Of the earth

Pub date December 2, 2009
WriterL.E. Leone
SectionCheap EatsSectionFood & Drink

Boink likes sushi. Specifically he goes for the California roll. Only without avocado. Or seaweed. Or, come to think of it, rice. Boink likes crab.
There’s a sushi joint between their house and the preschool he goes to, and we walk past it and Boink wants sushi. I remember the first time I was surprised, because though we cook everything in the world together, I have rarely seen him eat anything that wasn’t peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crust cut off.
“Sushi, Boink?” I said. “You like sushi?”
“Me too,” said his little sister, Popeye the Sailor Baby. “I like sushi.”
Their mom had packed us snacks. “Me three,” I said.
When I was in grade school there was a substitute teacher name of Carmen Pomponio who shaped my life more than any of my teacher teachers, give or take Sister Esther. Carmen Pomponio had black greasy hair, a beard, dark, deep eyes, and a funny way of talking. He spoke in a languid, sibilanced drawl that was not Southern so much as careless, and I suppose I’m in love with him still.
The teacher teachers used to give him elaborate instructions about which chapter in which book to read, etc. They gave him assignments to give to us. They were sick, but still they were thinking about our intellectual advancement.
Carmen Pomponio always looked like he was thinking about something else, and whether we were in the second grade or the sixth, we all knew what it was: Mark Twain. We could see the little paperback bulge in his tweed coat pocket, and knew he wanted to read to us as badly as we wanted to be read to.
From a distance of 2,000 miles and 40 years, it’s impossible to say who was playing whom. But he would go through the motions — the teacher said this, the teacher said that — reading off of a little piece of paper, a sweat starting on his forehead, his fat lips a-tremble, setting us up, against his better judgment, for our actual lesson. And once he had mapped out in substitute-teacher detail what we were all supposed to do, according to our home-sick teacher, he would look up from his notes, a kind of calm spreading over his face like pizza sauce, and say, “Or I could read you some Twain.”
The first time we might not have known what Twain was, especially the way he said it: “Twaayyyn.” But what kid wouldn’t opt for Twain over Teacher? And after he’d read some Twain once, no class in its right collective mind would let him finish outlining his assignments. Sometimes we didn’t let him start. As soon as you saw Carmen Pomponio in your classroom you would beg in chorus, and in his jangly accent, “Read some Twaayyyn! Read some Twaayyyn!”
As far as I can recall, he always did, doing the characters in different voices and everything. Jim. Huck. Tom. Even Miss Watson. And our little brains churned into butter. How anyone in that school could possibly not grow up to be a writer is beyond me.
Carmen Pomponio had his priorities straight. Some things are a little more important than learning, or even playing. The two I’m thinking of, Mark Twain and sushi, are way more important. Both of them, I would argue, are “of the earth.”
At Kobe-Ya, a dive sushi-to-go joint without a lot of raw fish on the menu, Boink and Popeye stand on the bench seats and dissect California rolls with fingers, chopsticks, forks, and … yeah, mainly fingers. Boink breaks the sushi open like shellfish, picks out the crab, and Popeye kind of cleans up after him, also like shellfish. I use the word “cleans” poetically. Most of the rice winds up on the floor, in the cracks on the bottom of their sneaks, and in my hair.
Me, I’m eating noodles, chicken udon, which is $5.50 for a pretty big bowl, and good. Plus it’s fun for the kids, or at least these ones, who get a kick out of playing with steam.
If you have not yet taken a toddler out for sushi, I recommend it. Just leave a big tip because rice is pretty sticky. You know.
Daily, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
2300 Encinal, Alameda
(510) 337-1966
Beer & sake