Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Prayers for Etta James

Etta James, the blastingly hot and juicy soul singer who has inspired so many performers, is terminally ill and hanging on to life by a thread this holiday season.

“I am Southern and Christian and would just ask for the prayers of her fans and friends,” her family doctor, Elaine James (no relation), told The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. “They know she’s been sick, but not how sick.”

As I write this post, I'm listening to Etta James sing "Something's Got A Hold On Me" in a televised performance from 1962.

Wow. What a voice. What a soul. She owns that song, taking it places it didn't know it could go, growling and shouting when she wasn't delivering a deep melody line in pure low tones.

And look at her face, that round, joyful l'il face peeking out from behind her beehive hairdo and thick dark eyeliner (hello, Amy Winehouse). It's the sweet and hopeful face of a sure-footed girl. The girl who gave us "I'd Rather Go Blind," "At Last," "All I Could Do I Cry," "A Sunday Kind of Love," and the list goes on.

After a life of tough times and beautiful music, Etta James, now 73, is suffering from chronic leukemia and it's not looking good for her. Despite her love troubles, drug addiction and legal problems, she gave us so much during the course of a long career. I hope she knows how much we loved her. I know I did. I'm glad she lived to see her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Peace and prayers and many thanks to Etta James.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Uh Oh—Christopher Hitchens Is Dead

Christopher Hitchens is dead. Now who's going to tell women they're not funny?

Hitchens died of complications from esophageal cancer at the age of 62, reported Gawker,  calling him a "Clinton-loathing, religion-mocking, Kurd-loving, war-mongering, ball-waxing British drunk who contained multitudes and seemed to be insulting you somehow even when you agreed with him."

Christopher Hitchens, smoking, as he led his life, down to the nub. (Photo: jeffsingerphotography.com)
And then there were the times you didn't agree with him, or at least thought you didn't agree with him, until you started to read his clever prose and started to get swayed by his sinuous writerly logic, the jerk.

Remember when Hitchens wrote this "provocation" in the pages of Vanity Fair?:

Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about. All right—try it the other way (as the bishop said to the barmaid). Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life.

In writing this, I just went back to that Vanity Fair article, and I dreaded having to re-read it because I remember how viscerally annoyed I got the first time I read the piece. To my surprise, Hitchens' elegantly argued thesis actually started to convince me...and then I got to thinking, "Wait, is he right? Are women not funny? Maybe he's got a point." How maddening!

Then again, Christopher Hitchens was a genius of the abrupt statement that makes people laugh in spite of themselves. For example, he managed to find a way to criticize Mother Teresa, claiming that she was more interested in glorifying God than in helping the poor.

Daily Hitchens, which bills itself as an unofficial Christopher Hitchens site,  notes that the author's memoir, "Mortality," will be published early next year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

House of Pleasures: Boredom in a Bordello

In "House of Pleasures," Iliana Zabeth plays Pauline, a 16-year-old prostitute who manages to escape the fate of most girls in the Apollonide bordello. Watch a movie trailer at Sundance Now. (Photo: www.allmovie.com)

I just caught "House of Pleasures" at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, a gorgeously produced period film that takes place at the turn of the last century. It depicts the end of the era when European bordellos offered Champagne and luxuriously legal sin behind closed doors for rich men who could afford the price of entry. And I mean "entry" quite literally, because these men had access to every nook and cranny of the female flesh on offer.

French director Bertrand Bonello sets his film in Paris, and with the exception of one sunny scene on a river bank, the entire story takes place within the richly sumptuous yet sometimes claustrophobic rooms of a brothel called the Apollonide, a classic bordello where a whore could feel like an elegant courtesan if she didn't think too much about the risk of disease, her growing indebtedness to the madam or her inability to leave the house unless accompanied by a customer or one of the other girls.

Still, "House of Pleasures" creates a lush ambiance of indolence and excess. Grateful old men explore their sexual fantasies with beautiful girls they can worship without ever having to marry. The girls, in turn, accept the men's money, which allows them to lie around the house all day taking baths, smoking opium and stroking a black panther who enjoys lounging in the salon. It all looks great, but life for the girls of the Apollonide looks to be a crashing bore because they can't do anything or go anywhere--even Champagne, marvelous though it is, can and does go flat.

No one woman features as the star of the show--and Bonello said he was more interested in the idea of putting together a group than focusing on a single face--though some characters are standouts: the madam (Noemie Lvovsky) who feels sympathy toward her girls but doesn't let affection get in the way of business; Madeleine (Alice Barnole), a fin de siècle Jewess who pays dearly for attracting the wrong kind of man; and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a level-headed 16-year-old girl whose curiosity brings her to the bordello before coming to a logical end.

As a modern woman, I had mixed feelings about the film. It was never clear that the women in the house had any agency, to use a modern term, in choosing their men or their pleasures. Was Bonello just showing the reality of life in a bordello, or ultimately punishing these women for working as courtesans? They weren't, after all, prostitutes turning tricks on a street corner; they were a select group with a repeat clientele of open admirers.

At one point in "House of Pleasures," one of the girls advises newcomer Pauline not to get carried away and enjoy the sex too much. When Pauline asks why not, the girl gives a muddled answer, saying that it's just not done. Well, why the hell not?, I wondered, too, leaving the IFC Center with a frustrated sense of incompletion and gratitude that my Champagne days are few enough to savor.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Table for One

I recently ate lunch at a fine French bistro in midtown Manhattan, at a table for one. Having just left my doctor’s office with a clean bill of health, I figured there was no better way to celebrate than with a cheese-rich meal accompanied by a glass of burgundy. 

Illustration by Raj Martino, www.rajcreations.com
This was an impromptu celebration—planned only when I realized that my doctor’s office is just around the corner from Artisanal, a popular bistro that I’ve always wanted to visit. I was hungry, the menu was enticing and I didn’t need a reservation because it was the noon hour when tables aren’t in great demand.

Only one issue, if you want to call it that, remained: No one would be joining me for lunch. I would be alone, eating by myself in one of New York’s nicer restaurants. In his book Heat, which details his life as a kitchen slave at Babbo restaurant in New York, Bill Buford writes that people who dine alone at the bar are referred to by staff as “bar losers.” Would sitting at a table for one make me a loser, too?

I’m married, but I’ve been known to enjoy a solo martini in a crowded bar, and I will certainly go to movies on a date with myself and hold my own hand. That’s not all that unusual in New York, a city where 32% of all households are made up of single individuals

Still, it’s one thing to walk into a neighborhood diner for a sandwich and another thing entirely to be escorted by a maître d’ to a well-appointed table for two in a nice restaurant and watch as a member of the wait staff discreetly whisks away any trace of china and cutlery from the place opposite you. I used to find this moment extremely embarrassing, but now that I’ve eaten alone just for the fun of it at a few of New York’s best restaurants, I’ve learned, as we say in yoga class, to breathe into the position and enjoy the whisking theatrics as part of the experience.

Lunchtime theater

At Artisanal, I play my part in the performance of being served. Alone, I’m better able to observe the rituals and engage in a dialogue with my server, a bespectacled young woman with the look of a recent college grad. In her smart black tie and vest, tailored shirt and long white apron, she opines judiciously on which glass of burgundy would best pair with my English cheddar grilled-cheese sandwich half, dreamily gooey French onion soup and mesclun salad.

“The full body of a Nuits Saint Georges would match the strong flavors of the cheddar,” she says as we study the wine list together.

“That sounds nice, but you don’t think it might be a bit heavy?” I murmur tentatively.

“Why don’t I give you a sample,” my server suggests, briefly disappearing into the bistro’s din and returning with a bottle.

She splashes a sample into my glass, I taste it, and it is good. Now, glass in hand, my order in, I can just let it all wash over me.

Transient thrills

I hope I never get over the thrill of enjoying a beautifully served meal in a thoughtfully managed dining establishment designed for my pleasure. Designed for our pleasure, all these happy people sat buzzing around me, sharing this happily transient moment before moving back into the realities of the day.

“We went to Atlantic City for the bachelorette party and we lost her,” says the woman at the table next to me to her lunch companion. “We thought she was gambling, but it turned out she had run off with two guys.”

“That sounds pretty crazy,” he answers desultorily as he reads the menu.

“I mean, it’s the last free night of her life and blah, blah, blah. Obviously, we’d all had a few drinks, but running off and leaving her own party? Really?”

Across the table, the woman’s companion still has not lifted his eyes from the menu, and I can’t tell if he finds the lunch specials completely riveting or if he’s trying to discourage her from talking.

Bacon and the Buddha

It can be such a treat to hear a scrap of somebody else’s chatter without feeling obliged to show interest in what’s being said. Talk takes away a quiet appreciation of the five senses, and there is plenty to appreciate at Artisanal: the taste of onions infusing hot broth, the visual appeal of stretching and twirling melted cheese with a spoon, the savory scent of smoked bacon, the crunch of a well-turned crust of grilled bread, the smooth lusciousness of cheesecake for dessert.

Don’t get me wrong. I do know how to eat in a group. Just a couple of weeks ago I invited our next-door neighbors to dine with us on the spur of the moment because a big, fresh free-range chicken had arrived in our CSA box and I wanted to share it.

Still, I spent years living in New York and not going to its better restaurants because I couldn’t afford them or because my friends and family didn’t share my enthusiasm. Now I’m a grown woman, so I go, and if no one wants to join me, I go alone. Why? Because I’m not perpetually broke anymore and, quite simply, because I can.

“As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life,” says the Buddha.

I have learned on my travels through New York that the city’s temples of fine dining are open to all who can afford the price of entry, and they will welcome me with open arms whether I’m in a group or at a table for one. And eating alone is a wonderful way to be where I am.

Check out my latest restaurant review for New York Press: Passing the Bar: Trix