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His spotless devotion

Times Staff Writer

Ten months to the day after I met my wife on a blind date in New York, I began our first Valentine’s Day as a couple by sending a dozen red roses to her office. A few hours later, I sent a dozen pink roses. Then, a dozen yellow roses. Then, finally, a solid chocolate telephone with my phone number -- in white chocolate -- on the dial.

Despite this burst of romanticism and extravagance -- and despite early romantic get-togethers in Montreal and Paris -- any time a new friend asks about our courtship, the story Lucy most enjoys telling is the one that begins:

“I fell in love with David because he’s so good at removing wine and food stains.”

I think -- I hope -- this is at least a slight understatement of my masculine charm. But it is true that while I know nothing about cars or computers and am completely hopeless when it comes to any home improvement task more complicated than changing a light bulb, I do seem to have developed the ability to remove almost any spot or potential stain from clothing.

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This might not seem a skill worthy of a woman’s love, but in my case it is a necessity. I am a klutz. Anything that can be dropped, spilled or knocked over, I will drop, spill or knock over. I am especially maladroit -- I believe that’s French for “total klutz” -- in restaurants. I never met a wine bottle, soup bowl or glass of water that I couldn’t topple.

I am particularly dangerous with wine. (I once set a new, Christmas-gift shirt on fire -- while wearing it -- when I reached over a candle to pour wine at Christmas dinner. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, just a few months after Lucy and I met, we were having dinner in a nice little restaurant in Santa Barbara, and what did I do but spill an entire glass of red wine on her brand new yellow silk blouse.

“Put your sweater on over the blouse and take the blouse off and give it to me right now,” I said, in a near panic, envisioning this budding romance withering before my very eyes.

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Startled, Lucy did as I requested.

I’d once -- many years earlier and very briefly -- dated a flight attendant. She gave me two tips that she said were essential for anyone in her profession: Use sparkling water to remove most stains; use white wine to remove red wine stains.

I’d remembered those tricks far longer than I remembered the flight attendant -- she dumped me after three dates -- so on this warm spring night in Santa Barbara, I took Lucy’s wine-soaked blouse from her outstretched hand and strode purposefully to the bar.

“Give me a carafe of your house white wine,” I said, with great authority and no explanation.

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The bartender looked puzzled, but he complied without comment.

I took both the wine and the blouse into the men’s room and put paper towels in the bottom of the sink to block the drain. Then I filled the sink with the wine, plunged the blouse into it and began briskly rubbing the rapidly staining parts of the blouse together and rinsing it out in the wine.

It looked a mess when I was done -- all wet and wrinkled. But you couldn’t see much wine stain.

It was still wrinkled the next morning. But it was stain-free. After Lucy took it to the dry cleaner, it was as good as new. And she was as good as mine.

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Another red wine crisis

Flash forward 18 years to our most recent European vacation. We’re in a fancy restaurant in a fancy hotel in Rome. This time, I spill red wine all over the table and, more important, all over a silk sport jacket Lucy bought me a year earlier, the best sport jacket I’ve ever owned.

Shortly before leaving for Rome, I’d read stories in several magazines touting a product called Wine Away that supposedly cleans red wine stains. “I never travel without the two-ounce, purse-size spray bottle,” one journalist had written. I’d also heard about a book called “Field Guide to Stains” that supposedly explains how to remove every kind of stain.

But on this night in Rome, I have neither Wine Away nor Field Guide, and my Italian is almost nonexistent; I know the Italians will think I’m crazy if I ask -- in any language -- for a liter of white wine and then run to the men’s room with it. So I ask for sparkling water instead, hoping for the best.

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A bolt for the loo

But our waiter is much more concerned with the spreading stain on our tablecloth than with the multiple splotches on my sport jacket. While I sit fuming, he carefully places several clean napkins over the tablecloth and, ever so slowly, smooths them out. One at a time.

I ask again for sparkling water. My Italian must be even worse than I think because he reappears a couple of moments later with a tiny saucer of boiling hot water. This time I demand, enunciating carefully, “Acqua minerale con gas.” He finally brings me a bottle of San Pellegrino, and I bolt for the men’s room.

The sight of me galloping through the dining room -- bottle in one hand, dripping jacket in the other -- seems to alert the staff, at last, to the urgency of the situation. Alarmed, the waiter, the maitre d’, the sommelier and the chef all follow me. It quickly gets very crowded in the men’s room. Each of them volunteers to help. Meanwhile, I’m frantically applying the Pellegrino to my jacket, using yet another flight attendant trick -- pull on the stain, pull it out, don’t rub it in.

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The maitre d’ virtually rips the jacket from my hands, in- sisting, “Housekeeping will take care of it for you. I guarantee it.”

I grab the jacket back. I’m determined not to relinquish it until I’ve done all I can. Ultimately -- more or less satisfied -- I yield to his entreaties.

But now I can’t get out of the men’s room. It seems that the former president of Italy -- one Francesco Cossiga -- also is in the restaurant tonight, and he has chosen this moment to respond to nature’s call.

He’s 74 and moves as if he’s 104. Perhaps struck by nostalgia for his days in office, he appears to be treating the occasion as a state visit. He’s standing in the doorway, shaking hands with the chef, the sommelier, the maitre d’ and assorted passersby. No one moves.

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Everyone but the former president looks at me and shrugs helplessly.

Finally I squeeze by and return to my table -- jacketless in a restaurant that absolutely insists that all men wear jackets or face immediate expulsion. Fortunately, my jacket arrives at the table, fresh from hotel housekeeping, a few moments after I do.

Like Lucy’s blouse so many years earlier, it appears to have survived the near disaster.

So, again, have I.

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I remain a constant threat to Lucy’s wardrobe, but as we approach another Valentine’s Day together, I find myself grateful for all our shared food and wine adventures -- and for her continuing, good-natured tolerance of both my obsessive precision-planning of these adventures and my clumsiness at table, here and abroad.

She often tells friends, “Traveling with David is like traveling with a combination of Cary Grant, Woody Allen and the Swiss army.”

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous Matters of Taste columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.


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