(This, despite the title, is the first chapter of my memoir. It does get happier after this.)
“I’m alone,” I said. Silvano shook my hand with his customary genial mutter of what I took to be welcome, and led me to a small table in the second-nicest part of the place. When I used to come with my wife, Louise, he would put us right up front; she was nearly always considered an asset to the visual appeal of a restaurant. It was not unusual for me to be eating alone here—most of the waiters knew to bring me an extra fork to keep my book open. When Louise was out of town, which she had been more and more over the last ten years, and I was going to dine alone, I would do so at one of a handful of restaurants in Greenwich Village in which I felt welcome and comfortable. Nowhere did I feel more thoroughly at home than at Da Silvano.
Louise and I had been eating there since the place opened, in 1975. We knew Silvano Marchetto even before that, when he was a waiter at another of our favored local joints, the Derby Steak House. The early Da Silvano was tiny—four tables—but the pure Tuscan food and the creative variations Silvano played on it were stunningly good. I suppose you could say that Silvano was the chef, in that he did conceive of and refine all the dishes—somewhere offstage, for you rarely saw him in the kitchen and never wearing chef’s whites. The man at the stove, who seemed to cook everything, was a diminutive, never-named Central American with a lot of Indian blood in his looks and absolute precision and grace in his cooking. There was frequent turnover in the restaurant’s other personnel, but that guy was always there. I wondered if he could understand Silvano, who was considered unintelligible in both English and Italian. Maybe they communicated by sign language. In any case, they hardly ever spoke.
Louise and I had lived through much change at Silvano’s. Our favorite waiter, who could neglect his other customers for ten minutes on end to regale us with his weekend tanning on Tar Beach (his roof), died of AIDS. Silvano’s parents showed up one evening, and didn’t leave for years. They always sat at the same table against the wall in the front room, the mom scowling at the guests, the dad seemingly of milder temperament. They seldom spoke to each other, and never to the guests. They saw us hundreds of times but never showed the faintest sign of recognition. Occasionally la mamma would buttonhole Silvano and give him a large piece of her mind in loud, rapid-fire, strongly Tuscan-accented Italian. One night, after the restaurant had expanded into the former laundromat next door, Silvano came in to what was now a second front room, rolled the steel fire door shut with a thundrous boom, and screamed at the top of his lungs, “My mother is driving me crrrazy!"
There was for years a “manager” in a chic though somewhat ill-kept Italian suit who who seemed never to do anything but sway wanly back and forth in front of the antipasti display, wrapped in gloom. Occasionally, despondently, he would extend to me a weak, damp hand of good evening or good night. He was quite obviously drunk all the time. Why did Silvano keep him on? Who knew? And there was the Egyptian waiter Ali, very fat and very tall and very young, who quit to go home and get married. Silvano, who loved him, flew to Cairo, but Ali was not, as he had promised to be, at the airport to meet him. Silvano did not have a phone number for Ali. Try as he might, Silvano could not find him. Back in New York, one night Silvano got a scratchy international call from Ali: He was so sad, he said, the wedding had been called off.
“I came to Cairo! You didn’t even show up at the airport! I turned around and flew home!”
“I know,” said Ali, sadly.
We learned Italian wine there. We learned that for all the complicated and laborious Julia Child cooking we had taught ourselves, lobster Thermidor wasn’t necessarily better than grilled sardines with olive oil and lemon juice. We talked through the years. One night near Christmas in 1989, it was to Silvano’s that we were supposed to go when Louise simply did not come home. Hours passed. She did not call. I was wild with worry. When at last she appeared, she explained that she had gone out for a quick drink with one of her clients, but he was in despair over his deteriorating marriage and couldn’t stop talking about it, and she just couldn’t pull herself away to call me. Ten months later I would learn that Louise had fallen in love with him and wanted to leave me.
Tonight, therefore, I was deeply alone. After two and a half years of my struggling to keep our marriage together and Louise’s struggling to escape it, after the judge had twice thrown out Louise’s suit for divorce—because she had alleged bad behavior on my part that was apparently the fruit of her and her lawyer’s overheated imaginations, and I had simply held fast, at first in hope of reconciliation and then later in quest of an equitable financial settlement—we had at last come to an agreement. It was still sinking in; I was only now learning fully the disparity between solitude and loneliness. I had always loved my solitude, whether backpacking alone in the Beartooths or eavesdropping on my fellow-diners as their own marriages were taking shape or falling apart. Solitude was an act of will; loneliness was affliction, injury, chronic pain.
Before walking the three blocks down Sixth Avenue to Silvano’s that night, I had had two stiff Dewar’s Scotches at home—a newish thing for me, since I’d been for years almost exclusively a wine guy—and a couple of cigarettes too, tobacco being another instrument of self-destruction I had recently re-employed. With my pinzimonio I had a glass of Silvano’s house white, which was never very good. Then I ordered a half-portion of one of my favorite dishes, taglierini alla contadina, sauced with sausages, peas, onions, tomatoes, and cream, with which I drank the house red, an excellent, leathery, dusty-dry Chianti.
One of Silvano’s more doubtful innovations had been, years back, the introduction of an endless recitation of off-menu “specials” by the waiter, sometimes a dozen and a half of them, with no prices given and in fact no hope whatever for the non-savant civilian of remembering more than a few of them. And so the poor waiter, often a recently arrived, good-looking, confused young Florentine with no more than a rudimentary command of English, would have to repeat the list, often twice—and always word for word (“de duck vertically roasted and steamed in dry vermoot”), for Silvano drilled his crew mercilessly and would tolerate no variation in the descriptions he crafted. The prices of the specials tended to be rather higher than those of the items on the small printed menu, which were already higher than those of other Italian restaurants of the level of luxury (modest) of Da Silvano. But we always tolerated these idiosyncrasies, because the food was sensationally good, widely unrecognized as such—Tuscan food being so plain and modest in a city so neither—and because we loved Silvano in all his weirdness. By this point, however, after some years of complaint from me and other regulars, he had begun to attach to a corner of the menu a photocopied list of the specials, and finally, still more recently, under further pressure, he had deigned to include the prices. The steak Robespierre, a recurring special, just a few rare slices over raw, undressed arugula, with a few sprigs of fried rosemary scattered around, was as fine a steak as could be found in New York, and I’m including the Palm and Peter Luger’s. I ordered that next, with another generous glass of red wine. With my tiramisu—a dish which I believe Silvano introduced to New York—I had a glass of golden vin santo, and then another. I was, of course, stuffed, and drunk.
I was alone in our house, which was soon to be sold. One twenty-one Washington Place was unique, an early twentieth-century Georgian Revival built at grade level on an old stone basement, all that remained of the 1820s Federal that had preceded it and burned down. The house was not large, twenty feet wide and four stories high, the topmost one rented out, illegally, as a separate apartment. At the back of the lot, across a formally symmetrical flagstone terrace, was a one-room cottage in which a doctor had dwelled, paying the same controlled wartime rent of $160 a month, since 1944. The poet Edward Arlington Robinson, famous for his bleak poem “Richard Cory,” had once lived in the cottage. The ceilings in the main house featured ornate plaster cornices, corbels, and medallions. Each room had a beautifully carved marble fireplace, eight in all, each different from the others. The dining room still had its original, exquisitely block-printed wallpaper, the famous “El Dorado” made in 1849 by Zuber et Cie of Rixheim, France, described by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum as “a gorgeously hued panorama representing the four major continents…a flower-covered terrace, including a peacock, overlooking a lake, representing Europe; architectural ruins, minarets, and a pagoda symbolizing Asia; the Nile River, desert plants, and Egyptian ruins, recalling Africa; and, lushest of all, a small city near Vera Cruz, Mexico, with exotic flora and fauna, representing the Americas.” The library was paneled in mahogany. The floors were as solid as steel, the wiring and heating up-to-date—rarities in a New York house. The original, loudly groaning elevator was still in place, though its gigantic, grease-covered transformer, motor, and switching mechanism in the basement frequently failed. The ground-floor front room had a floor of black-and-white marble squares and was separated from the dining room by double glass-paned doors affording a long view through the dining room’s French windows into what soon would be a splendid garden. This was the original owner’s law office, and would be my office now. The kitchen was small but ergonomically flawless, and included a six-burner restaurant range. When we moved to Washington Place in 1986, I knew that this was where we would live for the rest of our lives.
I poured another Scotch, and took a Polaroid photograph of myself in the mirror, weeping.
Novelist, poet, critic, naturalist, nature writer, conservationist; Scholar of the House at Yale, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, winner of both the top fiction and the top poetry prizes. Protégé of Robert Penn Warren and Leonard Bernstein. World traveler, art connoisseur, gourmet, oenophile, accomplished cook, charming host. Snappy dresser, good driver, good citizen. Sound investor and planner; esthete; excellent master of cats. A guy with wonderful friends (the best of whom had buoyed me through torrents of torment for the last three years), some rich, some distinguished, some even geniuses, some dating to childhood, some recent, most funny, all trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and kind. Author of the definitive book on the grizzly bear; of a manifesto precisely defining nature and conservation; of a historical novel that didn’t sell so much but was decidedly a succès d’estime. Freshly under contract for a book about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, a cause to which I had devoted years. Allergic, depressive, tortured by dermatitis, frequently laid low for weeks by respiratory infections, attention-deficit-disordered. In the middle (at least going by the scale my father would eventually establish) of the journey of my life, forty-five years old, with one year to go until the twenty-fifth reunion of the Yale College class of 1969—the big one, the reunion a hardback book is published for (and which I would be the editor of, setting down for the record our own iterations of our achievements), the reunion when they expect big contributions because surely by now we are at the peak of our achievements.
My achievements in fact seemed paltry, and certainly had never been remunerative enough for me even to think of a big contribution. Year after year, I had been a financial failure; Louise made all the money, and supported me. I was a failure as a husband. Mr. Big Shot. Look at you, sobbing in self-pity.
It was time to move to Montana. There was no Da Silvano there, no Lutèce, no Four Seasons, no Le Bernardin, nor a decent deli, nor a real bagel. What good meals I would eat, I would cook myself. I had become pretty adept at Indian food, which with the proper dried spices and Basmati rice and whatnot from lower Lexington Avenue would allow me to turn thrice-frozen factory chicken into a decent biriani. I planned to get back to New York several times a year, and I had several close albeit far-flung friends in Montana—who would generously bestow on me all sorts of game—but mainly I would be living and eating alone.
In 1988, flush with merger-magic cash, Louise and I had joined with two much richer partners to buy the West Boulder Ranch, a magnificent four-thousand-odd acres of some of the most glorious landscape in the world. A river ran through it—pristine, little fished, full of large and gullible trout—pouring down from headwaters deep in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, whose northern boundary lay only a few miles away. The land, though overgrazed and in places badly weed-infested, retained an intricate mosaic of natural habitats—grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, beaver ponds, aspen groves, Douglas-fir forest, lodegpole pine, gallery forests of tall cottonwood and spruce along the river, a big pond, willow-shrouded springs—and so it remained a superb place for wildlife of all (I think) the species known to inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including grizzly bears, the subject of my first book.
Later, as president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, I had learned that all that was lacking from a complete complement of the region’s post-Pleistocene fauna were gray wolves; they had been wiped out by a government extermination campaign in the nineteen-twenties. It would not be many years, however, before we would hear them howling in the distance, and it was to work for and then to document their restoration that I needed to be in Montana full-time.
There were, obviously, other reasons. I needed the encompassing beauty of that place to heal my broken heart, perhaps also to inspire my exhausted mind. After far too much calculation of how it might just be possible for me to keep both the house on Washington Place and a one-third share in the ranch, it had become obvious that one or the other had to go; the choice was both agonizing and inevitable. And then there was my lovely, loving girlfriend, who wanted to marry me but whom I felt more and more strongly I needed to get away from. I was still too freshly and painfully wounded even to think of marrying. We kidded ourselves that we would still somehow be “together” while twenty-two hundred miles apart. Yet she was smart enough and sweet enough to give me a dinner at Montrachet, with all my closest friends, that could have no other character than that of farewell. I remember in particular the first course, at each place a miniature pumpkin whose stem you lifted to release a gust of spicy soup-steam. With it we drank a semi-sweet Vouvray.
I was in the library, on the second floor, packing up my books for the move. At the edge of my vision I saw something move. I looked out into the hall, and there, on the rug, was a squirrel, up on its hind legs, hands primly on belly, bright-eyed, fluffy-furred a really quite beautiful salt-and-pepper fur that shaded into buffy rose on the muzzle. I knew the back door downstairs was open to the garden, so I yelled at the squirrel to go back where it had come from, but it only stared at me and twitched its tail. I opened a back window and chased the squirrel out through it and closed the sash.
Two minutes later, there was the squirrel in the hall again, just looking at me, perfectly calm. This time I was going to harry it downstairs and close the back door, but the squirrel elected to go upstairs.
It went to the apartment on the fourth floor, which had been vacant for a year and which I rarely entered. The squirrel, on the other hand, had evidently been there quite a lot. While my unwelcome guest scrabbled frantically at the skylight, I, in a daze of astonishment, surveyed the evidence of its previous visits. A foot-wide hole had been clawed out of the plaster, down to the brick. The window mullions had been chewed to splinters. The white bedspread, the floors, the kitchen counter, and the toilet bowl (the squirrel's drinking pond) were covered with hundreds of little black footprints and little black turds. I opened the window and again chased the squirrel into the ivy outside.
I closed the house up tight, and for some days things were quiet. Then one night I had dinner with a couple of recently married friends—they were full of joy: she had just found out she was pregnant—and I told them about the squirrel, and I took them upstairs to show them the damage, and there, in the middle of the night, in a supposedly completely sealed apartment, was the squirrel, digging frantically at the closed window.
I hollered bloody murder, and the squirrel shot up the chimney. Aha.
This was curious, though. Why, if the squirrel knew the way up the chimney, had it been so intent on getting out some other way?
My friend found an inconclusive clue. The fireplace was piled high with firewood, and tucked into the midst of it was a loose wad of straw, leaves, twigs, scraps of paper, strips of plastic. Your squirrel is building a nest, he said. We flattened the fire screen against the opening and barricaded it with logs.
Late that night—quite drunk, again, and full of grief and rage—I went back to check, and there was the squirrel in the fireplace, digging at the screen. Soon enough, I figured, it was going to dig a hole through that just as it had in the plaster wall.
I hollered the squirrel up the chimney, pulled out the firewood, threw all the nest material back in, checked that the flue was open, and tossed in a match.
The stuff went up like the tinder it was, but instead of up and out, the smoke—dense, white, and foul—was boiling into the room. Choking, I crawled along the floor to the fireplace and stuck the poker up the chimney, where it met what could only have been more nest material. I prodded and poked, and with a whumpf! it all, a good bushel, came down, and smothered the flames.
It smoldered, and smoked, and then in a burst of gases it caught. Flame streamed up the flue, roaring like a jet engine. I ran downstairs and out back, and sparks were swirling out of the chimney, but there seemed for the moment no danger of torching the neighborhood, so I charged back upstairs to tend my bonfire.
With primeval fixity I stared into it, sweat stinging my eyes, and now I saw something moving. And then I heard the noise: a high, soft, hoarse chee chee chee chee, over and over; unquestionably an animal cry. At the edge of the still-roaring flames now I saw a baby squirrel, only recently born, its eyes yet unopened, its tail burned bare, a black-edged scarlet wound in its back. It writhed toward the screen, and air. Another appeared on the other side of the fire, also squirming and mewing and burned and beyond doubt doomed.
What could I do? Was I going to find a vet in the middle of the night and have them euthanized after who knows how long of unspeakable suffering? (I had heard it said that the pain of severe burns is the worst pain of all.)
No. It was terrible, but the most humane choice: I took the poker and flipped the two baby squirrels into the heart of the fire. A third appeared, and it too I lifted and dropped to its incineration.
At last the mother squirrel came down the chimney. I recognized her, of course. She was able to reach one of the babies, and it wrapped its toes and fingers weakly in her fur and held on. She reached the screen, and climbed slowly up it and now was clinging to it spreadeagled, looking at me.
A squirrel's face does not show horror or pain. Where one might have thought to see a grimace, a gape, something, there was only dull, flat nothingness, at least insofar as this other species could tell.
Her tail too was burned bare, the backs of her thighs, all four feet. She tried once to return for another baby, but she lost consciousness and fell on her side beside the fire, which had begun to wane. The baby on her back shrieked on; the others were silent now.
Somehow she came to, and climbed back up the fire screen, much more badly burned now, and still she stared.
She was going to die, either slowly if I did nothing or less so if I did what I did: I kicked her and her mewing baby back into the fire.
I piled on paper and kindling and logs, then more paper, more logs. Flame entirely filled the fireplace, and still I piled wood on, and still I could not look away.
By morning not even a bone could be found in the ashes.
Silvano tubby, round-cheeked, a blue-eyed boy; Silvano thin, chic, presbyopic, gold-braceleted; Silvano graying, thickening, married at last (to a New Yorker cartoonist), a celebrities’ darling.
Nine twenty-seven on the humid night of July 13, 1977: Janice Scott and I at a table outside, she facing downtown and gasping, “Oh, my God,” as that whole half of the city went dark, I facing the other way to see the Empire State Building and all the rest go black; as yet unknown by us, Louise at that very instant touching down at LaGuardia, the whole airport also suddenly lightless; Silvano driving his Volkswagen Bug up onto the sidewalk so that the headlights illumined the restaurant and dinner could go on. The streets full of flashlights, self-appointed traffic cops at every corner. On West Ninety-fifth Street, where Louise and I had lived until two years before, rioting, looting, and fire; in Greenwich Village, laughter and singing and candles.
The infinite subtle variations of sangiovese: Chianti Rúfina, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano. The birth of the Super Tuscans—ah, Flaccianello! Le Pergole Torte! Sammarco!—even then, in keeping with Silvano’s tradition, a little too pricey, but still affordable, rich, deep, powerful. Discovery upon discovery: fried zucchini flowers, arugula, white truffles, bagna caôda, puntarelle, raw artichoke salad, panzanella, pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, spaghetti puttanesca, taglierini with sea urchins and avocado, calf’s liver with fried sage leaves, carpaccio, calamari in zimino, stinco d’agnello, tripe, roasted goat, panna cotta, tiramisu, vin santo with cantucci to dip in it. Every one of these, we tasted for the first time at Da Silvano.
Time. Louise, always braless, bold-nippled in the tight thin shirts from Stone Free, the hippie store on West Seventy-second; Louise in the forties-vamp dresses I found for her in Soho; Louise in the very short very tight skirts that all official advice would deny to the rising young advertising executive; Louise’s hair evolving from auburn to strawberry-blond to straw-blond; Louise in ever-heavier gold I brought to her from Tiffany’s in tribute to her rising; Louise in the high high heels in which she would walk to work, never lowering herself to the secretarial practice of walking in sneakers with your heels in a bag; Louise in the post-op clown shoes which her high heels had earned her; Louise in the mink coat which she’d dreamed of for so long and which a raging humaniac, one day, on Hudson Street, spat on; Louise in presidential Armani, fresh from the Concorde. Promotions; mergers; equity. Awards; magazine features—youngest vice president in the business, youngest president of a major agency. The iron-fist-in-velvet-glove feminist with the house-husband who wrote and failed to write and cooked every dinner and planned every vacation—each more splendid than the last—and spent much money and made nearly none. I see her coming through the door of Da Silvano, over and over, over the years, always beautiful, always perfectly dressed and perfectly groomed and perfectly composed, always a perfect figure, never more than a hundred pounds, growing stronger and stronger and farther and farther away.
In Montana I was to find most of the solace I sought. I would meet my future wife there, and take her to New York, and take her to Da Silvano, to detoxify my nostalgia—regret was still acting on me as a sort of psychic poison. At the least, being back home, as I still thought of New York, with Elizabeth, and returning again and again would serve to add layers of fresh associations. We would have our rehearsal dinner at Silvano’s, the night before our wedding. But that’s a story for another time.