Details

Molly O'Neill - February 4, 2014


Don Forst, editor and friend, mentor and tormentor, died several weeks ago. He was 81 years old, but he seemed eternal. Time has collapsed like an accordion since. The puff and might of a few decades of modest success are squeezed out and I’m back where he discovered me. Sweating in a kitchen in Boston’s Back Bay with a crew of ex-cons, soon-to-be-cons, and teamsters. I’m 27-years old and worrying that restaurant cooking is frying my brain.

I’d gone to work in restaurants because I was a poet, a painter, and I needed a B-job. I also needed something that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m a good cook, not great, but good enough to hide behind a white jacket and be called “chef”. I’m also good enough to know that I will never be great. Greatness takes monomaniacal focus and, in addition to making a perfect veal Marsala, I care about other things. Such as writing the Great American Novel. I am worried that if I don’t stop cooking in restaurants, cooking in restaurants will be all there is.

I write a story about cooking in Provincetown. It takes me two months to read every word ever published on Provincetown, on Yankee cooking, and on Portuguese cooking. From the beginning, research was my preferred method of avoiding writing.

I write by hand in a spiral notebook. I spend hours staring into space, imagining having written. I sit poised with no words, no ideas, no clue. I sweat and cringe over every word. I erase, I rip pages, I tear hair. I type my story—1,2000 overwrought words—and send it to every food magazine there is: five at the time. They all accept the piece. There were, after all, not many people who could flip a burger and write a sentence back then. Gourmet sends me a check that is more than I earn cooking in a month. My husband says that now I am a professional writer.

I begin an ode to pancakes. I write in the morning before I walk to work. It is winter in Boston and Boston is on the brink of becoming a one newspaper town. The town’s scrappy tabloid, the Boston Herald, is in big trouble.

I read the papers before leaving the apartment in the late morning. The Herald reads like the guys who work in the kitchen: the same, gritty Irish fatalism that kept Boston cheering for a losing baseball team for about fifty years. The Globe reads like a tea party. The Herald keeps me looking sideways when I walk down the street. The Globe makes me think about creamed chip beef on toast.

One morning as I walk to work, I notice a car parked next to the Boston Common that is collecting tickets on its windshield. It is still there the next day. The driver is in the car. I get close enough to see a young, Asian man at the wheel, sitting behind the ticker-tape lineup of parking tickets under his windshield wiper. The next day he is still there and so are more tickets. It is freezing. I am shivering in a navy blue pea jacket. I wonder why the car’s windows are not fogged by the inhale and exhale of its driver. I stare. He is not breathing. He is dead. He is still getting a ticket an hour.

I run across the street to the bar where CHEERS is being filmed and use the pay phone to call the Boston Herald tip line. I emerge Lois Lane and run back to write down everything I see. Every dent in the car, its license place number, the date and serial number on every ticket, the tiny, red circle behind the dead driver’s left ear, almost hidden by the upturned collar of his parka, almost but not quite.

A photographer arrives and starts snapping pictures. He grabs the parking tickets. I tell him to stop. Doesn’t he want to take the driver’s picture through the fence of parking tickets? The shutterbug does not cotton to my photo-styling suggestions. It turns out he is a detective with the Boston Police Department and not a photographer with the Boston Herald. I run back to CHEERS to read my notes to the Boston Herald tip line. There are only two parking tickets remaining on the windshield when I return. There are many police vehicles and several reporters. The seated body cannot be finessed into the coroner’s black plastic bag. Bones crack.

STIFF VIOLATED was my first story. I didn’t get a byline, but I did get high. FRONT PAGE! That’s MY STORY.

Several months later, when the Boston Globe ran my pancake opus, I got a call from Don Forst. He’d been the editor of the Boston Herald—my first editor! After negotiating the sale of the paper to Rupert Murdoch, he’d been pushed out of the newspaper and had moved on to become the editor of Boston Magazine.

“Don Forst. I read your piece. You could be good.”

“Thank you.”

“If you want to be good just keep doing what you are doing. If you want to be great, come work for me.” He had a nasal, streetwise Brooklyn accent: “Sweetheart, get me a rewrite.”

Forst offered me a monthly food column in Boston Magazine for the princely sum of $300. In exchange for this honor, I would assist general assignment reporters—chasing cops and robbers, crooked businessmen and politicians, farmers, fishermen, ball players, numbers runners, and taxi drivers. I’d go to dog shows, school board meetings, wine tastings, art openings, and boxing matches.

“You’ll learn to report,” he said, “or maybe you just want to be another food writer kvelling about satin sauces.”

Forst played writers the way Heiftez worked a violin. He didn’t know that I grew up with five brothers who were raised to be professional athletes, but he seemed to intuit that I, too, had a Skinnerian response to challenge. He also understood my disdain of the chipped-beef-on-toast class. He saw disdain for what it is: the rage of the excluded. I was too big and too Ohio, living in Boston. He was a small man. He knew all about the fury that comes from believing you have no choice but to be larger than life, and he knew just what to say.

“You could be great,” he purred, “a staar.”

Et viola!—a love slave was born. I worked for him for ten years, first at Boston Magazine where I wrote the monthly food column and then at New York Newsday, where I was the restaurant critic—my least favorite job, at my most favorite place, with the best editor I’ve ever known.

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News Room NY Newsday (from New York Newsday Alumni, Facebook)

Forst had a preternatural ability to see the story behind the story, to spot the larger truth that lurks in the detail. He knew what makes readers read, and he knew what makes writers tick. If he liked you, if he needed what you had and if he thought you had an iota of talent, he honed his sixth sense on you and intensified the writer/editor dynamic into a 24/7, dom/sub dance.

You were the best, the brightest, the funniest, the hardest working, the most dogged, the most aggressive: you were HIS. And you could not fail.

He met you for coffee at 7:30 a.m., called you for lunch at 1 p.m., occupied an adjacent treadmill at Sports Training Institute between 3 and 4 p.m., and along with this wife, joined you and your husband for dinner a few nights a week. He took you shopping for his wife’s birthday present, sat next to you on a bench behind the Public Library, in the snow, and said, “Tell me what you see.” He wrapped his cashmere scarf around your eyes and said, “What do you smell? Where are you? What’s going to happen next?”

He answered every call and stayed on the phone until you said “OK, bye.” He knew who you dreamed of being and he acted as if that was exactly who you already were. The world would eventually recognize you for the “staar you aare,” until then, “not to worry Sweethaart, I got your back.”

It was Don and the Don-ettes against the world, and in his view—to which you were required to subscribe—the world was mostly made up of pretentious assholes, lame retards, and greedy mother fuckerfuckaahs.

Forst’s methodology would be considered inappropriate today. “Get your ass outta bed,” he’d rasp into the telephone at 5 a.m. “If you want to be a staar you get up before everybody else. Why aren’t you at the Bronx Terminal Market? Why aren’t you at Fulton Fish Market? The food day started hours ago in this town. You are so fuckin lucky to live here. Get the fuck up.”

When you were HIS, your internal climate control alternated between rage and elation.

“I need FACTS. Tell me the make of the waiters’ shoes. Rubber soles or leather? How do they sound on that carpet? Go back,” he’d say.

“How do you know they raise their own beef?” he’d ask. “Did you sit outside and wait for the delivery truck? Did you follow it all the way back to Iowa? Or is it Ohio? Get the fuck out of here. Go follow that fuckin’ truck.”

Hours later, a printout of your blood-drenched prose would be infuriated into a ball, aimed effortlessly at the trashcan in his office. Forst had been scouted as a shortstop. His aim was infallible, and he could turn on a dime. A sharp blue pencil slashed across the page. Ripping paper. Growls. Moans. Gutter talk.

“What is this shit? First you want to be great. Now you want to be Barbara fucking Cartland?”

“You sound like a bitchy, old Queen. Shit, I could get AIDS just reading this.”

“If you know the story, you can tell it. If you don’t, you have to write it. Stop WRITING. Just tell me if I’m going to get laid if I take my girlfriend there for dinner.”

Just when you thought about heaving your computer into a wall—as happened at New York Newsday, with some regularity—he snatched pages from your hand, scanned them, and smiled. He made four gleeful pencil marks and turned an ordinary restaurant review into an insightful fragment of social criticism. Then, he credited you.

“You’re good, Sweethaart, damned good. They’re gonna come steal you away from me. The Times. The New Yorker. One of them. Maark my words. Break my haart.”

Forst’s banter outlived the era of hard-bitten, hard-drinking newsmen. In today’s sanitized newsrooms, he was a liability. I may have blushed when he asked, “Why can’t your prose be as tight as your ass, Princess?” But not a feminist bone in my body could have moved me to object. I went back to my desk. I removed adjectives. I learned to see the universal in the details.

“You think this is about the fuckin’ souffle? This is about the poor schnorrer at the next table laying down the plastic to get laid, Sweethaart. This is about dreams and theater. This is about little people acting big, big people looking the other way, and girls from Ohio making it in the city. ‘Lofty’ my ass. What the fuck does ‘lofty’ mean? Puff and pouff, Princess, it’s all rise and fall in this town. That’s your story. Go write it. Spare me the fucking cooking lesson. Just go blow that little, limp dick restaurant critic from The Times away.”

I hated restaurant criticism. I was too close to kitchens for comfort, had a terrible soft spot for hard-working cooks, and zero patience for maitre d’s, waiters or—worst of all—restaurant owners. Cooking school in Paris had left me unimpressed by fads, then the motor of restaurant criticism in New York City. But my biggest problem was form. I’d started as a poet. Writing features had unleashed a truer voice, and returning to a weekly, codified poem had me sucking cigarettes out of frustration. The additional burden of the form—giving solid consumer advice as well as mapping, restaurant by restaurant, the geography of contemporary cuisine—bored the bejesus out of me.

Forst, of course, understood this. “It’s an etude,” he said. “This miniature world that reveals a particular whole? It’s boring as hell. All you are doing is practicing scales, that’s all, scales. Shut up and give me details.”

“Details,” he said at least 100 times a day, “I need details!”

Perhaps he knew then—as I know now—that recognition is a mirror. We notice what resonates with something inside ourselves, positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously, book-learned, or gleaned from the school of hard knocks. I was 30 years old and knew a little about food and cooking, but very little about myself. My ability to recognize details was limited.

Maybe he was warning me about those limits, or about getting complacent in having mastered a single subject, that night at New York Newsday when, sitting in his office, he motioned toward the window that faced the newsroom. As ever, rows of reporters were hunched over screens, their faces green from the reflected light.

“See that pale, doughy bitch over there? Is that who you want to be? Shitty shoes, fat ass, a desk full of fucking cooking books, a closet full of second hand schemata, rewriting press releases, and considers it a good day when nothing bad happens? Is that the life you want?”

Image 3Scott Lynch, author of the fantasy novels, Gentlemen Bastards, says that writers are afflicted with two contradictory delusions—the burning certainty that we are unique geniuses, and the constant fear that we are witless frauds who are speeding toward epic failure. Forst served as a one-man fulcrum to the writers he adopted.

For many of us, that was ballast enough to train the terror of those two contradictory delusions onto the page. Once the habit of words-to-page is grooved, a writer becomes her own fulcrum. If you turn to the page, the inchoate eventually becomes concise, that which was barely noticed ends up becoming a beacon amidst bafflement. You hold your course. You do the next right thing. You write. You gain some confidence. You may get a little big for your britches.

“You blew this one, Princess.” It was 1992 and Forst had taken rare—in fact, never before heard of—exception to one of my restaurant reviews.

“You like that place?”

“Never been there.”

“Then what makes you think I blew it?”

“I heard.”

“You heard? You didn’t see it? You didn’t taste it? You didn’t listen to the people sitting next to you? You didn’t stalk their delivery trucks? You didn’t background the owners? You heard?”

“That’s right,” he said, swiveling his chair to aim the small, impeccably tailored back of his chalk-striped suit at me, his face toward the line of newspapers that was arranged on the console behind his desk. A crisp French cuff peeked, just so, beneath the flat pleat of his jacket’s sleeve as he reached for the Wall Street Journal, hesitated, and went instead for the LA Times.

It was probably not coincidental that I had been approached by another newspaper and several other magazines with job offers in the weeks before this conversation. We all knew that our paper was going down. I knew it was better to leave before New York Newsday folded. But we were a small, tight group, we’d been given extraordinary latitude, taken risks, made mistakes, achieved some greatness, incubated some stars, shared a great ride—and we were his. Leaving Don Forst at that moment was about like leaving Jonestown just as the Kool-Aid service began. I hadn’t thought about it seriously, I certainly hadn’t talked about it.

“Just GO,” he said. “They know talent. You know your stuff. You know better than to let them turn you into one of them. Give it all you have but don’t kid yourself, Princess, you’re not one of them. You’ll never be one of them.”

“Don…”

“Make them pay you twice as much as I pay you. Fuckers.”

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I didn’t just leave Forst, I left my tribe when I left New York Newsday. Like leaving the O’Neills of Columbus, leaving Forst immediately became a hard, cold vacancy beneath my sternum. It was something not to be discussed, considered, or acknowledged. It was a spot to be lived around, preferably with a great show of accomplishment.

I wasn’t aware of myself lurching around with an iron manacle of unspoken words—thank-you, fuck you, I love you, for instance. I was working too hard to be aware of anything but the next deadline. Other former Don-ettes drank, gambled, did drugs, or developed zipper issues; I worked. Work was my sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, it was my marriage, my family, myself, my preferred substance. The hard, cold spot surfaced in highly inconvenient ways. I celebrated my first bestselling book with a case of shingles.

Except for the occasional phone call when he was bored or needed a favor, I didn’t talk to Forst for ten years.

I didn’t miss him because he never went away. He is the voice inside my head when I read what I’ve written, when I’m frustrated, pissed off, stymied, standing at a cross roads on the page, or in life. That irascible, designed-to-offend voice, those brown eyes, and that chill of not knowing—never knowing—whether you were about to meet the good Donnie or his twisted sister. That Dionysian twin was gnarled by life, vicious as a chained fighting dog. Both Donnies looked the same: perfectly pumped and aerobi-sized, a whiff of a Cuban cigar, all emotion contained in the manner of a professional assassin, not a thread out of place.

The cold, vacancy beneath my sternum grew slowly. It took several decades, but at some point, the vacancy took on a life of its own. It became life. But the motions of the life I’d imagined, it turned out, wasn’t exactly the life I wanted. Maybe we just outlive our dreams these days. One night, walking through the city room at The Times, looking at the rows of people hunched over their machines, I suddenly felt as pale and bored as un-yeasted dough.

I’d enjoyed some success at the paper. It turned out that I am “one of them,”—a True Believer in Forst’s nemesis (as well as his former employer)—and it took me a decade to get my bearings. For most of that time, we were separated by a mere county line. I was living on the other side of the Hudson River from Forst. After moving from Newsday to the Village Voice, Forst had moved to the weekend house he’d shared with his wife, and then in his mid-70’s, began kicking around for something to do. He ended up teaching in the journalism school at the University of New York at Albany.

I worried about his driving from Hudson to Albany. Vehicular disregard was part of his Brooklyn DNA. He drove like Mr. Magoo. I learned how to drive on black ice. There is a lot of it upstate, patches that appear to be the road until the wheel hits them. The trick is going with the swerve. Steer right into it. Don’t brake. Don’t freak. Don’t hesitate. Just go with it.

At some point, I understood that the black ice was me. Frozen pieces of the past aren’t apparent. For a while, you steer around them like familiar bumps and potholes. Eventually they grow, or you forget where they are; suddenly, you’re spinning around on the road.

The little shards of forgetting that lay in the vacancy under my sternum had teamed up with a glacier of resistance to moving beyond what I already knew. What I knew had served me well professionally, but the world was changing. I had to change along with it, die of boredom, or become a hack. I clutched, I braked, and I banged my head against a number of walls before remembering to steer into the swerve.

Then I started having fun again.

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“What the fuck are you doing, anyway?” Forst said when I picked up the phone in the summer of 2011, “Where did you go?”

“I’m right across the river, teaching, writing, and producing an event. You should come. I have too much to do every single day and there is nothing on my list that I don’t love doing.”

Several lifetimes passed in the silence that followed.

“Terrific. Ahead of the News and on top of the Times,” he said, referring to the billboards that Newsday had placed around the City low those many years ago. “I told you that you were going to be a staar.”

“Don, thank you. You made me.”

“Nah. I just stirred the pot once in a while. You cooked yourself, Sweethaart. Listen, I got this student, terrific writer, I’m wondering if you can help her out…”

We made plans to meet; we never did. We could practically see each other from our mountains on opposite sides of the Hudson, upstate, but we talked on the phone. He read things I wrote. He counseled, he offended, and we talked about our students. We loved our students.

“They make me a better writer,” I said. “They make me a better person,” he said. Something had begun to soften in him. He talked about his own life and only occasionally snapped nasal suspicion: “Are you writing this down?”

He called to discuss his diagnosis in November. Third stage colon cancer.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“Nothing. I’m going to be fine. I’m actually sorta looking forward to the fight.”

Actually, he needed some friends. Whatever we were—boss/employee, mentor/mentored, editor/writer, dom/sub, lovers that never were—we were only last fall becoming the sort of friends you call when you need your sheets changed or a ride to the hospital. He needed a ride to the hospital on January 2 when the chemotherapy he was undergoing as part of his cancer treatment went awry. His wife was in the city. His longtime companion and medical proxy had no snow tires on her car.

It was snowing as I drove my stepdaughter to the train in Hudson and drove back home that evening. Later, the insanity of having sailed past his house as well as the Hudson hospital, as Forst frantically dialed for help, seemed like a particularly cruel touch. Forstian.

Not that snow tires could have changed anything. It was already too late. The hospital in Hudson is like a MASH Medical Unit; they do OK with car wrecks and bar fights. Sepsis is another matter. The transfer to St. Peter’s in Albany ate up precious moments. Don died in the early morning hours of January 3.

Texts started flying around almost immediately. Everyone was stunned. For all of his bad boy posing, Forst was—to several generations of some very lucky writers—one true thing: a constant. He’s been the voice inside my head for 30 years. He seems to have even a little more time on his hands now that he’s gone. We have, you see, been reviewing my writing life, these past several weeks. The life he gave me with his incessant demand for details.

Details? You want details? Let me tell you what it takes to notice the detail that tells a story. It takes a beating heart, a bloody head, a very good memory, a little luck, a full and present knowledge of who and what you really are—fully alive, with no reservations and absolutely no concern for any other moment than this.

Then you have to write the sucker.