Portrait of a Line Cook as a Young Calamari


2015. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24″

An old friend and line partner suggested I make a painting of how we looked in the kitchen at 7:00 p.m.on a Friday night. This is about right.

I was an aspiring writer in those cooking days. I also had to work double shifts to pay the rent. Friday doubles were especially hard, but at least I got to write letters during my break. Here’s one that would have been fresh in the calamari’s mind:

A Letter During Break of a Double from Cookbook For The Poor

A Larry Letter. A big fat letter full of juice. I will write to you a letter of season, of summer. Expect it to be finished by October and I will hand deliver it to you in all of my mad excess. But for now a quick letter—for the sake of spring…
I remember writing to you about the same time last year from Red Creek where I was living the same day in a different habitat. A year has gone by and oh, what a year it has been! From forest and garden, to alcohol and concrete jungle and no more than fifty cents in my pocket, back to the country and a worn-out relationship—back to alcohol, to Scott’s tomb, to winter’s nausea and lethargy, back to cooking, to excess, to immortality, to raising Rachelle. Now to the same sun, new sun, warmer sun, and probably after that, burnt out sun. The life of poverty, the cook’s life, the cook’s literary life!
I remember our walks to Central Park in the grayness. I remember the stoop, your stairs, in the urban night time—the yuppie chatterboxes wafting by (a bad smell). I remember my mad walk down Broadway to the Battery. I remember our walk with Hazra through the dead leaves. All the thoughts that were stuffed inside me, the sadness of separation, my lack of courage, my very personal battle against the human zombies, my desire to be a dad and a poet… And you there the whole time my friend watching Ron torture himself. Nothing has changed. I am still torturing myself. I know that it’s torture. To live, but to live better because a beautiful girl smiles at you on the stairs. To live simply for the wildness of the unknown, and wildly for the simplicity of life.
Last night was very bad, a mortal night. I looked in the mirror, I looked through it with the understanding that I may never love again. God, how frightened I was of death! My bones ached; that was something new. “Will I slave like this for the rest of my life without love? Can I possibly torture myself more without dying? How much can I stand?”
I have to keep putting my dream world off to the future. This is the medicine that saves my life every night. Do you realize how agonizing this is? Especially since I have lived my dreams many times before? Usually in New York City, but once or twice along the rocky shores of Ontario. The fact is that I cannot live my dreams in callous town. I am no Thoreau. It is either too small or too big. Can it be possible that I am equally attracted to farmland/woodland and to the monsteropolis? I need space and both extremes provide that space, depending on my mood which is always changing. My wallet has to be empty. That is very important. I’m in a constant flux of temperament. Not content, wholly content, indifferent, depressed, lit up like a Christmas tree with joy, immersed into a deep pool of sorrow and drowning…
Oswego is cold now. Probably because I am living the destructive side of solitude. A life of confusion and alcoholism.

“How does one know that one day he will take wing, that like the humming bird he will quiver in mid air and dazzle with iridescent sheen? One doesn’t. One hopes and prays and bashes his head against the wall. But ‘it’ knows. ‘It’ can bide ‘its’ time. ‘It’ knows that all the errors, all the detours, all the failures and frustrations will be turned to account. To be born an eagle one must get accustomed to high places; to be born a writer one must learn to like privation, suffering, humiliation. Above all, one must learn to live apart. Like the sloth, the writer clings to his limb while beneath him life surges by steady, persistent, tumultuous. When ready plop! He falls into the stream and battles for life. Is it not something like that?” —Miller

Yes it is! I’ve fallen from my limb. I find my sanity under the restaurant tree, but then I leave it and walk out into life—a life that I’ve created! The power to choose and change has escaped me. I feel that I am suffered to this life eternally, or at least until my liver falls through my bowel. Then I might get some incentive to change. This is the life I am practically forced to live because there are no kindred spirits, save for you— but you keep yourself a letter or a phone call away, and frankly, that is a useless dose, maybe an aspirin, a Tylenol perhaps, at a time when I need Larry, the 10,000 mg amphetamine, to sway my appetite away from alcohol. Does that make sense? I need a human face! I don’t need this much booze with my booze buddies. Too much. For now my life is a catalyst in the ongoing experiment with the human time bomb. I will explode. It’s only a matter of time…
Your call woke me up too early this morning. You are certain that I’ll be coming down in June for an extended vacation. I cannot say for sure, but the way things are going, you may be right. Work is preventing me from enjoying the “good life.” I would like to say that I am the reason, then there would be some hope for change. The boss has it in his head though, that he can pay people more to make him richer. I have never met a man so empty of life. His liver controls him now. He is locked inside a vodka coma.
You should have been there on Saturday night. Over and over in his drunk talk, his words blowing right over my head, “I’ll pay you more money… Whatever it costs… But you have to be here… For three months gross triples… I’ll pay the money, but you have to be here..!”
My God, what in the world was he talking about?

On a lighter note, I am the depressed owner of a dilapidated motor vehicle and Rachelle is sleeping with Marty. The car is without any struts and the daughter is without a father. The car sits and stares at me while I write this to you. I don’t know what to do with it. I can’t drive it. Brian says that I can launch myself (and the car) into the air anytime over the speed of 45 mph. Not yet.
Brian is back in the kitchen. I think he has been hired back to protect my mental health. He had his lobotomy during the winter. Now he’s ready to cook again.
John is on his way over to help with the car. I am going to ask him how to sue for custody while he takes apart the engine and puts it back together again.
How are you my friend? On the verge of complete self-annihilation? I am. More about that in my next column.

A beautiful spring afternoon! Presently I am over-looking the Great Lake Ontario. I am lying next to the Fort where two-hundred years ago men woke at dawn to ready themselves for battle. English ships were anchored in the harbor. A summer of fighting. A national pastime.
Down the hill at port floats a Russian ocean liner. A hundred men unloading plutonium and light switches, the captain in his loft drinking vodka from the bottle and chewing on a piece of stale bread…
Gnats surround me. The day is glorious, so much cooler than I thought at first. This doesn’t stop the buds from sprouting, nor does it silence the gulls who chatter tirelessly about the coming summer and the new fish. I am ready for some great change. Last May you were expecting the same for yourself, and now look where you are! Endless work and my wide open alcohol intake valve have made me weaker in spirit. When I get well in spirit I get angry. When I get angry I do foolish things. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel the urge to dismember myself, to self-destruct and send my body parts flying through the air… That used to be because of happiness. Now what is it? Brian says I need a hobby. Work and late night drunkenness, are these not hobbies?
What is this change? What is happening?
The gnats are sunning themselves on my coat. I count fifty of them. Time to go.
Under the restaurant’s tree. Will you send me the negatives of the photos that we took on Glenn’s pond last year? I want to decorate my living room.
The clouds are coming. Snow is predicted for the weekend. Each time the wind blows, a wave of gnats spray my face. I am phasing Larry. I am tripping through a phase. No doubt another horrible one. It feels like a prison sentence from God. I am condemned to loneliness. (Presently Fred the seagull is barking for a piece of the quiche that Jeff just threw to me.) God did not want me to be lonely, alone maybe, but not lonely. It’s a scary thought wondering if everyone is like this. If this be true, just imagine the number of nuclear technicians typing their misery into reactor cores this minute. Fred just walked within three feet of me, took up my offering and flew into the wind. Fred is a beautiful bird.
The snow from Northern Alberta is falling on the Russians unloading pantyhose hand-stitched in the Ukraine. Tonight they’ll sit at the end of the bar and laugh big horse laughs. The Captain will ask Brian to get him through to Moscow on the telephone. Two rubles to Vickie for a tip and then off to Chicago.

Lying in the park with my wits about me, but my body approaching grave sickness. I haven’t had a drink in three days.
I just woke up from a nap in the grass. I feel that the more I get myself outside, the better my chances for good health. Good mental health.
Falling asleep in the park is a good start. The sky is blue and the children are singing at the playground. Another beautiful day! A day when I am so happy to be alive. Shouldn’t that be everyday? I think the spring sprang from nowhere, and that forced me off the road to ruin. I am finished with the moonshine whiskey, smoky pitiful bars, and the many despairing drunken walks in the wee hours. Nature overcomes. In the grass I will find peace and give my body a chance to clean out its innards.
On this day I am ready to dress and leave. How appropriate that I am feeling a bit “under the weather.” The change is now taking over my whole being. I am hungry and ready to eat. I will stroll over to Scott’s and hit him up for a few bucks. I’m famished.
Under the restaurant’s tree. I was shaking at the bakery, so I brought my lunch here. This has got to be the best lunch I ever had the strength to swallow. A thick vegetable sandwich made with fresh baked whole wheat bread, two monster chocolate chip cookies, a blueberry croissant… And I’m still not completely full. The shakes have disappeared, the sleeping sickness too. I feel like I could swallow a watermelon whole and drink apple juice from a fifty gallon drum. I am strong. Gargantuan good health. Thank God!
I cannot stress enough my need to have those negatives. They are a tribute to us (granted it is our own), and I need to look at them now while I’m still alive. So, about this change that I am expecting… What do you think? I was reading over your letters from last winter. A lot of your words were spent on my problem. Very nice. What you wrote about my predicament made sense, or nonsense. Of course it’s so hard to tell which. Yes, I can do anything, and it is useless to try to plan a way, I know. But in all of your wild talk about my moving to God knows where—Paris, Holland, the Far East—in all of that talk, even you could not separate me from Rachelle. Your advice was clear: Go away. Find happiness (what?). Then after you have seen God stark naked, come back to Rachelle a better man. You say that she’ll be waiting for me, that she will stand there with the innocent, understanding, loving look of an angel. She would understand someday. Yes, I am sure of that. Of course! After she abandoned her own child.
I agree with you Larry that Oswego is no longer the place for me. I have not been creative here. I know a trade. I cook and I am a louse. But I think I have some insight into why I am so unhappy.
I have no kindred spirit, nor do I have a muse to diffuse my madness. I am alone and hungry. I am always hungry. I need a human being to cut up and stir fry and serve over rice. I need to sink my teeth into human flesh, but this is a French fry town; no one is willing to make themselves look edible. Here it is not polite to eat each other.
In New York I was at peace with everything and everyone. Except for despair; I had no peace whenever I thought about Rachelle. You provided food, shelter and sanity. With your help I found the courage to call myself an artist. How wonderful! To be just what you’ve always wanted to be. I never felt hungry, though we rarely enjoyed a full meal. I fed myself on the senses and was very content with their nourishment. I’ll agree that the afternoon hours we well nigh sunk into hell’s own despair, but I was stronger then, more resilient because of the do or die situation I was in. Now I am just plain weak. Not weak like the saint, but weak like the slave, beaten, dogged, not manly.

Read a little Walt and go forward. Song of the Open Road. So many times I have read through it for inspiration, and how many times it has lifted me! I see with right vision when I am with Walt. I see with the right wisdom of the heart and soul. All is well for the strong and the weak. Who is to understand strength and weakness?
My voice is myself. I have left the rigmarole. Dang it, I gots purpose! Ize caint be tamed!
The world is open to me. The roads are endless. I must turn off the road to become the road. The answer is simply that there is no answer. An answer to what? To life? Am I God? No! I am an angel, a creation. If that isn’t enough fact to send a lightning bolt through my veins and make flutter off my tongue the flight of a million and one thanks, then I should jump in front of a truck. But I need not do that. I’m beginning to understand. An explosion is chaos. Who knows what to do when an oil truck explodes on a busy corner? Well, life is chaos. It is exploding everywhere always, without an end. I turn a deaf ear now on any jack ass who has something to say.
The change I’ve been expecting my dear friend, is myself. I am! And the sun rises and sets, the earth is a-turning and I’m a-turning and a-walking. That is enough happiness. About as much as I can stand.

What else is there to mention? About a billion more things I’m afraid. Please send Mysteries and/or Plexus, Sexus if you get the chance. I need to read more and spend less. Right now I am into Pan for obvious reasons. Glahn and Edvarda—“Their pride is the human pride that aspires to happiness and then flees from it.”
I imagine myself as Glahn watching Oswego come into spring like he did in the north when he fell in love. My solitude is enormous. I am staring out over the harbor from a little grassy spot in East Park. Six years ago, while lying in my truck in this same park, I had the presence of mind to dream about the day. Six years ago! I am happier now. No more crazy. No less. Still wandering and wondering. Where will my sanity lead me to?
Looking out over this lake I know damn well that there is nothing to aspire to. One cannot climb to love as if love was to be found on the mountain top, and the only way left to go be down. Love is this precisely. Right here, right now. We strive for everything but love. All pursuit destroys love. I am certain of this. I will stand by this conviction forever. Pursuit is strong, but love is weak. It is not human for the strong to trample the weak. Human nature is the epitome of weakness. We take the lead in that affair. What is it that goads us into crushing happiness, tossing love aside as if it were nothing, but, in reality it being the only something we need besides life and the bare minor necessities to sustain life?
Just some minor thoughts to while away my laundry time. Mama’s babies are poppin’ up all over the grass. Dandelions.

Love Ronald