This was originally posted in Book Writing World in August of 2012.


Now I know I wanted to get caught.

One evening in my forties, I stared at the man writing, as usual, at the fourth table from the door by the window. My husband and I were in Hunan Pan, long since gone from Hudson Street, at our usual table two over from his, in the corner. My heart was thumping like a mountain. The man was scribbling away, erect and calm. His skin was pale white, his hair a short, tight wave of blondish red curls and his glasses were big black square frames. Eventually he looked up and saw me. Immediately, he looked away a second, his pen hand moved to cover his notebook just slightly. So I stopped staring, a silent burning mountain of demands to let this man seep into me despite my embarrassment. He was a writer. He was what I wanted to be. I thought I needed permission.

Which brings me to chicken soup in Bickford’s.

Grandma took me to Bickford’s whenever she had to go to the Williamsburg Savings Bank, for a long time the tallest building in Brooklyn. It had — still has —  clocks on all four of its sides at the top below a green copper dome. It also had the fanciest ladies’ room for middle class women I’ve ever seen: real leather banquettes you could stretch out on in case your errands proved to be too much for you. Women in the midst of shopping and working nearby were always arriving from who knows where to do their banking in this building and then they would leave for places I couldn’t see. Bickford’s was down the street on Flatbush.

You had to cross where the curving old metal trolley tracks were still embedded in new road surface. Wheels had been rumbling over them for a number of years now. Grandma had taken the trolley with my mother and uncle when they were small. I was forever aware of the words almost sticking in her throat when Grandma said yes, she’d really taken the trolley. She always wore a big black overcoat. She marched and I followed alongside. When we’d get to Bickford’s, we’d leave the bright window behind us and sit at the off-white counter on the brown-orange stools you could spin.

Nearly always, I  got a cup of chicken noodle soup. Bickford’s served Campbells, in the red and white can, like we did. The waitress would smile and set the soup down: the steamy, savory, golden broth suspending the long white, looping square-edged noodles and small squares of pink chicken. Occasionally I’d see a slice of carrot or celery. When I put my spoon into the  broth, I mingled with the steam. My spoon’s journey to my tongue and palate would end in a combustion of noodles, broth and chicken suffused with salt and a rising that took me over the plates and the glass coffee pots across the aisle from the counter to the snowy grey Himalayas to the sun. All this, in silence.

I loved  that other people were there enjoying their food, too. I wondered what pictures their enjoyment made for them. This Bickford’s was never crowded. I could tell we all were relieved to be there. We had a camaraderie. Coats hung down over the stools from underneath everyone’s backsides. Sometimes men read newspapers over their egg salad sandwiches and hats. Women’s sipped coffee while their purses stayed put in laps and shopping bags stayed put on the floor. Every so often a waitress and a male customer would banter about something. This was no Edward Hopper midnight moment of staring silently into the coffee. It was a pausing and pulsing midday.

When Grandma and I went back out the glass door, I hoped I was going upward toward the Himalayas as we went down the subway steps for the train back to her apartment. I was fortified by chicken soup and I was ready for the world. The silence was okay even as the other side of me wondered about using words to set out the world as I saw it. I did not know it could be done. You didn’t ask Grandma about things like that.

As we both got older, Grandma fed me many bowls of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, mostly when we were alone together in her Miami Beach apartment with the corner windows facing the beach. This was long before this section of Miami Beach became glitzy South Beach. The silence of old people was always outside. We’d have bowls of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup alongside cream cheese and chives on top of Ritz crackers while we watched the noon soap operas. This was the only culinary feat my grandmother accomplished with eagerness. We indulged in this ritual nearly every day of my two-week visits.

I’ve been working on a memoir for over two years now. It is finally beginning to feel like it could be a book and the question keeps coming up: why am I finally writing it now, after so many years of thinking I couldn’t?

This is what I’ve finally found out: Grandma, hawkish as she was, gave me a lot of chicken soup, a factor of love. And love, with or without permission, wants to and will be caught.

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