"Does the world really work that way, though?" I asked my dinner companions, my forehead wrinkling in perturbation at the morally complacent suspicion that, yes, it does work precisely in that way, and hardly ever in any other. "I mean, if he's doing a good job?which I assume he is?why would it matter that he's X's childhood friend? In fact, who at the firm even knows that they're childhood friends? Why would he anticipate losing his job?"
Silence imposed itself as the six of us surveyed the postprandial holocaust that littered the Thanksgiving table. It was the rainy early evening of what's arguably the most useful holiday of the year, competing with the Fourth of July for a disgusting sort of perfection: a holiday unencumbered by the tacky dopiness of the Religions of the Book, and that acknowledges that the American in his most self-congratulatory?and thus maybe purest?state desires to glean little more from life's pageant than the opportunity to sit on his ass for one full day in the richness of autumn and consume candied yams and Seagram-and-sevens. Yams and potatoes had been first harassed, then raped and finally forgotten. Gravy settled oleaginously in the peace that it had earned. The bird looked tattered and irrelevant by now. The tray of root vegetables, decimated, reclined upon our family lazy Susan. Because I guess we'd made animals of ourselves. Cranberry extract congealed on plates in carnelian swirls. The last surviving brussels sprouts huddled relievedly together in a corner of a platter, delivered for the moment from the threshing floor?from the relentless winnowing of the serving fork. Hello you bastards, I taunted them, and prodded them with my knife. Their Gallic faces (Belgians are watered down Frogs, with waterzooi and more efficient banking) twisted in horror, but by then I meant them no harm. It was at that very point that my psychiatrist clansman said dryly of my apprehensive relative:
"Well, it's Slavic anticipation. It's a definite subset of depressive behavior."
Oh, we laughed. But it wasn't a hearty laugh. It was, rather, an equivocal and self-conscious laugh, less the resounding and eruptive rumbling that you associate with heavy people and Jamaicans than the repressed and queasy sweaty-palmed heh heh heh that originates in the throat and not in the deep and jolly empty chambers beneath the sternum. It was the variety of laugh you'd generate from a platoon of well-bred contemporary Prussians at a dinner party if, say, you told a funny joke about...you know, the Third Reich or something...the Wehrmacht, ho ho...or about that doofy guy...you know...that doofy little Austrian guy with the 'stache...Good gawd what were you Krazy Krauts thinkin', har har!
So we laughed queasily... because we knew. Of the group assembled at the dinner table that evening, only my psychiatrist relation's wife lives without the ambivalent medium of Slavic blood coursing through her arteries; without the burden of that Slavic life force that's also the Slavic poison, an essence that spawns both Tolstoys and...well, of course I was going to mention Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, but why stack the deck? I'll just point to any one of a million peasants throughout the ages, suspicious and illiterate and thus lost to history, passing their lives in huts. Slavic blood: the life force of a culture that mills Turgenevs for a while, and then, with a mute, mulish stubbornness, hauls off and modifies its industrial infrastructure (a new Five-Year Plan, comrades!) in order to generate hearty, vicious peasants like the glorious Khrushchev?my favorite historical Slav besides Dostoevsky?whose faces redden with drink and whose jowls and breasts jiggle with cruel barnyard mirth as they wreck shit. So it was only my psychiatrist relation's auslander wife who didn't look sort of like she'd swallowed a tack.
Because we knew. We were acquainted with the Slavic passion both in its grand tragedies and sublime disasters (Russian history) and petty depravities (pigs' feet in aspic). We were all familiar with certain Slavic motifs, with that stout, admirable peasant endurance and stubborn strength, to be sure. But also with the rearguard struggle against creeping dipsomania; with the grimy kitchens of old women; with the reflexive Slavic recourse to occult mysticism and cults of personality when threatened by rational thought; with the cackling ass-grabbery of elderly unshaven bachelors in the presence of girl-children; with the writhing of patriarchs who get soused on nickel muscatel and twist on floors strewn with the rubble of the rooms they've just trashed with shillelaghs. And to that extent with the specter of violence, and with the way that Slavic relationships are often frighteningly bonded with violence, sealed with violence?"Thrash me and you shall have me. By thrashing me, you shall have put your seal on me," moans the lackey Lebedev to the macho young Rogozhin at the beginning of Dostoevsky's The Idiot?and with how it's possible to be as casually?as horribly?convinced of the normality of violence as you might be of the fact that it grows cold in winter. And with the quintessentially Slavic combination of an anarchic and even self-destructive individualism and a tolerance for a despot who promises redemption.
(Oh, and by the way?if you're smirking at my hopeless peasant culture by now, you can kiss my proud Slavic ass and recite the words "Gogol" and "Rachmaninov" and "Pushkin" and "Stravinsky" and "Nestor Makhno" and "Prokofiev" and "Bely" and "Shevchenko" and "Malevich" and "Rodchenko" and "Tolstoy" and "Lermontov" and "Chekhov" and "Chopin" and "Mayakovsky" and "Akhmatova" and "Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky" to yourself until your face turns blue, and then you can shuffle off to hell. We almost buried you.)
Slavic anticipation: Tomorrow the sun will rise black. And even if it does not, they will take our cow. And even if they do not, they will confiscate our grain. And the beets are rotten. (They are not rotten.) But they will be rotten tomorrow. And it will rain. (But there are no clouds in the sky.) But it will rain, and the levee will break, and the River Don will overrun its borders, and the crops will be lost. And the well is poisoned. (No, it is not. The water of the well runs pure and sweet.) The well is poisoned. (It is not.) Ah. Give the sons of bitches another day, then. Another day and they'll poison the well. Cholera will come. And damnation and plague. The baby has the colic. (He doesn't.) He will.
I've been reading the Russkies lately, and it's a remarkable recognition experience for me. Only if some real-life Compson, or some actual barn-burning Snopes?slouching out with hookworm from the bayous of southern Mississippi in the possession of some mysteriously acquired literacy?committed himself passionately to reading the oeuvre of Faulkner would you find, I suspect, a comparably exquisite proportion of mutual sympathy between text and reader. Consider my experience with The Idiot, for example. That holy fool Myshkin?I've met him! I'm related to people like that! That emotionally unstable and macho Rogozhin, oppressively conscious of slights, wasted on vodka, demanding satisfaction?between us there is emotional commerce! I think he was at my cousin's wedding! These endless scenes detailing the movement of personalities between greathearted dignity and complete, abased emotional degradation and venality and then back again, and between a typically Slavic confidence in, and longing for, redemption and the equally typical certainty that everything's hopeless, and that you might as well fold up your tent and go lie down in a ditch with a bottle in the interests of honesty?I've lived through a hundred such scenes! I know that trip! The endless, wrenching, tearful arguments with consumptives about God's silence?yes! I did that in Uzhgorod!
And don't even get me started on The Brothers Karamazov. It's long been my contention that a male Slav's genetic destiny is to age into some near approximation of that venal drunken buffoon Old Man Karamazov, the sort of man who drinks weepily with you with his arm around your shoulder before he accuses you of cheating him and stumbles to his feet to throw a stool through the window?but that the male Slav's duty, his measure as a person, exists in doing everything he can to avoid that, to work at avoiding it every day of his life.
Slavic anticipation: which can also involve an hallucinatory variety of depression. When it was bad for me, 10 years ago, I'd sit on a bench in the garden in the back of St. John's Cathedral on clear winter days and ideate?I'd zone?and my personality would melt and I'd disintegrate into particulate matter and ride the clear rays of the late afternoon light at a million miles per hour, a million miles in the sky?my arms spread, flying like Superboy, tripping. I needed help, and eventually I got it. Or rather I learned that black depression means merely that the collective Slavic mind in which I participate is playing tricks on me, and that it helps if I acknowledge that fact, and if I view the blackness academically, clinically, as a thing apart from me, as a thing that I can abstract from myself and stomp out like a roach. That helped. But ultimately to the Slav there's no rational, reasonable way to deal with depression. There are only extremes. Either you sit unshaven at the kitchen table in your t-shirt drinking tea and sobbing for a couple of months; or you become a monastic novice, become a fanatical mendicant apostle of Universal Love, wandering the countryside in sere robes and melancholy gaiters, licking dying peasants' gangrenous sores and sharing crusts with lepers; or you compose Crime and Punishment.
Enough. But Slavic anticipation's given a new valence in this weird current season in which the glorious expectations of the Advent ("Finally!" the Ukrainian or the Russian or the Polack proclaims. "Finally, a savior's coming to redeem us! What a shame that a mere week later?the world will end!") rub against the lurking suspicion among the world population that general apocalypse, or some other despicable fate, awaits us the night of Dec. 31. Typically for someone of my race, I can't decide which side?glorious redemption or abject disaster?I'm betting on. But I take perverse satisfaction in this: a whole world that's caught between millennial optimism and millennial despair is a whole world that's suddenly turned a little bit Slavic.
What? Food? Oh, Yeah My friend Tim Hall was kind enough to take me out to dinner on a cold night a couple of weeks ago to Flor's Kitchen, an excellent and inexpensive little Venezuelan restaurant on 1st Ave. in the East Village. I'm embarrassed that the place has been open for the better part of a year and that I've ignored it. I think my avoidance of the place had to do with my general aversion to bleak 1st Ave., a windswept tunnel in which you sense you're going to get jumped.
But this is an absolutely wonderful place, a tiny room about the size of your bedroom?really, no kidding?that satisfies what as far as I'm concerned is the most important criterion for a restaurant: that it's easy. You walk in and wait by the door for a little bit and the waitstaff's eager to see you and full of smiles and it's easy. You take a table and the place is so clean and cheerful and humble and unpretentious that you feel comfortable in whatever rags you're wearing, and it's easy. The food comes and it's all filling and simple and relatively healthful, with nothing on your plate that you have to work to recognize and nothing that you wouldn't want to eat every day, and it's easy. The bill comes and it's paltry, and it's easy. Everything's easy. Families come in, and hipsters, and no one fronts or pulls rank. It's all easy. White walls bear miniature painted tableaus, and there's cheerful track lighting and a clean wood floor?see, it's so unthreatening and pleasantly generic, like a college kid's ideal Ikea apartment.
We had, on that night, a soup called chupe. It consists of a thin broth that actually looks like dishwater?colorless, tending toward gray-brown, not greenish like a typical chicken stock?but that (as far as I know) doesn't taste like dishwater, nor like your typical salty chicken stock.
It tastes aggressively of corn, and also of the bit of milk that's in it, and those are a pair of soothing, nurturing tastes. A chunk of corn on the cob floats in the white bowl, along with finger-sized pieces of soft, flaking chicken and hexagonal chunks of potato. It's at once one of the homeliest soups I've had in a while?colorless, swampy, its surface adulterated with scum?and the best. It's quite an experience to come across such an unusual version of chicken soup, because chicken soup's such a verity. To find a verity tweaked in this way readjusts your standards, plays with your brain.
We also ordered a cauliflower and mango salad, which sounds suspect, but was pleasantly revelatory to me. Chunks of mango?just cut-up mango?occupied the middle of the plate. Bulbs of cauliflower, touched with a vinegary essence, surrounded the mango pieces at the plate's perimeter, and the commerce between the fleshy, pulpy sweetness of the mango and the sharp cauliflower was fruitful. A shrimp ceviche appetizer, meanwhile, was good but not great. The bowl's lined with a huge lettuce leaf, which is appealing. But the small shrimp float in too much cool, watery essence. It's like fishing crustaceans out of a washbasin. Ceviche is supposed to be watery, but I wish this one had been a little less so.
The entrees we ordered knocked us for a loop. I'm willing to say unequivocally that Flor's Kitchen serves the best arroz con pollo I've ever eaten. The dish, as I'm used to it, is the dish as served at Cuban diners: the yellow rice, the peppers and sweet peas, the chunks of chicken meat, all mixed together like a working-class risotto. Flor's version of the stuff was different. What you get here is a pile of fragrant white rice, reminiscent of basmati, with?alongside of it?a chicken leg and thigh bathed in a rich, reddish-brownish sauce of incredible succulence. In other words, you're dealing here with chicken stew, and not with an integrated chicken-and-rice dish at all. The dish reminded me of coq au vin, or of a poultry-world version of beef bourgignon. Grilled steak was a thin, chewy, lean piece of meat in the South American manner, accompanied by a lot of cassava.
I eat an enormous amount of food?I'm a scrawny guy, but I've got a gerbil's metabolism?and even I couldn't imagine walking out of here hungry.
The only downside to Flor's Kitchen is a function of its architecture and its environment. The restaurant is so tiny, and it's so infernally cold in this city in winter, that taking almost any table in the place will necessitate weathering great blasts of frigid air every time someone walks in or out. I'm not sure what the tab came to on the night we visited?Tim paid?but everything's cheap enough (entrees are all between eight and nine dollars) that you can walk out afterward and spend the rest of your evening in bars. Which we were happy to do.
Flor's Kitchen, 149 1st Ave. (betw. 9th & 10th Sts.), 387-8949, www.florskitchen.com.