Friday, April 2, 2010

True Story: Pasty Man

I inherited my complexion from Danish Vikings, via my maternal Grandmother. So before I stepped outside to mow my lawn, I donned my straw fedora and tied a blue bandana around my neck to protect myself from the sun.
Ours is an old fashioned push mower so even though my front yard isn’t very large, it takes long enough to trim my grass that even with 70spf sun block, I tend to burn to a crisp.
Hence my fondness for Portland’s general lack of sunshine.
But the sun was shining and my dandelions were getting uppity, so I strolled outside with long sleeves, long pants, head and neck wear and began to push my mower back and forth.
Halfway through my task a little boy about five years old, pulled his tricycle to a stop in front of my house. As he waited on the sidewalk for his mother to catch up with him, he stared at me with that fixed gaze that children are so good at.

Recognizing an excuse to take a break from my chore, I parked my mower and retrieved my water bottle from its shady hiding place beneath my maple tree.
“Good morning,” I said to the boy. Then I took a long cool drink.
“Are you a cowboy?” He asked this in lieu of a formal greeting and in a tone that suggested that he was equally torn between skepticism and hope.
A little water had dribbled onto my chin and I wiped it away as I considered how best to answer.
“I am a pastry chef.”
The boy frowned, cocking his head slightly in puzzlement.
In that moment a woman with an auburn pony tail came to a stop beside him and we exchanged greetings. Her face, arms and legs were tan and with her trim, athletic bearing she radiated health and good humor.
“I see you met Jordan.” She noted in a formal, yet light hearted manner.
The child, still pondering the cowboy/pastry chef mystery turned to his mother and asked, “What’s a pasty…uh?”
He hadn’t gotten “pastry” quite right, and was totally derailed by the word “chef” so his question petered out into confused silence.
Jordan’s mother turned to me with a blank, questioning face.
“He asked me if I was a cowboy,” I fingered my bandana, then touched the brim of my straw hat. “But I told him I’m a pastry chef.”
Her face lit up and she rolled her head and eyes as she caressed her flat stomach. It was a gesture suggestive of both pleasurable envy and a constant struggle against the charms of dessert.
This reaction or something close to it was what I had come to expect from people.
“Yum,” she said.
At the time, I had been a professional pastry chef for over six years and I liked the certainty (and other people’s lack of confusion) about making dessert.
Part of my deep longing for a simple profession came from when I was a kid trying to figure out what my father did for a living.
In sitcoms, it was the father’s duty to put on his fedora and tuck his briefcase under his arm before he vanished for ten hours.
Nobody needed to know where he went or what he did there. It didn’t matter. But, as sitcoms progressed we found out that he was in advertising or insurance and I think we were all a little disappointed, weren’t we?
My father’s office was in our house so he only vanished when he went on business trips, and his profession baffled me. He had two PhD’s and he had gone to dental school, but he was not a dentist.
“I’m not a big fan of drool,” he told me once at the dinner table.
“But what do you do?” I asked for the third time that night.
The next day in fourth grade we were supposed to go around the room, and each person would say what their parents did for a living. My mom owned a bakery and she made cakes. That was easy to understand and explain.
But my dad’s situation was more complicated. He often took business trips to Europe and I knew he used his scientific training, but I was fuzzy on the details. He already told me he was an FDA regulatory affairs consultant, but the words were too complicated for me.
He tried again to explain, this time in simple terms:
“I help drug companies deal with the Food and Drug Administration when they want to get their drugs approved for sale. But my favorite thing is to hustle new business and find new clients.”
Aha! Finally, an answer I could understand.
The next day in class when it was my turn, I rose from my seat and explained that my mom owned a bakery. A thrilled murmur ran through the room.
“Bring me some brownies,” Kristina said, as she leaned across the aisle, tugging on one of her blond braids.
My kindly, gray haired teacher was delighted with the idea of dessert, but asserted control of the room by gently prompting me, “And what does your father do?”
I had been rehearsing my answer, now that I had one.
“My father is an international drug dealer and a hustler.”
Almost thirty years later as I took a break from mowing my lawn, Jordan’s mother gently coaxed her son into understanding.
“You know what a pastry chef is Jordan. Remember Rebecca’s birthday party last week, and the cake? That’s what a pastry chef does, he makes cake for people.”
At the mention of “cake” Jordan’s face burst into recognition and joy.
I love that look.
Dessert is so simple. It makes people happy and they understand what it is.
Jordan started to pedal off as his mother waved to me in thanks. Before he disappeared behind my neighbor’s hedge, Jordan stopped his bike and turned to me one last time.
“Are you sure you’re not a cowboy? Your clothes are like a cowboy.”
“I’m not a cowboy, but when I was your age I had a serious crush on the Marlboro Man.”
Jordan’s face suggested further confusion but, rather than explain, I put down my water and continued to push my mower back and forth under the blazing sun.
(Origninal artwork "One Million SPF Sunblock," by Jason Zenobia.)


  1. That's awesome. You've got a nice, easy style. I never really knew what Arthur did either. Thank you for clearing it up for me. I can't really add anything except that I hope you have more; this is the sort of sketch that leads easily to others, and of course it doesn't even scratch the surface on your dad. Fresh fruit, for example...

  2. Want me to help you kill your turf grass?


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