Friday, October 2, 2009

Now that's service.

Many, many years ago, maybe 1989 or so, I was living in Wooster, Ohio.  I was in my first teaching job at a small, private liberal arts college in a midsized, practical, midwestern town.

I was teaching German cinema and finishing my dissertation and had found a dear friend in Elizabeth. Both of us struggled mightily with making a life in a place where our way of being in the world--brazenly devoted to beautiful food, personal adornment, much laughter, and, well, just generally EXCESSIVE in every way--seemed so counter to the culture.

We made common cause. We threw lavish dinner parties, and shared two apartments in one house, and spent Saturday mornings in our bathrobes eating croissants and drinking cappuccino out of her handpainted majolica imported from Italy.  Of Italian extraction herself, Elizabeth had quite a collection of dishes, and I admired them regularly.  At one point, her sister Teresa must have witnessed my envy, because soon she made me a gift of one of these cups.  Was it my birthday? I don't remember.

But after a while, I had my own collection. Piece by piece, friends added to it--every birthday a cup or a plate, larger serving dishes for larger landmarks.  Most of the pieces came from a little store on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, where I spent a good portion of my 1993 fall sabbatical. By that time, Elizabeth had left Wooster for good, and she was gracious enough to let me camp in the front room of her Bernal Heights home (underneath her landlord, whose devotion to Steely Dan knew no boundaries of time or volume).  There I pounded away on an article for the Women in German Yearbook and boarded BART several days a week to go over to the Berkeley campus and imagine that my Visiting Scholar status meant something fancier than, essentially, library privileges.

Where Prufrock measured out his life in coffeespoons, Elizabeth and I measured out that fall in dollars spent on culinary adventures up one side and down the other of the Bay Area.  Greens?  Did it.  Chez Panisse?  Of course.  And the dinner parties, oh, the dinner parties.

And still, we had our touchstone, which was Biordi.  We'd drive to North Beach in Elizabeth's Saturn, park, and either have a little lunch or coffee, or maybe wander around City Lights Books.  Each trip was different, but each ended with our noses pressed to the windowpane of Biordi.

Since that time, I have added to my collection by poring over the annual catalog that comes in the mail.  Occasionally, a friend will still send me a piece, or--as in the case a few years ago--I took my own trip to Italy and returned home with some bowls wrapped in articles of clothing.

This past December, I was in San Francisco again for a conference.  On my last day in town, my friend Joseph drove me to North Beach and I went into Biordi to see about making a purchase of plain salad plates and plain pasta bowls.  Because the dinner plates and cups and serving pieces are so ornate, I had started purchasing unpainted salad and pasta bowls, but I only had four of each (and eight each of the cups and plates).  The store seemed unchanged since 1993, and Gianfranco located my "record" in his index file box.  All my purchases were still noted there, and I was given a respectful acknowledgment for being a steadfast customer over the years.  I made my order, paid for it, left my mailing address, and left with a promise of a box of dishes from Italy about three months hence.

April came and went, as did the first part of the summer.  Then a phone call came, with an apology--turns out the order from Italy was all wrong, and we would have to start over.  Finally a box arrived, but it contained plain dinner plates.  Still wrong!

After several phone calls and e-mails, I got this note from Gianfranco:

I am going to Italy in two week and this time
I will ship them myself (if I have room in my suitcase I will take them here
with me on 9/22). Again my apologies!


Today, a box arrived.  It contained the right dishes.  They were wrapped in Gianfranco's shirt.

I was stunned.  The shirt off his back cradled my dishes all the way from Italy back to the west coast.  I'll send it back to him now, but I can't help thinking that it's probably the most improbable and charming gesture of customer service I will ever encounter.

And somehow in keeping with a man who sells beautiful vessels for the breaking of bread among friends.

The cup is Teresa.  The serving bowls are Elizabeth.  The coffee urn is Karen for my dissertation celebration. The small bowls are Italy and my parents and brother and sister-in-law and I sitting around a table drinking Santa Cristina (oh, that's just table wine, Bellissima!).  Each dish has been plated with something delicious and served to my family of friends in Wooster, in Memphis, in St. Peter, in Seattle.  Laughter has surrounded them, and love.  Hands, not only mine, have carefully, oh, so carefully, washed them in warm suds as the last wine is being passed around late at night.

Now I will wash the new plates and add them to the collection.  They have a tall order to fill, if they are to compete with their china cabinet mates for happiness plated and served.

They've got a good start.

1 comment:

Jo said...


Simply put, I LOVE reading your "blogs." You are one talented gal!