The Last Man in My Apartment

July 8, 2013 · 20 comments


I say it quietly, under my breath, looking at my shoes.

It’s like when Pandora automatically lets my Facebook friends know that I’m listening to early John Denver. I fumble for public explanation. I drop my iPhone in the toilet while trying to quickly change the station because it’s obviously a mistake. Why am I listening to John Denver in the bathroom. Why am I listening to John Denver at all. And now, 2,315 people know the hideous, vile truth about me: I’m a sap, of epic proportion.

When my friends asked what I was doing for my 50th birthday, I was cagey. I stared at my sandals. I made a wee little joke.

I’m doing what every red-blooded, American liberal creative woman slipping into decrepitude does on their 50th birthday, I said, in my best self-deprecating pose. I’m going to hear Garrison Keillor. Live. At Lenox. With thousands of other American liberal creatives. And then I made some snide comment about the best way to clear the parking lot at Tanglewood:

Will the owner of a silver Prius with the license plate HAP-E MSW please move your car. 

It’s sad to have to resort to pathetic yucksterism of this kind, but perception is a very important thing, isn’t it? I’m a Paris ReviewBernard Henri LevyClaire Messud kind of reader, I insist. No really; I amMy iTunes folder is packed with Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and Robert Thurman lectures from the Rubin. Really. It is. I’ll show it to you if you want to see it.

Just as soon as I pull my iPhone out of the toilet.

(Truth: Yes to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Yes to Robert Thurman and Claire Messud. Yes to the Paris Review, on which I am hopelessly hooked. Yes even to John Denver, whose remarkable prowess on twelve-string guitar went long unrecognized. Bernard Henri-Levy, on the other hand, sometimes makes me want to tear my face off: button up your shirt, sir. Tom Jones, you’re not.)

When I learned that Garrison Keillor was going to be at Lenox on my birthday, I let out a little, slightly embarrassed squeal of delight. All I wanted to do, if I couldn’t go to Paris or eat pho cuon in the Truc Bach section of Hanoi, was sit under a big tent in the heat of a late June evening in the Berkshires, and listen to distinctly American cornball humor at the hands of a man who has made lutefisk a household word among everyone from my Jewish grandmother to the Yemeni refugees who live down the street; a man who is often compelled to sing publicly when he perhaps shouldn’t; a man who talks so sexually about fresh asparagus, and fat blueberries, and warm peach pie that you can smell the musk; a man who had the temerity to make an American poet laureate a regular guest; a man who begins every show, off-the-air, with a proud belting of The Star Spangled Banner sung on key, by a thousand or so standing ex-hippies whose hybrids sit glimmering in the fading sunlight across the road in the grassy parking lot, at least in Lenox.

Like many listeners, I have a very special, deeply personal relationship with Garrison Keillor; from January of 1990 into mid-1992, he was the only man in my apartment. It was a long stretch, even for a lesbian.

I had been through a horrible breakup — the kind that leaves you on the floor, panting, exhausted, kicked to bloody bits — and in my hasty retreat to 602 — the apartment that was home first to my grandparents, and then to my newly divorced father, and then to my widowed grandmother — I found myself alone. My friends, who were making that sickening decision who to remain close to — my ex, or me; she was bubblier but I could cook — refused to come visit: the apartment was an hour and a half from Manhattan on the F train. If I went into the city on a Saturday and stayed out late, I risked a $50 taxi ride or a dodgy nightime walk from the subway station over on Avenue U. So for nearly two years, I didn’t go out on Saturday night.

At all.

Whatever my daytime plans were on Saturdays, I’d be home by six. I’d turn on A Prairie Home Companion, pour myself a glass of wine while I cooked a quick dinner on the stovetop, and then curl up in the foyer chair with my little plate and my glass, listening to this gigantic man with the kind voice talk about quiet things and quiet lives, about hope and expectation and the sheer magnificence in mundanity.

As it happened, I was working for Garrison’s publisher at the time, and his editor, a lovely English lady as petite as Keillor is tall, came into my office one morning and told me that she’d gone to the Metropolitan Opera with him a few days earlier; if memory serves (and it may not; this was a long time ago), it was Gotterdammerungand even though Wagner just plain exhausted her, Katherine couldn’t say no when Garrison invited her, so off she went. The house lights went down, her head went back and she fell asleep and she slept straight through it, which is saying a lot for someone listening to Wagner at the Met, much less a very well-mannered English person.

That Saturday night, settled into the brown paisley foyer chair in my late grandparents’ apartment out in the furthest reaches of Brooklyn, balancing my dinner on my lap and a glass of cheap white wine on the lamp table next to me, I listened to A Prairie Home Companion the way my grandparents had listened to the radio on Saturday nights sixty years earlier. Garrison opened the show with a story about going to the opera that week with a friend who, shortly after the curtain went up, began to snore, and snored through the entire thing. The e-n-t-i-r-e thing. He said the word snore a few times, punctuating it with a sharp change in timbre, to indicate his deep surprise, or distress, or extreme amusement.

That was the closest I ever got to Keillor — that few degrees of separation thing that somehow binds us all to each other. And when I left 602 almost two years later and moved back into Manhattan, to an apartment that was literally right smack in the middle of everything, I found myself either staying home on Saturday nights to listen to Keillor’s show, or going out after eight o’clock, just so I could catch it as I was getting ready for my night out. My friends, my dinner dates — they would all ask: why do you either have to stay home, or meet us after 8? I would just stare at my shoes, in silence. Still, my Saturday nights wouldn’t be the same without him, this tall storyteller and lover of the extraordinary in the plain, who has been the only man in my life for a very long time.

So, it was a good birthday this year; the weather was lovely and although our seats weren’t great — there was almost nothing left once the tickets went on sale — I could see Keillor on stage, reduced by distance to a blue-jacketed, bespeckled blur. When the show was over and Susan took me out for my birthday dinner, we wound up where we had been the night before, at Nudel, a small and remarkable restaurant in Lenox; for a moment, we considered going white tablecloth-fancy — it being my 50th birthday and all — but instead we sat at the counter as we had the previous evening, and ate plates of local, last-of-the-season asparagus roasted on the stovetop and dolloped with fresh goat ricotta.

It wasn’t hip, or cool, or terribly cerebral food. There wasn’t any nage. It was delicious and uncomplicated and honest, just like the radio man I’ve spent every Saturday night with, lo these many years.


Pan-Roasted Asparagus with Goat Ricotta

In a world clotted with nages and snows and gelees and deconstructions, this dish was a breath of fresh air, and a reminder that no matter how wonderful Chef Blahbaddyblah thinks he’s being by turning a trout into a Twinkie, nothing beats fresh, local, seasonal ingredients unfettered by ego. At Nudel in Lenox, this dish was served with a dollop of sunflower seed pesto accompanying the ricotta; I’m still working that out. Until then, omit it or replace it with your favorite pesto if you wish.

Serves 2

1 bunch not-mammoth asparagus, as fresh as you can find them (about 8 spears)

extra virgin olive oil

coarse sea salt

goat ricotta (or failing that, sheep ricotta)

Optional: pesto of your choosing

Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and reserve them in a container in the fridge or freezer for vegetable stock. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Place the asparagus spears in a medium, oven-proof skillet set over medium-high heat, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, just enough to make the spears shimmer. Sprinkle with sea salt, and toss the asparagus, cooking until they turn a bright green, about five to eight minutes. Dollop the spears with a few tablespoons of the ricotta and pop the skillet in the oven for another five minutes, until the cheese has softened and the spears are tender and just this side of blistered.

Serve immediately, with a swipe of pesto across the plate.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amanda July 8, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Timely. Not so much for the asparagus, which has been done-for two months now in California, but the essence, the story, oh storyteller, the secrecy, conspiracy, and–oh, did I say this already–the story.

2 Stacy July 8, 2013 at 12:49 pm

This is going to sounds like fawning so I will apologize right here at the start. Having just passed the half century mark myself, I feel so blessed to live in the age of internet where I can get regular fixes of your beautiful evocative writing. Between you and Jamie Schler, and her Plated Stories today, you have made my Monday. Probably my week. Thank you.

3 Elissa July 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Thank you Stacy!

4 Elissa July 8, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Thanks Amanda-

5 Gale July 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Hey, you know me, and therefore you must know that I have been a died-in-the wool Keillor fan for decades. I always regret, when going out to dinner, that I must assuredly turn him off, as it were, some time during or shortly after Guy Noir. I got to sit on the stage when he was at Wolf Tap– yeah, go ahead and touch me! Tssss!

6 Kurt Friese July 8, 2013 at 1:11 pm

“Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn” – G. Keillor

7 Deborah July 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm

What a perfect birthday, Elissa! The 50th has to be special. I thought I’d wait and celebrate mine a year later because I had a book due, but a good friend insisted otherwise and I’m so glad he did. And the book got done early and all was well. And now for Susan’s birthday . . .

8 Indira Ganesan July 8, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Yes to you!
Many returns of the day!

9 Linda July 8, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Ah, another lover of Garrison Keillor! There were many Saturday nights I spent with him. (I didn’t marry until I was 35. The first thing I did was teach my husband how to cook.)

I just finished reading your lovingly rendered book a few days ago, and feel enriched by it. Blessings for your 50th birthday! I celebrated my 60th back in February with a striper (rock bass) that my sweet husband beautifully prepared with garlic and Tuscan herbs. I am fortunate in having a husband whose hobby is fishing!

I haven’t been to NYC since 1983, but it was a wonderful culinary trip with my cousin – Macy’s for Henkel knives, Zabar’s and Dean and Delucca’s for amazing foods not available in Virginia in the early 80’s. One thing I bought at D & D’s is still in my pantry, glorious in it’s age, and sparingly used – a now 30 year old Gran Deposito Aceto Balsamico di Giuseppe of Moderna. Nowadays you can find it at T J Maxx, but 30 years ago it was a revelation. My cousin poured out a bit of her own bottle in a teaspoon and said, “Taste this.” I couldn’t imagine wanting to swallow a teaspoon of vinegar, for goodness sakes, but I put the spoon in my mouth. And then I savored. Later, after reading that Italian grandmothers had bottles that were aged even longer than that, I decided that this one would be for special occasions, with other bottles used for more everyday meals.

My regards to you and Susan!

10 Diane July 8, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I,too, lived in that place one takes the F train to, but few friends would venture to see me. I appreciate your journey, your sincerity, and your recipes.
Thanks for what you do & share.

11 Laura H. July 9, 2013 at 9:39 am

Ah, Keillor! I started listening to Prairie Home Companion ages ago when I was living in New Hampshire, never knowing I’d wind up in the heart of Minnesota, among the Luthrens and the lutefisk, years later.

I have a collection of the broadcasts on tape, and listened to them as I was giving birth to our first daughter (who is now 21, still hard to believe.) I have never had the chance to see him live, but he’s been a part of my life since, it seems, forever. Thank you for this.

(And I am a Subaru-driving aged hippie. Not quite a Prius, but close…)

12 kristen July 9, 2013 at 6:00 pm

beautiful. absolutely beautiful!

I took my tween boys to see A Prairie Home Companion. For some miraculous reason it came to our po-dunk lil college town in the middle of some wheat fields. I am so glad I did. Keillor is fabulous and the kids got more out of it than I thought they would. Granted mostly from the sound affects guy, lol!

Your writing is amazing. Happy Birthday!

13 Christine July 12, 2013 at 11:15 am

I am finally reading this post, belatedly, while on a brief vacation in Portland and find myself grinning from ear to ear. A long time Keillor fan, back in the days of dating and not settling down I never missed a Saturday night date because in northern California Garrison’s show came on at 3:00 in the afternoon – leaving the evening free for frolicking. What memories you evoke with your words that flow so beautifully on the page. And from one who celebrated 50 a number of years ago I can tell you from considerable experience that decrepitude is still a long way away- from me and from you.
Happy belated birthday.

14 ellamack July 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm

How can 8 spears of asparagus be enough for 1, let alone serve 2??

15 Elissa July 14, 2013 at 4:36 pm

8 spears of asparagus is a large, healthy portion for one (to some, too large): According to the California Asparagus Commission, “one pound of asparagus contains 12-15 spears that typically measure 9-10 inches long and 1/2-3/4 inch thick. One pound serves 2-4 people.”

16 Charlotte July 15, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Happy 50th! I’m not far behind you and contemplating my options … and while I’m not a Prairie Home fan, I do have to confess that my late brother and I once wound up with tickets to a John Denver concert — probably 1985 or 86? And it was one of the Best Concerts Ever. We were outside, way up on the hillside, and that man knew how to put on a show — full orchestra, great music, and both serious about his music and kind of making fun of himself at the same time. (Also, years later, while setting up the tents for the Pebble Beach tournament one year when it had rained and rained and rained, Patrick looked up to see John Denver hovering his helicopter right down over the greens to dry them off, with Clint Eastwood as his passenger).
Happy Birthday ….

17 Ann August 3, 2013 at 11:30 am

It’s hard to imagine a better companion than Prairie Home–particularly in solitude. Same for John Denver, in solitude or not. And at 60+ I can finally admit that I do not like goat anything, even though I know many who would love the recipe above and I might prepare it for friends. Your writing is wonderful. Many thanks.

18 Liz August 8, 2013 at 9:35 am

Happy Belated! Love love love your writing. Thank you for sharing. I’m a transplanted New Yorker living in Nova Scotia Canada. I fell in love with a Haligonian (that’s a native of Halifax) over 20 years ago. We met on vacation in Provincetown. You stir so many wonderful memories of my growing up in NYC, I lived near the number 7 Line myself.
If you love Garrison Keillor, check out Stuart MacLean’s “The Vinyl Café” on CBC radio or online, I think you’ll enjoy it very much.
Thanks again

19 Elissa August 8, 2013 at 9:43 am

Thanks Liz!

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