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CAPE MAY, as many of you may know, is a pretty little town in New Jersey, a state known for its football stadium, its pristine shoreline, and its plenary amusement parks. Also, for its miles of liquor stores and chemical plants, and quaint little establishments where you may purchase most any type of sex toy your heart may desire. Or that any other part of your body may require.
But Cape May is a pretty little town, really, with its beautiful beach, and its gingerbread houses, and its fine restaurants. And, the classy, oak-paneled bar located at the venerable Congress Hall Hotel just a few blocks from the beach. That's where my wife and I went to have a quick drink before dinner during one of our weekend getaways.
I am not sure how we selected the restaurant, but I do recall that the fare would cost us more than we could possibly afford and that there were five courses of it to be served. This seemed sufficient qualification at the time. But first we decided to indulge ourselves with a harmless, pre-dinner libation.
We entered the hotel at precisely five p.m. one afternoon. Once there, we made our way down a long hallway lined with a variety of stylish shops, to an elegant, u-shaped hardwood bar. Behind the bar was a good-looking bartender in a white shirt and bow tie. Sitting on stools at the left end of the bar were four, 40-or-so-year-old women.
They were drinking. And, they were hysterical laughing. And they became more hysterical as we approached the bar. It was clear that they were trying to communicate something to each other, but for the life of me, I was unable to divine just what. To them, it didn't really seem to make a difference, but whatever it was, it was highly amusing.
That they were the only patrons in the bar besides my wife and I served to further rivet my attention. I continued to stare at them as I sat on a stool at the center of the bar. The bartender approached.
"What are they drinking?" I asked.
"Martinis!" the barkeep cheerfully replied.
"Let's have martinis, then!" I replied just as buoyantly, not bothering to ask my wife's opinion on the matter. To be fair, this is usually unnecessary, as Andrea routinely accepts my scholarly judgment in such affairs.
Soon, a black slate tablet was presented to me with the 'martinis of the day' listed one after the other upon it in chalk. And there were quite a few of them, too, undoubtedly with exotic names I cannot remember, and each almost certainly containing a secret mixture of liquors and whiskeys now prohibited in seventeen states. So, we ordered martinis, and all I noticed about the drinks at the time was that hers was a muddy brown and mine was a turquoise blue.
As our drinks were served, I heard a thud, followed by a high-pitched squeal, followed by a peal of wild laughter. I turned my head and saw that one of the four women to our left had fallen off of her bar stool. Under the circumstances, it was hard to imagine that this had not been anticipated as the natural result of her current endeavors.
One of her drinking buddies sweetly reached down to assist her. But she reached too far, and slid from her stool as if it were coated with duck fat and was unceremoniously introduced to the floor where she joined her companion.
A third woman threw her head back in hysterics at the spectacle, but did so in such a violent manner that she began to teeter backwards on her chair, ultimately grabbing the long hair of the fourth woman to avoid toppling over.
I imagined that would be quite painful, but I didn't have to wait long for confirmation as the woman's stinging screams of agonized hilarity left little to the imagination. She resisted the tugging, of course, and quite enthusiastically, grabbing her own hair with both of her hands in an effort to regain full possession of something she obviously did not wish to part with just yet. But, as she exerted a grand final heave, her teetering companion released her hair, and that result was predictable, too: one was permitted to conclude her teeter, and the other was thrown backward, her skull making a dull thump against the bar.
I motioned to the bartender.
"I was expecting a jazz guitarist," I offered. "But this is fine."
He smiled knowingly. I gulped my blue martini. He watched me drink, closed his eyes, pursed his lips, and nodded his head. I didn't know what the hotel was paying this guy, but it was clear that his working conditions were quite good.
We finished our drinks and we left.
We had one drink each; did I mention that?
We backtracked our way down the hall and walked by the shops we had passed on our way in. But two things bothered me. It was something about the way the bartender had looked at me. And, it was something about that drink he had served me, but I couldn't quite figure out what it was.
Then, something hanging in a window of one of the little boutiques caught my wife's eye. With an uncharacteristic screech of delight, she propelled herself into the store. I propelled myself after her and this was strange, as well.
Neither Andrea nor I are shoppers. I think we're both uncomfortable with the activity and conduct it only when necessary. Then, we seek to get it over as quickly as possible.
And when I have to go shopping, I don't wish my wife to accompany me. I don't want to feel like a little kid being dragged around a store by his mother. I don't want my dear bride to tell me to try things on, or to turn this way or that way, or comment on how I look. I really don't want to hear my love say, "You're going to buy that." This is a sentence she sometimes employs with a period and at other times with a question mark, but both uses indicate that it is she who will be deciding what I'll be purchasing.
And I will certainly not escort my wife into a woman's clothing store, mainly because I don't know what do to with myself once I get there. I prefer to stand outside, let my wife peruse the current offerings of the establishment and merely advise me whether my money will be required.
But that day, I not only found my wife in such a store – actually enjoying herself – but I found myself there as well, gleefully searching the racks, suggesting how hot she might look in this or in that. I was quite vocal about my opinions as I remember, and I also recall not caring what anyone might think of my remarks, which is not as unusual as you may think.
For her part, Andrea appeared delighted by my comments. Her giggling seemed to replay itself as if it were on some kind of continuous loop.
All of a sudden, I realized I'd seized a dress on a rack to maintain my stability. I really didn't think anything of it, at first: meaning that I noted the event without giving it much consideration.
As I walked out of the store, I lost my balance and careened with some force into the entrance door and I noted this, too. The zigzags I proceeded to make down the hallway were also quite discernible.
Andrea thought all this quite hysterical and I agreed, even if we weren't quite sure at the time what all this was, exactly.
But, making a long story short, we soon arrived at the restaurant – it was only two blocks away – and a distance we were able to traverse in a mere three-quarters of an hour. I only remember that there was something really hilarious about those two blocks.
We sat down at an elegant table, in this truly beautiful place, with our oh-so-proper waiter, who described the unbelievably sumptuous fare we would delight in that evening.
Which we found oh-so-friggin'-funny.
How else can I put it? He announced the specials and we laughed our asses off.
As you may imagine, this was not the response our server had anticipated and it was far from well received. He left in a huff. He soon returned with our salad, and then our appetizers, practically flinging them in front of us and departing in a second and third huff. Clearly, there would be no pleasant banter with our waiter this evening.
We subsequently consumed our first and second courses, which was more food than either of us could tolerate. Then I discovered the room was spinning around me.
I described my state of mind and body to my wife. I didn't really need to, as I had ordered a martini for her as well, and by now she was completely familiar with this state. In short, we were inebriated.
I told her that I "needed to take a walk." This is code in my household and a phrase that is seldom employed. It means, I'm going to take a walk around the block and try to clear my head in the hope I can get through this meal.
I returned after my four-block walk, my head no clearer, and the entire restaurant in the same revolving state it had been when I left it.
The waiter returned with our third course: two pork chops so huge that the end of each chop hung over the side of our plates by two inches. We stared, knowing that at least two animals had to die to make this presentation. We also knew that if we proceeded to dine, other casualties would follow quite naturally.
Put another way, we were not going to survive this. The strange sounds coming from our stomachs were clearly audible – to her, to me, and to many of our fellow diners, I'm sure – and the continual movement of the room that by now had affected us both did nothing to improve matters. We asked for the check, inexplicably requested that the chops be doggie-bagged, and made our exit from the restaurant. We stumbled the block back to our hotel room.
My wife's final contribution to the affair was projectile vomiting. I was thankful that she spared me the singular experience of witnessing the spectacle, but this was only because she had the presence of mind to close the bathroom door. However, rest assured that when you hear noises resembling the soundtrack of Texas Chainsaw Massacre beyond such a partition, you can safely assume that nothing whatever to do with glee or glad tidings are transpiring within.
"I'm such a skank," she said with some embarrassment when she emerged.
I considered this for a moment.
Yes. From where I was sitting, she certainly did take on all the appearance of being a skank.
My last contribution to Cape May was to bequeath our leftover pork chops to the hotel we were staying in, leaving them in our room's mini-refrigerator, mainly because they looked no more appealing in the morning than they had the night before.
For all I know, they're still there.
It wasn't until sometime after our vacation that I finally understood what had happened to us. This revelation came to me as I admired our collection of crystal vases, glassware and keepsakes which are stored in a hutch in our dining room. Among these items are martini glasses in two sizes.
Now this was interesting. I peered closer for an inspection. Six elegant crystal glasses comprised the first set, each glass capable of containing only three or four ounces of liquid.
The glasses in the second set were larger – more of the partying kind – and each glass could probably hold six ounces.
I then remembered what had struck me about the drinks at the Congress: it was the martini glasses they used, which were much larger than those partying kind of glasses I had at home.
And then I remembered what a martini is. Traditionally made with gin and vermouth, these days the name is used to describe a variety of drinks that have common characteristics. They may be shaken or stirred with ice, but they are not otherwise diluted by water or soda or anything else. One way or the other, when you order a martini you are ordering pure alcohol and a dizzying combination of spirits to boot.
There were still other facts to consider. One ounce of alcohol is usually considered to be one drink. It logically followed that eight ounces of liquor – or one Congress Hall martini – was the equivalent of eight drinks, an amount that had already been proven sufficient to cause patrons to topple from their bar stools.
I'm not quite sure why so many of my tales seem to concern inebriation. It probably has something to do with the fact that alcohol is so readily available. That, and because getting drunk can be so much fun.
At least, for the first ten minutes.CHAPTER 2
Date Nut Bread
IT WAS MY WIFE, I suppose, who started it all, when she brought home this brown, sticky, brain-sized food item, removed it from its plastic enclosure and proudly displayed it, inquiring mischievously, "Does this bring back memories?"
I suppose I should explain.
I don't know how old you have to be to know about date nut bread, whether it is a dim relic of your recorded past, or whether you merely have to be into organic foods, or be a carbohydrate addict, or hopelessly overweight, or a hippy or a Zen Buddhist. Hell, I don't know who's supposed to eat date nut bread or how anyone gets to eat it in the first place. I can only tell you that it is a memorable food item for me and one that brings back anything but happy memories.
You see, date nut bread is a food product anomaly. It is not cake and not bread. It's not even like a cinnamon bun or a coffee cake or a carrot cake or anything like that; it's in its own unique category. First, it is probably the only "bread" that once came out of cans. OK, we're going back a few years – to the early seventies, perhaps – but for all I know you might still see a can buried away somewhere, on a forgotten shelf in the A & P where some of the original tins from that ancient time period can no doubt still be found.
Oops. There is no more A & P, is there? No matter. Some of those cans have undoubtedly outlasted the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company itself and will be discovered underneath its ruins sometime in the summer of 2089. With the expiration date still years away.
Even those uninitiated will be able to discern that date nut bread contains dates and nuts. However, also scattered throughout its tempting slices are tiny multi-colored cubes composed of a gel-like substance. I didn't know what these things were made of in 1970 and my understanding has not improved since then. But I can tell you if your date nut bread does not contain these things then you are eating a poor imitation of the classic treat. Also, that none of the ingredients can be found in nature or will be listed on any periodic table.
I've already told you that it's brown and sticky. It's also quite nutmegy, and a thin slice of it will weigh more than anything you manage to stick in your pockets that day, even if you're a rock collector.
So, as I was saying, in 1970 date nut bread came in cans, and removing this tempting delight from its can was a treat all by itself. First, you couldn't just open the can from one end to remove the product because that would accomplish exactly nothing. The date nut bread would simply sit in the can – content and quite comfortable – and do absolutely nothing on its own to leave. After all, it had probably been there for decades, had made a nice home for itself, and was in no mood to be cruelly evicted by the likes of you or me.
Similarly, little would be accomplished by opening the can from the other end. Date nut bread is very similar to a spoiled child; it will not do anything unless you do it for it. So, if you actually wished to eat any, you would have to open the can from both ends and push this mass from one end out of the other. And when you did, the date nut bread would protest with a noise that almost sounded like a human groan. It was positively terrifying if you weren't expecting it.
Notwithstanding, I've come to believe that nothing that makes a sound like that can produce any beneficial effect upon the human gastrointestinal system.
What you would be left with would be a cylinder shaped, purportedly edible object that would contain grooves around it left over from the form of the can that contained it. If you touched it, it would stick to your hands, much like flypaper, and was nearly impossible to negotiate.
But Mom found a way.
I suppose that in a mother's mind date bread and cream cheese just go together, and this was a truism that was never questioned in my household. It was also universally accepted that this combination of food substances was a perfect substitute for the nutritious, tasty lunch that would typically be served to any vulnerable, tender and growing child on any given day.
Let me reiterate that even in those days few people had ever seen date nut bread. They had never seen anyone sell it, never seen an advertisement where date nut bread was on sale, and certainly never seen anyone eat any with cream cheese smeared all over it. In fact, no one had even heard anyone use the phrase "date nut bread" in a complete sentence. And no one – I mean NO ONE – would serve it to their child for lunch.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "More Snapshots? From My Uneventful Life"
Copyright © 2017 David I. Aboulafia.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Cape Sway 5
2 Date Nut Bread 12
3 The Test 18
4 NOT so Merry-Land 22
5 Just a Guy 39
6 Death By Whatever 42
7 The Ring 69
8 Max 74
9 Scared Straight 81
10 To Sleep, Perchance to SCREAM 88
11 After the First Breath… 99
12 Scrooged! 102
13 Who wants to be a Billionaire? 112