New York, 2014. Look! Dick and Jane are old. Dick's body is failing. Jane's mind is fading. See their middle aged son take them out to dinner for anniversary fun. Look, look, see him run!
It was 7 pm on June 21st, the longest day of the year, and I was loitering outside 21 West 52nd Street waiting for my mother and stepfather, with whom I was shortly to dine in celebration of their 45th anniversary. I’d just seen on a sign that the restaurant outside of which I now stood had opened at that location eighty-four years earlier, while I, myself, would, for a few months more, be forty-nine years old. That was seven times twelve and seven times seven. The street number and that of the anniversary momentarily threatened to derail the lucky streak but then it struck me that the difference between them was seven and harmony was restored.
As I approached the conclusion of these diverting thoughts, a cab pulled up bearing my mom and stepdad. I saw them through the window and, ever solicitous toward them, stepped up to the kerb to help. My stepdad and I both pulled back our right sleeves a shade and took a firm grip on each other's wrists so that, using me for leverage, he might heave his bulk out of the taxi. He was over six feet, weighed nearly three-hundred pounds and was 77 years of age.
“Nicely done, James,” he congratulated me, “I can make it from here by myself. You stay on there and help your mom out.”
She was still spry physically but tentative now, plainly hesitant to step out into the street, “It's your anniversary,” I reassured her, “We're going for dinner at The 21 Club.”
She knitted her brows and puckered her mouth, “Are we going anywhere afterward?” she asked dubiously.
I suspected that she suspected that she was to be shanghaied to the theater or some concert - a valid lingering empirical correlation. “Just back to your place, babe, as far as I'm aware,” I jested with her as she stepped onto the pavement.
“Thank God for that!” she snapped back.
The reservation was for the upstairs dining room, which was small, quiet and affordable to the likes of me - a four course meal from a set menu for a tad under $100 a head before drinks, tax and tips, Fridays or Saturdays only. The place was decorated much as it must have been forty-odd years earlier when my grandparents had liked bringing me there as a boy. It put me in mind of pictures I’d seen of the dining rooms of the last of the great Transatlantic liners that had carried my mother and stepfather to Europe for the summer during their college days in the early Fifties. I also noticed a framed notice stating that, as on the old ocean liners, jackets were required. I didn’t have one.
“Good e-e-evening, Mr. Weltz”, the Maitre-D. intoned to my stepdad, who’d made the reservation, “Lovely to see you again. I believe it has been over a year, hasn’t it?”
Yes, my stepfather’s name really was Weltz. Not only that, his first name, in true Fifties style, was Dick. This conjunction afforded much mirth to my friends and me during our middle school years in the mid-1970s. We’d ring up his office from one of their apartments, or from his own for that matter, and get his secretary to transfer the call. He’d answer the phone and say in his old time radio announcerish way, “Di-ick We-eltz”; whereupon, if the thirteen year old boy on the other end of the line didn’t crack up laughing straight away, he might add something along the lines of “Better put some Desitin on them!” before dropping the receiver in sophomoric hysterics. Meanwhile, my stepfather concurred with the head waiter, “Yes, it has been about a year, umm…”
“Benjamin, but feel free to call me Ben.”
As he was getting my mother seated, Ben, plainly a veteran member of the Legion of Unemployed Performers who staff the better class of restaurants of New York, took the opportunity to mention ‘the young man’s’ not being entirely in dress code. I was, as it happened, about a decade older than Benjamin.
“I had no idea,” I apologized, “It’s their forty-fifth anniversary. Could we maybe overlook-”
“Not to worry...Not to worry! We are well prepared for such eventualities Upstairs at 21,” he crooned. He returned with menus in hand and a jacket folded over one arm. It was seersucker and very large. He handed menus to my mother and stepfather and held the jacket out for me to put on. I felt, and probably looked, something like an outsize child playing dress up in it. He then had me hold out my arms one after the other and rolled up the sleeves a couple of turns in a retro-rakish 80s style.
When time came to order, my mom became befuddled Even though she could still read the menu, she couldn’t remember what she’d just read as soon as she looked away from it. “Do you have any chicken?” she clucked.
“We do indeed, Madam!” Benjamin announced, “The roasted chicken ‘grand-mere’ stuffed with with yellow-foot mushrooms, truffles, maple-smoked bacon, served with turned potatoes and pearl onions.”
“Ooh, I’ll take it!”
“And for the lady’s appetizer?” Benjamin inquired unctuously.
“Is there anything with chicken?
“I’m afraid not Mrs. Weltz but there’s goose of sorts, a fine foie-gras terrine with fig and apricot chutney, Sicilian pistachio and a homemade toasted brioche?” “Phooey!” was la grand-mere's diplomatic response to this suggestion. “Then perhaps, the octopus carpaccio in pomegranate, basil oil with kalamata olives and zaatar vinaigrette?”
“Octopus?” my mom squinted, “Who’d eat an octopus? They’re smarter than cats!” I felt touched that she still knew this fact, indeed that she had ever known it.
“Maybe the crisped crab cakes on a celeriac and fennel macedoine for Madam then?” Benjamin was being more cautious now.
“Alright, alright, I’ll take them, enough already!” she consented.
It was my stepdad’s turn now. He was handling the wine order and was raising his eyebrows knowledgeably, “We’ll have a bottle of the Marcassin Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2009.”
“An excellent choice, Mr. Weltz”, Benjamin enthused, “The new for $400 or the old for $550?”
My heart leapt into my mouth, or more pointedly, pole-vaulted over my forehead.
“Oh, just kidding, Ben,” he laughed, “I wanted to give the Jameser here a scare and it looks like it worked... No, no we’ll take a half bottle each of your house red and white. Anything will do as long as it’s American. Meanwhile, I think I’ll have the big-eye tuna tartare with avocado and bergamot-white harissa, followed by the speakeasy steak tartare mesclun greens, truffle vinaigrette and toast points, thank you.” When I was a boy, he always liked to tell people that I couldn’t resist any dish that was flambéd, anymore than he could one that was tartare. My preoccupation had faded with the years but his never had.
“Richard, are you sure?” I put in, “Didn’t your gastro-enterologist say that you shouldn’t – ”
“It’s my 45th anniversary, James and I’m Upstairs at 21. My gastro-enterologist can take a hike.”
Benjamin’s interlocutory gaze fell upon me. “I’m, umm-uhh, a vegan,” I admitted. “Ooh, I knew it...I could tell as soon as you walked in!” Benjamin exulted, “So am I!” I was inclined to ask him how he knew this, but thought better of it. “Our three ‘mid-courses’ so-called are our vegan menu in disguise. It was my own innovation,” Benjamin boasted.
“Perfect,” I declaimed, “That’s us all set then.”
While we awaited, and subsequently consumed, our first course, my stepfather talked about what we always talked about – once we’d agreed several years ago that we would refrain from discussing politics when we were in public together – namely our distant shared past. “You remember,” he chortled, “when I was named President of the American Typographic and Printing Industries Association?” I did remember; I was unlikely to forget since we recollected it on approximately an annual basis. “It wasn’t every third grader got brought along to the New York Playboy Club and had his picture taken with Joe Namath and the Playmate of the Year for 1972, right?” It was a sign of how somnolent my mother had become that she no longer uttered her standard, “Richard, enough already!” at the mere mention of the momentous event. She was not only sipping away contentedly at her glass of white wine, she’d also appropriated my glass of red and was working her way through that.
“Mom, you know you’re not supposed to drink too much wine,” I remonstrated mildly, “It’s not good for your memory.”
Putting down her wine glass and putting on the expression sociologically known as ‘New York Mouth’, she clucked, “I guess I forgot.”
“At this stage of the game, Jameser,” my stepfather sighed, “I don’t think it’ll make a hell of a lot of difference.”
Things continued in this vein as the appetizer plates were carried off and the entrees arrived. I’d eaten only a couple of my exotic porcini and chanterelle ravioli when my stepdad, who was tucking into his next lot of raw flesh with alarming gusto, began hiccuping violently and making a face as if he were imitating the selfsame big-eye tuna, chunks of which he’d just finished consuming.
“You okay big guy?” I asked in a tone that echoed one he might’ve used with me in the days of my photo-op with Joe Namath at the Playboy Club.
He shook his head and strained to say, “I should’ve (hic) taken (hic, hic) your advice (hic, hic) and listened to (hic) the damn gastro (hic, hic, hic) enterologist.”
Indeed, he should for he was now foaming at the mouth...only the foam was not the traditional white, but rather russet. Being much bigger than my mother or I, he was sitting in the bucket chair opposite the two of us adjacent perched on the banquette. I stood up, thinking I had better do something, though I had no idea what. My mom noticed this and looked up from her roast chicken grand-mere, “Why are you standing up, James? Do you need to go to the bathroom?” she asked loudly. Out of her torpor now, she noticed my stepfather, who was hiccuping at steady five second intervals and holding to his mouth his large, white napkin over which a ruddy, regurgitated raw tuna and beef stain was rapidly spreading. She squinched up her little, lined face and snipped indignantly, “Oh my God, are you throwing up at the table, Richard?” Her mind might be in tatters but within the ruins, the old personality was still there.
“I am not throwing (hic) up, damn it, Jane!” he rumbled, “It’s just (hic), just...brown foam!”
The other eleven diners in the room – which made another multiple of seven, including ourselves – were now all either staring at us or pretending hard, in good New York form, not to notice. In spite of the additional sevens, our luck appeared to have run out. At this juncture, Benjamin interceded, suggesting tensely, “I think, James, that you should accompany Mr. Weltz down to the men’s room outside the bar and grill on the ground floor now.” I agreed and the two of us helped him to his feet. On the staircase, I went one step in front and he leaned on me as if I were a tallish human Zimmer frame. It took a long time and, as we made our way down the final steps, I felt a warm patch on my right shoulder and made out a dollop of ‘brown foam’, as it had been dubbed, gently subsiding there.
In the ‘historic’ 21 Club men’s room, my stepfather stood before the last in a row of conjoined marble sinks, continuing his foamy eructations tartare. In a further evocation of old New York, there was an elderly black attendant wearing livery stationed in the men’s room. At first, I couldn’t quite believe this, given that we were approximately one seventh of the way through the 21st century. But then I thought, actually no, it’s pretty much par for the course. Since my stepfather refused to enter one of the toilet stalls to sit down and rest for fear that he might be unable to stand up again, the attendant offered him his seat, a worn velvet upholstered wooden stool set against the wall at the end of the row of sinks. He’d periodically ask me, “You think maybe we ought to call an ambulance?” At which my stepfather would affirm sternly, “I do not need (hic) a goddamn ambulance!”
Each time some of the ‘brown foam’ would drizzle onto the antique mosaic tiled floor, the attendant would take his mop from its anodized metal bucket in the corner and swab it away. After perhaps half an hour, the attack of whatever-it-was passed. My stepfather conceded to the attendant, “You’ve been very kind to me indeed, what’s your name?” “Reuben, Sir,” he replied. “Funny, last born of Isaac top of the stairs, first born below,” and reached for his back pocket to take out his wallet. He still knew his Old Testament. “Please Sir, I couldn’t, not for helping with something like this,” Reuben fretted. “Well, I insist!” my stepfather insisted, pressing a Hamilton into the man’s hand for his troubles.
Once we’d made our way back upstairs to our table, my mother looked up querulously and announced, “So, where have you two been all this time?” I started to remind her but my stepfather waved his hand and said, “Forget it, Jameser.” “Well, you’ve missed the dessert,” she tutted.
We took our seats and Benjamin reappeared, “Oh, I’m just so relieved, Mr. Weltz,” he announced, “I wasn’t sure whether you’d be rejoining your wife this evening, so I asked her whether she’d like to order dessert. And so she did... for all three of you,” he explained.
“That’s fine,” I confirmed, “I’m glad she was enjoying herself in our absence and didn’t wander off looking for us.”
“She ordered the Dutch apple pie with brown sugar and cheddar cheese crumble topped with cinnamon ice cream, the salted caramel profiteroles with candied almonds and dark chocolate sauce and the Saint-Domingue chocolate soufflé with a vanilla anglaise.”
“Great,” I said, “Mr. Weltz and I will take ours home, if that's alright.”
“Normally it wouldn’t be any problem at all...but your mother has already consumed all three confections,” Benjamin informed me.
“Mom, you ate our desserts as well as your own?” I asked, incredulous.
“Are you crazy?” she scoffed, “I’m five foot two and weigh a hundred and fifteen pounds.” This was true and well recalled in the event. The fact was her digestive tract retained little more than her mind did these days. She ate desserts now as she had always longed to when I was a boy, and without ever putting on any weight. She was glaring at me now and wrinkling her nose, “There’s a big brown stain on your blazer, James,” she scolded, “Couldn't you at least have had it dry cleaned before you took us out to dinner?”
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of 22 in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy along with being a college admissions advisor.