OF PINTO BEANS AND JALAPEÑOS
We’d looked forward to bringing back a six-month supply of Herdez-brand canned jalapeños. As a major objective of a three-week holiday and 5000 miles in the car, that may seem like small beer. I guess it was, but it was important to us. Stocking your pantry with long-time favorite food from home is an important counter to the loneliness of living abroad. Saranac Lake is not a foreign country, of course, but it’s noticeably colder, wetter, whiter, and more rural than where we grew up. (I resist the temptation to go off on Sarah Palin’s notion of “real America.”)
When we lived in England, we had trouble finding pinto beans. Plenty of red kidney beans and those disgusting mushy peas, but no pintos. Rather than take a chance on encountering such privation in Hong Kong, we took along fifty one-pound bags of them. It’s good that we did. The raison d’etre of communist Hong Kong is high-end shopping in glitzy malls, and to keep the confusion going, it has no-spitting signs on buses and in other places. Regular infusions of frijoles were reassuring.
These days we buy pintos from a coop in twenty-five-pound bags. Got one this week—AA Saranco Brand from “The Idaho Bean People.” We buy in bulk mostly to support the coop, but at $29.88, we save money, too. Besides that, the sight of that big bag in the monastery pantry takes the edge off the still-fresh pain of the English experience.
Here in the North Country, we rely heavily on jalapeños to maintain emotional balance—Herdez jalapeños when we can find them. Herdez chilies are more uniform as to picante-ness, and they’re what we are used to. (On select issues, such as jalapeño brands, we are a rigid people.)
A few months ago an endoscopy revealed that I had a bloody spot in my esophagus. The surgeon’s child-PA explained to Ann (though I was right there in the room) that I should take a pill four times a day, and also “be sure he drinks lots of water” and…was this how it would be for the rest of my life…people in lab coats determining on site that I am incapable of looking after myself? I didn’t like that prospect, and I didn’t like the PA.
She went on. “He should also moderate coffee, alcohol, and spicy food.” The first two are unnatural acts, but I have actually managed to do both quite creditably. On that part about spicy foods though, I got pretty worked up. So much so, I pushed my way into the conversation that I’d been left out of to that point. When assistant doctor had forced herself to look at me instead of Ann, I more or less told her that as for cutting out jalapeños and the like, she could kiss my ass. That’s the only time I’ve ever rejected medical advice, but a guy’s got to draw the line somewhere.
Along the way to Texas, we looked for Herdez jalapeños in Whole Foods Markets and less proud grocery stores. Old El Paso brand was everywhere, of course. It was readily available in Hong Kong, England, and Switzerland, for that matter, but having tried some when I was in college and would eat anything, I’ve avoided it since. No Herdez, though.
In Austin, a supermarket named Fiesta that specializes in various varieties of “ethnic” food, offers a wide variety of Hispanic items. Some years back, we’d bought enough corn shucks there to make dozens of tamales for a crowd of Yankees. We turned into the Fiesta parking lot with high hopes.
It was a delightful shopping experience. We found pickled mangoes (almost as good as the pickled limes we were looking for), fresh chickpeas, varieties of greens and chilies that we’d never seen and can’t remember the names of. No Herdez, though.
In the checkout line, I recalled a scene in a Manhattan grocery store when a five-year-old offered his view of being denied a particular candy bar. He was unequivocal about it. Over and over, he screamed, “I want what I want when I want it.” I told him I felt the same way, but he couldn’t hear me. He was as loud as Bryn Terfel at triple forte. When he gets older, he may have a career up the street at the Met. After a few minutes of this, the middle-aged checker told the kid he was not allowed to act that way in her line and he could stop it or get out of the store. The boy’s Mama didn’t like that approach. I did.
Before we got fully on the road to Texas, we stopped in New York City to attend Holy Week services at St. Ignatius of Antioch, our Anglo-Catholic home parish. The services were spiritually uplifting and aesthetically flawless—consummate realizations of High-Church pageantry and devotion. We had not been in the church since we moved from New York City ten months earlier, but at coffee afterward, it was as if we’d never missed a day.
Ann and I live partitioned lives. We have three identities. Each leaves something to be desired. Each is fulfilling. Sometimes the parts do not touch. More often they are Venn diagrams with much overlapping.
In Saranac Lake, we enjoy drop-in company, something that seldom happens in an apartment building or a privacy-fenced, centrally air-conditioned, single-family residence. And we are gratified to have a number of friends who happen to be many years younger than I, some younger than Ann. It’s a fine thing to have friends other than your contemporaries, especially when your contemporaries are as old as mine.
At St. Ignatius, we have a bond with fellow parishioners, even to some extent with ones we don’t know, that is based on ultimate beliefs. I fancy that many of them will turn out for our funeral Masses when the occasion arises, whether we are close friends or not.
Texas is home, but as everyone knows, it’s not possible to go home again; it no longer exists. Nonetheless, we are compelled to keep trying. We go there to nurture and savor relationships with children and grandchildren and decades-long friendships, and also to reengage the shapeshifting memories that are fundamental to who we are.
Much of the time, we live the Finian’s Rainbow song, “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love, I Love the Girl I’m Near.” Whoever we wake up beside in the morning is usually an affirming presence; sometimes a cause for celebration. But at the same moment, say while having a cocktail on the monastery porch enjoying warm sun and feeling every bit at home, we may peruse real estate ads for Manhattan and even for Austin. There are such strong impediments to moving back to Austin, it’s just about unthinkable, but as few as three days in a row of gray sky and cold weather when the calendar says it’s spring, make it seem like Austin has Hawaiian-type weather and it’s not running out of water and Texas doesn’t permit carrying concealed weapons.
I miss the usual things about living in New York City— high culture, public transportation, the way that no matter how eccentric you may be, there are others just like you.
I also miss having casual acquaintances, such as the following.
Julian, an undocumented West African who sold newspapers at my subway stop. Shaking hands with him was like “passing the peace,” that disruptive little ceremony during the Mass, except that at church it feels artificial; with Julian, it was genuine and joyous.
The gym’s locker room attendants who made daily efforts to help me speak Spanish.
Ibrahim at the dry cleaners, a religious Jew newly arrived from Russia, who helped me understand unclear passages of the Old Testament.
The building’s doormen and other staff who filled blanks in a way I am unable to explain.
These people and others gave me a daily rhythm I don’t have in either of my other lives.
Still, I sometimes yearn to be on Lower Saranac in my boat and at dinner in Austin with dear friends at the same time I’m walking to a splendid performance of great music at Lincoln Center. Psychologists probably have a technical term for this sort of thing, but I don’t know what it is.
It was an exceptional year for wildflowers in Texas. There had been some winter and spring rain—not enough to keep the aquifers from becoming still more depleted—but enough to make bluebonnets and paintbrush especially dazzling. They were beautiful. They were also infectious. As always, Central Texas spring with its clouds of allergens made us both sick. We drove back with raw throats and a low-grade fever and spent the next ten days or so more or less in bed coughing and filling grocery bags with dirty tissues.
I felt well enough to read, and I did a lot of it. That was the best defense I could think of to being sick in late April with days that were more wintry than they should have been (high temperatures in the 30s), rainy, and so gray it felt like the sun just hadn’t come up. I caught up on accumulated periodicals and then as feelings of near-depression rose higher and higher, I walked around the house looking for the perfect novel, something not too edifying but not trivial. I’d already tried Randy Wayne White’s latest adventure yarn about Florida and baseball. White doesn’t have his good stuff in this one. I’d also zipped through a James Wood novel, The Book Against God. He probably should stick to writing criticism. In this 200th birthday year of Anthony Trollope, I’d come across some enticing comments on his works, but they didn’t sound quite right. I’ll get to him one of these days, when I feel more energetic.
What I wanted was a novel that I could, as the expression goes, get lost in; that, even though I have argued in print and on the air that in the best fiction you get found not lost. Never mind. Consistency is overrated. I settled on an early Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body, that I’d read before. It did wonders for my outlook. Lord Peter is an enchanting character, and Sayers’ stylistic accomplishment is a marvel.
The crowd of birds I’d hoped to find at the birdfeeders upon returning from Texas has not showed up. But among the few, there’s a Dark-eyed Junko, a variety I’ve never seen before. And this morning, Ann spotted another first—two male Indigo Buntings. The Junko is not much to look at, but first sighting of the Buntings took our breath away.
Eventually, I stopped coughing and blowing my nose, and it got warm enough to sit on the porch, which I did. In the sun, it came to me that I’d made it through a historically severe Adirondack winter, I’d survived Texas pollen, and I’d begun to make a little sense of having a three-part existence. As 79-year-old Alfred Hitchcock said when he received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement award, “This…has encouraged me. I will go on.”
Even—until I can find some—without Herdez.