Notes on Topper Harris, May 1, 2014
Topper smirks at me, and unscrews the top of a cinnamon grinder on display at a well-known upscale cooking store. “Hey, check it out,” he says.
“What are you doing? Cut it out,” I say, always finding some reason to admonish him. In our friendship, he is the child and I am the parent, even though he’s about 5 years older. He extracts a cinnamon stick and puts it in his mouth.
"You can’t eat that!” I shriek. “It’s probably expired!”
He laughs and chews and shakes his head. “Air-ree-el,” he says, as he’s always had a way of over-pronouncing the syllables in my name. “You’re always freaking out.”
“I hope there’s f-ing wasabi in there,” I say as we leave the utensils and go to a kitchen, where an employee is doing a live cooking demonstration. She’s making a homemade quiche.
Suddenly Topper starts to tumble over on the marble counter top.
“I don’t feel so good,” he says.
The chef gives us a glance.
“He ate a cinnamon stick out of the grinder over there,” I say, as way of explanation. The chef widens her eyes.
“You know, they chemically treat some of that stuff or something…or it’s probably 10 years old,” she said.
“Oh god,” Topper said. He was still looking peaked, hunched over. I poked at him all day long after that, full of “I told you so’s” and other such things. “Yeah, you think this is funny,” he said, rubbing his stomach under his shirt.
(Before you scold me for laughing at his misfortune, you should know he was fine within two hours, and shortly after he proceeded to leave and have about 20 Kobe beef steaks at Megu. He was fine. )
Topper calls in the summer and wants to go to Century 21.
“I need some men’s stuff,” he said. He punctuates “stuff” and cuts it short at the same time, like he was raised in Brookyn but he wasn’t. I have nothing to do so I go downtown and meet him at the store. He wants to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
At the time I had only been in New York city for 5 months, and after all the pleading, and wishing and hoping to live there, I had it in my mind that I wouldn’t leave the island for awhile.
“I’m afraid to go off the island,” I told him. “I don’t know, I just don’t want something to happen and I never get to go back.”
“I think you’re just afraid of losing your life,” Topper quipped. “How about this, we walk across the bridge then we turn around and walk back, we won’t even go to Brooklyn.”
Back then my hatred of Brooklyn was strong (I’d even been quoted saying it was “inconsistent and colorless”).
“OK,” I agreed reluctantly. Topper smirked. “We’ll go halfway and if I don’t like it, we’ll turn around and go back.”
I was such a different person then. My first year in New York I was 24 and afraid of mostly everything, but had a curiosity that left me always feeling in conflict – do I try it, or do I forget about it? That same inner conflict was present as I thought Topper’s idea. I said yes.
We laughed the whole walk over, and on the embankment, we got ice cream at a lighthouse, then sat on rocks at the small beach.
“Topper,” I said, “I’m really glad you got me off the island.”
“Me too,” he said. We walked to a Mexican restaurant in Dumbo, and then the sun had gone down and it grew chilly.
I asked Topper how we were getting home and he scratched his head.
“Actually, I don’t know, I didn’t think about it,” he said. Then he looked up above himself, at the bridge. “Actually…”
“Don’t you dare say we’re walking back across the bridge, it’s 10 at night, we might get jumped!”
“Are-ree-ell,” Topper said, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” It was safer than I expected.
“The best way to hail a cab,” he says, “is to just stand in the middle of the street.”
I take Topper to “Monodramas” at the New York City Opera. At intermission, he strikes up conversation with a stranger about the first act, which was somewhat dissonant. The stranger thinks it was amazing – genius even -- and after the man has left, Topper crosses his arms and leans into me.
“People are so f-ing cerebral.”
Topper has an obsessive nature regarding restaurants. He eats consistently at one place for a month, then calls to complain that they’ve lost their touch, that they’ve grown mediocre, and that he’s found a new place somewhere else. This happens almost on schedule, and it’s hilarious that he hasn’t yet recognized the pattern. When he switched from Megu to another restaurant, we had dinner there. He raved endlessly about his love for the place.
“This is so amazing,” Topper said, even noting the different types of ice that they reserved for specific cocktails. He obsessed over the menu, “So good, so consistent” then, like clockwork the phone rang a month later and he was over it.
“You know, they used to be good at a few things, but lately they’ve just let me down and are mediocre,” he said following the script. “But let me tell you about this new restaurant I love…”
We discussed the future; ironically, five years ago I was able to see the future very clearly.
“Where do you think you’ll live?” Topper asked. We were sitting on the grass.
“I’ll be up in Washington Heights or Inwood,” I said and nodded. “I just have a feeling that I’ll end up somewhere far away.”
I did indeed end up there.
The first time I met Topper was at the Apple Store on Fourteenth and Ninth. I was attending the Fashion Week after party with some new friends who were late. “Our friend is already there,” texted Sarah the second I got out of the cab in the Meatpacking District. I wasn’t about to go into a bar alone, so I went into the Apple Store, and Topper was there approaching me. I knew we’d get along from the start.
At the party I noticed a table of “Project Runway” contestants. I pointed to them and told Topper they were from the show. Sniffing a challenge and showing off his ability to make conversation with anyone, he walked over, sat down at their table, and started talking to them. He stayed at that table for 20 minutes at least. He impressed us all.
September of 2008 I called him on the phone, “You’re the guest of honor at my birthday party,” I told him.
“I’ve never been a guest of honor,” he said. But he didn’t show up to the party.
Post-lunch at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle, Topper asked: “Why do you have to be so uptight?”
“I just am. Why are you always trying to get me to loosen up?” I asked him back defensively.
“Because I used to be the same way as you,” Topper said.
“Yeah right. You’re the bravest guy I know, you’re always talking to strangers,” I said.
“I’m just testing myself,” he said.
He had two Boston terriers, a girl and a boy. I asked about them frequently.
“You know,” I said to him once, interrupting him when he was in the middle of a story, “I have a theory about your male dog.”
“What theory?” Topper asked.
“Well, I interrupted you, sorry. Continue,” I said.
“Well, I was just saying that my dog is really sad and lonely lately. He doesn’t have any other girl dogs to play with besides his sister, you know. He seems really frustrated,” Topper said, his voice getting low and melancholy. “But, what’s your theory?”
“I,” I couldn’t stop laughing. “I was going to say that I think you project your own feelings about your life onto your dog, every time I ask about him, it seems like you answer with what’s going on your life.”
Topper began to laugh. “Oh so you think I’m frustrated and lonely?”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe.”
We went to a flea market in the summertime. On our way out an elderly man leaning against a wall smiled at us.
“You’re a beautiful couple,” he said. But we weren’t dating and we never dated.
“That’s what I keep telling her,” Topper said.