Jim and I knew that the Meatball Shop at 84 Stanton, between Allen and Orchard in the Lower East Side, was about to open for business. We'd been reading about it everywhere: Daily Candy, the New York Times foods section, Time Out New York. I couldn't help but wonder how my book Free Fall, coming out in April, might garner such notice. PR like that must be pricey.
The idea of a place that features meatballs — chicken, pork, beef, etc. — is too good to ignore. Good ideas get notice all on their own. Jim and I knew the Meatball Shop was going to be a destination for the two of us even if the chef and co-owner, Daniel Holzman, was not an old family friend of Jim's.
I must pause, momentarily, to pay tribute:
Hail, fabulous meat ball. You perfect bundle, pumped up on protein and open to infinite flavor permutations. Saucy. Sassy. Spicy. An ethnic wonder. Swedish, Italian, or mongrel in my kitchen where identity reveals itself in relationship to the larder. Raisins? Cilantro? Nub of Parmesan? No pasta as grounding necessary. No sub roll enfolding my treasures. I take my meat balls unencumbered. Wonder of wonders, so, too, does the Meatball Shop, though there are certainly options for those insistent on muting their pleasures with dull and simple carbs: pastas, hero rolls, slider buns. End of reverie.
On a recent Monday evening, after we'd heard author Jonathan Dee read from his new novel "The Privileges" (here's a link to my book review: http://bulletin.aarp.org/states/de/2010/7/articles/book_notes_family_values_its_privileges_jonathan.html) at Half King in Chelsea, Jim and I planned to head to a pre-opening party at the Meatball Shop.
We ate at Half King, however, a place well known for its creative, tasty comfort food. We split a burger, a sort of meatball without ambition but delicious when you're hungry, especially with a slab of red onion and a few freshly cut fries and a talented writer at the lectern reading to us. Perfection is the confluence of food and literature and wine and people, though there were only a few of us that night despite a starred review in Publishers Weekly and a big, positive piece in the New Yorker that day. After reading, Dee asked if there were questions and Jim queried, "Is that the best part?" to which Dee immediately rebounded with, "It just builds from there." Jim, reliable for his impertinence and hearty laugh, jumped up, bought the book, asked for an inscription, and once home, read it in a day and a half.
Already well fed, our arrival at the Meatball Shop would satisfy another appetite, that of curiosity. I never got past the front entrance area. The place was mobbed, as expected, and among the people seated at the long tables were many from the Gurdjieff Work in Manhattan, where Jim had been a participant for 25 years.
For Jim, there were lots of familiar faces including the chef's brother Eli Holzman, whose new CBS reality show Undercover Boss was already, after just one episode, generating a great deal of buzz. I saw the first show, about a waste management company, and found it commendable in the way it reminds us how important the workers are in any successful organization. In our country, where the middle and working classes are devalued and shrinking, shows like this are important. And there was its canny, young, subversive creator and producer, just a few feet inside the front door. Jim burrowed on in but I stayed put in order to to acquaint myself with the boys' father, John, also a longtime friend of Jim's who now lives in Southern California.
I'd heard a lot about John, and knew that he'd been interested in what Jim was up to. He'd asked about me and followed the progress, if you can call it that, of our relationship. John had come East last year, but I'd been in New England.
John was flying high. And why not? He'd been in a sky box at the Super Bowl 50 yard line the night before and on this night he was witnessing incredibly exciting and promising moments in both of his sons' careers.
I conclude this blog posting, another one that is too long and for that I apologize, with the stunning words John uttered in that hot loud deliciously fragrant full-of-laughing place where we stood, face to face, straining to take each other in, straining to hear, bending, smiling, noting Jim as he reached Daniel, shook his hand, spoke his congratulations.
I could tell John wanted to say something. "I hope you don't take this the wrong way."
"All right," I said warily.
"I've known Jim for a long time. He's a good man. Here's the essential thing about Jim. Jim's a lover. But I think you know that. I think you must be, too."
I hadn't expected anything like this. A good friend protecting another friend? An urgent message before it's too late. Jim a lover. Such an unusual way to describe the essence of a person.
I breathed, finally, and smiled. "Well, then, you'll have to read my book."
The message — "Jim's a lover" — in John's hands, had seemed sacred, important. I must have understood what he was trying to say because I'd written a whole book about that one thing.