*Three weeks after the dreaded attacks of September 11, 2001, we were all seeking some comfort. At least that was Joe and Jennifer Steinberg’s reasoning behind opening their beautiful, cozy West Los Angeles home to friends for a pot luck gathering.
According to Joe, they invited people over that early Saturday evening to get us out of our homes. In the days after 9/11, people sequestered themselves, glued to their television screens. The more we watched the grim news reports and TV specials about the victims in those buildings and on those planes, the deeper we burrowed. “What happened in Manhattan made victims of us all,” Joe said. He wanted his friends to get back into the world.
I liked the Steinbergs. I’d met Joe, a 42 year-old middle management executive for a pharmaceutical firm, the year before, at the party of a mutual friend. Our camaraderie was immediate, sparked by our giddy consensus that Stevie Wonder, while legendary as a singer and songwriter, gets few props for being one hell of a harmonica player. Only Stevie, we agreed, could put effectively haunting and lonely harmonica solos smack dab in the middle of the melancholy “Creepin’” and the sexy, desperate “That Girl.”
A couple weeks after meeting Joe, he introduced me, over Indian food at Santa Monica beach, to his 40 year-old wife Jennifer, an interior decorator. Both were smart, witty and communicative, with a compassionate quality I admired.
In their mailed invitation, the Steinbergs said they’d provide some of their favorite dishes and alcohol, inviting guests to do the same.
Unsure of what to bring and not being much of a cook–I was pretty sure egg sandwiches wouldn’t hold up long at a party–I figured I couldn’t go wrong with dessert. In route to the gathering, I picked up a couple of pies.
About twenty of us mingled, ate, drank and valiantly found merriment. It wasn’t particularly cold out, but the cackling fire in the Steinbergs’ expansive fireplace served to melt away the chill of our collective anxiety. We discussed 9/11, of course, but its darkness wasn’t allowed to dominate our evening.
Against a soft soundtrack of jazz, Motown, ’60s rock and some Classical, we reflected on the positive in the world and did a lot of laughing. The distinct, pungent fragrance of a joint wafted in from the patio.
The dining room buffet resembled a delicious international smorgasbord, including homemade Italian pasta, chicken enchiladas, a remarkable carrot pineapple soup from somebody’s mom’s secret recipe, a variety of Israeli dishes, courtesy of Joe’s doting, ever fashionable mom and Danish and chocolate cake and oatmeal cookies. Anger and fear was overcome by joy and the feeling that someday 9/11 would be but a memory.
At some point, while nursing a glass of merlot and listening in on a living room conversation about dolphins, I heard, drifting in from the dining room, someone’s accolades for the “pumpkin pie.” From another voice, more praise. And then a woman’s Yummmmmm.
I hadn’t seen any pumpkin pie in there, I thought to myself, but I need to get myself a slice. Before I could move, Joe, accompanied by two other satisfied and slightly intoxicated customers, found me.
“Jen says you bought this in here,” he said gleefully, cradling in his palm a half eaten slice of pie on a paper napkin. “If you made this pumpkin pie,” interrupted the woman hanging on his shoulder, “I’m marrying you right here, right now.”
Ha, I WISH I had such skills, I said. But it’s not pumpkin pie.
“Then mom was right,” quipped Joe. “It’s sweet potato. Mom’s in there cutting up the other pie in smaller slices so that everybody can try it. Where’d you get it?”
“It’s not sweet potato, either,” I said with amused authority, elated that my contribution to the party was so well received.
“It’s bean pie.”
I explained that before coming here, I drove to south central L.A. and picked them up from a Nation of Islam merchant on Crenshaw Blvd. As I told the story, I noticed smiles on the wane.
“Made from Beans?” someone asked.
“Islam, as in Muslim?” Looking past Joe’s tight grin, I noticed in the corner a pale, curly headed young man quietly chuckling. He looked to be the only one in the room enjoying the direction of this dialogue. If it hadn’t been programmed, even the music would have stopped in its prerecorded tracks.
The Jewish guests seemed embarrassed–and just a bit vexed, perhaps–that they’d enjoyed eating a dish made by people practicing Islam. I wasn’t sure if they felt tricked or outright poisoned.
Suddenly, there was a bigger chill in the room than that cackling fire could defrost. The party banter revved back up, but not quite to the jubilant decibels of a few minutes earlier. I managed some self-saving small talk with a couple of guests before kissing Jennifer in the kitchen and hugging Joe in the hallway.
On my way to the door, I passed through the dining room. What had remained of the second bean pie was gone. Whether it was digested or disposed of by a Hazmat team, I don’t know.
On the way home, I wondered if I’d been insensitive by taking Black Muslim bean pie into a house full of Jews during such an emotional time. Should it have mattered? It was food, for goodness sake. I hadn’t even considered this when buying the pies. Should I have? The next day, on the phone, Joe answered my question with one of his own. “How would you feel,” he said, “if I brought you something made by the Klan?”
Shit, Joe, I said, we live in America; from time immemorial, blacks have had to do business with storekeepers, retailers and corporations
run by people who have privately and not so privately professed disdain for blacks. And Jews, too, for that matter.
There was more heated debate from the both of us, followed by a few seconds of deafening silence, after which we offered uneasy goodbyes. We haven’t communicated since.
The other day I bought a bean pie and thought of the Steinbergs. I wondered how something so sweet could have left such a sour taste in the mouths of reasonable men.
Steven Ivory’s book, FOOL IN LOVE (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) is available at Amazon.com (www.Amazon.com). Respond to him via [email protected]