2006-09-18 - 10:10 a.m.
Alright, I should totally be working right now and it is absolutely awful that I am taking time to write a diary entry, but some stories are just too wonderful not to tell everyone you know, and the people who read this diary count.
I think I should start this story off by talking about my mother. My mother has this habit that I find really annoying: starting conversations with total strangers. It drives me up the wall. I figure that even if the people don't mind being bothered, which they often seem to, I am bothered because I am having a conversation with my mother and she decides to invite the world in. Although a fairly gregarious person when I'm in my comfort zone, I tend to be shy when I am around a group of mostly strangers, or you know, in public. And yet there is my mother, even after I've told her many times that it bothers me, asking men fishing off the Berkeley Marina Pier if they've caught anything yet, and what kind of bait they're using.
If you've ever read Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, the Ankh-Morpork City Watch series in particular, my mother is like Captain Carrot, the deceptively innocent yet truly pure-hearted police officer who is universally acknowledged as heir to the throne of the city, a job he doesn't want but which he was built for, body and soul. He's someone who takes an interest in people, remembers names, and gets to know them, partially because that's part of what being a good cop is all about in these novels, but also because he is GENUINELY INTERESTED in who they are. So's my mother, which makes her an ideal university president. She is never bored when she's meeting the engineering students working on a solar car or the ping-pong team who took second at a state championship. She listens, nodding her head and smiling because she's actually TAKING IN WHAT THEY SAY, and then she remembers their names afterwards when she's telling everyone else about how you do the perfect table tennis serve. She does this with waiters, with mechanics, with all sorts of people that I usually give a smile to but feel no need to interview.
Well, I am the stupid one. I am the one who is missing out, and I am so grateful not only that my mother modeled this for me, but for those times I got over my shyness and the absent-minded distraction that clouds my day-to-day life and actually took an interest. And whenever my mom starts talking to someone she's never met before like she's their old friend, I am going to remember what happened to me yesterday and contribute to the dialogue.
I was stopping by the Andronico's on Shattuck and Cedar for a bottle of wine. Andronico's, for those not from the Bay Area, is a semi-high-end grocery store, by which I mean it has a small selection of slightly more gourmet items next to the normal products like Coca Cola and Ruffles which the owners believe allows them to overcharge. Unfortunately, what it lacks in value it often makes up for in convenience, so in I went for a last minute housewarming gift for my friends Adrienne and Celine. I had thought about a bottle of hard liquor, since I myself am rather resolute in my preference for smart cocktails over less-than-genius wines, but I figured that wine, at the very least, could be served to guests, whereas if they didn't like the whiskey or vodka that I chose, it would languish in the cabinet forever.
One problem: Adrienne is the daughter of a four-star pastry chef who has worked as a chef herself, and even that I could handle, but Celine is French, so I felt like bringing these two women a bottle of wine I couldn't vouch for would practically be an insult. So I started looking for bottles I recognized, only to realize that my recognition was due to the fact that the wines were cheap and so was I. I knew about a couple of good Italian wines that were very low cost, but they weren't there.
As I paced up and down the aisle, I noticed a woman in an Andronico's uniform looking at me. She looked to be in her 40s or 50s, a very beautiful African-American woman. She finally asked if she could help me and I said no, I was just looking for a bottle I recognized. But as I kept looking I decided that this wasn't just a bottle of wine for a party where everyone would be getting wasted anyway, it was a gift, so it was time to spend a little more. I turned back to the woman and said "Actually, I would love some help. I'm looking for a wine to take to a housewarming."
"So this would be a gift?" she inquired. I am very excited to tell you that her voice merited the adjective "mellifluous," which, for those who don't know, means "honey-like." I know it's a cliche, but try finding another word that better sums a combination of smooth, soft, warm, and utterly poised. It reminded me of video I'd scene of the actress Beah Richards doing spoken word performance in the 70s. It was part of a documentary on the life of Richards, one of the pioneers of African-Amaerican film and theatre, who was often ignored because she was a woman and an actress rather than a man or a writer. Both women has the same gentle confidence in their delivery. Suffice to say, I was having SO much fun already!
"Yes, this would be a gift. And, I have to tell you I'm a little intimidated, because one of the people I am buying this for is French."
She smiled and shook her head. "Oh, you don't have to be intimidated by the French. I lived in Paris for many years, and there is no reason to be intimidated by the French."
The grin got huge and pretty much stayed huge for the rest of the conversation. "Where did you live in France?"
"Paris," she said, and I had to think long and hard before putting a comma as the punctuation mark. I almost put an exclamation point, because although she didn't raise her voice, there was the slightest edge to it, as if part of her was shocked to think that anyone would think she could live anywhere in France BUT Paris. She continued. "Now, how much were you looking to spend?"
I had figured somewhere around $25, so I said, "Somewhere between twenty and thirty dollars."
"Well, we can definitely work with that." She turned to me and looked at me over the top of her glasses with a wry smile on her face. "Now, since you are buying this wine for a French person, I think we should select something distinctly American."
This thrilled me to no end for two reasons. First was that I had already decided the exact same thing. I figured that it would make me look even more stupid to pick what I thought would be a choice bottle only to find that I had brought the French equivalent of Franzia. But second was the way she said "distinctly." She performed distinction in every sense when she said it, enacting a perfect elocution of every consonant in a word that so frequently loses at least one of it's "T"s in less exacting mouths, while in the process revealing herself as a woman of such distinction that she wasn't above showing the French, in general, using only her voice and her smile, a bit of distinctly American cheek. In buying a bottle of wine, I was suddenly part of this utterly charming cultural stand-off. I didn't say all that. I just said, with what I hoped was an equally flirtatious smile, "You know, I had been thinking the exact same thing myself."
She walked me forward as she kept talking. "Now, I think you should get a zinfandel. They don't make zinfandel in France. They can't grow the grape, but in America we have the big, juicy grapes that make a wonderful zinfandel. Now, this bottle here," indicating a bottle of Ridge, "is from the man who kicked the French's butt back in the 70s." She mentioned a competition that I can't remember off the type of my head, so I don't want to quote it. "This is obviously not the same vintage, but it's the same producer."
Let's take a moment to go over what she said again. First of all, "big, juicy grapes" perfectly evoked the image of the grapes she was talking about, even if they weren't the grapes she was talking about. I just imagined the biggest, darkest grapes I could, those grapes with the dusty purple skin that almost makes it look like a blueberry, dripping with dew and sparkling in the morning sun. Also, "kicked the French's butt." The cultural confrontation was still going on, and had been heightened by the word "butt," perhaps one of the most underrated words in the English language. Think back to being a young child, back when saying the word "ass" was totally unfathomable, when you were getting by on "behind" and things like that, and someone said the word "butt," pronouncing that second "T" so that you KNEW this was not about contradicting the statement made in the previous clause. In our world of ever-fungible swear words, "butt" is like an ice cream sundae, surprisingly sweet, particularly when shared in secret with someone. If sundaes are sweetest when you're on a diet, "butt" is the most fun to say in the wine aisle at the ever stiff, ever high-falutin' Andronico's.
She showed me a selection of Ridge zinfandels, and I wound up choosing the mid-priced of the trio, still a $25 dollar bottle of wine, a nice gift when you're a graduate student. After I took the bottle, I asked, "So what did you do in France?" She said that she was a teacher. I have a friend who taught English when she first moved to France, so I assumed that she also taught English. I assumed incorrectly, and thank God I asked. "What did you teach?"
"Oh, I taught French people how to sing Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers and Gershwin."
I am seriously tearing up as I write this. It was that wonderful. And can I just say that I've been listening to an album that will enter the story itself in a minute, and that "I Get a Kick Out of You" came on, which as you will see is the title of this piece. I thoroughly intend to imprint as much of this experience on myself as possible, and if multimedia is what it takes, I'm ready.
So, I'll rewrite what she said. "Oh, I taught French people how to sing Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers and Gershwin." My jaw was hanging open at this point, but I managed to ask her what I was burning to know: "Do you still perform?"
"Oh, I perform from time to time. I've performed in Alameda, done a few open mike nights out there." I took a second to note her nametag at this point. HEr name was Stephanie C, and she was the wine steward, a wine steward who once taught American jazz singing in Paris.
Now it's time to introduce the album. I said, "You know, I don't think I could survive without my Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook album."
"Oh, do you have the album with the picture on it?" She began to draw an LP with her hands.
"I don't have the record, just the CD" which actually wasn't true, in that I burned it from a friend, but I had the album art in thumbnail on my computer as a result. I think I may need to find the LP now.
"Ah, they have it on CD now." I am not sure whether I'm adding all these phatic "Oh"s and "Ah"s in my imagination, but that's how I remember it. They were wonderful, one-note introductions to her legato phrases nearly sung in her oh-so-mellifluous voice.
She began talking about Cole Porter as we started walking down the aisle (I wish) to the cash registers. "Cole Porter was such an extraordinary person. You know, he wrote the music, and the lyrics, and the verses, and Richard Rodgers only wrote the music. But then Richard Rodgers's music had more to it. It was more poignant than Cole's music."
I felt I could make a contribution at this point, and I had certain things in my brain as soon as the conversation turned towards Cole Porter. "Yeah, but there's so much great use of irony in Cole Porter."
"Yes, that's true. There was irony, but more than that there was . . . a distance. It was . . . more brittle." Yeah, I have never felt more happy to be a total amateur. To hear a woman who has been singing his music for years talk about what she feels is the underlying emotional register behind the music of Cole Porter--I don't think I've ever had such huge gaygasms in my life, that's all I can say.
She continued. "Cole Porter, he was rich, he was white, and he was gay. He just had everything going for him." I laughed hugely, and she said, "What did I say that made you laugh so hard?" I had been thinking of myself, that I at least had one of the three going and could maybe pass for the other two in the right light, but I said, "I was just thinking we should all be so lucky."
"Truly, he was so lucky. He had a rich wife who understood him and let him live his life the way he wanted. He was such a social animal." "Social animal," by the way, had tiger claws and a low growl in it, just so we're all on the same page as we move into what is one of the best sentences I have ever heard uttered by a human being, a sentence whose juxtaposition of refinement and earthiness was set of perfectly by the gentility, admiration, and, yes, mellifluousness of its delivery: "And you know, his music may not have had as much soul as Rodgers and Hart, who was also gay, by the way, but who cares? When you have a penthouse at the Waldorf-Astoria on Madison Avenue, fuck soul."
There are no words. The closest I can come is to say that the entirety of the jazz age may have been encapsulated in that one sentence, but at the same time that feels like gilding the lily. Such a statement should just be taken as it is, close reading be damned. I let out another laugh, turned around, and gave her a hug, and by the time I got to the checkout stand I was already calling people to tell them that I had just met the coolest woman in the entire Bay Area.
In the course of writing this, I have been, as I said, listening to Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. During that time, I told my story to my friend, Marisa, who went to a professor's office hours and then came back. When she came back into the computer lab, I skipped back to the beginning of the song that was playing on my iPod and slid my chair over to hears, as I began singing "As Dorothy Parker once said to her boyfriend, fare thee well." I hadn't finished the line before she joined in and we executed a perfect duet of "Just One of Those Things." THAT is the mood that this woman has put me in, and I hope it lasts for days.
The past few weeks have been nuts for me, what with starting teaching and dealing with all sorts of other stuff that I can't go into, but I will say two things. First is that I will never, EVER turn down a conversation with a stranger on the odds that I might be lucky enough to meet someone so magical TWICE in my life. The second is that I've had a Cole Porter song in my head for a while now, singing it with a trace of melancholy, but now whenever that songs sounds too blue for me I can imagine Stephanie, whom I hope I will see in concert soon, and be able to find the necessary irony, distance, brittleness, and admiration to sing, with distinction, "I get no kick from champage. Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all, so tell me why should it be true that I get a kick out of you."
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