An unceremonious arrival… Destination derailed for family’s sake… The Jew and the Protestant walk into a barn… Halva, Chai, and Salmon… Maker’s Mark and gin after midnight
Day One: Sunday, February 17
After an ungodly early morning drive to Louisville, a bumpy descent into Newark and lost baggage at the claim, Bluegrass Barfly has finally made it—to New Jersey?
My very best friend from Columbia and the Dr. Gonzo to my Raoul Duke, the illustrious and disreputable Max Cooper, was waiting for me on the Transbridge bus. A very heartfelt reunion ensued in the center aisle—much cheek squeezing, back slapping, shouting, a few tears, &c.—while the boarding passengers, blocked behind me for a minute or two, tapped their feet in that impatient sort of way that only commuters from New Jersey have truly mastered.
After a few minutes of frantic catching up, Max couldn’t help but bring up the elephant in the room (that is, bus). “So you’ve got quite a list of places to hit up,” he said, a smirk on his ugly mug and sarcasm dripping from its porcelain lip.
“Oh yes,” I said, oblivious to, or perhaps just stubbornly unconcerned with, the quixotic nature of the task ahead—visiting roughly fifty bars in ten days. “I’ve got quite the itinerary.”
“Well, that’s the thing. Doesn’t an itinerary usually have dates? And times?”
I ignored his impudent query. “Yes, it’s quite the itinerary. And I’ve got to see them all. Or die trying, that is.”
(For the record: I do, in fact, have an itinerary with dates. As far as times? Well, let’s just say it’s a good thing that New York is the city that never sleeps.)
As the bus rolled on, we were borne back ceaselessly into the past—we were en route to Frenchtown, Max’s hometown on the Delaware, the site of innumerable weekend excursions from the city and the scene of many edifying late-night Chautauquas with friends from school. In Frenchtown were Max’s mother, Ruthie, and Judd, her boyfriend, Max’s father, Warren, and his wife Bonnie. They all were a northern family to me when, so far from my own in the Bluegrass, I would grow homesick from time to time. I couldn’t think of a better place to spend my first night in New York than in New Jersey.
The bus driver, having bid us good riddance at the parking lot of the Country Griddle in Clinton, NJ, (if you’re ever in Clinton, you absolutely must not visit the Country Griddle) promptly sped off to points west. We traded places in the car with Judd, who was flying down to North Carolina that afternoon—I suppose to keep the karmic balance calibrated across the Mason Dixon line, seeing as how I had just arrived from the South.
We rattled along a gravel driveway off of County Road 513 to the weathered grey-wood barn, raised by the Amish, where Max’s mother, Ruthie, was waiting with much food and affection—far too much food for two young men, even two as voracious as ourselves. The overabundance of food is perhaps a Jewish mother’s purest expression of love. And so Max had brought me home.
Later that evening, after having fed and gotten forty winks, we had an appointment to meet with the mayor of Frenchtown—important business, no doubt. In the dark and dreadful cold, we drove down to the little village of 1,800 that makes Danville feel enormous, knocked on the mayor’s door on Third Street, and were greeted by none other than His Honor Warren Cooper. Bonnie, who I suppose could be styled the First Lady of Frenchtown (although she would balk at such a brazen title), offered tea, chai, which I gratefully clasped with both hands. We sat down among new friends from the nearby ongoing yoga conference and ate halva, all sesame paste and sweetness.
“Halva. That’s one of Max’s favorites,” winked Warren.
“Ah, yes,” said Max. “Reminiscent of sugar—and sand.” He took a bite. “And let’s not forget the subtle taste of chalk,” he added.
“I like it,” I said, and meant it.
After returning home to the barn, it was after midnight, and Max’s stomach was growling. “It was making all kinds of grotesque noises there on the couch. And I couldn’t eat that halva,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I couldn’t hear a thing,” I assured him, “and I was sitting closest to you. Of course, that may be because I was blabbing half the damn time.” The yoga students had regrettably gotten me started on the subject of Alaska and salmon, and I had submitted to half an hour of genuinely curious interrogation*.
We revived the pork chops congealing on the stove and made our plates, scrounging together some of this and that, and Max said, while pulling out a deck of cards, “Why don’t you put your bartending skills to good use and make some drinks?”
So I made a couple of Manhattans and we sipped them, playing gin at the kitchen table until we grew too tired to deal another hand.