It should perhaps be stressed here that these aren’t just any four days I’m passing along to Slate. Back home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, our lives are strenuously uneventful. We read a book, we write a book. We watch a ball game. We eat.
Ah yes, we eat. In fact, what makes this whole eerily static existence possible is chiefly my wife’s extraordinary cooking, so it’s high time I introduced her properly. Under her previous name of Miriam Ungerer, she also writes cookbooks (Good Cheap Food is probably her chef d’ouevre) and regular columns for the East Hampton Star, for which she is constantly trying out new recipes—and what’s more, trying them out on me, and they work, and they meet all my daily requirements for excitement to overwhelming.
But the flat we’re renting in Key West this year is not only too small to cook in but almost too small to eat in, so we’ve been hitting the restaurants instead, and that’s what we did last night. Plus listening to music again. Only more so.
The Banana Café is simply the first place I dream about when the leaves start to fall and the frost starts to nip back up north. Although technically it is a regular bistro with a porch, the inside seems to flow together with the outside so that in one’s dream one is eating and listening to jazz under the stars and eating ambrosia and sipping nectar to boot.
And now here we are again in real life and the dream holds up at least as well as most dreams, with the stars nowhere to be seen and the ambrosia definitely not up to snuff this year, but the nectar and jazz as good as ever. Looking at the décor a little more prosaically, I am struck by the sheer, unselfconscious Frenchness of it all. The posters and paintings don’t have to keep screaming “look, ma, I’m French” because they obviously reflect the taste of an actual Frenchman, called Christophe, who expresses himself fully in everything from the photos in the john to the potage de poisson to the clinching charlotte aux banane, a seductive dessert that sometimes shimmers its way into the Dream as well.
So with the food and the ambience taken care of, the rest is up to the Dave Burns Trio, which had been our reason for coming here the first time and would still be our reason for going anyplace else where it was playing, because Burns is not just a first-rate interpretive pianist but one of our best friends down here, a wonderfully weathered New Englander who doubles as a private eye in the daytime and who spends his nonexistent spare time trading for rare Ecuadorian artifacts and getting to the bottom of things down there—in short, a man so full of stories that he could easily run away with the rest of this “Diary” if stern measures aren’t taken immediately.
The Banana Café also serves as one of several hangouts for the listening community around here, which invariably includes the king of the listeners, Dave Sanford of Philadelphia, who calls us occasionally up north to verify a lyric, and sometimes includes Al Catoia of Rhode Island, who is devoting his early retirement to singing a little bit more like Frank Sinatra every year, and sometimes Chip Phillips, a newsman-turned-fast-order cook at B.O.’s Fish Wagon, which we might conceivably visit this very evening to hear yet more music, and so on and on until we return home in a few days to resume our sphinxlike postures in the Sleepy North.
One piece of almost totally useless information we acquire before leaving tonight is that, if a vibraphonist happens to be sitting in tonight, do not perch yourself directly in front of him, because he will constantly seem to be kibitzing and stepping on other people’s musical lines to the point of obliteration. A chance trip to the men’s room informs me, however, that vibraphones sound terrific from directly in back of the other guys, and a few minutes later we learn that it sounds better still from across the street. So of course the next time it happens we’ll know better and just stay in the car.