Monthly Archives: April 2016

Nerve Stories

One morning I was sitting in the admissions pavilion at the Otto Wagner Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, Austria, waiting to hear how a student was doing who had been brought there the night before after a psychotic break. This hospital is known popularly by its older name “Steinhof,” after the area where it was built and opened in 1907.

I had come to Steinhof by taxi the night before, when the student was admitted. It was one or two a.m., and the taxi driver got worried as we entered the campus-like complex on a hillside in the dark. I didn’t know which of the many pavilions we needed to get to, so I said we should look out for the ambulance that had brought the student. We spotted it at a lit-up loading dock two levels down the hill from where we were, and the cab driver relaxed.

He asked me what was going on. I explained briefly, and he summed it up: “Ah, eine Nervengeschichte.” In the thirteen years since, I have tried again and again to translate this phrase and the best I can do is to give a couple of possibilities that, taken together, perhaps start to suggest what the cabbie’s empathetic yet gently trivializing appraisal meant: “Ah, a mental thing.” “Ah, a nerve business.” “Ah, a psychiatric case.” (German still blends “nervous” and “mental” when talking about psychiatric and neurological matters.) My favorite version is the most literal and hence least informative one: “Ah, a nerve story.”

As I sat in the admissions ward, I watched a motley group of patients, still unsorted, milling about. One dark-haired young man in a hospital gown, his lower lip drooping, was drooling like the caricature of a mental patient as he walked straight up to whoever was in his path, dodging away only at the last moment. I noticed a distinguished looking middle-aged gentleman with white stubble on his chin, also wearing a flimsy, shapeless garment, and also pacing up and down.

I, with my dark full beard, was wearing a black winter jacket and a felt fedora. The gentleman stopped in front of me and said, “Shalom.” I replied, “Shalom.” He went on his way, but soon came back. This time he said one or two sentences in what I could tell was Hebrew, but did not understand. “Sorry,” I said in German, “all I know is ‘shalom’.” His eyebrows arched. “Oh, are you not of the Mosaic religious persuasion?” “No, I’m not.”

He walked quickly away, then turned around and apologized politely and profusely that he had taken me for Jewish.

 

The student was admitted and spent a week and a half in the institution, and then was allowed to transfer to the Christian Doppler Clinic in Salzburg. Our study-abroad program is located at the University of Salzburg. In the long term, after several twists and turns, her nerve story had a positive ending.

 

Two or three weeks later, I was waiting for a bus at the Mirabell Square stop, which in those days was across from the Mozarteum music conservatory. I noticed a woman wearing a traditional Austrian dirndl dress walking in my direction and talking out loud to herself. You could hear her even a block away. People on the sidewalk studiously looked up, down, and sideways. As she approached, she made a beeline toward me, and as she came up I heard her saying, in German, “So, are you going to New York or Tel Aviv, or are you staying here in Salzburg?”

“I’ll stay here in Salzburg for a while, and then I’ll go home to the USA,” I said.

“Oh, you’re from the USA? I have some friends in the USA, Jewish friends, in New Hampshire, I’ve visited them there.” She rattled on a while, talking about her friends and the USA and intimating that she, too, was Jewish. Then she fixed her gaze on me. “You are Jewish, aren’t you?” “No, I’m not.”

“Oh, yes you are! I can tell by your beard!”

I wasn’t even wearing my black fedora.

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My Short, Happy Pizza Career

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One morning in June 1974 I reported for work at Melio’s Heights Inn, a pizzeria and lounge in Madison Heights, Michigan. Dino, the manager, led me to the big stainless-steel sink with a spray nozzle and garbage disposal.

Next thing I knew, a stocky woman appeared across from me and said: “Scare me! What’s goin’ on? Louie s’posed to be trainin’ you, but Louie out somewhere fartin’ around.” Thus I met Exa Mae Davis, line cook at Melio’s and the spiritus rector of the Italian restaurant that would be my home for three months.

Exa Mae told me my first job was to strain several gallons of spaghetti sauce made the night before. I recall the fragrant, thick, cold paste disappearing through colander holes, leaving ham skins, onion chunks, and whole celery stalks as I stirred it all down with a giant steel spoon. Next, Exa Mae introduced me to the prep table with its gleaming slicer.

My main lunchtime job, though, was to make pizzas. Since then I’ve often said that being a pizza cook was my favorite job ever, except for being a college professor, and sometimes it even beat that.

You pick up a large, medium, or bar-size wad of dough and run it through a power roller twice to start flattening it out, and then you work the dough so that it thins in the middle while staying thicker at the edge, spreading it until it matches the desired size marked by a  concentric circle on a broad wooden paddle strewn with corn meal.

I did not toss the dough in the air. I didn’t want to waste all the dough required to get the 10,000 hours of experience I’ve heard is necessary for perfecting this maneuver (or playing the violin).

Once you have your blank canvas stretched, you ladle on tomato sauce, sprinkle on grated mozzarella, and then choose from the small steel tubs of toppings — pepperoni, green peppers, onions, black and green olives, ham, mushrooms, and an ancient can of anchovies.

You open the short, wide oven door, pick up the wooden paddle, and let the pizza glide over the corn meal onto the brick floor of the oven while you scoot the paddle back out. Meanwhile you have burnt off some hair if not some skin on your forearm as it touches the 500-degree oven door.

Exa Mae admired my pizza skills, saying that whenever she tried it, she always made “footballs.” Sometimes she’d sing her theme song, “Exa Me Mucho.” One day she asked me through the utensil rack that divided the cooks’ area from the pizza-assembly station: “Geoff, we all outa crabs. You got any?”

That was the summer that Nixon resigned. We heard his farewell address live on the kitchen radio. It was my first summer home after a freshman year at Michigan State. It was the summer of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Eres tú.”

Dino the manager did not micromanage. He trusted me to get the prep work done, to keep up with the lunch rush, and to drive his car to pick up extra chickens. He paid me in cash (above-board; withholding was hand-written on the pay envelope). He tended bar, too, and once a month he would disappear into his little office in back, which doubled as the liquor locker, and go on a day-long binge. Otherwise he didn’t touch the stuff.

The night crew came in around five. Zenobia, known to her friends as Noble, asked me in a husky voice: “Geoff, you got a girlfriend?” “Yeah.” “You should have six. One for every night of the week, and Sunday is the day of rest.” German John, the tall blond pizza cook who made the next day’s dough, didn’t say much.

Once Exa Mae gave me a history lesson. Dino was the son-in-law of Melio, the founder of the Heights Inn. “I remember the day Melio died. Had a heart attack right over there by the pop machine.” Exa Mae looked forward to getting off work: “Got a six pack o’ Miller’s in the trunk.”

One day after lunch rush I was eating some spaghetti instead of the bar-size pizza I’d usually make for myself. I was sitting in the dining room (usually off limits) with an attractive waitress whose name I don’t remember, who at over twenty years old was from another planet. I twirled my spaghetti onto my fork. She said: “Are you Italian? You eat like one.”

This waitress was the same one who took me to the hospital. I was working a few months later over Christmas break, cutting up chicken after chicken for a catering job, when the knife slipped and cut deep into the index finger of my left hand.

Dino asked the waitress to take me to a hospital. The closest one was Providence in Madison Heights. I heard my mother’s voice: “Don’t ever go to Providence Hospital.” My mother had few but definite opinions. The waitress’s mother had told her the same thing. We went to Beaumont in Royal Oak.

I had sliced into but not through a tendon. Fourteen stitches, two in the tendon and the rest in two layers of skin. Bad news for a mandolin player. I probably started using the finger again too soon.

My witty eighteen-year-old self said “I had a knife fight with a chicken, and the chicken won.”

And thus ended my career at Melio’s. Scare me!