Klaus handles the principal entrées and Tamara contributes “desserts and salads and appetizers and, to some extent, drinks.”
KLAUS CAME TO SAN DIEGO FROM GERMANY BY WAY OF HIS EX-WIFE. She was from around here; he met her in the mid-’60s while she was vacationing in Switzerland. “We got married, and after two years in Germany, she decided it was not the real thing for her. Between November and April, it gets dark and dreary and rainy and cold. Also, we had a little daughter, and we wanted a house for ourselves. At that time, it was prohibitively expensive, much more expensive there than it was here. We came to San Diego, and I got stuck here.”
"Here” wasn’t always this old Mission Hills Craftsman, tucked in against the side of a canyon behind another house on a narrow street that is nestled deep off the main drags of Fort Stockton and Sun set. “Here” started out on 41st Street — “in Kensington,” he says, but still not the kind of area where he felt safe letting his kid play in the back yard and go to the neighbors’. The wife found the house in Mission Hills, and now only the yellow jackets find Klaus and his glass of Merlot as he sits on the covered patio in front of his home. He blames the trumpet vine, which he has allowed to encircle a fair chunk of his snug front yard.
The bees also find the wine belonging to Tamara, who has been “in the picture for going on three years.” She came down from the Seattle Tacoma area in ’81 “to get a change of venue,” attended school, and spent some time as a medical assistant before switching over to administrative assisting and now legal assisting. Along the way, she put in some time with the county. That’s where she met Klaus, a longtime county man, now retired, who counts several of his old co-workers as close friends. “They try to keep long-term friendships, like I do. There are people I have known for 25, 30 years. If I haven’t called them after a year or half a year, I call and say, ‘Hey, what’s up? Are you still alive?’ All the people I know have a lot in common with me. Most of them are educated in Europe, so they have a wide array of thoughts and opinions. They all like good food; they all like good drinks.” And every four to six weeks, eight to ten of them gather here to eat Klaus’s cooking.
“I like to make very ethnic stuff that people don’t know here — goose,” for example. “I’ve made it a couple of times, and nobody said they didn’t like it. Actually, they said they loved it.” Part of the reason goose is so rarely prepared, I opine, is because it supposedly exudes a great deal of fat during the cooking. Klaus confirms this. “I zap the goose fat off and put it in a container; a goose yields about three large containers of fat. I use it for pan-fried potatoes, and let me tell you, that tastes very good. I’ll have to make it again pretty soon, because I have only one container left in the refrigerator.”
There will be no goose this afternoon. But there will be red cabbage and goulash. “It’s like a stew — lots of peppers and onions and stuff like that. A little bit on the spicy side. And there will be potatoes. Germans like potatoes. I like potatoes.”
“That will be clearly evident,” grins Tamara.
“So we made a big pot of potato salad, and I made some twice-baked potatoes with bacon in them and a lot of onions and stuff like that. I put cheese over it, and it goes into the oven and it tastes very good; people like it. What I like is that I can prepare it ahead of time. I don’t like to hang around the stove and not have enough time for my elf and other stuff ” when company comes.
The company also contributes. “Dick is in the building trade, and he did some repairs for someone who had something to do with the fishing trade. Instead of paying him, the man said, ‘How would you like to have a dozen lobsters?’ Dick came here with 10, 15 lobsters. I let them run around outside, and then I put them in a pot. Everybody has their specialty.” Today, “Tatiana is bringing a very nice baked cauliflower. Someone else is bringing a salad. And I have four or five different sausages.”
Klaus buys his sausage at Sausage King on Washington, but for this event, he has made a special trip to Henry’s for turkey sausage. “It’s the first time, and maybe the last time,” but it was the kindly thing to do. One of Klaus’s oldest friends, who will be here today, is a mere five days out of the hospital after having a stent inserted into a severely constricted blood vessel. “Ron is a guy who likes to eat well and drink well, for sure.” But as his friends Dick and Fred have already discovered, eating and drinking well at Klaus’s often enough can lead to the operating table. All three have had stents recently; all three see the same heart specialist, one Dr. Fortuna. “He should know by now. When they all come in, what’s the common ground?” (Klaus himself is, in Ron’s words, “a carrier. You’ve heard of Typhoid Mary? He’s Heart Attack Larry. He’s kept his weight, his cholesterol is normal,” and his friends have stents. “You eat good food, you have to drink some good red wine” is his only explanation. “It always works good.”)
The guests are due to arrive; Klaus and Tamara head inside to complete the preparations. The front leads directly into the kitchen: about 13 ́ x 9 ́, with tan linoleum floor, brown-black wood cabinets, and white tile counters. A pear-and-flower wallpaper border runs around the top of the wall. Klaus has not felt the need to update — the Flowmatic faucet runs directly out of the wall, and the O’Keefe and Merritt oven glows with a vintage avocado green. Three windows splash light on the proceedings — the counters and oven on one side, an assortment of side tables, cabinets, and racks, over hung by a framed, cartoonish illustration of a French restaurant kitchen in full riot. Waiters, chefs, sous chefs, sommeliers, critics, and customers race about in a frenzy of passion; it’s almost Bosch-like in the quantity of activity; you have to take it in one section at a time. On the side of the refrigerator hangs a photocopy of another cartoon: a young boy standing on the head of a young girl. Both are naked. The boy says, “Okay, we took off our clothes, I got on top of you; how long until it starts feeling good?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve got a headache,” replies the girl.
Tamara helps prepare the plates of munchables: a glass bowl of potato chips with a bowl of black olives at its center, a platter of deviled eggs, plates bearing slices of cheese and radish and broccoli. She carries them out to the patio and lays them atop the white paper tablecloths on the tables outside.
Past the kitchen is the living room, large and well used. A mass of computer equipment and electronics fills one corner. A coffee table bears a puzzle of the Grand Canyon, a memento of Klaus and Tamara’s trip there last summer. “I put that together,” says Tamara, “and I don’t let anybody touch it. I might glue it — I’m looking for somebody who does that.” But the living room will go unused today; the weather is too fine to dine indoors. Guests will venture past the kitchen only to reach the hallway that leads to the bathroom. The hallway also leads to two bedrooms — one, sometimes rented out, now serves as a storeroom. A set of stairs descends to the lower level. “I have the rooms downstairs rented out,” Klaus tells me. “The guy has lived here for two years — a very nice guy from Syria, I think, or Lebanon. He drives a taxi. He likes it here because I do the cooking. He likes my food, and he likes the way it runs here. Just last week we made a big pot of eggplant with meat balls — I’m a specialist in meatballs. I put it in the freezer, and when he comes home at night, he has some of that stuff.” As the first guests arrive, the taxi driver ascends, says his hellos, and departs for work.
A huge chocolate cake from Costco, buttercream chocolate roses strewn across its top, makes its entrance into the kitchen. Company’s here. I head outside and meet Fred, one of Klaus’s old guard and one of the three stent-men. A big man, he clearly shares Klaus’s belief in the consumption of good red wine; besides the Trefethen Dry Riesling, he has also brought a new release from the winery, a Cabernet called Double T. “This is from young vines. Usually, Trefethen wines are thick — when you pour them, you can actually see a viscosity difference. This is a thinner wine, but it’s incredibly hearty. They just didn’t want to put this into their regular blend right away.” Though he knows this, and though he recently went on a bit of a spending spree up in Napa, he is quick to assure me that he is “not an expert. I just like what I drink to taste good. I’m too old; I don’t drink cheap wine anymore.”
The rest of the guests arrive seemingly en masse. By the time Fred has opened the bottles and poured me a glass, they are all about the patio and kitchen, milling and chat ting, opening beers and pouring wine. Dress is generally casual, with the notable exception of Tamara, who has put on a black party dress in which to play hostess. Klaus squirts a generous dose of lighter fluid onto the coals in the grill; he tosses the match from a distance so as not to be singed by the resulting tower of flame. Dick, another of the stent-men, is talking to Tatiana. As I mosey over, he asks her a question (I’m guessing it’s about her heritage) ending with “...Hungarian or Czech?”
“Romanian,” she answers, her voice accented. “Ah — mamaliga,” he answers, referring to the Romanian cornmeal staple.
“How do you know about that?”
“I have some distant relative who used to feed it to me as a kid. My folks used to say, ‘Eat it, because we have the name...’”
That leads to a discussion of Dick’s own heritage. “Denver in the 1950s seemed to be a haven for a lot of these Jewish people who left Eastern Europe,” he says. “They settled in Denver,” but they didn’t mix. “There was really a synagogue on each corner. The Romanians wouldn’t talk to the Hungarians, and the Poles wouldn’t talk from one city to the next. It was truly Old World. This was the 1950s; the Romanians and the Russians and the Poles hated each other almost worse than the Nazis from whom they were fleeing or the Americans to whom they were strangers. Not only wouldn’t they talk to each other, they wouldn’t even speak Yiddish, which is kind of a common language for European Jews. They would speak Hungarian and Romanian and Polish and Russian and Czech and Italian.”
Dick felt his otherness keenly. “To the kids in school, I was just one of these strange Jewish kids. Nothing nefarious or pejorative, just strange. On a Jewish holiday, I would be in a dressy suit hanging out at the synagogue right across the street from my school, and my friends who were not Jewish would say, ‘Dick, why aren’t you in school?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know. I have to sit here with my grandfather, who talks in a language I don’t understand and is always complaining about the Poles across the street.’ To the rest of the world, we were all Jews, but to my grandfather, I was his grandson, and I was a Polish Jew, and goddammit, I’m not going to talk to the Lithuanians and the Russians and the rest of the world. That was stupid. I saw the light when I was about 11 years old and didn’t follow that stuff. I thought it was bullshit.”
Part of Dick’s break from tradition came through helping in his father’s supermarket. “One day I’m helping out there, and he says, ‘Why don’t you slice a pound of ham for Mrs. Jones?’ I did, and I saw this delicious-looking piece of ham, and I thought, ‘I’m going to eat a piece of it. If it’s bad, I’m going to suffer for it.’ I waited a few weeks.” Nothing happened. “All I remember is that it tasted good. It sounds really facetious, but for an 11-year old kid, it’s kind of rational.”
His “significant other,” meanwhile, “isn’t Jewish, but she spent a long time in Israel working in a kibbutz, and she’s an avid Zionist.” (She is not at Klaus’s today.) “She was a rich fatty, to put it bluntly, and she wanted to go some place where she would be forced to get skinny. When you work from four in the morning until two in the afternoon for a year and a half, you lose the weight. So she not only fulfilled a kind of spiritual thing, she lost about 50 pounds. But again, that breaks the rules about being an advocate of a certain political or religious thing when you’re not part of the thing you’re advocating. That kind of buttresses my feeling that you can choose your loyalties if you aren’t a slave” to this or that world view.
Ron arrives, and with him, the before and after pictures of his recent stent work. The cry goes up, “The pictures are here!”
“I forgot to bring my pictures,” realizes Dick. Fred doesn’t have his either, but they still gather around Ron’s black and whites.
“Look how little that was,” marvels Ron, pointing to a particularly shrunken blood vessel in his chest. Then he points to the after photo, which shows a much less constricted vessel propped open by a stent. “It’s actually like a girder. You open it up, and it expands the artery.”
“Fortuna did you, huh?” asks Fred. “Yeah, I mentioned you. He said, ‘Oh yeah, I know Fred.’”
“He’s one of the top five cardiovascular men west of the Mississippi,” boasts Fred. “The guy can anticipate what an artery is going to do before it does it as far as spastic action. He is just brilliant. Did he do the Roto-Rooter?”
“Yes. I got one of those new high-tech stents.”
“They’re radioactive,” says Fred.
“It has some kind of drug coating that’s supposed to inhibit scar tissue buildup.”
“Cocaine,” chimes in Dick.
Seeing the three patients huddled about the photos, another Dick (the builder who once brought lobsters) groans, “Dueling illnesses. This is what you do when you get past 21.”
“Yeah,” agrees Ron, then taunts Fred in a playground sing-song, “My vein’s smaller than your vein.”
“Not anymore,” counters Fred. He’s talking about the vein with the stent, of course, but overall, Ron may be right. A while back, Fred tells Ron, Fortuna told him, “It doesn’t make any difference; you may as we ll go and have your prime ribs or whatever. Your body will manufacture it anyway” — “it” seemingly being cholesterol. “You’ve got to develop a regimen that will block that stuff.”
“I looked at all the regimens, and I came up with a couple of vitamins: B6 and folic acid. Folic acid binds with the chemicals that go through the system and scar the artery walls, and B6 facilitates the effectiveness of folic acid. I continued to take those, along with a bunch of other vitamins, in extremely high volumes. Six months later, Fortuna did another angiogram and he asked me, ‘What the hell are you doing to yourself?’ ‘Eating lobster, just like you said.’ He said, ‘Your distal arteries have improved by 30 percent plus.’ I haven’t been in for an angiogram for four years. I should have had a heart transplant by now. Write down the folic acid and whatever — it’s like chicken soup. It can’t hurt to take it.”
“You like deviled eggs?” asks David, a Brit. He holds the plate toward Ron, a slight grin on his face.
“That’s full of cholesterol!” gasps Ron. “The list of stuff you can’t eat is very simple. Just eat the stuff you don’t like.”
“What it is is lack of exercise,” says Fred. “One or two of anything isn’t going to hurt. Talk to your cardiologist. If you want to have a cup of coffee in the morning, that’s fine; a cup of coffee once in a while...”
“But the thing is, Fred, I’ve got everything. I’ve got high blood pressure, I’ve got high cholesterol, I’m overweight...”
“And I’m not?” retorts Fred.
“...and my feet stink!”
“Well, that’s a good sign,” says Fred. “That’s a sign of raging hormones.”
“My doctor told me, ‘Don’t start any long conversations.’”
Robin is distressed to hear all this. “Oh, no, he’s this health nut now,” she says of Ron. “He used to be this party animal.”
“You’ll see,” nods Ron. “I’m going to be a new me.” Robin says that Ron and Dick the builder use to be hippies. “Dick lived in Sausalito and all over the Bay Area in the ’60s and stuff. He wants to forget it all, but those were the good days of our lives. He dated Janis Joplin.”
“Now wait a minute,” protests Dick.
“Well, you did have an interaction with Janis. She fell out of a car...”
“I think I saw her car one time,” admits Dick.
“And she fell out — or she rolled out,” argues Rob in.
Later, after Ron has been recounting some difficult dealings with a landscaper, Robin laments, “Ron, I liked the old you. I can already tell this newness.”
“But he’s here with us,” Fred responds.
“Give me a bottle of whiskey and a chunk of red meat, and you’ll see the old me,” says Ron, smiling.
“I thought those were pictures from your hippie days,” says Robin of the stent photos. When Dick, Ron, and Fred begin discussing their respective lists of medications and their attendant costs, she tries to change the subject. “Let’s talk about music!” she says brightly. “David’s put out two CDs; He’s the leader of the Dave Humphries Band. He’s a friend of the Beatles.” Perhaps anticipating disbelief, she goes on. “He knows Tony Sheridan, and he’s recorded with him — the Beatles backed Tony Sheridan before they were on their own in Germany.” David lets a slight smile creep onto his face as she speaks and maintains a modest silence.
Dick, who has been sipping a Pete’s Wicked Ale (and claiming that it enhances the effect of his medication), opens a Guinness. “I went to Ireland twice,” comments Klaus, “and I would have to say that that is one of the strangest beers I have ever drunk. It has to be drunk hand-warmed, it smells like shit, and it makes you sick very good. Which is why the English and Irish drink it — they’re already sick.”
Dick takes a whiff and a sip and seems to give his assent; when Klaus suggests he give it to Ron, he readily agrees.
“I can’t drink that now,” protests Ron.
“You know how the Canadians use it?” asks Fred. “They mix it with 75 percent lighter beer. It’ll give you a good taste.”
The mention of Canada steers the conversation back to medications; Dick orders his from over the border to save on the cost, which is considerable. “I have another good story to tell you,” adds Dick. “I have a friend who is on welfare, and he took me to the welfare office. I filled out forms to get drugs for free. Of the six I applied for, four came back asking me for income tax returns. The fifth sent me a bunch of drugs. It’s available to the welfare community — or to people who can fill out forms, which to some companies means the welfare community.”
The arrival of dinner ends the talk of health and medicine. Fred opens more wine. Tatiana’s baked cauliflower is laced with feta. The goulash glows with paprika. Guests pile plates with bread (from À la Française), cauliflower, goulash, red cabbage, and both kinds of potatoes — and the sausages. Ron is impressed by the flavor of his turkey sausages (aided by judicious seasoning), but even as he eats it, he is swooning over the memory of the links from Sausage King. Tatiana concurs. “It was so difficult coming here and not having Sausage King,” she recalls. She sought it out “the moment I heard of it.”
“But there’s something hard to explain,” answers Ron as he turns to me. “You or I could go to Sausage King and get the very same ingredients that Klaus gets, and yet there’s a little touch they give these Europeans. They know just how to do it. They won’t let you know — Tatiana probably knows — that little European flair. That’s the last thing they tell the Europeans before they come over here: ‘Don’t tell the Yanks!’”
He holds Klaus’s “European style” cooking in similarly high regard. “He’s a natural chef. I once asked him for a recipe, and he just laughed, because it all comes right off the top of his head. It’s very distinctive; if you travel to Europe, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Klaus credits his skills to “a long time searching around in different countries, trying all the spices” and such. “I lived in Germany when I was 25, 28, and I always liked to eat well...”
“You still like to eat well,” interjects Tamara.
“At the time, I didn’t know much about red wine — Krauts drink mostly beer. But every evening in Berlin, and even when I lived in Geneva, I made my own food, because I enjoyed it. Even here, when I was alone a couple of years ago, it wasn’t unheard of for me to get myself a couple of lamb chops, open a bottle of red wine...”
“The secret to his cooking is that he derives relaxation from it,” suggests Fred, “whether he’s cooking for one or cooking for ten.”
“When I went through my very difficult times ten years ago,” agrees Klaus, “I was cooking at 10:00 in the morning — chopping, stuff like that. Then at 3:00 or 4:00, I would call these guys and say, ‘Hey, would you like to come over?’ For some people, shopping is an outlet. Sex is another outlet; going driving around is another outlet. For me, it’s hanging around and doing a whole shitload of cooking and having a couple of other people come over.”
These days, when the crowd swells to a certain size, Klaus handles the principal entrées and Tamara contributes “desserts and salads and appetizers and, to some extent, drinks.”
“Tamara has an excellent cocktail book,” says Ron. “In the past, before meals started, we would have the cocktail hour. You didn’t just get a gin and tonic or a bourbon and Seven, no no no. You got something really exotic, blended up...”
“Like a Ramos Gin Fizz,” remembers Fred.
“Her drinks are going to give her a name, but her deviled eggs are going to make her famous,” continues Ron.
“Did you have some of my deviled eggs?” asks Klaus. “We made two different batches.” Tatiana is taken with Tamara’s potato salad. “There are only five ingredients: potatoes, eggs, celery, green onions, and pickles. A lot of eggs, one or two per potato. My dressing is just mayonnaise.”
“Do you dice the potatoes when they’re warm or cold?” asks Tatiana.
“Cold. Don’t overcook the potatoes. Boil them whole with the skin on. And the smaller you cut the onions and the pickles and the celery and the eggs, the better.”
“It’s very important, all these details. I don’t know how to make this, and I love it. In Romania, ours is just ‘boil the potato, cut into slices warm, and then add vinegar and onion and Greek olives.’ You buy them from that store on El Cajon; they come in big barrels.” Tatiana also presses Klaus for the secret of his red cabbage: “A lot of onions, a lot of bacon, garlic, bay leaves, some red wine vinegar.”
Someone brings up the Darwin Awards, honors given (usually posthumously) to folks who do their part to advance the species by removing themselves from the gene pool. Ron tells the story of the guy who attached helium weather balloons to his lawn chair and floated up into the flight path at LAX, then out over the ocean. Klaus replies with the one about the zookeeper who fed laxative to an elephant and was subsequently smothered by the resultant expulsion. From there, it’s to the Stella Awards, named after the woman who sued McDonald’s after she spilled the restaurant’s hot coffee on herself. Ron tells of a man who bought a Winnebago, set the cruise control, and went back to make himself some coffee. “When the Winnebago went off the road and overturned, he sued — and he won. They had to put it in the training manual” that cruise control was not automatic pilot.
Marveling at the degeneration of society gives way to politics; it is not unfamiliar territory. Ron tells me that “the first time I met Fred, it was at a retirement party at the Red Lion. He was really keen on Pete Wilson, and I was really keen on Jerry Brown.” To ay, Tatiana picks up a thread that may have been dropped at the last gathering. She says to Fred, “I just want people to be taken care of. You say I’m a socialist, but I listen to O’Reilly, and I like him.”
“You can still be a conservative socialist,” replies Fred.
“I found O’Reilly while I was flipping channels. He was talking about women here — young girls — having kids without marriage or anything.”
Liberal Ron concurs. “I listen to him 10:00 to noon. This guy is right on; he’s like the second coming. I can’t understand how a guy could be so right, dead-center on.”
“Why do you say you’re a liberal?” asks Fred.
“Well, it’s kind of hereditary. My parents were both civil servants, and I ended up being a civil servant myself. My mom always used to tell me the Re publican Party was the party of the wealthy, and the Democratic Party is the party of the working man.”
Klaus turns to Tatiana. “You should be a Republican. You live in the most expensive area of San Diego.”
“I am a Republican,” she answers. “I just want people to have medical coverage.”
“But there should be a line drawn in there,” adds Ron. “Medical coverage for all American citizens. But that’s not the way it works. They come over the border...”
“They should all be taken out of here — all the foreigners,” jokes Tatiana through her accent. “They have no right.”
“There are 178 bills on [then-governor] Gray Davis’s desk,” offers Fred. “One of them is to give illegal aliens free junior college — enrollment and fees.”
“Why should they come here for school?” wonders Tatiana. “It’s too poor of an education.”
“When I used to sit at the health department,” begins Fred, “my office was right next to a conference room. You would hear these people come in from the state and order employees not to ask where people came from, not to ask their addresses, not to ask if they were citizens or not — and to give them service. That pisses me off. Give it to an American citizen first, and if you’ve got some left over, fine.”
Ron has had similar experiences. “I’m working under this guy’s desk, running cables and crawling in I-don’t-know-what, and I’m listening to the EMTs pamper these recipients, just bending over backwards. That helping hand you’re looking for is at the end of your arm.” Robin is distressed by Ron’s sentiments. “What happened to you? You, from Haight Ashbury? He does not speak for all of us,” she tells me.
“But let me tell you,” says Tatiana, parrying Ron and Fred. “My daughter stayed in Italy and went to the doctor when she was sick. She paid a little fee, and she was taken care of. No body asked her, ‘Are you an Italian citizen?’ ”
“That’s going to change,” warns Klaus. “There is already a law in the EU that this kind of stuff is going to stop.”
“I want to retire in Italy, because I can’t live in the United States,” she concludes.
“Why don’t you retire in Romania?” asks Klaus.
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Well, if you complain about it, go back,” he says, laughing.
“My own mother tells me that. ‘If you don’t like it, go.’”
Conversation continues in this vein until Robin changes the subject. “Ron, Klaus, shall we tell Matthew what our group really is? You start taking your clothes off first.”
“This is what it ends up as all the time,” explains Ron. “We get into political and current events...”
“And then we get into the Jacuzzi,” beams Robin.
“You don’t have to if you’re ashamed of your body,” counsels Ron.
It is almost tempting to believe that they are serious about all of this. But the talk burbles on, through old co-workers, changes in San Diego, vacation memories, what you would have become if you hadn’t become what you are. Before I leave, Fred leans over to me and says, “The one thing you learn as you get older is there’s one common thing: all we’re trying to do is survive. Everybody is trying to get from the womb to the tomb with as little discomfort as possible, and the only thing that matters once you get to a certain age — I’m the second oldest — is your friends. That’s all it is. You can have all the money under the clouds.” Money can see to it that “people will treat you real nice, but it’s how you feel on the inside, about yourself and the people you’re associated with."