Friday, June 22, 2012

No One's in the Kitchen with Johnny

The old man and the sea: Johnny Conte in his kitchen in Rockland, Maine. Summer, 2010.
The junk pile outside of Conte's. Not everyone finds it charming . . .
If you are in Maine this summer, you should go to Rockland and pay a visit to my old boyfriend John Conte’s seafood restaurant. It’s called Conte’s Fish Market, or at least it was the last time I looked. It may have changed by now. But not to worry. Whatever the name, you can’t miss the place. It’s right on Main Street. It's an institution. Although nothing stays the same at Conte’s, because Johnny Conte’s point of view and philosophy of living are pretty constantly in flux, I can promise you the dining experience at Conte's like no other. Eating there is kind of like going to the principal’s office for dinner. You’re in trouble, suspect, merely for showing up. Go there knowing that you will be subjected to a bizarre presentation. You could compare John Conte to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Ask for ziti instead of spaghetti, or shrimp instead of scallops, and you risk the wrath of Johnny’s generally gnarly mood. Your waitress will advise you on Johnny's shade of gloom that evening. Generally, the report is not sunny. The menu is handwritten on a chalkboard, at the door, and patrons must decide, before being seated, what it is they want for dinner. No lingering over the menu. No cocktail hour. Don't ask questions! You make a commitment at the start, which is so strange because making a commitment is something Johnny Conte could never do. He is a lifelong bachelor. That John has never married gives me some satisfaction. Back in the day I loved Johnny desperately, and surely would have married him. But he would not marry, then or ever. Me or anyone. His restaurant is his fish wife, his own Molly Malone.
We were young and we were merry. N.Y. 1971
Kathy & June at the chalkboard menu. Rockland, 2007.
     My brother Rocky, who was once Johnny’s best friend, has for many years been in love with Kathy, a woman who followed me on Johnny’s long list of romantic conquests, way back when. Rocky and Kathy have been lovers for many years, sometimes taking long breaks from each other, then reuniting for fresh attempts at harmonic bliss. But Kathy (who works at L.L. Bean, another Maine institution) is just an aside here. The point of this story is Johnny Conte, who might be a genius, and is definitely quite mad. And not in a particularly charming way.
The menu.
Aw shucks. Johnny being interviewed by Tony Bourdain. Rockland. 2010.
     When food writer Anthony Bourdain’s television crew showed up at Conte’s, they were advised that Johnny did not come out of the kitchen for anybody. Ever. And in my experience this is true. Once John sent out to the table of my husband Michael and me a lobster clutching in its claw a postcard from Key West I’d sent him years earlier. Michael got a kick out of that. But Johnny has never appeared to meet my husband. Nonetheless, Michael is one of the reclusive Conte's most ardent fans.  Bourdain was granted an interview with the infamously kooky Chef Conte. Later, in his blog, Bourdain spoke disparagingly of Johnny’s haughty attitude. It is difficult to imagine two bigger egos.
     One time when we dined at Conte’s Johnny told me he’d been taking painting classes in New York City. He showed me a framed painting of a simple bedroom.  Raw. Achingly lonely.  I was awestruck. I knew Johnny loved to paint, but I’d had no idea he was so good. Had I made a big mistake? Maybe I should have hung on a bit longer. Had I missed out on being the great artist’s muse?
     The next day Michael and I wandered through a bookstore. I came upon a picture book of Van Gogh’s greatest hits. I leafed through it. And there, on page 27, was Johnny’s painting. Precisely the same image Johnny had shown me in his restaurant a day earlier. Years later I took a painting class with Rick Worth here in Key West. Rick’s teaching technique is brilliant. He instructs his students, step by step, on how to mix colors and use technique to create a duplicate of a genuine work of art mounted before them at the front of the room. The results are quite extraordinary. Everybody walks away with a great little painting, and you can see how the amateur might think the work is actually their work. And that’s how, I assume, Johnny Conte came to pass off Van Gogh’s, "Bedroom at Arles" as his own.
Van Gogh's famous, "Bedroom at Arles." 1888.
     But that was such a long time ago. When all is said and done I must confess I owe a great debt of gratitude to that man. I learned from him how to make a divine marinara sauce. He is why I came to Key West. I came here after Johnny broke my heart. And, as I said before, the trail of broken hearts is bloody and long.
Miguel wearing his Conte's T-shirt, circa 1975.
     When he was around ten years old I took my son with me when I visited with Johnny Conte.  As Johnny and I talked over old times, Miguel played in the crazy/chic junktique collection in the yard of his (at that time) New York restaurant. Johnny drank many glasses of wine. Miguel dubbed my first great love “Johnny Chianti.”
     Now my son is a grown man, with a girlfriend from Maine. This summer he’s going there, and we’ve told Miguel that anyone who goes to Maine must visit Conte’s Fish Market restaurant in Rockland. Go for the incredible food. Go for the outrageousness. I’ve told him to be sure to announce his presence to John Conte, because I like to think my son is someone Johnny would come out of the kitchen to see. It's a common mistake, over-estimating John Conte's interest in you and yours. President Harry Truman famously said: "if you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen." But in John Conte's world, I think it's the other way around, as things often are for the eccentric chef. I think John stays in the kitchen precisely because he can't stand the heat.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Send in the Clowns: My High School Reunion

A happy day with the class clowns in Key West.
The high school reunion is a cliché inside a cliché. It occurred to me at mine the more people change, the more they stay the same.  The mean girl is still mean. The fast girl is as inappropriately flirty as she was at 17. Her third husband seems to be a good sport. The smartest guy in the class, once an Adonis in his baby blue gymnastics uniform, and my favorite dance partner at the sock hops, is now a pudgy, sex-obsessed weirdo, possibly with a foot fetish.
    “How do you girls walk around in those high heeled shoes?” he pondered. “Are you wearing them, too, June?” he asked.
    I showed him my stacked heels. He said: “Let’s go back to my hotel room and make up for lost time.”
    I was both flattered (I’m a mature woman after all!) and disgusted (I’m a mature woman after all!).
    I went to the reunion with my high school best friend, the brilliant and accomplished, whip-thin Vicki. When I told Tom, the first boy I ever kissed, that I was there with Vicki – “We’re still great friends” I said, he lifted an eyebrow rakishly and asked “how great?” 
Good Morning America How Are You? Peter at Ft. Taylor.
    I had been so excited, in those dizzy days before the event, about seeing Tommy again. Would he remember how we kissed for hours and he gave me whisker burns with his scruffy pubescent mustache? He did not remember. Nowadays Tommy is that guy at the party who sits alone, clenching a beer like a prayer, shoulders slumped, staring at the floor, hoping for someone, preferably an attractive female, to become intrigued with his disconnectedness.
    Decades after our steamy graduation night back in the decadent '60s, my classmates looked pretty darned good. Well-preserved. Youthful. Healthy. I’d figured Vicki and I would be the hottest women there, but we weren’t. Every woman looked great. The men, not so much.
    “I went to high school with a very attractive group of people!” I told my husband, who preferred to sit out my New York reunion back here in Key West. In fact, attendance was sparse. Probably less than a quarter of the class showed up to see what time had wreaked on their peers.
    “That’s not necessarily true,” Michael said. “It's more likely that people who don’t age well don’t exhibit themselves at class reunions.”
Jennifer's birthday on the beach. See the green heart cake? I made that. See the man in shades? He's the guy who's kept our feet on the ground for 25 years.
    The happy, chatty girls of the high school in-crowd organized the party, prepared the food and the booze, and made sure we all paid admission. Among them, Jennifer, the captain of the cheerleader team, and, during the years of our time there, the most avant-garde dresser at John Jay High School. Jennifer was a great mix of kooky and straight. I liked her. She always said hello to me back in the day, which she certainly didn’t have to. She was cool. I was a geek.
    Also in attendance was Peter, another member of the high school hip crowd and also, as I recall, universally pleasant. In the Celebrity Round-up in the yearbook, Peter and Jennifer were named Class Clowns.
    “Who do you suppose will be the big match up at the reunion?” Vicki asked, as we drove past Martha Stewart’s Katonah estate on our way to the reunion. “Who will find each other again?”
Beach bums: Jen, Peter, Michael. Ft. Taylor Beach.
    As it turned out, the most reunited at the reunion turned out to be the class clowns, Peter and Jennifer. They hooked up at the party, spent the weekend together, and headed off into the sunset, in Peter’s camper. It was terribly romantic the way the two traveled about in that tiny camper, sending email updates from far flung state parks and exotic beaches. It was like 1968 all over again.
    Many months later they showed up in Key West. We had a great time. Peter really is crazy, off-the-wall funny, as well as a great musician. And Jennifer, full of stories of her adventures with both the famous and the infamous in her madcap past, is energetic and fun. They loved Key West and Ft. Taylor Beach and the challenge of finding a place to park their camper and sleep free like tin can tourists.
    Then, one night, Jennifer came to the door of our house. Alone. There’d been an argument. She’d fled the camper. She slept in our loft. The next day Peter came for her and all was put right. The clowns reunited, yet again.  And again, they rode off into the sunset, in that camper, while we less adventurous and more tethered folks watched with more than a little envy their apparent escape from normalcy.
June, Peter, Jen in our back yard.
    Eventually Peter, who is very clever with his hands, bought a house in Central Florida and set about remodeling it for re-sale. He flipped and flopped several properties. But settling in one place, Jennifer said, put a damper on their happy relationship. It floundered. They fought, parted, departed, made up, reunited, fought, and so on, in an endless drama Michael began calling, “Two Class Clowns and Their 3-Ring Circus.”
    Twice Jennifer has moved herself to Key West with the plan of staying forever, with or without Peter. Each time there has been a search for a new nest, a job, a life. Twice Peter has followed her here, in that camper, and slept outside her door.  Twice she has packed up her things and gone back to him, most recently, last week.
    Sunday, when the clowns fought at Peter’s home, Jennifer phoned to say she was leaving him. This time, for good. She added that were she ever to even consider going back to Peter I should save her from herself by any means, even if it meant tying her to a chair. She reminded me that doing the same thing the same way again and again and expecting different results is one definition of insanity. But I’ve tried to convince her that living in a circus, though exciting, is probably ultimately too discordant for grown high school graduates — even if the music is really, really good.
    Today, I heard through the grapevine that Peter and Jennifer are in their camper, back on the road, heading for New England.  The wild animals are in their cages. The circus is moving again. 
    This is a cautionary tale. To anyone considering a high school reunion, a second look at the people with whom you shared your most angst-ridden years, I say consider carefully. Do you really want to go there? Is it ever a good idea to revisit the ghosts of our pasts, in the flesh, a thousand years later? Just look what happened to me . . . my first kisses half forgotten, a lone, whisker-burned memory. And look at the class clowns, who ran away with the circus and the romance of the road. Sometimes I wonder.  Did romance ever really happen at all?