"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Foodie Elitism–You Are What You Eat

I would like to think that I am a foodie in the best sense of the term.  The only canned foods I use are San Marzano(Denominazione Controllata) tomatoes grown and packed in Italy, and occasionally organic peas for Haitian Lambi Creole. Lunches are mighty salads with radishes, baby turnips, arugula, endive, celeriac, avocado, and Gruyere.  Dinner preferences are turbot, tile fish, snapper, and dorado; but a roast chicken with herbs can’t be beat.  In other words, I eat fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables because I like them and because I can afford them.  I am not out to support local farmers or to join the organic revolution.

I got my start early. My first generation Italian-American mother cooked spaghetti with anchovy sauce, eel, calamari stewed in their ink, sweetbreads, tripe, and calves’ brains. After a while she gave most of this up for Swanson’s TV dinners, Chef Boyardee, and Dinty Moore’s beef stew. “I’m tired of cooking”, she announced; and since my father had never set foot in the kitchen, processed food it was.  She gave in to my father’s pleas once a year on Christmas Eve, and we celebrated the Neapolitan Feast of the Seven Fishes, but except for the occasional meatloaf or pork chops, my mother took advantage of the new post-War supermarket easy-to-fix bounty.

I loved my mother’s cooking in Phase I and was disgusted by Phase II which was made intolerably worse by comparison with what had come before. My sister and I scraped the gooey and gummy canned ravioli into the trash when my mother wasn’t looking, and loaded up the Swanson’s Turkey and Stuffing with ketchup and mayonnaise to give it some taste.  We had been spoiled; but the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in to our advantage.  Not only had we learned about good cooking, but grew to hate the salty, sweet, mushy, and totally unappetizing mass market foods that everybody seemed to be eating. We were already foodies.

As an adult it never occurred to me to eat anything but home-cooked – my home-cooking as it turns out, for I have always been the cook in the family.  By the time we returned to Washington after ten years in India and Latin America, my repertoire had expanded far beyond Italian, and I prepared curries, tandoori, alu gobi, and palak paneer just like Mrs. Tejpal, my Gujarati cooking guru who wrote cookbooks.  Gujarati cooking is among the best in India.  It is strictly vegetarian, and the famous thali is an individual platter of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty foods.

I cooked refried beans, sautéed plantains, arepas, sopa de menudencias, sopa de patas, humitas, and saltenas recreated from my times in Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador and Central America.  I reproduced hot green curries and Squid with Basil that I had eaten in Thailand, cooked spicy Chinese dishes with berries and nuts that I learned about in Penang.  Velveeta was a goner after many trips to Paris, but since soft French cheeses were a long time coming to America, I had to load up before the flight home.  After every stopover from Africa or Asia, I stopped at Barthelemy’s, perhaps the best cheese shop in Paris, and had them triple-wrap my Pont L’Eveque, Camembert, and Fougere for the long flight to New York.

This is all to say that I have been a foodie since my grandmother first cooked her ‘all-day’ sauce for us – a thick, rich tomato sauce cooked for hours with sausage, veal, pork, and beef.  I was only six years old but remembered that big iron pot, the fragrance of garlic and spicy meat, and the lava-like bubbling of the sauce.

I have never thought of myself as a foodie or a gourmet because I have always cooked with inspiration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe.  There were no canned goods in India when I lived in Delhi, and Parisians still did their daily marketing at small greengrocers, butchers, and fishmongers. When I returned to Washington, the pickins were slim.  I bought fish at the Maine Fish Market on the Southeast Waterfront, the only place in Washington which had a selection of fresh fish.  I schlepped out to far Northeast to buy Italian products from A. Litteri’s, found prime ribs and lamb shanks at Larimer’s, but had to wait for balsamic vinegar, cold-pressed olive oil, European-style butter, and other ingredients that are now staples.

So I am delighted that America has caught up with the rest of the world and thanks to visionaries like Julia Child and Alice Waters, ‘gourmet’ food is abundant, if not yet in big chunks of the South and Midwest.

Food, however, has become a social marker.  You are what you eat has never more been true.  The Huffington Post (4.18.14) recently did an article on Twenty-Two Hipster Foods (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/15/hipster-food_n_5146632.html) among which are ramps, homemade pickles, PBR, kimchee, Brussels sprouts, fancy donuts, craft beer, cauliflower, and ‘anything foraged’.  There is irony in hipster cooking, so the choice of the common (cauliflower and Pabst Blue Ribbon) is not surprising.  Hipsters are not locavores or Earth-firsters, so they won’t turn down a seared fresh foie gras, and will push the exotic up against endangerment; but all in all they have a good sense of food, are inventive; and the mix of ironic and edible often produces very interesting dishes.

The issue is not with the foods per se but the iconic nature of them. Ironic has its limits, and while an occasional burger at a White Tower in a sketchy neighborhood is definitely in, a Big Mac is not. The cult demands intent, desire, patience, and time.  There apparently is such a thing as a perfect cup of coffee, and I know hipsters who have spent thousands on trying to make it.  One young friend bought a used espresso machine from Padua (good coffee can only made using seasoned machines), heat and pressure registers from an engineering manufacturing company in Gary, and coffee from Brazil, but roasted in Italy.  He tried coffee at every independent coffee shop in San Francisco, tasting for that Italian uniqueness that he had only found in Tuscany.

I rarely drink coffee in America because I have tasted the real thing, the ambrosia of real Italian espresso – a thimbleful of rich, dark, fragrant, chocolate-hinted, foamy coffee; downed in a swallow, but remembered for hours.  Nothing else compares.  However, I prefer to retain the memory of my baristas in Chianace, Montepulciano, and Sienna; and visit them when I am back in Italy.  Searching for the Holy Grail in Bayonne I know will be fruitless as will be my attempts to set up a coffee meth lab in my kitchen.

The foodie thing has expanded far beyond the hipster havens of the Mission or Brooklyn; and more serious foodies have no irony. A true devotee of Alice Waters and Rene Redzepi will eat only the very best local, organic ingredients; and will search out those restaurants whose chefs combine natural ingredients with European stylish presentation.

Locavores – an offshoot of the organic and foodie movements – can go a bit overboard.  I have friends who live on a ranch in Idaho and who want to support the local economy as well as eat organic, free-range foods.  The result may be philosophically satisfying, but taste-poor.  Wild elk and antelope are gamy, tough, tasteless, and stringy; and although culling the herds does indeed contribute to the local ecology, most diners if honest prefer a Kansas City prime Angus ribeye.

The point is not so much the food or the ingredients – just about anything can be good if prepared and cooked properly (elk, for example, is not bad if stewed all day in a spicy cumin and orange zest sauce) – but the attitude behind them.  According to hipsters, locavores, or foodies in general, there is only one way to eat.

Which brings me to the South.  If there was ever a non-foodie region of the country it is the heartland of Mississippi and Alabama.  A Northern friend of mine travelling to the South for the first time, thought she would try collards. “Do you prepare them with a lot of fat?”, she asked, concerned about calories and cholesterol.

“Honey”, replied the waitress, “As much as it’ll take.  You in the South now, Sugar.”

As apocryphal as that story may be – and hell, yes, there’s a lot of fat in Southern cooking – it is not entirely fair. The best fried chicken I have ever eaten was at a gas station in Eupora, MS.  The trick is simple – get the oil near-smoking hot, quickly brown and cook the chicken, and it comes out crispy, tasty, and without a drop of grease.

Most Northerners conflate Southerners’ bad diet – fried chicken and fried everything else (fish, meat, okra, tomatoes, potatoes) – with bad habits in general.  These critics overlook poverty and social disadvantage – Mississippi ranks at the bottom of all socio-economic indicators – and condemn the whole lot for their institutionalized racism, ignorant Creationism, radical Right Wing politics, guns, and Neanderthal attitudes towards women.  The fact that they eat tons of fatback, bacon grease, lard, and fried catfish; and are morbidly obese because of it, only confirms and consolidates the prejudice. There is no give for the family working three shit jobs, living in a trailer, trying to make ends meet and eating at McDonalds to give the kids a night-out treat.  There is only snooty sniffing at the 50 lb.bags of corn meal, the racks of soup bones and chicken necks, and boxes of grits and cornpone.

Eating well is a function of geography, exposure, education, and most of all income. The fresh, local, organic produce at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market in DC is expensive.  The prime, dry-aged NY strips at Whole Foods or Balducci’s are $20 a pound.  Snapper, Spanish mackerel, tile fish, and Portuguese sardines are almost that.  There is nothing like the fresh, never-frozen Gulf jumbo shrimp, but a meal for two is easily $30.

Washingtonians appreciate the quality, have the cultural exposure and culinary experience to know what to do with exotic varieties of fish, innards, and strange, foraged weeds; and have the money to pay for it all.  It is easy to become a foodie if your socio-economic stars are properly aligned.

Some foodie groups carry the flag of health – it is stupid and ignorant to eat what you should know is not healthy.  Others raise the flag of the little man, the small farmer; and protest through their purchase of local food the depredations and greed of Kraft and Monsanto.  Still others insist on terroir and provenance. Animal rights advocates feel that inhumane treatment of chickens at Frank Perdue’s pens on the Eastern Shore is tantamount to torture, cruelty, and murder.  Finally hipsters refuse to acknowledge anyone who doesn’t ‘get it’ – the thousands of clueless people who can’t seem to wrap their heads around a meal with foie gras and PBR.

America is a democratic country, one-man-one-vote, regular free and fair elections, and a transparent judiciary.  Even though many citizens have become increasingly concerned about a perceived loss of individual liberties and increasing divides between rich and poor, it is still a vibrant free market where money is the great equalizer.

What many critics overlook, however, is the importance of social class distinctions which are alive and well in America.  Class has simply moved out of the established redoubts of the Main Line, Nantucket, and Greenwich to the social cloud. Privileged enclaves are no longer physical neighborhoods, but states of mind. Class is still defined by money, but now, more than anything else, taste.

Foodie-ism is a benign but telling marker of the elite. Foodies are cultists who may not be as crazy and militant as the Millennialists in Humboldt County or the Idaho panhandle, but like them have an absolutist view of the higher value of their ethos.

I have to admit I have benefitted from the foodie craze.  I have learned a lot from San Francisco hipsters who compose salads with more unusual ingredients than I ever could have imagined. The essence of hipster cuisine – like fashion – is unique, often ironic combinations; and many of them work very well.  I have learned from Alice Waters, the great Asian fusion chefs of the Bay Area, and the vitality of yuppie cooks.

I am only amused by the transformation of food as a need, to food as a pleasure, to food as cultural icon. Only in America has the transition been handled with such style.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Big Data and Baseball–‘The Shift’

I grew up in the Golden Age of baseball; or should I say the traditional era.  No designated hitters, no challenges and video reviews, few relief pitchers, and no infield shifts.  Baseball was an elegant, timeless game with nine players deployed in fixed positions, adjusting to accommodate left-handed and right-handed batters, but basically deployed as they had been since Abner Doubleday.

Baseball was a big part of my childhood.  As kids we played pickup on the New Brighton Green, practiced our pitching with a tennis ball on the garage door, played Wiffle Ball, and above all listened to the games on Saturday radio.

While my sister ran in the sprinkler and watching my father spray the aphids on his rose bushes, I listened to Mel Allen, Red Barber, and the Yankees.   We traded baseball cards, argued whether Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams was the greatest ballplayer of all time, and batted rocks out by the quarry.

Baseball has always been a game of statistics, and as long as the game didn’t change, one could compare the performance of any player against that of any other who played before him.  There were anomalies, of course – the dead ball era, for example, when in 1919 the great Babe Ruth could only whack 19 home runs instead of his record 60 eight years later and after the ball was lightened.  There was the era of the juiced ball many decades later.  Although there was no conclusive proof that Major League Baseball tinkered with the ball to produce more offense, home runs were hit at a record pace. Much more recently there was the steroid era when Babe Ruth’s and Roger Maris’ 60 and 61* home run records were surpassed by a long shot – and not by just one hitter.

However, knowledgeable baseball fans take all this into consideration and discount or revalue the achievements of athletes who played in eras that skewed the game.  For them, statistics are still a robust link to even the distant past of the game.

The first thing I read in the paper in the morning are the box scores.  I keep track of my favorite players, particularly the ones who perform at levels way beyond their talented peers. Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers is an uncanny hitter.  He simply doesn’t miss and has baseball’s special gifts – vision, quickness, power, coordination, patience, and concentration.  Athletes like Cabrera come along in other sports as well, usually once a generation, and they are compelling to watch when they are in their prime. 

Tiger Woods is a good example.  He was elegance and majesty on the links.  No other golfer before him was as uniquely gifted and talented.  Both Jack Nicklaus and Arnie Palmer, great in their own times, wondered from what distant planet he came from.  Wayne Gretzky could outskate, outmaneuver, and outthink every other player on the ice.  Even when opponents thought they had taken the measure of the man, he outsmarted them.  Pete Sampras won an almost unimaginable number of major tennis titles, a record that would last for decades; but then along came Roger Federer, thought by many to be the best, most complete, and most artistically talented of all.

Old-fashioned as I am, I stick to the box scores in the daily paper – runs, hits, errors, ERA, and W-L. Real baseball buffs go to Baseball Digest which collates and presents data in many new measurement categories - OBP, OPS, PA/SO, RISP and many others.  More and more is known about each player, and given the ease with which performance can be tracked and recorded electronically, probability numbers are more and more accurate.  It is easy to determine where a given player is likely to hit a ball given the pitcher, the stadium, the weather, and the time of day. A manager with a few clicks of his mouse can adjust his defense for each batter.

No longer are infielders and outfielders deployed in traditional ways, but arrayed according to the Theory of the Shift.  If a batter has hit the ball on the ground to the right side of the infield 80 percent of the time, then the entire defensive alignment changes.  Everyone moves right towards first base, leaving a gaping hole between third and second base.  Of course The Shift works – numbers don’t lie – and batting averages which have been going down since teams have employed The Shift confirm it.  The batting average for balls hit on the ground has been even lower since infielders have been stacked on either the left or right side of the diamond.

When Big Papi (David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox) comes to bat, fans know that he may strike out, hit long fly balls to the outfield, or launch a home run; but they are pretty sure – given his statistical history – that he will hit something hard to the right side of the infield.  In years past, these shots usually found a hole between the first and second baseman, and Ortiz’ average soared.  Now Big Papi whacks the ball as hard as he ever did, but because of the asymmetrical alignment of the defense, the rocket is hit right to someone.  In the Big Papi Shift, not only do players all move towards the right field line, the second baseman plays short outfield.  If Ortiz does what the probability suggests, he is a goner.

“Not fair!”, yell the Fenway Faithful, Billy Ball and Nate Silver robbing Big Papi of winning hits.  “The game wasn’t meant to be played this way.” 

It surely seems that electronic statistical analysis has favored the defense; and for the time being it will continue to do so.  Pull hitters have been hitting that way since Little League, and are unlikely to change. Their mechanics have been tooled to hit the ball hard in one direction, and they are paid to do so.  Pull hitters are usually home run hitters, because they generate so much torque in their left- or right-field swings, and RBI’s win games.  Getting Big Papi to hit to all fields would be an impossible and unfair request.

However, scouts will now begin to put a premium on all-field hitters – young Ichiros, George Bretts, and Tony Gwynns. Within a few years The Shift will disappear as this new crop of talented hitters smack the ball wherever the pitch dictates.  Baseball will return more than ever to its roots and to its elegant simplicity/complexity.  Home runs will go down – and MLB owners never like that – so eventually pull hitters and a modified Shift will return; but for a while, anyway, baseball purists will be able to see great, all-around hitting and well-timed defense.

The Shift had to come. After years of analyzing numbers but never doing much with them, managers have now made a significant change to the way the game is played.  They finally can put statistics into practice.

Big Data has revolutionized marketing, scientific inquiry, and punditry.  Nate Silver is now far more important than George Will, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer combined.  He gets elections right every time, and they never do.  Google, endowed with a stable of brilliant engineers in the Googleplex, still goes to crowdsourcing for improved search engine algorithms.  Noam Chomsky, renowned for his work on understanding intelligence and brain function, has been bested and one-upped by Big Data companies.  In discussions on Artificial Intelligence Google researchers have rejected Chomsky’s claim that in order to build intelligent machines an understanding of the human brain is necessary.  Nonsense, they say.  One only needs to look at the way language is used and intelligent programs can be devised accordingly.  Focus groups are out, and crowdsourced surveys are in.  Everything is being rethought.

If anyone doubts the revolutionary nature of Big Data, they only have to go to Camden Yards and watch the Orioles play.  They are the team that in 2013 employed the shift more than any other – over three hundred times.  Baseball analysts suggest that that number could easily exceed 1000 in the coming years.

I am not at all upset by The Shift because it was inevitable.  I am also not upset because in baseball’s competitive environment offense and defense will continue to fight for turf and territory, and equilibrium will always be re-established.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Afraid of Dying? Take LSD, Peyote, or Psilocybin

Jimmy Cianci’s father owned the rock quarry in Plainville and Cianci Construction Company and between the two the name Cianci was everywhere.  Tony Cianci had locked up contracts with the cities of New Brighton, Bristol, and Newington and built sidewalks, roads, and government buildings.  Word had it that there were bodies buried both under the tons of crushed rock at the quarry and under the sidewalks of Paterson Street in Meriden.  In those days Italians had only a few trades - Mafiosi, gangsters, barbers, and construction workers - so the rumor was probably true.  My father always said that it was neither coincidence nor Tony Cianci’s business acumen that landed him the parking garage contract in Wallingford. “Money and muscle”, he said. “Can’t beat that”.

Many years I ran into Jimmy Cianci at Paulson Bros. Winery in Napa Valley.  He was trying one of their new Bordeaux blends and liked it so much that he bought a case to be shipped to Connecticut.  It was Jimmy for sure, but age had not been kind to him, and if he hadn’t given his name, I never would have guessed.  He sagged and drooped, and for some reason he had trimmed his eyebrows down to scruffy beard length.  This gave him a startled look, and coming out of his fleshy face, it seemed like it belonged to someone else. “When did you move to California?”, I asked.

“Five years ago”, he said. “To cheat the Grim Reaper”.

We moved to a table outside the wine tasting room.  The winery was built high up in a eucalyptus grove and overlooked acres of merlot, pinot, and cabernet grapes.  The view was spectacular, the weather was unseasonably warm, and the wine was excellent.

There was nothing seriously wrong with Jimmy, I learned – no bum ticker, cancer, or Alzheimer’s.  He just couldn’t  ‘get his head around’ dying and had heard of a retreat in Pasadena which was run by a disciple of Timothy Leary. Under controlled conditions terminally ill patients were given the same drugs that we all took in the Sixties – acid, peyote, and psilocybin – and the out-of-body experiences produced by the powerful hallucinogens showed that death was really nothing to fear, simply a beautiful passage.  “Like a puff of smoke swirling in the summer breeze”, Jimmy quoted from the brochure. 

Jimmy it turned out had made a fortune in the construction business. After college he took over his father’s quarry and building enterprises, liquidated them during the boom times of the 80s, invested in an Indian casino near the Rhode Island border, and in a short time had made over five-hundred percent on his investment.  He made millions more through Wall Street investments, and thanks to under-the-radar tax shelters and money havens in Curaçao and Aruba, he weathered the financial crisis of 2007.  He was a rich man, married to his wife of 40 years and father of two successful adult children.

By any measure he should have been happy, content, and emotionally prosperous; but he was not.  As he moved into his late 60s, he was hit with a Black Dog funk and a desperate fear of dying. It wasn’t fear of the unknown, he said, nor the agonies of a painful death.  It was disappearing.  “One day you’re here”, he said, “The next day you’re gone.  Somebody turns the lights off.  It’s that simple.”

“I tried everything”, he said. “Did you know that you can take a different anti-depressant every day of the year, and you still can’t exhaust the varieties and brands? America is a great country”.  The medications, however, did not work. “Xanax doesn’t get rid of your anxiety. Xanax tells you not to feel it for awhile until it stops working and you take the next pill.  I forgot about my balky psyche for a while, but it didn’t take long before I was gimping along like before.  The worst part of it was I felt more anxiety than before I took the pill”.

The doctors kept ramping up his prescriptions until he was barely functional.  “I didn’t obsess about my death”, he said, “but I didn’t know the difference between asparagus and guinea worms either”.

“I hated getting up in the morning.  Not because I had to face another day of anxiety, but because I had to go through the same routine as the day before and the day before that.  I made my bed, brushed my teeth, put on my clothes, and made my tea. ‘But I just did this’, I said to myself.  Twenty-four hours had passed, an increasingly large fraction of the time I had left to live. Only when I started to make my bed, smooth the wrinkles, and adjust the pillows did I realize that a day had passed.  It was the bedcovers that did it.

“I did what all men do when they see that the tunnel ahead has no light at the end.  They take a young mistress or have a fling with a thirty-something in the office. My time with Laura was not just unforgettable, it was transforming, rejuvenating, and resuscitating. For two years the very thought of mortality never crossed my mind.  It was like bringing a beater to a car wash – candy and pennies on the floor, bits of gum wrappers, pencil nubs, and beach sand, bug stains, and pollen scum; and then like magic, out it comes bright, clean, and looking like new. ‘Fuck Xanax’, I said. ‘Give me young pussy any time’”.

Jimmy’s girlfriend benefited from the May-September love affair as well.  Ironically she felt older, more mature, and much more satisfied than she ever had been with younger men. He understood and loved women, took his time, listened, and best of all went on forever. “Fuck Xanax”, he said, “but gimme Viagra”.  Although it was a mutually satisfying affair, they both knew it couldn’t last.  She wanted to get married and have children, and realized that for Jimmy she was just a Ponce de Leon; and the more she thought of it, the sicker it sounded.

“So I moved to California and became a resident of Santa Clara Wellness Institute, Charles S. Perkins, Proprietor.

“I never would be in this situation if I had inherited more genes from my father.  That old guinea knew that one day he would drop in his tracks shoveling a load of gravel into the back of a dump truck, or would tip over into his macaroni, but he could care less. ‘When ya gotta go, ya gotta go’, the old man said.  ‘Besides, what’ve you got to worry about?’, he asked me.  ‘Your grandfather Guido lived until he was 101.’

“I remembered Pop Pop Cianci who indeed lasted over a hundred, but by the time he finally threw in the towel he was just a bag of bones who could only function in one way – he could tell time.  Every fifteen minutes he croaked out the hour.  “Ten fifteen”, he yelled.  “Ten thirty”.  The staff of the nursing home decided to see what would happen if they removed the clock, but Guido Cianci simply made up the numbers which, as it turned out, were uncannily exact.  When he howled “Eleven thirty” at a blank wall, the clock around the corner chimed the same time.

“I never paid any attention to doctors who, when treating me for Death Anxiety, repeated what my father said.  When I heard, ‘You’re in great health.  You have the prostate of a young man’, I always replied, ‘Numbers don’t lie’.  At seventy, I told the doctors, I only have a few years left, health or no health. In fact all my medical decisions these days are on an actuarial basis.

“My endodontist recently said that he would have to pull an infected tooth. ‘You have three choices’, he said. ‘The first is an implant which will last you for fifty years. The second is a partial denture – a bit cumbersome and rather expensive, but it will do the trick.  And, of course, you can do nothing’

“Without hesitating I said that I would do nothing. ‘Why should I pay $10,000 for a fancy implant when I won’t be around to chew on it?’.  My left cheek is a bit sucked-in and hollow-looking because there’s nothing inside, but it was the right decision. 

I asked Jimmy about the Timothy Leary treatment, and wondered if it had any more staying power than anything else. “No”, he replied, “and I’m ready to pack my bags. The acid trips were intense, and I did have the predicted out-of-body experiences; but I remember when I was looking down on my body from some airy space, I started to laugh because this is what I was supposed to see.  It was worse than the zombie B movies we used to watch at the Palace when we were kids.

“’You’re over-intellectualizing’, the doctor said.  “Remember the old days, just let it be’; but he was just whistlin’ Dixie.  I could no more go back to the trippy days of the Village in 1968 than I could to my father’s rock pile.  My bullshit shield had simply become too thick.

I asked him if he had kept up with our old New Brighton friends – Greggy Panos, Bruce Feldman, and Nicky Pantucci. We all used to hang out a lot, play baseball on the Green, swim at Stanley Quarter Park, and play wiffle ball in Herbie Swanson’s back yard. “Strange you should ask”, replied Jimmy.  “I have kept in touch with them.  The funny thing about stereotypes is that they are true.  Greg Panos worked the counter at the Athens Diner, and after he inherited it from his father, doubled it in size and turned it from a bums’ eatery by the bus station into a family affair, started a chain of family-style Greek restaurants and made a bundle. 

“Bruce Feldman took over the furrier business, but had this gay thing about dead animals and moved to San Francisco where I lost track of him; and Nicky Pantucci heard so many thinly-veiled references to hits, contracts, and ‘making millions off the shines’ at the Mafioso barber shop where he worked, that there was no chance he would stay straight; and after moving up the goomba ranks in Newark and Bayonne, he got careless and is now spending the rest of his days locked up in Tucson.”

“Greggy never had to worry about dying because he collapsed in one of his kitchens at age 50.  Bruce survived the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the 80s, and so now is afraid of nothing; and Nicky would just as soon die, I hear, because the conditions in the federal pen where he spends his days are worse than at Angola.”

I was not asking about our friends’ rendezvous with death; but Jimmy, obsessed as he was, could only define people in terms of their equanimity – or at least how they resolved the issue.  “So, what’s next?”, I asked him.  “Back to Connecticut?”.

He said he didn’t know, but that uncertainty was nothing compared to the certainty of death.  I asked him if he ever read the Tolstoy short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a tale of a man even more obsessed with death than Jimmy. Ivan Ilyich too could not get over the fact that he would suddenly disappear, evaporate, be sucked into some black world, or into nothingness.  It has a happy ending, I told Jimmy. “He has an out of body experience at the moment of death and realizes that death actually is the only cure for fear of death”.

“Ah”, said Jimmy. “Now that makes sense”.

I lost track of Jimmy Cianci after our meeting in California.  He wasn’t very good at social media, and for all I know he pulled the plug and joined some millennial cult in the Humboldt County redwoods.  All I know for sure is that one day he will wake up and stop worrying.  With any luck it will be far before his expiry date.