Steven and Jennifer. “That’s our long-term plan. For her to be a lawyer and for me to be her permanent client.”
  • Steven and Jennifer. “That’s our long-term plan. For her to be a lawyer and for me to be her permanent client.”
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“How is it that you go up to go down?" asks Jennifer — Steven’s lady — speaking at a pace that feels rabbitlike compared to Steven’s. In saying this, she anticipates my own comment; it took me a while to find this complex, tucked as it is on a hemmed-in hill street. Then it took me a while to find the entrance — surely there was some main gate; surely you didn’t wind your way in through these narrow concrete alley ways? And then, it took me still longer to actually reach their apartment. I could see it, up there on the second story, from where I stood. But every time I went up a set of stairs, I found myself being shunted back down before actually reaching their landing. I felt as if I was in an M.C. Escher illustration. “I’m here!” I called up to the door. “I can’t get to you!” I wondered what the other residents would think. Finally, after back tracking my way to the outer edge of the courtyard’s entrance, I found a stair case that led me up two flights before dropping me one half flight and so to their door. “Recession makes people do crazy things,” explains Steven. “That’s a recession in action.”

“I used to think of this place as a cell,” he says. Stepping back from the vibrant and bustling decor of his apartment, it is possible to see why. The black mesh security door opens onto a squarish, maybe 15 ́ x 15 ́ room, carpeted in standard apartment beige, with a high, sloped ceiling. Past this living area is roughly a six-foot hallway. On the right side of the hall, a bath room. On the left, a small square kitchen, visible through a pass-through partition. At the end of the hall, a door leading into the bedroom. The only window in the living/kitchen space is the big one in front that looks out into the court yard. White vinyl vertical blinds cover the window for privacy, their deep utilitarianism both emphasized and subdued by a swath of dark, sheer floral-print fabric.

“It’s dark in here always,” laments Steven about the living room. “And in the bedroom, it’s just bright, direct light.” He says it’s “kind of troubling in here” for his plants, several of which are hanging on in their pots despite the light — an echeveria, a staghorn fern, a parthinosis. “When I lived at the ranch up on Tate Street in Linda Vista, I had good light — lots of plants. I love plants, love them. Houseplants, outside plants, any kind of plants. I feel bad about having plants in this place, because they stress. It’s kind of like having a dog in an apartment.”

He arrived at the Tate Street ranch — his grandfather’s house — just after his grandmother died. He had been living overseas. “I was living there, helping [my grandfather] get things sorted out, and I saw this place advertised in the paper.”

Steven lives here for two reasons. One, it is cheap — “$500 a month.” Two, it is very near Linda Vista, the neighborhood in which he grew up. “Linda Vista is a good place to live. I didn’t want to leave it. There’s a lot of love in Linda Vista that you don’t find in other places. Some of those newer North County places where people live creep me out. I do landscaping jobs up there, and it’s just a ghost town during the daytime. I just think, ‘Damn, it’s a good place to be if you’re a baby or a little child, but once you’re a teenager...’ I’d be working a job on the irrigation system at some strip mall and see these teens just cruising in their cars aimlessly around the strip mall. I didn’t have a car until I was 24. I grew up in Linda Vista; I didn’t need one.”

It’s “a working-class neighborhood — a working-poor neighborhood, really. "My grandparents have lived there since the ’40s. My grandfather was working at Convair, and Linda Vista was built for the defense workers during World War II. It was kind of the first federally planned community in the country. The first strip mall in the country was in Linda Vista; Eleanor Roosevelt broke the ground for it.” (Apparently it did not foster the car-driven culture that its North County counterparts would eventually spawn.) “There were all these kind of purpose-built homes, and they were offered to people for no money down and something like 1 per cent–interest loans. It gave a lot of those people a start, and as their lot in life improved, they moved to areas like Serra Mesa or Clairemont or Tierrasanta.”

Steven’s grandparents, however, stayed in Linda Vista. His father is a Navy man who “just blew into town, got my mom pregnant, and more or less blew out. There were so many women in San Diego having illegitimate babies during the Vietnam War that Balboa Hospital basically had to deal with the situation by letting them go there and have the babies.” Mother and child stayed with grandma and grandpa, and the family watched the neighborhood around them shift from one group of working poor to another. “Basically, since my time, it’s been other kinds of people coming here, looking for a better way of life — from Southeast Asia, from Mexico, from all over the world to Linda Vista. It was a different place, a good place to grow up. It shaped my character in lots of ways, teaching me what was important. It’s a different set of values — kind of a bit of a paradox — here in Southern California, where everybody’s trying to drive this car or that car — or basically full of some kind of shit and forgetting about what’s really important.”

He found echoes of those values, those beliefs about what’s important, during a visit to his father’s relatives in Hungary. “I have some family and friends there, just cousins and uncles and whatnot. I enjoy going there. I got to see the different way that different people live. It’s changing a lot since their regime change a decade or so ago, but everybody’s still poor. Everybody’s kind of a hustler, because you have to be in order to live — if you want to eat. Just scams and whatever you’ve got to do, you know?

“The first time I went over there, before the wall came down and all that, it was just nice — no neon lights, no advertisements, just real tore back. Several people living in the same small apartment, because there’s nowhere else to live. Two sets of grandparents sleeping in the living room, parents sleeping in the bedroom, one kid sleeping in a closet, another kid sleeping on the sofa or on a cot in the hallway. Then in the morning, you’ve got to wake up and change everything around for day use. But, you know, they were happy to be spending time with each other. A lot of laughs. Money wasn’t such a big deal, because there was no money and nothing to buy if you did have money — no big deal. I liked what was important to people: family, friends, respecting someone’s feelings, having time to listen to someone — conversation. Plenty of food, plenty of drinks.”

He became so enamored of their way of life that he made up his mind to live in a Socialist country and joined the Army after graduating high school with an eye toward defecting to the Soviet Union. But he joined in 1988; when the Berlin Wall came down a year later, it took with it his dreams of Socialist living. He returned to America, used his Army earned college funds to attend UCSD, and graduated with a degree in economics. But the Hungarian way of things stuck with him, and he never did make an entrance into the regular-paycheck, health-and benefits workaday work force. Today, for instance, he has been “just doing our things, you know — hustling. Doing what you’ve got to do to make money, to get the things you need. That’s more or less what I’ve always done. Some times you’ve got to do some landscaping, sometimes you’ve got to steal things from a department store, sometimes you’ve got to sell things...you know, just do whatever. Sometimes, you’ve just got to entertain.”

The bit about stealing from a department store refers to his cookware — a set of anodized aluminum pots and pans. “I went in there at Christmastime, when it was really busy. Over by the cash register, they have a spool of these ‘sold’ stickers that they put on large items that can’t fit into shopping bags. I just slapped one of those on this Calphalon stuff that’s more expensive than I would ever want to pay for it. I just gave myself a Christmas present. It was fun, and I needed it.”

Sometimes, you’ve just got to entertain, so tonight, Steven is entertaining me. Dinner tonight is a chicken paprikash; Steven does the cooking. “I like Hungarian food a lot. I’ve been cooking forever.” He admires the general foundations presented in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, which rests up against the microwave on the counter, but he doesn’t use it much. “I just cook things that I’ve learned through the years from my grandma. My mom never really got into cooking, so I learned every thing I know about cooking from my grandma. She basically raised me. She taught me more or less everything about the bones of it — how to be thrifty with your food dollar, that type of thing. Taking pride in what you do. Making things from scratch, as opposed to buying processed foods and things like that. I owe her a lot.”

He begins by cutting up a whole chicken and then skinning all but the wings. “If you buy them whole, they’re a lot cheaper, 59 cents a pound or what ever. So it’s less than $2 for a whole chicken. Some people like chicken skin, but I don’t really like it for something like this. For fried chicken, it’s nice.” The knife he works with is an excellent one, a boning knife from the Wustof Trident line. “You’ve got to have at least one good knife. I’m pretty particular about things I use to cook or things I eat. I’ll drive a shitty car before I’ll eat some shitty food, you know what I mean? It’s important.” (When he says, “You know what I mean?” it carries none of the character of a useless appendage to his thought. He speaks each word as carefully as he does any other and seems genuinely curious about whether or not he has been understood.) “I cook every night, because I’m not going to eat some crap at a fast food place, and I’m not going to eat food out of a box. If anything, you’ve got to eat one good meal a day.”

After the chicken, he slices up a great mound of oversize mushrooms. Then he chops onions, pours oil into a stock pot, and starts them cooking. A few minutes later, he pulls the pot from the stovetop and leans toward me. “I’ll tell you something important about paprika. You’ve got to take your onions off the heat — then you sprinkle it on. You just want to open it up, you know what I mean? If you put it on your onions while they’re on the heat, it will make a bitter taste; it scorches, and you don’t want to do that. You just want it to open up. Put a lit tle bit of water on it, make a roux, and then you can put it back on the heat. I’m sad if people don’t respect the paprika. Gongolians care about food.”

Gongolians?

“We’re Gongolians. See, it comes from the word gongol, which means ‘to acquire.’”

“Good taste — like the gypsies,” adds Jennifer.

“‘Gongolians’ is just a play on that. It separates into two different categories. There are Gongoloids, who, because of their extra set of chromosomes, will acquire stuff from anyone, including friends and associates. Then there are Gongolians, who have a lit tle more class.” Steven learned about Gongolians and Gongoloids “from some tweakers. Do you know any tweakers? You’re lucky. There’s nothing to be gained by knowing tweakers but funny bits of this and that.”

Though they are Gongolians, part of their kitchen decor has a decidedly Gongoloid origin. The burled walnut faces of the upper cabinets (along with a few patches of the lower cabinets) are covered with some kind of red paper. From a distance you can see the rows of crescents cut into the paper; up close, you discover that those crescents form halos about the rows and rows of Oriental style heads printed on the paper. One row right side up, the next upside down. “Some Gongoloids brought that here. It was during a drug brunch. Different kinds of drugs, all kinds of drugs. It comes after a drug binge, to push yourself over the edge. I was just kind of relaxing when these two people went up to Vietnam and came back with all sorts of colorful things, colorful packages. They didn’t know what to do with it, and then one night, Jennifer and I got the inspiration and a glue stick, and we sorted it out.”

That was around New Year’s. The cropped and blurred photo of Steven and Jennifer on the fridge was taken soon after. Steven wears an expression that I’ve never seen on anybody who wasn’t lying down. “I’m tore back. I think I’d probably been awake for about four days. I mean, I’d had snatches of sleep or snatches of being passed out, but we were going for it. It was the holidays, you know? And I’d spent a few days with stressful people before that.”

Other than the paper, the kitchen is pretty much standard apartment: double sink, electric oven, fridge, U-shaped cream Formica counters crammed with cooking paraphernalia. Besides Bittman’s cookbook, there are slim volumes pertaining to North Africa and Hungary lean ing up against the microwave. And here and there and everywhere, there are bits of baking equipment — tart pans, cooling racks, a rolling pin, a mixing bowl.

Once the onions are finished, Steven adds the chicken, mushrooms, and peppers and begins alternately stirring the contents of the pot and shaking it back and forth. He judges how long to do this by long experience. “I’m going to put a lid on this and let it stew for a while. When it starts to smell good, I’ll come in here and chop up some garlic and put it in and let it cook a little bit more. When the chicken is stewed and it’s all tender, I’ll put some sour cream in there, and then it will be done.”

The lid in place, Steven vacates the kitchen; now it is Jennifer’s turn. The baking bits are hers, and she needs to get started on tonight’s dessert. “I’m not allowed in the kitchen when she’s cooking,” Steven complains with a smile.

“That’s because you want to make out,” retorts Jennifer.

“Yeah, I just want to make out.”

“And everything gets burned.”

Like Steven, Jennifer admires Bittman’s How to Cook Everything for its “good foundations. He kind of gives you an idea where to start, and then you just work from there.”

You vary recipes?

“Well, I’d hope so — I mean, from any cookbook. Wouldn’t you, if you dis agreed with the amount of sugar or whatever?”

Frankly, no, not when it comes to baking. I enjoy baking and wish I did it more often, but I don’t imagine myself ever messing about with proportions the way my wife messes about with, say, recipes for stew. Baking seems to me to be a matter of precision — too much of this or too little of that, and you end up with something that doesn’t rise or doesn’t set or some other thing that renders it inedible.

Not so, Jennifer. “You’re a Gongolian,” Steven says to her. “You’re not as constrained.”

“I just think you have to start with good essentials — the basics — and then take it from there. If you start with good products, you’re probably in good shape, right?” As she speaks, she measures flour and butter and I’m not sure what else into a bowl. She does not consult a cookbook. When she finishes, she adjusts her long, straight denim skirt so that she can kneel down on the kitchen floor with the bowl and a pastry blender. “I do like to get on the floor,” she says, and being right up over the bowl certainly does make cutting in the butter an easier proposition. “It makes me feel like an Indian.”

“Kuumeyaay, grinding acorns,” chirps Steven from the living room.

“Can you turn on the light there?” she asks. “Steven doesn’t like the fluorescent light, but I need it.”

“Fluorescent lights make me angry and depressed,” he explains.

The creases in Jennifer’s knuckles show black against the white flour she is working. “Don’t freak out,” she warns. “I dyed my mother’s hair today. I washed off as much as I could. And I had a Superglue incident before that. I had to put my rear view mirror back up, and it was a brand-new tube, and I punched the hole in it, and it spilled all over the mirror, my fingertips, and my pants, where it stuck to my skin. That plus Stackers didn’t make anything fun.”

The Stackers were pep pills she got from Steven. “They’re a GNC product.”

“Ephedra,” says Steven.

“They make me feel jittery. I feel like I’ve had a pot of coffee.”

“You just need to eat, baby,” Steven assures her. “I was feeling kind of tore back earlier, but then I went and ate some swordfish and was back on the block.”

The butter and flour being thoroughly mixed, Jennifer lifts the bowl to the sink, adds water, and begins forming a ball of moist dough. She slaps the ball into shape with her hands, adding bits of dough as she goes to make the ball larger. Slap, slap, slap. To a slow baker like me, her speed is dizzying. She used to use a fork to incorporate the water, “but I didn’t like it. It takes a long time. It turns out okay this way. Should we do the minis?” she asks Steven.

“Sure.”

The minis are individual tart pans, a recent acquisition. “It’s working out pretty cool. The portions are better this way. It’s not so big and ominous as when you’ve got a big tart in the refrigerator and you’re munching on it at two or three in the morning. It doesn’t make the idea of summer coming up any easier on me, you know?” She pops the dough into the fridge to chill.

Steven says the mini pans are sweet. “It’s meant for you — just you. That’s what you like about it,” says Jennifer.

“I can live with that.”

“I tried to make him a cake from his grandmother’s bundt pan,” she says, turning to me. “He’s very fond of his grandmother — which I’m sure you’ve heard — who made everything from scratch, which I’m sure you’ve heard.

So you bake to please Steven?

“Do you think I would ordinarily? If it wasn’t such a difficult mouth to please, it would have been short cuts all the way. But it’s true; he prefers the from-scratch method, and he’s right; it’s a lot better. But you have to get really good at things, make them a lot faster.”

But it isn’t only to please Steven. “I like sweet things,” she says, “and that’s the only way to get it, really, is baking.” So, she bakes almost daily — for herself. “It depends on how long things last. Sometimes you have cupcakes that last longer, and you have to give them away, invite people over to eat them. Sometimes, it goes right then, and you’re going to need something sweet for the next day.” She has been baking since her early teens, and while she has yet to master the mysteries of Extraordinary Desserts’ drippingly rich yet fluffy lemon-ricotta torte, she has had her share of triumphs. “I’ve done beautiful ricotta cheesecakes; that’s some thing that I’m proud of. I do sugar-free ones for my dad, and they’re worthy of my name.”

Jennifer’s father lives in Dulzura, as does her mother, her sister, and her sister’s husband. As did Jennifer, until recently. “Do I live here?” she asks when I ask. “I guess I’ve been moved in for a while. It’s just that I...I still have... Yes, I live here. The reason that I don’t want to say I don’t live in Dulzura is because we have a nice little setup out there, and I don’t want to lose that.” She and Steven make the trek about once a week — “check in, see my mail, work on my computer, and catch up with my family” — staying in her parents’ pool house when they go. “It’s pretty pleasant to spend a couple of days in the country and come back to the city and get it all together again. It’s private space; it’s open. It’s just nice to be up in the mountains up there.”

“I like it. I like her family,” adds Steven.

“More importantly, they like you,” she replies.

“Yeah, I think so. I like her dad; I’m kind of sweet on her mom — so you know, that’s good.”

That Dad likes Steven is a wonder to Jennifer. “He talked to my father for four hours on Thanksgiving, when my father’s never given the time of day to anybody, let alone some guy. Everybody was astounded, just in complete awe. It still blows my mind; nobody’s captivated my father like that.”

What did you talk about?

“Macho stuff,” jokes Steven. “No, no — adventures and romance.”

“Lots of talk about Europe,” adds Jennifer. “That’s probably what left a big impact on my father — just your travels, more or less.” (Steven also managed to squeeze in four years in Germany before his return to Linda Vista.) “Just being seasoned, not walking in with a limp dick, so to speak.”

“I’m just basically so in love with his daughter,” says Steven, offering another explanation. When I ask after a picture of a young girl — Jennifer — in a purple tutu with scars on both her knees, Steven rhapsodizes, “That’s my girl. That’s why I love her. She’s a beautiful ballerina, but she likes to play outside.”

“I just think it’s really neat that my dad digs him,” continues Jennifer. “It’s so helpful to me. You don’t understand, being a little girl, my father was every thing. I mean, my mother was obviously very important...”

Dad was in the Air Force; Jennifer grew up on military bases, moving often. Before settling into her two nests, here and in Dulzura, she split time between Orange County and Pacific Beach, where she had a boyfriend. She didn’t like PB much. “It was just college kids burning up their parents’ money. It was an interesting time.”

Steven has little regard for the former boyfriend — or at least the former boyfriend’s type. “Boffit,” he shrugs. A boffit is “just some guy who should be a man, but he’s still a boy because he’s never had to do any work or struggle or any thing in his life. He’s just a punk, you know what I mean?”

Steven, on the other hand, has “paid the price” to live the way he does. What price? “I’ll tell you. Being hungry. Changing oil and tires and having battery acid all over my hands in my last year of high school because my mom said, ‘You’ve got to get out or pay rent.’ Guard duty — two weeks in the forest, no sleep, no food, freezing cold, you know?” And the way he lives? “Nobody tells me any thing. You’ve got to pay prices to do what you want to do.” He is frustrated — not to say outraged — by the government’s actions in Iraq and also by its regulation of his working life. “They claim that this is capitalism’s last bastion, but they’re always fucking with somebody who’s trying to do business — ‘You’ve got to have this permit and that permit.’ So what’s up with that? That’s why I step back from it. I do a landscaping job for somebody; it’s all for cash. They’re happy, I’m happy, I don’t have to give my taxes to a government whose actions I don’t support, and so it’s all good. It’s not as easy as getting up every morning and going to the same job. There’s ups and downs. I’m in a little bit of a down right now, but it’s all good. It’s okay, because I’m still happy.”

Still, for all his satisfaction at dodging the system and living on the fringes, he understands the appeal of the mainstream. “I would like to marry Jennifer and have children at some point,” he begins.

“And that comes at a price,” interjects Jennifer. “A heavy, heavy price.”

“Basically, insurance, a predictable paycheck and whatnot. I can deal with that, because it’s worth it, you know?”

“They’re not going to grow up here,” announces Jennifer.

“Here” refers to this apartment, though Steven takes it further. “Ideally, I’d like to get them out of the country.”

“Germany sounds nice,” purrs Jennifer.

“It’s a nice place. I enjoyed living there. I’ve got some associates there.”

Jennifer removes the dough from the fridge — she’s not sure how long it’s been in there but doesn’t like to let it chill too long — and rolls it out between two sheets of plastic wrap. Then she lines the tart pans with dough and puts them in to chill again. “Do you need the good burner?” she asks Steven. “I’m going to need one at some point, but not until you’re done.”

“For the pastry cream?”

“Yeah.”

That said, she moves on to the pastry cream, mixing sugar and cornstarch with a fork. “I don’t like to use flour. It makes it taste a little different; it makes it a little heavier. I did it a couple of times and was really turned off of the idea of making pastry cream for a couple of years.” Then she mixes egg yolks, cream, and a hefty dollop of vanilla bean — “It’s like caviar but not as gross; it breaks in your mouth and makes it more exciting” — and stirs it into the dry mix a dollop at a time. Then stirring, stir ring, stirring over low heat until it’s ready to go into the fridge.

Jennifer removes the tart shells, pricks the bot tom with a fork, and slips them into the oven. As pre dessert prep winds down, Steven moseys back into the kitchen and begins work on a salad. Jennifer and I retire to the living room. A futon faces the corner, but there is no longer any television there — it has been relegated to the bedroom. In its place sits a substantial stereo speaker. A long spindled rocking chair sits nearby, facing the futon. Two sections of wall are covered by darkened floor to-ceiling mirrors. An air conditioning unit floats in the middle of one reflection; a broad-planked table butts up against the other, just inside the door.

Above the door is a large letter P. Like most things in the apartment, there is a story behind it. “That’s the P in ‘Park’ — Missile Park. It used to be on Balboa; it was a park for the employees of Convair. I spent a lot of time there as a child going on picnics — Easters, birthdays, what have you. They had a big rocket in front, this Saturn missile. It was cool. They had a little train, a Tiki mountain with colored water, a cowboy village where we’d have shootouts on holidays, a merry-go-round. It was nice; it was good. A lot of hijinks, a lot of grab-ass; it was cool.

“They tore it up to make room for some ugly condominiums or some thing. I went up there one day to look around the ruins — just to feel depressed, I guess. They had put this big cyclone fence around it. The sign was knocked down, and there were just a few letters on it. I had to pull one of them off, because I have a lot of fond memories from there.”

On the pass-through bar between us and the kitchen are two framed photographs that catch my eye. One is an elegantly mounted photograph of a homeless man sprawled in front of the Capitol Records building. His hair is enormous; there are several beer cans scattered about him and another one in his hand. His cardboard sign reads, “Need money for beer and hookers and record deal. At least I’m not bullshitting you.”

“My friend Jamie took that picture. I think it’s faked; it was for a project.” The other is a newspaper-grade photo of Ed Gein’s last victim, a 54-year-old woman he suspended upside down, decapitated, and gutted like a deer. When she sees me noticing it, Jennifer gives an account. “The frame used to have a picture of my mother in it. When I was living up in Orange County, I had this friend who liked to come over and switch the pictures in my frames. He left me a message on it.” The message reads: “Jennifer, don’t end up like this — Darin.”

That she left the picture in the frame — and keeps it displayed in her living room, together with the expansive painting of what looks like a female figure separated into three parts — might suggest a fascination with mutilation. But Jennifer says that’s not the case. “I don’t really have much interest in serial killers or anything gory. I hate talking about that painting; I’ve been looking at it for so long that I don’t really have anything more to say about it. I just like it. If you look closely, you can see that maybe it isn’t all the same person. The name of the painting is The Garden, if that gives you any help or clarity — though how you get clarity looking at art, I’m not sure.” Keeping with the theme of striking nudity, another piece is a velvet lined box in which lies a headless felt doll of a nude woman. A small noose is coiled alongside the doll, and a Polaroid photo — possibly of Jennifer — has been placed where the doll’s head would be. The book shelves include an armless plastic motorcycle cop wearing a pair of infants’ under wear and a blow-up pickaninny. Other art pieces and pop-culture knick knacks abound, but the real wonder is the LP collection — several bookshelves’ worth.

“It’s everything from about the age of seven,” says Steven. “I wasn’t allowed to watch television, but I was allowed to listen to music and read books.” Beyond its size, the collection is impressive for its scope: New Order to Willie Nelson to Chicago to the Notorious B.I.G. to Ricky Nelson to Barbra Streisand to Led Zeppelin to the soundtrack to Oklahoma!, all living side by-side in harmony on Steven’s shelf. Throughout the evening, Steven drifts over to the turntable and changes the records with habitual, almost unconscious movements. We are never left in silence.

The paprikash is finished. Steven brings it to the table, along with a bowl of couscous and the salad. Jennifer brings out plates, silver, and glasses. “How do you feel about staring at yourself when you eat?” asks Jennifer, noting my reflection in the mirrored wall.

“I’ll try to avoid me.”

“I’ll help you out.” She fetches a vase of fresh flowers and sets it on the table in front of me. “There were wildflowers growing all the way to Dulzura. These were in my mother’s garden, so I took them for Steven. This is lupine, that’s the California state poppy, this looked really nice in the sunshine, and this is some kind of bulb my mom grows.” It looks like an iris, but it produces three small blooms per shoot.

We spread shiny napkins on our laps, pour out the Chianti that has been breathing since my arrival, and begin dinner.

“Watch out for bones; there’s some bones in there,” warns Steven.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, bones for flavor. Bones are key. Last time I made it with the breast meat that’s cut up into strips, and it wasn’t the same.”

“This is more like my mommy did it,” praises Jennifer, and it’s easy to believe her. The chicken has that homey, dark-meat-laden richness you’d expect of a family recipe, and the sauce seems to have sucked the marrow from the bones.

Dinner passes in leisurely, wandering talk. After the paprikash, we move on to the salad. “Have some salad for a happy tummy,” advises Steven. Steven and Jennifer met at Cuyamaca College. He was getting his licenses for working with pesticides and irrigation, she is majoring in Political Economy of Industrialized Societies. “Long term? I want to get people out of jail,” Jennifer says. “I want to do something about drug laws. So it’s looking like law school to get somewhere and do some thing to help people that aren’t getting it — if I don’t sell out. I’m embattled with that all the time; how can I have a conscience and at the same time not sell the fuck out? It would make more sense to do it, and I might just do it. I might get to a point in life where I will take — only so I can give back.”

“That’s our long-term plan,” chuckles Steven. “For her to be a lawyer and for me to be her permanent client.”

“Basically.”

“So,” I say, “when people ask you what you do, you’ll be saying, ‘I get my husband out of jail.’ ” I turn to Steven.

“Have you been to jail?”

“No. No way.

Jail is for...” “Jail is for people who can’t afford to get out,” says Jennifer.

“It is,” adds Steven. “It’s for people who can’t afford to get out and people who are careless.”

“No, it’s also because they’re being targeted,” says Jennifer.

“Yeah, of course.”

“But surely, you’re targeted,” I say to Steven, thinking of his fringe-living status.

“Me? No way.”

“Why not?”

He doesn’t pause for a second. “I have manners. It’s very helpful, I’ll tell you. Have you noticed the manners gap? It intrigues me; it’s definitely there. There’s a direct relation between manners and age, but there’s definitely a whole genera tion of people who have absolutely no manners.”

Jennifer is skeptical. “Well, I don’t know what’s right either. What would be right in a hypothetical situation?”

“If there’s cloth napkins,” begins Steven. “That’s a basic.”

“No, it’s not. Use your knife and fork, your knife in your right hand, your fork in your left hand.”

“That’s a basic, too.”

“Chew with your mouth closed.”

“Got it.”

“Put down your utensils when speaking to some one else. Keep your elbows off the table.”

All this talk put me in mind of my efforts with my own children. “They’ll get it; you just have to keep at it,” Jennifer reassures me. “I just don’t remember my parents ever having to discipline me.”

“That’s the thing,” says Steven. “Nobody did.”

“We never sat down, never had tea.”

“Because you didn’t need to.”

“Did you eat dinner together?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah.”

“It’s osmosis,” concludes Steven. “Manners are learned through osmosis.”

After dinner, it’s cigarettes on the landing, then Jennifer disappears inside to finish out the tarts. A few minutes later, there they are: individual tarts filled with blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, lounging on a sticky cloud of pastry cream.

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