Inhuman Swill : kabab cafe
UPDATE: Mark's funeral service will be Thursday, March 1, in Seattle. (Details here.) A less formal celebration of his life will be held in a few weeks.
Growing older comes with a lot of unexpected benefits. One of those benefits, though, is most definitely not the way that more and more good friends seem to leave this life before their time.

mark-bourne.jpg I was stunned yesterday to learn that Mark Bourne passed away on Saturday. Given his history of serious heart problems, I probably shouldn't have been, but you're never really prepared to hear that someone as young as he was has gone.

Besides writing many very fine science fiction stories, Mark was a musical theater enthusiast, a film reviewer, and a writer of planetarium shows. If you ever went to planetarium star shows, you probably saw some of his productions without knowing it. (I did.)

It's funny. I considered Mark a good friend, even though we only met in person a few times. I think the first time I ran across his name must have been in 1994, when he and I turned out to have come in 9th and 10th place in the balloting for Campbell Award nominations. Our first actual interaction came during an unfortunate online flamewar a few years later. I sent him a note of apology some months later, which he very graciously accepted. This was entirely to my good fortune, as he had no good reason to do so. It didn't take long before we were fast friends.

One occasion when we met in person was at the 2004 Nebula Award banquet in Seattle. Another was on a visit he and Elizabeth made to New York City. Laura and I took them out to Kabab Cafe in Astoria, and Mark talked about how amazing that evening was for the rest of the time that I knew him.

But as I said, mostly we were online friends. We used to trade short stories back and forth, point out great film and theater reviews (sometimes our own) to each other, and for as long as I was making them I used to mail him copies of my monthly CD mix discs. It wasn't that long ago that, having both written science fiction stories about stand-up comics, we started half-seriously batting around the idea of editing an anthology of such stories. I was also trying to persuade him to make Chicago a vacation destination in the near future so I could have him appear at the Tuesday Funk reading series. I'm sad that neither of those things are now going to happen.

If you knew Mark at all, you knew him as an inveterate punster. He was a master at that low art, and sometimes in the comments of our blog entries we would trade the most horrendous puns back and forth for as long as we could possibly sustain it. I hope and suspect he would forgive me for saying that a change for the better is the mark borne by everyone who knew him. I'll damn sure miss him.

We send all our sympathies to Elizabeth Bourne, whose loss is incalculable, and to everyone else who knew and loved him.

Cook like an Egyptian

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Our friend Ali is on TV again. John Klima points me toward this clip from Jamie's American Road Trip, which just recently starting airing in the States. It features Jamie Oliver traveling from Manhattan to Queens to learn Egyptian cooking from Ali El Sayed of the celebrated Kabab Cafe:

(The actual arrival in Queens comes at about 3:28, and you can click here to jump straight there.)

I dragged a very willing Mr. Klima to Kabab Cafe back in 2008, when we both happened to be in New York, and a memorable night it was. If you find yourself in New York and want to get off the beaten path for a culinary adventure, the address is 25-12 Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. Tell Ali that Bill from Chicago sent you.

Infidel dog

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This morning,
with a high of seventy degrees in the forecast,
amazing for a November in Chicago,
I drove the dog to Warren Park.
That's where we go for a special treat
instead of our usual neighborhood walk,
because the squirrel chasing is most excellent,
and there are never any cops there to harass you,
a scofflaw walking his dog off its leash.

We like to run up the steps of the sledding hill,
which a parks department sign actually proclaims "Sledding Hill,"
and then charge down the slope,
after which we make our way around the skirt of the hill
where the squirrels rummage through the leaves
like so many bargain hunters.
We crunch crunch crunch across the orange carpet,
and if we're lucky we spot a squirrel far enough out
in the open that Ella can chase it full-bore
back to its tree.
She has never once caught one.
Or at any rate never killed one.

Next we like to follow the cinder jogging path
all the way around the little nine-hole golf course embedded
like an off-center yolk
in the albumen of the park,
and that's exactly what we did this morning.
I walked in the leaves at the side of the path,
trying to encourage Ella to do the same,
but unless she has a rodent, lagomorph or marsupial in her sights
she prefers to walk on pavement. Go figure.

We were on the south side of the golf course,
the tall chain-link fence meant to protect us from flying balls
off to our left,
when I saw two men coming our way along the path,
youngish men—younger than I, at any rate—
neatly bearded men dressed in long robes the color of wet sand.
It was already warm enough out that I was regretting
the heavy coat I wore over my hooded sweatshirt.
I snapped my fingers imperiously,
calling for Ella to return to my side,
to leave the path and get out of the way
of the two youngish men engaged in animated talk.

Infidel dog

Ella is a good dog, shaggy-bearded herself,
and she mostly listens. But I know that Muslims
are afraid of dogs, or wary, or I think I know this,
having watched many women in headscarves
whisper urgently to their children to stay out
of our path. At least,
I assumed these men were Muslims. I admit I don't know
the taxonomy of robes and caps and beards.
They could have been Coptic Christians or even Jains for all I knew.
At any rate, they didn't have turbans on
so I knew they weren't Sikhs.
But despite my commands, Ella didn't leave the path
entirely. She shifted toward me, trotting along
the very edge of the pavement, but didn't leave it altogether.
"Ella," I hissed. "Come." She spared me only a sidelong glance,
certain she had already obeyed me to the extent required.
Letter of the law.
I only wanted to be a good neighbor.
The men were yards away.
Dogs are not consistent with Islam.
I braced for whatever.

It's not that I thought anything worse
than embarrassment might transpire,
but my dog does have a history.
She grew up in Queens, and she still has some of that attitude.
We socialized her with people pretty quickly,
my wife and I, but that didn't prevent her from
barking her selectively bred head off at any unfamiliar creatures
we encountered on the street,
ones with strange colors, shapes or motions.
Woman in full burqas, like shambling mounds of midnight.
People in big hats.
People on crutches or in wheelchairs.
Black people--a sad reflection of the diversity
of visitors to our apartment.
The worst was the time she lost it at an old black woman
in a wheelchair
in front of a funeral parlor
on Astoria Boulevard near the elevated tracks.
As we dragged her in a wide, apologetic berth
as far from the frightened woman
as possible.
As the woman's decked-out younger companions yelled at us.
As if we'd trained our dog to hate old black women in wheelchairs.
That was the worst.

But it's not as if Ella has never met a Muslim man before.
We used to walk her up Steinway Street in Queens,
right past all the Middle Eastern restaurants and pastry shops
and bookstores, and the men's social clubs with the curvy hookahs,
and even past the mosque.
Some people avoided us, though we never walked her
up the middle of the sidewalk or in such a way
as to block anyone's path.
We didn't mean it as a provocation
but more as a statement, an exercise of our rights
to free association, an exercise in multiculturalism.
And not everyone avoided us. One time
a group of three thirtyish Egyptians stopped us
as we walked Ella up the far edge of the sidewalk.
One of them with a reedy mustache and a look of childlike wonder
asked if our dog was friendly. "Yes," we said.
He asked if he could pet her. "Of course," we said.
We made her sit.
Ella could care less about most strangers, but she doesn't like
surprises, so we told the man to reach out slowly.
His fingertips barely grazed the hair on the top of her head,
while Ella sat patiently and yawned.
"Good dog," we said, while the man straightened up
with a smile as wide as the world on his face.
You could see him already composing the story in his head
that he would tell his friends,
about how he petted a dog
and didn't even get struck by lightning.
He'll be dining out on that one for years.

We loved that neighborhood for reasons like that meeting
on the street. We loved it for our friend Ali,
who would never touch Ella because he was cooking
in his little restaurant, but who always had a kind word for her,
and still asks about her when we visit.
I love it for the times I stayed out all night drinking
with Ali, who knew everyone, for the times he Virgiled me
into the social club across the street from his restaurant,
where I smoked shisha with the Egyptian men and listened
to monologues on history and hieroglyphics,
on all the important things that Egypt invented, or did first.
Our travels in Cairo and Luxor and Petra and Amman,
talking Islam and politics and Christianity
with virtual strangers in coffee shops and cafés,
sometimes seemed the inevitable endpoint of our years
in that neighborhood, which we loved.

What I'm trying to get at is, I don't hate Muslims,
and I especially don't want any Muslim to think I hate Muslims,
or that my dog hates Muslims.
Which she doesn't.
The two men on the path had nearly drawn even with us,
and Ella still hadn't moved off the pavement.
But there was enough room for her and the nearest man to pass
each other without touching, which they did.
"Good morning, sir," he said to me with a cheerful trill,
his face like a gibbous moon, beaming.
"Good morning, how are you today?" I said with a smile
as wide as Lake Michigan,
a smile trying a little too hard,
wanting to be seen as a friend, not a fraud,
and reflect the genuine shiver of camaraderie I felt.
"Very well, thank you," he said, dipping his head.
He, the respectful, non-threatening immigrant,
me, the welcoming, tolerant native,
both playing the part of open-minded, ideal world citizen.
Maybe he was born here, I don't know, and maybe I was not,
as far as he knew.
No matter.
We both still played our proper roles—
roles still, even if based on a true story,
inspired by real events.
I might wish for a deeper connection,
a meeting of the minds,
but at least we all passed on our leisurely errands
without baring our teeth,
without drawing our guns,
and I can live with that.

Ella, more alien than us all,
paid none of our human posturing the slightest mind.

Old shoe week

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Going home to New York City is as comfortable as slipping on an old shoe. I flew there Tuesday afternoon with just a backpack and the parka on my back, and I was immediately at ease and confident in a way I don't yet feel in Chicago. The only bad part was that I was alone, since Laura was on a concurrent business trip to Rochester.

But I wasn't solitary for long. I took a cab from Laguardia to my borrowed apartment in Astoria, Queens, dumped off most of the contents of my pack, and headed into the city. After a quick stop at my old office, I met John Klima, in from Iowa way, at the Tor offices in the Flatiron Building. I acquired an advance copy of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, I chatted with Patrick Nielsen Hayden for a minute or two, and John and I hauled his bags back to Astoria on the subway.

We had a full evening ahead, but before I tell you about it I have to back up several months and remind you of the segment of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" that Laura and I caught back in July:

Kabab Cafe is our favorite restaurant on earth, and Ali El Sayed our good friend. John had eaten Ali's appetizers once before at a party at our place, but despite our best efforts we had never managed to get Shai and him out to the restaurant itself for a real meal. What's more, John had seen the above segment on "No Reservations." Since he and I were staying right there in the neighborhood, how could we not head over for dinner? I promised him, though, that we'd have fare other than sweetbreads and testicles.

My promise turned out to be half hasty.

John eat BRAINS! Ali, I'm happy to say, was as delighted to see us as we were to see him. He gave John and me the same booth that Zimmern and Bourdain had taken on TV, and as we split a bottle of wine and a beet salad and a mixed appetizer plate Ali somehow talked us into trying the sweetbreads, brains, and tongue for one of our entrees.

As John later said, if I'd tried to get him to Kabab Cafe by telling him that's what we were going to eat, it would have been an uphill battle. But there with Ali urging us on, we both felt bold enough just to dive right in. And you know what? It was all uniformly excellent. John Twittered about brains! all the while.

Ali has balls What we didn't feel quite bold enough to try were the "mountain oysters," which Ali was preparing for a party in from Seattle who had come specifically for the meal they'd seen on TV.

As Ali was preparing our dessert plate, and since our wine bottle was empty, he slipped us a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon and joined us in a furtive shot. I asked him what he was doing after hours, and he invited us to come back at eleven and meet him at the hookah bar across the street.

Carrie-oke! Stuffed, John and I took the subway back into the city, where we joined my friend Carrie's birthday karaoke outing. Many of the old CDMOM gang was there, and a great time was had by all. John and I got into the action when no one would claim Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and it was pressed on us. My rendition of Steely Dan's "Cousin Dupree" went over like a turd in a punchbowl, though, doing nothing to refute Carrie's constant repetitions of a memorable quote from Knocked Up: "Steely Dan gargles my balls."

Hmm. I suppose "balls" was something of a leitmotif that evening.

John and Ali toke in synchrony After karaoke, John and I hopped a cab and headed back out to Astoria. Ali saw us through the window of the hookah bar where he was holding court, and we joined him and a couple of friends there for water pipes and tea. A bizarre Technicolor Egyptian musical from the '60s was playing on the giant-screen TV, but sadly without subtitles. John and I were warmly welcomed there, but we both wondered how welcome we would have felt if we had entered without Ali as our Virgil.

We ended up making a whirlwind tour of ethnic after-hours spots. After the Egyptian hookah bar, we hit Bohemian Hall, where we visited John's roots with Czech beer and harder spirits. Roti Boti Then, hungry anew, it was off to Roti Boti, an Indian spot on 21st Street where the three of us enjoyed a repast of cow foot and other spicy delicacies.

Ali dropped us off at the apartment at 2:30 am.

Morning came awfully early, especially considering that the unshaded windows faced east. Breakfast was giant omelettes at Igloo on 31st Street, after which John and I returned to the city to pursue our various agendas. I met Paul Witcover for beer and burgers at Waterfront Ale House, where we caught up and talked about our newly aborning novel projects.

Next I headed downtown to New York Adorned to have a broken curved barbell in my right ear replaced. (I went a gauge thicker in each ear as long as I was there.) While I was paying up front, our friend Victoria Tillotson, Geoffrey Fowler jewelry-maker to the stars, wandered up to the counter. I'd hardly seen Vic except on TV in about three years, so it was great to catch up with her for a few minutes. She relayed the awesome news that she's just sold a book on jewelry making to Random House.

With my new jewelry installed, I headed over to my friend Geoff Fowler's apartment for a surprise drop-in, then walked to d.b.a. where I settled down with a Talisker 25yo to wait for people to appear. John appeared first, followed in rapid succession by Paul, Colin Poellot, and [info]rajankhanna.

Laura Peterson and Jon Pope At 6:30 we wandered over to KGB, which was precisely the event that had drawn John and me to town. It was an unofficial Electric Velocipede, with readings by two contributors, Marly Youmans and Dan Braum. I was delighted to see Laura Peterson and Jon Pope there, the two New York friends Laura and I have probably seen more often than any others since moving, because they're so often in Chicago and we're so often in Gotham.

Other folks there I hadn't seen in a while, sometimes a long while, included Jonathan Kopp (holy shit!), Craig Engler, Jae Brim, Jim Freund, Alaya Johnson, Bill Shunn and John Klima Matt Kressel, Doug Cohen, Rick Bowes, John Joseph Adams, Tempest Bradshaw, Will Smith, and of course hosts Ellen Datlow and Gavin Grant. After a Chinese dinner and then beers at a nearby pretend dive bar, John and I poured ourselves into yet another cab and lit out for the outer boroughs.

The next morning we were up at four, blear-eyed, each to make his own way back home. I had more good times and saw more good friends then I had thought would be possible to pack into two short days, but now it is good to be back home in Chicago with my wife and dog.

We thought we could beat the thunderstorms. That is why last Monday evening I walked thirty minutes to a showing of Live Free or Die Hard, while Laura biked to Pipers Alley to meet up with the running group she was attending for the first time.

I thoroughly enjoyed my movie, even the patently preposterous parts toward the end, and I emerged to discover that it had rained while I was inside. A lot. Laura, on the other hand, ran with the group and biked home in it.

So it was that when I arrived home I found her recuperating on the couch in front of the television. She had the Travel Channel on, and had paused the live feed. "You need to watch this," she said. "Before you do anything else. I guarantee it will make you happy."

This is what she showed me:

It did make me happy. It also gave me the worst case by far of missing New York that I've had since moving here.

It also made me hungry.

Ali's well!

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When last we checked in with Ali El Sayed at Kabab Cafe in Astoria, he was papering the doors and getting ready to light out for Egypt. We're pleased to hear, via [info]rajankhanna and the New York Times, that he's back in town and back in form, rumors of plans to join his brother's place down the street notwithstanding:

Pita with a Generous Helping of Quirkiness

Go keep him company for us.

Waxing the camel

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Last night was the end of an era. It was by only the most fortuitous of chances that we were there for it.

Laura and I had taken [info]curmudgeon to the incomparable Kabab Cafe before, to be entertained, charmed, and provoked by our friend Ali El Sayed's patter and transported by his food. With Laura and me moving soon, doing it again while Curmudgeon was in town was critical.

Turns out it was more critical than we knew. Ali told us, "I'm glad you are here tonight. Tomorrow I will be closed. I leave for 25 days in Egypt." He went on to explain that on his return, he will begin renovating Kabab Cafe—again. He will change the menu, begin serving breakfast in addition to lunch and dinner, and train chefs to take over for him. He will then take his menu over to his brother Moustafa's excellent nearby restaurant Mombar, where he will sometimes cook and sometimes help oversee operations of both restaurants. He will use his trip to Egypt to work out plans for the new venture.

The changes are exciting, since Ali finally won't be tied to his tiny kitchen. But it was also a poignant evening—the last night of the Kabab Cafe we've known all these years. There were only two other diners there when we arrived, but even with the pick of tables in the place, Ali suggested we sit in the niche near the door so he could talk to us over the counter of his kitchen. We drank too much Argentine Malbec while we enjoyed mixed appetizers of hummus, babaganouj, falafel, fried Swiss chard, apples, pears, and more; a more than appetizer portion of pumpkin dumplings in a spicy sauce; goat chops; beef short ribs; and an amazing dish of sand shark tail. I broke out a bottle of Balvenie Portwood 21yo I'd brought for us—Ali included—to enjoy along with dessert, which was a plate of selected Mediterranean pastries from the bakery down the street, together with yogurt and various fruits. I had thick coffee too.

And all the time, we talked food and travel and politics and sex and age with Ali, who is the most charming and flirtatious rogue on the planet. I forget exactly how the phrase "waxing one's camel" first came up—it was something to do with Ali's plan to spirit my wife away with him to Egypt—but it became the watchphrase of the evening. Well, that and "sharking," which Ali had been told that day means biting someone on the ass. (Urban Dictionary tells a somewhat different story.)

Later on, a young man named Alex dropped in for dinner, and after he had eaten Ali put him to work taping paper over the front windows. (Alex had never heard of sharking either.) When the windows were papered, Ali broke out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, and he and Alex and I all drank a toast. The women wisely abstained.

And that was it. Godspeed, Ali, and long may your camel stay waxed.

I was half-listening to WNYC this morning as I made the last preparations to leave, when suddenly I heard my friend Ali's voice on the radio. We had noticed that his restaurant, Kabab Cafe, has been closed since the blackout, and we keep stopping by to see if it is open yet.

Here is a transcript of the radio story.

I am going there for my birthday next week, should it be open yet by then, and would whether or not the place had had so much trouble. Those of you we've taken there will understand!

Offer void where inhibited

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I was just over at www.theglenlivet.com, signing up to join The Glenlivet Society. I've joined a few of these single-malt scotch societies online—which, honestly, are nothing more than fancy marketing campaigns—but the cool thing about this one is that as a member you can get free customized Glenlivet labels to put on gift bottles.

There's also an offer of free leather coasters, and whilst I was signing up for those I happened to note the "Offer Details" at the bottom of the page. The very first sentence?

Offer not valid in Utah.
Oh, well, not like it affects me. And thanks to Stuart Piltch, friend in single-malts, for putting me onto the Society in the first place.
In other scotch news, Laura and I managed to meet up with Andrew and Stephanie at Kebab Cafe Sunday night for Egyptian food and birthday presents. Both Andrew and I had birthdays in the middle of August, but this was the first chance to get together. (And there are other birthday celebrations with other folks out there that are still on hold, thanks to the damn work schedule—but soon!)

Anyway, Andrew and Steph brought me a lovely bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail, an Islay single-malt I hadn't heard of. Well, I've heard of it now. We opened it right there, and Ali joined us in more than one birthday toast. The Ardbeg was scintillating and smoky, very active. Andrew and Steph don't drink much scotch, but the Ardbeg made Andrew think he should. At his first taste, he sat right up and exclaimed, "Wow! Alive on my tongue!" I'm not making this up.

All in all, a terrific and thoughtful gift!

At 10:15 pm tonight, over the protestations of my dog, I left the apartment and took a twenty-minute walk over to the Arabic stretch of Steinway Street where, thanks to Bloomberg's smoking ban, the men congregate with their hookahs on the sidewalk before the storefronts. I joined my friend Ali, the Egyptian chef, in front of his restaurant, where I met Manny the Indian-American computer programmer and Declan the Irish chef, and where we all enjoyed a glass of white wine. (Not the same glass.) Then Ali and I repaired to the Czechoslovakian social club where the delightful owner Daniela ("I'm not Czech, I'm not Slovak, I'm Czechoslovakian") served us after-hours pilsners and a sweet liqueur the name of which I couldn't tell you if you put a gun to my head. As we were discussing religion and politics and gender relations and smoking Cohibas, the Bangladeshi kid who manages the Kaufman-Astoria movie theater wandered in for a while. The African-American garbage man stuck his head in because the garbage wasn't out at the curb for his midnight pickup, so we all rushed to gather it up and carry it outside. And now I'm home again with the dog, and all is right with the world except for the fact that my French-American wife is in Texas with our Greek-Italian-American friend Stephanie.

Fucking Queens, baby. All the world should be like this.

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