The Toasty Tent

This stretch of the planet is having a cold snap right now, sustaining temperatures well below freezing for days on end. Today Prague enjoyed a high temp of something like -4 C, or 269 K. (that’s about 25 F). Now before all you midwesterners (both of you) get all in a huff saying, “That’s not cold! Why I had to walk to school…” let me just say, Yes, it is cold. When you were tramping through the drifts with only wonder bread bags for shoes you were saying “Crap! This is cold! I can’t wait until I can buy an RV and take it down to Boca Raton in the winter!” Don’t deny it.

So where was I? Right, I hadn’t told you that yet. I’m at home. I’ve been on a trip and as a cheap bastard I had the heat turned way down while I was away. I came home to an apartment at a balmy 12.5 C, turned on the heat, and went out to dinner. When I got home more than two hours later the place was up to 14.5. It takes a long time for things to heat up here. So with my home at less than 60 F it was time to get creative. That’s when I invented the toasty tent. I am now sitting in one of my moderately uncomfortable comfy chairs right next to the radiator. I have a blanket draped over the radiator and over me, bringing a significant fraction of my home’s heating power to bear on only a few cubic feet, some of which contain my head and other favorite organs.

I am toasty.

I’m sure I’m not the first to put a blanket over the radiator to keep warm. It’s obvious, really. What sets my invention apart is the name. Toasty Tent. Come on, that’s golden!

Some engineering remains to perfect the toasty tent. The blanket is smaller than I would have at first thought ideal, but that keeps it from getting too stifling in here. If I move my hand toward the floor, there is a sudden drop in temperature at the bottom of the blanket. At first I was most concerned with the light level, but the smaller blanket lets in enough light I merely had to dim my laptop screen a bit. The main problem is the difficulty in keeping a beer within easy reach just outside the toasty tent. If I move around too much the blanket pulls off the radiator and I have to construct my haven all over again. With only a little engineering this problem can be overcome. All I have to do is make it so my head is not a significant part of the structure.

Apparently my radiator also has a “safety feature” called a “thermostat” that shut it down just as things were reaching their toastiest. The final version of Toasty Tent will have to be sure not to insluate the radiator, but merely to make sure its heat stays in the correct general area. A delicate balancing act for the world’s top scientists at Muddled Industries, Inc.

The Toasty Tent is just what this energy-starved world needs to keep going. By only heating the parts of a home where people are, a typical family can save a fortune, and help the environment at the same time. The Toasty Tent. It just might save humanity.

Bulwer-Lytton Lives!

We stood in line, the splash of the street lamp in the chill summer fog making an island of us: there was the prostitute, chain smoking and immune to the cold in her fishnet stockings and yellow plastic miniskirt, hair in disarray and eyes only shadows; there was a young couple, junkies with colored hair leaning against each other for support, feet spread wide in a perfect square, holding each other in some half-remembered habit of intimacy or perhaps just attached by some of the hardware adorning their once-chic clothing; there was the derelict, lying in his own foul cloud, sprawled against a building in a twitching parody of death, unsure where the next bottle would come from but knowing it would come; there were the other assorted bums, lowlifes, and losers swimming to the shore of our island but moving on again after a while, lacking patience or still possessing hope; and there was me.

Pub 12

I am in the Slovak version of an English pub. I was hoping for a pale ale of some sort, but the Guinness is mighty fine. I just got here, so there’s not much to say yet. There’s a strong wireless signal, but the network has been secured.

European history will be marked by the

* * *

Time has passed and I have been pleasantly interrupted by a distractingly attractive bartender, a black frenchman who works for IBM, and a hungarian family on holiday. All of them in their own ways mark European history, but for the life of me I’ll never know what great wisdom I was prepared to impart above. There I was, on the verge of bringing the continents together, predicting the future for crying out loud, and I forgot what I was going to say. Woe, continents! I have condemned you to continue your drift, aimless and destructive.

There’s a cover of California Dreamin’ running around, and while it’s pretty damn disco, all the leaves are brown here, and the sky is often gray. I wear long pants and socks all the time. If I were back in San Diego on a Friday afternoon I’d be at Callahan’s or Tiki, doing much what I’m doing now, but it would be warm outside. I would have taken off my shades when I went in. I would have kicked off my shoes (although at Joe’s Place (r.i.p.) stealing my shoes and hiding them was a matter of sport for a while). But California, while a legend, is not a myth. The days are easy there, and the nights are warm. The women are as beautiful as science can achieve, and there are good cheap beer nights if you know where to look.

It’s nice.

I’ve been in Europe for a few months now, and I can’t help but think where I’m going next. It’s cowardly, really. I have heard many times people speak with admiration about what I have done and continue to do, but in the end, what does it pile up to? If I never stay still, I never have to form attachments. I have a bit coming up at Piker Press about that – I really hadn’t planned the story to come out that way, but it just happened. I’ve slowed down my submission rate over there because most of my short bits have the same tone and I want people to say “Hey! Cool! There’s one by Jerry this week!” Instead of “I read it last week.”

I’m rambling now, not writing, which by the title of this here blog I’m allowed to do, but I don’t want to alienate any more regulars, so I’ll stop.

Dateline: Liptovský Hrádok, Slovakia

It was a pleasant trip down here yesterday. fuego did the driving, MaK the navigating, and I the passengering. To navigate in this country you have to know the names of every damn village and cottage between your start point and your destination — referring to roads by number at an intersection is rare, and using the same town name at two consecutive intersections also seems to be against the rules. Sometimes even when you do recognize a town name on a sign it’s difficult to tell what intersection the sign is referring to.

One wrong turn eventually led us to a little place whose name translated (with only a little license on my part) to “Snowville”. It was pretty and appropriately named. The snow was coming down hard as we went through, and it seemed that everyone in town was out with shovels. We got to see the village twice, as we reached a dead end at the far end of town. The road went on, but when we asked a guy if we could get through he said “maybe in a Jeep.”

Eventually we got here and settled in. This place is nice, and very inexpensive. We have the bottom floor of a house — two bedrooms and a fully-equipped kitchen — for less than $30 per night.

Once we settled in it was time to set out in search of pivo and a bite to eat. We quickly discovered that options are limited in L. Hradek. We walked down to the most center-of-town-like area and surveyed our options, but one place had the wrong kind of beer, one was an English-style Pub which was right out as far as MaK was concerned, and one was a not-so-special hotel restaurant. Finally we asked some people on the street where a good place to go would be. After much discussion, first directing us to one place and then another, we said we just wanted to go to a place to have a nice beer and relax. One of the guys took charge, and walked with us to a place very close to our little home away from home. The man said hello to everyone in the pub, including the kitchen help.

It wasn’t a fancy place at all, but it was comfortable. It is part of a hotel that serves a sports complex; I assume it is where teams stay when they visit. We sat, our beers came, MaK chugged hers in the Czech fashion, and we settled in for a nice meal. My dinner was excellent. While sipping my dessert beer I said to fuego, “You know what I like about this place? It’s not smoky.”

fuego looked around and noticed that there were no ash trays on the tables. It turns out we were in a non-smoking bar. fuego asked if this was a Slovak law, and the bartender said no, they just didn’t want people smoking in there. I honestly never thought I would find anything like that in Eastern Europe, where tobacco is a food group. When we were done we bought some beers to go and made the short walk back here, tired, happy, and not smelling of smoke. It was a good day.

She was a writer, part 2

I was in a nostalgic mood the other day, thinking about the meaningless encounters in my life that, had things gone differently, would have meant something. I wrote about a woman in an airport bar in Cincinnati. I’ve thought of her off and on for more than three years; I even occasionally tried to dig up an email address for her through her publisher. I didn’t try very hard, I admit, but for me she was always out there, a person I had hit it off with but had not had time to alienate. Even as I wrote that bit I wondered if she would stumble across it.

She died in 2002.

You may have read John’s comment to the previous piece informing me of the case, and you may have read my reply. I’m embarrassed by my reaction; I tried to make light of it and ended up making her early death to be about me. I knew the moment I posted the comment I would want to delete it, but in the interest of honesty I will let it stand. You’ve all read it by now anyway. I have not seen any other replies, as I am in Slovakia and Al Gore hasn’t been here yet. (George Bush is in the capital right now, but I think he still expects someone to hand him a sandwich when he says ‘Bratislava’.)

During the drive down here I thought of her. I wonder what ended her life. I wonder if the cancer came back or if she lost her long struggle with her own self-image. Probably neither of those things. Perhaps it was a car crash. Maybe she was struck by lightning. She was thirty-nine, give or take. My memory, not the best, had munged the name of her book; for the record, her name was Lucy Grealy and the name of her book is Autobiography of a Face.

In the end it doesn’t matter. For a few hours I sat on a barstool next to a bright light. I checked out her ass. We had a nice chat. Did she already know she was dying? As we sat there was she facing her own mortality and chasing the inevitable with Chivas and Beer? Could I have made a difference? What if she died of loneliness, while I was thinking of her all along? Then again, for all I know she was happily married, and I was just some guy in a bar during a particularly tedious layover. I’ll never know what that encounter meant to her, and she’ll never know what it meant to me.

I wish now she could know I still think of her, but I have no way to tell her. Her striking eyes are dust, her figure is lost, even her deformed jaw is just a playground for the worms. And I still sit alone in airport bars.

She was a writer

The airport was deserted, except for the bar. Everyone got there hours early, only to discover that even the most earnest security official can only delay you for so long. I sat down, and ordered a big beer. “You can have a shot with that for an extra buck,” the bartender informed me. I looked over the booze and figured a shot of Chivas was worth almost a buck, and had that tacked on. I was sitting, contemplating which to drink first, when a woman pulled up one barstool down and ordered a Sam Adams, large. Moments later she had also ordered a Chivas, for the same reason I had.

We started talking. We both feared what was going to come next. We both thought that Bush was stupid (“lightweight” was the word I used), and that a terrorist attack was just what his administration had been hoping for.

Physically, she was striking. She had a great butt, piercing eyes, and her lower face was a wreck. She’d had some disease as a child that ate her jaw and (if hyperbolic memory has not overtaken me) almost her life. She had written a book about it, Anatomy of a Face. If memory serves. We’d had another double-round by then. She was on the NPR rolodex under self-esteem, and was coming back from an interview.

She held her hand over her face much of the time. I guess even if you’re synonymous with self-esteem you get tired of people staring. “I’m a writer,” she said. I wanted to say I was a writer, too, but it sounded pretty me-too-istic. Probably I mentioned it eventually. I still had a day job, though.

I wonder, all these years later, if she remembers the guy in the bar at the Cincinnati airport who was checking out her ass when he didn’t think she was looking, who occasionally had the courage to look into her terrifying eyes, and most of all had a great conversation about everything under the sun while a cloud hung over our nation. Maybe it was the time, maybe it was the setting, maybe it was my own slower disaster, but I will never forget her.

Doesn’t ANYone here speak English?

There are two waitresses at U Sladečku, a.k.a. Crazy Daisy, who I have taken as a personal challenge. Both are brunette, slender, and pretty. If either speaks English I don’t want to know about it. One of them I have dubbed the Anti-Amy. Put Amy and the Anti-Amy side-by-side and they could easily pass as sisters. At least, until they start talking. Or, well, when Amy starts talking. The anti-Amy doesn’t say a whole lot. To anyone.

The czechs, I am often reminded, are a reserved people. That’s OK with me; I’m fairly reserved myself. Amy is not reserved. Not at all.

The Anti-Amy was not working today, but the other she-of-the-hard-won-smile was. Compared to the Anti-Amy she’s a ball of fire, which means on occasion she will toss a litte half-smile my way when I fuck up the czech badly enough but in a sincere way. Also working tonight was a skinny blonde with bad teeth who on rare occasions is almost friendly.

I sat with my back to the wall farthest from the door, next to the piano upon which menus are stacked. I settled in with a beer and a bowl of soup and looked for more parts of The Test that I could delete. (I found a bit I really liked that had been orphaned – it really hurt to delete “The madman Lawrence is back.” “He’s better then?” “I’m not sure. He seems all right, but he has your finger. He says he wants to return it.” You don’t get chances to write stuff like that often.) ANYway, I was unwriting along and a piano player settles in on his little red pillow and starts tickling the ivories. I had been about to leave, but I prolonged my stay.

By this time the place is pretty crowded, and all the open tables have “reserved” tags on them. I feel kind of bad taking up a table at times like that, but I’ve noticed that Crazy Daisy has a pretty plastic definition of “reserved”. At a certain time of night they want to make sure their tables are used efficiently. So it was that there were several tables unoccupied but reserved. It’s all about asking nicely. I sat in my corner, watching the ebb and flow of the bar, listening to the piano, and working on a part of the story that still makes me misty (embarrassing when you’re sitting next to the piano player, facing the whole bar).

“Do you have menus in english?” comes the voice across the room in unmistakable New York. “Do you speak English?” he throws at Smiles-Only-Rarely with hostility and disdain. He turns to the whole bar, his arms spread wide. “Does ANYBODY here speak English?”

Smiles-Only-Rarely turns away from the abuse to fetch the menus from where they sit next to my head. I catch her eye and smile ruefully, shaking my head, skrunching my eyes in a pained expression. Is it? Yes it is! A fleeting smile. She collects two menus and turns back into their sarcastic entitled bitchiness. He’s continuing to be a complete asshat, and suddenly Smiles-Only-Rarely notices, seemingly for the first time, the “reserved” tag on the table. Alas, all the other tables are reserved as well. No room in the inn. His New York victimhood fully confirmed, he escorts his wife out in a self-righteous huff. See ya, pal. Some of us have to live here after you convince everyone that Americans are jerks.

Smiles-Only-Rarely returns with the unneeded menus. She looks at me again. “New York,” I said, shaking my head. “Even Americans hate them.” I don’t know if she understood me, I doubt she did, but I got a real, honest-to-God smile. I love New York.

for a.k.s.

for a.k.s.

I hear her voice in my headphones
And I remember
Like an Engine, she played
The crowd thinned
The Jack, which I had bought for her
dwindled
We stood, ssssh! outside her bedroom door
and almost, not quite.

Requiem

Requiem

I guess there was only one thing left
To put into your brain.
The final test of immortality
I will not know the end
Unless I, too, am Lono.

Episode 11: Trapped!

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

We dove through the door as I heard bullets crash into the wall over our heads. Lola was clinging to my arm now, making it difficult for me to get my piece out of the shoulder holster. Not that it was going to do me much good against a tommy gun.

We were in an alley, the night black between the warehouse we fled and its neighbor a few feet away. More bullets tore through the wall behind us. The whites of her eyes shone in the blackness. “What should we do?” she asked.

My plan was a simple one—get as far from that place as possible as quickly as possible. I turned toward the mouth of the alley as a dark shape stepped around the corner and stood in silhouette against the slightly less dark night beyond the alley. Even if I could take that guy down there would be others. I started the other way and was lucky when the man waiting there decided to light a cigarette. No way out either end, and no way back. “In here,” Lola Fanutti whispered, crossing the alley. I heard the jingle of keys, quickly silenced. “This is one of mine as well.”

The gunfire died down. The man at the top of the alley didn’t move; he just peered into the inky blackness. It wouldn’t be long before someone came through the door we had just used, and it wouldn’t take long for them to figure out where we went. I wanted to smash through the door, but if it was like the one we had just used that would be difficult. If I failed, the sky would be falling before I got another chance.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she began to mutter and I heard the hysteria creeping into her voice.

“You can do it, Mrs. Fanutti. Just take a breath and relax. They’re going to be careful stroming the office, especially if they want you alive.” Whoever they were. Me, they wouldn’t be concerned about one way or the other, as long as they got what they wanted.

The door opened with a soft click. “Call me Meredith,” she said as I slipped in behind her. I closed the door behind me and threw the deadbold as quietly as I could. In the silence of the warehouse it sounded like a lead pipe had fallen from the rafters. “My husband is dead,” she said in a voice that somehow didn’t echo, “I’m not one of them anymore.”

I stepped into the blackness but she put a hand on my arm. “This way,” she said, leading me toward the back, where I imagined there were large doors for loading cargo off the wharves beyond. As we moved through the shadows I heard someone test the door behind us. After a pause there came a crash and the sound of cursing. It wouldn’t be long now. I followed her as she groped her way as quickly as she could toward the door and freedom. We were almost there when someone outside tested the door, rattling the latch and calling something back to others. Too late. She turned back to me, her pale face seeming to hover over the black collar of her dress. Then she dropped to all fours and started groping around. I crouched down as well.

“There’s a trapdoor here somewhere,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t want to draw attention to the things we ship.”

The door we had come in flew open in a hail of gunfire. “Spread out,” a gravelly voice behind us said. “Find the lights.” Footsteps echoed through the building.

As I groped I felt the floor move beneath my knees. “Damn,” she whispered. “Something’s holding it shut.”

“That’s me.” I shifted and she swung open the trap, revealing a darker rectangle in the floor. She sat on the edge, dangling her feet into the nothingness, then turned to find the ladder. I followed as closely as I could without stepping on her fingers and pulled the heavy door shut.

“There’s a latch,” she said from below me. In the complete darkness it took me a long time to find the hardware and slide it home. I heard voices above, and footsteps crossed directly above me. When the lights came on I could see a thread of light around the square of the trapdoor. Carefully I continued down until my foot found solid floor. When I released the ladder it was like it had never existed. There was just me in the darkness.

I felt her hand find my shoulder. “I think it’s safe to light a match,” she said, almost in my ear. I dug one out and brought it to life, nearly poking her in the eye in the process. I shielded my eyes from the blinding glare and surveyed our surroundings. The room was square, the walls were bare stone sweating in the flickering light. The floor was stone and there was no door that I could see. There were a few crates lying around the perimeter with no plan or pattern. Lola’s—Meredith’s—face was lined with worry, showing a fatigue I had not seen on her controlled features before. The flame reached my fingers and I dropped the match, plunging us into darkness more profound than before. I felt her move closer to me in the blackness.

“Is there another way out of here?” I asked.

“No.” I felt her shiver, transmitted through her hand to my shoulder.

“May as well make ourselves comfortable, then.” I thought of the dinner I had left on the table next to Alice’s. She would have had it packed up to take back to her apartment for her mother. It would be there now, in the icebox, while she sat and wondered where I was. “I’m going to light another match so we can find a place to sit.” It flared to life with phosphorescent vigor and we moved quickly to one of the larger crates. It was a little small for the both of us, but neither of us wanted to sit separately. We both needed the contact in that terrible night.

We sat in silence for a while, knowing nothing but the dank air and the warmth where our legs touched. We listened to the footsteps above and heard an occasional muffled voice. Once there was a gunshot followed by more excited voices and cursing. “You have any idea what’s in these boxes?” I asked quietly, still surprised by the loudness of my own voice in that small space.

“Bourbon, most of them,” she said. “Some Canadian whiskey. The machine guns aren’t coming in until tomorrow night.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. “We could try drinking our way out of here,” she said. That sounded like a good idea to me, but I didn’t say so. She shook again and I realized she must be cold; I took off my jacket and draped it awkwardly over her shoulders. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “Happens to me all the time.” Obviously a lie, since I was still alive. “Not much to do but wait.”

After what might have been an hour and might have been three, the footsteps died down above. Still we heard occasional footsteps, pacing around the warehouse floor above. Meredith tightened her grip on my arm every time they came close, but my heart leapt into my throat when the heavy tread passed over the trapdoor and paused, stamping to test the acoustics.

Tune in next time for: The Cat’s Claws!

The Roma Time Warp

Pizzeria Roma. It’s a nice place. Friendly service, good pizza, not too smoky most days, it’s a place to go and get things done. fuego and I met there Wednesday with a full agenda. Vacuum cleaners to sell, scripts to discuss. Writer stuff. I got there at about four in the afternoon to find fuego marking up some copy for the vacuum catalog.

I settled in across from him and tried to get my brain around another in a series of short stories that begins with Moonlight Sonata. This one, I have a character and I have the theme, but the story was stuck. So while I rambled on in the hope of stumbling across a story fuego was pounding his head against why this particular vacuum cleaner is superior to all others.

Time passed. Since neither of us was enjoying tremendous success, we were starting to interrupt each other, to talk about more interesting things. fuego punted on Zepter and hauled out his laptop, and produced an item that can only have negative long-term consequences—a splitter to allow us to plug in to the already-occupied outlet. There is now no limit to how long we can stay.

And when I say no limit, I mean just that. Roma never closes. So we sat and discussed a short screenplay adaptation of a thing I wrote you have never read, discussed the script competition it is targeted for (which may not even happen this year), and came to an understanding about the feel of the whole piece. We thought about shots but didn’t really get into the dialog so much. This story will be much more adaptable than other things I wrote. So we got some good stuff done on that.

Then, out came Zepter again. There’s a big pile of copy here for just one friggin vacuum cleaner. Naturally, being me, I had many opinions to express and now I’m a co-writer for this crap. We spent some time bashing our heads against that. (Copy writing is hard—not only do you need to be interesting, you have to be informative and not provably false.)

fuego and I wrapped up at last, having advanced the art on many fronts but without a breakthrough. The last phase of the evening was spent marking up paper, so I didn’t have my computer’s clock in front of me. fuego checked his phone, and his eyes bugged out, just a little bit. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked me.

I knew by the way he asked that it was way later than I thought. I thought it was probably about 2 a.m., so I added a couple of hours and guessed “Ummm… four?”

“Almost six-thirty,” he said. “Dang.”

As I walked the two miles home in the dawn’s early light, I reflected that Pizzeria Roma has done something that Einstein and his bunch had given up on. There in an innocuous semi-subterranean all-night restaurant, the laws of the space-time continuum as we know it have been suspended. Perhaps there is a black hole in there, somewhere near the oven, that they installed to hasten pizza service, and its effects are felt throughout the bar. Perhaps the pizza sauce is laced with a subtle psychotic drug that deadens the consumer’s sense of time passing. Whatever it is, I want the rest of my Wednesday back. Not that I was doing anything useful with it—it’s just the principle of the thing.

Perfect

I saw a very pretty blind girl today. She and her dog were waiting for a tram, but not the tram I was on. I looked at her and thought, “Man, that would be perfect.”

The bar in the park whose name escapes me at the moment

This is a nice place. It is the place fuego and MaK will have a party the day after they are married (no pants day). I expect, in deference to the bride, I will wear pants on that occasion, as indeed I am wearing pants right now.

I am in the corner of the large room, on a raised area where bands set up, looking out over the main area. Snow is falling outside, and czech punk rock (complete with accordion) is playing on the sound system. The beer is exceptionally good here. There is a cast-iron stove burning merrily and keeping this place a little warmer than warm enough. As I write this the bartender is adding more fuel. Strictly speaking, I could be quite comfortable without pants right now, except for the looks of shock and revulsion from the other patrons.

The whole pants thing leads me to reflect on how many days in a row I’ve worn long pants and even — gasp! — socks. It’s a different life here, that’s for sure. Takes some getting used to. On the plus side, you haven’t heard me lament forgetting my sunscreen lately. The suntan I got driving across the deserts of the American southwest with the top down is gone now. Now I’m in the climate my complexion evolved to deal with.

A question: Why do white americans, who enjoy tremendous advantages over blacks, work so hard to turn their skin as dark as they can, to the point of giving themselves cancer?

To my left is a reminder of a difference between American bars and Czech ones. In the US, when you see a girl drinking beer in a bar, you can assume with reasonable confidence that she is of a certain age. While that age is appearing younger and younger to me every year, there are two girls who have been here longer than I have, and they are young. I think only one of them is drinking beer, however.

I’m listening to tři sestry cover the old Sex Pistols classic EMI. It rocks, but you can’t really hear the accordion.

The dog at the next table is looking at me funny. Friggin’ poodles. Excuse me while I go pick a fight…

The Budvar Bar

I like this bar. It is a regulars bar. A drinking bar. It isn’t crowded on a Sunday night, but there are a few tables of folk in earnest conversation. To my left sit five older men, sipping their beers and talking in their grumbly voices. To my right four men are playing cards and gambling. Two people came in right after I did, spoke for a moment to the card players, and sat, their beers arriving at their table at the same time they did.

This bar has a non-smoking area, but it’s way in the back and I didn’t notice it until I had already settled in. There’s not too much smoke in here right now anyway.

Most people are drinking the desitku, as am I. I will try the stronger dvanactku next, to compare. What I have is pretty tasty, though. To think they call it Budweiser. The uneasy truce between the American giant and the ancient Czech pivovar will probably be broken now that the Czech Republic is part of the EU. Could be interesting.

It was a pretty good day. fuego came by and we spent the afternoon watching a hockey match between the Czech Republic and Russia. The NHL players are starting to show up now, and we were treated to lots of great passing and one pretty good scrap. Yes, American hockey fans, the labor dispute is just making things better over here. The good guys won, 4-3, but most of the game it wasn’t that close. The Russians scored their third goal with two seconds left. Yesterday’s game between Czech Republic and Finland was also good, with the Czechs scoring the tying goal with a minute left on a goalie-pulled power play, then going on to win in overtime.

One of the card players just can’t get a break. Ty vole! he just exclaimed, thumping the table and putting his head in his hands. I know what that means, but I’m not going to tell you. I think you can guess.

Between hockey periods (which were uninterrupted by commercials) fuego and I cooked breakfast and put together the new pictures and the video for the new egg episode. The last thing we did was put the video to music, and now I have that song stuck in my head. So be warned; it’s catchy.

It was a good day overall; the only thing it lacked was writing, so I better get to that now.

* * *

Time has passed, I’ve splattered my brains against The Test with no Earth-shattering result (lucky for the Earth, I guess), and I am the sole remaining customer here at the bar. The last of the card-players, an older guy, weathered, just left, riding his crutch past my table. He turned to me and smiled. “Na schlad” he said. “Na schladanou” I replied more formally. He smiled and said something else. I smiled sheepishly and shrugged, but he spoke on in a gentle cadence. I recognized one word. spizovatel. Writer. Purely by coincidence I read that word earlier today and had repeated it to myself. He smiled, nodded, touched the brim of his hat, and moved on.

Technically the bar doesn’t close for well over an hour, but now I have to wonder if I’m keeping the bartender here. She’s a nice enough lady, late fifties I’m guessing, outspoken if you know what she’s saying, and I don’t want her thinking “not this guy again” when I come back in. Still, when she asks if I want another I’ll probably say yes. If she wants me to go away she wouldn’t be making it easy for me to stay.

Blah blah blah writer blah blah.

Dang.

Eggs Over Easy: The Definitive Step-By-Step Guide – now with video!

NOTE: If you don’t want the lowdown on the full meal you can go straight to the section The Eggs.

Before we begin

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The Holy Grail

Let’s take a minute to look at where we are going. Picture it with me: a plate, two fine slices of bacon on one side, toast on the other, still warm, the butter melted into it. In between is a pair of fried eggs, steaming, the whites of the eggs firm. Your mouth watering in anticipation, you tear off a chunk from the top slice of toast and poke the corner into the yolk of one of the eggs. The lightly-cooked top of the yolk yields easily and out flows the deep yellow treasure within. Ohhhh, heaven.

Creating that perfect culinary moment is a dance with heat and time, a graceful ballet that is every bit as pleasurable as the final product. There are decisions along the way, opportunities to add the subtle nuances that make those eggs uniquely yours. This guide, then, is a framework in which your improvisation can succeed.

Theory

Just look at these babies!

Beautiful czech eggs

The theory is discussed more in-depth in the original article, but before we go rushing off to the kitchen, let us pause for the tiniest of moments to look at just what an over-easy egg is. It is an egg that has been fried so that the white is cooked but the yolk is still runny. It is the challenge of cooking one part of the egg without cooking the other that makes the over-easy egg the greatest egg-cooking accomplishment. It will take all our skill and timing to defy the laws of thermodynamics so.

Sunny-side up eggs also have the runny yolk, but the top layer of the white is not firm, either. Our goal is to flip the egg just long enough to firm up that top layer of white and then get it off the heat before the yolk cooks. It’s not really that difficult, it’s just that no one does it right, especially in restaurants. (Please feel free to refer the cook at your favorite diner to this page. While the equipment and procedures are different, this is really all about the flip. He’ll thank you later as the humble restaurant becomes internationally famous for the excellence of their over-easy eggs.)

Preparation

Sun Tsu, in The Art of War, says (something like) “A good general wins the battle before it begins.” This applies to cooking as well. Your success depends on what you do before you light the stove.

This morning we will be cooking three items, the three instruments in our little culinary composition. Once the music starts there will be no time scrounge up important tools or ingredients without casting a sour note; anything you can do now, before heat is applied to food and the march of thermodynamics cannot be turned back, will make things easier later. You will need: eggs, bacon, bread, butter, a toaster, a frying pan, a spatula (preferably metal – the thinner the better), paper towels, a plate, a fork, and a table knife. Get them out ahead of time and place them all within easy reach. Make sure you have room to work next to the stove as well.

Lay out your work space. Put the pan on the stove, the spatula and the fork nearby, and put a paper towel on the plate. Put the bread by the toaster. Check the butter to make sure it’s not too firm to spread on the toast easily. Touch each thing once with your hand so your body will remember its place. You will find yourself automatically putting things back in their places later, so you don’t have to expend unnecessary mental energy with the details. You’re an artist, baby! No time to be groping for brushes when the passion strikes!

Note: Years later I’ve learned from watching Worst Cooks in America that the above ritual is called mise en place – everything in its place. Taking sixty thin seconds now to lay everything out makes things so much easier later that you will suddenly feel like a good cook. Because you will be.

Take a deep breath. Relax. This is going to be great!

Ready? The conductor is stepping to the podium. A hush descends over the concert hall. It’s time to fire up the stove.

Bacon

Fine czech bacon

Some fine czech bacon

There are many reasons not to eat bacon: Political, religious, economic, environmental, and health issues abound. On the other hand, there’s only one reason to eat it: It’s yummy. Bacon has the side effect of providing grease to lubricate the pan while you cook your eggs as well. When cooking for myself (as is usually the case), two slices of bacon is plenty. Cooking bacon is simple, really; plop a couple strips into the pan and as it heats you will hear the sizzling begin. Keep a close ear on that sound; that’s your thermometer. If things start to sizzle and pop with too much abandon, turn the heat down a bit.

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Mmmm…. Bacon

I’m a “busy” cook, so I harass the bacon with my fork as it cooks, pushing it around to make sure it doesn’t get stuck, flipping it more than is strictly necessary, and generally robbing the bacon of any chance to relax as the meat cooks and some of the fat is turned to liquid. How long you cook the bacon is entirely up to you. While I want my bacon to be cooked through I don’t like it to snap when I bend it. If you’re cooking for strangers, always make it crispy. When your bacon is done turn the heat way down on the stove and hoist those puppies out. Put them on the paper towel to absorb some of the grease still bubbling in the strips.

There’s your pan, waiting for the main event…

Toast

But hold on, there, Sparky! That intriguing, inviting frying pan calling your name is trying to lead you astray! What started as a gentle waltz is speeding up now — it is a fugue, and the goal is to have all the lines of the music end at the same time. Once you’ve been around the block a couple of times you’ll know: the toast takes longer to cook than the eggs. There’s nothing worse than scooping the eggs out of the pan and onto the plate, steaming, gleaming, calling to you, and having to wait for the toast. Oh, I’ve been there many times, my friends, and it hurts. Send two slices down into the fiery maw of the toaster and turn your attention back to the frying pan.

The Eggs

You’re moving gracefully now from plate to toaster to pan, and utensils are jumping into your hand before you even think of them. The eggs are there, waiting, but first let’s take a look at that pan. You’ve got some big decisions to make. The bacon has left behind two things; grease and crispy critters. The first decision is an easy one based entirely on taste: Do you scrape out the crispy critters? Personally, I leave them in. They can become a sticking point during the flip, but I like what they add to the egg. The second question is tougher: Do you have too much grease in the pan? If you only cooked a couple of slices of bacon you’re probably OK. If you cooked more it’s time to take some of the grease out of the pan. I generally just soak some of it up with a paper towel. Pouring it down the sink is a bad idea, unless you’re looking for an excuse to have that cute plumber come over.

Remember, that’s hot hot grease there! Be careful!

Naturally, if you are not a bacon-eater, you will have to add butter or oil to the pan and you’re completely out of luck on the crispy critters. Also, without lovely bacon goodness, you’ll probably want to add a sprinkle of salt and maybe a touch of black pepper.

The pan is ready. It’s time to turn the heat back up for a few moments and put in the eggs. Eggs – check. Spatula – check. All right. Crack open that first egg and drop her in!

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Adjusting the sprawl

Not so fast there, buckaroo! I saw you reaching for that next egg! This is the first half of the secret to perfect over-easy eggs. Don’t put in the second egg yet! The reason will be obvious when we get to the flip. Instead, it’s time to use your spatula to adjust the sprawl of the first egg. As you look at the egg sitting in the pan, you will see three distinct parts. There is the yolk, the inner white part, and the outer white part. While the first two parts are relatively self-contained, the outer white will run all over the place. The farther it runs, the thinner it gets and the faster it cooks. If you like little crispy-crinkly bits around the edges, then some sprawl is desirable. If your stove is not level (mine isn’t) some of the outer white will make a break for it. Just push it back where it belongs and everything will be all right.

That other egg is calling to you. Your hand is starting to twitch. You can no longer resist the need to start the next egg cooking. Crack it open and drop it in, adjusting sprawl as above.

Pop! goes the toaster. Never taking your eyes off the eggs, pull the toast out and butter it. Dump the bacon off the towel onto the plate, and put the toast next to it.

The Flip

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4MB Video: The Eggs

The moment has come to flip the eggs. How do you know when that moment has arrived? It is when the inner white portion is almost completely cooked. Only practice, practice, and more practice will allow you to recognize this moment every time, but here’s the second part of the arcane secret for cooking eggs over easy: Don’t flip the eggs too soon! While the egg is sunny-side up, the yolk is floating on top and the white acts as an insulating layer, protecting the yolk from the heat of the pan. Alas, some of the white is also insulated, and to get that part firmed up we must risk everything and flip the egg over for a few agonizing seconds.

Before we go doing something crazy that could injure our precious yolk, make sure the egg is free and loose. Everything cool? Well then, flip the first egg, and only the first egg. This is why you waited before putting the second egg in. The egg will be flipped for such a short time that you don’t want to get caught fooling around with egg number two while egg number one overcooks. After just a few seconds scoop the first egg out and flip it yolk-side-up onto your plate. Now repeat the process with egg number two.

Turn off the stove, step back, and take a look at the beauty you have wrought.

Some final comments

emptyplate005.jpg While I have tried to be specific, there are many aspects of timing and temperature that I just cannot be exact about. Everything from how you like your toast to the weight of your frying pan will affect your outcome. Only experimentation will lead to your oval nirvana. If they don’t come out just right the first time, relax. I bet it’s still way better than what you would get at Denny’s. The process is, as I mentioned above, a complex and delicate composition, and like all great works of art, each performance carries with it some risk.

Finally, I did not include the preparation of any beverages in this framework. I know there are those who are as passionate about their coffee as I am about my eggs, and I invite your input.

I hope this little how-to helps you. If we all band together, perhaps one day we can rid the world once and for all of the scourge of too-soon-flipped eggs. And remember as Valentines day hurtles toward us that the best way to start the day is to bring your sweetie breakfast in bed. A beautifully orchestrated, lovingly presented plate full of grub says “I love you” like nothing else. (Don’t forget to clean the kitchen.)

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