Drawing, and why I do it.

Original drawing by Suzanne Forbes Sept 2015I did this drawing of loved ones at the Piano Center in Berlin, in about 20 minutes.

Even for me, that’s extraordinarily fast, and it’s a terrific drawing. The wonder and joy of all the handwork I’ve been doing in these last few years of not painting or drawing very much is that it’s made me a better artist. It is my job in this life to become a better artist, of course, but I have paid terrible dues approaching that goal directly.

Making art was always an arena of terrifying risk, the place where my entire identity was on the line with every stroke. Failure meant total failure, to myself and my goals. I’m enormously grateful that now I am engaging with my craft in a way that’s more nourishing and less savagely self-critical. I still put the pencil to the paper with a sense that my value is at stake, that it is work in the sense of breaking rocks, but at least I have a parallel arena of play.

I have no false modesty about my draughtsmanship- there are only a couple thousand people left in the world who can draw like I can.

As storyboard artists continue to be replaced by animatics software and pre-vis studios, as hand animators continue to be replaced by 3d animation, as book cover artists are replaced by graphic designers, as comic artists continue to focus on style over technical skills, as the remaining fashion illustrators and courtroom artists, almost entirely replaced by cameras, die off, the number of deeply trained great draughtsmen who can perform reliably under any conditions will continue to diminish.

Drawing isn’t like beer and bread; it won’t be saved by a new wave of artisan DIY makers who decide to preserve the old ways.

You can learn to make great bread in a year-long apprenticeship; it takes a year to learn technical perspective alone. A year to learn anatomy, a year to learn foreshortening. Ten thousand hours, or as Chuck Jones said,

“Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”

I grieve for my craft, of course. I ache for the days when you could go to San Diego ( we didn’t call it “Comic Con” then- in 1986 comic artists said “Are you going to San Diego?” to each other) and Howard Chaykin wouldn’t shake with his left hand because he had to “protect the instrument”. The days before Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. When there were still journeyman illustrators in ad offices on Madison Avenue, and the Lord & Taylor’s ads in the Times were still drawn by fashion illustrators.

When I was a teenager it was still a completely reasonable, practical life choice to become a commercial illustrator.

I would never have committed over a decade of training to something frivolous, like “fine art”; I fully intended to be self-sufficient by my own means and a working artist. The only reason I know anything about “fine art” today is that when I went to treatment in 1989, the best halfway house was in St. Paul, Minnesota, and after I got out they said I’d relapse if I went back to New York. I’d seen enough of my peers relapse that way to believe them, so I stayed in the Twin Cities, where the only art college happened to be a conceptual PostModern Fine Art emo wonderland.

If I hadn’t gone to MCAD, I would never have learned to paint; I would never have seen installations by Janine Antoni and Karen Finley, never heard Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Ann Hamilton speak ; never been exposed to performance artists like Ron Athey and the others who were supported by Walker Art Center performance curator John Killacky (later executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).

I’m not sorry my tradesmans’ view of making art was disrupted by conceptual art- it was a priceless experience.

Even though I wandered the halls of the school muttering, “Why can’t Johnny draw?” sometimes, and it was tremendously hurtful to have my skills disregarded. In the Parsons Illustration Program I’d been a hotshot, a teacher’s pet, the example held up in class, until my nodding and vomiting disabled me. At MCAD traditional drawing was already completely devalued, utterly passé, and a boy I foolishly loved once sneered at my senior thesis paintings, “Why don’t you just get a camera?”.

But I was lucky in my work, at first. An illustration teacher who admired my skills suggested I look into courtroom illustration, since Minnesota was then one of the three remaining states that didn’t allow cameras in the courtroom. There were four major tv stations in town, and four courtroom illustrators; by a morbid coincidence, one of the four artists died just a few weeks before I contacted the stations. By the end of my senior year I was working regularly for the CBS affiliate, making ridiculous money for the time. CNN bought my drawings and people who knew me saw my name around the world. I worked with journalists and loved knowing them; they are a special breed. I told people what I did and they said, “Oh! How interesting!” and I could say, “Yes. It really, really is. ”

If I hadn’t had my heart set on drawing comics, I might have been ok.

But all I had wanted from 1983 on was to draw superhero comics. The story of how I broke in, after years of struggle; how I drew one of the first DC comic issues ever to be pencilled, inked and edited by only women, how I was then (and perhaps still) one of less than a dozen women ever to be a fulltime penciller on a monthly book by the Big Two, how the industry collapsed around me in ’95 and I left comics- that’s a story for another time. The point is, I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t build my skills out of a selfish desire to do something I loved and enjoyed- I built them to do work I was good at and expected to be well paid for, even though doing it had an enormous emotional cost. And then those skills became obsolete in my lifetime.

So it goes. Now there is just the puzzle of the next fifty years.

Because portraitists do their best work late in life- as anyone who has ever been in a gallery of Millais’ assured later-life portraits or seen the incredible Hockney portrait show at LACMA knows. I have no idea if I can build a portraiture practise here in Berlin that will support me financially; I only know I stand a better chance here than I did in Oakland, and that at least if I can’t, I’ll still have medical care and housing.

I am a repository of everyone who taught me, everything I studied, all the work I put in to be the craftsman I am, and I just can’t let it go to waste.

Works in Progress, 2D and 3D.

S-Bahn_WIP_Suzanne_Forbes_2015 - EditedI started this drawing on the S-Bahn and haven’t had occasion to ride the S again for a bit, so it’s on hold til I do! I thought the amount of correction and adjustment that goes into any drawing might be of interest.

I’m almost done with the mantis- her feet turned out to want to look like a ballerina in toe shoes, and I’m rolling with it. Her wings are made of two kinds of patterned sheer green organza and one kind of green fibrous paper, layered in an embroidery hoop and stitched together with fine wire.mantis WIP Suzanne Forbes

First project in our new home.

beetle_Suzanne_Forbes_Sept_2015Yes, I love bugs and I cannot lie.

This is the first project I finished in our new home, a small but very detailed embroidery using multiple gauges and types of metallic thread to sort of drill down into the shiny carapace. The idea is that stringing a fine web of metallic thread over a two or three color satin-stitch fade will help to make it shine without obscuring the color, like interferent paints.

Our new kitchen has amazing light, and it has rapidly become my favorite workspace for detailed handwork. It’s kind of a construction site, since like many traditional Berlin rentals it was a BYOK- Bring Your Own Kitchen- and we get a little into setting it up, then run out of money and take a break. But I love it anyway, so much. Working in here, I am as happy as I’ve ever been.kitchen

A little old-time music, and Google Translate is in love with death.

suzanne forbes drawing 2015I made this drawing at the Barkin Kitchen Fish Fry, on a lovely deck overlooking the river in an area where artists have built their own apartment buildings.

These guys are The Curtis Tembeck Outlaw Party.

death machines - Edited

Also, Google Translate is scaring me tonight.

Instead of craigslist or regular eBay, most people here use eBay Kleinanzeigen to sell their stuff. It’s free local classifieds.

Because I am broke, insanely cheap, and still missing some 75% of the items one needs to run a household, I buy things there.

I just wanted a used food processor for 10 euros and a cheap dresser I could paint black.

Not anything to do with the founder of time.founder of time

yes chunksDisturbed, I went to another site and attempted to buy cat litter. (German cat litter SUCKS raw eggs.)

Look what you can get! Sure, we all know that’s what most canned cat food is, but do they have to be so blunt about it? They’re Germans, of course they do.cat sticks

If you think “Cat sticks” sounds like Pocky for cats, you are correct, and Morgan loves them.


I’ll leave you with this charming sentiment about cat litter: “What pleases the Stubentiger now?

what pleases the stubentiger now

Drawing tutorial: How to draw a perfect eye.

Original eyeball drawing by Suzanne Forbes 2015

Your eyeball is a gelid sphere.

Intellectually, you know this. You can feel it, round as a ball bearing, spinning in the aqueous humour of your eye socket.

Yet most people instinctively draw the eye as two ellipses, meeting at their pointed ends. ()

Eye drawings by Suzanne Forbes 2015This is a perfectly serviceable beginning, but it’s only the beginning of understanding the proportions and dynamics of a human eye. First, consider the pupil. It takes up a relatively small amount of the eyeball sphere, but nearly a third of the visible eye.

We see only a section of the eyeball, one orange segment.

The rest is hidden behind eyelids and the fine skin that stretches over the eye socket, from the browbone and zygomatic arch. If you touch your eye sockets with your fingertips, you can feel all the eyeball underneath that thin skin, and all the floaty liquid that cradles your eyeball in its bone housing.

Your eyelids are like slices of baloney draped around your eyeball.

Like wrapping a baseball in horsehide, the eyelid skin has to follow the curve of the sphere. The skin has thickness of its own, a couple of millimeters.

The eyelashes project from the leading edge of the top surface of the eyelid, not from that couple-millimeter perpendicular plane. You’d be awfully sad if your eyelids didn’t have thickness.Eye drawings by Suzanne Forbes 2015

The pupil has dimension that makes it project forward a bit beyond the eye sphere, and when the thin eyelid passes over that extra dimension it makes a little extra curve to follow it. The highlight on an oily or made-up eyelid will be noticeably located over that curve.

Your browbone and cheekbones project further out than the corners of your eyes, because the sphere of your eye is smaller than the roundness of your skull.

Put your fingertip on the inner corner of your eyebrow, rest your palm on your mouth, and blink. You see how much space there is at the inner corner of your eye, where your tear duct is? If you have an epicanthic fold, that space will have thin skin stretched over it, but you can gently press to feel the curve of your eyeball. The sphere of your eyeball curves back into your skull, leaving a shadowed hollow below your brow. This also means that the whites of your eyes are brightest around the pupil and shadowed at the corners, by the core shadow of the sphere itself.

Your eyeball is shadowed by the thickness of your eyelid as well.

That cast shadow curves around the sphere just like the eyelids, and throws darkness into the top of the iris. The highlight on the pupil will sit right at this meridian of cast shadow. The shadowing of the iris is especially pronounced in people with an epicanthic fold, because the skin over the eyeball is projecting out further over the surface of the eye.

If you really want to understand the shape of your eyeball, try putting on false lashes a few times.

Very few experiences bring home the structure of the eye like the pain-in-the-ass process of applying falsies!

I hope this look at your gelid spheres is helpful; I’ll be happy to answer any questions in the comments.

That’s it for this time. Maybe next time we’ll talk about the most crucial thing you need to know to draw a perfect hand.

Finding a flat in Berlin, in 2015.

Adenauer Platz Suzanne ForbesYou might wonder what a picture of a cafe with a bunch of people eating and a large rotating ad for a sex-toy shop have to do with finding a flat in Berlin.

Sympathetic magic, I suspect.

Here is the story:

In January of 2014 we were hoping to move to Vancouver. It was our third choice city-wise, after London (my #1) and Berlin (husband’s #1). We were looking for a country with strong social welfare and a good or at least functional healthcare system, because we both have disabling chronic illnesses of various kinds that significantly impact our retirement earning capacity.

We also needed a place to make a stand for the global warming future, where we would suffer less from our extreme discomfort with hot weather and bright sun.

We wanted a place with good public transit, where everything stayed open late, where it rained a lot and was cold and grey the rest of the time.

London was ultimately ruled out because of the cost. While we knew the hubs could get a decently paid programming job, my research indicated that we would still not be able to afford the  >1000 sq. ft. flat in a hundred year old building we require for both sanity and my home studio. There was possibility on the immigration front, because my mother was born in Scotland, but it looked dicey; the matrilineal lineage rules for repatriation have changed twice in my lifetime.

Ultimately Vancouver was ruled out on the same grounds. Plus, they didn’t want us. The immigration index considered me to be too old, at 47, and D. to be undesirable because of his lack of a four-year degree. This was really disappointing, because Canada seemed like a great idea.

So we reverted to Berlin, where at least a dozen people we know have moved in the last decade. Germany, amazingly, appeared to want us.

By March we’d made a hard decision, and set a deadline of the following winter. Somewhere in there we also decided to get married, which turned out to be a really good thing for moving to Germany.

I am a compulsive researcher and planner, and I’d started my “We’re leaving the Bay Area” pinboard in January. I deleted the London and Vancouver stuff and went all in on Berlin. Immigration, taxes, medical care, pet care, pet visas, insurance, local customs and culture, language schools, shipping, postal regulations, grocery shopping, goth stores, bookstores, galleries, pharmacies, Etsy sellers for craft supplies. And most of all, housing.

Finding housing is a form of shopping, which is my superpower.

I have always been able to find a gorgeous hundred-year-old apartment or house in a desirable area, in a very difficult rental ecology, for 20% below market. My secret is insane determination and refusal to settle for anything less, and often being self-employed, which allows for those short-notice mid-day meetings with the rental agent the more responsible people of the world can’t make it to.

I knew I could do it in Berlin, despite the growing tide of warnings and negative reports about the housing market here.

But I had no idea just how hard it would be. I knew that the days of the 800€ three-bedroom were over and the window for any kind of affordable housing was rapidly closing; some people said it had already closed. Friends here warned that it would be simply impossible to get a long-term place, that the only housing available was sublets.

We arrived at our Prenzlauerberg Airbnb on March 24th, and that weekend I went to a “Moving to Berlin” workshop at Expath. They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, thanks to my hundreds of hours of research, but they did offer the warning: “Don’t even try to look in Neukolln.”

When wonderful Mark The Man With A Van moved us from our Airbnb to our short-term rental from which I intended to launch our search, he warned, “Don’t even try to look in Friedrichshain”. Four weeks into the hard-core search, when I’d been spending every waking moment either looking at rental sites, emailing landlords, or visiting flats, a young guy at a dinner party told me, “An unlimited lease? In Berlin? Are you crazy?” He said it with the elegant contempt that is the birthright of urban gay boys under thirty the world over, and it shook me. But I said, “Yes. In Berlin.”

I saw 28 apartments to find our Craftsmen jewelbox place in Oakland, with its original wood paneling and double parlour. When I got to an even dozen here, my husband said, “Well, sixteen to go!”.

Knowing he thought that my approach was reasonable made a huge difference.

I’d come home exhausted from days of lurching through the sweltering subway (no a/c here! It “makes people sickly”!) in the 95° heat and 88% humidity. I was constantly frustrated by the poor transference of Google Maps to reality on the ground in the city. There were endless challenges because I didn’t have a phone. SInce we were waiting for a big check most of the time, I was almost always broke; when you’re out in the hot sun and can’t afford to sit down for a cold drink it sucks.

One time I needed to pee and almost didn’t have the .50 it cost; I have rarely been so grateful to find a linty nickel in the bottom of my purse.

There’s plenty of beautiful housing in Berlin; the problem is that there’s so much competition. I found five places that were fantastic and also acceptable to my stringent value criteria of 10€ per sq. meter: one in Schoneberg, my first choice neighborhood, one in Mitte, where our short term place was, one in Friedrichshain, one in Wedding and one in Wilmersdorf. I applied to all of them, over a harrowing month, and we were turned down five times. Each time involved submitting up to fifteen documents, translating a different application for each, and in one case (Friedrichshain! Don’t even try!) finding a German friend of my husband’s who’d act as guarantor.

We also had to get a Schufa, a German credit report, even though we’d only been here a couple months. All the EasyCredit stores, where you could walk in and get a Schufa, had recently closed. There was one place in all of Berlin doing “Instant Schufa” this summer, the Postbank branch in Schonhauser Allee Arcaden.

It was mobbed with terrified expats, all desperate to secure a flat.

Over and over i told myself, I’ve always done it before. I just have push through my fears and stick it out. One day near the end, when we had only 35 days left at our temporary place, I was starting to think about just getting a six-month furnished sublet in an ugly postwar Neubau in some neighborhood we’d hate. I came home and asked my husband, “Am I crazy? Should I be investing this much energy in trying to find a perfect place?” He didn’t even let me finish. He said, ” You’re not crazy. I trust you. Do what you’re doing.”

We’re homebodies, and I know what makes us happy at home; a second-floor apartment with a double parlour separated by an archway, looking out over a quiet street that’s still just steps away from shops and restaurants that stay open late. I knew we needed a big place, so I could have my studio at home, and to be just steps from the U-Bahn. I wanted to be over a restaurant or store, so our late-night walking about and the cats’ crazy antics wouldn’t upset a persnickety downstairs neighbor.

With thirty days to go I went to see a place a little farther West than we really wanted to be, in Wilmersdorf, and because I’d been betrayed so many times by Google Maps, I allowed so much time that I was an hour early. I located the building, a majestic Art Nouveau lady on a tree-lined street, and then went back around the corner to the cafes and shops.

I dug in my purse and found exactly enough change for a bottle of Apfelschorle, and I sat down and made the drawing you see above.

It was the only time I made a drawing anywhere during the flat search. When the hour was up I went to see the flat, which was huge and beautiful. Then I went home, because since most of the agents don’t speak a word of English, there’s very little to say. A couple of days later, when we’d gotten two more turndowns, I thought of the place in WIlmersdorf, which I’d initially dismissed as just too far West. I sent the application, for the hell of it.

Two days later, I got a reply, and Google Translate said they were ready to make the contract with us. I was so stunned I ran it through three other translation apps before I told my hubby. A week later, after a terrible morning of scrambling around Lichtenburg trying to find their office, we signed a lease.

We were late and I was so afraid. It was scorching hot and humid and we somehow found it and they were completely relaxed and nice.

They acted like it was no big deal to rent a couple of weird-looking Americans a gorgeous 1300 square foot Art Nouveau flat they might conceivably spend the rest of their lives in.

We scheduled the key and deposit handoff for Friday. Friday morning D.’s monthly check from his job hadn’t shown up in our bank account despite my many calls and emails to the company accountant and the assurances I’d received it would be there. You need at least a month’s rent plus a month’s cold rent deposit to get keys in Berlin, so several thousand dollars. Two hours before the appointment, I took the U to our bank and talked to the one guy who spoke English, and he said the deposit could show at any time. That’s right: with American banks, your money is there at opening or not til the next day, but in Germany it can show up any time, all day.

I frantically emailed D. at work and asked him to call the agency and ask if we could reschedule. They said no problem. Then I checked the bank account one more time, and the money was there.

We were back on: I had D. call the agency again and the agent agreed to give me an extra hour, but no more; she was going out of town for the weekend, like every right-thinking person in Berlin.

And I would have to bring the money in cash; it was too late for a bank transfer.

I Jumped in a cab, and my valiant Berlin cabbie set out into the summer Friday rush hour traffic. Twenty minutes in, halfway through Tiergarten, I realized the flaw in my plan of stopping at one of the Westside Deutschebanks to get my huge wad of cash. I hadn’t brought my passport. The guy at our branch had said earlier this week, Oh your license and PIN are fine for me, I know you, but they wouldn’t work for an official transaction. Surely withdrawing thousands of dollars was an official transaction? What if the strange teller asked for my passport?

My cabbie pulled up at a bank and I ran in, then waited for a thousand years while the line inched along. It was like watching paint dry with a gun to your head.

libraryFInally I made it to the teller, checking one more time that the cab was still outside, and asked for our money. She didn’t even blink, just counted it out and handed it over. “VIelen dank!” I yelled, and shot back out the door and into the cab, and minutes later we were pulling up on our tree-lined street, where the agent was pacing and looking around frantically. Her face lit up when she saw me. I gave the cabbie an American-style tip and twenty minutes later (there was a lot more paperwork) I had keys to our home.

An unlimited lease, in a rent-controlled renovated flat in Berlin.

Screenshot 2015-08-12 at 11.56.59 AM - EditedMy husband hadn’t even seen it yet; for the third time, he’d signed a lease without ever seeing the place we’d be renting. When he finally did, two weeks later, he said, “It’s like we’re rich, even though we’re not!”. He meant, it is palatial and elegant. Our huge balcony overlooks the lovely street and an outdoor cafe; nearby is the house where a famous German painter once lived and worked. Our flat is over a restaurant and around the corner is the U-Bahn, a late-night falafel place, a very good French bakery, the cafe where I made the drawing and miles of other Berlin pleasures. I am so incredibly grateful to have this beautiful home.

All it took was the belief it could be done, a husband who believed in me unhesitatingly, and over 400 emails.


Here in Europe you see some European-ass stuff.

I had to draw this from memory, as I saw this French mama and her little girl on my way to a meeting.

Original drawing Suzanne ForbesI took the best mental snapshot I could, which was a good thing because seconds later there was a small scooter accident and the charming scene turned to skinned-knee tears. Since it’s from memory and I was focussed more on the overall scene, I can’t say if the maman was really wearing quintessentially French rope-soled espadrilles, capris and a careless chignon. Since I can’t ride a bicycle and have no idea how they work, I used a reference picture of one that seemed right.

But the little girl, I guarantee you, is exactly how she appeared on an early summer evening, heading home with mama, possessed of exquisite sang-froid.

This kind of highly detailed and clean line drawing, with very little variation in line weight or idiosyncrasy in mark-making style, is the kind of drawing I specialised in as a teenager. Before I made the decision to draw comics at seventeen or eighteen, I had expected, since childhood, that I would be some kind of commercial illustrator. Children’s books, fashion ads, something like that. I’d developed a clean and precise style that would reproduce well. I had a full Rapidograph set and i was using the harrowing, exhausting-to-maintain 6xo.

But when I committed to comics, a whole world of new technical requirements opened up, like attention to light and dark values in a composition and the need for advanced perspective and anatomy skills, and I turned my focus to developing those. Sometimes I think it’s too bad, because these delicate drawings, their coherence dependant mostly on pattern and silhouette, are sort of pretty. My mom has some of the nicest ones framed.

Happyfuntimes at the Ausländerbehörde

If you are a foreigner hoping to stay in Berlin longer than 90 days, you must make yourself known to the Ausländerbehörde.

outlander_Aug_2015_Suzanne_Forbes - EditedThe Foreigners’ Registration Office or Aliens Department decides your fate. How long you get to stay, what kind of work you can do, what family members can come, everything.

Weirdly, it’s a quite relaxed and not-at-all terrifying place.

It’s a big shabby government building, but there’s a pleasant courtyard with trees, benches and lawns, where people are always picnicking.

There are signs everywhere, but there are no signs saying “No eating and drinking” or “no cellphones”, and everyone is enjoying a beverage, feeding a baby, talking on the phone, whatever.

And whenever you go you see someone you know- like the rockabilly girl with the black-and-white hair, who I’d seen at a flat viewing just a week earlier.

“Did you get that flat?” “No. We found something though.” “Did you find a place yet?” “No.” It’s impossible to find a place here.

This was our second visit, and our first time on our own without our “fixer”. But we got a super-nice case worker who spoke English and our appointment went fine, although the husband was denied the coveted blue card because he lacks a four-year degree and his Associates Degree isn’t in computer science. So our application was switched over to a regular work visa application, which unlike the freelancer visa we have now would allow us to get on German state-type health insurance. Which is basically the point of this whole move. Now we wait a couple more weeks to see what happens. If the regular work visa isn’t granted we appeal.

We have passed through eight of the ten major hurdles to this move.

1. Find a short-term place to lease where we can put our names on the doorbell and get registered with the Burgeramt. We used coming-home.de. It was expensive as FUCK, but crucial to a full-immersion-in-the-system life here.

2. Get a German bank account (majicked by our fixer). We have Deutschebank. Our bank manager looks like a porn star.

3. Get our address registered at a Bürgeramt or Citizen’s Registration Office (you need an appointment; there are no appointments, no one speaks English. Thank the Goddess for our fixer).

4. Get health insurance the visa office will accept. Currently we have ALC. It is cheap but not good.

5. Get a freelancer visa before our 90 days Schengen visa is up. The binder I brought to the appointment had thirty documents in it, all of which had been brought from the US or carefully prepared here. Our fixer got us two years, because she is amazing.

6. Get a full-time job offer for the husband. This part was fairly easy- they are desperate for programmers here. Although please note that he is considered lucky to be offered less than half of what the position would pay in the Bay Area. Programmers have zero special status here. Our delightful porn-star-looking bank manager is considered as valuable a white-collar worker as any programmer and is as well-paid.

7. Apply for a work visa for that job. This part is pending.

8. Find a flat (sublets and short term are easy; an unlimited lease, where you could quite possibly stay the rest of your life in rent-controlled comfort, is insanely hard.) I started researching a year before we left, studying the major German rental sites, and once we got here I looked informationally for three months, getting the lay of the land. Then once the husband got his first check from the new workplace, I looked every waking moment for six weeks.

Getting German health insurance is nine and getting our shipping container here is ten.

It’s been one of the longest, most stressful and tedious summers of my life, but now we’ve signed the unlimited lease on our gorgeous flat I feel like it’s all worth it.

Eating Mexican Food in Berlin.

SantaMariaEastside_by_Suzanne_Forbes_July_2015Santa Maria EastSide. That’s where you go. That’s pretty much it, I’ve heard.

Or maybe a few other places. We went to EastSide, in Friedrichshain, with longterm SF residents who’ve lived here for a couple years. There was a lot of ranting about the poor quality of much of the food in Berlin – from them, not us. We have been so insanely broke with the costs of the move since we got here that we have eaten out exactly twice. And we never ate anywhere but taquerias and the occasional splurge on Indian in the Bay Area, so we’re not really up on what a nice meal should be anymore.

My fancy food business days are far behind me, and somewhere along the line, during the second divorce and the recession and the years of poverty and depression, I just stopped caring.

All I wanted was some simple peasant food to keep body and soul together, like a taco or a quesadilla, and a really superb banana cream tartlet, made with chocolate ganache, salted caramel, and Nels’ perfectly executed crème pâtissière and delicate pâte sablée, streets better than Tartine’s, from the bakery at Market Hall. Or a slice of classic American lemon meringue pie, as good as any I’ve ever had, with a four-inch crown of meringue, from Sweet Adeline. Or the unbelievable butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème at Town Hall. Or a scoop of Bi-Rite balsamic strawberry ice cream with the couverture sprinkles and marcona almonds (when they first opened Khris Brown said “this is so good I don’t even have to blog about it!” #bestlineofthenoughties). Or an exquisite yuzu truffle, available only a few weeks a year, from Chocolatier Blue. What? I said I was over food, not dessert.

I haven’t been able to afford dinner anywhere nice in the Bay for a decade, but I could almost always afford a perfect treat from a really good bakery.

Anyway, we don’t have really a lot to say about food in Berlin. We live on De Cecco pasta, which at least you can get at every grocery store, and yogurt. However, the food we tried at Santa Maria Eastside was good. (In the drawing our friend is explaining to my hubby how to make the German “o” sound. ) I had chilaquiles, which are possibly my favorite food on earth, and they were definitely as good as the weekend special chilaquiles at my beloved, cherished, treasured Cactus Taqueria or my equally precious and adored Los Cantaros.

I had tacos or chile rellenos or a quesadilla or chilaquiles at a taqueria at least twice a week for 18 years, and I will miss Bay Area Mexican food forever.

So it goes. At least we have doner kebab and falafel.

*About bakeries: when I first arrived in the East Bay it was as the Santa Rosa-to-San Jose sales rep for Albert Uster, a Swiss baking supply company used, then and now, almost exclusively by top-level professional pastry cooks. I had just spent a year managing the bakery at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown. Bakeries are very important to me, and my SF job was perfect because I drove all over the Bay Area meeting all the bakery managers and pastry chefs.

*About the bakery at Market Hall: I also worked at Market Hall as a cheesemonger my first summer and Fall in the East Bay, in ’97, and it was a great company to work for. Linda, the buyer then and now, and Sara the owner care deeply about food and educating the staff. We had classes where I learned things like how the microscopic texture of hundred-year-old bronze dies give the best Italian extruded pastas their sauce-clutching ability, and how to break a wheel of Reggiano. I tasted forty-year-old Balsamic just uncorked and Cowgirl Creamery farmer’s cheese barely a day old while apprenticed to a cheesemonger from Neal’s Yard. Nels, the bakery manager, left for a time and opened his own place, in one of those cursed restaurant locations on Shattuck. His business was killed by the dot-com bust, and it was heartbreaking, but he returned to Market Hall. His standards are as impeccable as ever, freshness and purity always on lock, and the prices have remained exceedingly fair. His butterscotch pudding is insane.

*About Sweet Adeline: the space Sweet Adeline occupies was for a short time in the late ’90s a goth store, back when there were several goth stores on Telegraph. I bought the dark red blouse I wore for my second wedding there. At some point it became a bakery, and it is a superb bakery. They do American and French basics, perfectly. The chocolate cream pie is, like the lemon meringue, as good as any I’ve ever had. The prices are very fair.

*About Chocolatier Blue: You know that scene in Cryptonomicon where Randy goes to have his wisdom teeth out and he is totally confident in the oral surgeon because the guy is an obsessive socially inept tooth-surgery geek? That’s what the chocolatier/confiseur guy at Chocolatier Blue is like. I went in to see him right after he opened his first East Bay store, because my heart never really leaves the business and I like to keep on an eye on things. He was like, local seasonal single origin I am an awkward maniac. The product is the proof, it’s fucking stellar and the prices are exceptionally fair.

*About the best banana cream pie in the East Bay: Fatapples. The shimmering, barely set custard, the perfectly flaky ( you know it’s lard) crust, the dusting of caramelised walnuts- it is the best in town. They try, over and over, to take it off the menu, because the freshness issue is a nightmare. People always hassle them til they bring it back. Their crisps, custards and eclairs are also very, very good.

*About going to Ici: don’t go to Ici. It’s overrated as fuck. Unless, unless, you get a bitter fruit sorbet with their incredible house-made copper kettle caramel and crystallized orange peel. Otherwise, skip Tara’s too and go to the idiotically named iScream, a fairly new traditional-style ice cream parlour on Solano. Parking on Solano is insane, of course, but I give you my secret: pull into the driveway of the bank next door and park in their lot. I can’t promise you won’t get towed, but I never did. iScream has house-made fudge and caramel sauces, fresh whipped cream, and lots of extremely good fruit flavors like blood orange and Meyer Lemon, plus Burnt Caramel and Salted Caramel.

*Where else to go: Feelgood Bakery in the Food Mall thing in Alameda. Another idiot name, but they do traditional French things very well. I had an oversize macaron filled with Crème Chiboust and fresh strawberries there before we left that was very good. It wasn’t an Ispahan in the garden at Ladurée Soho or the pistachio bavarian at Pierre Hermé, but what is?

*Bonus SF bakery: Pinkie’s in SOMA! Pinkie’s is so good. When Wicked Grounds first opened Pinkie’s did our bread and cakes. Cheryl does terrific work with simple classics.

*Where I never got to go: Craftsmen and Wolves on Valencia. I wanted to go so bad! They have a verrine with elderflower- I love elderflower. I totally wanted to try that $6 muffin! But we were just overloaded the last year or two, I never got around to it. Go there for me!

*About the time I spat up a gob of lavender mousse in front of the White House pastry chef: Weirdly, this is a recovery story, not a drinking story!

Managing a department at Dean & DeLuca was a big deal in 1996, and I was always getting invitations to fancy events held by fancy-food importers in the DC area. I was at a presentation at one of the import companies, and Pierre Hermé, then a celebrated young pastry chef and not yet a global brand, did some demos.

He showed what would called nowadays a “hack” for making lots of croquant quickly, and a lavender mousse with cherries in it. He spoke mostly in French; however most of the French I know is bakery stuff, so I was pretty sure there was no alcohol in the mousse. I was standing and chatting with sugar wizards Ewald and Susan Notter, who I was friendly with, and Roland Mesnier, the legendary White House pastry chef, when samples were handed out.

We were given little plates with a triangle of pale violet mousse, studded with deep burgundy cherries. It was so beautiful. I thoughtlessly spooned a bite into my mouth- and frantically, very thoroughly spat it out into my napkin. The cherries were macerated in liqueur, a product sold by the import company! Awkward.

The first boy I ever dated is being played by the movie star who’s playing Lex Luthor.

giphyI read Salon a lot. And I love, love Andrew O’Hehir.

Especially now that he’s writing more editorial a lot of the time, I make it a point to read the movie stuff he does do.

La la la, oh I see they’re making a David Foster Wallace movie…

…huh, it’s based on the interviews David Lipsky did…Jesse Eisenberg is playing David?!?!note-pass-bald-407x480

But I haven’t even processed him playing Lex Luthor yet!

Or that Lex Luthor has hair!

*meme humor by The Mary Sue Senior Editor Glen Tickle

Wait, David comes off as a total tool in the movie? HA HA HA HA omigod that’s hilarious.

In the Fall of 1980 I was thirteen, about to start high school at Stuyvesant. Of the ten kids in my small private school who’d taken the Stuyvesant test, most my close friends, two of us had gotten in. Me and my friend Oliver. Earlier that summer, at a birthday party at the Village apartment Olly shared with his charismatic mother Bonnie, I’d pulled a bottle of champagne out of the bathtub and tumbled on Bonnie’s bed with one of Olly’s friends.

That summer I had stripped the baby fat that protected me from my father on a three month crash diet of iceberg lettuce and sugar-free yogurt, forty pounds in three months. I felt my rage could protect me now, so I’d let my hair, which I’d cut because my father loved it long, grow again. I was blonde and blue-eyed, 33-23-36, and wearing purple painter’s pants from Reminiscence. When that boy kissed me the power came up in my veins like the speed I got onto later that year. I knew all I wanted was boys, to have them and take them, hurt them and enslave them.

The week before school started my best friend’s father said I should meet the son of a friend of his, who was a sophomore at Stuy. I asked Victoria, who has been my friend for forty years now but only five back then, if he was cute. She said yeah, actually he was fairly cute.

So I talked to David on the phone, which was next to my brother’s bunk bed. The white paper under the rotary dial of our phone was covered with ballpoint ink, from my doodling while I talked. It was still hot; summer dies like a snake by mid-September in New York, or did then, but it hadn’t broken yet.

I agreed to meet this boy the first day of school, on the steps.

Maybe Victoria’s father, Mel, thought we’d be friends. I don’t think so. Mel had an invasive voyeuristic fascination with the sexual development of children, much like my own father. When you look at pictures of me and Vicky at eleven and twelve (I was always younger than everyone else) it’s shocking; my moon face and her gaunt one. Anorexia was so new that she wasn’t diagnosed until nearly too late.

I met David on the steps in front of Stuyvesant before the first bell, so I wasn’t alone my first day. Not that I was worried; it was thousands of kids to less than 100 at Elizabeth Irwin and Little Red Schoolhouse, where I’d spent the last five years, but I was fearless and ferocious at thirteen. And Olly was a brother to me, a blond Han Solo; knowing he was somewhere in the building made me feel safe.

David was pretty cute. Not amazing, but I liked his dark curly hair, and he was tall enough, wearing those thin cord jeans that boys wore then. We talked a bit, and then I went off to class. I remember almost nothing about the school part of Stuyvesant, even now. I didn’t want to go there; I wanted to go to Music and Art, and I certainly could have gotten in. My father insisted on the math and science school, because it was the most famous. Narcissistic cathection plus lots of weed, ugh.

Later that week David called our apartment in Chelsea and asked me on a date. I did not like my father asking about it, but we did share a laugh about the hilariously outdated concept of “going on a date”. I suspected it might be my first and last date; I didn’t think dating was compatible with the vision I had of stooping like a falcon. But I was thrilled. My adventures as a seductress were beginning. I wore my painters’ pants and a white men’s shirt for my first date.

In the kitchen before leaving I dusted cinnamon behind my ears because I’d read in Glamour magazine that it turned men on.

nancy_allen_Dressed_to_killIt left a faint rusty rime on my collar. My father was leering, gleeful, as he watched me leave.

I met David uptown, probably at the Loews; I know it was a theater with multiple screens.

We argued about what movie to see. He wanted to see a DePalma thriller with Nancy Allen, Dressed to Kill.

I wanted to see anything but horror; I had had a very bad experience with Hitchcock Night at riding camp a couple years earlier. I capitulated, with the caveat that we would leave if I got uncomfortable. At some point I did, and then I pulled the first of an infinite number of dick moves I’ve pulled on guys.

I informed him that we were going next door to watch Lady and the Tramp.

Maybe it was during the spaghetti scene that his arm crept around me; I snickered into my cinnamon-scented collar, because I had never, ever expected to have this experience. Afterwards we walked across the park, I think, to his Upper East Side neighborhood. He wanted to hang around Woody Allen’s building and see if Woody came out. I didn’t; I hated Woody Allen every bit as much then as I do now.

He lived around the corner, probably with a divorced mother who Mel had the hots for, and we wound up in his bedroom, on his single bed. Which was the point of the whole endeavor, for me. I told him about the cinnamon; I felt it would make me seem both innocent and charmingly vulnerable. Bonnie’s bedroom had been dark and air-conditioned; David’s room was brightly lit.

He said, “What do you want to do now? I could do my Woody Allen imitations. Or we could make out.”

I looked him in the eye and took my shirt off. I remember our legs tangling, the first time I realized how long boys’ legs are, the feel of it; I knew it was what I wanted. I was both startled and disappointed by the explosion. I felt exactly like Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings, (which Victoria and I had seen that summer) when Matt Dillon passes out. I had had plans for that penis. There was awkward cleanup, and now my shirt smelled like cinnamon and come.

I went back downtown; I saw him the following week at school, but it was obvious neither of us could sustain interest. Two weeks later I found the boys with the drugs.

In the 90s Victoria told me he was a journalist, and I laughed; that seemed just right, like Olly actually becoming an actor, like he’d always said he would. I was going to be an artist; Olly was going to be an actor; neither of us should have had to go to Stuyvesant just because it was the most famous free school in New York.

In the oughts in Berkeley, living with my second husband,  I read Infinite Jest, cherished it, and put it on the bookshelf. It reminded me of The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, which I’d read when I was fifteen. I read the short stories too, but they didn’t do too much for me. I read (probably on Salon!) that David had interviewed David Foster Wallace, had spent four days on a road trip with him. I wondered if he had offered to do his Woody Allen imitation.

When I moved in with my third husband in the teens we both brought forty boxes of books. The three duplicates were Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, and The Phantom Tollbooth.

I haven’t seen David Lipsky in thirty-odd years, and that’s fine with me. Would he remember me? Of course. I was dazzling at thirteen.

Is my life a disappointment, compared to the other kids who stood on those Stuyvesant steps in 1980? I don’t think anyone could possibly say, because my life is really only getting underway, and there’s actually nothing but second acts in American lives.