We awoke Friday morning to the news that more than 20 years of excellent friendship with an extraordinary woman had come to a sudden end with her brutal and senseless murder, and for now everything else in the papers seems unimportant, and nothing at all seems to make any sense.
Tanya Tandoc was one of those “most memorable character” types, although very much of the post-modern variety you’d be unlikely to encounter in Readers’ Digest, and even after so many years we retain a vivid memory of the very first time we met her. A friend had invited us to a party, something we desperately needed at the time, but when we arrived at the address he’d given us, which turned out to be an aging apartment building in a particularly rough part of the generally rough north end, we were embarrassed to have only a half-dressed young woman in an otherwise empty studio answer our knock at the door. We apologetically explained our reason for being there, and she laughingly replied that our mutual friend had given us the right address but the wrong time, as she wasn’t expecting guests for another hour or so, so with more embarrassment and profuse apologies we offered to return later, but she laughingly insisted that we come right on in and provide her with company while she finished her preparations. A most enjoyable conversation somehow ensued, with her characteristic graciousness and charm and gift for small talk overcoming our characteristic embarrassment and awkwardness and reticence with half-dressed strangers, and by the time the other guests started arriving and inevitably crowding us away from her magnetic presence we had commenced an excellent friendship that would last to her dying day.
That party was a significant event for much of the rest of our humble prairie hometown, too, as it announced the arrival of Tanya Tandoc as an inexorable force on the economic and social and cultural history of Wichita, Kansas. We learned in that first conversation that she’d grown up in the nearby and charmingly Frank Capra-esque but too-small-for-the-likes-of-Tanya town of Newton, then gone off to some fancy culinary school in the seemingly-perfect-for-the-likes-of-Tanya city of San Francisco, but then decided for some reason she could never quite explain to us to split the difference by making her mark in the big-by-prairie-standards city of Wichita. Her master plan for the domination of our city started in that empty studio apartment in that aging building in a particularly rough part of the generally rough north end, but even then she was able to attract the cream of the city’s hipster crop to her swinging barrio debutante ball, and to the observant eye of an ink-stained newspaper wretch and aspiring serious writer it was already apparent that something of importance would surely follow.
Tanya Tandoc could play the cello well, converse about even our arcane choice of topics with the delightful flair of a witty and worldly and well-read woman, riposte our friendly verbal jabs and innocuous flirtations with the élan of a screwball comedy heroine, and oh how that woman could cook. She was drop-dead gorgeous, too, with an exotic beauty of almond eyes and Betty Boop lips and an enviable mane of somehow perfectly askew hair inherited from her Filipino father and white American mother, all packed into a petite but formidable frame and adorned in the most impeccably hip fashion sense, and given the obvious enjoyment she derived from it we’re sure she wouldn’t be the least bit offended that we mention this important fact of her life. In a variety of other ways she was just so damned interesting, but it all might have proved forgettable if she hadn’t also been such a surprisingly shrewd and hard-headed and quintessentially Kansas capitalist.
She first started making the papers around here when she became chef at The Larkspur, the swankest joint in the Old Town dining-and-drinking district that the city government created out of an abandoned warehouse area to give the impression of a hip and up-to-date metropolis, and whipped it into such stellar shape that the local aviation executives weren’t at all embarrassed to take a client from San Francisco or any other fancy-pants city. We were going through the last of a devastating disintegration of a marriage at the time, and found Tanya’s upbeat personality and heartfelt encouragements and innocuous flirtations most ameliorative, and The Larkspur was right across the street from the newspaper where we wearily labored, so we spent enough time at its bar to notice how very efficiently our weird hipster friend ran a business. When she announced her intention to start her own restaurant, an idea which attracted the attention of all the local media and food aficionados, it was the first and only time we ever advised a friend her business plan seemed a good idea.
Tanya’s Soup Kitchen soon opened in an old train station right next door to the newspaper, and in short order everyone in the newsroom and the rest of the nearby office buildings were lining up for the friendly and efficient service, especially from that pretty and friendly redhead we’re still pleased to run into now and then, as well as its impeccably hip atmosphere, reasonable even-by-Wichita’s-stingy-standards prices, of course the gracious and charming encounters with the owner, and mostly because of oh how that woman could cook. Our newspaper couldn’t resist several enthusiastic reviews, the local television stations soon followed with feature stories about the damned interesting and drop-dead gorgeous woman and her red-hot restaurant near downtown, and the resulting long lines inevitably crowded us out of Tanya Tandoc’s magnetic presence and over to the greasy spoon diner on the other side of newspaper building where they made a good enough and quick enough patty melt and fries to get us through an afternoon, but we were delighted by our friend’s success.
A big cable television company bought out the property where Tanya’s Soup Kitchen had thrived, and for a while she did catering and teaching and food preparation for commercial photo shoots and whatever else her considerable talents would bear on the Wichita culinary market, much to the dismay of ourselves and the rest of the newsroom and all those other downtown office workers who had lined up for her yummy soups and simple yet delicious sandwiches. We’d still run into her frequently on the local arts and music and culinary and hipster scenes, and get some valued invitations to her parties full of local swells and interesting oddballs and terrific food, and it was always damned interesting and a delight. She got married to our mutual friend Wayne Gottstine, a very talented musician and damned interesting fellow in his own right, who is a leader of the band called Split Lip Rayfield, which has earned a small but fervent and international cult following for its offbeat and uptempo punk-bluegrass style, and their wedding was the social event of the year and their marriage was the hippest in town. At the time we were dating Tanya’s much younger and equally drop-dead gorgeous and just as damned interesting sister, who was so much younger than ourselves that it was something of a local scandal, but our friendship was happily unaffected by any of it. She seemed to find it amusing that the friends she had always joshed about being so straitlaced and old-fashioned found themselves temporarily scandalized, and given her own admitted knack for creating far juicier scandals she wasn’t one to judge, and the situation with the sister ended harmlessly enough, and Tanya’a apparent happiness as a respectable married woman and doting stepmother and attentive guardian of some so-ugly-they’re-cute Pugs somehow made her all the more delightful to be around in our occasional encounters.
Eventually Tanya’s Soup Kitchen re-opened at an unlikely location on a starkly commercial strip of East Douglas well past downtown, where the lines once again became so long for our impatient temperament that we were crowded out of her magnetic presence, even if the service was still friendly and efficient and the prices still reasonable even by Wichita standards and oh how that woman could still cook, but with the local art and music and cuisine and hipster scenes being so small around here we’d still have those occasional delightful encounters. Her local legend continued to grow, with her popular restaurant reviews on the local public radio station and her generous fund-raising efforts on behalf of several worthy causes and the continued slavish devotion of all the local media, not to mention the ever-expanding circle of friends irresistibly drawn to her magnetic personality, but during those occasional delightful encounters and the swinging parties she hosted with the fashionable crowds and great food, she continued to generously share the rest of her damned interesting life with us, for better and worse.
Married life proved difficult even for the hippest couple in Wichita, and probably all the more difficult with one being a very talented musician with a fervent cult following and the other being such an inexorable force and both being so damned interesting, and although we heard rumors heard of the split some months ago the divorce apparently became final just in the past week or so. The passage of more than 20 years and a constant proximity to such tempting food as Tanya created had added a few pounds to her formerly petite but formidable frame, and her exotic beauty had matured in the usual ways, and her collection of tattoos grew beyond what our admittedly straitlaced and old-fashioned tastes would prefer, but she was still eager to show off her hard-earned voluptuousness and ripened beauty during the public belly dancing performances and burlesque shows that became her favorite hobby, and it further increased her local legend as many of the women who once were spitefully envious of her came to appreciate her public demonstration that a few years and a few pounds couldn’t stop such an inexorable force from being drop-dead gorgeous and perpetually alluring and unashamed to flaunt it.
Tanya Tandoc had flaws, of course, but she always readily forgave ours and hers were so essentially tied in with the best of her and had so little to do with our own lives that they were in turn easily forgivable. One of the local photographers who employed her food preparation skills still rolls his eyes as he recounts the salty things she’d say to shock the staid corporate clients hovering around his shoots, but we found that rather amusing, and we were frequently warned to never get on her bad side, but we can’t imagine any reason we’d ever want to do that anyway, and women being women there was some unavoidable gossip about cat fights, but in most cases we chalked that up to the difficulty some women will always have with exotic beauties and inexorable forces. We’d sometimes kid her about how much she seemed to relish her local celebrity, or the exorbitant number of photos of herself she would post on Facebook, in turn she would playfully chide us about our reluctance to trumpet the noteworthy qualities that she always stubbornly insisted we possessed, and as usual we think she got the better of the exchange. Her very high opinion of herself was entirely justified by her undeniable fabulousness, as far as we were concerned, and she still had plenty of love left over for the rest of us. We were just one of the many hundreds of her friends around here, and probably not among the most damned interesting of them, but on every single occasional encounter there was nothing perfunctory about her questions regarding how we were doing, and she was always genuinely delighted to hear the good news and sincerely saddened by the bad, which we felt blissfully free to share in either case, and even the jaded soul of an ink-stained wretch and aspiring serious writer would always walk away with the slight but essential amelioration of an excellent friendship with an extraordinary woman.
The brutal and senseless murder of a local celebrity chef has been the big story in all the local media lately, and the mayor issued a statement of regret, and it’s being talked about everywhere from the boardrooms to the hipster dives and all sorts of places in between, which we’re sure Tanya would have appreciated. All those feature stories the papers and televisions stations did over the years have provided enough video footage and file photos of the newsworthily fabulous victim to make for some tear-jerking coverage, and our former newspaper has unleashed a retrospective of pictures dating back to her early smokin’ hot days not long after that cheap studio apartment party on the north end, and KAKE news has re-posted an old “Hatteberg’s People” segment about her, sort of the local television equivalent of the Readers’ Digest’s “Most Memorable Character” feature, which is not bad and has an added poignance because of her quotes about living each day to the fullest because one never knows when it might end and how she was always eager to wake up and begin a new day because she figured she could she sleep when she was dead. Still, none of the local media’s best efforts, of course, are at all satisfactory.
Those poor fellows who now occupy our former desk at the local newspaper are understandably constrained by the questions of who, what, where, when, and why, and the ostensible necessity of fitting them all into the “tweet”-sized characters of an inverted pyramid lead paragraph, and after writing more murder stories than Agatha Christie our long and desultory experience of the task suggests that it simply can’t be done. The when and where of it are facts that can be objectively established, and what happened is just as undeniable, but the matter of who would require an epic novel far greater than our talents could render, and the matter of why will never be explained. We also knew the man who has reportedly confessed to Tanya’s murder, although not nearly so well, only to an extent that we’d formed a tentative conclusion that we didn’t really care to know him any better. He was a minor figure on the local music scene, with a reputation for being a charming enough fellow while sober but not otherwise, and apparently he had been living in Tanya’s basement for some months prior to the murder, and our friends on the music scene describe the rapid deterioration of the confessed “suspect’s” already dubious mental health following the failure of the guitar shop he’d operated across the street from Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, and the trial will eventually yield more and better established details, and we’re sure the local media will be on the story, but it will never amount to why. In any case we’ll be pleased not to run into that guy ever again, and whatever the justice system metes out we won’t be having any more of those delightful encounters with Tanya.
To explain the who of Tanya Tandoc, you’d need more than the clips about her surprisingly shrewd and hard-headed and quintessentially Kansas capitalism, or footage of her cello-playing and inspiring quotations about eating and drinking and being merry for tomorrow we might die, or file photos of her exotic beauty with the almond eyes and Betty Boop lips and perfectly askew hair, or the rave reviews of her mostly women fans about her belly-dancing, or the audio of her own rave reviews for the other fine locally-owned restaurants, or the voluminous testimonials about oh how that woman could cook, or our own futile efforts to convey how very gratifying it was to have an occasional encounter and such an excellent friendship with an extraordinary woman. To explain the why of it you’d have to note that such a witty and worldly and well-read and shrewd and hard-headed and quintessentially Kansas capitalist and exotically beautiful woman was still somehow a Kansas girl from a Frank Capra-esque small town at heart, the sort of vain but gentle and loving soul who laughingly invited even the most unlikely lonely souls who inadvertently knocked on her door to come right on in and keep her company while she made her preparations for the rest of her fabulous life, and that the very best of her might have led to her demise just doesn’t make any sense at all.
We’ll also forever remember and cherish our last encounter with Tanya Tandoc, not so long ago, when she was out at a favorite dive of ours in the very roughest part of the north end, escorted by a graying but still-handsome and very fine fellow we’ve happily known for many years, and how the notorious Queen Bee laughed heartily at a slightly heteronormative Jewish mother joke we like to tell, and how ready and eager she seemed to wake up early and get on with the rest of the long and damned interesting life that a more perfect world would have granted her. Tanya Tandoc was ten tantalizing years younger than us, and she would have made a damned interesting old lady, so our excellent friendship with this extraordinary woman should have lasted to our dying day, not hers, and the way it’s turned out also doesn’t make any sense. We’ll forever remember and cherish all those occasional encounters in between those memorable first and last ones, as well, and what she taught us about the hottest peppers being the smallest ones, and we’ve spent the last few days dropping in on the hipster dives and musical joints and sharing old and excellent friendships with the most extraordinary and lovable losers we find there, who were of course also friends of Tanya Tandoc and are suddenly asking about our well-being with the same sincerity as when she asked us, and we’ve shared tears and fond wishes, and we feel a certain sense that the exquisitely human-to-human thing about our excellent friendship with that extraordinary woman will somehow inexorably persist in our humble prairie hometown. We surely hope so, as we’ll need it in such a cruel world as this.
— Bud Norman