Last year, the night after Christmas, or more specifically, the very early morning of the day after the night after Christmas, I left the house where still nothing was stirring -- save for ripped ribbons and scraps of tissue paper skittering across the wood floors from gusts of central heat. I found myself drinking beers and small glasses of Jim Beam on ice with a friend on the damp, cold patio of my favorite bar in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The Back Door hugs the side-alley edge of a depressing strip mall in an otherwise lovely neighborhood. Despite a few relatively recent attempts at renovation, Mid-City Mall remains a wan collection of establishments: a husk of a supermarket, a huge basement thrift store, a small gym, a wizened bakery, and a movie theater -- all save the latter permeated through and through by the distinct, inescapable odor of old cigarettes mingling with doughnut glaze. I sat in my uncomfortable plastic chair, letting crushed ice suffused with liquor melt in the back of my throat, compulsively checking the time on my cell phone again and again. I was listening to a friend of my friend I'd just met -- an aging, chain-smoking rocker lady who claimed to have once managed The Jesus Lizard. Curly-haired, shifty, and fast-talking, like a nervous auctioneer, she chattered on through the chill -- upbraiding her absent housemates, flirting, guffawing weirdly, talking about drugs, touching repeatedly on a failed attempt to bed Chris Cornell in the early 90s. The party is over, I thought. My flight was in seven hours. I hopped up to order another whiskey, my last.
When I returned, a man wearing blue overalls was hunched over our table. His hair was gray, but he could have been any age. It was hard to tell. An amazing Witness-style beard jutted out from his chin like a grass-tipped rock formation. He may have been wearing a hat. I'm not sure. I was intoxicated, and staring at what he was holding in his gnarled hands: a broad wicker basket filled with plastic baggies marked with indecipherable paper stickers containing what looked, in the dark, like shards of dried seaweed or the worst weed in the world. My friend had already bought a bag. He was stuffing bits of the stuff into his mouth and chewing deliberately, somehow grinning at the same time. "Jerky," he said. "Get some." I don't actually remember if that's what he said -- I was in my cups, after all -- but he informed me in some verbal form of expression what he was so intent on devouring. I got some -- two bags worth -- and started tearing away, balancing the sharp jolts of bourbon with salty strips. This jerky was the first beef I'd eaten since elementary school. I'd get a full-blown inauguration in Kyoto several months later, but this was an ideal re-introduction: consorting drunkenly with a rich, ancient-seeming flavor, as if my vaguest recollection of steak had been realized, condensed, and boiled down, and then -- in some dazzling Wonka-esque process -- rendered slim, portable, and hard as sheet-rock.
I don't actually remember that the vendor's hands were gnarled, but the adjective suits the smoke-cured paws of a bearded Kentucky jerky-man. He didn't give a name; he just left -- trudging down the steps, disappearing into the shadowy reaches of the bar's tree-covered parking lot with what I'd like to imagine was an affected hill-country whoop. My friend's friend seemed to know him, but unlike us, she didn't want to talk about jerky, much less the man who made it. "It's low in calories!" she'd bellowed, sort of throwing up her hands in exasperation at our lack of interest in her preferred topics of conversation. "It's a great source of protein!"
I brought most of one bag back to San Francisco. I ate it all the following morning, while sitting at the kitchen table in my Mission District apartment, surfing the Internet. When it was empty, I stared at the bag, a little forlorn. "I've got to get some more of this shit," I said to myself. The jerky salesman was the real deal, I thought, a Kentucky classic, an intrepid street food hustler in a lean and largely cart-less land. I wanted to meet him again, to interview him perhaps, to most importantly get my hands on some more of his delicious wares.
I told my friend back in Louisville that I wanted to re-up. He had his own agenda. In exchange for sniffing out the traveling jerky-man, he wanted me to send him a large quantity of marijuana -- some good medicinal stuff with a fantastic name. From my perspective, no amount of jerky joy was worth the potential consequences of stinking up Fed-Ex with a sativa-spiked Folgers can. Imagining how hard a judge would laugh at me, I declined, putting down the phone and casting aside my longing -- temporarily.