Food Shelf Caviar

The first time I went to the food shelf  it was a Friday, and I wouldn’t be paid until Monday. The cupboards were bare but for odds and ends that would make one sodium laden, frightful meal.  The kids would be there at three, gunning for snacks. Time to suck it up and go.

The Catholic Charities in St Cloud run a nice operation. It’s spacious as an airplane hanger, with quilts forming a colorful false ceiling. A thin man with sandy gray hair greets you and tells you what to do. Take this number, it’s this color, go when they call your name. He says it with a smile, gracious but not condescending. The women who work the counter are like any midwestern, middle-aged women who run small beurocratic hives of civic authority. Nattering amongst themselves, sighing heavily as they push paperwork at you and fill out a card with your name on it. They do not check income. If you are there, they assume you need to be, which is a small mercy.

They walk you around with your cart and you can take an allotted number of items from each area, depending on your household size. An elderly man checked off items from a clipboard as we walked. I got a lot of food. A lot of strange food. Huge bags of frozen fruit from some restaurant, a wide variety of beans, a bag of frozen french fries probably from Perkins, a jar of grape leaves that sit in my cupboard still. Pastries from the Cold Spring bakery, including a pie. A Pie! And zucchini. They gave away boxes of it at the end, after your cart was weighed. A cardboard sign said “Take all you want”. It would go bad soon, but I have many, many uses for zucchini. I grabbed two boxes.

I lugged my booty up the back stairs of the duplex and into the narrow kitchen and stashed it. My kitchen was brimming, I was wearing a sundress and I felt good. I had food for my family. I wondered if I should feel badly about taking charity, about needing it. I didn’t. I looked at the zucchini. Too much. I grabbed a box and headed over to Tracy and Kramer’s place. They lived in an apartment building next door. I cut through the laundry room of their building, and came out on the other side, at the base of their back steps, and walked up to their back porch on the third floor.

I found Kramer in her lawn chair, doing soduko and listening to the radio. If I had not found Kramer doing this very thing I would have fallen over the balcony with surprise. She glanced up non-chalant and addressed me,  “Crazy Neighbor Lady. Whatcha got there?” “Zucchini.” Tracy came out wiping her hands on a towel. I gestured at the box of zucchini. “You can make fritters.” I suggested. Her eyes brightened. “Look what I just got!”. She opened the screen door and I saw a fry-daddy still in the box. Later that night, I met Kramer at the bottom of my stairs and she handed me a tin foil packet of zucchini fritters, with a small bowl of home made ranch dressing. I ate them warm, at my windows, looking out at the stoplights lined up on Hwy 23, thinking about the past year.

People told me it would be hard. I was flip, “I’ve been po’ befo’e!” I said. But when the meager savings ran dry, and I was living on 85% of a junior copywriter’s salary, paying my own rent for the first time in five years, I felt the pinch. More like a squeeze. Playing the cup game where you pay one bill and run late on the next, pick up that one the next month, pay a different one. Keep the creditors at bay. Make your rent, buy generic, budget. It was true, I had been poor before, but never with two children in my care.

They asked for things constantly. From the gum ball at the grocery store to the Florida vacation, the answer was always no. I would be driving, and from the back seat they would ask, “When can we go to [fill in the blank]? When can we get a [insert item here]”. I would burst into tears. I begged them to stop asking for things. I dragged them to pawn shops and I thinned my book collection monthly. Money came in from family, from friends. Once, a paper bag with a cookie decorating kit, mardi gras beads and a grocery store gift card appeared at the bottom of the stairs. A generous gift from a girlfriend who had once walked in my shoes. I cried then too.

I worked an extra job, and I looked for a new job. I tried to get food stamps, but I made too much money. I tried to get legal aid to help with my divorce, but I made too much money. All around me friends lost jobs, and I felt lucky to have mine, though I grew increasingly unhappy there. But a woman who decides to divorce her husband in the middle of a recession doesn’t get too many choices, doesn’t have the luxury of job dissatisfaction. Finally, I suppose I did what every Republican Politician wants you to do. I pulled up the proverbial bootstraps. I got good and pissed off about it. I was too smart to be this poor. This is bullshit. And then I had the benefit of luck, and synchronicity, and incredible opportunity. I seized it. I was offered a new job, which would pay enough to allow me to move to the cities again, to take care of myself, to divorce my husband. I hung up the phone and I wept. Then I screamed. My relief was profound.

I called my friend Doug and told him about the job, and then said, “I know I don’t say this often, but you were right.”

He laughed, “Yeah, about what?”

“It’s hard. It was hard. Harder than I ever thought it would be. Being poor, leaving Dave. You were right. I didn’t know.” He sighed on the other end; my dramatic revelations are tiresome. I know this.

“Well, good for you.” he said. “You’re gonna make it after all, just like Mary Tyler Moore. Though I always thought of you as more of a Rhoda.”  I hung up happy.

That was months ago. Now it was summer, and while I still needed a bump from Catholic Charities, I could see a way out. I could exhale without it becoming a sob. I had friends, neighbors, fritters, hope.

The last time I went to the food shelf, it was July. I took Doug, who was a chef, and so the indignity of it was something we could only laugh about. On the way out he snuck me a sly smile. We loaded the groceries into the trunk, sweating.

“Come over to my house tonight? I’ve got the AC running. We’ll get some beer. Bring Otto.” Doug couldn’t refuse, it was too hot – and Otto, a 110 pound German Shepherd, couldn’t be denied. I picked him up and he loaded a bag of groceries and Otto into the car. We stopped at the store and he picked up water crackers, I bought a Belgian beer, which I really couldn’t afford, and a six pack of PBR tall boys, which I could.

We cracked the beer and sat in front of the fan, which blew air from of the window unit. “I got caviar.” Doug said. I clapped my hands like a toddler in delight. “And veal. I snuck them in the cart at the food shelf when you weren’t looking. We can eat the caviar now, while it’s hot, and I’ll cook the veal later, when it cools down.” I had goat cheese in the refrigerator, and we spread that one the water crackers, then finished with a glop of salty brown fish eggs. I had never had caviar before. It reminded me of the ocean, the salt of it. It made me feel lucky, like I had a delicious secret.

When we met, I was married and solidly middle class. Doug was the Executive Chef at the best restaurant in town. He made me lunches that nearly caused me to lose consciousness. Curry shrimp with mango rice, salmon with saffron risotto, bison osso bucco, the best fried chicken. Then, the restaurant folded, my marriage fell apart. It was more or less complicated than that, but bottom line, it was hard times, and we had spent our fare share of it in co-misery. We staved off the darkness; made music, cooked dinners, drank cheap wine, fought and made up. In a few months I would be moving to St Paul, which was scary but exciting. I didn’t know where I would live, how I would find an apartment, if I would be able to afford it. But here we were now, like a couple of swells. I licked some caviar from my thumb and smiled. There are times when you have too much zucchini, or too much sadness. An ocean of need or just a small jar of caviar. The secret is: it is all best shared.


Ten Things About Me & Bob Dylan

I don’t know that much about Bob Dylan, except he’s always been there. He’s been hanging around in my brain for almost as long as I can remember. And he’s not a quiet guy. I mean, he goes on and on sometimes. Standing over by the left wall of my skull, smoking and spewing brilliant, insane poetry. Sometimes he has a band with him, but more often he’s alone, with his big hair and his sunglasses. This is a partial catalogue of some of our more memorable times together.

1. I met my ex-husband for the first time, standing in line for “Don’t Look Back” at the Oak Street Cinema in about 1996. Everyone standing around in the classic Minnesota posture: hands stuffed straight-armed into pockets, shoulders hunched, shivering. I looked at all the characters in line; dudes in leather jackets, messy hair, scowls and their breath visible in the cold night air. Dave said he didn’t really like Bob Dylan, despite his similar disposition, he just wanted to see the film. He was a friend of a friend. It was a fantastic film. Dylan was such an asshole, and so beautiful. Joan Baez walking around with that apple like some freaking Goddess. Ubiquitous Robbie Robertson. Afterwards we went and drank Mextaca at a dive bar in St Paul. Much later, we got married.

2. My uncle Billy claims to have met Bob Dylan, in the sixties, in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, everyone was bummed out on Bob, because he was a pain, always bumming smokes and money. My uncle gave him a ride somewhere and told him he was never going to make it, “You’re from the wrong end of the Mississippi to be playing the blues” he said.  Allegedly. I want to believe this tale, along with what I knew as a companion story. That my Uncle also met Alex Haley, who told him about plans for writing Roots, and Billy said, “That’s preposterous! You’ll never be able to trace your roots to Africa.” I always hoped he would condemn me to failure so I would be wildly successful.

3. My first was The Greatest Hits album, of-course, because you had to have Rainy Day Women for parties. My older brother and sisters had taken most of the good albums when they moved out and left me with Saved and Slow Train Coming. Hours sitting cross-legged at the turntable and I walked away with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and that was about it. Then Oh Mercy, because it came out when I was in high-school. That had “Most of The Time” on it, which I listened to lying down on my bedroom floor, secretly smoking out the window and wishing someone thought about me most of the time. Which was either an acute understanding, or misunderstanding, of the lyrics. Then Blood on the Tracks (freshman dorms), Desire (duplex, red wine), and then Another Side of Bob Dylan and Hwy 61 Revisited (Mike Knudson’s apartment, after bar time) in college. Then in St Paul, it was Freewheelin Bob Dylan and Bringing it All Back Home. Those were Sarah’s records, and we would listen to them on a huge suitcase record player with surprisingly good sound, while we cooked in the little kitchen with sloped ceilings and filthy checkerboard floor. Now I’m back to Desire and Blood on the Tracks, fittingly I guess.

4. In the dream, I was at a party. Very mod setting, lots of white. A cat came up to me and began to rub against my leg. It seemed lost, so I picked it up. Then another cat started to rub my leg, but to my disgust, it had two heads. Not two side-by-side heads, but one one each end, like a push-me-pull-me. I felt like I had to find someone to take ownership of it – it was mangy and its eyes bulged out and oozed with puss. I tried to attach it to a leash (of-course, which end?) and I was juggling one cat in my arms and trying to wrangle the other (who I did not want to pick up) when along came Bob Dylan, circa 1964. I was speechless, and preoccupied, when he spoke first in his trademark nasal drawl, “I see you have a two headed cat. A two-headed cat bodes well for your future.” The two-headed cat mewled and tugged at the leash and I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. Then I woke up.

5. If anyone knows Kevin who worked at Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books… he has my copy of a Bob Dylan songbook for piano and guitar and I fucking want it back. Oh, and Jerry, I have that paperback biography you loaned me. Sorry. Julie, I still have the Complete Lyrics 1962 – 1985. Thank you, it was a perfect graduation gift.

6. A boyfriend broke up with me using the lyrics to “Don’t Think Twice Its Alright”. He wrote them on a piece of paper and added, “I’ll throw this to your side of the kidney shaped pool”. Wha? I asked my brother if he knew the song, and had a copy. “Yeah, there’s this pretty weird version on Live at Budokan, but you can have it.”  The record has scary Bob Dylan on the front, white face make-up and eyeliner. It’s the last song on side one, right after Ballad of a Thin Man, which is a scary song. But then it launches into this reggae beat, with a flute trilling along side the bitterly acerbic lyrics, served up by a merry Bob. I had to admit, the song was apt. “I aint saying, you treated me unkind, you coulda done better, but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted, my precious time, but don’t think twice it’s alright.” Ok, yeah, it was kind of mean, but it was also fucking great, I knew that much. I never felt bad about that break-up, at least he’d given me that song.

7. You should not go see Bob Dylan on acid. Even if Santana is involved. Bad move.

8. I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau when I was in Poland. It is a nearly silent place, except for the crunch of gravel and low murmur of people whispering in collective horror. You read plaques about the empty room in front of you, where hundreds of people were killed, and you want to scream, or shout, and you might cry, but you mostly feel speechless. I wanted to listen to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, because I thought it would make me feel better, but I didn’t have the cassette with me, so I just went to bed feeling sick and exhausted and lucky to be alive. I think of that place when I hear that song, though. You might think a rock song incapable of adequately reflecting the gravity of such a place, or event. But really, what can?

9. I memorized all seven verses to Tangled Up in Blue when I was about 15, riding the Badger Bus to Madison. Play, rewind, play. Over and over. It seemed important that I know it. In college, it was a late-night, pass-the-whiskey, murder-the-guitar favorite. Once the guitarist figured it out, I just had to keep singing it forever. It’s an easy song to sing, and not hard to sing better than Dylan. (sorry, true) Later, I lived on the East Side of Milwaukee for a summer, and I struggled to learn, or decipher, the chords on guitar. Absolute lack of skill did not deter me, nor did the exasperation of my room mates. Later, I had a peak experience accompanied by my friend on guitar, backed up by twin sisters who happened to be the mothers of my friends. I sang in my normal voice, and they, skilled and gifted, lifted my voice with harmonies like folkie angles. It was more than worth it to have learned all those verses.

10. Right now, as I write, I’m listening to Greatest Hits Volume II.  I got my heart a tiny bit broken up recently, and I’ve got a dull hangover from disrespecting a bottle of white wine, so I’m gonna listen to Bob for hours. With all the relentless strumming, the shrill harmonica, incessant nasal whine – you’d think I might send him packing. But I’m so grateful he’s here, with all his words, plainspoken or abstruse. Listening to his music comforts me like leaning against a very old, gnarled tree. Scratchy and sometimes uncomfortable, but big enough to support whatever worry I pitch against it. There hasn’t been a heartache in my life that Bob hasn’t helped see me through. Me and him keep on keeping on just fine.