Saturday, June 30, 2018

New York City Bagels


I think that, in general, New York City is overrated. Probably this is because of cognitive dissonance … the people who live and suffer there need to overrate everything to justify their perseverance. Granted, I’m basing this largely on the testimony of one friend, who grew up there, assumed it was the only place to be, came out to California for vacation, came to his senses, and never went back.

When several people emphatically told me that you couldn’t get a real bagel outside of NYC, I was tempted to ignore them. So often, overzealous opinions like this are an attempt to promote the speaker in some kind of epicurean hierarchy. However, I have also been inclined to trust this assertion, because these were unashamed Californians promoting NYC bagels, and ones whom I respect. So, during a recent business trip, I made a pilgrimage to a highly rated Manhattan bagel joint to see for myself. Read on for my shocking verdict.

But first…

First, let me bag on NYC some more. (This is to establish my cred as a NYC skeptic, and because most of my readers aren’t from NYC and thus might enjoy this criticism for its own sake.) The weather during my visit was perfect … for NYC. Mild, sunny, but a bit muggy, pleasant enough, but it had nothing on our everyday weather in the Bay Area. The people-watching is admittedly great in NYC, but there are far more people than you really need to see. It’s the only place I’ve been to where bad traffic isn’t just a vehicular phenomenon. The sidewalks are absolutely thronged. It’s kind of hard to move.

I went to the best-rated restaurants I could find, by searching on “best restaurant near me” across Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Google and seeing what places came up on all three top-ten lists. Generally this meant places with a 30- to 60-minute wait on a weekday evening. First we had New York style pizza that was supposed to be among the best, and it was, well … fine. Good, in fact, but not actually as good as what I can get 0.6 miles from my home. Two appetizers, three drinks, and one pizza between the two of us ran $120. The next dinner was at this Zagat-rated Italian place where the food was decent but unremarkable, for even more money.

In case you want more objective input, neither place had any local beers on draft . The second place had no draft beer at all and nothing local in bottles. Beer at both places was $9 a pop. The emperor is wearing $400 jeans and a $180 t-shirt.

Planning my pilgrimage

Before heading out for bagels on the last morning of my trip, I did some research to find the best place. Here’s what I found. Thrillist, the first hit when I googled “best bagel in nyc,” says Ess-a-Bagel is the best. The next hit, Grubstreet, ranks Utopia Bagels as number one, but that’s way the hell out in Queens. Grubstreet ranks Ess-a-Bagel as 5th best, so I continued investigating that one. says Ess-a-Bagel is 3rd best. Foursquare ranks it 4th. Gothamist ranks it 2nd. Yelp is useless here because there’s a place called Best Bagels that outsmarts Yelp’s query engine. (Well played, Best Bagels.) Since Ess-a-Bagel wasn’t terribly far from my hotel, I chose it. Knowing I might face a serious wait once I reached my destination, I wasn’t about to spend more than half an hour walking anywhere.

(Of course New Yorkers could debate the topic of “best bagel in NYC” ad infinitum, and probably get in a fistfight over it, but I figured this collection of ratings—five top-5s—was good enough. If New York bagels are really all that, you should be able to pick a place practically at random and totally score. At least, that’s how it is with taquerias in San Francisco.)

Notwithstanding my skepticism toward all things NYC, I was pretty optimistic that my bagel would be worth the trip. I based this on the glowing praise of New York bagels I’d encountered in The New Yorker, particularly the article “The Magic Bagel” by Calvin Trillin (March 27, 2000). (No, I don’t carry a folded-up copy of this article around in my helmet. I’d merely held a vague recollection that a solid writer had praised NYC bagels. Only just now did I chase down the precise source.)

At the same time, I was prepared for disappointment, based on my fruitless quest to find a good cheesesteak in Philly. I was there for the better part of a week, a couple decades ago, and ate almost nothing but cheesesteaks the whole time in search of a good one. I interviewed cabbies, newsstand guys, and assorted locals for recommendations, but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. “Yeah, you can find cheesesteaks here,” was the typical response, delivered with about as much enthusiasm as I’d have if a tourist asked me, “Can you get Oreos in Berkeley?” Every cheesesteak I had in Philly was the same: bland spongy white roll without a hint of character, like Wonder bread; greasy ribbons of uniform grey meat; a layer of Velveeta the consistency of duck shit; not a particle of vegetable matter. When I asked about peppers and onions I just got a blank stare. Ditto when I asked about getting any cheese other than Velveeta. It turns out that Philly cheesesteak sandwiches are enjoyable in inverse proportion to their authenticity. If you want a good one, I highly recommend San Francisco. With that in mind, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that the NYC bagel could be equally disappointing.

The one-star reviews of Ess-a-Bagel

Having tentatively settled on Ess-a-Bagel, I perused the one-star reviews. This wasn’t because I actually expected to change my mind (unless I came across a shocker like “this place only has whole-wheat!” or “the bagels are made once a week and come pre-packaged in plastic bags!”). It’s just that I almost can’t resist one-star reviews—they’re a guilty pleasure .

I didn’t find any real jewels among these reviews (most of them were about how rude the staff was, blah blah blah) but a few stood out. One was a long tale of how the reviewer had big important plans and thus placed her order online, only to discover when she arrived that it wasn’t ready yet (imagine!) and then they couldn’t seem to find it, and she waited and waited, and then discovered that her order had been ready for some time but they hadn’t told her, etc. Myself, I really don’t care if a bagel joint is proficient at the Internet ordering game. That’s IT stuff. (I’m sure Chipotle could handle online ordering just fine, but that doesn’t mean they know the first thing about making good burritos.)

Next, a one-star reviewer from Orange County complained, “The decor is horrible.” Décor? Who cares? Honestly, if I discovered that proper bagels had to be dug up from the dirt like potatoes, I wouldn’t care. Then, a reviewer named Kelsea titled her review “Confusing.” I love that. An entire experience distilled to one word. Her review says, “I stayed in the hotel to rest and my husband walked over to the 3rd Ave location.” Resting? Why was she so tired? Could this have compromised her experience? After all, it does take a lot of jaw energy to chew a good bagel. Anyway, what confused her is that her order was wrong. Is that actually confusing? I mean, it happens. Kelsea continued, “I did have a bagel and it was very nice and fluffy on the inside. Unfortunately, they weren't sliced, so we had to scoop the cream cheese onto it.” Um … is your lack of a knife really Ess-a-Bagel’s fault?

The Ess-a-Bagel

Okay, then, on to my own experience. First of all, in the amateur-review spirit of giving all kinds of irrelevant personal information, I must disclose that NYC blocks are really long, like a quarter mile, and I was wearing dress shoes because it’s all I brought on my trip, and after having walked for 3½ hours the evening before (highlight: Central Park has fireflies!), my feet were in a world of hurt. Each step was wince-inducing agony. It was a good half-hour walk. The line wasn’t as bad as all those one-starrers had whined about. But that didn’t matter, because the five-star reviewers had offered a little tip: if you don’t want to wait in line, you can go to the back and buy unsliced bagels, and  little tub of cream cheese, without waiting. (Aside to Kelsea: there are plastic knives there, free for the taking … your husband is just a bonehead.)

Here’s the exterior.

Here is the back counter where you don’t have to wait. 

As you can see, the décor is irrelevant because look at those glorious bagels! And look at the steam coming off that big drum. I have to say, the guy working the counter, Richard, didn’t smile or say a word to me, and that royally pissed me off. The nerve of that guy!

Naw, just kidding … I mean, who cares? I didn’t go there to socialize. I asked for two Everything, two Onion, and two Cinnamon Raisin, and he put them in a bag and handed it to me. How much more complicated does this interaction need to be? Where does customer service come in? What, did the one-star reviewers ask for gluten-free? Did they ask for a taste spoon? Did they ask all kinds of foolish questions, like which bagels had the fewest calories or which ones would appeal to an eight-year-old?

While the cashier rang me up (my order was like $12 with the cream cheese, a bargain), I leaned over the counter to peer into the bakery at a batch of boiled, but not yet baked, bagels. Why have I never gotten to see this before? Fascinating! The unbaked bagels were like little embryos.

Alas, while I was snapping the above photo I completely lost track of my transaction with the cashier, who now said, “Move along, numbnuts.” I won’t knock a single star off my review for that, by the way, because I had it coming: I was holding up the guy behind me. Also, she didn’t really say that. Actually she smiled and said, “You’re all set!”

Amazingly, a little chair and table were available. (In NYC, such simple luxuries are, I’ve found, actually amazing.) I was so relieved not to have to walk all over the city to find a peaceful place to eat. I was feeling kind of rushed, because these bagels were warm. That warmth coming through the bag was tantalizing.

The first bagel I happened to pull out was an Everything. Check this bad boy out.

That’s the underside. I don’t know about you, but I found its appearance pretty thrilling. It helped that this amazing caramelized-onion aroma was coming off of it. Here’s the topside.

Surely there are New Yorkers who would bemoan the size of this bagel, or the shape, or the fact that the hole is practically closed up, but I couldn’t care less. I was practically drooling as I sliced and slathered it.

Then finally—as  I lifted it to my mouth—came the moment of truth.

Here’s where this bagel could suddenly let me down, all the promising early signs notwithstanding. I once drove to every bakery in the vicinity of Columbus, Ohio looking for a decent baguette, and while most could be ruled out through visible inspection alone, one place did have great-looking baguettes. Only when I bit down did I realize this bakery was manned by a bunch of clowns who didn’t know the first thing about baking. Granted, I don’t know the first thing about baking either, but I know what I like. At least, now I do. For years I thought our Bay Area Semifreddi’s baguettes were da bomb, until one day my grocer was out and I tried Acme and realized with a pang that I’d been deluded all along, that this was actually what a baguette should be, how you could hear the quality—that crackling sound as the crust was compressed—before you even finished biting into it. Only when I experienced Acme did I realize Semifreddi’s was like cardboard by comparison. The height of quality cannot be predicted—only recognized after the fact.

Okay. Back to Ess-a-Bagel. What I have to report is that this NYC bagel thing is real, folks. I haven’t had a culinary epiphany of this magnitude since, well, discovering Acme. Chewing my first bite slowly, I set my bagel down and stared at it. My brain struggled to comprehend what it was encountering. “Well,” I said to myself. “It’s certainly the best bagel I’ve ever had.” I took another bite. That initial response really didn’t cover it. This was categorically different from any bagel—in fact, let’s just say it, any so-called bagel—I’d ever had. I ate some more. It was simply remarkable. Every flavor, from the little onion bits to the crystals of salt, was more powerful, more distinct, and better than anything I’d had before. And the texture: oh man. The crust was really chewy, but without being tough. The interior was soft but puffy, like a feather bed. I wasn’t merely chewing this thing; I was plunging into it.

Paradoxically, the pleasure was extremely simple—so much more basic and satisfying than, say, picking at some fussy gourmet thing, some tiny dab of truffle-infused lobster foam emulsion on a shard of tarot chip or whatever. This bagel was like comfort food, but without being lowbrow. It was clearly the result of highly enlightened craftsmanship built on a real understanding of the one right way to make this thing. It was utterly simple and yet unaccountably delicious.

Three bites in, everything fell away except the sensations I was taking in. Well, almost everything. An unrelated thought crept in, an inchoate fear, that something was going to keep me from continuing to enjoy this. It was the panic of an addict whose supply is threatened. I reassured myself that I had a whole bag of these bagels in front of me, a whole tub of cream cheese, and a table to myself, and nothing would stop me from extending this utterly pleasant experience out into the future. Upon having this realization, I started to cry. I’m not just saying my eyes teared up; I mean I was actually crying. Big tears were rolling down my cheeks as I ate.

(Perhaps the great thing about New York City is that everybody leaves you alone. Nobody noticed my absurd behavior; nobody came over and said, “Buddy, are you okay?” I could just keep eating, and keep crying, in peace.)

What was going on? Beats me. It’s not like I’d been a POW for several years, missing my hometown of NYC, who finally got released and headed straight back to the bagel shop I’d been going to for forty years. I was just a newb—but an appreciative one. The pleasure was simply overwhelming. Something about this starchy apogee was flipping switches and throwing levers deep within my brain chemistry, pleasure centers that don’t often get engaged.

I’m not saying that if you head over to Ess-a-Bagel that you, too, will cry over all the bagel-y goodness. I was probably actually crying about something else, perhaps something deep-seated that just needed to be unleashed.( I’ve heard of yoga unlocking people this way.) Whatever the case, it takes a pretty special bagel to do that. I’m now prepared to say it takes a bagel from NYC.

Look, even if you’re not trying to have a gastronomic epiphany or plumb your own emotional depths via starchy indulgence, you should try to get your hands on a New York bagel sometime. They’re really fricking good.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Bomb Pop - A Bicycle Retrospective


I’m enchanted with the spoken track “The Pontiac” on the Tom Waits album Orphans (Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards). I won’t try to describe it—just click here to listen. I played it for my daughter who said, “You should do your own, about your bikes!” So here it is.

Bomb Pop

So, first of all I had the Fuji Junior. It was a tiny little bright red ten-speed, 24-inch wheels, stem-mounted Suntour shifters with little plastic condoms on them. I was ashamed at the “Junior” part and painted over it with touch-up paint. Now, your uncles all had Motobecane Nomades, which kind of made me jealous at the time because they were French. They all had those shitty plastic Simplex derailleurs and shifters but my brothers pretended they were kickass. Your grandpa had a weakness for French bikes. His was this weird crappy Gitane, I couldn’t tell what color it was, I even asked my dad, he couldn’t say either. Even your Grandma Jude had a French bike, also a Gitane, women’s mixte frame, narrow rock-hard plastic saddle—she hated it, I only saw her ride it once.

So, after the Motobecanes, Uncle Geoff and Uncle Bryan upstaged me again with these Libertas racing bikes from Belgium. Now they were pure shit, terrible lugwork, little specks of excess flux the builders couldn’t be bothered to sand off, but the bikes had flashy head tube decals and really skinny tires and I was in awe.

My next bike was like sensible shoes, a Miyata 310, $265 plus tax in 1981—gosh, two decades before you were born. I tricked it out with Suntour Superbe Pro brakes and pedals, handbuilt wheels I bought off your Uncle Geoff: Phil Wood hubs and Weinmann rims, laced radially which was almost unheard of back then. Stronglight cranks, drilled-out chainrings which was pretty badass. Concor saddle which had just come out, kind of radical at the time, I had the Supercorsa which had steel rails. I sold that 310 to Joel Linsky for $515; his mom was furious.

Now your Uncle Max had the Univega Viva Sport, he took off all the decals, slapped on some Dia Compe 500G brakes, tried to pass it off as a Colnago.

My first pro bike was a Mercian Colorado, Reynolds 531 with an SL fork, a beautiful color they called champagne pearl, really gorgeous, a bit like the color of a fawn actually. Bought that from my pal Nico. A couple months later we were riding at night and I piled into a curb, bent the frame—crumpled the downtube below the shifter bosses. Heartbreaking.

I had another Mercian, white with red panels, gorgeous, and I had my first victories on that bike before selling it to your Uncle Max who’d fallen in love with it and couldn’t live without it. From there I got into more Miyatas, there was the ’83 Pro, then the ’83 Team I bought off of Towle, he got it from Andre Claussen, I traded that to your Uncle Geoff for the ’84 Team he’d become too short to ride after the car accident. I had eight Miyatas … loved ‘em all. Not that they were actually that good … kind of heavy, top tubes too short, and the 73 head angle wasn’t aggressive enough.

After my ’86 Team Miyata’s fork broke at nationals I bought the Guerciotti SLX from Dave Feingold for $400. It was a 10 Speed Drive team issue, red white & blue fade paint job, so I named it Bomb Pop. God I loved that bike. Long top tube, 74 head angle, 72 seat, low bottom bracket, it just handled so beautifully. Indexed shifting never worked on that bike so I ran it with the Simplex Retrofriction shifters. I had some of my best races on that bike. In ’96 I bought a brand-new Dura-Ace gruppo for it, laced up a fresh set of wheels. Two weeks later I was riding on the Golden Gate bridge, sprinting, and the fork broke. Steerer tube sheared clean off—I piled face-first into the concrete, headset bearings rolling everywhere, I needed a bunch of stitches. Still, that was one of my favorite bikes. Well, that was a long time before you were born.

Photos & notes

Here I’m on the Fuji during the 1981 Red Zinger Mini Classic. Look how small we are.

Here’s my dad’s Gitane.

Here’s my mom’s Gitane. Man, what a hateful bike. She didn’t even want the mixte-style frame but Dad insisted.

Here’s Bryan on his Libertas at the ’81 Mini Zinger.

Here’s that Libertas head tube decal.

Here’s Max  on his Univega, also from the ’81 Mini Red. Notice how his poorly pinned number is coming off.

Here’s the Dia-Compe 500G brakes Max had.  He was so proud of them. I can’t find a photo of the drilled levers, though.

Here’s the Miyata 310—I’m #62, straddling it—and also the Mercian Colorado with Nico on it (in the race leader jersey), at the 1982 Mini Zinger. I bought the Mercian off Nico later that year.

Here’s my dad’s Subaru (which did not run off gasohol, by the way) with (from left to right) Max’s Univega Viva Sport, Geoff’s Univega Superstrada, our dad’s Trek, and Bryan’s Libertas (which he got from Geoff after his own Libertas broke).

Here’s my college roommate on my ’86 Team Miyata.

Randomly, here’s a pair of pages from a bike magazine showing two of the bikes featured in this post.

Here’s Bomb Pop during its heyday.

I still have it, but it’s not safe to ride.

Acknowledgements and errata

Of course my daughter Alexa gets a shout-out for suggesting this post & the recording. I am grateful also to my daughter Lindsay for doing the excellent camera work, holding my phone very still with it trained on the slide show playing on my laptop while I did the audio.

There are a couple of severe goofs in the video that you probably laughed at already, owing to my needing to get this done in one take. First is complaining about the 83 head angle on my Miyatas being too shallow; of course I meant 73 (as 83 would be impossibly steep). I also stated that the head tube on Bomb Pop sheared clean off; of course I meant the steerer tube.

If you enjoy “The Pontiac” as much as I do, I’m sure you can’t help but be disappointed in my tale and moreover my delivery. What can I say? I’m not Tom Waits. But then again who is?

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

From the Archives - Horsefly Spider Smackdown!


Here is another bike touring tale from my archives. I had photographic proof of this remarkable incident, but this was 24 years ago and I can’t find the photo. Alas.

The spider and the horsefly – July 1994

Stopped at a town along the way to Iowa, I had one of life’s great unexpected moments. While my wife talked to her aunt and then her mom on a payphone, I waited, straddling my bike, not doing much of anything. Then I saw a tiny lime-green spider on my front pannier. His front two legs on either side were twice the length of his body. When spinning a web, he would wave these front legs about majestically in the air, like giant batons. He was building an as-yet invisible web when I suddenly saw a small emerald-green horsefly land on the pannier, not so very far from the spider.

You can tell a horsefly by its giant, menacing proboscis, which can pierce cotton, denim, and even leather on the way to your skin. “Hideous blood-sucking parasite, I’ll kill you,” I swore. These creatures are mighty hard to swat—they seem to have better instincts than a housefly, perhaps as a result of dodging a horse’s tail all their lives—but I had bigger plans for this one.

Reflecting on the the three-week old scars still left on my body from the horseflies in Colorado and western Kansas, I decided I would catch this horsefly alive and feed it to the tiny green spider, who would slowly eat it alive over a period of hours. I stared at my prey and tried not to think of the tremendous odds against me. Could I possibly execute this plan? No point deliberating on the matter: in a perfect, miraculous Zen moment, I just struck out, as I would for a typewriter key on the home row, and got him.

I had to restrain myself from doing a victory dance and tipping over my bike. I looked at the doomed creature for a moment, sizing up his treacherous syringe, before holding him out before the spider. The green spider instantly recognized the largest buffet he’d ever stumbled across, and groped out for it. He couldn’t get a good enough purchase—the fly was larger than he by several times—and finally I just set the fly down near him. The fly was injured and thus struggled, futilely, to right himself. The spider walked towards him and then—amazingly—walked right by. I guess with six or eight eyes, you could have trouble with depth perception.

So this horsefly was struggling to fly away with only one wing, and finally gave up and crawled towards the end of the pannier and jumped off the edge, as if committing suicide to save himself the horror of being eaten alive. Furious, I picked him up off the ground and set him back on the pannier, and again the spider missed him. I was about to put him in the spider’s path yet again, when suddenly the spider shimmied up an invisible web he’d made, all the way up to my handlebar.

By this time my wife was off the phone, and ready to get moving again. Even on these long summer days, we always get a little antsy in the evenings about finding a place to camp for the night. (We’ve come up empty a few times and had to sleep under a bridge or in a pricey motel.) I was torn about whether or not to ask my wife to wait just a little longer so I could complete this spider-feeding operation.

Well, before I even had a chance to broach the topic, an old man pulled up in an RV, stopped, and jumped out to chat with us. He’d seen us from the road and made a special detour to see what we were about. I expected the normal volley of questions, the expressions of amazement that we’d come all the way from San Francisco, the excitement that with a whole nation to tour around in we’d chosen this little town to ride through, etc. But this guy didn’t actually seem that curious about our trip. What he really wanted to talk about—and did!—was his 20-foot Winnebago Atasca, and what great gas mileage he’d gotten on his trip over from Michigan (or maybe he was headed to Michigan; I wasn’t paying super close attention). He talked and talked, and my wife was anxious to go since we’d miles to go before we’d sleep, miles to go before we’d sleep . . . and there was the fly, and there was the spider, still, but I’d had to suspend my operation so as not to be rude, and my magnificent plan was falling apart before my eyes. Finally, the man drove off, waving, and I grabbed the fly once again. I told my wife, “Observe. I will feed the fly to the spider.”

The spider was doing laps around the circumference of my handlebar now, but I caught his attention, waving the fly before him, its helpless legs groping the air. Now I held the fly right spang in front of him, and the spider groped out for the prey. I swear that I could feel the tiny spider legs brush my fingers as he betook his purchase. Perhaps he was enclosing the hapless fly with a web; in any case, after 20 or 30 seconds he’d pulled it in. I let go, and to my delight the spider wrapped his tiny mandibles around one of the fly’s red eyes. Yes, yes, I thought, oh yes sweet spider, suck his fly brains out his eyeball. This was pretty much the most satisfying moment of my life to that point.

The spider rode on my handlebar for the next 13 miles, feasting on its still living, still twitching, grossly oversized prey. Then we stopped at a country store for ice cream confections and when we came back out he was gone,  and the horsefly with him.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

My Humiliating Senior Prom!

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and alcohol references.


The official story I tell my kids is that I never went to the senior prom. Allegedly I couldn’t, because I had either the ACT exam the next day, or the State Road Championships. (My story varies.) “I knew I had a better shot at the [exam] [race] than the prom,” I explain dryly.

This year, on a lark, I decided to share the real story with my older daughter, shortly before her first prom. In doing so I realized it’s not a bad tale, so I’ll share it with you too, recreated from memory with maximum verisimilitude.

My senior prom – spring 1987

To start off, I hadn’t planned on attending at all. The whole idea seemed completely outlandish to me. My high school was an “open campus,” meaning I was almost never there and barely knew anybody. Meanwhile, I was not exactly a ladies’ man. I wasn’t good looking or confident. I wasn’t up on popular music or sports. I had no concept of fashion except Levi’s 501s and bike race t-shirts. I was only slightly less socially retarded than my brothers, who were so shy they were actually mistaken for foreign exchange students.

There was one girl, Michelle, whom I could have asked to prom, but the problem was, I kind of liked her so it wasn’t worth the risk of rejection. But there was this other girl, in my French class, whom I didn’t like at all. Actually, to be clear, I liked her as a pal, but didn’t want to go out with her whatsoever. The sad truth is, she was as homely as I was, or as I felt, anyway (which was either more or less homely than I actually was, because what teenager ever had an accurate self-image?). This girl was fun to talk to, particularly in class, but that was about it. If you’re wondering whether or not I’m going to tell you her name, I’m not—for the simple reason that I cannot remember it. This just shows you how small I am, or at least how small I was. If she had been pretty, of course I’d remember her name.

I can’t remember exactly why I asked this girl to prom. It was for one of two reasons, maybe both. One, she was really bummed out because her horse had died. Yes, you read that right: in Colorado it was actually possible to own a horse. Hers had been killed in a highway accident (trailer rollover). I never knew if the horse died instantly or had to be put down (I wasn’t about to ask). So I may have actually invited her out of pity. The other possible reason is that I happened to know the obscure fact that “prom” is short for “promenade dance,” and I really wanted to showcase this knowledge by asking, “Would you care to accompany me to the promenade dance?” This is exactly how I asked, and the girl immediately said yes, with a big smile. Inwardly, this shocked and dismayed me, which made me feel like the complete dick that I knew I was.

Well, for the next week she chattered all through French class about her quest for the perfect prom dress. This made me feel worse than ever. It was obviously far too late to cancel the whole thing—every moment she spent savoring her anticipation dug us both in deeper. I knew I should try to match her enthusiasm but I just couldn’t. For one thing, I couldn’t dance—I was far too inhibited. Second, I didn’t own a suit and wasn’t about to throw good money after a bad idea by renting a tux. Finally, I had no car and didn’t want to ask my parents to borrow theirs, because that would mean admitting I was going to prom, which for some reason I was just not prepared to do. I feared—or perhaps hoped—this lack of wheels would be a show-stopper.

When I came clean about the car, my date (gasp!) didn’t even care. She’d just gotten her first car, and was a modern girl. This was gonna be great, etc. Daaaaamn! This obstacle having vanished, I decided I better bite the bullet and rent a tux. I went down to the strip mall with my friend John. He was attending the prom non-ironically and wanted to look sharp. I wish I remembered the name of that cheesy tux place. Their entire clientele seemed to be high school kids. It was obvious that these tuxes were pure shit—and yet, every dude who put one on managed to look really good. I couldn’t understand it. (I do now … it’s called youth.)

Well, there was actually one kid who didn’t look good in the rental tux: me. Part of it was my fault; I was about six-foot-one, 140 pounds. Great physique for bike racing, in the purely utilitarian way that webbed fingers and toes would be good for competitive swimming. The other problem was that I was a cheap bastard and was looking for that one-in-a-thousand suit that fit me right off the rack and wouldn’t require alterations, which were $10 extra. I found that one suit, but it was—I kid you not—pink. Not some marginally acceptable salmon or coral (which might have gone over okay, this being the era of “Miami Vice.”) It was pure, awful pink. Pepto-Bismol pink. Crayola carnation pink.

Because of its color, this tux was actually a cheaper rental than the black ones. Admitting I was a nerd to begin with, and vainly attempting the apotheosis from nerd to smartass, I decided to do it. For my boutonniere I chose, of course, a pink carnation. I thought it very clever to point out that, against my tux, it was “boutonniere camo,” and I tried this line on pretty much everybody I encountered the entire night, without eliciting so much as a smirk. But I see I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before the promenade dance proper, of course, there was the requisite fancy dinner. I agonized over where to eat, which might suggest that I was developing some kind of gusto for the whole affair, but the dinner was merely the only aspect of prom I could manage to develop an opinion about. Among prospective restaurants the front-runner was JJ McCabe’s, which was known for being lax about liquor laws. (This was valuable only in that it leant a mystique; I was too risk-averse, and too cheap, to actually contemplate buying booze.) But I’d eaten at JJ McCabe’s once with my parents, and the service was unbelievably slow … we sat for almost an hour waiting for our food. My dad surmised that every member of the staff was drunk off his loins. I couldn’t take that risk on prom night.

Pelican Pete’s was also kind of flashy, because seafood was still a rare thing in Boulder in 1987. But their food kind of sucked. Tico’s had great food and unlimited chips, but I didn’t want to actually insult my date. The Good Earth was trendy but a little too granola for me. So I finally settled on Sebastians, which had a salad bar that was so fancy you could get caviar. Not that I liked caviar—it was like eating salted ball bearings—but it just screamed “deluxe.” On top of that, the salad bar format was perfect from the budgeting standpoint. After all, nobody orders an appetizer before a salad bar, and nobody gets dessert afterward. I could confidently bring exactly the right amount of money. Sebastians was a no-brainer.

The night started off badly, and not because of my pink suit as you might have speculated. In fact, my date was wearing an orange dress. Not a subtle, marginally acceptable peach or pumpkin color, but a purely awful tint of orange, the color of a Creamsicle.  I’m tempted to say it was even worse than my pink tux, since she’d actually selected it in pursuit of aesthetic élan rather than in defiance of it, but then nothing could have looked worse than that pink tux. Anyway, it wasn’t like she forgave my suit because her dress was awful; she forgave my suit because she was a totally laid-back, cool chick—at least, when it came to me.

With herself, she was much less forgiving (which I suppose isn’t rare). She was upset because, when doing a last-minute check of her beloved new (to her) Toyota Corolla, making sure it was still lookin’ real good, she discovered that the kickass narrow-stripe whitewall tires on the driver’s side were not matched by kickass narrow-stripe whitewall tires on the passenger side. The starboard tires were simply black. Her sweet ride was asymmetrical!

Poor thing. She hadn’t looked this miserable since her horse died. The only sympathetic sentiment I could come up with was “Honestly, your car looks terrible regardless,” but of course I couldn’t say that. She was so agitated and stressed out she was sweating profusely. Actually, the sweating probably had something to do with the fur coat she was wearing, which she’d borrowed from her aunt. May was a bit late in the season for a fur, and it was an unseasonably warm evening.

At Sebastians, things continued going downhill. Turns out the legendary salad bar wasn’t every night. Maybe it wasn’t on weekends, or maybe they decided to screw the prom crowd. Ordering off the menu meant I wouldn’t have enough money. At least, not for two. So I lied and told my date I’d already eaten. For the first time that evening, she seemed miffed. But the waiter was solicitous and the place was swanky, and her spirits improved. As we waited for our—well, her—food to come out, she said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “Look: I come prepared. I’ve been to the Liquor Mart.” She held out her purse. It was stocked with airline-sized bottles of Goldschlager cinnamon schnapps. I raised an eyebrow. “I’ll drink one if I wanna have fun,” she said, “a second if I wanna get crazy, and a third if things get good.”

I was shocked. This girl was cool, I realized. Far, far too cool for me. I was in way over my head. I didn’t have the nerve to drink alcohol. I was just a stupid, ignorant, shy, untutored nerd, and here I was, out with a girl who possessed shades of Woman. That she assumed I was game was both flattering and terrifying. I tried to shrug, to show how cool and unflustered I was, but it came out more like a muscle spasm.

She excused herself to freshen up, and I sat at the table feeling utterly unmoored. What if this girl knew how to dance, too? What if her sang-froid made her popular at the prom? What if she were actually far less of a pariah at the high school than I was? What would I do, in this terrible pink suit? Fortunately, not long after she returned the bread arrived, so I had something to do with my hands. And my mouth. I stuffed my face nervously, and actually my dark mood lifted a bit via the thrill of eating real butter, almost for the first time in my life.

Halfway through my date’s entrée, things were looking up. She kind of chewed with her mouth open, which helped put me at ease. I made a lot of wisecracks about the people around us (mostly old grey-hairs, I realized with a pang), and she giggled a lot. However sophisticated and daring she might be, I reflected, she did seem to dig me. So I’d almost recovered my composure when, casting about for another old person to bag on, I spied my own father dining across the restaurant from us, seated with a woman who was obviously not my mom.

I say “obviously” because my parents had been divorced for almost three years. I still wasn’t used to the idea, and it stung to see my dad out with another woman. He’d never taken my mom out on a date, not during my lifetime. Her birthday, Mother’s Day, their anniversary … nothing would justify, for him, a splurge like this. The other problem was that the woman he was dining with was Horseface, whom I couldn’t stand.

I should probably explain here that this really wasn’t Horseface’s fault. She wasn’t a mean person or anything. In fact, she wasn’t even ugly. Her face wasn’t so much horsey as, well, equine. Yes, kind of a long face, but not painful to look at or anything. The real reason for the nickname is that my dad was dating, concurrently, another woman with the same name and we had to keep them straight. My dad seemed to be dating half the women in Boulder. (The less attractive half, it must be said.) My dislike for Horseface was grounded plainly in the fact of her—in the fact of my dad dating.

So yeah, I was a bit pissed off. Perhaps the whole heady atmosphere of the evening was affecting me, because I brashly strode over to my dad’s table. I didn’t have a plan or anything; I just wanted to make him uncomfortable.

This failed utterly, which I should have seen coming. For me to also be dining at this posh restaurant only helped my dad show off—like, look at my son, he’s only 17 but he’s  already living the good life! My dad beamed and said, “Hello Dana.” I greeted Horseface politely, and she beamed too, like we were all just great friends. I suddenly felt like I might be sick to my stomach. It dawned on me that my blood sugar was low, and I noticed that my dad not only had some giant entrée, but a side of fettuccine Alfredo. I was overcome with bitterness.

Whenever we went out to eat—which was mighty rare, by the way—my dad would say at the beginning, “Boys, you may have anything on the menu under $3.50.” This usually limited our choices to the cheapest and second-cheapest items. And here he was living large with a side of pasta! Impulsively, perhaps thinking that this might somehow impress my date, I said casually, “I’ll be taking this,” and with a nod to Horseface, I walked off, bringing the plate of pasta with me to my table.

My date looked shocked. Two things dawned on me. For one, since I’d rudely neglected to introduce her to my dad and his date, she had no idea who these people were. Second, after bizarrely not ordering any food, I’d now stolen some. Suddenly this pasta was even more embarrassing than wearing  a pink suit. My response to this horrifying epiphany was to start eating the pasta as fast as possible, just to make it go away. I doubled down on this activity when I saw my dad, a terrifying tall man with hawk-like features and a big red beard, storming over to our table. He didn’t even ask who my date was (which was actually a relief) and tried to take his pasta back. We got in a little tug-of-war over it while I hissed at him about putting on the dog with this other woman when he’d never given his own family a nice night on the town, etc.

Amazingly, things proceeded to get even worse. My dad’s date strutted her shameless way over to us and cried out, “What on Earth!?” I glared at her and said, “You stay out of this, Horseface!” Only after her moniker slipped past my lips did I realize what I’d just said. Of course she was unaware of this unfortunate nickname, or had been until now. She gasped, started to cry, and stormed off. I felt terrible. So, evidently, did my date, who abruptly snatched up her purse and stood. My dad took off after Horseface—on a trajectory that, alas, matched my date’s sudden restroom-bound vector. The two collided, and whether it was the impact or just coincidence, my date erupted in a big, throaty, cinnamon-schnapps-scented belch. The dinner was officially a total disaster.

The waiter, professional to the core, discreetly flitted by to deposit our check, which I paid in cash, rounding up so we could bail immediately. We got out to the parking lot where my date, fuming, fumbled endlessly with her car keys. Remembering what I’d had rammed down my throat repeatedly in Health class, I asked, “Um … how much have you had to drink?” She held up three fingers, took the hint, and tossed me her car keys. As I fetched them from the asphalt she made her way around to the non-whitewall-tired side of her car.

Now, you’ll think me terribly petty for saying so, but here was an unexpected silver lining: I got to drive! It’s not just that my masculine dignity was assuaged (though that was, I’ll admit, part of it). The thing was, I loved to drive and almost never got to. I started up the Corolla and looked over at my date. “Just take me home,” she said. She was on the verge of tears. “Right,” I replied.

I drove, she directed, and as we neared her house she said, “Wait. Just stop the car for a minute. I have to think.” A probable truth dawned on me: she was embarrassed to get home early and have to tell her parents that her big night had crashed and burned. “We could just drive around,” I offered. To my surprise, she agreed. As we drove, I attempted some damage control.

“Look,” I said, “in case you’re feeling bad about burping in my dad’s face, don’t. Your burp … it was just awesome. The best. I’ve been practicing my belching skills for years and I’ve never managed anything that rich and full. Your belch had authority. You clearly don’t fuck around when it comes to oral eructation. And another thing: my dad totally had that coming. In fact that was long overdue. I only regret that I didn’t get to do it myself.”

My date was laughing now. She seemed relieved by my utter lack of reproach, and clearly appreciated the levity. It certainly didn’t hurt that she was drunk. Emboldened by how my opening salvo went over, and by the simple act of driving a car, I talked some more, describing my parents’ divorce, trying to hit the right balance of humility, swagger, flippancy, and vulnerability. Eventually—boosted by perhaps her fourth fun-sized schnapps of the evening—my date agreed to return to plan, and we headed to the prom.

The prom was at a hotel we always thought was pretty swank; only now do I realize its cheesiness. But even then I thought the decorations were pretty twee. The planning committee had somehow settled on a barn-raising, pioneer-spirit, good-old-fashioned hoe-down theme, totally at odds with the music (Madonna, the Fixx, the Bangles, U2, Berlin, Cindi Lauper, Van Halen, etc.). As soon as we got there, my date hit the dance floor hard, trying to drag me along. Terrified, feeling like a mouse who finds himself in the middle of the floor, I bobbed up and down, trying to move my chin with the music. My date, lost in the music, seemed to forget about me, so I gradually made my way to the edge of the room.

Encountering various classmates who looked vaguely familiar, I tried my line about the camo boutonniere a number of times and got nowhere. Eventually I found my friend Sean, with whom I engaged in bagging on lame people. I didn’t really know Sean very well—just from a few classes—but he seemed oddly non-nerdy for a guy willing to hang out with me. I pondered, not for the first time, that this might be exactly how he felt about me.

The yearbook staffers were relentless, so my date and I caved and headed to the photo station where we were supposed to pose on a couple of hay bales. My date, off-balance and staggering, leaned on me for support. My rented tux shoes—made entirely of smooth plastic, it seemed, even the soles—slipped, and I leaned back on her, and her feet—shod in ridiculous high heels—slid right out from under her and I ended up sitting on her lap. The yearbook photo captured us in this ridiculous configuration, and to make matters worse I appear, in the photo, to be looking down the front of her dress. Actually, I totally was. I couldn’t help it. The dress gaped open and it was just a reflex. Fortunately, in those days you didn’t see the photo right away, so my date wasn’t (yet) livid. In fact, she asked me to slow-dance.

The slow-dance was very easy. Nobody was really paying attention to anybody but their date. They just shuffled around, leaning on each other, probably most of the girls preoccupied with worry that their date would do something untoward, and certainly most of the boys hoping to cop a feel (or “grab handfuls of ass,” in the parlance of that time). I behaved myself. In fact, it was all I could do to keep my date on her feet. I tried to recall how many airline bottles of schnapps had been in that purse … surely she’d drunk all of them. She reeked of cinnamon—it must have been coming out her pores. Still, when she relaxed and leaned her head on my shoulder, that was kind of nice. At least, it was nice for a while, until suddenly—“Oh, shit!” my date cried. She recoiled from me as if from an electric shock. What had I done?

Turns out it wasn’t what I’d done … it was what she’d done, which was to have a nosebleed all over my tux. “I am so sorry!” she said over and over, lugubriously. I didn’t know what to say. Of course I was livid about the tux—imagine forking over good money to replace a pink tux!—but she looked so miserable I couldn’t worry too much about myself. The poor girl. First her horse dies, then her car has only two narrow-stripe whitewall tires, then her date is a cad in a pink suit, which she bleeds on. She just can’t get a break! I decided to act like a good guy. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Do you need help? Has this happened before?” She flapped her hands around. “It’s just when I’m stressed out,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

My mind raced. “No need to apologize,” I said. “I’m just glad it’s nothing serious. I saw this movie where a guy gets nosebleeds and it’s from a brain aneurysm!” Now she looked a bit freaked out. “It’s okay, I’m sure you’re not having an aneurysm,” I said, realizing how absurd it was to say such a thing, and yet how unconvincing I sounded. “I’ll get you a damp towel,” I continued.

I set off toward the restroom like a man on a mission. Unfortunately, the shortest route was straight across the dance floor, which—by this point—was back to normal (non-slow) dancing. I weaved and bobbed and suddenly my sunglasses flew off. (Yes, it’s stupid to wear shades indoors, especially at a dance, but I was desperately trying to look cool.) They were stupid sunglasses, fake Ray-Ban Wayfarers that were way too dark, but still I was hell-bent on finding them. Pacing around bent over, I got kneed in the face (either accidently or on purpose, I never learned) and now, unbelievably, I too had a nosebleed.

I got to the restroom where a formally attired valet was handing out warm cotton towels. No, of course that’s not true—I grabbed a couple fistfuls of paper towels, wetted them at the sink, and made my way back to my date (the long way around, this time, trying to disappear). I held the towels to the back of my neck in accordance with the old wives’ tale that it would stop the nosebleed, which it didn’t. The towels began to shred and form little pills, like toe-jam footballs, on the collar of my tux. My date was not impressed. What’s more, everybody began loudly mocking us. “Look, it’s the nosebleed twins!” someone taunted. We beat it out of there, dripping blood as we went.

“Oh my god, drive slower,” my date pleaded. “Everything is spinning. Oh god oh god oh god.” Halfway to her house, she puked all over her aunt’s fur and the upholstery of her car. The stench was a horrible congress of bile and cinnamon. I cranked my window down and hung my head out, like a dog. When we got to her house and I swung the car into the driveway, I didn’t see the empty garbage can there—an old-school steel one—and rammed it, causing a massive racket. My date’s dad burst out of the house, taking the porch steps two at a time. He was already furious, as though he’d just known the night would be a disaster. “What in the hell?!” he fumed. I handed my date her keys, spun on my heel, and without a word strode off, beginning the long journey home on foot. The night had been an unmitigated disaster. I didn’t even find my sunglasses.

In French class the next week, my (ex-)date and I didn’t say a word to each other. Fortunately, the end of the school year was not far off. We managed to literally never speak again, and then we graduated, moved off to college, and were thus spared any future awkwardness. And did I learn my lesson? Definitely. I never attended another school dance.


What you have just read is a work of pure fiction. The official story—that I never went to prom—is the true one. When I wrote that I decided “to share the real story” with my daughter, I was equivocating: it’s a real story in the sense that it’s really a story—i.e., really a work of fiction. When I promised maximum verisimilitude, I meant to the story I’d told my daughter … not to any real events. And although I can’t claim that none of the characters bear any resemblance to any actual human, living or dead, I assure you the self-portrait is a caricature.

This tale was born on the night of my daughter’s prom, when my wife and I were chatting. “No, you did go to prom,” my wife said. “How could you forget? You rented that awful pink tux!” Thus began a dialogue of improv. “Oh, yeah!” I replied. “And my date’s dress was orange!” Etc.

The version of this story I told my daughter ended with a character inexplicably grabbing my leg and pulling on it—“just the way, in fact, that I’m pulling on yours,” I quipped. My daughter, crestfallen, said, “Oh, Dad, I so wanted that all to be true!”

My younger daughter overheard me reading this to my wife, and though she ran from the room, and called out to me to speak more quietly because she couldn’t handle hearing it, she ended up listening to the whole thing. She was hugely relieved to discover it was fiction. Are you?

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