Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Butcher's Kiss

I have a kitchen angel. He's been with me in every apartment I've ever had, watching over culinary endeavors from his spot on the wall, giving a blessing in the form of a kiss. The angel was once a living man, a butcher in a small grocery near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street in New York City. His name was Frank, and he was captured through the lens of my mother's camera in the 1980s. In black and white, his portly frame leans toward the viewer, lips puckered and hand lifted in the moment of having blown a kiss. He's in his stained whites, paper hat on his head, an average workday. There's a story behind the photo, and I remember it this way: My mother was taking a photography class, and for an assignment she was focusing on service industry workers on their breaks, "taking five" from the demands of their jobs. I am pretty certain Frank was part of this series, along with a shoeshine man named Neal—his chair in front of the N/R subway entrance on 57th Street—and also a woman in a Chinese laundry, bent over her ironing board. The photos really capture the day's pauses, taken with leisure, humor, or only partial acquiescence to the idea of repose. Frank worked with some other guys at the butcher counter where my mother sometimes shopped. She asked him if she could take his picture, and without warning he blew his spontaneous kiss at the decisive moment. My mother returned to the store some time later (days or weeks, I don't know), and she took a print of the photograph with her. I don't recall if that was the time when Frank first was absent, or if he accepted the photo. Either way, it ended up hung on the wall behind the counter. And then one day, it was no longer there, nor was Frank. My mother found out from the other butchers that he had passed away, and that Frank's widow, who saw the photo and loved it, had requested to take it home, which was of course impossible to refuse. The guys asked my mother for another print to replace the one that used to hang in their workspace, and she obliged, happily but with sadness, too. Frank's kiss had been a good-bye kiss, unbeknownst to everyone except perhaps him. I don't really remember Frank, though I assume I met him. I will always remember this story, though, and how it touched my mom, gave us all a shiver and a bow to fate. All these years later, despite being hopeless with meat—I can't remember my cuts, don't own a proper butcher knife—I have Frank to watch over me, and my kitchen has always felt comforting for his presence.

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