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January 24, 2011

Dining With Nina

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If you ever meet my friend Nina, don’t rhyme her name with Deena because I will be hearing about it for a month.  Her name rhymes with Dinah. We went out to dinner the other night.  We talked about a dismal blog entry I was wrestling with.  By the time we had turned the topic inside out, I decided to scrap it and write about Nina instead.

I have known Nina for 30 years.  Her daughter, Jocelyn, was in my Pinkers group when I taught music at Perkins Pre-School in the early 1980’s.  I thought of her as “that cool mom.” We got to know each other better during the ten years that Jocelyn took private piano lessons from me.

We’ve been doing the restaurant circuit since the year we both committed to using as many coupons out of the Entertainment book as was reasonable.   Neither of us needed the hair implants, for instance.  Every six weeks or so, we decided it was time to go out to dinner.  We each hoped the other one would go through the Entertainment book and pick a restaurant.  We usually went through it together while on the phone.  Now that the Entertainment book is as watered down as a bad Old Fashioned, we use Groupons or the Chinook book or other middle-class mollifications.

We’ve been to Rock Salt, McCormick and Schmidt, The Rickshaw (yes, we have), 125th St Grill, Berkshire Grill, The Library Café, The Rusty Pelican, Thai Siam, Ivars, Palimino, Rositas.   Nina is from Montana.  She grew up on a cattle ranch and  likes her steak.  I’m a Pacific Northwest native so I usually get fish. We were more adventurous before I started having digestion issues.

Food, however, is not why we go.  We go to get our money’s worth.

We want to maximize the value of the coupon on principle.  If the coupon is for the 2nd entrée free up to $20, then we aren’t allowed to waste it on an entrée of fish and chips for $15.  We try to approximate two entrees for at least $20 each.  One of us usually says magnanimously, “You know what?  You get whatever you want.” But we don’t mean it.

When we first sit down, I always ask the waitperson to turn down the music.  Then I want a glass of water with no ice.  Nina smiles and stares ahead of her while I get my quirks out of the way.  Then she orders an Old Fashioned.  Nina used to instruct the bartenders while I looked out the window or pretended to read the menu.  Now that this classic drink is back in fashion, mixologists know how to make it properly, but this wasn’t the case ten years ago.  Even today Nina specifies still water and enough whiskey.

“An Old Fashioned is not a drink to be watered down with goddamn fizzy water,” she says sotto voce.

Dessert is a continual problem which we have not yet resolved.  Here comes the waitperson with an evil grin and the dessert menu.  We look at each other.

“Do you want to split one?”

“I am just the right amount of full and dessert will spoil that.”

“They never are as good as they sound.”

“We should go out for just dessert sometime.”

We are like actors in a long running play, saying the same lines.  For years we said our lines and ordered dessert anyway.   Lately we have gotten better at not ordering it in the first place.  I bring a couple of pieces of hard candy or chocolate for our Afters.

“Just a little something to let your mouth know the meal is over,” Nina says.

Nina contributed to the dessert one weekend when I was with her at her Montana ranch.  She collected the mail, and bought a gallon of milk and a huge tub of Wilcoxson’s vanilla ice cream at the Melville store.  “Downtown” Melville consists of a post office/ store/lunch counter.  And a public telephone booth that was used by Robert Redford in a scene from The Horse Whisperer.  Actually I think the phone booth was just a prop.

On the way back to the ranch house at the far end of Home Valley, we stopped at the home of Dave and Laurie who live on the ranch.  We were coming back later that evening for dinner with ice cream to supplement gooseberry pie.  I sat in the air-conditioned car while Nina ran in with the mail and the milk.

When she climbed back into the car, I asked, “Why didn’t you leave the ice cream?  Is it because they don’t have a big enough freezer?”

“No,” she said, “It’s because it’s my ice cream.”

If the ice cream were to spend the afternoon at Laurie and Dave’s, it would subtly, in those few hours, become their ice cream and then we couldn’t take the leftovers home.  I got it.

There’s this thing about ownership and fairness that comes up when we pay the restaurant bill.  The discount complicates things. Neither of us wants to pay more than our fair share of the bill.  To be perfectly frank, I wouldn’t mind paying slightly less.  At the end of the meal, out comes the tip chart, the calculator, pens and scraps of paper, our cash and credit cards.  We each do our own calculations and work out something amenable.

When I made out my will, I named Nina my executor. “We can never travel together,” I told her. “Because we have to remain friends.”

I haven’t died yet.  The friendship and the dinners are working out just fine.

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