Sunday, May 04, 2008

Missing Robert Graham 

When we moved to NYC in the early 90's, K. discovered Fairway. Soon after, she bought our place on 75th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue to be near it. $185,000 for a 2 bedroom apartment? We were both starving actors at the time and I thought she was freakin' nuts. Could even our combined earnings for our entire lifetimes ever equal $185,000? (Thank god my advice was listened to and then completely ignored.)

Back then, Fairway was about 1/4 of the size it is today, which meant that the cheese counter was proportionally humungous. It took up the whole back corner on the northwest side of the store.

Now cheese is important to us. (So incidentally is pudding. At least pudding is particularly special to me, which prompted K. to have this t-shirt specially designed for me. If pudding is special to you, too you can order one for yourself here.) And as K. is of Dutch descent, she is particularly concerned with how cheese is sliced. (At least she tells me this is a Dutch thing, but maybe it's just one of her RULES.) A wedge of cheese you see must be turned so that the fat part sits on the counter and the thin edge stands in the air. You then take the cheese plane and shave off tiny slivers from the thin edge. To do this correctly, you want a cheese plane with the shallowest angle you can find so that your slides are wafer thin.

Having recently moved around in together and being in the process of stocking up on specialized kitchen utensils, we were in search of a cheese plane with the properly shallow angle on the blade. Given that Fairway had a cheese counter that completely blew our minds, we thought we'd ask for some advice there while we were shopping.

That particular day in 1993, there was an elfin man behind the cheese counter. He was bald, African-American, sparkling eyes and a smile that lit up the store. K. explained her quest and he said, "Wait here!" He bounded into the back for about 3 minutes and then darted out from behind the wheels of parmesan. With a flourish, he handed K. a cheese plane. K. looked at it, agreed it looked like a plausible tool for the purpose and inquired as to it's price. "Take it!" he said. Really? Us starving actors loved a freebie. "Sure! It's from one of my vendors. I hope it works out for you." He laughed with a tenor laugh that was sweet and infectious.

"Who are you?" asked K. of her cheese angel.

"Robert!" he replied and stuck out his hand.

For the next decade, K. always greeted Robert with a hug and a kiss. She loved to surprise him by sneaking up behind him and hugging him when he wasn't looking. Everytime we went shopping (and being NYCers we go the store nearly daily because it's so convenient), part of our consciousness was occupied with keeping an eye out for Robert.

We got to know Robert pretty well in the intervening years. Like all of Robert's customers, we became friends, too. We consoled him after the death of his wife and the mother of his children due to hospital malpractice. (Another customer provided legal counsel.) We left anonymous holiday gifts for the girls in the first year after that sad event. I dropped off research on therapy options for him in the hopes he could find the right support for his youngest. We asked after his social life, his girlfriends, his family every time we saw him.

For the last week or so, my consciousness keeps an eye out for Robert. But I know he's not there. As our neighbor and food critic Ed Levine noted, on his blog last week Robert passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.

It's a senseless tragedy and my world is smaller for his passing. My neighborhood is less for his absence. But my heart is full of gratitude for having known him for 15 years. For having known his smile, his greeting, and his heart. I didn't know it was the last time I would ever see him when I gave him a big hug a couple of weeks ago. But I'm grateful that was our last moment together. That is the way I will remember him.
Thanks for this Tony - it is how we will remember Robert too.
Do you know, I still imagine I hear his voice every time I walk in the store?
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