Last night I went to sit at a bar across the street from my apartment. My house was empty, the air was cold and dry, and I found myself feeling immensely claustrophobic, trapped within their four white walls. Usually in times like this I take to the roof, and survey the sky while the ever-expanding skyline donates its dramatic crests and troughs to the horizon. It’s still too cold though. It’s also one of those rare days where a laziness and restlessness collide in a perfect storm and what results is an atmosphere of unspent energy and bad eating habits. A muffin for breakfast. Corn chips for lunch. Forgetting to eat anything else until it’s 6:30 in the evening and I’m stupidly and spitefully hungry.
The bar is called Mayfield, and it’s as much a restaurant as it is a bar, with its plentiful candlelit tables, warm wood accents, and antique filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Classic, trendy, “Brooklyn.” I ask for a small table, hoping for a quiet corner to indulge alone but I’m told there must be at least two of me for that particular seating arrangement, so smile and nod and sidle up to an empty seat at the bar and order a glass of their Prosecco. It’s called “Hi!” from Veneto, Italy. I am grateful for its cheeky greeting. There is a man and his wife a few seats to my left talking louder than I think they should. To my right is a man in a checked shirt debating which cocktail he should order. I peruse the menu and let the bartender tell me about the specials: head-on prawns served on top of a grit cake with Tasso ham (very appealing) and an 18-ounce, 14 day dry-aged Porterhouse steak served with roasted fingerling potatoes and an arugula salad with Maytag blue cheese. I’m drooling in my head but I have the decorum not to do so in reality. Sometimes.
I opt instead for a slightly lighter fare, an appetizer I had eyed once before during an oyster happy hour with Ian, and one that only a few years ago would have never found its way to my mouth, let alone my table. Chicken liver mousse with toasted baguette, and an apple and fennel salad. It’s hard to think of the type of person I was three years ago, before I ever ventured to live in New York City. It’s hard to quantify the tastes I’ve developed since (mushrooms, olives, liver, to start), or the characteristics I thought defined myself then, characteristics that I no longer embody now, or if maybe I do but to a different degree. Changes are most easily plotted when they’re in the past, perfect points on an expanding web that can’t be seen until the end. Maybe I’m still in the middle. I think about all this while I order my appetizer: tiny chicken organs chopped, sautéed, and whipped with fat.
The slightly drunk man to my left talks food with the bartender in the most contemptible way. He is loud and demanding though he veils it under an interest in food and drink. He makes it apparent that he is also wealthy. He talks to the bartender about polenta, also making it apparent that he knows nothing about polenta, and I admire the bartender’s willingness to oblige, despite his particular occupation’s mandate that he oblige. The loud man asks the bartender if he can get him a sample of the polenta, revealing also that he knows nothing about the service industry or how incredibly irksome it can be to wait on a loud, rude customer who wants to order off the menu. The polenta, which is served like porridge as a bed underneath the veal stew, nonetheless comes out to him in a matter of moments in a bowl on a saucer with a tiny spoon. The customer wins again, though watching his indelicate hands battle the small silver spoon is a victory for me. His wife calls him pushy and he responds, loud enough to be sure the entire room has heard and with hot corn porridge sputtering about his tongue, “No, dear, I’m just a foodie.”
My plate arrives, and the mousse is elegantly contained in a tiny glass jar, equipped with a swinging latched lid as if I might lock up the leftovers and pocket them on my way out. Next to the jar is a tiny ramekin of whole grain mustard, the warm hearth in a Lincoln-log cabin of toasted baguette, sliced on an extreme bias and resembling flat spearheads. Next to the house of bread is a small salad of bitter, adolescent greens tossed with shaved fennel, julienned apples, and what tastes like a champagne vinaigrette. The man next to me says another thing that asserts his status as a pushy foodie and I ignore it in favor of discovering that my baguette slices are not merely toasted but pressed into a pan with olive oil, giving them an aroma like artichokes and a perfectly flat, crisp chew. The people around me are watching sports above the bar and I worry that they’re reading what I’m writing.
I’m intrigued by how self-conscious an act it can be to eat alone. I think of my friend Amanda and the trips she’s taken alone and the conversations with strangers in all sorts of places that have undoubtedly tumbled off her lips. I’m inspired, but also bested by my shy self, retreating into scribbling away in a notebook instead of reaching out to my fellow tipsy humans. I sometimes feel like other people must be the answer to loneliness, but as I eat and write I begin to see that the answer might just be inside myself, locked in a chest where the key is a combination of passion and inspiration. The texture of the mousse is superb, and flavors of fresh rosemary and juniper rise to the surface, the juniper either as an actual ingredient of the dish or merely the foreground flavor of the cool, metallic landscape that hits the palate as each bite leaves my mouth. Like blood, like cold steel, it is balanced by the astringent mustard and broadened by the sparkling wine. In short, it is sublime.
As I take my last few bites I see that the bar has busied up quite substantially. The empty seats to my immediate left and right are now filled, and writing has now become a circus performance of bumping elbows. There are about two sips left of wine in my glass. All signs point to wrapping it up. I think for a moment about a job I recently interviewed for, a job writing for the blog of a renowned food magazine, a job I didn’t get. Sometimes I feel inadequate, even though I told everyone that I wouldn’t. Part of me, and a larger part than I maybe care to admit, believed that sheer will and determination would have landed me a seat in that office, though in reality I was competing with hundreds of other talented butts who wanted that seat just as badly as me. With all the doors that open themselves just to close again before you get through, we have to consider the others that are still yet to open, or better yet, find the ones with loose locks just waiting to unlatch. I remember Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park saying “Hold on to your butts,” and I think that’s gonna be me when I eventually unlock the right doors and make it where I’m meant to be. As I take the last sip and depart, I catch my own eyes between bottles in the mirror behind the bar, I raise my glass to myself and to the solo fliers at the bar around me that have momentarily glanced up from their plates. I resist the urge to say “Hold on to your butts” out loud, (shyness wins again) and instead I silently toast to progress, to my fellow tipsy humans, just as shy as I, and to the ultimate unlocking, wherever it may be.