Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Time For The Powers-That-Be To Live Like The Rest Of Us

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published May 27, 2020] ©2020

Pandemics have always been a part of my family story.  While a lot of people are hearing about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” for the first time, my grandmother, gravely ill with it, gave birth to my mother on November 1, 1918, the week of the highest number of deaths worldwide: 55,000.  Yes, in a week. Miraculously, my grandmother was not one of them. But she was so debilitated by the flu that she was unable to care for her new baby for the first few months of my mother’s life.

I’ve already written several times about my siblings and I contracting polio in August of 1955 – four months after Jonas Salk’s jubilant April 12 announcement of a vaccine that would prevent it. It took a while for enough vaccine to be manufactured - there were some serious glitches along the way - and to reach the populace. Not soon enough for those of us in our small town, alas. So imagine getting COVID-19 vaccine to 327 million people who all wanted it yesterday.

Now, I realize that this pandemic situation basically caught the world off-guard but now, several months into it, but I continue to be puzzled at some of the inherently non-sensical ideas that those in positions of authority inflict on – or propose to inflict on - the general public. 

Let’s start with hair salons.  First off, where’s Anthony Fauci’s pony tail?  Why doesn’t Gavin Newsom resemble a scruffy wombat?  Because someone is cutting their hair.  (Don’t even try to suggest it’s their wives.)  Meanwhile, the word “Roots” will no longer evoke the saga of Kunte Kinte but that of women’s hair during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I have read some truly idiotic proposals about the reopening of hair salons including that they should not be opened again “until there is a vaccine.” (See paragraph two, above.) By that time, everyone except top government officials will look like extras from “Planet of the Apes.”

Suggestions for reopening hair salons assert that blow drying will have to be a thing of the past.  Only a guy would say this.  Do they think that women’s coifs just dry naturally looking like that?  Allegedly, the blow dryer could blast corona cooties into the air around the salon where customers would start dropping like IRA balances. My stylist washes my hair twice for more than two minutes each time - way more than the 20 seconds recommended for hands.  My hair is so clean you could eat off it.  Not that I’d want you to, since then I’d need to wash it again.  So it’s hard to imagine how many COVID critters could really be flying around. 

And if we’re going to get on the subject of blasting air, what about all those blow dryers for barely-washed hands in windowless public restrooms?  Given this logic, you’d be lucky to escape a bathroom visit with your instantly-contaminated life.

Moving right along in the Stupidity Sweepstakes was the CDC’s April 27 pronouncement that people should “avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding.”  Sure, and explain that to Mr. Barkles. Pets were probably the single most positive factor in keeping people from total despair in recent months, yet based on pretty much zero cases of kitty-to-human infection, the CDC recommended people shun their beloved animals.  Even dogs are supposed to keep social distance from other dogs.  Fortunately, not much more has been said about this.  Just as there is a waiting period for people to buy guns, persons in positions of health or governmental authority should have a required three-day speech delay while their synapses catch up with them.  

And then there was this whole business with one-way shopping aisles. It's like the COVID Police meet nightly and say, "How else can we provoke the general public, never mind grocery store managers, with rules that are unlikely to help but will just annoy the sh-t out of everyone?”  But then, I’m just mad because I accidentally walked past the spaghetti sauce and we had to have pasta with plain parmesan cheese on it.  It made me very grumpy.

There are so many candidates for this column that it's hard to choose.  But our Vice President, named to lead the U.S. response to the coronavirus outbreak, was apparently the only person in America who didn't know you need a mask to enter a hospital. Was he worried, "Does this mask make me look fat?" He then maintained that because he is regularly tested, he didn't think he needed one.  Yeah, just try getting past Gelson's cart kid with that one!

When the people who are allegedly managing this crisis are showing up perfectly coiffed, aren't staying home, and don't want to annoy themselves with uncomfortable masks, they undermine their credibility.  I'm still complying, but in spite of them, not because of them. 

Meanwhile, next week:  With everyone having to wear masks, where is the bailout for the lipstick industry??? Inquiring minds want to know.

 This table actually used to be used for mail.

 Five-year-old grandson getting ready for a walk

Ten-year-old granddaughter communing with nature

Monday, May 11, 2020

It Was Such Bad Timing

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published May 13, 2020] ©2020

Last year, I wrote about my husband, Olof, taking up sourdough bread making as a retirement project.  So when pandemic incarceration hit, Olof wasn’t all that distressed to have yet more excuses to wallow in yeastdom. Nightly he was glued to YouTube videos for sourdough English muffins, crackers, and even naan besides his usual boules and ciabattas.

But then disaster struck. In late March, the control panel on our stove suddenly, without warning, exhibited the Black Screen of Death, followed by “Error message F2 E1”. We flipped the circuit breaker to no avail. Olof advised letting it sit overnight to see if it “fixed itself.”  I was stunned.  I’m usually the one who maintains that electronics have an emotional life and can be cajoled into functionality if properly entreated, while Olof, whose degree in reactor physics is from Cal Tech, rolls his eyes and expounds on the certainties of circuitry.  “Olof,” I said, “I think you’ve been married to me for too long.”

The next morning, the stove was still as dead as the night before, but worse, had developed a truly annoying intermittent beep. Honestly, in the middle of the night I wanted to take a sledge hammer to it.  Fortunately for it, we do not own a sledge hammer. Unfortunately, the circuit breaker is also attached to fridge so we couldn’t just flip it off.

Now, we have several appliance repair people that we’ve used over the years but none would come to the house. I mean, you’d think this was an essential service.  It is, but not essential enough for the essentialees to want to risk coronavirus. I was pretty sure the problem was the oven control panel since we’d had this problem once before but it turns out the Whirlpool factory, from whence oven control panels come, was closed until further notice. 

Fortunately, we own both a crockpot and a microwave so there would be sources of warm food.  But the idea of not having a stove for potentially months put Olof into full yeast-deprivation depression.  We decided to just go buy a new stove. 

Alas, Home Depot’s options were back-ordered into the next millennium. 

Our other usual appliance emporium was now only accepting on-line orders – you couldn’t go into the store itself – and were not installing.  They would deliver your large kitchen appliance to your garage (we don’t have one), or alternatively  “curbside” which, translated into English means “in the street.”  Where a car could hit it.  And certainly not improving the functionality of the appliance especially if it is now on the next block. 

Then there's the more-than-minor problem about getting this curbside appliance into our home which includes a long walkway and several steps.  We're both pushing 73. My husband had a heart attack two years ago. So the two of us wrassling a heavy appliance box from the street into our house might not be an exercise that we would survive. We would, of course, instruct our children to sue the appliance place for premeditated wrongful, elder-abusive death.

OK, so let's assume that we were actually able to get the new stove into our house and into our kitchen. It's a gas stove. Gas stoves are connected by means of something called "gas lines."  I can just see getting the whole thing installed only to turn it on and blow up the house.  And ourselves. It just seems that the appliance company ought to be a tad more concerned about the liability in expecting people to install their own major appliances.  COVID-19 will eventually go away but personal injury lawyers are forever.

But then my pool guy (it is a testament to the times when your pool guy is telling you how to get your stove fixed) Scott told me that any part I needed for anything was available on the internet if I had the model number. He cautioned me to make sure I wasn't buying an aftermarket or "refurbished" part, but a new one. 

$400 and expedited shipping later, a brand-new oven control panel arrived at our home from a non-Amazon site, and I had actually incentivized someone to come and install it.  But when he did, it turned out that while it was the correct control panel for our stove, that wasn’t what the problem was.  

The repair guy said he would to see if he could find the required part for us. But who knew how long that would take. However, he was able to disconnect the homicidally-annoying beep.  I spent 1.5 hours on hold with the company I got the control panel from trying to get approval to return it. At the mailing place, they were only allowing one person in the store at a time even though it was pouring.  Does weather-related pneumonia count as a COVID-collateral death?

Two slow cooker weeks later, the appliance guy came back with the part.  Our stove came back to life after more than a month. Five minutes later, Olof was baking garlic rosemary crackers.  

It’s given us perspective. Our worst fear is no longer coronavirus.  It’s our appliances breaking. 


Our daughter-in-law presciently gave us a slow cooker
several Christmases ago.  It saw a LOT of action.

After almost five weeks, Olof's Artisanal Boule Bakery was back in action.

 In a frenzy of newly-functioning-stove baking, he made his first ever 
sourdough English muffins

Garlic rosemary crackers were in progress before
the repair guy even reached his truck

Monday, May 4, 2020

Grocery Shopping In The Time Of Covid

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published May 6, 2020] ©2020

Let me say up front that I am hardly a germaphobe. (One look at my house would convince you.)   But the one thing I’ve never liked touching during flu season – or at all during the current pandemic – is the payment keypad and wand at grocery stores and pharmacies.  At the pharmacy, even if you pay cash, you still have to use the wand to sign that you picked up your meds.  You  can’t help but reflect every time you touch those things that you might as well have shaken hands with the last 100 COVID-carrying or influenza-afflicted people in that line. 

I know there is food delivery but I feel bad for making other people assume my risk. Besides, I’m old so nobody cares if I die except…except…  Anyway, so before leaving for the supermarket, I try to map out my anti-contamination plan like it’s a major offensive. This is not a project for sissies.  

Step 1:  Wash hands before leaving house.

Step 2: Have Lysol and alcohol wipes, latex gloves, trash bag, and mask on passenger seat at the ready.

Step 3:  Before getting out of the car at store, put on latex gloves and mask.  Put cash in pocket if using so don’t have to touch wallet, along with 3 alcohol wipes in a sandwich bag and my debit card in right pocket ready for action. 

Step 4: Get allegedly-sanitized cart from high school kid who seems to just be spritzing liquid Kovid Kill in the general direction of the handle and slapping it a few times with a rag that probably harbors more coronavirus than New York City. His dead eyes say, “I will never complain about school again.” Enter store if no wait.  Otherwise get in socially-distanced line.  

Step 5:  Uh-oh.  Glasses are fogging up!  Worse, nose is starting to run from seasonal allergies from so much rain.  Use sleeve to de-fog glasses as much as possible. Try to snort snot back in nose.  #fail

Step 6:  Hit paper products aisle first.  Empty, but hope springs eternal. 

Step 7: Cell phone rings.  Do not answer it!  Even if it’s the call you’ve been waiting two days for, from the repair guy who you’re hoping you can bribe with serious cash to come fix your broken stove. 

Step 8: But dang!  Really need the stove!  Stick gloved hand into purse and pull out now-contaminated phone.  It’s not the stove guy. You’ve just risked COVID-19 to answer a spam call in Mandarin.

Step 9: Get in socially-distanced line to pay for the 1/3 of the items on your list that they actually had.  Clerk, wondering how he/she managed to end up in the second most dangerous job in America, grabs a wipe and does a harried swipe of keypad. We both know that thing has “respirator” written all over it.

Step 10:  Show time! Focus!  Remove debit card from right pocket and stick in icky nasty keypad machine.  Type in pin number, hit Enter.  Machine says to Remove Card.

Step 11:  Like you’re falling for that? Your gloved hands have just touched the key pad and are now awash in COVID cooties.  

Step 12: Quickly strip off gloves inside out and stuff in left pocket.  Remove alcohol wipes from baggy in right pocket.  Remove and swab debit card, hoping wipes won’t deactivate the magnetic strip because the bank is basically closed until further notice.  Drop card in purse. Quickly wipe now-bare hands with the second wipe then grocery cart handle with third. Stuff both wipes back in baggy and put back in right pocket.

Step 13:  Exit store, throwing away baggies from right pocket and gloves from left pocket trying to touch only the insides of the gloves.  Unload groceries into car trunk and return cart with elbows.

Step 14:  Enter car.  Take Lysol wipes and wipe down steering wheel and gear shift, and alcohol wipes to do hands again. Clean Lysol wipes dispenser with Lysol wipes.

Step 15: Oy gevalt!  You answered your phone in the store!  Put on new gloves, carefully remove phone from interior of purse that is now probably a coronavirus factory and clean with alcohol wipes. Dispose of gloves and wipes in trash bag on passenger seat. 
Step 16:  Wash hands thoroughly again as soon as you get home.  Swab appropriate groceries with Lysol wipes keeping in mind recent news story that Poison Control Centers have had a 20% increase in calls from people poisoning themselves using toxic chemicals to disinfect their groceries.  Wonder at people who would eat lettuce soaked in Chlorox.  #Darwin.
Step 17. Wipe down counters with Lysol wipes and do doorknobs just for good measure.  Have complete paranoid attack of what you’ve touched that you don’t even realize.  

Step 18:  Pour glass of wine even though it is only 11 o’clock in the morning. 

Gloved, masked, Lysoled, Alcohol wiped and ready for grocery shopping
Absent:  Grocery list. They won't have anything I want anyway.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Journal Of the Plague, Er, Covid Month

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published April 29, 2020] ©2020

March 15:
Just when I thought it couldn't get worse, all the public libraries are shutting down tomorrow until further notice.  Fortunately, the La Jolla public library is open for four hours on Sundays. It was like the Luddite Fall of Saigon. My 25-book library queue is in limbo. And seven were already “in transit!”  Fortunately, they were letting people take out up to 40 books each. I grabbed 20.  I've already determined that 10 of them suck.  Going to start reading very very slowly. 

March 22:
The new “dealers” are Walmart or Costco connections.  A friend’s daughter who works at Walmart scored me a 24-roll package of toilet paper. It’s Cottonelle and waaaay better than the prison-quality stuff my market was rationing.

March 23:
My hair stylist texted that they have been shut down. In two weeks, she notes, we’ll know what everyone’s real hair color is.  My husband shrugged, “What does it matter if we have to stay home?” I said: “I want to look nice for the ventilator guy.”

March 24:
As I was filling out the census form that came in the mail, my husband suggested that given current COVID predictions we should maybe hold off a bit.  #superstitious

March 26 :
As hard as it is to get right now, I'm predicting that toilet paper is going to be the new zucchini. People will be leaving it on their neighbors' doorsteps in the dark of night just to get rid of it.

March 27:
Read recommendation that even family members in same household should maintain distance. If my husband and I have to stay six feet apart, one of us will have to sleep on the floor.  #wontbeme

March 30:  
Shelter in place has just been extended to April 30. This is why we needed a woman president. Hillary would never let the nation’s roots grow out.

March 31:
My bread-baking husband assures me that as long as we have bread, we won't have to eat the dog.  (Lily does not like this joke.)

April 1, 2020
All this flip-flopping is making me crazy.  Don’t wear masks!  Wear masks!  Wear gloves in stores!  Don’t wear gloves in stores!  Bring your own recyclable bags when you shop!  You will not be allowed in a store with your own bags!  Get food delivered! Delivery just puts other people at risk in your stead!  It mostly attacks old people! The highest group of patients is middle aged!  Don’t hoard! There will be shortages down the road so stock up! Gaaaah.

April 5:
I ordered a digital thermometer three weeks ago from Amazon but was just notified they will not be able to provide it to me in this lifetime.  Such is people’s desperation that they tend to click on anything that says “In stock – available now!”  That’s how my neighbor accidentally ended up with a meat thermometer and I barely avoided ordering one for ovulation.

April 11:  
I'm genuinely annoyed that Governor Newsom seems to be getting professional haircuts.  If the rest of us have to look like muppets, why not him? 

April 14:  
I want to get one of those tests to see if you’ve already had coronavirus so I could wave that piece of paper at the self-appointed COVID police and say, “Get outta my face, b--tch! I’ve got antibodies!” #coronafantasies

April 16:
The news is so relentlessly awful. People are starting to get mean. Some days I’m ready to tape a DNR to my back and go lick shopping carts.

April 17:
You’ve heard of the “freshman 15?”  I’ve gained the Coronavirus 6.  But that was just in the first month of “sheltering in place.”  I wish my refrigerator could shelter in a different place from me.

April 18:
Crappy news flash of the day:  Air conditioning can spread coronavirus.  Wow, just what everyone in the world wants to hear with summer approaching. Experts suggest “opening windows.” Won’t that let coronavirus IN? 100-degree heat = sweltering in place. #COVIDhumor

April 19:
I’ve cut down my news watching to five depressing minutes a day, all of it a soul-crushing variation of: (1) more people died  (2) more people are going to die  (3) 75% of the population has applied for unemployment benefits (4) we are headed for a worldwide depression that will ruin life for even our grandchildren’s kids (5) your  retirement funds are history (6) your best hope if you’re old is to die soon of something else so you aren’t hogging the respirators, and (7) the coup de grace: it’s an election year. 

April 20:  
As I walk around my neighbor in the late afternoon, I pass moms with their kids trying to have them burn off some energy before bed.  They're often carrying covered coffee cups and stage whisper from their masks, “It’s not coffee.”

April 22: I think my hair outweighs me.

 Re-purposing desperately-needed haircut into all-natural face mask

 Revised schedule for week of March 30

 They wouldn't accept my hair version (above)

New legal tender

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Good Old Days - Part 3

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published April 15, 2020] ©2020

My last two columns have been about the early days of my relationship with my first husband, Fred.  We divorced in 1983, and now that he is ailing (not covid-19), we have found ourselves reconnecting on a more positive plane and reviewing our marriage with a different eye. I’m actually glad to have the opportunity. 

Marriage, I learned long ago, gives you not so much a helpmate as a scapegoat. I actually got my first exposure to this concept before I even married Fred but I was too enamored of his handsome body, quick mind, and potential earning power to pay attention.

During our engagement Fred was living in a medical school dormitory on a sub-subsistence budget and one of the ways he economized was to do all of his laundry – darks, whites, and in-betweens – in one load.  Part of the problem was that even standing on the machine lid, it’s tough to get an entire months’ laundry in one small machine. I lived in my own college dorm some 60 miles away.

“Fred,” I used to say at the time, “there is no room in there for the water.  And the stuff that is sticking out of the top if not going to get clean.”

‘Nonsense,” said Fred, the perennial optimist.  “As soon as the lower stuff gets wet, it’ll sink down, and with a little brute force…” He’d then unhook a dispenser of that nasty green liquid hand soap that was hanging on the wall next to the sink and pour it in. 

Every month, Fred’s wardrobe descended into deeper shades of gray until he heard about an inexpensive laundry nearby where a little old man would run the clothes through the machine for you and even fold them up afterward.  (Fred was never much on folding.)  He decided to try it.

When the little old man dumped out Fred’s clothes on the counter, his face registered disbelief.  “Who does your laundry?”  he asked finally.

Fred didn’t bat an eyelash.  “She does,” he said, pointing to me.

The next day when we went back to pick it up, the little old man shook his head at Fred.  “If you haven’t married this girl yet, I wouldn’t,” he said.  “It took me three washes to get it clean and in the process, all the staples fell out.  Did you know that’s how she mends your clothes?” 

“Staples?” I said in disbelief.

“Fortunately, she has a nice personality,” said Fred.

If there is one universal truth about brides-to-be, it is their ability to ignore all warning signs about a future spouse.  The laundry saga should have been a hint. Ultimately Fred moved from his dorm with a roommate to a tiny apartment that I don’t think was ever cleaned once.

The night before Fred had to be out of that apartment the May that he graduated from medical school, I stopped by and noticed that he hadn’t even started to pack, never mind that there were piles of dirty dishes and pots in the sink –two weeks’ worth at least.  And I said, “Fred, how are you going to be out of here by tomorrow?”  And he told me not to worry.

And sure enough, the next morning, he showed up at my parent’s home in New Jersey with a carload of boxes to store in our very damp airless basement for the summer until our marriage in the fall. The whole summer, every time my father went down to the basement he said, “What’s that funny smell?” And when we get married in September and loaded all his boxes in the station wagon, the terrible odor followed us for three hundred miles up the New York Thruway. 

When we got to our newlywed apartment near the hospital where Fred was doing his internship, I started unpacking the boxes. Inside were all the dirty dishes and pots and pans, still unwashed!  The mold was so thick I was at first unable to even identify the contents, such was the growth of fungi on three-month-old tomato sauce.  I confronted Fred with the evidence. 

“Wow,” said Fred, “You really shouldn’t store stuff in your basement.  Way too humid down there.” 

Probably we married each other for all the wrong reasons.  At the time, I was attracted to Fred for his cool composure under pressure and his assertiveness, not to mention a myriad of other qualities.  He said he was initially attracted to me for my warmth and vulnerability.  Describing those same characteristics when we separated, I called Fred “cold and controlling” and he called me a “neurotic psycho.”  I’ve also heard it said that if people stay married, it is for different reasons than they originally married one another for.  At the time of our divorce, Fred and I agreed that he’d had enough of my vulnerability and I’d had enough of his assertiveness to last a lifetime.

I can't say I didn't have plenty of warning.  The photos below were taken for the 1981 TV show "Hour Magazine" hosted by Gary Collins for a segment called "How to live with a slob."  

 Fred's armoire, 1981

 Fred's closet, 1981

Bottom of Fred's closet, 1981

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Good Old Days - Part 2

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published April 8, 2020] ©2020

 Last week I wrote about meeting my first husband, Fred, when I was in college and he was a student at Albert Einstein Medical School in the Bronx.  After six months or so, he decided to risk introducing me to his parents even though they would be disappointed that I wasn’t the nice Jewish girl of their dreams. 

“Disappointed” may be a little bit of an understatement.  The gist of that meeting, as I recall, was “Are you trying to kill your mother????” 

Even after it was clear that I was there to stay, Fred’s mother only ever referred to me in the third person and without conjunctions, as in:  “Ask the shiksa she wants dessert.”  These in-laws escaped from Russia in the dead of night with the clothes on their backs, enduring incredible hardships in their new land all so that their son the doctor, their phoenix rising out of immigrant ashes, could marry…me?    SO not part of the plan. 

Ironically, with the passage of time (and the raising of two sons), I have tremendous empathy for her position.  Now that I have adult sons, I know I would be devastated if either of them married someone I truly thought was wrong for him, regardless of the reason.  I wish she were alive today so I could tell her. (She’d still probably tell me to drop dead, but I’d feel better saying it.)

When Fred and I divorced after 14 years of marriage, people would tell me that inter-religious marriages don’t work.  I couldn’t disagree more. I absolutely loved learning about Judaism, and Jewish traditions.  I made a Seder (Passover) dinner for 20 every year, learned all the holiday blessings in Hebrew (after our divorce I wrote them out phonetically for Fred), and gave programs on Passover and Hanukkah at my kids’ schools. After ordering a ham sandwich in Albert Einstein’s kosher cafeteria early on, I boned up on kosher law.

The one thing I hold against Judaism is Manischewitz, a ceremonial wine that tastes like prune juice laced with antifreeze.  Four thousand years and this is the best you can do?  I am sure that there used to be a lot better stuff out there in the (much) olden days.

I especially loved Yiddish. You don’t even have to know what it means to know you’ve been insulted. One time Fred and I went with his folks to visit Aunt Rose in the nursing home. When we walked in, the orderly said, “What does ‘schmendrick’ mean?” Our hearts sank. It’s about as complimentary as it sounds.  Maybe less. “It means she likes you,” said Fred’s mother. She could be very diplomatic to persons other than her sons’ wives.

In the years after Fred and I married, we would bring Fred’s parents out for a two week visit every year.  They were not the easiest visitors.  His father, aka Pop, would not change his watch to our time persisting on spending an entire two weeks visit maintaining an eating and sleeping schedule three hours different from ours.  No point in changing it if you’re just going to have to change it back, he maintained. This was not a hostess’ dream.

Pop naturally got up three hours earlier than the rest of the household but kindly made a large pot of coffee for everyone.  Unfortunately it was always much too weak. An easily correctable problem, however.

Inga:  Pop, I know you’re not used to our coffee maker, everyone’s is different and all, but you need to put in more coffee.  It’s a little weak.

Pop: The problem is you’re using the wrong grind. 

Inga: Actually, Pop, this is the right grind for a drip coffee maker. 

Pop: It’s probably this foreign coffee you’re using.  By the way, the Ipso Facto wants out.

Inga:  The dog is a Lhasa Apso, Pop, and you know it.  We like this brand and it works just fine.  You’re just not using enough of it. 

Pop: So maybe it gets weaker by the time you late risers get up.

Inga: It does not get weaker and we get up at seven a.m.   You just need one more scoop of coffee.  You’ll do that? 

Pop: (Glances at watch.)  Looks like it’s getting to be time for lunch.

Inga:  IT IS EIGHT-THIRTY IN THE MORNING AND IT IS NOT TIME FOR LUNCH.  Look, Pop why don’t you just change your watch to our time, get up when we get up, and I’ll make the coffee.  Will you do that?  Just say yes or no.

Pop: I think the problem is your coffee maker’s no good. 


Fred (entering): Is there a problem here?

Pop: I was just telling Inga she’s got some problems with her coffee maker and she got hysterical.  By the way, the Ipso Facto wants in.

Boris, our "Ipso Facto," 1979

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Good Old Days - Part I

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published April 1, 2020] ©2020

In the last year or so, I’ve been able to reconnect on a more positive basis with my first husband, “Fred,” from whom I’ve been divorced since 1983.  He’s been ailing and I’m probably the only one around who remembers his parents, his family home in New Jersey, and certainly his medical school years at Albert Einstein in the Bronx. 

Pleasantville, NY, where I grew up was exactly 22.8 miles from Albert Einstein but the Bronx might as well have been in another galaxy. I met Fred at a college mixer at a not-NYC school. He’d been in the area visiting his physician uncle, his mentor.  It was Yom Kippur 1967 and Fred picked me out as the most Jewish-looking girl in the room. Actually, all the real Jewish girls were home atoning. 

Fred invited me to spend the day in NYC the next weekend and, wanting to impress me on his meager medical student budget, took me to a well-known deli. Let me just say that Pleasantville was not exactly the food capital of the world, having exactly one restaurant, the Pleasantville Diner. The gastronomic delights of New York delis were unknown to me. 

So I could be forgiven for replying to his ordering bagels and lox for us with, “What’s a lock?”  I have never lived down that line. It was Fred’s first clue that I was not Jewish.  But by that time, there I was sitting across from him. 

At first I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to eat fish for breakfast but not wanting to be rude, I ate it when it arrived.  And thus began my 50-year love affair with smoked salmon and its luscious cousin, gravlax, and in fact, fabulous food in general.  If I am to thank Fred for anything, it is for introducing me to the wonders of cheap ethnic foods of all persuasions which New York has in abundance.

I initially held out on Chinese food convinced I didn’t like it after being subjected to a dinner of canned chow mein when our family was quarantined for polio in August of 1955.  When a meal is so awful that you remember it for the rest of your life, you know it was pretty terrible.  But when you’re quarantined, the food options are pretty limited. Even if there had been Instacart, they sure as heck wouldn’t have delivered to us. Public fear of polio was second only to nuclear war.

Fred’s roommate at Einstein was a guy named Richie Wu who would direct him to hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Chinatown that were totally off the grid and would write down in Chinese what to order. So within weeks of discovering the wonders of New York delis, I was now an avid consumer of Chinese food as well. Even chow mein.

But the food that both my ex and I remember above all else were the many Italian restaurants in the Bronx – the veal and pepper sandwiches, clams casino, scungilli fra diavolo.  What’s interesting is that both my ex and I can remember favorite dishes at specific restaurants in the Bronx to this day. Just as horrible meals can be permanent imprints, so can great ones.

My food education was not without a few bumps.  The cafeteria at Einstein was kosher meaning that there were two separate kitchens, sets of dishes, and serving lines depending on whether meat or dairy was being served.  Never were the two served together. So if you wanted a cheeseburger, you were out of luck.  Certain foods – including pork and shellfish – were never served at all.  Kosher law is fascinating and the reasons for its prohibitions were hardly random.  In the Middle East in the centuries before refrigeration, shellfish went bad very quickly in the heat.  Pigs, meanwhile, were thought to be pretty indiscriminate eaters. 

But I didn’t know all that initially and so can be forgiven for going through the cafeteria lunch line at Einstein and ordering a ham sandwich. Turns out what I was pointing to was pastrami. I didn’t know from pastrami.  It was a good thing we were at a medical center because I think at least half of those cafeteria ladies needed to be resuscitated.  Hey, give me a break. It wasn’t like there was Google then where you could look this stuff up. 

What I loved about that area of the Bronx then was that most of the food emporia were little specialty food stores for meat, vegetables, baked goods, and dairy. One night Fred and I decided to have French fries with the steak we’d just purchased, and bought a single potato at the vegetable shop next door.  As the guy behind the counter rang it up, he queried drily, “Having a pahty?”  The humor came at no extra cost.

So this amazing food fest was going (mostly) wonderfully until Fred decided some months later to introduce me to his parents. Stay tuned next week for “Are you trying to kill your mother?”