Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chimera Interrupted

This morning I took my son to Harvey Uniforms. We both reluctantly strapped ourselves into my car’s front seats for the jaunt to Seekonk, MA—me, because I knew how little this boy-man likes to shop (especially at a uniform supplier’s store); and he, well, because he dreads any event requiring him to try on clothing, his body recoils at the mere glimpse of a clothing store. Thankfully, the process was relatively painless since we were the only customers, and Harvey’s computer system was down—which meant I couldn’t ask any questions about the clothing sizes that I had forgotten my son wore last year, nor did I have to wait around for updated size information to get entered into their system; the clothing would be ordered and shipped to our home address. So there we were, time to spare and hugging the outer edges of Providence’s east side as we plied along our northwest passage home.

“What do you think about stopping in Providence?” I asked the little man. “Walk around downtown, have some lunch?” He had commented on the city’s architecture, and we hadn’t really walked the city together before, not just the two of us, not downtown, not in the now semi-renewed Westminster Mall—New England's first pedestrian mall—where I had shopped with high school friends in the 1970s, taking the local city bus to Kennedy Plaza in Providence, hunting for finds along the Mall before it was abandoned for the Providence Place Mall and suburban strip malls. I wanted to walk him through the Arcade, where I lunched when I interned at the Attorney General’s office on Pine Street during my senior year of college. I wanted to take him up to the top of Westminster Street to see the beauty of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.  I wanted to stroll along the Mall and point out all the historic stone buildings in which I had shopped. Oh, there's the old Tilden Thurber jewelry store, where I only window shopped... And there's the old Woolworth's building, what a great soda fountain it had... Look, there's the former Florscheims, where I bought all my shoes.  But most of all, I wanted to pick up some pungent artisan goat cheese at Farmstead Lunch on Westminster, and I prayed it was still open, hadn't succumbed to these hard times, like many of the shops that had opened within the past few years or so and promptly closed.

“Sure,” was his breezy reply. And so we parked the car on Westminster, near Empire, and drifted west along the street—towards the Cathedral—where it dead ends along with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and neglected brick apartment and office buildings. At the far right entrance doors to the brownstone Romanesque Cathedral a homeless person slept under a Buzz Lightyear fleece blanket, surrounded by brown bags and a torn backpack. All of the front doors were locked, leaving me unable to show my son its striking interior and the magnificent green marble alter.  We shifted back east and continued down Westminster where I identified all my old haunts, and where we were stopped by several street persons looking for our attention and money. "Mom, who are all these people in the street? Why aren't they working?" the little-man asked. I was beginning to wonder what had happened to my literal walk-down-memory-lane-for-goat-cheese excursion.

If my son had been raised in the city, he probably wouldn't have asked about the street people. And even though his suburban upbringing left him a bit sheltered, he had certainly been to enough big cities—Boston, Chicago, New York, Montreal—to take note of this circumstance elsewhere, had packed enough lunches and delivered them to shelters for his school service hours, had had some exposure, so at least I thought, to this darker, harsher side of life. Hadn't we talked about this? (Which made me wonder if he hadn't meant to ask, "What are we doing here; why aren't you working? We really can't afford to shop in these pricey boutiques, can we?") Clearly, these street people weren't just idle tourists; and although I had been informed or, more accurately, hardened, by a few years of social work, I didn't want to distill the matter into a simple answer—drunks, druggies, lazy, mentally ill. Of course I new the answer was more complicated, and had some first-hand knowledge of the real stories behind these vagrants. Only I didn't feel prepared to deliberate socio-economic complexities with the boy-man, at least not at this moment, not while recreating my youthful fancies. But I can't keep my children in a bubble forever, now can I? Couldn't I keep them cocooned just a while longer? It may be a good idea to keep my daughter in a bubble for as long as possible. She doesn't seem to mind.

Then I realized, or so I thought I did, that my son wasn't just asking what these folks were up to, why they were parading along this particular street, he was asking one of the great existential questions of mankind (well wasn't he?!): What are they doing here? What are we doing here? What is this all about? But I didn't want to get all Kierkegaard, and it was too hot and I was too tired, so I said, "Out of work, laid-off maybe."

We continued down Westminster to the Arcade where several businessmen in white shirts sat devouring their lunch. As we climbed the old mall's wide staircase we observed its deserted recesses, and on one of the large glass doors a white paper sign with black type read: "The Arcade is now officially closed." Officially. I wondered what it had been before it was officially closed. Had it been unofficially closed? Had its freeholders forgotten to give this historic gemthe first enclosed mall in the countrya fitting ending, and later rectified this faux pas with pomp and circumstance, parade, balloons, fireworks which they also forgot to officially announce? Was it not evident, conspicuous enough, by its own appearance that it was, indeed, closed? I looked at the unimpressed little man, and growing weary I suggested, "Well, yes, picture this place thriving with shops and restaurants." Through its transparent doors, he looked into the empty space, commented on its Greek revival architecture and the enormous Ionic columns on the exterior of the building. "I used to love having lunch in there," I smiled faintly.

"Interesting, Mom, too bad it's not open anymore," the little man said.Yes, well, I'll take you by the old A.G.s office, too. And, as with all of the other places that had either closed or relocated in this stomping ground of my youth so had the Office of Attorney General; crossed over to the more pristine South Main Street. By this time I had grown officially weary, my memories tainted by the vacant buildings, the confrontation at every corner by jobless, homeless street folks begging for spare change. And while downtown is no ghost townthere are some surviving trendy boutiques along Westminster, mostly high-end, like Clover and Hier Antiques, and a couple of hip restaurants, a crafty type store and  Symposium Books (great prices)juxtaposed by such abject squalor, I wondered what the shop owners thought, felt guilty for considering a purchase, happy my son stopped me at the windows even if my intent was really just to poke around. And then there was that question...

We circled back to the car, but first ducked into Grace Church (where more street folk took refuge from the heat). We dipped our fingers into the enormous marble font, sat in an old wooden pew, meditated a moment, a thankful moment, and then quietly descended its stairs, crossing the street to Farmstead, where I ordered a quarter of a $28.00/pound of creamy French goat cheese—my only indulgence at this pedestrian mall.

As we walked back towards the car I asked, "Shall we head home now? Or have lunch here?"

"How about we have lunch at the Indian place on Hope Street?" the little man grinned. So we drove to his favorite place near Rochambeau—Not Just Snacks—and filled our empty bellies with spicy and aromatic pork tikka masala, chicken biryani, beef kabobs, basmati rice with peas, warm naan, and cold, refreshing mango lassi.

With our Downcity expedition almost forgotten, I prodded my little man to clarify the meaning of his street folk inquiry. "Well, Mom," he explained, "I just wonder why these people are roaming the street, and begging, why aren't we helping them? Why can't they get jobs? Shouldn't we be helping them?"

"We do try to help them," I replied, "We do what we can, we have state programs, job training, welfare, shelters, food pantries. It's a complex issue..." The boy nodded his head in agreement, yes, complex—as complex as the distinct and varied spices in our deliciously pungent Indian food. But as I said, I was hot, and tired, and the little man was full and satisfied, and drifting off somewhere else. Maybe we would have to save politics, social economics, and that philosophical conversation about existentialism for another time. Or could it be that this little man had already figured it out for himself? He sure looked content in his imaginative little bubble of a world. Yes, we would have to save humankind's perplexing matters for another day... Perhaps when his eighth grade uniform is delivered, or when we decide to cut into that goat cheese.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Makin' Whoopie

There's a time for makin' whoopee... 

...And then there's a time for making whoopie! 

Those of you who have read my posts on this blog have probably already figured out that I have a bit of a sweet tooth. And if you haven't been reading, well, here's a hint, right here... WHOOPIE! 

WHOOPIE PIES. Almost, almost better than whoopee. 

Wish I could claim that I made this gorgeous stack of yummies.     

But I didn't.                                                                       
Instead, I found a whoopie pie cake (yes, yes!) made fresh at Steve's Snack bakery in Skowhegan, ME (not far from our Maine camp!). All it took was for my little boy-man to plant a seed while we waited for our sandwiches at the deli, where the monstrous piethe choco-sandwichsat (mirroring all the monstrous subs in the deli). "Wouldn't that be funny if that came home with us?" he asked grinning, pointing at the confection. He was thinking of his 'lil sister of course, all whoop whoop crazy for the pie. And so, why not? Why not surprise her with it when she returns from her fabulous MSC Fine Arts camp.  Why not, indeed—a rather logical step, a discerning denouement to Monday's BK Big Fish. (You remember... that 640 calorie sinker, but I'm not going to even bother searching for the whoopie's nutritional data.)

As a young girl, I used to make this chocolaty, cupcake like pie with my grandmother. Based on a recipe that likely came from Amish country, or Maine. I couldn't wait to spoon out marshmallow in preparation for the filling, so fluffy that one bite would send me floating away with the clouds. We made the chocolate cake from scratch, and grandmother carefully assembled the treat while I licked the spoons with abandon. I haven't made these pies in years, but with this easy cake mix version recipe (click here for recipe), I may give it a whirl. And for the real whoopie novice, you can even bake them in your own whoopie pie pan from Williams-Sonoma!

So... the best news (at least I think so!) for my Cumberland friendsthis Ultimate Whoopie Pie (as it has been so aptly named) is available, along with other Steve's Snacks pastries, at J's Deli on Diamond Hill Road.  So, go. Go now! Yes, Yes! Go get one before they've all taken flight, orbiting northern Rhode Island. These sweet saucers won't be grounded for much longer.

A very happy Lulu.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

America, the Beautiful—O Beautiful for Pilgrim Feet...

Yesterday, one of my Facebook friends posted an entry on his Wall concerning an automated teller machine (ATM) . This would seem like a fairly benign topic, no? The comment, essentially (correct me if I’m wrong, friend), addressed his being asked by an ATM (I love this personification!) if he would prefer service in Spanish. Meaning: the language. His pretty simple entry, which could be construed—I think—in many ways, evolved into a thread of comments ranging from “I agree” to some serious anti-immigration rhetoric. I hopped in on the thread, stating that (not in so many words) in my opinion a multi-cultured environment is infinitely more interesting than white bread; that I wished ATM machines had options for every spoken language in the world; that I wished my Canadian grandparents hadn’t assimilated so quickly into our homogeneous Anglo-American culture. Well, the thread went on with some pleasantries, as well as some vulgarities, which left me wondering: how does one simple comment evoke so many different opinions?

When I checked back in on my FB friend’s Wall this morning (ok, so I was curious to see in which direction the thread had traveled), his entry—and all its tumbling comments—had been deleted (or misplaced, or moved, but to the best of my recollection it was a fairly new entry). I’m not sure where the comments ended, but I wondered if they had gotten too ugly, or—gasp—too serious. I know one thing for certain, my FB friend’s what’s-on-your-mind thought struck many a high and low chord in certain FB users, and revealed just how disparate our feelings are when it comes to our language, our American culture, preserving the same, and immigration reform that—as perceived by some—could threaten the American society we know today.

Immigration is a hot topic right now, with legislation addressing immigration reform snaking through Congress. Many people argue that illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans, but according to Compete America, it may be just the opposite, especially when it comes to immigration and technology. Either way, legislating this issue is critical, as it will play a vital part in shaping our country’s future. I’d like to think that we’ll take as much time as we need to sort it out rationally, justly, humanely.

I think about all those years back (actually, not so many years back, just 150 give or take) when European and Canadian nationals were actively recruited to work in our mills and factories. I think about all of our ancestors, who—for the most part— came to this nascent country from elsewhere, who labored and toiled and lived too hard, and too short lives in an effort to create a better life and country for all. I think of the many reasons why foreign nationals would want to risk their lives to sneak (often under treacherous conditions) into this country, to find some work, to feed their families, to escape persecution, to live without fear of one’s life being cut short by war, or famine, or drug lords, or lack of health care, or a tyrannical government. These illegal immigrants, some of them—I’ll bet the majority of them—are desperate. And while I (conservative-at-heart) don’t believe in a welfare state, I do believe that we, the people of this great country, these United States (which we gruesomely battled to keep United), the most fortunate people in the world (really, take a look around), must think deeply, must slosh through all the muddy waters and topple every stone, dissect our preconceived notions and prejudices, before we decide what to do about illegal immigration.

And some of you, my friends—or your ancestors—may have gotten here by way of legal means, with papers and with open arms (some of your ancestors, because this country was desperate for them), but some of you—some of your ancestors—they traveled paperless, sailed perilous seas in ships the size of a coffin, they dug through dirt and trekked many shoeless miles, they hid in crates or hay or anything that would conceal their terrified bodies across our borders, so that you and your families, may live in this country, land of the free and home of the brave, without fearing for your life, without fearing a deadly Fatwa, for defending your rights, voicing your opinions, speaking your truths—whether those rights and truths may concern an ATM or illegal immigration.

Happy 4th of July!