Friday, 22 October 2010

The Hungry Years Revisited

I stand upon the shore of a wide sea
Whose unknown depths profound I soon must cross
When the last sand of life runs out for me.
The clouds have fled. I look back on my life
And find it brighter than I was aware.
David H. Smith (The Parting)

THE SEA VENTURE was a greasy spoon on the Harbour Road in Warwick, Bermuda, next to the Darrell’s Wharf ferry stop, and within walking distance of Warwick Academy where I was taking my GCE “O” Levels.

I never really mastered the art of studying for examinations; if I attended a class and took notes, that was it. I would not reread my notes or do further research from other sources, even if requested and required. I did not take schoolwork home. What I heard and remembered, and what lodged in my mind during the short time it took to summarise the lesson’s points in a few words, was all that I took into the hall or gymnasium where we sat in rows to write about Biology, or History, or Physics, or Chemistry. In fact, I sat eight “O” Level examinations and passed six, and only just managed those by the smallest margin. A year later I picked up the two GCEs I had failed at first: French and English.

Looking back forty-five years, I recall very little about the subjects, the information I was tackling so badly then. I do manage to revisit the classrooms, the looks of my fellow pupils, the teachers, and the layout of the rooms, the dust and the boredom. Right now I can picture my situation in every one of the forms I spent a school year in, and I sometimes dream of what might be thought the best years of my life, spent in grey trousers and a blazer in the winter, and khaki shorts and knee-socks in the warmer weather months. I would be hard-pressed to tell you much about Pythagoras’s Theorem now. In a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Every schoolboy knows that, and that Henry VIII died in 1547. I must have been able to demonstrate that theorem in 1965, in a concise manner. One could not waffle about such things and get away with it.

I could tell anyone trapped by my words in 2010 (one would hope enthralled, dazzled by my genius) a fair bit about the Sea Venture restaurant on Harbour Road. Basically a hamburger joint, it began as a long, narrow room next to a shorter narrow room occupied by Betty’s Beauty Salon. The Sea Venture eventually nudged Betty out of the building and put a few tables where the accoutrements of the hairdressing business had been. The main room at the Sea Venture featured a long counter and one sat on uncomfortable stools there facing the Harbour. However, there were no windows, one looked around cake-stands at the grill and cupboards which housed the tools of the eatery business, and, I suppose, the comestibles that did not need refrigeration. There were three two-seater tables on the road side and one could look out at the passing traffic, but as I rarely went alone or with just one other person, we tended to sit at the counter or in the annexed room.

As a little boy, I’d been taken to the Sea Venture with my sisters on Sunday outings with my father. At home the only meats I recall having were chicken drumsticks, and minced beef made into a pie with onions and potatoes. We might have fish fingers on a Friday. My mother was a most unaccomplished cook. One of my sisters, to this day, tells me she believes our mother prepared nice food. That sister has inherited our mother’s and grandmother’s inabilities in the kitchen and I cannot eat the food she prepares. She can turn anything into sticks and sawdust. My father had not stayed with my mother longer than it took him to get residency status in Bermuda. Perhaps, if she had been able to prepare fine dinners he might have stayed longer. I imagine her bouts of insanity would have scared him off in time. My father never took us to the lodging house he might have been living in (I wonder if he was untidy, or ashamed at his situation) and, so, to the Sea Venture for a hamburger and a Coca Cola. We got to know the original owners of the restaurant, the DeCosta family, quite well.

The hamburgers at the Sea Venture were very good, juicy and not over-cooked, if not very large. One could not get a double burger in one bun, it was not on the menu, and Manny DeCosta would happily sell you two burgers on two buns, but he’d not fool with nature. The French fries, as they were listed in the menu, being what at home we called chips, were delicious and one lathered them with tomato ketchup from a plastic squeeze bottle. One could squeeze mayonnaise and mustard on the burger or hot dog one might order. Coca Cola or a milkshake to drink. They had pies and cakes for dessert, which could be served à la mode. If my father could be persuaded to part with another shilling, I’d have blueberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. That did not happen very often.

Curiously, I managed to be awfully thin into my teen years, despite the burgers and fries and milkshakes. In fact, I was concerned that I was too scrawny and rowed a boat to try and build myself up. The exercise made no difference. I was introduced to steak, pork and beans covered in brown sugar, asparagus, and yams covered in marshmallows, and lavish desserts in the bountiful kitchen of friends, in my last year at Warwick Academy. I started to gain a little weight. I gained something more important: access to books, wonderful books, many, many books. That triggered a passion for reading that has not relented to this day. I often find myself skipping meals because I’m deep into a book. I can write while eating, but I cannot read and manipulate a knife and fork.

Manny DeCosta had sold the Sea Venture during my last year at Warwick Academy; the new owner, Carlos, another Portuguese fellow (we called them Gees, which is probably offensive), hiked the prices. With schoolmates skipping classes or at the end of lesson time I’d pop into the restaurant for French fries and a Coke. Burgers were too costly. I did find another burger joint across the Harbour in Hamilton. The Hawaiian Room had fishnets pinned to the ceiling, and nautical decor. Pretty ghastly, come to think of it. But I could rustle up the price of their Hawaiian Burger (it had a pineapple ring atop the beef patty) and a butterscotch sundae.

During my teens I was mowing lawns and washing dishes for a few pounds a week. Out of those few blue notes I managed to buy a long-playing record album for 31/6 (just over one-and-a-half pounds) and the odd shirt or pair of trousers. Odd, indeed. I was attracted to shirts with floral prints, low-slung denim jeans, suede waistcoats and outrageous flowered ties. I was growing my hair and starting the moustache that I have to this day.

As a child, in England, I’d sometimes go to Wimpy Bars. The little Wimpy burgers were the size of those at the Sea Venture, but, I thought, tasteless by comparison. At the Sea Venture one could ask for all sorts of add-ons: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and get French fries with endless reserves of ketchup. In Bermuda there is an expression: “Don’t get foolish with the mayonnaise!” which means, I think, don’t go overboard with it. But it was a joke as everyone wanted as much mayonnaise as possible, and on anything.

I spent the summer holidays of 1971 in London, sub-letting an apartment in Earl’s Court. The apartment had an unpleasant and very small kitchen with a meter than was coin-operated. I made only coffee there. In Earl’s Court, near the subway entrance, was a new eatery called The Hungry Years. The frontage was striking: Embedded in the window glass somehow was a life-size picture of a bread-line from the 1930s. The sort of thing one associates more with North America than the UK, The Grapes of Wrath. I was drawn inside and found wood-panelled walls, a dark and quite large room. The Hungry Years served hamburgers. One could order the burgers by quarter-pound increments. One might have a quarter-pound patty (before cooking) on a roll, or a half-pound of meat. If you wanted a pound of beef, you could have it. The burgers were delicious and one could specify cooking time. Behind the bread-line on the windows the clientele stuffed themselves to the gills with what was probably more beef than was healthy.

I’d discovered McDonald’s hamburgers in the USA in 1970, and they were good. I eventually became a fan of the “Quarter Pounder with Cheese”. The burgers at The Hungry Years were better.

And in 1971, at the age of 21, I had my first anxiety attacks while in London. I never knew when I might be rendered immobile, there seemed no logic to it. One day I’d be racing around the English countryside in a friend’s roadster, or I’d be partying happily at a club till all hours, and then I’d try to step out for a morning paper and find myself vomiting on the pavement in a state of collapse. A year later the bad days had taken over, I had no good days.

As I finished school and blundered about in the accounting world, I felt compelled to search for the real meaning in life. For some reason, I thought psychedelics were that door to understanding everything. I wanted to know. I had to know. God might be anywhere. After my panic disorder set in, I looked to religion. A missionary posed the questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And these are good questions. Looking back, I think I’d have done well to ask other questions less sweeping, and might have built up my knowledge a little here, a little there, like GCE subjects, rather than accepting something branded The Word of God. However, I had some hunger for knowledge; if not the good sense to figure out what constitutes knowledge at the end of the day. I went for the biggest burger on the menu.

Some years later I was unwell to the point of being homeless. Not exactly without a roof over my head, except when I lost the plot completely, but in sheltered accommodation. That can be worse than sleeping on the beach or in a park or graveyard. I know. Some days and nights I just walked till I dropped. I ate mainly at a Salvation Army soup kitchen. The meals were nearly always spaghetti with three meatballs, and a reconstituted fruit drink. Only one meal a day. On Friday nights a wagon might bring soup and bread around the back streets. Always pea soup. On a Sunday night the Salvation Army kitchen was closed and a meal could be had at the Seventh-Day Adventist church hall. Always vegetables, no meat, sometimes a little pasta. I lost so much weight (over 50 lbs) that people did not recognise me. At the Seventh-Day Adventist hall the volunteers called me “Pops”. I was the only white person there, and must have looked beyond my years. I was not happy with my nickname.

I could afford to lose some weight, and I’m not sure that my hungry year did me much physical harm. Perhaps everyone should have a gap year like that? Looking back, I appreciate that my mind was well-stimulated by my difficult days.

Today I bring to the table experiences that I believe most of us have not enjoyed, or suffered. The big man cannot understand the hunger of the small man, though he might know the hunger of pure greed. To get bigger. Not just in matters of diet and physical size, but in philosophical matters, in business, in politics, in religion.

Happens I no longer eat meat. I won’t be looking for a better burger. I don’t smoke, haven’t for 30 years, but still dream I’m smoking and do crave a cigarette. And when I smell beef pies fresh from the oven at the Amble Butcher, or when the fragrance (the perfume!) of a bacon butty comes from Jasper’s Cafe, I find myself drooling. Like Pavlov’s dog. We all remember Pavlov’s dog, don’t we? Every schoolboy.


Ruth L.~ said...

Hey friend! I freed up some time in my life and hope to get back to blogging and visiting the blogs I like, like yours.

I must say I gasped with pleasure at that photo of the pie and ice cream!!! That alone is worth returning after my absence.

I'd love one of those hamburgers...and then some pie!

Eric said...

Ross, I just thought I would let you know that I updated our family blog.

Eric Nielson