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Music Monday: Ella Fitzgerald

In 1984, I don't really know who I am. I'm 17, so maybe that's normal, but I've been out of high school for a year and still have no idea what I want to do with my life. My high school friends are all away at university now; my sense of identity seems to have left with them, and I'm not getting much in the way of new direction in my classes at Modesto Junior College. I'm very, very lonely.

I meet a new crowd; they're not the deepest dishes in the drawer, but they are fun and different. I reinvent my external self in their image. Why not? I've done the preppy thing, I've been a punk; now it's time to try the vintage/mod look. For everyday wear, I comb through thrift stores for boxy cashmere cardigans, muslin shirtwaists, and moleskin capri pants. But I can't resist also buying dupioni silk suits hand-tailored for well-off women a quarter century before. And hats: a friend's mother gives me some gorgeous pillboxes--one completely covered in ostrich feathers--that would have met with even Holly Golightly's discerning approval. I soon add to this collection, courtesy the local Salvation Army and Goodwill outlets.

But where does one wear such finery when one lives in the Central Valley of California, America's Apricot/Sugar Beet/Almond Basket? Conveniently for Anj (not my sister), Deb, Lily, Don, Kasey, Mike, and me, a new slice of heaven has opened up in downtown Modesto: The Café Decadence.

It's much more innocent than it sounds. A couple of guys create a little restaurant that is open in the evenings only. There's a garden out back that they string with copious amounts of tiny white lights and fill with mismatched patio furniture. Foodwise, they focus on one thing: excellent desserts.

My favorite is Cake of Joy. Thin layers of chocolate butter cake and crispy, light, hazelnut meringue alternate with generous amounts of mocha buttercream and creamy, dark ganache. Every bit of it is homemade by one of the partners, and it is fresh, rich, and perfect. (I've been dreaming of recreating it for years.) But the Carrot Cake is also excellent, as are the Linzer Tarts, the Berry Crumbles, and the Sour Cream Lemon Pie.

To drink, of course there's coffee, but that's not my thing. I either have the iced Ruby Mist tea or the Hot Buttered Milk. That last I have recreated: warm milk with cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg, and brown sugar stirred in. Delish; don't knock it till you've tried it.

The other mods and I aren't really welcome at "The Dec" during prime-time hours; hordes of real adults with real jobs (and who can leave real tips) show up perhaps before or after a movie, enjoy something fabulous to eat, and go home to their real lives. But after 9:30 or so, the place empties out, and we mods arrive in full regalia. The guys wear thin-lapeled suits with skinny ties and mismatched cufflinks, acting natty backdrops to us girls. We do our best to be Audrey or Marilyn, Doris or Sofia, and as we sit under the fairy lights, making our orders last and chatting for hours on end, we imagine we're in San Francisco or New York, or the ultimate: Paris.

The music, wafting out of speakers wired to the sycamore trees, helps us along. It's stuff I haven't really heard before, but I fall head over heels for it. The owners favor Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. I enjoy Lady Day and the Divine One, but sometimes the tragedy that wells up out of the voices of these first two is too much for me; it reminds me of how alone I really am with this sparkling but shallow group. Ella, on the other hand, becomes my my friend and secret ally.

Even when she's singing the blues, there is a warmth and wit to Ella's lithe, pure voice that lifts my spirit and makes me smile. I can't decide which is more marvelous: her technical perfection, or the way she pours every drop of her glorious soul into her music. Often, when one of her songs comes on, I drop out of the conversation, close my eyes, and just listen.

And it's a good thing I do, because it turns out that Ella has messages intended only for my ears. You're stuck, she whispers. I was stuck once, too. Everything around you is just a shadow of something bigger and better, but you're in danger of falling for the mirage. You can get out, though, if you want.

Really? I ask silently, night after night. How? Where? Show me the way out.

Wait and watch, girl, she answers.

Filled with a new, restless energy, I do as she counsels, and when I get offered a job in the Bay Area not long afterwards, I gather my courage, leave the mods behind, and go. I'm fairly certain they don't really notice I've gone. But no matter: though there are plenty more mirages and mistakes on my journey, I'm starting to get a sense of direction at last.

It's 1994. I'm sitting in a lovely Manhattan apartment with Patrick and our close friends D&S. I've been to the real Paris, and it is worlds better than even Ella describes. Sweet Baby Christian is asleep in another room, and we four linger for hours over fabulous dessert and talk. The conversation sparkles, but it has depth. Our friends are beautiful and stylish, but they have minds and hearts even more attractive than their clothes. I feel loved and treasured, warm, safe, and understood.

Ella comes on the stereo, soft in the background. Suddenly, she's speaking to me again, whereas I've heard only her songs for most of the last decade. Look around, girl, she whispers. You did it; you got unstuck and found the reality behind the pretty shadow. You made it out.

I look around with a sudden lump in my throat and realize she's right.

For more Music Monday, visit Soccer Mom in Denial.

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Reader Comments (17)

Awwwww, that really is a sweet memory.

I'm sorry you weren't at Stake Choir Practice tonight. There was a huge discussion concerning grammatical correctness of a childrens' song, which you would have made beautiful contributions to I'm sure, as well as the side-splitting musical humor that makes no sense to me but amuses every other adult in the room. The norm, basically.

February 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

Wow! What a powerful post, Luisa! I had no idea. Now I must go listen to Miss Ella.

February 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJenna Consolo

Beautiful. Ella's one of my best friends too.

Also, I'm sure you already have it, but I just gave you an award :D

February 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterThalia's Child

lovely story.

and I think there is something soul killing about central CA. It nearly killed mine, too.

February 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpainted maypole

You, my dear, are delightful, delicious, d-lovely. (Weeping. I can't stop weeping.)

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Oh how I love Ella.

This is a beautiful post.

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercablegirl

I love, love,love Ella Fitzgerald. And I have my mom to thank for that. She's my favorite cooking companion. And I love Paris as she does, but I can only stand in her far-off shadow.

Gorgeous post. Simply gorgeous.

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJen of A2eatwrite

Love Ella. Love you more. This is such a great story!!!

And yeah, you did it. You TOTALLY did it!

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrillig


February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDedee

Such depth and warmth to this post...so very much like Ella's voice. You captured it perfectly.

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

You painted the picture beautifully. Love it.

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Lyon

Fabulous as usual (even though I tend to prefer Billie).

February 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLilacspecs

What a great post and it was made sweeter in hearing the song below as I was reading it. In the early 80's while shopping at a thrift store I bought a men's wool overcoat in a green/black very small plaid. I paired it with a long green scarf and wore it open as it was unfitted (I wore it in winter through a couple pregnancies). When cold, I would pull it closed in front. The label inside gave it's production date in 1949 in England. I wore that coat for years and had many the compliment on it. My mom shook her head at the purchase that cost me all of $5.00.

I loved the ambiance of your post, created by your awesome descriptions and the music playing.

February 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

Wonderful writing. Lucky you.

February 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEdna B

I just stumbled upon this while searching on Cafe Decadence in Modesto. Must have been around 1982-83 when I hung out there during high school. It was that little slice of bohemia that so many of us craved while growing up in that little Central California backwater. I got out too, to Berkeley, then Seattle, but still have the fond memories. Thanks for your post.

March 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBob

I loved this post Luisa! Ah the power of music to uplift, transform -- and then of course the power of New York. I'm so glad you put your cherished memory into words for all of us, who all need to get unstuck, if not today, then tomorrow.

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWhitney Johnson

Cafe decadence? - I remember the cafe decadence in 1984 - I was 17 as well - turned 18 in that cafe.

We were probably friends.

March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Stanford

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