Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

First Falafel

About ten years ago, I lived in New York: rented a shithole apartment in Astoria, took the N train in to Times Square every day, and worked three floors down from Puff Daddy at a soon-to-be-irrelevant dotcom. My life consisted of TPS reports, delays on the N train, and arguing with old ladies in three different languages at the local Key Food. I guess I wrote books too, but that involved more sitting at the computer wishing I could write than actual writing.

When the soot-black snow melted away that spring and I no longer needed to wear two jackets for my ten-block walk to the subway, I started developing this stabbing toe pain. It felt like I broke my big toe, but couldn’t remember actually doing anything like stepping on a mouse trap or slamming it in a car door or whatever else you do to break a toe. At least every other month, I’d have a stupid spaz moment while walking, hypnotized by whatever album spun in my MiniDisc player to cover the sounds of the city, and trip on a ten micron high difference in the pavement. Some cable company that just spent all of the previous summer jackhammering a trench at six every morning, dropping in new fiber, and poorly sealing over the pavement — well, they either forgot where the fiber was, or lost it in some wave of mergers and acquisitions and deregulation and re-regulation. They re-dissected the pavement and left even more opportunity for me to fall on my face when one of my clunky boat shoes hit a new asphalt patch the wrong way.

And that’s what I told the doctor at the ER a week later, after a $60 cab ride to the nearest hospital on an early Saturday morning, when I could no longer put on a shoe or sleep in bed with a sheet on my foot. I spent a Friday night with every possible combination of foot-propping and elevating pillows and pieces of couch I could find, before I finally gave up and went in for a two-hour wait with some worn Sports Illustrated issues so old, I think they were talking about rumors that the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn.

My feet are naturally fucked up. Every podiatrist who has examined them says they’re the worst they’ve ever seen, even a guy I went to who had been practicing since 1946. And on that morning in Queens Hospital, while I writhed in pain after a battery of x-rays, the ER doc paged every intern and resident from orthopedics and podiatry to come down and check this shit out. As a half-dozen guys in scrubs prod my feet, one of them, this guy with an uncanny resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson says, “hey man, you ever been worked up for the gout?”

Gout — I’d heard the word before, but didn’t know what it meant. I think one of my grandparents had it. And maybe it was a running gag with various old characters on The Simpsons. But no, I’d never been tested for it or diagnosed with it or anything else. So along with a cane, a soft cast, and a handful of Vicodin, they sent me home with an appointment to see a podiatrist who could tell me more about this gout thing.

New York City is the place to be if you want to be a writer, work in advertising, enjoy high fashion, make big bucks on the stock market, or you have old money and need to be in the center of the universe. But it’s not a place to be mobility challenged, as I found out the next Monday on my long hobble to work on a new aluminum walking stick with one regular shoe and one velcroed boot. Taking the subway involved at four long flights of stairs per trip; while I sat in the slow lane, taking it a tread at a time and gripping onto the rail for dear life, an army of insufferable guido pricks swore incessantly as they tore around me. And every time I got into a packed train car for the city, not a single self-absorbed person would give up their seat for the cripple trying to balance on one foot while hanging onto the rail above. Every step on the inflamed toe, now cherry red like it was hit with a hammer in a Warner Brothers cartoon, felt like pure evil. But the embarrassment and torture of the subway ride every day was far worse.

I got in with this podiatrist in Murray Hill, this Gary Shandling-looking fucker who glanced at my foot and without a second thought said, “yeah, that’s definitely gout.” He took x-rays and talked me into a $175 pair of orthopedic inserts to correct the flat feet, and I said yes, mostly because he had a really cute receptionist who talked to me. He got me an appointment with an internist to do some blood work, but first, he gave me a steroid injection into the joint of my big toe.

I don’t normally have a problem with needles. When I was a kid, I had allergy shots for three or four years, and I could probably handle jabbing myself with a hypo better than most junkies. But when a doctor says, “look, most podiatrists won’t give you this shot because it’s really hard to do, but I think I can try it,” followed with “I’m going to give you a shot of lidocaine so I can give you the actual shot,” then produces this giant railroad spike of a needle along with a giant jar of fluid that’s going in your intra-articular area, you tend to freak the fuck out. And I did. And I kept a straight face, until he had to push around the second needle and jockey with the syringe, like he was putting the eleventh gallon of gas in a ten-gallon tank. But I walked out of there — WALKED out of there, with both shoes on, no cane, and a Barry Bonds-like amount of steroid in the knuckle of my toe.

Here’s what I found out about gout, after a weekend of frenetic web searches: gout is a form of arthritis, where excess uric acid in the blood crystallizes in the coolest extremities of your body, where there’s the most pressure. Those crystals then cause inflammation and push into your nerves, making it feel like a lobster has clamped down on your toes. Doctors and junk science folklorists go back and forth every few years, either saying it’s caused by rich diet and alcohol, or genetics and heredity. Common treatment involves strict diet, a regimen of uric acid-depleting medication, or both.

And when I got to the internist’s office and got a few tubes of blood drawn, he told me the same thing, and gave me a script for allopurinol and some scare tactics about my daily McDonald’s regimen. The next day, he called and gave me the complete rundown, that my uric acid levels were off the chart, along with my cholesterol count, triglycerides, and every other bad thing that a 30-year-old shouldn’t have coursing through their veins. He told me to come back in six months and get more blood work to figure out if I needed Lipitor. But this was in April of 2001, and his office was in the World Trade Center, so you can do the math on that one.

I called my friend Cynthia, this Venezuelan swimsuit model in LA. She started emailing me about Bukowski a year ago, then read my books and became a fan. She told me she was a Venezuelan swimsuit model, and I became a fan. We met whenever one of us was on the wrong coast, and I considered selling everything I owned and moving to LA, except I just did that a year ago with New York, and it didn’t work out well.

“Cyn, how’s the city of Angels?”

“Horrible when you’re not here,” she said. “What happened with your doctor?”

“The prick told me I needed to take more pills, lose 40 pounds, go on a diet, and lower my cholesterol.”

“You don’t need to lose weight,” she said. “You’re fine.”

“Right back at ya,” I said. “But I’m hobbling around this fucking island like Quasimodo. I think I’m going to have to become a vegetarian,” I said. “I don’t know what the hell to do.”

“I’m a vegetarian,” she said. “It’s not that hard.”

“You live in the land of fruits and nuts,” I said. “The frickin’ Burger King out there has a vegan menu. I grew up in Indiana. Even the vegetables have meat in them. How the hell am I going to live on salads?”

“What about falafel? That’s vegetarian.”

“What the fuck is a falafel?”

“It’s ground up chickpeas, fried in a ball, in a pita. You’ve never had falafel?”

“I don’t even know where the hell to get it. The most ethnic food we had as a kid was Pizza Hut.”

“I’m sure you can find a guy in a cart selling it there. I know a really good place in the East Village — we’ll go the next time I’m in town.”

“I’m starving now,” I said. “I’m going to try to catch some lunch. Catch you later Cyn.”

Times Square might be the center of the universe for tourists, but that only makes it a horrible place to grab a quick bite to eat if you work there. When you’ve only got a half-hour between meetings, going to Sardi’s and beating past the Wednesday half-off theater crowd bussed in from Iowa isn’t an option. It’s one of many reasons my diet consisted mostly of grabbing a #2 meal from the mega-McDonald’s, and maybe switching off with the Pizza Hut Express hidden in the food court underneath the Viacom ghetto across the street. The BMG building had a giant cafeteria, but it wasn’t good for much except mediocre ten-dollar hamburgers, and occasionally running into celebrities. (I kept seeing Booger from Revenge of the Nerds eating lunch there.)

I prairie-dogged over the top of my cube to talk to my neighbor Amy. “Do you know of a good place for falafel around here?”

“There’s a guy with a cart that’s always on either 48th or 49th, between 7th and 8th,” she said.

I grabbed my MiniDisc player and headphones, and headed for the elevator. Down in the lobby, a group of ghetto kids stood at the security desk, trying to convince the guards to let them through the TSA-like checkpoint to go upstairs and tell Diddy they were the next big thing. Sometimes the guards would let them audition on speakerphone for the 30th floor receptionist. I always wondered if I could start some kind of scam telling wannabe rappers in the lobby I was a producer and could get them face time with Puffy for a small cash fee. But I was too hungry to deal with that today.

I cut east on 46th street, to avoid the crowds, and walked past the American Express office where I was always making last-second thousand-dollar payoffs to keep my corporate card out of hock. I hung a left back onto 48th and saw my destination, a green cart with glass walls and a middle-eastern looking guy manning the post, shuffling ice over cans of Coke in a plastic tub.

“Hi, uh, I’ll have a falafel?” I asked.

“Just one, boss?”

“Uh, I don’t know, actually. How big are they?” I had no concept whatsoever what constituted a falafel, or an order of falafel. For all I knew, falafel was one of those words that was both singular and plural. Does several falafels constitute a bunch of the fried balls in one pita, or many pitas, each with multiple balls? I had no idea.

“You never had a falafel? Here, try this out.” He pulled out one of the spheres from a pile just out of a fryer and handed it to me. My first thought was that it looked like a dried meatball, maybe something you got in an silver astronaut food pack and then reconstituted before adding to a spaghetti dinner.

I bit into the piece and was surprised by its crunchiness. It had a texture that was tactically satisfying, like the experience of biting into a hard-shelled M&M candy and finding the soft chocolate inside. The piece came straight out of the fryer and felt like it was a thousand degrees in my mouth, but this wasn’t the soggy, reconstituted, sad falafel patty you get in the freezer section of your local Kroger; this was the real deal.

I hurried back to the office with the paper bag containing the warm, foil-wrapped pita, got a soda from the break room, and sat at my desk to dig in. I quickly found falafel isn’t the best thing to eat at a computer, with tahini oozing from the seams onto your hands and pieces of lettuce and tomato overflowing onto the keyboard with every bite. And a single pita-ensconced sandwich wasn’t enough — I instantly regretted not buying two. But I loved the heartiness of it, and didn’t regret not eating some meat-based lunch. I always associated bean-oriented food with the thin, massless bean burritos you get at taco joints that taste like a beef burrito minus the beef. Falafel has a satisfying quality, and when you mix that with the tang of the tahini sauce offset by the crispness of the lettuce and the sweetness of the tomatoes, it’s a perfect storm of sandwich goodness.

I’ve eaten a thousand falafels since. From the raw food place in Mar Vista to the historic Mamoun’s in the heart of Greenwich Village; from the local sandwich shop I walk to almost every day in Silicon Valley to the time I discovered you could get a falafel plate at Dodger Stadium, I’ve loved every time I could wrap a pita around some fried or baked chickpeas. I never stuck with being a vegetarian — within a week of that attempt, I was at the Times Square Chili’s, eating the ten-pounds-of-ribs meal. But I cut the fast food, lost the weight, and still love me a good falafel.