College courses (the food, that is)

 

MY COLLEGE EDUCATION, OR INDOCTRINATION IN THE MAUDIAN PHILOSOPHY OF BEA ARTHUR

BY DAVID GOTTFRIED

 

At the time she was eighteen, Helen behaved like a bitchy thirty-five year old — she was jaded, angry, knew all about the world and hated it too.  I met her when I was also eighteen and when we both started college.

 

She was cross-eyed.  I find this interesting because most people who are very intimidating have eyes that are great at boring right into you, like a power drill.  Cross-eyed people don’t have that skill.   Nevertheless, her cross-eyed status did not in the least detract from her ability to intimidate.  Even though her gaze seemed indistinct and ambiguous — even though you weren’t quite sure where she was looking if you tried to look into her eyes — there was something very intimidating about her eyes.  Maybe they were more intimidating because of their wacky focus that seemed to gaze on one point, and then stare at another point, and then bear down — like light and a magnifying glass igniting fire — on two points in separate parts of the room at the same time.

 

And so while she might have appeared to have been busy consuming chicken breast and string beans, her brilliant and strange eyes caught sight of my plate, even though there were two students between us at the dinner table, and she loudly yelped, “David, peas are loaded with starch and they’re terrible for your diet.”

 

 

At that time in my life, I was a bit heavy, and not the least bit athletic, and so I periodically went on diets, which seemed to be such womanly and fastidious things.  Real men never dieted.  They either had big proud guts, or they pumped iron. In either case, they ate huge mounds of succulent spaghetti.  Diets were in all respects a feminine thing.  The melba toasts — a dieter’s bread of affliction — were so dainty.  The sacharine pill boxes were such quaint little things to take out of one’s purse at a luncheon.  The premiere diet soda of the time was something called “Tab”, which reminded me of a jingle for a laundry detergent called “Fab” (It went something like this:  “Oh Fab, I’m glad, there’s lemon freshened borax in you.”), that seemed to say “Fag.” And half the diet foods were ornery, acidic things like scallions, and raw onions, and grapefruit  which made the sores in your mouth light up with pain like a Christmas tree in lights,  screaming at you like an annoyed little girl incensed at  the way you slurped your soup.

 

In any event, of all the fattening and delicious foods in the world, we knew — in those days — that starch was the most reprehensible thing one could eat.  Fat and cholesterol had been discussed, but it had not seemed to click in the collective consciousness of dieters who, often behaving like stereotypical women, are unable to entertain more than one thought at a time. And so the notion that a result may have more than one cause — that the accumulation of fat may be caused by fat and starch and lack of exercise and genetic predisposition and thyroid deficiency disease — suggested a complexity antithetical and inadmissible to their black and white minds, in which everything had the simplicity of an episode on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And so the ideal diet was a burger, accompanied by a raw union, sans the bun and fries.  For dinner, one might eat steak, along with any old boring green vegetable cooked by common boiling. But starch was verboten. Potatoes were utterly impermissible.  Pasta was veritably primitive, connoting images of irascible Italian men engaged in mafia killings and Italian mamas swathed in layers of luxurious fat.

 

 

“David, I told you, you really have to lose weight, and those horrible starches have to stop,” Helen insisted.

 

I wasn’t sure if it would be more appropriate to discard the peas, to prove my virtue and my fealty to the worthwhile endeavor of fitting into fashionable clothing, or to eat the peas, to establish some small measure of independence from Helen.  And so I used my fork to rake the peas on the plate, as if the peas were boulders and my fork was some kind of heavy machinery to remove them from the earth.

 

Helen was now inconsolable: “David, there are people who are starving.  Don’t you remember how great George Harrison was with that Bangladesh thing for the starving people.  And you fucking play with your peas.  You’re so fucking uncool.  And you’re fat.  And your shirt doesn’t stay in your pants.  Oh, I can’t stand you.”

 

Helen now sat back, regal with her renunciation of my rapscallion behavior, while the other girls in our group, Michelle and Sandra, were deeply impressed with Helen’s display of “women power.”  Women power was of course more important than anything.

 

Indeed, since we had started college, two months before, the feminist idea had been instilled with such frequency — when we met the faculty for freshmen orientation, all the male professors were silent while one woman teacher used the occasion as an opportunity to harangue the male world; the idea that we were supposed to receive some measure of orientation to college life was completely overlooked — that we got the idea that the goal of college was the inculcation of a feminist-friendly mind and a good natured faggotty disinclination to challenge anything ever said by a woman of power and substance.  And, after all, college-educated men were so much softer, tamer and less robust than their cultural inferiors.  The non-college sorts always exclaimed, exhibited and exploded like Archie Bunker.  The college boys learned to demure, defer, decline and talk in indirect ways of culturally appropriate gobley gook.  For example, when Robert Mc Nammara talked about plans to carpet bomb Vietnam, he did it with all the urbanity and salon-like detachment of a dowager reciting plans for a dinner party.

 

So while the women beamed at Helen’s brilliant and scathing indictment of my behavior, an indictment brimming with cunning and timely allusions to world hunger and the Fabulously enriching world of Fashion, I, and my male friends, Steve and Chris, sat mute.

 

Finally, it was time for desert.  The girls and I — Chris and Steve had no weight problems and ate fruity cake with abandon — ate stewed fruit. Of course, what sort of fruit it might have been none of us knew.  We only knew, or assumed, that it was fruit because it was described as “stewed fruit” in the dieters’ corner of the cafeteria. Essentially,  it consisted of three forlorn, darkish, purplish, pock-marked things sitting in a styrofoam cup with a diameter of four meager inches.  While strawberries beckoned with succulence as they sat imbedded in the creamy frosting of the Strawberry Shortcake happily consumed by Steve and Chris, our fruit had no bright colors, no gowns of red or burgundy, and no spherical shapeliness.  Our fruits were wizened old things with big fat pits and not a drizzle of juice.

 

After dinner, we ambled back to our dormitories like eighty-year olds going back to their condos after partaking of the Diner’s “earlybird special.”  We weren’t infirm.  We weren’t prematurely gray.  But we were as terrified of the new world of college as seniors trembling at the imminence of death.  Also, because we had moved away from home to come to college, we were homesick, and this made us recreate our elderly relatives in ourselves:  And so Helen was an aging lady with a rasping voice forever complaining to management about the bad service she received, and the guys, in their deference, seemed to emulate the doofishnes of old men who wear their pants several inches above their navels.  Besides, none of us were having sex.

 

After we returned to the dorms, we studied our textbooks with the determination of seniors reviewing Medicare guidelines, and commiserated about tomorrow’s tests as if they were surgeries.  Then we took a little something to help us sleep and washed it down with a few sips of Tab.

 

We slept fitfully and arose tired and dreary and terrified of the dawn.  Our day began, very often, with a course taught by Ms. Shirley Langley.  Ms. Shirley Langley was, as Steve once pointed-out, a woman who imagined she was the patrician former Senator from New Jersey, Milicent Fenwick. Although her voice did not really sound like Milicent Fenwick, and although I can’t recall exactly how she sounded, or what sort of accent she affected, it was a voice that always seemed, no matter what the decibel level, to be screaming to be acknowledged as the voice of Protestant propriety, privilege and intellectual profundity.  Each and every syllable was articulated with all the care of a Grecian urn:  Her voice was hard, lapidary, lovely and sleek.  I rather think she was a Jew who chose as the supreme and monumental effort of her life the eradication of her identity, the purging of every shleping, dragging, meditative Yiddush- sounding inflection from her voice and its replacement with a succession of sharp and shining iambic meter more convivial to Greenwich, Connecticut and starched and parched garden parties.

 

When she assumed the stage at the head of the class, her five-foot, three-inch body seemed to be an optical illusion because her voice boomed like a trumpet sounded by a titan.  All of the discontent and accumulated orneriness of fifty plus years of living seemed to surge up from her feet, through her heaving breasts, to be unleashed by her mouth like lava from a volcano.  And what was she ornery and irritable about?

 

She was, first and foremost, mad about male chauvinism, and, as usual, the indignities perpetrated by the male sex provided fodder for the day’s instruction. Her insights were met without the slightest scintilla of resistance and penetrated and implanted themselves into her students’ passive, unanalytic minds like phalluses pounding into well-greased anuses. Although her pedantry resembled pederasty, she was nevertheless adored because she told the students that they were wonderful. From her we learned a few big words, and a few tiny ideas, and the belief that our youth and exuberance were sacrosanct.

 

We were convinced that our youth would be able to shine more flamboyantly given the location of the school:  It was situated in a suburb of New York City, and since it wasn’t far from New York City, we decided we might as well say that we were going to school in New York City.  And somehow education and feminism and New York all came together in everything we did and were subjected to:  In those god awful Paul Mazursky films in which a woman always finds her true chic greatness by being a New York bitch and learning to hate men. (Since the films had a feminist slant, they were really quite educational and could substitute for four credits of English, don’t you think);  in quiche loraine, which we learned was French and had a fancy name, and therefore was educational, and which, because of its adoration in the gay community, made it a sort of feminist delicacy; in learning that at academic conferences one must always have wine and cheese, and never beer and hero sandwiches, because the latter is the food of ruffians and reactionaries while the former is polished and polite, the chunks of cheese presenting the milky smoothness of choir boy’s buttocks.

 

Of course, there were times when our adoration of New York and our idea that we were in the vanguard of intellectual pursuits became so comical as to be pathetic.  For example, the University at times scheduled group trips to New York City so that we idiots might partake of its cultural attractions, and for these group outings we would charter a big, boxy, and slightly battered yellow school bus which, when maneuvered through the serpentine and svelte streets of Greenwhich village, made us look, collectively, as a fat suburban wife browsing through the aisles of a boutique that specialized in G strings.  The bus was also embarrassing on a very concrete level:  It had a perpetual smell that was more than vaguely reminiscent of vomit and so I thought it was a vehicle used to transport retarded people to and from the plenitude of institutions, caring for the retarded, in our New York suburb. While we traveled in the bus, no one read, or listened to music, or had any conversations about anything of intellectual import.  And so Stephen would then be called upon to give us a lecture on the Beatles as the Beatles were going through a huge revival throughout the late Seventies.  (Of course, Beatles’ revivals arguably had been in progress, in one way or another, from the time of the Beatles’ demise until the ascendance of Ronald Reagan, or at the very latest Osama Ben Ladin, who refuted liberalism more emphatically than Ronald Reagan ever could.  Beatles’ revivals perhaps constituted one of the largest dissipations of youthful energy since the Crusades.)

 

But eventually our New York trips really came down, in the final analysis, to a question of food.  Just as people will spend thousands of dollars to travel around the globe to view fine historical treasures, only to rush through the tour of the Coliseum because of their desire to eat a fine Lasagna dinner that would not be in any way superior to the lasagna they could get in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, so we presumed intellectuals, brimming with arrogant, obnoxious elan, would only affect an interest in the utterly incomprehensible works of abstract art, the arty people who seemed more often than not to be not so much creative as simply maladjusted or just plain queer, and the modern poetry that was denuded of rhyme and meter, contained metaphors that we could never get because either we were too stupid or the author was too brilliant, and which, when intelligible, only seemed to be a callous and dehumanized recitation of personal and sexual injuries.  And so we smiled and pretended, and raised our eyebrows or furrowed our brows, to show an intensity of aesthetic interest, but our interest concerned not Chinese or Italian sculpture but simply the question of Chinese or Italian quisine.

 

For Michele, one simply had to go to Mama Leone’s, a famous and now defunct Italian eatery, after going to the Theater. Indeed, the play was wholly secondary to the meal. I do not mean to be unkind, but, quite frankly, Michelle would have been just as happy if she had been watching the situation comedy “Rhoda” instead of live and fine drama.  Of course, many of us dissented from Michelle’s choice, finding her preference for robust and hearty red-sauced repasts  altogether plebian, provincial and, given the promiscuity with which pasta was deployed in every conceivable circumstance, terribly reminiscent of Plainview, Long Island and other conservative, and hence unintellectual, locales.

 

And so in those days if one wanted to be terribly avant guard and intellectual in one’s culinary choices, one ate Japanese.  After all, wasn’t Yoko Ono Japanese?  And, since the Japanese were our enemies in World War Two, and the Vietnamese were our recent enemies in South East Asia, the consumption of Asian food, for bratty, pseudo-intellectual, snot-ball children, was a means of slapping America in the face.

 

Of course, the most annoying and irascible gustatory choice would be French food because the French had a means of attacking America from the presumed left (only presumed:  They invented the motto “think left, live right”) that was infuriating in its insincerity and con artistry:  They attacked America for our involvement in Vietnam, but they had dragged us into Vietnam to save their oppressive, vulgar colonial empire.  Many of my fellow students were Jews, and of course, two-bit, self-hating, Jewish intellectual snots would savor French food since France, on the eve of the 1967 war, when Israel’s survival was in doubt, abruptly decided not to send the Jewish state aircraft that had already been paid for. (And, ever since then, proceeded to attack Israel for not willing to immediately surrender territories on the West bank, and hence become nine miles thick and vulnerable to extinction, when France of course never explained why it needed to rule the territory of Vietnam to defend Paris.)  Today, I know a certain Jew — whose sense of Judaism received a triple whammy in the form of homosexuality, a completely assimilated family that groveled before the icons of American Christiandom, and an excessive dose of wimpish, liberal higher education — who, in the days immediately after the fall of the World Trade Center, enjoyed telling me, in his small, bitchy, Truman Capote voice, that he went to Afghani and Arab restaurants to show his solidarity with the third world.

 

There were certain people who would be sure to opt for French Food.  One of them was Bennet B, who always wore a cape which, psychosexually, killed three birds with one stone:  It satisfied his desire to be an exhibitionistic, obnoxious, affected son of a bitch because it was the psychological antithesis of a T shirt; it catered to his rage and malevolence, which he would ascribe to his poetic and polemical insights but were instead the product of a rampaging infantile narcissism, because it suggested Count Dracula, or something worn in Translyvania, or something to wear while casting witch’s spells; and it made him feel feminine because it was like a stole or a wrap, and while he took a deep drag on a cigarette, he could tug at his cape and imagine that he comported himself with all the elegance of Bette Davis in “All About Eve.”

 

Bennet, brimming over with all the latest psychobabble in the Village Voice, and donning a cape and at times a beret, was one of the few men on campus whom Helen, and her coterie of dieters, liked.  And so when they wanted to deviate from the dictates of cottage cheese and radishes, and they went to a French restaurant in the course of a cultural excursion to New York City, they loved taking Bennet B along.

 

In the restaurant, he would, in the oily, faggotty voice used by pseudo intellectual Americans who think that French is an inherently intellectual tongue, say “Garcon,” and utter other rudimentary French nouns, and maybe even dare to utter a noun and conjugate a verb in the barest of sentences, and thereby impress us with his multiculturalism, liberalism and savoir faire.  Helen beamed at his sophistication and ate her pate de foi gras with mincing theatrical spikes of her fork into the food, followed by equally theatrical depositions of the mudlike substance into her mouth, that seemed to say that if she could not speak French, and did not wear a beret, at least she knew how to masticate and swallow with all the artistic flourish of a left bank intellectual.

 

Copyright, David Gottfried, 2002

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