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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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Return to lately 2009.

our love is everywhere we've been
march 1, 2009

Soon after Mary and I got together, we decided to move from Santa Barbara, California up the coast to San Francisco, to have our own city (we each divorced a spouse in order to be together).

The first place we lived together on the San Francisco peninsula was Burlingame, probably the best town in America back then. Maybe still.

Burlingame was beautifully landscaped, oaks and maples and palm trees lining all the streets. The town's main drag, Broadway, ran about eight blocks, filled with deli's, meat and seafood markets, bakeries, and the sort of small but sophisticated restaurants I always associate with California.

We rented a modest apartment over a red and white garage from a local lawyer. In that little apartment is where we truly fell in love, truly found out about each other, and formed the bond of "I know you" that has lasted for over 30 years.

Our Saturday morning routine was always the same. We'd start at the old-fashioned public library, the tall interior of which looked and smelled like a huge, two-story attic. The way a library should be, with narrow, floor-to-ceiling aisles stuffed with books, so many books some of them had to be crammed horizontally above the different-height tops of the books shelved vertically; dead brown moths on the wooden floors; the musty air on the second floor so thin that after half an hour of letting the tip of your index finger trail bumpingly along the dusty book spines, deep in the stacks, you felt like you were about to pass out. You could wander down any dark aisle, away from the painful shafts of yellow sunlight by the sky lights, and never know what treasures you would find, and we found quite a few. Every Saturday, Mary and I would first return the books we'd finished, then, an hour or two later, balance two new leaning towers to the small front desk, the ends of our fingers clutching large, square LP albums of old radio shows (we didn't have a TV).

I was somewhat remiss when it came to returning books on time. The check-in, check-out function at the Burlingame Library was so archaic we were still able to check-out books, even though I, over time, owed what was then a considerable accumulation of fines for late returns. There was apparently no cross-checking, since everything was recorded on paper only. After the first year or so of borrowing books, we started getting the occasional plain white postcard from the library, addressed to "Rupert R. Moore" (I don't know how that typographical error evolved from Ralph Robert Moore), with the pre-printed black-inked message, "Our records indicate you are in arrears in your late book fees by the amount of" and then, on the stern blank line following, there'd be an amount typed in, like $29.36, but typed in using an ancient typewriter, where the top circle of the "9" is ink-clogged, and the digits themselves don't line up horizontally, as if each number were hand-chiseled, to where the clumsiness of the typed dollar fine immediately evoked the effort of the person typing it. Near the end of our stay in Burlingame, I was finally caught. One of the white-haired women behind the check-out counter (they all looked like half-sisters with different fathers), making small talk, laboriously flipping each book over, lifting the back cover, pulling from the rectangular sleeve pasted onto the inside back page the borrowing history card, pressing a blue-inked date stamp on the next available line, hand-writing my numerical code, frowned her gray eyebrows, went over to a small metal box on the table behind her, used the top joint of her right middle finger to slap through the index cards inside, then brought one out, carried it over to me (without showing me what was written on the card.) She squinted at me like she was one heartbeat away from calling the barber shop and asking the sheriff to come over. "Are you THE Rupert R. Moore?" (I had to talk fast to get out of that one.)

After the library, we'd go to Broadway, and work our way down the small shops.

There was a meat market we'd go to first.

(One of the sadnesses of modern times is that independent, specialized markets have all but vanished, thanks to supermarkets. You get convenience, but you don't get expertise. Being a meat butcher no longer involves an apprenticeship. It's just a part of a management career path. The "butchers" behind the counter at most supermarket meat counters don't know how to do something as simple as slide a silver blade underneath the ruby weight of marbled raw meat to remove the rack of bones from a rib roast. They're butchers today, bakers next month, fish mongers three months down the year. Not too long ago, we asked a "butcher" at a supermarket to slice a thick rib eye steak in half, horizontally. We wanted to use the rib eye for Hueves Rancheros. I saw him struggling to make one of the simplest of all cuts. All you have to do is lay the steak flat on the counter, pick up a sharp knife, run the knife horizontally through the meat. I've done it dozens of times myself, eggs bubbling in a nearby skillet. And I'm no expert. He, instead, held the rib eye so it was vertical to the counter, which is ridiculous, no real butcher would ever do that, and tried to saw his way through the wobbly redness of the steak. It was a disaster. He turned a thick steak into two steaks that were each one and a half inches thick at one end, a half inch thick at the other end. I felt sorry for the cow that died to give us these steaks. Nothing against the guy himself. He was friendly, and he sincerely wanted to be helpful. It's just that the supermarket had put him in that position, without giving him proper training. Myself, I love butchering meat. I find it very relaxing. Ask me to completely bone a chicken, and I've got a smile on my face for the next twenty-two minutes, while classical music plays.)

The meat market we'd go to on Broadway was wonderful. All different cuts of steak, including ones hard to find elsewhere, like seven-bone steaks. They had a stuffed shrimp that was out of this world. A large, raw shrimp butterflied, filled with crab meat and shredded Monterey Jack cheese, then pulled together, coated with seasoned bread crumbs, and chilled. Mary and I would always buy half a dozen to use in our apartment kitchen, as an appetizer.

Farther down from the meat market on Broadway, on the left hand side of the street, was an old-fashioned deli called King David's. They made their own mayonnaise, thick and eggy, with a highlight of fresh lemon. Their roast beef was the best roast beef we've ever had. That really dark red interior, suffused with garlic. Their Kaiser rolls were exceptional. Chewy crust, airy interior. We'd have them wrap up a pound or two of limp, drippy roast beef slices, a half dozen rolls, a big tub of mayonnaise, all of it in their white wrapping paper, crisp and pristine as a nurse's cap.

But now we come to the theme of this Lately. Ten years after we first lived there, and after we had driven all around the United States, and lived elsewhere, we returned to Burlingame, because we wanted to see how our origins looked now.

And guess what? That little garage apartment where we were born was gone. Bulldozed. The walls that echoed our voices and kisses split and crushed under steel jaws. In its place rose a tall, green-glass business building. There was not even a reference point, to where we could say, here's where we used to lie in bed together, side by side, laughing, talking, discovering.

Our footsteps had evaporated. The dark wet impression of the heel, the curved side of the footprint, the five round circles of toes atop, had vanished.

We felt bad about that, because that address, 820 El Camino Real, had been, in our hearts, a shrine to us, as a couple. Our beginning. But we accepted the vanishment. What we had experienced there was still real, in our hearts.

But that physical part of our past was gone, forever.

Which got me to wondering. How much of our past, the physical buildings, still exists?

Because Mary and I love food so much, I decided to do this Internet investigation in terms of restaurants.

Mary and I first met in Santa Barbara. About once a week, we'd go to Fish Enterprise, a two-story restaurant located near the bottom of State Street, a block or two from the Pacific Ocean. In order to get to the restaurant, driving down State, you had to cross Highway 101. There wasn't a bridge over the highway, like there would have been anywhere else-there was a traffic light instead. So we'd have to sit at the red light on State, waiting for the traffic light across Highway 101 to turn red, and our traffic light, green. While you waited, more cars would accumulate in your rear view mirror, and bicyclists and pedestrians would show up outside your side window, and joggers, jogging in place. The red light to cross Highway 101 was, in fact, once clocked as the longest red light in America. It would stay red for about ten minutes (a long, long time if you're hungry). But worth the wait. Fish Enterprise was one of the first restaurants to use mesquite grilling. Once we did finally get across, find a place to park, and a table inside, I'd start with several dozen steamed clams (one time we were there, a couple at the next table said, "You must be from New England, right?"). For dinner Mary and I usually both ordered the mesquite-grilled shrimp, served on skewers, which were absolutely delicious. The mesquite wood grilling put a bit of tooth resistance to the smoky outer skin of the shrimp, and once your incisors popped through that resistance, there was the hot, moist sweetness of the shrimp meat, which kept its springiness while you chewed and swallowed, eyes rolling. With the shrimp we'd get sides of, I believe, cole slaw, or maybe it was a salad, and potatoes Romano. The potatoes were almost as good as the shrimp. They'd boil potatoes, mash them with an incredible amount of butter, and salt and black pepper, whip in a cup or so of grated Romano cheese, sprinkle a good amount of paprika in the bottom of a roasting pan, spoon and smooth the potatoes across the paprika, then cover the top of the potatoes with even more paprika. After they baked, they'd serve the potatoes in squares, like brownies, only much, much better. Our love is everywhere we've been. No matter how many years have passed since the last time we ate there, an especially large dollop of us is in Fish Enterprise. Wherever we are sitting, we are also always still sitting across from each other at one of the Enterprise's small square tables, our orders of mesquite-grilled shrimp and Romano potatoes just now lowered in front of our ecstatic faces.

On a less frequent basis, because it was farther down the highway, in Summerland, a town known for its high proportion of spiritualists, we'd go to The Big Yellow House. Unfortunately, as I just found out researching links for this Lately, the Big Yellow House we went to is no longer there. So the link instead points to dozens of people lamenting its absence. As we do. What it was, was a huge house with old-fashioned wallpaper, filled with nothing but dining rooms, ground floor to attic, narrow wooden staircases connecting the different floors. Was it someone's actual home at one point? I don't know. It felt like it. They had an "All you can eat" menu. Mary and I probably put them out of business. Back then, when our money was limited, it was great sitting down knowing you could gorge on as much food as you wanted, but still pay the same low price. The meal itself had about four courses. The main courses were always Sunday dinner type meals. Mahi-Mahi, meat loaf, chicken with gravy, etc. We'd order at least a second helping of the main course, and sometimes a third. What I remember most about the place, beyond our sheer love of eating there, holding each other's hands across the table while we waited for the next course to arrive, was (a) the Hidden Valley dressing on their fresh garden salads, which was sometimes still grainy with the Hidden Valley seasonings, because, with the volume of diners, the kitchen hadn't had enough time to let the dressing sit, and (b) their cornbread with honey butter, which was absolutely delicious. I used to gorge on it like an upright bear swatting away bees.

Once we moved to the San Francisco area, one of the first restaurants we went to, in the city itself, was Sam's Grill. God, that place was great. I forget how we heard about it, but we parked our car, turning our wheels towards the curb, as you have to do on the extreme slopes of San Francisco streets, and walked hand in hand up the sidewalk. There was a huge line out front. You could barely see the restaurant entrance. As soon as we got in line, more people got in line behind us. Directly in front of us in line was a couple older than us. They started engaging us in conversation, politely asking if we would consider all of us sitting at the same table, their reasoning being that four paying customers would be more likely to be let in than just two paying customers. Mary and I demurred. We didn't want to sit with anyone other than ourselves. As soon as we did gently turn them down, the blond male gatekeeper at the far-off head of the line, who was acting like gatekeepers do at discothèques, leaned sideways, pointing to Mary and me, beckoning us with an upraised hand to come forward. We were seated deep inside the restaurant in a private room, with a cloth curtain over the entrance, a white button on the wall next to our table which we could press each time we wanted the waiter. Mary had boneless sand dabs, something she hadn't had since girlhood, and an extreme rarity to find on a menu. I had abalone, something you almost never see anymore, since harvesting of wild abalone is now against the law, and most farmed abalone goes to the Japanese market. Looking at their current menu, via the link above, I see they still do prepare abalone, but boneless sand dabs are no longer offered. What a shame. Halibut is great, red snapper is great, so is sole, but no more sand dabs? That's a real loss to the tongue.

Mary and I spent our honeymoon at The Madonna Inn. We were married in Redwood City, in front of a judge, like a Clark Gable movie, then drove up the California coast to San Luis Obispo. The Madonna Inn is incredible. Unlike any other hotel in the world. They have about a hundred rooms, each one different from the last. Each night during our honeymoon we stayed in a different room, our favorite being what I think was called The Rock Room. Everything inside the room was covered in rock. Floor, walls, and ceiling. It was like being inside a cave. The bathroom was also all rock. You turned on the tap at the sink, in front of the tall, smoky mirror, and the water flowed down the bathroom wall, from one ledge to another, into the stone basin. The shower was a wide rock grotto, something you'd find in the wilderness. There was no showerhead. The water splashed off a rock ledge high over our heads, landing on our scalps like a waterfall. Absolutely magical. Another place a large part of us always is. The dining room was entirely pink. When we went, in January, they still had all their pink Christmas decorations up. I had abalone again. Mary had prime rib roast. The butter came from cows in the pasture next door. Extraordinarily fresh. When the waitress lowered the small plate of chilled butter pats to our white tablecloth, it was as aromatic as a vase of hyacinths. A year later, we went back. An older couple at a nearby table sent a bottle of champagne to our table, the waiter who delivered the bottle telling us the couple were impressed by our devotion to each other.

While we were living in the San Francisco area, it became necessary for me, at one point, to buy shoes. So what we would do is, we'd decide each Wednesday that after work, we'd drive to a shoe store and I'd buy new shoes. But what would actually happen is we'd wind up in a parking lot of a shoe store, passing a bottle of Madeira back and forth in the front seats, telling each other about our days, cracking jokes, and at some point I'd decide, You know what? I don't really want to buy shoes tonight. It just seemed like a boring thing to do with our free time. So instead, we'd go out to eat somewhere. This went on, literally, for months. In the process, we ate at some of the best restaurants in the greater San Francisco area. French restaurants, Polynesian, steak houses, the lot. I don't remember the names of most of the restaurants, except Kee Joon. Apparently the restaurant no longer exists, so I'm linking to a chapter in an online novel that mentions the restaurant. We had to take an elevator up to the top floor. The restaurant itself was well-laid out. Everything we ordered, from egg rolls to our dessert, was prepared tableside. And delicious. The weird thing was, the wait staff would only start each tableside preparation while I was present. After our first course, which was delicious, I left the table to urinate. When I got back, Mary told me the Asian servers had shown up to prepare the next course in front of us, but had remained motionless, waiting for me to return. That pause didn't happen when Mary used the restroom. A bit of male chauvinism. Something that's kind of interesting to me: One of the restaurants we went to during that period, so I could avoid buying shoes, was a highly-regarded steak house in San Francisco. I'm thinking, The Chart House, but maybe that wasn't its name. Anyway, Mary and I were seated at our table, wide windows showing San Francisco at night, glittering towers. The waiter went up to an adjoining table to take an order, and started off by saying to one of the men at the table, "I heard you say you're from Greenwich, Connecticut. I'm from Greenwich, Connecticut." They marveled at the coincidence, then a diner at an adjoining table said, "Guys? I'm from Greenwich, Connecticut too!" Even more marvelment. Well, I'm also from Greenwich, Connecticut. Mary's beautiful green eyes looked at me from across the table. Did I want to join the miracle? But honestly, I didn't. I wanted a quiet evening, just the two of us, not buying shoes, like I knew Mary did. So I said nothing. But I do wonder why four men from Greenwich, Connecticut had all randomly come together in that San Francisco restaurant that night.

While we did live in the San Francisco area, our favorite food market was Trag's. We heard about it because the owner of Trag's had his commercial account at the bank where Mary worked, and he was always talking about how obsessed he was with getting the freshest produce, the highest quality of meats and seafood. So we started shopping there. Their deli counter sold pirogues, which were incredibly tasty. Seasoned ground meat wrapped in a pastry crust, then deep-fried. As many of those we ate over the years, parked under a tree five blocks away, we never ate enough. I'd love to have one, hot and heavy in my hands, right now.

After we left California, on our way to Maine, which we decided would be our new home, we stopped in as many states as possible. In New Orleans, we ate at The Gumbo Shop, down in the French Quarter. Man, that was good. I started with the Shrimp Remoulade. Mary had the shrimp gumbo. The white bowl with its swaying dark brown gumbo was brought to her side of the table. A pink shrimp floating atop. Mary dipped her soup spoon into the gumbo. Glanced over at me, amazed. "Look at this!" Her spoon lifted out five shrimp, under the brown surface. After living in California, where food was expensive, and servings were spare, it was extraordinary to see such a generosity of ingredients.

We moved from California to Maine, so Mary could experience snow. Unfortunately, there are no restaurants in Maine worth mentioning. I've never lived in a state where restaurant meals were so incompetently prepared. You'd be served food that was still icy cold in the middle, or with sauces that had broken, or meat that was tough. When Mary's folks visited us there one year, they seemed skeptical the state had absolutely no decent restaurants. By the time they left, they were convinced.

Once we left Maine, we decided to take our time, traveling around America and Canada for 80 days, trying to decide where we wanted to live next. It was an extraordinary road trip. We took the Al-Can all the way up through Western Canada, to Alaska. In Seward, we ate at Ray's Waterfront, which was right by the end of the Alaskan pipeline. The halibut was astonishingly fresh, as if it had just been pulled up into the rowboat. I can still taste it. I had mine topped with salsa, then covered in Hollandaise and run under the broiler. Mary had thick strips of halibut that were dipped in batter, then dropped in bubbling hot oil until they were golden. She bit into one with her perfect teeth, gloatingly showing me the interior. The flesh was as white and pure as a soul.

During our journey north up through Canada, we tried to stop as often as we could, for breakfast, at White Spot, which is a franchise in Canada. The steak and eggs breakfast was stunning (I don't know if they still offer it). What made it so great is that they aged the steak to the point where it was almost sour. A fantastic combination with fresh eggs fried in butter. Many the morning we spent at one or another White Spot table, traveling north, map spread across the silver wear, our forefingers excitedly planning the next leg of our journey, folding up the pink and blue colored map as soon as the waitress arrived with our steaming plates. Going up the Al-Can to Alaska, along the muddy roads twisting high above green, piney valleys, where you had to get to each remote town before dark (because everything for hundreds of miles outside those small towns was just wilderness), to book a room and grab something to eat before the one restaurant (or, if there was no restaurant, the one general store in town) closed, was an adventure we'll always remember. We still talk about it.

After all our travels, we wound up in Texas. We started in San Antonio, renting an apartment. It was strange, after living out of motels for almost three months, to have a permanent residence, and to have to start paying utility bills again. Not far from us was Tim's Oriental and Food Market. God, we loved shopping there. First of all, we didn't have jobs yet, still had lots of American Express traveler's checks, so we'd spend our days just doing whatever we wanted. Sleep late, make an elaborate breakfast, then go out and buy groceries, rent the latest videos. Late afternoon, back home, we'd turn on the local rock station, and side by side in the small kitchen start cooking dinner. We'd eat around eight, watch movies until after midnight. At least once a week we'd go to Tim's. They had the best seafood selection we've ever seen, anywhere. Shrimp with the heads still on, so you could use the heads to make shrimp stock for different Creole dishes (the head has an orange globule of fat that not only adds a great depth of flavor to your stock, but also gives the finished sauce, raised from the stock, a silky texture). They also had periwinkles; and whole, cooked ducks, the wobbly heads still on, hanging upside down from hooks in the ceiling; long, long hanging strips of barbequed pork perfect with fried rice recipes, you just chopped off as much from the length as you wanted; and chicken feet (plop a couple of chicken feet in a chicken stock you're making, and you'll be a convert). San Antonio in general was really good when it came to access to ingredients you can't get elsewhere. I remember Mary and me, soon after we moved into our apartment, shopping at the local HEB supermarket, and finding what we thought were all these giant turkeys in one of the frozen meats bin. I lifted one out, rotated it, and realized, by its two large, black whorls, that it was a frozen cow's head.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to find jobs in San Antonio, so we moved to Dallas. One of the first restaurants we discovered here was Mercado Juarez, the one in Addison. Unfortunately, it no longer exists (there are other locations, but they're not as good). It quickly became our favorite restaurant in Dallas. I especially liked the sizzling shrimp and rib platter, with a buttery dipping sauce for the shrimp that had an intense garlic flavor. Unbelievable. I don't know how they did. By chance, we took both our parents to this restaurant, a year or two apart. Regretfully, our parents never met each other, because they lived quite a few states away from each other, though they did speak together once on the phone. My gut feeling is they would have really enjoyed each other.

Another restaurant in the area that became one of "our" restaurants was Edelweiss in Fort Worth. It was a long trip in rush hour traffic after work to get to it, but well worth the journey. As I've said before, their ribs were the best ribs I've ever eaten, anywhere, and they didn't even come with sauce. All sorts of traditional German food, done right, the authentic way, with plenty of sauerkraut and red cabbage. Edelweiss always reminded us of the great Milwaukee German restaurants, like John Ernst (where Mary and I treated her parents to a meal one visit, in one of their private party rooms, where I had the best Dover sole I've ever had in my life.)

After we had lived in Texas for a while we decided to drive up Route 35 to Milwaukee, to spend the holidays with Mary's folks. We hit a number of top restaurants on the way, most notably Tony's Restaurant in St. Louis, considered by many to be the best Italian restaurant in the United States. The food was extraordinary. Every course was prepared tableside, waiters by our chairs tossing limp, perfect, homemade fettuccini in a small metal skillet with cream, egg yolks, Parmeseano-Regianno cheese, fresh-cracked black pepper, then gently mounding the finished dish on our white plates. It was like Heaven reduced to noodles. I started with the Osetra caviar, served in a tall, chilled silver urn, the caviar itself spooned onto shaved ice, at the time we went there $40 a serving, but which I notice, researching this link, has now increased to $110. But still worth it. The caviar was unpastuerized, which makes all the difference. Like comparing fresh garden tomatoes, still warm from the sun, carefully rotated off their gray-green stems, to canned tomatoes. Mary and I held hands across the white tablecloth, in the yellow candlelight, between courses, awaiting the arrival of the next set of tableside waiters.

So the Internet tally really isn't too bad, at this point. Some of the restaurants we loved are gone forever, but most are still there. Will we ever eat at any of them again? Probably not. But it's nice to know we could.

(I usually don't use outside links on my Latelys, because often those links vanish, in time. Like buildings and restaurants. But because the theme of this Lately is things going away, this time the practice seems appropriate.)

Six years after its initial publication, I'm proud to say my novel Father Figure continues to do well, out in the world.

Artist Jason Mcaloon, who, as I mentioned in my previous Lately, created a poster based on the text of my essay Fear, is in the process of reimagining the entire text of Father Figure as a typographical design project. Here's his interpretation of the opening page of the novel. Jason's website is located here. He's doing a magnificent job, and has a keen intuitive sense of the emotional subtext of the novel. I sincerely believe this is an artist we're going to be hearing about a lot, in the coming years.

Since I posted the full text of Father Figure online, in PDF format, it's been downloaded 50,000 times. Father Figure is included in the official lists of notable online novels by a number of universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia. A few weeks ago, I heard from a full professor at a university in China who has been using Father Figure in his English as a Foreign Language (EFL) courses for the past two years, who contacted me to ask if he could proceed with a project where he and his class translate Father Figure into Chinese as a class project (and eventually sell that translation to a Chinese publisher).

All of which, as a writer, obviously means a lot to me.