatty's" as I concisely rendered it, and this building was "Junior's Fun House" as the sign still calls it, back in the days when what is now the children's play area between Chez le Ronde and the Circle was an outdoor studio, and it has never been properly plumbed as a kitchen, the sink draining slowly because the pipe does not actually connect to the pipes outside but simply dumps into the ground, that work having been started badly by Lori's half-brother Ricky, and never finished after he was re-arrested. "The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handle." The Community Kitchen is a living exemplar of why Communism fails: the food and utensils were everybody's, and therefore disappeared immediately, except for the strange odds and ends that nobody wanted, and even Dmitri's milk vanished, the time Dara put a sign on it pleading with people not to steal from her baby; while the work of keeping it clean was everybody's, and therefore nobody's. There is a sign, "PLEASE CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELF -- Thank You FOR YOUR THOUGHTFULNESS," with a picture of a man washing dishes for the edification of those unfamiliar with the concept, which Maureen once turned over, to write on the back, "This sign isn't much use, is it? Some people clean up even if they aren't told to, and some people don't even if they are told." When a mess was anonymously left, nobody but Jean would deal with it, and she too would say "I'm not cleaning that up!" but it never took long until she could not stand it anymore.

At first I tried to avoid using the Community Kitchen, except to put blue ice-packs and water bottles in the freezer to keep my cooler chill, keeping all my food in Tiger Lily yurt and using the coffee-maker to boil water to make noodles, but the twice- or-thrice-daily treks to swap thawed ice for frozen got to be too much. I could not afford to eat at the Restaurant regularly, though I did buy excellent meals from Chef Phil a couple times, remembering in particular a Caesar salad for which he had to improvise, Italian cheeses not having been on Wayne's list, feta cheese therefore substituting, so that I told Phil he ought to call it an Alexander the Great salad, and I ate Chef John's also excellent food a few times on Turtle's tab, for he and Diane still have lots of Restaurant credit in lieu of pay, from the days when she worked the office. And Johnny thought for a while that I was part of the boycott, and said, "Mister Bob, I understand and appreciate your political stance," until I explained to him that it was actually economics, not politics. He thanked me for keeping the rosemary around the Circle watered, saying that the Restaurant needed it, and I thought he was kidding, but he wasn't. When Graceland was the CD usually blasting out of my car, I would sometimes hear "Diamonds on the soles of her shoes..." coming out of the Restaurant, and when I switched to Abraxas, from the Restaurant I would hear "Oye como va..." So while Jean was unwilling to trespass in the Restaurant, I decided it was vital that she and Johnny have a talk, and made the introduction, knowing they would hit it off at once and chat all about food and the Restaurant's kitchen facilities, Jean explaining that you need to fix OG a plate of collard greens if you want the oven fixed right, and other useful tips, and promising to explain to the "potluck dinner" crowd that Johnny was a good guy who deserved a chance, and that they should not boycott on her account since her foot problems made her not want to go back to that work anyway, but she did advise Johnny to clear out of there before the situation with Lori got worse.

Johnny, however, was determined to make a go of it, even if the level of business wasn't what it had been in happier years, and to put his own stamp on the place, so he bought, well OK Maureen bought if you want to get technical about it, new wavy-square plates and nice silverware and the like, and started redecorating, and whipping the staff into shape, which was not much appreciated, as when he pressed the dishwasher, Brian that is called "Brian", Gina's nephew who is a little slow in the head, to be more diligent, earning for himself the nickname "Hitler" and the suggestion that for Halloween he should paint on a little black mustache, which would look good on him, actually. And he made an effort to be polite with Redhead Diane, since she is a package deal with Kitchen Mike, whom he likes a lot, everybody likes Mike, so that I had to start calling my friend Mike "Turtle", as Maureen indelibly dubbed him when he started to come out of his shell, as on the entrance sign to Turtle Lake showing a turtle stripping off, although in forty years of acquaintance, longer than I've known anyone except family, I had only called him "Mike", and he was the first person in the world, though far from the last, to call me "X", but "Turtle" it now had to be, lest when I refer to "Mike and Diane" people assume I mean Kitchen Mike and Redhead Diane. When Turtle commented on the improvements, one night when we were in the Restaurant, I told him about Maureen's "parallel universe" campaign, and he warned me not to get involved in Lupin politics, saying that the happiest people there were those who generally kept to themselves, and I had to tell him that it was way too late, I was in deep. "Then I must warn you," he said, putting on a Peter Lorre voice, "there are spiiiiiiiies... EVERYWHERE!" "I know," I sighed, "I have become one of them."

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