14 August 2008

So we got to talking about all these secret fraternities, the Montauk, University, Harvard, Century, Lotos and National Arts Clubs. Twenty blocks south, the National Arts Club—founded in 1898—calls its HQ a classic brownstone on the edge of Gramercy Park. That's where I met her. At the bohemian answer to the Yale Club and the first thing we talked about was the score. Some 2,000 National Arts Club members paying $650 a year plus a one time initiation fee of $400. That's like a cool 1.3M right there. Not to mention the one time initiation fee they kept downstairs across from the Exchange.

They used the original 1898 structure to create lush and evocative dining rooms filled with dark wood, cream-coloured walls and beautiful chandeliers. You'd pass through the glass entrance into the grand dining room with 20 foot ceilings to face a gorgeous 20-foot bar and a floor-to-ceiling wall of wine and spirits. And we had the skeleton key. Two young kids hungry and in love with the key to a hidden fortune in cash. Unmarked bills. Just me, her, the key and her Swiss cheekbones as high as a mountain climber gets nosebleeds.

Upon entering, one was always greeted with the sight of a credenza groaning under the weight of large bottles of wine. You could still hear Sinatra's laugh bellowing in those sunken back booths.

A cacophony the smell of tufted crimson leather, Beeswax wood polish and baked clams oreganata with smoky red wine. Somehow it all worked and it was magical. She always had the goat cheese salad. We had a few bottles of Brunello Di Montalcino and got to talking about blood oranges and why egg yolks in Europe are orange compared to the yellow here in the states.

They make Brunello in the vineyards near Montalcino which is about 70 miles southwest of Florence. Brunello is a clone of Sangiovese, which is another Italian grape whose name derives from sanguis Jovis, or "the blood of Jove". In Roman mythology, Jupiter held the same role as your boy Zeus did in the Greek pantheon. The king of the gods. The king of kings. Capo di tutti capi. The boss of bosses.

But I digress...

The vault on the lower level was once J.P. Morgan & Co.'s original bank vault, which was installed by Remington & Sherman Co. in 1902. There's a bar there now in an elongated room, lined with vault doors, two of which showcase their extensive Wine Vault just beyond the 22-foot wood paneled bar.

In the center of the room is the impressive six-foot circular main vault door which opens into the vault itself. The walls are lined with the original antique deposit boxes that lend a rich bronze hue to the room. The dark wood accents, mirrored pillars and classic lighting transport you to another time when JP Morgan and John D. Rockefeller ruled Manhattan. Yeah, well those days are over. And it's just me and the blonde, after hours, drunk, in love, with the skeleton key and close to $2M in cash.

Later we'd talk of expensive and bold cabernets, and warm chocolate truffle cake with chocolate cigarettes and cheesecake with raspberry sauce. But for now our eyes were on the prize and there were only a few hours until the sun came up and the coffee cart guys starting unhooking their stands from their beat up AstroVans.

II. I Married A Mermaid

The shoeshine boys roll by kicking tin cans and whistling a lonely tune. Last thing on his mind right now is a spit shine on his favourite cognac wingtips. But no shine means no cerveza for señorita Saturday night. That's the way the world works. That's the economy in a peanut shell. And it seemed like every little trinket on his desk was hiding its face. A little dragon hides its fierce face behind the framed photo of his wife when she was a kid with a green top hat covering her entire head. A miniature easel frame of Daniel Striped Tiger faces the wall. Even the old black and white postcard of Frida in Diego's big blue overalls seems to be zoning out. Frida staring blankly at something off camera while bathing in the shadows of tree branches in an alley betwixt two houses. Everyone here has someplace they'd rather be. I sat in that car with her for hours just listening to the rain tap dancing on the ragtop. We killed the radio and hit the lights and just sat back and exhaled. It was a long drive from here to there but now we were together at last and alone. Nothing and no one in our rearview except our home. She nudged her small paws into my hands and closed her eyes. I cracked the window just a bit to let the intoxicating smell of wet asphalt in. I watched the steam rise over the dash. Our heat made fog. Lost at sea I heard a buoy's bell clanging desperately. I couldn't imagine life as a buoy. Must be so lonely out there, just you and the tide. I opened my eyes to see if she was still asleep and she was watching me. I looked down and her feet had become fusiform fins just like in the comic books and the movies. She was a mermaid at last. I drove her to the shore and she said goodbye to all her friends. There were whales and porpoises, a crown-of-thorns starfish and a school of beautiful pilot fish. There were Sea turtles and that old chinstrap penguin she'd told me about. I fell in love with the sea otters and gannets most of all. It was bittersweet. Like Czechoslovakian chocolate.

III. Miranda do Douro and I

I was working in pharmaceuticals at the time. Little dot-com start-up thing. Back when that balloon was still in the parade. Funded by The Wellingtons. Don't know 'em? Ask around at any rich tufted leather steakhouse this side of Park. You'll find the answers swimming in the clouds of sweet cherry mahogany cigar smoke and the deep bellowing laughs of the haves.

Just me, Simon James and that damn iceberg wedge. Gorgonzola dressing, bacon and a few grape tomatoes. Simon wore Italian eyeglasses before Prada and Gucci. Before he said a word, you just knew he wasn't from around here. Linen Santorio suits and bright blue Balenciaga socks. Italians pay special attention to detail. Simon would look at you in horror if a thread was hanging off one of your buttons, or your hem was coming apart. So naturally I never took Simon by The Spofford. Well, not during the week at least. But we'll get to that later. And by "that" I mean Simon and The Spofford.

Simon and Karen Miranda would argue well into the moonlight about men and shorts. Karen felt only children should even consider wearing shorts, and they had to be under 12 and the shorts should not be tight or shorter than mid-thigh. It got later and later and these two just would not quit. I started surveying the house for the nearest California King. Just wanted somewhere to rest my head and my father's cognac Gladstone.

Karen was from Portugal. She'd kill me for that if she ever found out. But she won't. Regardless she's actually from Miranda do Douro. And so naturally she was driven to New York for its merciless winters and equally heartless summers.

"A bit of black fruit to go with your Posta à Mirandesa?", Karen mused aloud.

Miranda do Douro was known for its abnormally potent wine. Miranda do Douro is to wine what Budapest is to absinth.

"Sure, but where?", it was late and I had no idea where to find wine at this hour in this town. It would take me an hour just to figure out where we were anyway. Not to mention finding something talented enough and highly oaked. Toasted grains, dry toast finished with some grilled barley. Almonds. That sort of thing. Earthy.

The classification system for Italian wine mirrors that of the French. Italian wines are generally Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata et Garantita (DOCG). These correspond with the Appellation (d'Origine) Contrôlée wines of France, the DOCG wines supposedly with an extra degree of quality. Hey, what do I know?

The fairly recent qualification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) corresponds to France's Vin de Pays wines, whereas the lowest category for Italian wine, Vina da Tavola, accounts for the table wines. Unusually Vina da Tavola has been known to includ some of Italy's top wines, as quality conscious wine makers were excluded from the DOC or DOCG because of the grapes or wine making practices they used. Riots. Murder. Extortion. All over a few bunches of grapes. Can you blame them?

Wines frequently referred to as 'super-Tuscans' are found in the the Italian wine region around Chianti in Tuscany. Makes sense, right? The relaxation of the DOC and DOCG thing was intended to bring the winemakers behind these 'super-Tuscans' back into the fold. In general it hasn't worked. Same way the A.K.C. refuses to recognise the pit bull. Once a rebel, always a rebel. But, none of that really matters now. The so-called super-Tuscans dried up years ago and so off to Piedmont went searching we.

Piedmont is surrounded on three sides by the Alps, including the Monviso, where the Po rises, and the Monte Rosa. It borders with France, Switzerland and the Italian regions of Lombardy, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna and Aosta Valley. And that's where I first met Simon, the Italian Francophone and Karen, the French Lusophone. I knew huit années of French would pay off sooner or later.

Every morning we'd "Alons, enfants de la patrie..." before class. I'd usually be knee deep in back page marble notebook daydreaming by the time we started conjugating verbs and doing the whole fronde/frond, gommer/gum, porche/porch, and traîner/train/trainer thing. Dreaming of sitting around the radio, dreary Sunday in early November and couverture chocolate. Chopping chocolate blocks into small pieces to temper. Two fitted saucepans make a double boiler but mum always called it a bain-marie. Warm petite madeleines dipped in chocolate fondue. Yeah, that too.

I overheard Karen diving into a discussion about vulgar Latin, the Satyricon and Petronius and that was my cue. That's when I decided to turn in for the night. In the morning, I was wistful, everything would work itself out. For now, I buried my head underneath an itchy, olive drab German Army blanket and dreamt of Slippery Nipples and a girl from Cardiff Bay.

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