Diving In The Couve, Or Charlie And The Chocolatte Store

“Careful!” I shouted over to my friend Charlie.  “You’re swaying on that ladder like a metronome!”

“Thanks Mom” he replied.  “You just handle your end of those lights.”

It was two days after Christmas and the Hamers were already taking down the lights and decorations that Charlie had so recently put into place with his usual eye for perfection.  I had no idea how he had accomplished this task by himself, and so I asked him how he had done it.

“Caroline helped me put all of this up” he replied.  “She has a better eye for detail and the aesthetic than I do.”

I doubted that statement.  Charlie Hamer has such a definite knack for attention to detail that I once accused him of having been toilet trained at gunpoint.  That being said, I also knew that Charlie’s wife, Caroline, also had a keen sense of what she wanted, and I was certain that she truly had played a considerable role in arranging the display.  How big a part she played in the actual installation of those lights however is what I had my doubts about.

“So” I asked, “did she supervise while you put this up?”

“Nope” he replied.  “She got up on a ladder and pitched in.”

“Wow man, I’m impressed!” I shouted to him.  “This end has to be eight feet up.  It didn’t bother her?”

“Why should it have?” he shouted back.  “She wasn’t on your end.  She was on mine.”

Charlie and Caroline’s house is build on a hill.  The front of the house is at street level, or maybe just a bit higher, but the northwest corner of the back of the house rises to a height of twenty feet.  The triple extension ladder upon which Charlie was now perched was lodged against the fence between his and his neighbor’s property, and soared up at an uncomfortably steep angle to just above the roof of the house.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked.

“Nope” he answered.  “So stop your whining and let’s get these lights down.  I don’t like it up here any more than you do.”

An hour later we had finished our task.  The lights had been catalogued, rolled up neatly, and stashed in plastic bins.  We had returned to the dining room, where it was a good deal warmer and safer than dangling eight to twenty feet in the air on a thirty six degree day with a ten mile per hour wind.  Charlie and I were seated at the table and Caroline was finishing the assembly of a platter of leftover baked ham, pickles, cheeses, crackers vegetables and other goodies.

“Caroline,” I said.  “Why did you want to take these lights down so soon?  Putting them up had to be a bigger job even than taking them down was.”

We’re replacing them” Caroline replied.  “We’re getting rid of the old incandescent lights and getting LED ones.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Isn’t it wasteful to throw away good lights?”

“No, it isn’t” she replied as she brought the platter over to the table.  “It’s more wasteful to keep burning the old lights.  We’ll put up the LED’s next year.  We’ll sell the old ones, and what we get for them plus what I estimate we’ll save on electricity, we’ll give to Share House.  They’ll use that money to help people who don’t have a house to put any lights on in the first place.”

“You’re a saint” I said, and then as I took my first bite of ham and cheese with jalapeño jelly between two crackers I added “and an angel.”

Don’t talk with your mouth full” she said laughing, as she brushed off my compliment. “You boys eat while I fix us up with some hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate?” I responded, ignoring her instruction about talking with my mouth full.  “I don’t think hot chocolate is really my favorite beverage to have with a feast like this.”

“Don’t speak to quickly” she replied.  “And don’t speak with your mouth full.  Are you hard of hearing?  I’ve got a little surprise for you both, so just  eat and let me work.”

“A surprise?” Charlie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.  “I thought that we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

“A girl’s entitled to one or two secrets, Charlie Hamer” she replied with a playful sniff.  Now you two just help yourselves while I put on the finishing touches.”

Charlie and I applied ourselves to the platter of goodies, and after a few minutes and several more ham-and-cracker sandwiches she set two steaming mugs of brown fluid in front of us.  “Hot Chocolate, boys” she said, and then returned to the kitchen, where she picked up a small plate and brought it over to the table.  “And truffles.  Dig in.”

“Uh, thanks Caroline” I said, “but I’m not really a big chocolate guy.”

“Yeah, I know.  You only like coffee thick as mud.  Manly stuff.  Well, like my nephew once said about sushi; ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.’”

I looked over at Charlie, who had already picked up his mug of chocolate and was blowing on it to cool it down.  “You drink this stuff?” I asked.

“I do when Caroline sets it down in front of me” he replied.  “She’s usually right about things like this.”

I looked at Charlie skeptically, then down at my chocolate, and then back at Caroline.  “So, did you try the sushi?” I asked.

“Yep” was her one-word answer, which I matched with a similar one-word question.

“And?” I asked.

“And I told him that it tasted like crap.  Prometheus went to all that trouble to steal some fire from the gods and give it to us, it makes no sense to me not to use a little of it to cook our food.  Still, I earned the right to judge it by trying it.”  She nodded at me as if her statement had sealed all conversation on the matter.   “Your turn.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic, so I picked up the mug, blew on it for a minute or two, and then took a sip.  Instantly I felt like a kid again.  “Wow, this is good!  I don’t usually like candy and stuff like that, but this is good.”

“I thought that you’d like it” Caroline said just a little bit smugly.  “And just wait until you try your truffle.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Do you have to what?” she asked.

“Do I have to wait?”

“It’s customary to have dessert after the main course” she said, ‘but we don’t stand on formality here.  Knock yourself out.”

I picked up a truffle from the plate and looked it over.  It was a smallish ball of chocolate dusted with crumbs of some sort.  “What is this one?” I asked.

“That’s a rum with hazelnut” Caroline replied.  “Thats hazelnut bits that the truffle’s dusted with.”

I took a small bite and allowed the chocolate to melt in my mouth, releasing the flavors of chocolate, sugar, rum and nuts.  The ingredients blended as the chocolate melted and became one unique, delicious flavor.  “Did you make these?” I asked.

“Wish I could” she replied.  “There’s a little place on Main Street, just south of Mill Plain Boulevard, called Fleur Chocolatte.  It’s where Compass Coffee used to be.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  West side of Main, right?”

“Yep.  That’s the place.  The guy who owns it used to be an ironworker.  Now he mixes and blends and dips some of the best chocolates in Vancouver.”

“Ironworker, eh?” Charlie cut in.  “Those are some tough guys.  Tough as nails.”

“I suppose” Caroline said.  “This one has a pretty good touch, and makes a respectable cup of coffee, too.”

I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had by now cooled enough to drink.  I like for my hot drinks to be less than boiling, and now I could fully appreciate the full, rich flavor of the chocolate and sugar and; what was that other flavor?  I had to ask.

“A little butter and cream” was her answer.  I got that idea from Mike.  You like it?”

“Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Yes.  The owner’s name is Mike.  He’s there all day, making and selling the chocolate and coffee.”

“Well I like it a lot” I told her.  “Is it super expensive?”

“That depends on what you call super expensive.  It’s no more than any other coffee place.  I suppose that if you judge it by the cost of a cup of coffee at Leroy’s,” and at that Caroline wrinkled her nose in exaggerated disgust, “yeah, it’s expensive.”

“Now don’t go knocking Leroy’s” Charlie interposed.  “Best darned grease in Vancouver.  Don’t knock it until you try it,” and at that Charlie and I shared a high five.

“Pigs will fly first” Caroline sniffed.  “The truffles cost what any other treat at a coffee shop would cost.  No, I don’t think it’s expensive at all.”

By now Charlie had picked up and devoured his own truffle; a brandy and raspberry concoction.  “Are there any more?” he asked.

“Not here in the kitchen, but there’s plenty more down at Fleur Chocolatte.  Maybe you can pick some up the next time you come back from Leroy’s.”

“Maybe I will,” Charlie replied.  “Maybe I will.”

 

 

Diving In The Couve, Part II

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATTE STORE

“Careful!” I shouted over to my friend Charlie.  “You’re swaying on that ladder like a metronome!”

“Thanks Mom” he replied.  “You just handle your end of those lights.”

It was two days after Christmas and the Hamers were already taking down the lights and decorations that Charlie had so recently put into place with his usual eye for perfection.  I had no idea how he had accomplished this task by himself, and so I asked him how he had done it.

“Caroline helped me put all of this up” he replied.  “She has a better eye for detail and the aesthetic than I do.”

I doubted that statement.  Charlie Hamer has such a definite knack for attention to detail that I once accused him of having been toilet trained at gunpoint.  That being said, I also knew that Charlie’s wife, Caroline, also had a keen sense of what she wanted, and I was certain that she truly had played a considerable role in arranging the display.  How big a part she played in the actual installation of those lights however is what I had my doubts about.

“So” I asked, “did she supervise while you put this up?”

“Nope” he replied.  “She got up on a ladder and pitched in.”

“Wow man, I’m impressed!” I shouted to him.  “This end has to be eight feet up.  It didn’t bother her?”

“Why should it have?” he shouted back.  “She wasn’t on your end.  She was on mine.”

Charlie and Caroline’s house is build on a hill.  The front of the house is at street level, or maybe just a bit higher, but the northwest corner of the back of the house rises to a height of twenty feet.  The triple extension ladder upon which Charlie was now perched was lodged against the fence between his and his neighbor’s property, and soared up at an uncomfortably steep angle to just above the roof of the house.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked.

“Nope” he answered.  “So stop your whining and let’s get these lights down.  I don’t like it up here any more than you do.”

An hour later we had finished our task.  The lights had been catalogued, rolled up neatly, and stashed in plastic bins.  We had returned to the dining room, where it was a good deal warmer and safer than dangling eight to twenty feet in the air on a thirty six degree day with a ten mile per hour wind.  Charlie and I were seated at the table and Caroline was finishing the assembly of a platter of leftover baked ham, pickles, cheeses, crackers vegetables and other goodies.

“Caroline,” I said.  “Why did you want to take these lights down so soon?  Putting them up had to be a bigger job even than taking them down was.”

We’re replacing them” Caroline replied.  “We’re getting rid of the old incandescent lights and getting LED ones.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Isn’t it wasteful to throw away good lights?”

“No, it isn’t” she replied as she brought the platter over to the table.  “It’s more wasteful to keep burning the old lights.  We’ll put up the LED’s next year.  We’ll sell the old ones, and what we get for them plus what I estimate we’ll save on electricity, we’ll give to Share House.  They’ll use that money to help people who don’t have a house to put any lights on in the first place.”

“You’re a saint” I said, and then as I took my first bite of ham and cheese with jalapeño jelly between two crackers I added “and an angel.”

Don’t talk with your mouth full” she said laughing, as she brushed off my compliment. “You boys eat while I fix us up with some hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate?” I responded, ignoring her instruction about talking with my mouth full.  “I don’t think hot chocolate is really my favorite beverage to have with a feast like this.”

“Don’t speak to quickly” she replied.  “And don’t speak with your mouth full.  Are you hard of hearing?  I’ve got a little surprise for you both, so just  eat and let me work.”

“A surprise?” Charlie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.  “I thought that we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

“A girl’s entitled to one or two secrets, Charlie Hamer” she replied with a playful sniff.  Now you two just help yourselves while I put on the finishing touches.”

Charlie and I applied ourselves to the platter of goodies, and after a few minutes and several more ham-and-cracker sandwiches she set two steaming mugs of brown fluid in front of us.  “Hot Chocolate, boys” she said, and then returned to the kitchen, where she picked up a small plate and brought it over to the table.  “And truffles.  Dig in.”

“Uh, thanks Caroline” I said, “but I’m not really a big chocolate guy.”

“Yeah, I know.  You only like coffee thick as mud.  Manly stuff.  Well, like my nephew once said about sushi; ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.’”

I looked over at Charlie, who had already picked up his mug of chocolate and was blowing on it to cool it down.  “You drink this stuff?” I asked.

“I do when Caroline sets it down in front of me” he replied.  “She’s usually right about things like this.”

I looked at Charlie skeptically, then down at my chocolate, and then back at Caroline.  “So, did you try the sushi?” I asked.

“Yep” was her one-word answer, which I matched with a similar one-word question.

“And?” I asked.

“And I told him that it tasted like crap.  Prometheus went to all that trouble to steal some fire from the gods and give it to us, it makes no sense to me not to use a little of it to cook our food.  Still, I earned the right to judge it by trying it.”  She nodded at me as if her statement had sealed all conversation on the matter.   “Your turn.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic, so I picked up the mug, blew on it for a minute or two, and then took a sip.  Instantly I felt like a kid again.  “Wow, this is good!  I don’t usually like candy and stuff like that, but this is good.”

“I thought that you’d like it” Caroline said just a little bit smugly.  “And just wait until you try your truffle.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Do you have to what?” she asked.

“Do I have to wait?”

“It’s customary to have dessert after the main course” she said, ‘but we don’t stand on formality here.  Knock yourself out.”

I picked up a truffle from the plate and looked it over.  It was a smallish ball of chocolate dusted with crumbs of some sort.  “What is this one?” I asked.

“That’s a rum with hazelnut” Caroline replied.  “Thats hazelnut bits that the truffle’s dusted with.”

I took a small bite and allowed the chocolate to melt in my mouth, releasing the flavors of chocolate, sugar, rum and nuts.  The ingredients blended as the chocolate melted and became one unique, delicious flavor.  “Did you make these?” I asked.

“Wish I could” she replied.  “There’s a little place on Main Street, just south of Mill Plain Boulevard, called Fleur Chocolatte.  It’s where Compass Coffee used to be.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  West side of Main, right?”

“Yep.  That’s the place.  The guy who owns it used to be an ironworker.  Now he mixes and blends and dips some of the best chocolates in Vancouver.”

“Ironworker, eh?” Charlie cut in.  “Those are some tough guys.  Tough as nails.”

“I suppose” Caroline said.  “This one has a pretty good touch, and makes a respectable cup of coffee, too.”

I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had by now cooled enough to drink.  I like for my hot drinks to be less than boiling, and now I could fully appreciate the full, rich flavor of the chocolate and sugar and; what was that other flavor?  I had to ask.

“A little butter and cream” was her answer.  I got that idea from Mike.  You like it?”

“Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Yes.  The owner’s name is Mike.  He’s there all day, making and selling the chocolate and coffee.”

“Well I like it a lot” I told her.  “Is it super expensive?”

“That depends on what you call super expensive.  It’s no more than any other coffee place.  I suppose that if you judge it by the cost of a cup of coffee at Leroy’s,” and at that Caroline wrinkled her nose in exaggerated disgust, “yeah, it’s expensive.”

“Now don’t go knocking Leroy’s” Charlie interposed.  “Best darned grease in Vancouver.  Don’t knock it until you try it,” and at that Charlie and I shared a high five.

“Pigs will fly first” Caroline sniffed.  “The truffles cost what any other treat at a coffee shop would cost.  No, I don’t think it’s expensive at all.”

By now Charlie had picked up and devoured his own truffle; a brandy and raspberry concoction.  “Are there any more?” he asked.

“Not here in the kitchen, but there’s plenty more down at Fleur Chocolatte.  Maybe you can pick some up the next time you come back from Leroy’s.”

“Maybe I will,” Charlie replied.  “Maybe I will.”

 

 

 

 

Diving In The Couve

Charlie and the Chocolatte Store

“Careful!” I shouted over to my friend Charlie.  “You’re swaying on that ladder like a metronome!”

“Thanks Mom” he replied.  “You just handle your end of those lights.”

It was two days after Christmas and the Hamers were already taking down the lights and decorations that Charlie had so recently put into place with his usual eye for perfection.  I had no idea how he had accomplished this task by himself, and so I asked him how he had done it.

“Caroline helped me put all of this up” he replied.  “She has a better eye for detail and the aesthetic than I do.”

I doubted that statement.  Charlie Hamer has such a definite knack for attention to detail that I once accused him of having been toilet trained at gunpoint.  That being said, I also knew that Charlie’s wife, Caroline, also had a keen sense of what she wanted, and I was certain that she truly had played a considerable role in arranging the display.  How big a part she played in the actual installation of those lights however is what I had my doubts about.

“So” I asked, “did she supervise while you put this up?”

“Nope” he replied.  “She got up on a ladder and pitched in.”

“Wow man, I’m impressed!” I shouted to him.  “This end has to be eight feet up.  It didn’t bother her?”

“Why should it have?” he shouted back.  “She wasn’t on your end.  She was on mine.”

Charlie and Caroline’s house is build on a hill.  The front of the house is at street level, or maybe just a bit higher, but the northwest corner of the back of the house rises to a height of twenty feet.  The triple extension ladder upon which Charlie was now perched was lodged against the fence between his and his neighbor’s property, and soared up at an uncomfortably steep angle to just above the roof of the house.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked.

“Nope” he answered.  “So stop your whining and let’s get these lights down.  I don’t like it up here any more than you do.”

An hour later we had finished our task.  The lights had been catalogued, rolled up neatly, and stashed in plastic bins.  We had returned to the dining room, where it was a good deal warmer and safer than dangling eight to twenty feet in the air on a thirty six degree day with a ten mile per hour wind.  Charlie and I were seated at the table and Caroline was finishing the assembly of a platter of leftover baked ham, pickles, cheeses, crackers vegetables and other goodies.

“Caroline,” I said.  “Why did you want to take these lights down so soon?  Putting them up had to be a bigger job even than taking them down was.”

We’re replacing them” Caroline replied.  “We’re getting rid of the old incandescent lights and getting LED ones.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Isn’t it wasteful to throw away good lights?”

“No, it isn’t” she replied as she brought the platter over to the table.  “It’s more wasteful to keep burning the old lights.  We’ll put up the LED’s next year.  We’ll sell the old ones, and what we get for them plus what I estimate we’ll save on electricity, we’ll give to Share House.  They’ll use that money to help people who don’t have a house to put any lights on in the first place.”

“You’re a saint” I said, and then as I took my first bite of ham and cheese with jalapeño jelly between two crackers I added “and an angel.”

Don’t talk with your mouth full” she said laughing, as she brushed off my compliment. “You boys eat while I fix us up with some hot chocolate.”

“Hot chocolate?” I responded, ignoring her instruction about talking with my mouth full.  “I don’t think hot chocolate is really my favorite beverage to have with a feast like this.”

“Don’t speak to quickly” she replied.  “And don’t speak with your mouth full.  Are you hard of hearing?  I’ve got a little surprise for you both, so just  eat and let me work.”

“A surprise?” Charlie asked, pretending to be hurt by this revelation.  “I thought that we weren’t going to keep secrets from each other.”

“A girl’s entitled to one or two secrets, Charlie Hamer” she replied with a playful sniff.  Now you two just help yourselves while I put on the finishing touches.”

Charlie and I applied ourselves to the platter of goodies, and after a few minutes and several more ham-and-cracker sandwiches she set two steaming mugs of brown fluid in front of us.  “Hot Chocolate, boys” she said, and then returned to the kitchen, where she picked up a small plate and brought it over to the table.  “And truffles.  Dig in.”

“Uh, thanks Caroline” I said, “but I’m not really a big chocolate guy.”

“Yeah, I know.  You only like coffee thick as mud.  Manly stuff.  Well, like my nephew once said about sushi; ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.'”

I looked over at Charlie, who had already picked up his mug of chocolate and was blowing on it to cool it down.  “You drink this stuff?” I asked.

“I do when Caroline sets it down in front of me” he replied.  “She’s usually right about things like this.”

I looked at Charlie skeptically, then down at my chocolate, and then back at Caroline.  “So, did you try the sushi?” I asked.

“Yep” was her one-word answer, which I matched with a similar one-word question.

“And?” I asked.

“And I told him that it tasted like crap.  Prometheus went to all that trouble to steal some fire from the gods and give it to us, it makes no sense to me not to use a little of it to cook our food.  Still, I earned the right to judge it by trying it.”  She nodded at me as if her statement had sealed all conversation on the matter.   “Your turn.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic, so I picked up the mug, blew on it for a minute or two, and then took a sip.  Instantly I felt like a kid again.  “Wow, this is good!  I don’t usually like candy and stuff like that, but this is good.”

“I thought that you’d like it” Caroline said just a little bit smugly.  “And just wait until you try your truffle.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Do you have to what?” she asked.

“Do I have to wait?”

“It’s customary to have dessert after the main course” she said, ‘but we don’t stand on formality here.  Knock yourself out.”

I picked up a truffle from the plate and looked it over.  It was a smallish ball of chocolate dusted with crumbs of some sort.  “What is this one?” I asked.

“That’s a rum with hazelnut” Caroline replied.  “Thats hazelnut bits that the truffle’s dusted with.”

I took a small bite and allowed the chocolate to melt in my mouth, releasing the flavors of chocolate, sugar, rum and nuts.  The ingredients blended as the chocolate melted and became one unique, delicious flavor.  “Did you make these?” I asked.

“Wish I could” she replied.  “There’s a little place on Main Street, just south of Mill Plain Boulevard, called Fleur Chocolatte.  It’s where Compass Coffee used to be.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  West side of Main, right?”

“Yep.  That’s the place.  The guy who owns it used to be an ironworker.  Now he mixes and blends and dips some of the best chocolates in Vancouver.”

“Ironworker, eh?” Charlie cut in.  “Those are some tough guys.  Tough as nails.”

“I suppose” Caroline said.  “This one has a pretty good touch, and makes a respectable cup of coffee, too.”

I took another sip of the hot chocolate, which had by now cooled enough to drink.  I like for my hot drinks to be less than boiling, and now I could fully appreciate the full, rich flavor of the chocolate and sugar and; what was that other flavor?  I had to ask.

“A little butter and cream” was her answer.  I got that idea from Mike.  You like it?”

“Mike?” Charlie asked.

“Yes.  The owner’s name is Mike.  He’s there all day, making and selling the chocolate and coffee.”

“Well I like it a lot” I told her.  “Is it super expensive?”

“That depends on what you call super expensive.  It’s no more than any other coffee place.  I suppose that if you judge it by the cost of a cup of coffee at Leroy’s,” and at that Caroline wrinkled her nose in exaggerated disgust, “yeah, it’s expensive.”

“Now don’t go knocking Leroy’s” Charlie interposed.  “Best darned grease in Vancouver.  Don’t knock it until you try it,” and at that Charlie and I shared a high five.

“Pigs will fly first” Caroline sniffed.  “The truffles cost what any other treat at a coffee shop would cost.  No, I don’t think it’s expensive at all.”

By now Charlie had picked up and devoured his own truffle; a brandy and raspberry concoction.  “Are there any more?” he asked.

“Not here in the kitchen, but there’s plenty more down at Fleur Chocolatte.  Maybe you can pick some up the next time you come back from Leroy’s.”

“Maybe I will,” Charlie replied.  “Maybe I will.”

 

 

 

 

 

Diving in the Couve

What follows is the first of a series of conversations that I have with Charlie Hamer, an old friend of mine.  Charlie enjoys eating at restaurants, not as a food critic or a connoisseur, but as a simple working man who has learned to enjoy the pleasant things of life.  The title of this series comes from the idea of seeing the many places where a guy might get a plate of food in Vancouver Washington and surrounding areas, picking one and just diving in.  I hope that you enjoy the short stories and are inspired to try, or avoid, some of the places that Charlie mentions.

 

I had breakfast with my friend Charlie Hamer this morning.  That’s not an unusual occurrence.  Charlie is an old friend of mine who long ago paid me to help out on his construction projects.  I wasn’t much good at the construction trades but I poured a lot of energy into my work.  He paid me enough to attend and graduate from a community college with a degree in a much less physically demanding line of work than construction.  Charlie told me that he admired my dogged determination to be useful when it was obvious that the work didn’t come to me naturally, and I have been grateful for his generosity ever since.

Usually we meet at some restaurant or other around town.  Charlie loves to eat out, even though his wife, Carline, is a very capable woman in the kitchen when she has time to cook.  Charlie is best kept out of a kitchen.  He went through a couple of pretty rough years a while back, and a remarkable waitress at a remarkably unremarkable restaurant in downtown Vancouver played a big part in his process of rejoining the world of the living.  He has had a special place in his heart for restaurants, restaurant food, and the people who work in restaurants ever since.

On this particular day I had Charlie sitting at the small, square table in my small, square dining room.  I had cooked up some sausage and eggs, fried potatoes and collard greens.  Hey, I’m Southern, and that’s what you get at my place.  Charlie was just happy that I didn’t put grits and sardines on the table.

“I had some real food last night” he said, inferring that what I was serving him was not real food.

“Come on man” I retorted.  “You’re packing away my groceries fast enough, and this stuff is better than what Tank cooks for you down at Leroy’s.  I’ve eaten there once, and I know.”

“Don’t knock Tank’s grease and salt” Charlie said while pointing a fork menacingly close to my nose.  “I don’t know anyone else who can turn out a breakfast that you can either eat or use to lube your differential gear with equally gratifying results.  You oughtta show some respect.”

“Yeah, yeah” I said, and refilled his coffee mug.  “So where did you eat last night?”

“It’s a place called Rally Pizza.  It’s down in what used to be called Garrison Square.  You know, the strip mall that Caroline picked up for cheap back when we began dating?”  My blank look was all Charlie needed to see.  “It’s that place where we tore half of it down, restored the remaining half and rebuilt the first half from the ground up.  It’s called ‘The Mill’ now, and has a bunch of new restaurants and businesses there.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know where you mean.  It’s just west of Peace Health Hospital on Mill Plain, right?”

“Yeah, that’s the place.  Give me some more of those potatoes.”

“Man” I said.  “You got a hollow leg or something?”

“Shut up and give me the spuds” he replied.

I handed the bowl of potatoes to Charlie.  He spooned out the last of them onto his plate and returned to his main point.  “Anyway, there’s a pizza place there and I tried it for the first time.  Caroline and I took Lucas, her nephew.  Kid is a linebacker for Washington State and eats like a horse!  I ordered this thing called  Pizza Bolognese.  Lucas got a pepperoni and Caroline got a salad and some roasted vegetables.  She abstained from the pizza; said that she had to maintain her girlish figure.”

“Is the food any good?” I asked as I chewed the last of my sausage.

“Yeah” Charlie replied.  Pretty good.  The crust is thin, and I’m used to thick crust pizzas.  The toppings are thin too, but I found that I liked the combo a lot.  I didn’t think that I would, either.  You know how I like a small mountain of pepperoni and sausage and shrooms and jalapeños and so on.  Well, I wondered how this pizza was going to fill me up.”

I looked at the last of the potatoes which followed the eggs and sausage patties that had proceeded them into the bottomless pit that was Charlie’s stomach and wondered how a thin crust pizza could fill that void.  “And did it?”  I asked

“Yeah, it did.  I ate the whole thing, to be sure, but it was light enough that I didn’t feel like I was stuffed, and filling enough that I didn’t feel like I needed any more.”

“Humph” I grunted.  “Maybe I’ll try it.”

“You could do a lot worse” Charlie said.  “Lucas’ pepperoni was a little more substantial, but the same thin crust and tasty sauce.  He killed his pizza too, and had half of Caroline’s roasted veggies.”

“She didn’t eat any pizza?” I asked.

“Naw.  She ordered a Market Salad, and they brought a big bowl of salad that was meal enough for her, and a nice helping of roasted veggies; looked like sweet potato and carrot and stuff like that.  She couldn’t finish half of the roasted veggies, and Lucas polished them off.”

I picked up an armload of empty plates and bowls and carried them to the sink.  A fresh pot of coffee sat in the coffeemaker and I brought it over to the table and refilled our cups.  “So” I asked.  “You intend to go back?”

“Yeah, I’ll go back there.  You know, it’s not like a flavor explosion in your face, but it’s a good, mellow pizza at a good price.  The service is good too.  Yeah, I’ll go back.”

“Maybe I’ll give it a shot” I said.

“I recommend it” Charlie replied.  “Good drinks and desserts too.”

After that Charlie gave off a loud belch (“That’s old Walt’s influence on me” he said) and we went on to a different topic.  I made a mental note however that I would soon go to Rally Pizza to check it out for myself.

 

A visit to the Monastery

Today I returned from three days at the Trappist monastery of “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” located just outside of Lafayette, Oregon, and in literally feels like I have been crossing between two worlds.  Here, back home, I have shopped for the next few days’ meals, checked my Facebook app several times, spoken with a graphic designer about a cover for my soon-to-be-self-published novel (way to expensive!  Who does he think I am, Stephen King?), and washed a load of clothes.  You know, the usual routine.  There back at the monastery, well, it’s a whole different world indeed.

The setting is typical western Oregon.  Rolling hills, miles of vineyards and hazelnut orchards, new growth evergreen forests and leafless deciduous trees.  Our Lady is nestled at the base of a hill that climbs to 1,000 feet.  I know this because I climbed it.  The main buildings, from my visitors’ perspective, was the church, a place for group studies called the Bethany House, the office/book store/dining room, and the guest residences.  Hidden behind trees and fences is the world where the monks live, and what happens there I could only guess.

We rolled in, registered in the office, carried our gear into our residence, and then separated for the most part.  My wife is working on a curriculum for our church and I am writing my third book, and we had agreed beforehand that our time together would be minimal.  She had a small room in the upstairs of our cabin and I had one downstairs (the colder one!).  Bathroom and shower were on the middle floor, where the only outside door was located.

Once my gear was put away I did – nothing.  At 69 years of age and after a heart attack and bypass surgery three and a half years ago, I don’t have the horsepower that I once did.  I work thirty two hours per week and pulled a twelve hour shift the day before we left.  To state it plainly, I was exhausted.  In my room was a rocking chair.  I pulled it up in front of the window, rested the heels of my feet on the window sill, and allowed my mind and my body to be still.  Outside the window I could see another cabin, and behind that a forest of moss-covered deciduous trees and a variety of evergreens.  A wind blew through them, and the evergreens swayed softly while dead but stubborn leaves twittered on gnarled branches of the maples and other trees in my view.  I thought about the many decades that made up the lives of those trees and the mere season that summed up the life of the yellow and brown leaves, and thought about where my life would fit in such a picture.

After a few hours of resting body, soul and mind, I rose up to attend my first mass.  I won’t pretend to know much about Catholic practices, but I’m pretty certain that when they do something official in the church it’s called a mass.  The masses have names, too.  There’s Vigil and Lauds which are done in the early morning, and Vespers and Compline and something else that eludes my memory that are done in the afternoon and evening.  There appears to be some variation in the quantity of masses from one monastery to another, because when I spent a week at a Benedictine monastery in northern New Mexico several years ago there were more masses, especially in the dark hours.

There was no rule about attending those masses.  Not, at least, for us ‘retreatants.’  We could go or not, as we chose.  I chose to go, but I quickly learned that there was an entirely different thing going on than I was accustomed to at my Protestant church.  A group of mostly older men shuffled into their area in the western end of the church building and sat on opposite sides, facing each other.  The handful of people observing this mass sat on some very hard wooden benches on the east side of the building.

I quickly noticed that many of the men were badly bent over.  One old fellow literally shuffled along at a 90 degree angle!  I’ve seen some rather severe cases of scoliosis at the hospital where I work, but I would say that between 15 and 20 percent of the monks that I saw showed some degree of the deformity, and that is a far higher percentage than one would expect to see in the population at large.

As I recall, the monks at the Benedictine monastery did not show any such large percentage of that deformity.  Frankly, I don’t recall seeing it at all.  This observation jogged my memory as to some medieval art which portrayed monks and other religious figures as having their heads at odd, unnatural angles.  I originally chalked that up to a primitive, two dimensional art style of the time, or perhaps the result of monks being hunched over a candle, copying and saving ancient manuscripts for hours on end in cold and dark stone monasteries.  But here I was seeing this in the first half of the twenty first century.  Is this a cultural thing with this group?  Something that announces the attainment of some maturity?  Or sanctity?  I don’t know and I didn’t ask.  It is whatever it is.

The Catholic masses which I witnessed at Our Lady were very different from anything I know.  In northern New Mexico we were given ‘songbooks’ (if what those monks chanted could be called a song), and we retreatants could join in if we were so disposed.  At “Our Lady” we occupied the role of witnesses rather than participants.  At least, that’s how I perceived it.  I wondered about that observation.  We were clearly not viewing a performance.  The monks chanted out of tune, mostly, and the organ player was clearly third string.  No, it wasn’t about observing an event.  Was it about joining the monks as a partner if we so chose, but at some level other than the physical?  I can probably carry a tune better than what I heard there, and in a day or two could put in a better performance on the organ.  But this wasn’t about voice or instrument.  There was something here that connected ages and cultures.  Did I want a part in that?  I wasn’t sure.  It was quite foreign to me.  It was relaxing however, and felt like I was entering into a very ancient river with a soft current that ran strong nonetheless.  I am still thinking about it, trying to get a handle on the whole thing.

I had lots of space and lots of solitude and lots of bad food and coffee.  The Trappists are not big on creature comforts, and when I went into the dining room and saw a jar of instant coffee crystals, I know that things could get dicey.  Here in the Northwest, when I go to a restaurant and order something made with beef, I want to know the name of the cow it came from and whether or not that cow had a good life.

Well, no sweat there at the monastery.  I only saw one serving of meat my entire three days there, and that was fish.  Not even a Portland hipster expects people to name their fish.  There was lots of bread, none of which was baked at the monastery I believe, vegetables, soups, beans and so on, but it was as plain as you can get.  Plenty of it, but really plain.  And if you don’t eat it all at supper, you’ll get it heated up again for dinner (or is it the other way around?).  We brought a bag full of snacks and grazed out of it liberally.

It was too cold and wet to do much walking around for most of our visit, but I did take a morning hike on the second morning there, to a ridge on the hills to the east of us.  The weather looked promising so I took an umbrella, just in case, and struck out on a trail which led eventually to a shrine at the top of the ridge.  Almost from the beginning the trail was an uphill climb.  Only at a few scattered places on that one mile long and one thousand foot climb was it flat.  And that only meant that it was muddy.

I climbed up through low-hanging clouds, through deciduous and then evergreen forest, and finally to the crest of the hill.  I came at last to a clearing where a brick and wood shrine rested.  It was covered with moss and a tiny roof protected a picture of a woman who I assumed to be “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  I stood in front of her, trying to control my breathing and sensing a headache that was trying to blossom behind my watering eyes and running nose.  “I’d be happier to see Our Lady of CPR” I thought.

Even so, although I couldn’t connect with the spiritual aspect of the shrine and those who left necklaces and candles and seashells and such there, I was aware of an intersection between the seen and known, and that which was felt and believed, and I was glad that I had made the muddy, sloppy, exhausting trip up there.

In the end, I succeeded in what I set out to accomplish.  I finished reading a book that I had been working on for some time, and wrote two chapters in the book that I hope to complete.  Alone in the Bethany House, or in the common room near our cabin, or in my rocking chair with my feet in the window sill, I read and wrote and meditated, and generally refreshed myself.  It was obvious that I missed a lot of what was going on because I have no background knowledge of Catholic practices or spirituality.  That was never a problem however.  I was received there as a respected outsider and was welcomed without reservation.  I could not hope for better than I experienced.