On October 30, 2002, a mesothelioma-stricken Warren Zevon appeared on Letterman one last time. He played a few songs, talked with Dave for about 10 minutes, and made an inconspicuous exit from the public eye. Of course, Zevon never enjoyed the pop stardom of his peers. Despite hit albums like Excitable Boy, he labored in relative obscurity. Critically but not commercially successful, Zevon was the consummate rock poet, a fringe figure whose quirky tunes never connected with the Billboard charts.
“Do you know something about life and death that maybe I don’t know now?” Letterman asked Zevon. “Not unless I know how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich,” Zevon replied. I won’t try to directly explicate Zevon’s comment. What follows is an implicit explanation grounded in a humble Hamdel hero.
This week, I was scheduled to eat the Cheese Tease: American, Swiss, Muenster, and Provolone cheese with lettuce, tomato, pickles, oil, and vinegar. When I realized that the Cheese Tease comes cold, I felt apprehensive. As a six year old kid, I liked a Muenster sandwich with mustard—then again, in kindergarten, my palate was both more sensitive to bitter flavors and utterly unsophisticated. The thought of chilly supermarket cheese slices on potato bread now sends shivers up my spine. Not surprisingly, this hero was depressingly bland—just a wad of semi-salty cheese product with some limp vegetables.
But I had to finish the sandwich; the Tour de Hamdel rules require it. After all, one could simply order every sandwich on the menu and take a tiny bite out of each. Finishing the Tour involves finishing every named sandwich. So I swallowed down leaden mouthfuls, forcing myself to make it through the torturous second half.
Life is, however, too short to suffer through bad sandwiches. I needed to enjoy this sandwich, to find some pleasure in its excruciating banality. To live life according to the imperative “enjoy every sandwich” is to savor every bite, even the dullest. For the pleasure of sheer sensation accompanies boring sandwiches, too. The mere act of eating validates a kind of hedonistic existence.
During my adolescence, I professed a unmovable hatred for Zevon. Although my brother and dad worshipped at the Zevon altar, I refused to accept their proselytizing. I perceived Zevon’s music as bizarre and vacuous—an opinion formed solely from rebellion, not reason. Their cultish admiration struck me as misguided, at least until I listened to the music myself. Still, it took me three years to admit my respect for Zevon. Perspective shifts slowly, like the rotating weather-eye of a lighthouse turning quietly in the night.
Teasing out the meaning in this Hamdel creation was difficult; it’s easy to lose perspective on a grand journey like the Tour. Whitman writes in “Carol of Occupations”—
Can each see signs of the best by a look in the lookingglass?
Is there nothing greater or more?
Does all sit there with you, with the mystic, unseen Soul?
In Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon quotes Whitman to describe man’s ultimate potential. The ability to shift perspectives is the capacity for change:
A human being is not a waxen rubbing, a lifeless imprint taken from some great stony face. Rather he is a Minuteman or a dog soldier at liberty to use the inclinations of the past as he sees fit. He is free to perceive the matrix, and, within his limits, change from it. By seeing both the futility in trying to relive the old life and the danger in trying to obliterate it, man can gain the capacity to make anew.
I will enjoy every sandwich, albeit with a consciousness and appreciation of the moment.
Nevertheless, I would not order the Cheese Tease again. I’m not sure why it’s even on Hamdel’s menu.
Next: the Jose Special (hot Virginia ham, melted American cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a toasted, buttered hero).