Before he came to Los Angeles to die, my cousin Lloyd lived in a courtyard apartment in Oakland. He was 34. That year, the doctors diagnosed his twitchy arm and
trippy legs as Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He saw a specialist at UC San Francisco who believed in telling The Truth: Lloyd’s perfect surfer’s body would grow slack and useless. His witty, insightful speech would slur, then disappear. His bodily functions would give out one by one. He would become a helpless man. And then, within two years, he would die. Lloyd was my cousin. He was also my best friend. He was four years older than me, but we shared a devotion to absurd humor, mysterious women, wine beyond our means and excellent food.
At first, friends told Lloyd his ALS was Epstein-Barr virus, a disease causing debilitating weakness that a lot of driven, successful yuppies seemed to be getting. We knew that it couldn’t be that — neither of us was remotely successful or especially driven. I was writing unproduced plays, supporting myself as a cook and caterer, dreaming about being a writer. Lloyd had a day job doing page layout for a weekly thowaway sports magazine and was dreaming of being a musician. Or a writer. Or an artist. He was good at it all. But he was, like me, best at dreaming.
While Lloyd lived in Oakland, I shared a Lower Haight Street townhouse with two men I never quite figured out. One of them worked for a medical messenger service, transporting false teeth. The other stayed home and experimented with sourdough bread recipes, reading Tolstoy during the hours and hours it took the dough to rise.
We were all of a kind, men bubbling up around 30, waiting for some wild yeast to waft in through the window, land on our lives and transform us into something fully risen.
Long before he took ill, Lloyd and I spent whatever money we had left over after paying rent on eating well. We ate burritos made with handmade tortillas at La Perla, a family-owned storefront in the Mission District.
We bought toe-curling, overripe taleggio from one of the precious gourmet stores springing up like crocuses from the grave of old hippie Berkeley. On payday we’d splurge for a meal at Oliveto, or go back again and again to eat the salad with ginger and garlic and raw peanuts at the only Burmese place we’d ever seen. One workday morning, we breakfasted on pancakes at the Eagle Cafe, and followed through on our dare to wash them down with Anchor Steams. For dinner, we met up at a Hunan place in Chinatown, trading future savings for immediate greens with garlic and chili. That was how our 20s got away from us — in restaurants.
Eventually I moved, first to Israel, then to Los Angeles. That’s where I was living, as a newlywed, when Dr. Truth broke the news to Lloyd. I flew up to hang out with him. We ate out once, at a Nuevo-Mexican place.
By then, Lloyd was on a regimen of vile, gut-wrenching Chinese herbal tea. Even so, he buckled and drank some Herradura with me in honor of the time we took a train through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, drinking tequila in bars where men wore actual six-shooters.
At the restaurant, Lloyd asked me to take him to the men’s room and stand right behind him at the urinal so he wouldn’t fall backward. When another man walked in and looked at us with disgust — Couldn’t you guys find a room? — we faked a moment of loud sexual ecstasy. After that, Lloyd found it easier to take meals at his bungalow apartment in Oakland. He could barely chew, was losing weight rapidly, and most of his meals consisted of cans of Ensure, which he said tasted almost as good as the Chinese herbs.
The night before I was to return to my life in Los Angeles, he asked me to cook real food. I didn’t know how much longer Lloyd would live. I didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to swallow solid food, how many more meals we would share.
My wife and I kept a kosher home, but I chose to make what I knew Lloyd would love: grilled fresh squid, the spicy Italian seafood stew cioppino and sourdough bread. The two of us sat down to eat, a bottle of zinfandel — far better than I could afford — between us. He scooped up a piece of rockfish from the cioppino, chewed it very slowly and smiled.
“Ah,” he said, and his blue eyes lit up.
Lloyd would live another year, and we would eat together often, but that was our last perfect meal. It was the closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding what Christians mean when they speak of a sacrament, the physical manifestation of a spiritual reality.
When he died, I was beside him. Lloyd’s last words to me were, “This is it.”
You would think that instant would be the one lodged most prominently in my memory, but it isn’t. My mind always goes back to the squid, the cioppino, the zinfandel. Those, at least, are real. His death never seems to be.
Lloyd’s Cioppino (Kosher Version)
This is the version of cioppino I made for Lloyd, minus the shrimp, mussels, scallops and clams). If you want to go authentic, substitute some of the fish for a mix of fresh, cleaned shellfish.
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 stalk celery, diced
1 small carrot, diced
one-half c. olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 t. fresh oregano
1 t. fresh thyme
1/2 t. crushed red chili pepper or more to taste
1 t. salt
fresh ground pepper
2 cans high quality Italian peeled and crushed tomatoes
1 T. tomato paste
1 c. Italian dry white wine or Prosecco
2 c. water or fish stock
3 pounds mixed ocean fish and shellfish, cut into large chunks (Use a mix of very fresh filets of rockfish,cod,halibut,sea bass,mullet, tuna, albacore
—don’t use salmon or very oily fish)
In a large soup pot, heat olive oil until almost smoking. Add all vegetables and herbs, except tomatoes, and saute until soft, about 10 minutes. Add wine, cook 3 minutes, then add tomatoes, fish stock or water, bring to boil, then lower flame and simmer 20 minutes, until flavors meld.
Add fish, stir once to blend, cover and simmer until fish is cooked, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low simmer until ready to serve.
Serve in big bowls with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a drizzle of great fruity olive oil, and plenty of great sourdough bread.