Chowder

The Last Soup of Allen Ginsberg
by Sarah Tomlinson

My sister and I have always loved the Jews. That’s why when she got sick, I knew I had to steal Allen Ginsberg’s soup for her.

I wouldn’t have had to steal anything if Isaac had stuck around. My sister met him on J Date last year, and he more than lived up to his profile—raised on the Upper East Side, junior partner at one of the big Manhattan firms, New York Times subscriber, source of insider secrets about bagels and rugelach, last name Berman.

She always got everything first. Breasts. A boyfriend. We grew up in Maine loving Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, all the major Jews, and all they stood for. It was the ritual, the sense of belonging. Her name, Johanna, was from a Dylan song. Mine, Lilly, from a flower. We were raised by hippies, which was lovely in the moment, where hippies usually lived. When life got rough, though, it might have been nice to have something to turn to besides Jefferson Airplane.

I didn’t meet anyone who was Jewish until I went away to college. I don’t think my sister did either. She went to Barnard. That’s when she fell in love with her first Jew. He took her home for Shabbat dinner.

Like my idol, Bette Davis, I went to Boston University. When I was worried about an exam, I walked to The Public Garden and studied at the foot of the statue for which she was rumored to have been an artist’s model as a teenager. I was superstitious, maybe, but at least I was applying myself. As soon as I graduated, I followed my sister to the land of God’s chosen people—New York City, with its bagels and schmears, its hot muggy nights that left schmutz in my pores.

My sister got a real job before me. I was still serving limp, overpriced linguine to tourists wearing fanny packs in the theater district when she landed a position at some prestigious public relations agency. She had her own office with a view, a secretary. I delegate too – busboys don’t just run themselves. But it was like she was a grownup or something, and she was still younger than me — she got invited to all of these fancy parties. She owned Louis Vuitton. She took cabs.

So of course when she met Isaac, I knew she was going to be the first to get married, too. And start a family. Get one of those double strollers that can hold a toddler and a baby at the same time. Buy a prewar condo in Park Slope. The kind with a doorman downstairs who tips his hat to you and calls you Madame, authentic crown moldings, a fireplace, those highly polished hardwood floors that creak in just the right way, like the sound of comforting familial routine, not the sound of someone creeping stealthily across your bedroom to stab your eyes out.

But, then, Isaac went away and ran the whole schedule right off the rails. I was as shocked as Johanna. She had never been denied anything. She was the only underclassman to get a lead when we did Grease my senior year. With her naturally blond hair, bubblegum soprano, and well, yes, her breasts, she was Sandy of course.

At thirty-two, Isaac found himself up against some heavy shit compared to what he’d thought was the apex of stress in their relationship just then; breaking it to his parents that his girlfriend wasn’t Jewish. Seven months in, he found himself facing down the kind of bad news that no one plans for, the kind of bad news that very well might have shaken his faith. What had started as a sore throat-headache-rash combo had led Johanna to the hospital, and a diagnosis of scarlet fever, turned to rheumatic fever, and then heart failure. No, we didn’t live in a covered wagon. But we’d somehow fallen into a no-mans-land beyond the miracles of modern medicine.

And so Isaac didn’t give my sister the ring we all knew he’d bought for her at Tiffany’s, like the good boy he was, or had been up until then. He didn’t bring her his Bubbe’s Matzo ball soup, or at least get her takeaway from Katz’s. He didn’t have his congregation say prayers for her swift recovery at temple. He didn’t hold her hair out of her face while she puked from the antibiotics. I had to step in.

I was mad at first, but not at Isaac. He was the first person to ever make us equal in anything. This had been pretty much the only area of life I’d experienced first: getting my heart broken. Up until Isaac, Johanna had never undergone the indignity of having a guy break up with her. So she had to learn everything from me. Like the right number of Manhattans it took to feel fake better without tipping into the region where you were susceptible to sad thoughts. It was one point five. Finish that second drink, and the next thing you knew, you were convinced you had nothing to live for, and that would have been a particularly dangerous place for Johanna to visit just then. So I didn’t let her. Not that she was really drinking that much, what with all of her meds, and so I finished those drinks for her— with love.

If only there was a dating site for men who wanted the chance to be a hero. But such a thing didn’t exist. And so I went out into the streets in search of a cure. I walked by The Strand. I thought about Patti Smith shelving books there in her early days in the city, about how when she was hungry, Allen Ginsberg bought her a sandwich because he believed he was cruising a young man. Those were the kinds of charmed moments that were once common in the city, in life, and which I had to believe were still possible.

I turned back and went into the store. Right there, on the first display table was a copy of Howl, like it’d been placed there just for me. I strolled the stacks with it between my sweaty palms. When I walked out of the store, it was somehow in my bag. Johanna’s illness reminded me that if I were the one to die tomorrow, I’d have nothing more than an impossible dream. And a bottomless pit of student loans to show for my life so far. And then, I remembered the soup. I knew what I had to do.

There was a reason the fish chowder Allen Ginsberg had made for a small group of friends two weeks before he died was not thrown away, a reason it was written about in The New Yorker. When a loved one died, we couldn’t help but hope that some of their ineffable self was left behind in the objects they once created, or even just touched. Ginsberg had peeled the parsnips, he had chopped the parsley, he had stirred the pot. He was a mystic, a shaman, an uber-Jew. There must have been some of that left behind in his magic, and therefore, in his soup too.

I went to the Allen Ginsberg Trust’s loft, where the soup had last been seen at the time of the article I’d read about it. I posed as a cleaning woman and spent all morning vacuuming and emptying trashcans. I waited until they were at lunch. As soon as everyone was gone, I went over to the freezer. I was shaking. I almost couldn’t open the door. When a loved one was sick we fixated on this one point – like if this test just came back good, or if it didn’t rain on the day we were allowed to take her out of the hospital for an outing, or if the elevator was waiting to take us up to her floor when we got to the hospital, then that would be the omen that finally made everything okay. And so I wanted, badly, for that soup to be there.

I opened the door, and the freezer was full of those new coconut milk bars that everyone was suddenly eating. They were really good, actually. They were only available at Whole Foods, but it was totally worth the trip. I pushed the boxes around. And there it was, in the back: my sister’s cure: A tall plastic container, like the ones Chinese restaurants used for to-go soup, and inside, a white murky mess punctuated with vaguely discernible chunks of bright orange carrot. I put it in my purse, next to Howl, so no one would be able to see what I had and try to stop me. But then I didn’t trust it loose in there with my credit card receipts and kosher Halva. So I reached in and held onto the soup’s lid with one hand, keeping it there as I cradled my purse in my lap on the subway, feeling both protected by and protective of my precious cargo.

Once home at my sister’s apartment, where I’d been staying, I peeked in on her and found her as I always did, dozing under a crazy quilt of old corduroys and Led Zeppelin T-shirts from our childhood, her blond hair gone thin and dull. I threw away the tissues on the floor by her head, refilled her water glass.

I went into the kitchen and had a stand off with the soup. When I heard my sister stirring in the next room, I inhaled a deep wellspring of air and held it in my lungs, yanked the lid off, poured the gunky, stinking slop into a pot on the stove, somehow feeling like Ginsberg would have been offended if I used the microwave.

I approached my sister nervously with the bowl, breathing shallowly against the swampy fish smell of the soup. She eyed me warily, as usual. What had begun as an impulse, a one-off, suddenly became a deep primal need. She had to eat the soup. Just one bite, but she had to do it. I handed her the bowl.

“Ew, gross,” she said. “What is that, macrobiotic?”

“It’s holy,” I said.

“You’re a nut.”

“It’s an old Jewish cure-all. Trust me.”

She studied me. I had used the J word. Neither of us usually spoke it out loud, but it was always there between us, and now it was enough to bring us together.

I held the spoon to her mouth. She turned her head against the smell.

“Please,” I said.

She held up both hands in utter exasperation, doing her best Woody Allen. But then, without further argument, she swallowed. As her tongue absorbed the flavor, her arm reflexively swung sideways. She knocked the bowl to the ground. The last soup of Allen Ginsberg scattered like ashes. But it didn’t matter. I knew that one bite had been enough — Ginsberg had snuck a bit of his healing mojo into her.

Of course Johanna thought I was crazy. I didn’t care. I was just glad she was still around to not say thank you. I knew the fever could always come back at any time. But I was sure she’d make it, that she’d at least be there long enough for me to catch her bouquet someday, or whatever they did at Jewish weddings.

Sarah Tomlinson is a Brooklyn- and Los Angeles-based writer. She has ghostwritten eight books, including two un-credited New York Times-bestsellers. Her journalism, music criticism, and personal essays have appeared in publications including Marie Claire, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, and Salon. Her father-daughter memoir is forthcoming from Gallery Books.

Image: Fiona Henderson

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