Long Island Lockjaw The Hard Way

So you’ve moved to NYC! There’s no parade, no welcome wagon, no committee formed that's led by a Prozac-laced housewife with brochures. No directions about how to live in the big shitty, and definitely no food safety tips. 

 My first day living in NYC, I was excited to try all the amazing foods I'd never even seen. I sat in my apartment wondering if hunger would make me brave enough to venture out. 

I spied a grocery store across the street from my apartment on Columbus Avenue. As I entered, the ceiling felt low; but I'm sure I was comparing it to the vast supermarkets of Texas. I cheerfully grabbed a basket and jauntily headed down the aisle. I picked up a can of something and the top was dusty.

"Hmmm," I thought, as I returned it to the shelf and grabbed another can. Also dusty. We had a situation on our hands. I looked around as if to find the manager and tell him that whoever he was paying big-city wages to wipe these cans was screwing him over.  I picked up a steak from the meat case. The meat was brown on the edges, as if it were old or not artificially dyed the way I was used to. 

“Be calm,” I said to myself, hyperventilating but trying not to breathe in too much of this filthy air. I wanted to grab that steak, like Mary Tyler Moore in the opening credits of her TV show, and fling it into my basket with sticker-shock. But once I saw this dirty, brown meat, and since I was still reeling from the filthy can incident two aisles away, I dropped the meat back in the case like a hot rock. 

I left the building. I didn't toss my beanie in the air with reckless abandon like MTM. This grungy city didn’t deserve my new hat. I ate take-out that night, and many nights, which was great because I was exposed to some of the best cuisine in the world. Whatever little war-torn country everyone in NYC had floated over from, was now represented here by amazing food. 

I loved deli food and often grabbed a bite to eat from a street vendor or a fabulous hot dog from Gray’s Papaya. It gave me something to do when I walked countless blocks. (As you might have heard I was unable to take the subway.)

One night about 2AM I woke up and felt ill. My roommate went to our nearby Korean grocery and picked up Sprite and Pepto Bismol. I think he picked up a trick, too; the two-block trip took over an hour and I heard the all-too-familiar sound of belt buckles hitting ankles in the hall. The remedies didn’t help; I kept throwing up. Turns out I caught my first case of food poisoning. Technically I was due. I was so excited to try all of the food in the city that I tried all of the food in the city. I had to roll with it -- this case of food poisoning was like a cold a kid brings home from school: I couldn’t pinpoint exactly who had given it to me so I couldn’t beat anyone up. 

I worked at Morgan’s Hotel on Madison. Owned by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, of Studio 54 infamy. They only employed actors – I guess they loved putting up a good front. They knew about putting up a front (and back in Rubell’s case) because they were newly sprung from prison for hiding cash from the IRS when they owned the legendary disco. Gifted NYC chef and restaurateur Larry Forgione (American Place) sent a chef to work at the hotel. I worked as a waiter in room service, but I unnecessarily befriended that chef, Mark. He taught me useful cooking things, like how to make stock.  In return, I put a dishtowel on my head and lip-synched Patsy Cline songs into a spoon. Chef Mark and I became tight. He even shared with me that he was walking funny one day because he was recovering from an adult circumcision. 

One day, in some clever Freudian homage to his former foreskin, Mark was painstakingly removing every suggestion of fat from chicken parts. He used surgeon-esque precise swipes of his chef’s knife. Maybe he was about to interpret a classic French chicken dish. Perhaps create an all-new chicken masterpiece, reviewed in the Times and named for him, allowing him to finally emerge from Forgione’s shadow to open his own bistro.  

This was a great chance for me to witness this perhaps epic event. It was also a great chance for comedy. With one swoop of my hand, I scooped the chicken fat off of his board and shoved it in my mouth.  
I ran upstairs to the front desk. It was staffed with the most beautiful girls in New York. Freakishly gorgeous, young, natural blond debutantes who weren’t born, they were bred,  kept in a lab under tight security until the hotel needed them. These girls were a most cruel welcome to the guests. They carried a message from NYC itself to visitors: “Welcome to NY. We, like this city, are too good for you, so don’t get comfy. Just give us your money and leave.” 

I crept in the back door of the front desk, getting the girls attention by making “Lookout, I’m gonna hurl!” sounds and motions. I wretched and grabbed my stomach, working it as long as I could.  
After I had a captive, and stunning audience, I let the chicken fat fly from my mouth onto the floor. 
That was the whole gag. I “fake” threw up in front of beautiful girls. One yawned, one re-applied her lipstick, one almost made eye-contact, but they all ignored me. What I didn’t think through was that this didn’t faze them – they probably threw up as sport in front of each other, to trade tips on hair-holding and noise control.  

I cleaned up the mess and returned to room service, appropriately one floor below. Pain woke me up the next day at 5AM. My jaw throbbed from a horrible toothache. I took some Tylenol. I wished my mother would magically appear and take the pain away. She’s not a dentist but she’s terribly influential.

Being Saturday morning, my roommate wasn’t yet home from Friday night. I knew few people. I broke open the phone book and began calling dentists in my neighborhood. (I was in too much pain to travel out of my residential comfort zone.) By 8AM I was sitting in a dentist chair a few blocks away.

“You have great teeth,” he excitedly reported.  “But have you been exposed to salmonella lately?” he asked.  

Due to the pain,  it was hard to think. I knew I'd been exposed to disease, filth, and a rare combo of all of those when I recently encountered Steve Rubell passed out in his hotel with his pants down.

"You have lockjaw," he diagnosed. "Caused from salmonella. It's present in raw poultry," he went on. 

My eyes lit up. Through a jaw clenched shut by poison, I regaled him with the tale of my chicken fat bit. Lockjaw is only glamorous when it is an accent spoken by the population of a teensy part of Long Island, passed down from generation to generation, like a silver service or pouty lips. 

For five days I lived on anti-biotics, McDonald’s shakes and potato chips.  My Aunt Cathie washes her uncooked chickens with soap.

When Rachel Ray tells you to wash your hands after handling raw chicken, just fucking do it.


  1. All very good, Greg, but what about the monkey?

  2. Again, tears down my face from fond memories. xo

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Greg, all well done, be sure I'm not gonna try to wash uncooked chickens with soap :)

  5. Greg, What about putting the raw chicken through the dishwasher first?


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