Friday, April 24, 2015

Scrapel Guy

Some stories want to be told, are eager and willing to be let out into the jetsam of other words and images and sighs and shouts and whispers and wind. Some are more reluctant.

This was at the bottom of a pile in my window sill.  Those are the last two roses of last summer.  The "Seek your happiness..." stamp fell out of a book that hadn't been opened in over thirty years, at precisely the moment I needed it to.

I moved to NYC in the late eighties. I was tending bar downtown and hoping, basically, that I would fall into an acting job. I didn't, but I met an absolute circus of curious folks. As surprising as at it seems to my "now self," I was once the kind of guy that said "yes" to whatever the plan might be.

Party in Brooklyn, two hours each way on a train. Sure.

A bar with a bunch of guys from the restaurant I worked at. I'll go.

A very gay bar. No prob.

A dilapidated shack in Belmar, New Jersey for the summer. I'm in.

A corporate service trainer for the company I worked for, traveling around the East Coast training new staff and, well, waitresses. Yes, thank you.

A Trip to Europe with a girl I barely knew. Why not?

So when Guy Norton, a regular at the bar I tended five nights a week, suggested I come up and party with him at his house in rural Maine, I said sure. I took a train up there, early on a Saturday. I vaguely recall a subway ride. Back then there were two main train stations, Grand Central and the ugly underground one. The train, Amtrak I'd guess, left from the ugly one.

I carried a guitar case and a knapsack sort of thing which grew heavier and heavier as I continued through the dank tunnels. I'd packed some clothes, not much, and two large bottles of whiskey - I wasn't sure how rural "rural Maine" was. I wore mostly white shirts and Levi's back in those days and I can see the jeans in that pack, a bottle in each leg, the shirts stuffed between them.

Guy met me some hours later at train station in Maine. Not coastal Maine, no, more like foothilly Maine. I do not know where it was, truth. He had a wonderful old International Harvester four-wheeled truck, probably from the sixties, and we bumped and banged our way through forest and little farms. Funny, just now I remember it was fall.

His house was in a pretty little cove of buildings and barns and bucolic outbuildings. There were maybe fifteen other houses - cottages, really - and a sort of party house and a pond out beyond with a dock and rowboats. Maine smelled like home, Ohio, and I liked that.

The place had been a summer retreat and camp in the early part of the century but had evolved into a bunch of different families coming and going all summer and fall. All the little cottages were stuffed full of interesting people and I'd say there were perhaps a dozen people in Guy's alone.

I didn't need the two bottles on Canadian Club I had in my pants. It's a good party if you end up not needing two bottles of booze. It was a hulluva weekend. I could go on about it but another memory comes to mind, a bit softer, more delicate... weirder.

I do need to back up a little. I have spent a life being naive, I'm used to it. I end up on dates I didn't know I was on, in places I should not have been; I bought a bag of moss once - and damn near smoked it, I even ate chicken feet. So, it actually came as no surprise when, about halfway through the rolling hills of Maine, I realized I was the hired help for the weekend, the bartender and helper guy, to Guy. Yeah, I should be embarrassed, but, hey, at least I figured it out there in the end. Guy was nice about it, he said maybe he hadn't been clear. I mean, we were friends and all, but, in retrospect I guess I should have wondered why a big time ad exec would invite me, a boy bartender from Mason, for a weekend at his Maine Summer house. Alright, maybe I am a little embarrassed, but...

There was a big party Saturday night, the first night I was there, and a more intimate gathering on Sunday during the day and early evening. Truly, I don't remember all the details, but what happened in the morning on Monday was pretty unforgettable.

I woke up to a pot of coffee and no food. I was standing in the kitchen drinking it black and I looked back off behind the house, past a fire pit, just where the trees began to get thick again, conifers and wildly red and yellow maples. Guy was standing in a pair of pajamas and a robe talking. Now this was in the days well before cellphones and bluetooth so I wondered what he was doing.

He came back up and I asked him what he was doing and he said he been talking to a moose. Well, this didn't surprise me that much. You see, he had a dog, a mixed sort of Golden retriever thing who he called "Dave Norton" like it was one word, Davenorton. It seemed natural that a man whose dog had a last name would talk to moose. I asked him what the moose had said and all he said was: "Scrapel."

I was hungry and immediately thought of the pork and oats breakfast meat. I was way off. Well, sort of...

It turns out Scrapel is a sort of mock apple pie treat invented up there in the woods of Maine some thirty or forty years ago. At it's most basic, I gathered it was torn up bread, apple sauce and milk in a bowl. Understand, I knew none of this at the time.

We were not going to have "basic Scrapel."

He has returned in jeans and a red flanel shirt.

"Let's go Scrapelling," is all he says.

All I’ve got is a getting colder cup of black coffee, an empty belly, and a whole morning to occupy before we head to the train station in... (I thought if I snuck up on it I might remember the town in Maine.)

"Alright," is my response, "let's go."

"First to The Widow Hazel's cottage, she should have some bread."

"The Widow Hazel's it is..."

The summer camp is set in a circle on a well-worn gravel road. The buildings all face an open meadow with a few trees and an old flagless flagpole, the top pulley dangling and bumping against it in the wind making that funny, difficult to discern clang all flagpoles make. The bigger main building is sort of in the center of the loop, facing the drive as it comes in, the pond behind it.

Instead of going across the green, Guy and Davenorton and I go out the back door and scurry through back yards and end up at the widow's back kitchen door. I'm catching on that all the cottages are the same. The Widow Hazel is maybe fifty or so and comes to the door in a robe and little else.

"Why, Little Guy and that cute young bartender from your party and Davenorton. Which Davenorton is this?" she says patting the dog while eying me uncomfortably.

"Mom thinks six," Guy says. "Listen, we're Scrapelling this morning and I was wondering if you had some bread."

"Scrapelling!? Well, I'll be damned.  Did you see the moose? Yes, I have a few loaves in my freezer. Why don't you come in and get it for me sweetie?" She is looking right at me.

"I wouldn't if I were you, " Guy whispers under his breath. The widow laughs and sort of coughs a bit and turns into the kitchen. "The Widow Hazel has been trying for years to get a young man in her kitchen, we were always told to not go in there. But, she always makes extra loaves of oat bread when she bakes and freezes them."

"Uh, for, uh... Scrapel, right." I'm new here.

"Yes, of course."

Davenorton barks as she returns with two big stainless steel silver bowls each holding two loaves of frozen bread. "Have fun," she says, "Old man Templeton should have some chunky sauce, his sister made some just last week, I could smell it."

We head on down the cottages, passing maybe five or so. Neighbors wave, some smile, a family of four gives us a thumbs up and someone says something about The Big House.

We come up on a porch behind a house and knock loudly. An older man, seventy, eighty, comes to the door in a plaid bathrobe. A cigarette jumps in his hands and his face is a little contorted, a stroke I guess correctly.

"Hey, Mr. T," Guy says loudly, Davenorton barks again. I am under the impression that the damn dog knows what's going on better than I do.

The old man looks at that dog and says, "What can I do for you, Davenorton?"

"We need some chunky sauce and The Widow Hazel said your sister made some a while back."

"Are ya Scrapelling?"

"Indeed." Guy says, smiling. I swear the dog nods his head.

"Well, lemme see what I got, Davenorton..."

He returns with four Mason jars and puts them in our bowls, two each. Each has a hand-printed label that says "CHUNKY Sauce: for SCRAPEL. Fall '86"

"Now remember, Davenorton, there's no damn nutmeg in that. If you want nutmeg just a little right before ya eat it. Nutmeg don't cook well and gets in everything."

We wander on down, off the porch and towards the pond.

"Mr. T is, well was, the caretaker here. He was a strapping man when I was younger, he organized the games and parties and all for years. He's had a couple of strokes and sometimes gets a little confused, his sister's boys look after things and he winters in Florida these days. He never married, lots of stories about that. He named my first dog Davenorton, man, forty or more years ago. He says he invented Scrapel, but then, so do all the oldtimers."

I am lost. I wonder if I am on a Snipe hunt, or if this is an elegant practical joke or what. But, I like Guy, I like the people here, I like the mystery of it, the silliness of it.

"What exactly is Scrapel," I ask.

"You'll see..."

It gets weirder.

We put our big bowls on the dock, in the sun, and head out down beyond the pond to a fence.

"Ayup. If it ain't Guy Norton and his dog. Who's this young feller with ya?"

"Just a friend up from the big city, Mr. Ambrose."

"Ayup. I heard you was a'Scrapelling. Here's four quarts a'cream I milked just this morning and some fresh Braeburns. I'll head around in a bit"

He hands over the fence an old wire handled milk carrier, circa 1939, complete with glass bottles with those clippy tops, like Grolsch beer used to come in, and an old box with maybe eight or so large, fragrant apples in them.

We cross the grass, our feet wet, Davenorton wet and smelly and happy.

I still don't quite get it. We go to retrieve the bowls and bread and "chunky sauce" but, before we do, we go out on the dock and watch the mist come off the water for a half hour or so. A slow commotion seems to rise in the main building behind us. A couple of cars roll up, kids are running and laughing, dogs without last names bark and run.

"Well, it's time," Guy says, "Let's head on up."

"For Scrapel?" I ask. Still confused.

"Ayup," Guys answers.

The main building has a big deck behind it and we climb steps up to it. I notice smoke fills the early morning fall air as it billows out of a chimney. A set of old French doors is open and we walk in awkwardly with our bowls and jars and boxes and bottles.

"Davenorton!" Everyone cheers at the same time. And by everyone, I mean everyone.

"Soon as I heard I put the flag up," Mr. T tells Davenorton.

I am beyond bewildered at this point, but, the whole thing is beyond me... not for me.

A Mr. Evans says he's got the syrup, "fresh this spring" he says. Mrs. Thompson has honey and there are walnuts from trees right here in the complex. A table is laden with crockery bowls and spoons and more loaves of bread and gallons of milk and berries and yogurt and flowers and coffee urns and a pot of hot chocolate and...

Somehow, sometime in the history of this little corner of Maine, on a Monday, a family didn't have anything for breakfast. A little boy wanted apple pie. A neighbor had a stale loaf of oat bread, another a jar of chunky applesauce, another some fresh cream. It was decided that they'd gather whatever they all had and "Scrapelling" was born. Some years later a flag was made that went up whenever it was a Scrapelday.

There were good-natured feuds, syrup versus honey, nutmeg or not, nuts or plain, berries or peaches or fresh, thinly sliced Braeburn apples still cool from the night wind.

So, basically, you tear up some hearty bread, put it in a bowl, add some "chunky sauce" and cream. I had mine with maple syrup, apple slices and walnuts.

Mr. T grated some nutmeg on right before I ate it. He was right, it was the only way to do it.

I learned a lot that day. I learned about tradition and community. I learned about love and respect. I learned how something silly and trivial can become something big and important.

I stood there, bowl in hand, The Widow Hazel standing next to me, trying to lure me into the kitchen and said, to no one in particular.

"This would be good with a chunk of cheddar cheese..."

A groan went up from the crowd. The widow actually hugged me, something she'd been trying at for an hour or so already.  How had they never thought of that? A mother sent a young boy to a cottage nearby and he came back with a perfect triangle of sharp Vermont cheddar.

I hope when that flag goes up, somewhere in Maine, that that beautiful, perfect tradition now includes a chunk of cheddar. I'd like that...

So, two stories, the first hard to tell, so, I'll just let it wait for another day.  The second?

Well, there's a little more to the second story.  There's a lot more to it actually... or, well, there could be.  You see, I made it up.

Well, why the hell would I do that?

It all started innocently enough.  Some folks were talking about strange things to eat on FB the other day.  One of the guys from Plaid Dad Blog, a newish blog with a lot of enthusiasm and character, wrote this:  "Scrapel. My father used to take a piece of bread, crumble it into a bowl, and mix it with milk, applesauce, and maple syrup and call it poor man's apple pie."  I commented "that is the best 30 word story ever told."

And, I couldn't get it out of my mind.  I actually made some Scrapel with a butt of a demi-baguette, apple sauce, honey and milk.  I added walnuts.  It was pretty good, but, I wanted to make it better. 

On the original thread I'd goofed around with the idea as a children's book.  I said:  "New title, "Scrapel Guy." Guy Norton and his dog Dave - Dave Norton - travel through rural Maine gathering ingredients for his "scrapel" from colorful locals including, and not limited to, a talking moose, a fingerless farmer, a hapless bachelor and a innuendo-riddled widow. I think there's a duck, too..."

Well, I left out the duck.

So, that's one reason I did it. 

I hadn't written any fiction in a while and I thought it might be fun.  I've written a novel and a half and I wanted to revisit that feeling, if that makes any sense. 

But, there's a deeper reason I did it.  You see, I am trying to figure out where to go next around here.  Don't worry, it won't be silly non-sequitur fiction like this, but it may be stories from my past written in a memoir style and that, that, is what I wanted to confront.  It is easy and tempting to make up a past, especially when you are older.  No one is around to fact check me.  There is no way to know if any of this is true.  Except for one thing.  I'm not doing this for me, or you, I'm doing it for Nick and Zack.  Oh, I know, yes, I enjoy an audience right now, and, frankly, writing this was a ton of fun - more fun that writing the truth, perhaps.

So, I want to say this.  As I go forward, and back, as I tell my stories and continue to tell theirs, I promise to tell the truth, as best I can.  Can I guarantee every fact?  I can't.  But, I can try.

The sad truth is that anyone writing in this medium can lie.  Some have been busted for it and I often find myself doubting the truth of many who write blogs, even folks I know.  This is a freewheeling forum, anything goes and I understand that.

I was watching an indie film on PBS, Independent Lens I think the show is called, about a Chinese dissident artist.  The filmmaker asked him why he didn't just lie to get some permissions or licenses he needed for a large installation he was working on.  "I'm fifty-four years old, buddy, I don't have time for lies."

And neither do I...

Thanks, I kept you too long again.  Oh well.  Peace to you.


  1. Despite the fact that it's fiction, it has a lot of your usual overtones. I liked it - even though it's not for me. I'd go for more fiction.

    1. I wonder what Larry means by "even though it's not for me." Thanks for coming around good sir.