Sunday, November 17, 2013

Russell Benedict

Last weekend, I was over at a friend's house having a work day. Which really means it was part work, part him showing me how to use his Mac every five minutes, and a lot of doing other stuff, like origami. Eventually we got peckish and before we started prepping stuff for dinner, he pulled out some stinky cheese his friend had brought him from France.

The cheese was extremely stinky. Seriously stinky. Like puke and goats. And I knew, because it was so stinky, that it would also be extremely delicious, which it was.

But I wondered how people ever got themselves to eat something so stinky in order to discover how delicious it was.

I used to have this friend named Russell. When I started thinking about him the other day, and this story I was going to have to tell, I couldn't remember his last name. I could remember the name of his daughter, Tavina, who I only met in person once, briefly. But I couldn't remember Russell's last name.

Russell was also stinky, but for sure that was a quality of his worth getting around. I once arranged to meet him at the wine shop where my boyfriend and brother were working, and he promised me a surprise. When he got there, he opened a paper bag which contained a small piece of Brie wrapped in oily cellophane. "Why do Americans throw stuff like this out?" he wondered loudly, because he was a bit deaf. "It's a perfectly good piece of ripened Brie. Americans just don't know a good ripened cheese." I'd always thought Brie was a fresh cheese, one not meant to be ripened though I could see the benefits of letting it ripen a bit. Russell had lived in France for a spell and I figured he knew something about cheese that I didn't. I was about 22.

This cheese that Russell had was ripened more than a bit. He'd gotten it from the trash at Oasis, the local-ish natural market that later became a Whole Foods. The sort of place that has excellent cheese. And Russell's cheese wasn't actually from the trash. He had an agreement going with the guy who took out the trash that he could collect any good stuff before it went in the bins. Russell couldn't stand to see anything go to waste.

The cheese smelled awful. Beyond normal cheese-stink awful. Definitely getting into ringing off instinct alarm bells that say, "Do not eat that cheese" territory.

But it was Russell, so I tasted the cheese. And it was foul. Rotten-tasting. There was no taste in that cheese I could have defined as good. Russell spread a large hunk of it on one of the crackers I'd hooked up from my boyfriend, and encouraged me to dig in. It was so bad I couldn't eat anymore, even to be polite. People nearby were wrinkling their noses and looking our way. I asked Russell if he was sure he should be eating that cheese. There were parts of it that were kind of orange-colored, and parts of it that were runny.

The trash he'd collected at Oasis was the stuff they didn't even give the food bank, which I knew because I worked at the food bank. That's where I knew Russell from. He had let us know he was making this arrangement with several grocery stores we also worked with to get the perfectly good food we were leaving behind. It's also why he smelled a little bad. He stored a lot of the food in his apartment and in his car, a long black boat of a thing like they don't make anymore.

Russell had no sense of smell. It was related to the same incident that had left him with a crumpled hand and a blind eye and a slight limp. He was just around 80 when I met him. He liked strong flavors and interesting textures because his sense of taste was also affected. Red wine and dark beer and fried ice cream and ripened cheese. He could probably find the good taste in that cheese he brought to the wine shop.

When I was a newish hire at the food bank, he was coming up the walk and one the directors was all, "Oh, no. It's Russell Benedict. Anyone have an hour to spare?" He came into the office and started haranguing everyone within earshot about how we were going about it all wrong, this whole food rescue thing, and there were pounds and pounds of food we were letting go to waste.

I'd been hired for a food rescue thing (gleaning, which is collecting post-harvest produce from the fields), so the director pawned Russell off on me. He went on a bit about his thing, which was really a lot of things all together. One thing was about all the food we were wasting. Another was about how and where he was distributing the food he was collecting, and how the food bank wouldn't help him. Another was about how they were always trying to kick him out of flat because of the smell. Russell (who couldn't smell) figured any odors from his flat were perfectly justified because he had nowhere else to store the pounds and pounds of food he collected from markets around town, food that was just going to go to waste. He gave the food out to his neighbors, who were also poor and old. He has romances going on with some of the ladies. He lived in a senior citizen Section 8 house, and he tried to assuage the manager's complaints by getting rid of the spider in his kitchen. A spider he rather liked lived over the sink, and Russell left bits of rotting fruit under its web to attract fruit flies, which the spider could then eat.

Russell was really interested in the gleaning idea. He wanted to hear all about it. He had lots of ideas about to make it better. Lots of ideas. While he was talking about these, Ron the warehouse manager started to come into the room but he saw Russell and tried to get away. It was too late. Russell had seen him and he bid his farewells and went out to harangue Ron about how he could be doing his job better.

When I say food bank, I don't mean like a soup kitchen or a place where poor people came to get food. We were a collection point, one of the storage hubs for the state. We had a warehouse and an office. We did all the organizing of various food rescue and food collection programs, dealt with donors and donations, and managed the distribution of all this food, plus government subsidies, to various smaller distribution points locally and around the state. It was from those smaller places that people who needed food actually went to get it.


I got to like Russell, even though he could be querulous and his visits were often poorly timed, where I would be really busy with something else and not be able to give him the time he needed, because he was really interesting, as it turned out.

His fire about the food going to waste come from his 25 years of running a similar operation to ours in Washington D.C. It was called Waste Not Want Not, and they handled thousands more pounds of rescued food a day than we did. What he really wanted to do was use his years of experience and work alongside the food bank and rescue all the food we were missing from markets and restaurants. Problem was, his system of collecting food was very complicated and detailed. That, and the food he got wasn't always great. It was usually so close to going bad, and could not be legally distributed to poor people from licensed agencies.

Russell had done other stuff besides the food bank. He did some work in Alaska with the Forest Service, but I'm not sure what. I just knew that because it was in the Forest Service station in Alaska in the winter that he'd delivered his daughter Tavina. He had a few other daughters, but Tavina was the one he talked about. Her mother was his first and third wife, which was because he'd remarried her after divorcing his second wife.

He'd also worked for the State Department. One thing he worked on was the Peace Corps, at its inception. He'd harangued the government into accepting Peace Corps applicants with criminal records because it was the 60s and the kinds of people applying for the Peace Corps-- the kinds of people the Peace Corps wanted-- all had criminal records of some sort, either for minor drug infractions or protesting.

And he grew up with Richard Yates. Richard Yates is like a Mad Men era writer. I'd never heard of him but Russell told me a lot about Richard Yates' life and how it affected his writing.  His book Revutionary Road was made into a movie awhile back and it had a lot of the same angst as Mad Men. It's a good book. I never saw the movie. Russell gave me a book of short stories by Richard Yates, and told me he was a writer's writer. He knew I liked to write and he'd read some of my stories. He'd given some good feedback too, and it wasn't kindly Grandpa feedback. Mostly it was a little about my story and a lot about Richard Yates but it was still nice. He gave me the book and a few other little things in a basket he'd refurbished and re-varnished after an epoxy accident, because there was no reason the basket should go to waste.

Russell and Richard Yates fought in WWII at the same time, and Russell still hadn't forgiven him for drinking himself to death. He also never forgave his first and third wife for dying of lung cancer, and was forever on at me about smoking, which he'd given up after watching his wife die of it. He was really into health and took 2,000 mg. of vitamin C a day because of Linus Pauling's research. He ran in marathons.

The last time I saw Russell was around the time I moved here. We were to meet at a brew pub because they had a kind of dark beer with a nice consistency that he was able to taste. I got there before him and ordered a pitcher and two glasses. The waiter wouldn't give me the other glass until he'd seen the ID of the person who would be drinking from it because Oregon had ridiculous drinking laws. I told the waiter my friend was 78. When Russell arrived grumbling about car trouble, the waiter really did ask to see his ID. Russell was mad because of the car and because it took him awhile to locate his ID in his wallet full of shredded papers and small things he'd saved and because, really. Asking a 78-year-old man to prove he's over 21. The ridiculous drinking laws were strictly enforced, and waitstaff were terrified of undercover liquor commission agents catching them at not checking ID because they and restaurant could get fined.

Over beer and burgers, we talked about stuff. He told me about the incident that had so damaged his body. A few years earlier, he'd been working late and alone at his food warehouse in Washington D.C. A group of thugs came in to rob the place. Russell told them they could take whatever they wanted and told them where the small amount of money was. Nonetheless, they beat him nearly to death with an iron bar and left him there. The beating had destroyed his nose and eye and hand and legs. It scrambled his brain a bit. He almost died and after the beating, had moved across the country to live near his daughter Tavina because he couldn't take care of himself anymore. Tavina was a social activist of some sort, well known around town for her advocacy work of various people needing social justice of some sort. She didn't have a lot of time to deal with Russell, who was forever getting into tangles and didn't much like being told what to do. Tavina died in a hiking accident a few years after I moved here.

We talked about Turkey. He told me how he loved it that people from Turkey say 'Stambul instead of Istanbul, which is pretty much true. The initial "i" is little more than a whisper. We finished up and split the bill, and I went out to help him get the car started. Starting the car required a complex series of actions in a certain order and a coat hanger and took a good half hour.

We said goodbye. Russell was anxious to get going before the car died again. It couldn't go faster than about 10 mph.

A few years ago, I got to wondering what became of Russell so I started Googling him. I couldn't find anything because, as much as tried to bring computers into his life, he didn't have much success with it and was wary of the things. He never had much of an Internet presence. So I started searching his daughter Tavina, and I turned up Russell's short obituary. He'd almost made it to 90. The obituary wasn't the standard fill-in-the-form type, but it was written by someone who didn't know him very well. Tavina's name was in the obituary more than Russell's.

I once heard a short story on NPR about the afterlife. In this view of the afterlife, it's like a giant lounge, and everyone who ever died is there. You can hang out with Plato and Syd Barrett and drink and smoke all you like because you're already dead. But the thing is that sometimes you'll be talking to someone, and he'll just disappear. That's because you only stay in the lounge as long as someone alive still remembers your name. As soon as the last person who remembers your name dies, you disappear and no one in the lounge knows what happens to you after that, though they have some theories.

So for the last few days I couldn't remember Russell's last name. And I was thinking about how, after such a life, you become dependent on your grown child because of a random act of psychopathy. Your obituary is buried on page 5 of Google, and even then can only be searched by someone else's name. Almost everyone who remembers your name is also dead.

But to have lived such a life.

I was kind of upset the last few days because I couldn't remember Russell's last name. Then tonight I was having a cigarette and fretting about the story I was supposed to tell and I remembered it.

It's Benedict. Russell Benedict.

And it's a really comforting lie for me to hope that he'll still be in the afterlife lounge when I get there, because I'd really love to talk to him once more.