Saturday, October 2, 2010

when a door closes, a window opens


It was autumn of 1997 when I packed my bags and made a beeline for anywhere but Alaska.  I didn’t make it very far.  Seattle, Washington, or ‘down south’ as most Alaskans refer to it, was an obvious choice; close but not too close for comfort.   Under strict orders from my mother, dad tagged along, determined to get me settled before cutting the apron strings.  I had sense enough not to decline. 

No sooner than our plane had touched down, dad took the reigns, systematically guiding me through the steps necessary in navigating a new city.  For this I was grateful.  Our first order of business was finding me a place to live.  I didn’t own a car and hoped to reside within walking distance of downtown.   Dad was quick to extol the virtues of the 1920’s building where he had rented a studio in the early seventies.  He made a case for its vintage charms and proximity to the city.  I balked.  Surely the place had changed for the worse in the span of 25 years.

While dad waxed nostalgic, I glazed over, determined to loathe this proposed relic from his past.  He humored my request to view other apartments but soon found fault with each of them.  One was unsafe, another too expensive; a third showed promise but was afflicted with a seedy landlord.  After three strikes, I begrudgingly agreed to drive by his old building.  Secretly, I was intrigued but outwardly I remained intent upon my disagreeable stance. 

It was a beautiful fall day, the kind where a cool grey mist lingers over the morning and by noon gives way to brilliant autumn sunshine.  The apartment building loomed above us, nearly a dozen stories with gothic cornices adorning its upper floors.  Weathered brick popped against an endless blue sky.  As we approached the entry, I had a twinge of remorse for my childish behavior. 

On the sidewalk, a sandwich board announced ‘Studios for Rent’.  I could sense dad’s enthusiasm mounting and offered a conciliatory smile.  No sooner than I did, my hopeful expression turned to a look of absolute horror.  Straggling across the threshold, dragging useless back legs, was a massive poisoned rat.  Fuming, I turned on my heel and marched back to the car.  Dad followed close behind.  “That was pretty bad,” he relented, “I understand if you don’t want to stay but since we’re already here, can’t we take a look?  I wouldn’t mind seeing the place again after all these years.  I wonder if they still have Murphy beds like they did when I lived here.”

“All right,” I retorted,  “I’ll look.  But I’m not living here.”

Back at the entry, the doomed rodent was nowhere to be found.  Inside, we were greeted by a forlorn lobby, sparingly furnished with a sagging brocade sofa and standing brass lamp, its tattered shade askew.  We proceeded up a short flight of stairs to the rental office.  Behind a paper strewn desk sat Erik, a wiry fellow in his early 20’s who looked the part of a modern day beatnik complete with goatee and horn rimmed glasses. 

“Right this way,” Erik chirped, as he led us across the hall to an ancient elevator.  We crowded in just before the door slid shut with a reverberating thunk.  The tired old elevator car rumbled and churned its way up to the fifth floor.  I said a silent prayer of gratitude when it came to a lumbering halt and the door opened to reveal a dimly lit hallway with dingy mauve carpeting and flesh-toned walls.  “Here we are,” Erik’s sing-songy voice fell flat against the drab surroundings.  Tarnished brass numbers on the honey-stained door read ‘503’.

Sun streamed through two streaky windows, flooding the space with an abundance of light and a wall of heat.  Erik pointed out a postage stamp-sized bathroom and two absurdly large closets.  “This one,” he claimed, “once housed a Murphy bed.  You can still see hinges here on the wall.”  He showed us the kitchenette with French doors and a miniature linoleum floor measuring no more than 5 feet across and 1 foot deep.  “And this,” Erik announced with mock grandeur as he jiggled the stubborn window until it begrudgingly slid open, “is the air conditioning.”  I was not amused.  Of course, this self-deprecating take on the building’s lack of amenities elicited a hearty chortle from the parental unit.

Dad took on an authoritative air, inspecting faucets, doors and windows, basically giving everything the once over as if I might seriously rent the place.  Sure, the studio had its charms but I was not convinced.  “Say,” he called from the bathroom,  “the hinges on this toilet seat are loose and there’s a missing cupboard door in here.  Any chance you can see to these repairs before my daughter moves in?”  Yeah right, I thought to myself.  I came for the scenic tour, not the extended stay.

“I think that can be arranged,” Erik mused, pensively stroking his goatee.  “I’ll touch base with Scott, our maintenance man.  He should be able to take care of it.” 

We rode back down to the lobby in relative silence.  Dad followed Erik into the leasing office to look over the rental agreement.  I trailed behind, arms folded in silent opposition.  “About those repairs?” dad inquired.  Erik picked up the receiver and then abruptly set it down.  “Oh hey, I was just about to call,” he greeted.  We turned and followed his gaze to the doorway where the dreamiest man I had ever laid eyes was sauntering in to the room.  Wrench in hand, he stood before us, a Greek god in human form, with bronzed skin, sun-kissed cropped curls and piercing blue eyes like azure pools of water.

“This is Scott, our maintenance man,” Erik drew out this introduction and I sensed it wasn’t the first time he had lured a potential tenant by pulling out the hot handyman card.  Smiling demurely, I feigned indifference.  Scott graciously agreed to take care of the repairs should I decide to move in.  I nodded, averting my eyes in a lame attempt to conceal my newfound infatuation.

No sooner than Scott had departed, I was conjuring up legitimate repairs in need of his immediate attention.  Summoning all the nonchalance I could muster, I coolly inquired, “When can I move in?”

Because my studio was akin to a shoebox, I generally entertained no more than one or two guests at a time.  As my circle of friends grew and the holidays approached, I decided to host a festive gathering, fearlessly inviting ten guests to cram into my flat for cookies and cocoa.  No one declined.  Once the trio of chairs were claimed, people perched on window sills, along the edges of my bed and on the floor.  I doled out steaming cups of homemade cocoa with thick dollops of real whipped cream and ceremoniously placed the first sheet of cookies in the oven.  After setting the timer with a beep ba beep beep, I gaily announced, “Only 10 minutes until the cookies are ready!”

A few moments later, someone asked, “Is something burning?”

“That’s not possible,” I replied, “the cookies still have five minutes to go.”  It did smell smoky.  I nervously cracked open the oven door to discover the cookie sheet covered in pool of melted butter, bits of pecan like scattered stones.  My mind raced, as I tried to comprehend why my seemingly possessed oven was sabotaging the cookies.  To make matters worse, butter was now dripping over the edges of the pan and onto the heating element below.  The moment the butter touched the hot coils, a grease fire ensued.  I slammed the door shut and wailed, “What do I dooooo?!” 

My friend Lisa had the good sense to turn off the oven followed by a lapse in judgment as she proceeded to douse the flames with a glass of water, thus creating a ball of fire and singeing her eyelashes in the process.  Never throw water on a grease fire.  Guests opened windows and fanned the air.  Once the fire no longer posed a threat, the humor of the situation was lost on no one.  Everyone agreed we would be telling this story for many years to come.

What went wrong?  In my haste, I had omitted flour.  The mistake went undetected because the crisped rice cereal and chopped pecans bulked up the dough, giving the illusion that flour was present.  Needless to say, my oven was out of commission for the remainder of the evening.  For a long time, everything I cooked or baked was imparted with an unpalatable, smoky aroma.  When I shared this story with my great Aunt Vi, who had given me the recipe, she admitted that she, too, had forgotten the flour on one occasion.  “The good news,” she sagely opined, “is that you will never forget the flour again.”


The cookies I attempted to bake that fateful evening are called Wookie Cookies.   No one seems to know where the name originated but everyone loves these unusual and highly addictive cookies.  Tiny bits of pecan are suspended in frothy shortbread with a delicate crumb.  Once baked, crisped rice cereal is the wild card; undetectable as breakfast cereal, it imparts a slightly chewy, lighter than air texture and malty flavor.  I have found that people who typically decline treats with nuts are surprised to discover that they enjoyed them in these cookies. 

wookie cookies

yields approximately 24 cookies


1 cup unsalted butter, softened 
1 cup granulated sugar (I use ultrafine baker’s sugar)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt*
1 cup crisped rice cereal (i.e. rice crispies)


Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit

In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Stir in vanilla and mix well.  In another bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, soda and salt.  Stir in the crispies and pecans.  Using a wooden spoon or your hands, add the dry mixture to the butter mixture until well combined.  Chill for 1/2 hour. 

Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls and place an inch or so apart on a parchment lined cookie sheet.  Press down firmly with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar.  Bake for 10 minutes.  The cookies should be pale but not doughy and must rest on the baking sheet for 1-2 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.  These keep for several days in an airtight container.

*do not add salt if using salted butter


  1. I love that story. I live in a shoebox apartment just on the outskirts of downtown Spokane. It was built in 1906 and while it has definitely seen better days and there are no hot handymen, it has it's charm. I used to entertain somewhat regularly and host girls wine nights. I've fit up to 12 ladies in the tiny livingroom. Some of my greatest times have been had in my humble abode. My kitchen is what I refer to as a two-butt kitchen, but as my boyfriend and I found out on Thursday when he cooked dinner for me, there really is only room for one.
    The cookies sound great. I'm not much for cooking, but I do like cookies. :)

  2. Hi Sandra, Your apartment sounds lovely. I have such fond memories of my studio and occasionally make a detour so that I can pass the building when I run downtown. There is a sweet simplicity to living in a small space. I miss that. It sounds like you are making the most of your space. What did your boyfriend cook for dinner?