Can’t Forget the Motor City
As Detroit finally came into view, from my seat just in front of the wing, I got a glimpse, not so very far to the East, of the thunderstorm system that had kept us at Chicago/Midway for four and one-half hours past our original scheduled departure time. I’d had it all planned out to watch game 4, Lakers-Pistons, from the hotel bar, if there was one, and if not, to call room service and order in a sandwich and some beer. If I have to be two thousand miles from home on a Sunday night, it’s great to have a good excuse to act like a local. And hell, I spent three years of my life in this neck of the woods, back in my ramblin’ days, back when being footloose and devoid of any visible means of support seemed like a fairly innocent and honorable state.
Well, like all the best-laid plans, my expectations for the evening required some adjustment. It was around 11pm when I reached the hotel; there was no bar, and room service had long since tucked itself in for the night. I spotted a mini-mart at a gas station down the street, but it turned out they didn’t sell any beer, and the food situation there was completely hopeless, as well. In keeping with my act-local theme, I grabbed a very large bottle of water, and a big bag of KC Masterpiece barbecue potato chips. Even thus deprived, I still got to watch most of the second half, and, not being an LA-type of guy, I have to say I was pleased with the outcome.
It had been long enough since I’d last been in the neighborhood, that, in spite of remembering certain features of the landscape as though I’d never been gone, I felt I’d gained considerable perspective. It’s still hot and humid in early June, it can still rain Biblical torrents quicker than you can tie your shoes. There’s a certain languor in a bunch of kids eating ice cream along the sidewalk outside a neighborhood store; you can feel the way they’ve come to terms with sweating, they don’t even think about it. Me, I’m just glad for air-conditioning.
But I came here to work, didn’t I? So, after scoping out the local espresso possibilities, bright and early Monday morning, I climbed into the car of Mike Kuhn, who’d recently taken over the GM position for my Michigan distributor, Veritas. Mike is a retired chemist, if I remember right, who has a talent for managing, and a real love for good wine. More importantly, he’s a really good guy, and you can never have too many of those.
Mike and I spent the day combing the suburbs to the Northwest of Detroit, tasting some wines with a few retailers, and a couple of restaurant wine buyers. We had to wait out a howling deluge at Napa Marketplace, a retail store that had a tin roof, the kind that turns any cloudburst into something that makes you glad to be inside. Loud doesn’t start to describe it.
We ended up having supper at a hot-spot in Birmingham, just a couple of blocks from where I was staying, a place called Forté. As it turns out, Forté is only about a block and a half from the hotel where the Lakers were staying.
We tasted at Forté with Liz, who seemed to wear many hats that evening, including that of the primary host for the dining room. She informed us, early in the evening, that Phil Jackson, the Lakers’ coach, would be dining there on this evening, in a private dining room. I wondered, later, whether I would have noticed him, when he came in with his family. His voice was certainly recognizable, as he tried to make sure Liz knew that they were to be in a private dining room. Who could blame him?
But something else there had caught my attention; at the table just behind where Mike sat, there were a couple of familiar faces. One of them I was sure I recognized, but I couldn’t remember the name attached to that face until Tuesday evening, after Game 5 had ended. The other one was either Isaiah Thomas, or his identical twin brother Ichabod.
Tuesday was Ann Arbor day. Ann Arbor was my Berkeley-away-from-Berkeley, back in the late 60’s. I lived there, for a spell, with the first people in the United States to refuse to pay taxes to support the Vietnam War. They were really just typical midwesterners, when all was said and done. Down-to-earth, frugal, believed in motherhood and apple pie. They introduced me to broccoli and brussel sprouts. He was a first cousin, once removed, of T.S. Eliot. She was everyone’s Jewish mother, even though she was a Quaker.
While I was in town, on this trip, I called up their house. (For some reason, their phone number is still emblazoned in my memory) Jo Eliot had died, back in ’01, and I hadn’t heard from Fran since then, but I guessed there might still be some chance she’d be there, even in her 80s. A male voice answered.
“Is this the Eliot residence?” I asked.
He was cordial; “Are you a friend of the family?”
“Yes,” I said, “but from kind of a long time ago.” I gave a brief explanation, and said I was hoping I might speak with Fran.
“Actually,” he said, poignantly, “Fran’s on the phone.”
“Who’s this?” asked Fran.
“Hi, Fran; it’s Steve Edmunds.”
“Oh. Oh…How are you?”
“I’m really well. I’m so glad to hear your voice. How are you?”
“Well… Ummh…well, maybe not so good as you sound like you are… I’ve got Alzheimer’s. So. Uh, uhmmm…this is…Steve who?”
“It’s Steve Edmunds.” I was suddenly aware that she might not have any recollection of me at all. And that that would be ok. And that, ok or not, it would be a grievous loss.
There was a pause of, maybe, six seconds; then she said, “Winemaster?”
The last time I’d seen Fran and Jo, I’d taken them out for dinner at an Ann Arbor restaurant that carried our wine; I’d done it as a kind of grand gesture of thanks, for all the ways I’d felt cared for, even rescued, by them when I was footloose and devoid of any visible means of support. But my participation in the wine business had begun long after my sojourn in Michigan had ended, so it was curious to me that that was the link for Fran. Even so, she’d retrieved the connection!
The other part of my conversation with her that has stayed with me was her sense of humor (which was always, perhaps, her strongest suit, her way of reminding others of her and their connectedness. In this case the humor came by way of her repeated assertion that she was just trying to “keep all her marbles together,” and, communicating, almost palpably, how easily they seemed to get separated. Her voice went through me like lightning through wire.
One of my sales stops in Ann Arbor was the West End Grille, a most familiar looking spot, which, it turns out, was formerly “Mr Flood’s Party,” a tavern (named after the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem) where University of Michigan grads and faculty hung out on weekends, and where I once played and sang Hank Williams’ tunes along with my good friend from those days, Michael Smith. Michael and I had originally hooked up in Ann Arbor at a place called the Ark, a traditional acoustic music venue now in its third or fourth incarnation. The only paying gig I ever had was at the Ark, back in June, 1970, when Michael and I, and Steve Newhouse played. (I remember Steve mainly because he played pedal steel; a pedal steel player, to someone who sings Hank Williams, is like the guy who hands the grease to the guy who greases lightning. Or something. Michael started a band back in those “Mr Floods'” days, and they still play together, in different configurations. They’re known as the “Cadillac Cowboys,” and their album, which shows them, on its cover, in front of “Mr. Floods’ Party,” is available through cdbaby.com; Michael refers to it as “adult saloon music.”)
photo by Michael Smith
I’d arranged before I left Berkeley, to get together with Michael, and, right after my last sales call in downtown Ann Arbor, I was deposited “chez Smith,” where I ate a delicious, home-cooked supper with Michael and Barbara, drank some good wine, and played some tunes, until, alas, the moon turned into a pumpkin, and I had to be whisked back to Birmingham, there to catch the last quarter of Game 5, the icing on the cake.
After that fateful game came to an end, I saw again the face I’d seen at Forté, which I’d struggled to recognize. It was David Stern, the NBA Commissioner. Which made me think, again, that it was, indeed, Isaiah I’d seen at his table, not Ichabod.
Wednesday’s first appointment was a tasting/tête-a-tête with Madeline Triffon, Master Sommelier, and animating force behind the wines at the Unique group of restaurants. Madeline is truly one of the great, bright lights of this business, and has always been a great supporter of Edmunds St. John. The Unique Group has a great new restaurant, Coach Insignia, opening this Fall in the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Detroit.
There was a brief period, later in the day, Wednesday, when I was afraid I might not be able to fly home Thursday—there were predictions of yet more Biblical rain, and flooding. (Good thing Noah is our grandson). The storm, as it turned out, lasted all of about 20 minutes.
The day ended at what I’m told is one of Michigan’s greatest restaurants, a place called Tribute. Based on the meal I had there, I’d have to imagine it must be true; it’s a heck of a good place to eat. And the wine guy there, Rick Jewell, he’s no slouch, by golly. They’ve got some good wine on their list, even some of ours!
It’s interesting, in an unusual kind of way, to find my wines for sale in an area I called home so long ago, during a seminal period in my life, but where I’ve spent almost no time for over 30 years. I feel almost like I have a double life. But hey, that’s probably not even the half of it.
Seems like everywhere I go,
I can never get enough… (Wildfire, March 2004)