GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 1: Cafe Poland

Yes, Columbia’s delicious Polish food outlet serves breakfast! As pierogies are the restaurant’s normal lunch and dinner fare, so are crepes (and breakfast hot dogs!) their dawning offerings. George opted for sweet crepes, a blueberry one stimulating him to verbal outbursts; I am a savory diner at day’s opening, and chose spinach/feta and egg/bacon/cheese crepes. Also, audaciously, George drank from my currant juice before I had a sip myself.

We discussed what it might take to cause us to emigrate to Denmark, the deliciousness of Wodehouse novels and BARRY, and future dining options. The service was great, though, upon both being recognized by the owner, we were chided for not appearing on-site more often. She is correct in this judgment: we both give Cafe Poland a 10. (Also, moths flew out of George’s wallet as he picked up the check. He’s now recording whose turn it is on his calendar.)

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 2: Broadway Diner

George did not really give me a choice this time, as he is strangely obsessed with pecan pancakes. Nonetheless, I was happy to visit a restaurant I’ve patronized since it was on the other side of Providence, more frequently in the ’90s–my “Stretch” years, when The Blue Note booked great shows that required culinary reinforcement and discussion afterward. My friend enjoyed his damn pancakes; I got a full order of their “legendary” French toast, the cinnamon tint of which DID justify that adjective. Hoping George would forget it was my turn to buy, I brought Nicole (who also got the damn pancakes), but he actually paid attention to his calendar and forced me to pony up. Our eggs on the side weren’t over-medium–rather, over-uneasy–thus an 8.5-9 rating. Under discussion: George’s minority religion education program (he’s spiritually indefatigable); law enforcement (I’m excited about Geoff Jones’ ascension); “class / club killers,” a school phenomenon identified by our friend Jami Wade that Nicole reminded us about; and the risen-from-the-grave aspect of another restaurant’s employee.

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 3: JJ’s Cafe

(Thin-skinned snowflakes of all political stripes, read no further. Also, with this entry, I am caught up in the documentation George has threatened me that I must do. You really think he’s non-violent?)

This is one of our favorite breakfast haunts from before our tour, and will continue to be. But it is a unique experience. Should I enter the restaurant with a book (I am almost always carrying), the good ol’ regulars seated at the “big table” stop their discussion cold and look me up and down for signs of my preference; George is from Texas so his aura gets him a pass. Also, George and I once met two fond former students at JJ’s, which may have been the first time an Indian and a South Korean ever set foot on the premises (it was a gently tense situation)–we happily take credit for internationally integrating the restaurant. Upon getting seated, I always interpret the conspicuous sign hanging on the far wall–“Keep Calm and Carry”–as referring to my book or newspaper. Our service is warmly stellar, and one of our favorite servers, Sean, is a Hickman grad who, of course, only remembers George.

ANYWAY, though I am known to be intense, edgy, and demanding, I always make it simple: country-fried steak and pepper gravy, two eggs over-medium (and they purt-near always are), hash browns however they arrive, no toast necessary. George, supposedly the gentle, flexible, accepting, laid-back ’60s survivor, demands “EXTRA CRISPY!” bacon or hash browns…or back they go. My adaptability softens his attack, fortunately for the servers.

Discussion: usually we talk state politics just loudly enough to be heard. Also, Bob Dylan’s old “Theme-Time Radio” shows crept into our chat, and I reminded George that he stood my wife and me up last time (he was dodging the prospect of paying for three). At least he didn’t leave any of his personal items at the table as he seemingly dematerialized upon our having licked our plates!

Based on the number of times we’ve broken fast there, we rate it a 10, and enjoy demonstrating we aren’t interested in division–that is, unless unity ISN’T extra crispy!

JJ’s has free Wi-Fi–but no website…

See you next stop!!!

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 4: Cafe Berlin

Cafe Berlin pics

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, we would land at this restaurant, a favorite of both of ours. We’ve both seen it grow from a small concern to a Columbia institution (another reason it’s a great place for us). Today, George enjoyed his huevos rancheros so much I got in a word edgewise; though my favorite is the whole menu (and that tempted me, as Frissell was paying), I settled for the smashing chilaquiles, just to taste the unique salsa they’re slathered with. Thanks to a nice lady minding her own business at the bar until George scared the pee out of her and forced his smartphone into her hand, we have a flattering pic of our stop.

When we were asked twice yesterday by people out of the blue where we were eating next, I began to grow nervous: now that we’re popular, what if George isn’t funny next time?

As we sat down this morning, I remarked that Nicole and I were a little sad due to placing two of our kittens with adopters, which led us both to contemplate our own mortality, which led us to compare recent prostate exams…well, things were going off the rails, comedy-wise. Fortunately, George broke the mood by urgently pointing over my shoulder, causing me to turn around and immediately appear to our fellow diners to be wolfishly ogling one of the servers. Embarrassed, I quickly recraned my neck to look askance at George, only to be told, “Her style is a little…granola, isn’t it?” He can get quite nostalgic for his counterculture youth, you see. When he then begin to brag about fixing a clothes rack in his wife Susie’s closet (neither of us are handy men), I knew we were back on track!

Cafe Berlin

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 5: Perche Creek Cafe

Anyone who knows George knows he is influential. However, few know that he pioneered cargo pants/shorts as traditional (i. e., daily) men’s wear for the chronologically gifted, and when on the way out the door to pick him up I noticed I, too, was showcasing many, many pockets, I chose to deny my slow decay and changed into jeans. Not all influences are positive….

This week, we headed to Midway on a recommendation from a mutual former student, the lovely and peculiar John Grupe. Once inside the cafe, I counted the calendars. Readers of William Least Heat Moon’s “Blue Highways” may remember that Moon argues that the excellence of a blue highway diner can be measured by the number of calendars on its walls. If my deteriorating memory serves, he writes about a seven-calendar cafe; I’ve never seen more than three in one, and that’s the number we counted this morning. Three = powerfully good dining.

George ordered the Perche Skillet Special (eggs sunny side up, hash browns, sausage, sautéed green peppers and a half-order of b&g), though those who imagine Frissell a beacon of economy should note he left his b&g for the garbage-gut (aka me) to “help” with. In the arena of things humans are drawn to as moth to flame, I admit a helplessness before a plate of corned beef, but the C. B. Skillet* set me free (to borrow a phrase from our fellow retired teacher and curmudgeon Michael). Perche Creek Cafe: 10. The pies and pork loin are reputedly their specialty, and we’ll return to gobble those.

Miracle of miracles, the server who rang us out and the cafe’s proprietor both had kids who went to Hickman, and none (!!!) suffered one or the other of us as teachers. They are consequently leading blissful lives.

We headed back down I-70 recounting the sweeping changes we’d seen in our lives, but the sun was coming up, not going down.

Perche Creek

Photo: corned beef skillet, foreground; Perche Creek Skillet, Steve Earle t-shirt, background. Note the corned beef has well-nigh vanished.

*I prefer HASH, but I’ll gladly wolf down SOS-style c. b. fragments!

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP #6: Bleu Market Cafe

If any of you have spent much time around either of us, this installment of our breakfast medications might well seem the most characteristic. Literally before I even got in George’s car, I began nerding out on Columbia’s upcoming Dismal Niche Festival and didn’t stop until we pulled into Bleu‘s parking lot. Along the way, George almost crossed the double yellow line thrice, either because I was so effectively enthralling him with my banter about music from the Sahel that he couldn’t concentrate or because he is a terrifying driver. At any rate, I sold at least one ticket, Matthew!

Upon arriving a few minutes before the restaurant opened, we noted we were both wearing the same color cargo shorts. Once the restaurant opened, the absence of other diners somehow made it difficult for us to choose from among ALL the available seats, and when we finally grabbed a table, I sat next to George rather than across from him (???). Then after I clearly stated what I wanted (eggs Benedict–wait, do I capitalize both words?), Frissell violated one of our few rules and decided to order the same thing, forcing me to order beef hash that was distinctly not corned. He also ordered a side of four pieces of bacon (“very, very, VERY crispy”–I’ve never heard him triple up on it before) and told me I’d be eating two of those. Fine.

We proceeded to revisit “Hickman Tales from The Dark Side” and our respective student teaching experiences, pondered the origins of the phrases “knocked up” and “ass jack” (scroll down to the second definition), cleaned our plates–then, thorns amongst the roses, realized our setting was more posh than that to which we are best fitted. Bleu–note spelling–is the anti-JJ’s, which we should have realized by the presence of avocados on the menu. Something had seemed afoot, and that apparently was it. Posh we not. Excuse me, are not. However, the food was quite good, the service was very, VERY, VERY crispy, and at least we were not brunching (I believe those are illegal in the country of Texas, anyway). Rating? 8 (food 9, plus environment 7, divided by us 2).

We forgot to take a picture. I think we were both a shade fogged over.

See you in two weeks. George is going to Chicago where he is–apparently–going to be engaging in athletic activities with his young relatives. Have you seen this guy move lately?

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP #7: Glenn’s Café (guest starring Adam Sperber)

Glenn's Breakfast

Axiom of the Day: “Never trust dinner at a breakfast place; never trust breakfast at a dinner place.”

This axiom lands with some irony. Originally we had planned to defy the latter clause and head to McLank’s, which, along with some nice recent publicity has received some wildly varying reviews. Since none of the bad reviews were focused on their breakfast menu, we felt there was little risk, plus we could poach us a little of their publicity. (Our biggest concern was the dissonant, euphonia-bereft name). However, since our fond fellow Kewpie Mr. Sperber was in town, we decided to divert to a highly-lauded, time-tested Columbia spot that Adam (born and raised here!) had never heard of. I was surprised and excited to learn that Glenn’s opened at 7 am, because I’d only ever eaten dinner (and enjoyed a couple of tipsy brunches) there, thus the former clause sailed five feet over my head.

Things learned? Adam is Larry Bird’s Peanut Brittle Brother! Adam’s recent knockout karaoke rendition of “Suspicious Minds” evolved into an emo-cum-screamo interpretation due to Sperb’s lack of a Presleyian baritone! Adam is now a choir director bitch! And Adam finally digs Toni Morrison! This is why we occasionally invite him: George’s biggest news was that he was folding laundry later in the afternoon, mine that I am (supposed to be, right now) grading papers. We also mourned fallen comrades.

Also, he was a distraction from the fare, fortunately. I love this place, but–alas, that first axiom. George’s Belgian waffle was fancied up to resemble something more Las Vegas-ian, with an equivalent level of taste. My ham scramble was a touch on the watery side, and the bell peppers…can those be al dente? Adam’s cup ‘o yogurt appeared decent–he did pause his narratives frequently enough to eat it–but, as George noted on my way to drop him back off at his laundry room, “How can you —- up a parfait?”

I provided the adverb; no sooner had it left my lips than he provided, and I agreed with, the score (we’ve known each other awhile): “Profoundly–” “–a 5.” We have no plans to avoid Glenn’s in the future. Every institution has a bad day, and we’ve spent time in many of them.

Our server was delightful, attentive and stylish, and agreed to take our picture. If I look slightly unimpressed, it’s only because I’d just been crop-dusted upon returning from plugging the meter (Adam’s stories are long).

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP #8: Ernie’s Cafe

G & P at Ernie's

This ain’t no discovery. George and I have been coming here forever, together, separately, with our better halves, you name it–and if you haven’t been, you best change that condition. We just hadn’t gotten around to Ernie’s on our tour, and we were needing to recover our street cred after the last two stops. George had his heart set on their celebrated ham when he called me the other night; I had what I think of as “The Number 15”–anyone else add numbered combos to Ernie’s “Big 12”?–a pepper cheese, mushroom, and onion omelet, sausage patties, and hash browns. The place’s menu is beyond inviting.

I can hear you asking, “Did you get them extra extra extra crispy?” Funny you should bring that up. Our server was the dynamic, charming, and very awake Chloe (it was 6:30 am, and I hope I spelled her name correctly), and after Herr Frissell hissed to her his traditional potato expectations, she turned to me, smiled, and asked, “Would you like yours extra extra extra extra crispy, too?” How could I refuse? (Oh–and they WERE.)

Topics: NOMADLAND, the great Houston novelist Attica Locke, the ease of writing a check, our former colleague Sarah Gerling‘s excellence, the music of the Sahara, St. Louis’ crisis, platelet donations, the waning relevance of the Statue of Liberty, attempted but botched surreptitious tape recordings, and the charm of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders (no, we are NOT insane). Speaking of insanity, we also meditated upon absolute freedom and its danger to life and limb.

That doesn’t seem like much, but we were only there for 45 minutes…


GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP #9: Heuer’s Country Store (“postponed”) / JJ’s Diner (back-up)

I should have been prepared for the unusual when my supposedly laid-back old hippie friend changed our embarkation time from 6:30 to 6:15 to 6:00 over the course of four days (what’s the adverb form of “persnickety”?), which resulted in our near-replication of two classic horror scenes.

Since our trip required the traversing of over one mile, I insisted on driving out to wherever Heuer’s is. Ill-advisedly, I also insisted on immediately initiating a meticulous conversation while traveling 63 North in the pitch-dark and looking for Pinnacles Road. Remember Christopher Walken’s scene in ANNIE HALL? If George had been driving, I wouldn’t be alive to be writing this; since I was driving, we only narrowly escaped a Boone Country Traffic Incident text. Then, at 6:15, we arrived at Heuer’s, advertised as opening at 6, but emanating not a dim, mildly pulsating speck of light. We parked and decided to wait, and, for a few seconds, surveyed in silence the scene, which was dominated by an intensely lifeless cottage set just a ways back from the restaurant–intensely lifeless, that is, but for a single burning, lamplit window. George turned to me and stated, simply, “The Bates Motel.”

In record time, we were ensconced at JJ’s, our old stand-by, a place we claim to have once “internationally integrated” when we met our wonderful former students, Michele Sun and Maya Ramachandran, there for lunch. Apparently still rattled from the wee-ooo-WEEE eerieness of…is it Sturgeon out there?…Frissell 1) THOUGHT he was ordering from the senior menu (he’s not THAT old!), and 2) ACTUALLY ordered from the children’s menu! No, I am not kidding! Look at the pancake pic below! (I don’t ever have to think at JJ’s and thus avoid such eccentric displays: #7, over medium, no toast.) Our regular and wonderful former Kewpie server Sean did not even bat an eye. Of course, George was one of his teachers at Hickman, so why would he have?

Topics of banter: Love vs. Doors (those are bands, not emotional states); murder; NOMADLAND (it’s a great book!) and our own good fortune; Attica Locke (she’s a great writer–with a new book!); connubial splitting (in the dining sense); “cancel culture”; “Can human beings change?” (we have taught for a combined 3/4ths a century so they had better damn well be able to); political shenanigans; and the song “Hey Joe” and its misogynistic plot. Oh yes: and the Providence Bowl–George was sporting a vintage PB tee from the year Hickman won state.

A Supreme Love? (That Might Be Sacrilege)

220px-John_Coltrane_-_A_Love_Supreme

My current excellent crop of freshman writers at Stephens College have a new task: make a case for a musician, act, album, song, video, or music film or documentary. It’s essentially a persuasive paper, but I like to avoid the traditional labels, and we’ve been arguing pop merits in class lately, so it fits. Also, our recent Socratic seminar–focusing on Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell–indicated that many of them are too comfortable with “like / dislike” to think deeply about whether a work works. Thursday, I arrived to work an hour early having made myself a challenge: write a rough draft yourself, to the exact specs you’ve given them, quickly enough to print them copies to critique. I’m a big fan of modeling skills you want your students to master; I’m not a professional, but after 35 years of teaching, you’d think I could, um, as they say we can’t, do. When I arrived on campus, I still didn’t know what I would write about, but as I took the sidewalk into Dudley Hall, it occurred to me that Nicole and I have a framed copy of Trane’s A Love Supreme in our living room. Out of tens of thousands of records in the house, why that one? So after getting coffee and brown sugar cinnamon PopTarts, I was off to the races. Here’s what I produced, in 45 minutes (still in its rough form, though I did have time to re-read it before class started):

Phil Overeem

English 107

September 19, 2019

“Making a Case” Rough Draft

The Album on the Wall

Should one enter our house through the front door and turn immediately to her right, she would see, hanging from the front wall of our living room, a framed album cover. In fact, inside that cover is the advertised LP, titled A Love Supreme after its lone 33-minute song, a four-part suite composed by jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and performed by Coltrane’s legendary quartet. The black and white album photo that comprises the album cover is of the saxophonist in profile—significantly, looking very serious. In fact, A Love Supreme is very serious music. Elsewhere in my house are approximately 1,726 other albums; that does not count CDs, 45s, 1.5 TB of digital content, and music performance and documentary DVDs. How is it that, of all that musical tonnage, A Love Supreme is the lone piece honored by a place on one of our house’s walls? If one chanced to listen to it, she would very likely understand.

Jazz, though it is one of the few artistic inventions unique to the United States and known by practitioners and admirers as “black classical music,” does not command the attention of many young listeners. However, A Love Supreme is a great starting point for any curious Gen X or millennial listener. Simply put, the musicians—Coltrane, Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Jimmy Garrison (bass)—would make any list of the greatest performers on each of their instruments since the end of World War II, and likely before. In particular, Coltrane’s driving, searching, intense playing can yank listeners by the lapels into full concentration, and Jones’ stormy playing around (and suggesting of) the beat is one of the most easily identifiable percussion styles in jazz history. A Love Supreme is certainly a peak in each musician’s storied career. In addition, though curious neophytes, after their first sampling of jazz, often wonder whether they have the musical background to “understand” what the musicians are doing, particularly when they are improvising, and particularly in non-vocal jazz, this album only requires the listener to have ears, and to have lived. From the opening meditative sounds—a gong, a questing saxophone phrase, a brief chant of the album title—it is clear that the musicians (and listener) are going on a journey.

What kind of journey? Aside from being an outstanding “first jazz album” for the inquisitive, A Love Supreme stands tall in the annals of general music history as one of the greatest spiritual albums ever made. In his original liner notes for the album, Coltrane explains that the suite is a seeking after, and a paean (or a song of praise) to, God. He does not specify a religious denomination, which is a good thing: the surging emotions (carried by the players’ imaginative exploratory phrases and solos), the extended focus, rising tension, and serene relief represented by the suite’s sections, and the resulting aura of mystery and majesty, should be familiar to anyone who has ever been filled by religious passion and devotion—be she Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or First Nations, to name but a few possibilities. The effectiveness with which the composition and the performance mirrors the path of the seeker can arguably overcome the musical persnicketiness of even the most skeptical of audiences, and, even so, can appeal just as strongly to atheists and agnostics, most of whom are no strangers to the search for enlightenment themselves.

A Love Supreme is an aural experience for jazz initiates and spiritual veterans that carries considerable potential for landing in their personal pantheons, but one more aspect strongly commends it to adventurous ears: among the hundreds of thousands of records released since the dawn of the turntable, when it is absorbed by two or more present in the same space, it can be a profound communal moment—and not just a moment, but conceivably the birth of a ritual. Many fans of A Love Supreme whom I happen to know excitedly tell stories of having listened to it with other people, a situation that has heightened significance in the age of headphones and heatedness. Sitting side by side with friends and family, in a candle-lit room emptied of smartphones and other modern distractions, one can be transported from the grinding monotony of this world—wake, eat, work, eat, sleep, rinse, wash, repeat—into a more complex, absorbing, mysterious, and—paradoxically–real one, one that can bind the group together and promote true inquiry and produce epiphanies.

That kind of transport, that kind of bonding, readers, is why A Love Supreme hangs on our living room wall. Thirty years ago, crushed flat by serial romantic disappointments, I’d vowed to become monk-like, and disavow romantic love. I drove to my friend’s house to inform him of my decision; he wasn’t home, but a young lady who was renting a room in his house was. I introduced myself, and as we were chatting, I looked over her shoulder to my friend’s stereo and stack of records. In the stack, I saw a certain LP. I asked her if she’d mind me putting it on—she hadn’t heard it. We still have that actual copy. We have it on CD and mp3, too.

Besides providing my students a copy, after I’d read the best final drafts from their last assignment, I read it aloud. Instantly, I noted the same ol’ bugaboos: convoluted sentences, unnecessary italics, inconsistent voice–they noted them, too (which was the point: if I struggle and it’s OK, then why not them?). I also tried to be Mr. Clever and, as I repeat too often, “stick the landing” on the final sentence; maybe it worked, but most of my students wanted to know more. However, I used the reading as a lesson on “Killing Your Darlings.” I love writing personal narratives, but I forced myself to abjure the story and just make the goddam case.

One student commented: “I want more of your story, and I don’t like the title! What about A Supreme Love?

Me: “Um, well, er…I’ve been married almost 30 years and my wife inspired the essay–but maybe let’s not go that far!”

Anyway, submitted, still rough, for your approval, too.