One writer who was a huge influence on my lyric writing was Raymond Carver. Beautiful terse poetry in the plainspoken language of the working poor, and the oddest juxtaposition of seriousness and humor. It resonated in me, my Maine working class roots and all. Ray’s first wife has written a book about her life with him. I’m behind her. If you read Ray’s essay in his collection called ‘Fires’ you might have little sympathy for her. Still, seeing a photo of them together, first married when Ray was 18 and she 16 years old, the beauty and glow in their faces will break your heart. What do we know at that age, hormones in overdrive, dreams and uncertainty ahead of us. 2 kids, broke, working two crap jobs, and still not getting by, wanting to be a great writer and having little time to pursue it. One good reason I resisted parenthood for so long. The resentment isn’t healthy for anyone, and the damage is long lasting. The book is called, ‘What It Used to Be Like’, A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver’ by Maryann Burk Carver. Here are some quotes from the NY Times Book Review by Joyce Johnson:
“Why is it that so many prodigiously gifted male writers, from Shelley and Coleridge to Raymond Carver, have been hopeless as husbands- demanding vast amounts of devotion and self-sacrifice from their wives and then repaying the plucky and idealistic young women they marry with callous, unfaithful and irresponsible behavior? With such men, there seems to be an irreconcilable conflict between their need to be nurtured by women and their need to be free of all bonds, open to all varieties of experience.
…When he once bluntly admitted to Maryann that if he ever had to choose between her and writing, he would choose writing, she had promised to see to it that he would never have to make that choice, ruefully concluding that the sacrifice of her own ambitions was ‘what it means to be a woman.’ She bought Ray his first typewriter with money she earned packing cherries…
“It’s strange,” Carver once admitted to his wife. “You never start out life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.” Now in her 60s. Maryann Carver still cannot step back far enough to take Carver’s measure or explain why she was unable to call it quits even after he split her head open with a vodka bottle…
In his essay “Fires,” Carver revealed his bitter feeling that his family life had nearly destroyed him, and that it had kept him from writing the novels he should have produced:
“The time came and went when everything my wife and I held sacred or considered worthy of respect, every spiritual value, crumbled away. …Somehow, when we weren’t looking the children had got into the driver’s seat…
With shocking coldness, he referred to his son and daughter as “heavy and baleful influences.”…
“I’m the ‘Maryann’ you find in Ray’s poetry,” she writes, staking her claim on the Carver legend. “I was a source of inspiration…
I was the sounding board who knew his friends, his whole family and the brilliance of the man long before he was anybody’s notable author. You don’t just toss that aside when you hit a bad patch.”
God bless her, and Ray, and for that matter, all of us.
Just found out today that The Camellia Grill in New Orleans hasn’t yet re-opened since Katrina. I’m quite sure that that Uptown neighborhood was not flooded, so I was suprised to hear that bit of news, though I guess I shouldn’t have been. Maybe you’ve heard me sing about it in my New Orleans song, or maybe you’ve heard me rave about their Banana Cream pie, or maybe you’ve been there yourself.
Here are a couple of fun stories about it:
from The Times-Picayune
As the mystery surrounding the future of the Camellia Grill has grown, so has the collection of love notes and regrets stuck to the landmark diner’s locked front door and windows.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
By Brett Anderson
From December 1946 through August 2005, the Camellia Grill was about as steady as a restaurant can be. It’s the restaurant you came to at the river’s bend, near the end (or is it the beginning?) of the streetcar route. You’d often wait in line to enter, as you’d expect to at a landmark, for breakfast, lunch, dinner or whatever you call a meal consumed during the last moments of consciousness, with only one eye open, at an hour that beat cops advise honest citizens to be home in bed.
In the past year the Camellia Grill has gone from a famous diner to a mystery hiding in plain sight, partially wrapped in Post-It notes.
“Came from Florida for pecan pie. Sorry we missed you!”
“What are you waiting for?”
“Need workers? I’ll work! Put up a hiring sign. I miss you! - Sexy Nola Lady.”
The notes were brought to my attention last spring, about the time I began trying to determine why the Camellia Grill, despite being on high-and-dry ground, surrounded by reopened businesses, has remained closed since Hurricane Katrina.
The notes cover the outside of the diner’s vestibule. Many are written on heart-shaped paper (”Miss you! - Julie”). Some messages reference others:
“I never got to try y’alls red beans and rice.”
“I never got to try ‘em either!”
The tableau reads like bathroom stall graffiti risen to a higher purpose. The shared longing in the hand-scrawled words (”miss” by far the most recurring) softens the blow of finding the restaurant shuttered. (”Please unlock” reads a note near the doorknob.) While nowhere near as satisfying as finding Harry Tervalon or Michael Carbo, longtime fixtures behind Camellia’s counter, doling out plastic straws to customers with the sort of flourish dapper waiters generally reserve for fine silver or champagne flutes, the messages are welcoming in their own way.
They are mash notes to restorative griddle fare (”I need a fried egg sandwich and some chocolate pecan pie!”) and restless ambiance (”I miss all the smoke and grease and shouting across the room”) that double as invitations to join the chorus. The messages have been compounding for weeks. Try not putting pen to paper after reading a few yourself.
The Camellia notes are also an expression of what people are asking all over town: What’s up with the Camellia Grill? When will it reopen?
Here’s what I know: nothing.
Michael Schwartz, the restaurant’s owner, has been missing in action since Katrina. And I’m not the only one who has been looking for him.
When I told Camellia’s lawyer, Mark S. Stein, that I field questions about the restaurant seemingly every day, he told me he did as well. This was a few weeks ago. Stein told me he’d be talking with the restaurant’s owner in a day or so and would call back with any information. He never did. He also hasn’t returned several phone messages since.
When I contacted the “block captain” on Schwartz’s street in May, he told me people had been inquiring as to Schwartz’s whereabouts since fall. At least one person was interested in purchasing Schwartz’s house, he said.
Soon, a handful of other curious neighbors were brought into the discussion, and in the flurry of e-mails that followed, rumors and theories were shared. Many of these stemmed from a well-publicized petition filed in 2003 by three of Camellia’s creditors who sought to force the restaurant into Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The dispute was resolved, according to a 2004 Times-Picayune story that quoted Mitchell Hoffman, a Camellia attorney at the time. Several messages left for a New Orleans attorney by that name have gone unreturned.
Schwartz’s neighbors believe he has relocated to Mississippi or Tennessee. Wherever it is, he hasn’t been the only person related to the restaurant who has proven difficult to find.
My effort to contact Harry Tervalon set me on a dead-end trail to Texas. I got a hold of Michael Carbo. It wasn’t the Michael Carbo I was looking for, although he was familiar with the longtime Camellia employee.
“I go to the Camellia Grill. We call each other cuz,” the wrong Michael Carbo said of the Michael Carbo I thought might know something about the status of the restaurant. “He’s black, I’m white.”
Phone calls to the households I thought might be home to former Camellia managers, waiters and cooks all came to similar, if less amusing, ends.
I was optimistic that Priscilla Hagebusch would offer something — if not answers then perhaps prose that gave voice to what we’ll call the Camellia Lovers’ Predicament. In 2001 she’d penned a poem mourning the cloth napkins the Camellia had replaced with paper. (TLC Linen Services was one of the creditors who filed the 2003 bankruptcy petition against the restaurant.) But I couldn’t find Hagebusch, either.
There seems to be consensus among the Camellia devoted that if the current owner doesn’t reopen the restaurant it ought to be sold to someone who will. A 1996 Times-Picayune story marking the Camellia’s 50th anniversary suggests that Schwartz would be willing to move the property. Schwartz said in the story that he was trying to sell. Asking price? In “the mid seven figures.”
In fact, in the late 1990s Ti Martin tried to add the Camellia to her family’s restaurant portfolio, which includes Commander’s Palace. “It didn’t work out,” she said.
In May a concierge from Le Pavillon called to say one of the hotel’s wealthy customers had expressed an interest in buying the diner. Could I help put him in touch with the current owner?
In early June, I felt on the verge of a breakthrough. A Metairie lawyer who’d e-mailed about the Camellia forwarded our correspondence along to a local real estate agent and a woman who he said ate at the Camellia on its opening day as a little girl. I never heard back from the latter. The former, however, knew just about everything there is to know about the Camellia — save for what the future holds.
Which is a shame. The notes stuck to the windows of the diner don’t prevent a visitor from peering inside. The 29 stools are there, arranged around a counter with a meandering contour that seems to mirror the nearby river’s. One of the message writers is right: “Those stools look lonely.”
. . . . . . .
Restaurant writer Brett Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3353.
Eating at the Camellia Grill is one of those things on the “must do” list for visitors to New Orleans. It was probably not specifically intended to be that way, but that’s the way it is. A glance of the patrons reveals entire families, including children and grandparents, a sight rarely seen in neighborhood restaurants. It isn’t just lunch that they come for.
Located on South Carrollton Avenue near St. Charles Avenue, at the River Bend, it has become unbelievably popular, with an almost cult like following. It has long been a favorite with locals, and students from the University section, but it is a destination for many visitors, as well - people who come to New Orleans with the stated intent of eating at Camellia Grill. As an added bonus, the streetcars pass right in front.
The Camellia Grill is an old time, nearly extinct relic of years past. It is one of the old classic diners, with a counter and those little round stools secured to the floor. Unlike those rounded stainless steel rail car diners, Camellia Grill is a Greek Revival structure that reminds one of a plantation home. Yet, to eat there, you must wait in line outside, until the doorman indicates that there is room for your party. In spite of the fast pace behind the counter, you are filled with anticipation as you scan the menu and place your order.
I ordered a hamburger, and my first bite sent me back to the early 1950’s. The hamburger buns are grilled along side of the hamburger, prepared using melted butter and grilled onions, all before your eyes. Other food items on the menu included a hamburger platter, French fries, an assortment of sandwiches, and Red Beans and rice on Mondays. Something that cannot go unnoticed is the fact that you are given a firm, white, cloth napkin instead of those little flimsy paper things everywhere else! In disbelief, I shake my head, and wonder how we could ever have embraced all of these ubiquitous fast food hamburger chains.
My waiter was an elderly black man, with snow-white hair, and a badge that read, “BAT”. My friend asked him how long he has worked here.
“Forty-nine years,” he replied. (”Bat” is short for his surname “Batiste”.)
“When is your fiftieth anniversary?” I asked.
“Next July 4th,” he replied.
September has arrived in California with beautiful speckled clouds high in the perfect blue sky. Most nights I walk along the bluffs overlooking the ocean near my house. It’s been pure magic. The half moon glowing over the bay, a warm breeze rustling the trees, the headlights and tail lights stretching all up and down Pacific Coast Highway. This is the real heart of summer here, while summer is ending everywhere else. The nights are warm here for a few more months. Malibu has an annual Labor Day Weekend event called the Chili Cook-off. I love the traveling carnival rides and games, the food and the live music floating through the open air. The mix in Malibu is, as always, an incongruous crew: the horse ranch crowd, the local yokels, the surfers, mixed in with the celebrities and entertainment execs. Their kids like the scary rides and cotton candy just like every other kid. I ride with my son on the spinning apple until I’m about to lose my stomach full of chili, caramel popcorn, etc. A father does what a father must do! The paparazzi are chasing after Lisa Rinna, looking good in her leopard skin bathing suit top.
Here’s a quote from a new book about California called, ‘I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen’ by Amy Wilenz. I’m sure Amy lives in my neighborhood. I probably stand in line with her at Starbuck’s.
Re: A Party in Brentwood: “Many skinny wives in tight jeans, their blouses diaphanous in the setting sun, come…bearing baked desserts which they did not bake and will not eat.” Hey, no compaints from me. I’ll have a taste of the baked dessert and watch the scenery.
Here’s an unrelated quote from another book review, by Stephen Metcalf:
“Hell is other people, goes the old existentialist saw. Words to live by, I say; now if only it weren’t so hellish to be alone. There is, however, a moment before you get to know a person too well, before they’ve become part of the mental furniture, as it were, when unfamiliarity bestows upon them a mystery they may not otherwise deserve.”
Here’s to the mystery, deserved or otherwise.