Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Slightly Embarrassing Lament

It's burritos and khao man gai. If I'm being honest, that's why I live in a city. I could say it's for the ballet,  or good public libraries, progressive local politics, dance clubs, or bike trails, but, no. I live in a city because it's easier to get dumplings here. I live in a city because pizza means artisan crust and fresh basil and good cheese -- good cheese -- not whatever that is at the chains. I live in a city for lemoncello and seasonal figs and pine nuts and varietal garlic. I live where other people, for a price, will make me duck for dinner or bake salted rosemary bread for me.

There we are. That's the truth.

Years ago I made my own list of what makes a city great: independent bookstores, Vietnamese sandwiches, live music, a film festival that requires multiple venues, etc. In the straightened circumstances of our present confinement, the ease with which I have relinquished so much of this, even temporarily, has been startling. Turns out, I'm a lot easier to please than I ever thought. Setting aside the real tragedies and anxieties of the pandemic for the moment, and my resulting unemployment, I am a little taken aback that the worst of it in my own selfish little world is really going without Mexican food. Making this confession, I am appropriately ashamed.

It's properly Spring now, which means the tulips are up in my neighborhood. There will be lilac again. The air is bright and still cool. I am lucky in this and much else, and luckier by far to have fewer worries, financial and otherwise than many of my coworkers and friends. I married into the lower middle class. I will neither starve nor fail to make the rent. We are healthy, or at least no worse off than we were already. Haven't lost anyone we knew to this horror.

Why then admit to such petty regrets? I will not perish, nor even suffer for want of falafel. And it is true that should I be desperate enough to try to cook my own kung pao chicken or bake a loaf of sourdough, I am not without the means. I can cook. I do. (Baking, being a science rather than an art, I leave to the beloved, and very patient husband, A.) But my point is that I choose to live in a reasonably-sized and reasonably diverse city, it seems, primarily because I do not wish to learn how to make perfect eggs Benedict or use berbere or five spice or roast a whole fish.

A young friend online recently made the bold declaration that he will NOT bake bread. It was shocking, but I understand. I do. I can only admire all the friends who are now posting mouth-watering photographs of the biscuits they've made, and the risotto on which they expended their flagging energies last night. Just as I admire the discipline of the friend who is taking this time to finally learn Finnish, so too do I admit to a certain awe when someone says they are going to make their own ghee. Can't imagine. Thanks to the connected world, nearly all things would seem to be possible now other than managing the health crisis in the United States, adequately supporting our front-line workers, keeping the ignorant off the beaches, or the fanatical morons out of their megachurches or away from Baskin & Robbins. But, like my young friend, I do not want to bake my own bread.

If I wanted to be more self-reliant and live up to the somewhat troubled legacy of my pioneer stock, I might have stayed where I was born and learned to change the oil in my car, and how to shoot and clean my own proteins. That has never been my way. Call me a decadent, but all I ever really wanted from this life was love, a good book, and access to really good samosas that come to my table hot, hopefully handed to my place by a handsome waiter.

We have tried, in a small way, to offer support to our devastated friends in food service by occasionally ordering delivery in. Watching my pennies a bit more closely now, but still. It's important if we want any of these glories of urban existence to still be there when this nightmare is over. But I miss sitting down on an awkward wooden bench to my tacos de lengua freshly made and served on a slightly sticky table, under a garish mural of anatomically impossible ladies in off-the-shoulder peasant blouses, with blaring Tejano rattling my bones while I eat.

I live in a city so that my Swimming Rama comes to me with a side of loud polyglot conversation from the open kitchen, conversation that switches dizzyingly from Thai to Spanish to English and 'round again. I live in a city so that I might stand in the line at Bakery Nouveau to buy the last twice-baked Chocolate croissant before someone else can, and to eat my box lunch under the cherry blossom and watch athletic boys of every size and nation walk lazily by me in summer shorts.

I would love to see a play again, or go to the movies properly, or browse the shelves in a real bookstore. I'd like to hug my boss, of all things, and kiss a beloved customer on the cheek as I once could because she's bought a copy of Henry James' The Ambassadors, or blush when she asks me to sign a copy of my latest little book.

Meanwhile of course I want everyone to be uncharacteristically sensible and stay at home when they can and be more careful of the most vulnerable, and vote come November for something other than gross incompetence and criminal stupidity. I want what we all want, really.

But at the moment, with apologies, what I want most is a carnitas burrito with black beans, white rice, mild salsa, cheese, sour cream, and green hot sauce. And all I have is the green hot sauce, and no, I do not want or need a recipe or an instructional video on how to make my own tortillas, thank you very much.

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