She played den mother to a host of hippies and ran the eating establishment Arlo Guthrie immortalized in his gently satirical 1967 folk song, Alice’s Restaurant. Nineteen years later Alice Brock’s restaurant-running days may be behind her, but that doesn’t mean she has stopped cooking up outrageous ideas. Brock’s latest venture is the audaciously titled How To Massage Your Cat (Knopf, $4.95), which she both wrote and illustrated. The feline in question is pushed, pulled and prodded by a huge pair of hands through 28 drawings, under the absurd premise of being massaged. The Village Voice dubbed Brock’s work as “the best, funniest, most surprising, most inspiring and really cheap new gift book.”
Actually Brock, now 44, never set out to write a book. Her father, a silk screener to whom the book is dedicated, persuaded her otherwise. “I just started with funny drawings of a cat,” Brock says. “If he hadn’t encouraged me, I would have put them away in a drawer.” Brock once owned an orange cat similar to the one pictured in her book, but, she says, “We didn’t like each other. He was dumb and had a horrible voice.” For the past 16 years she’s lived harmoniously with a black cat named Ashes. “I think cats are intelligent and independent,” says Brock. “They’re also pretty self-sufficient. Maybe they remind me of myself.”
Brock moved to Provincetown, Mass. seven years ago, after her third restaurant, across the state near Lenox, went bankrupt. She had only $2,000 to her name, much of it in coins she’d scrounged from the restaurant’s Coke machine. The arty Cape Cod community holds special meaning for her. “My parents met here. I was conceived here and spent summers here when I was a kid,” she says. “It’s where I’ve always wanted to live.”
Brock’s current life is a surprising contradiction to her past. “I don’t really know a lot of people here,” she says. “I don’t socialize much. I’m not antisocial, but I started to enjoy my privacy and now maybe I’m getting eccentric about it.” The Alice most people remember is the gregarious, free-spirited young woman who, with her then-husband, Ray, played surrogate parent to hordes of youngsters in a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge, Mass. There, around a wooden kitchen table, the Brocks and their fluctuating family helped Guthrie write his memorable ballad. Sitting around that same table, now positioned near a picture window offering a spectacular view of the pounding sea, Brock reminisces on the past. “Sometimes we’d have several dozen kids staying with us,” she says. “We used to sit and sing folk songs around this table every night. But it’s different now. I look back on it with a lot of warmth, but that doesn’t mean I want to have two dozen people in my life now.”
The elder of Joe and Mary Pelkey’s two daughters, Alice was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. A difficult child, she spent nearly three years in reform school. At a social worker’s urging, she applied to and was accepted at Sarah Lawrence, though she dropped out after two years. Then she met Ray in New York, fell in love and left the city to start a new life. “Ray was a very exciting man,” says Alice, “but it was a fiery marriage.” They divorced in 1969, and he died six years ago of a heart attack. “I regret we never really made peace,” she says.
Brock parlayed her love of cooking into three short-lived restaurants. She also wrote and illustrated a recipe book and considered franchising her name to restaurants until she realized that the businessmen involved “couldn’t care less about food or people.” She has no desire to go back into that line of work.
Besides drawing, Brock now spends a lot of time walking the beach. Four years ago she and platonic friend David Gates, a writer, pooled their finances and bought a chocolate brown house built in 1811. She hasn’t been romantically involved since her move, commenting that “relationships are tough, and I make bad choices.” But, she insists, “I’m not lonely. There’s a lot more I still want to do with myself.”
Brock does not, however, want a job, even though she is chronically short of money. (She received an advance of less than $10,000 for the book.) When she runs out of cash, she drives her ’73 white Eldorado convertible to the nearby Wellfleet flea market to sell some of the “junk” she’s collected. “When I was a little kid, I thought that someday I was going to make books with pictures and live in Province-town,” says Alice. “Here I am. And I have a book with pictures in it. So now I’m trying to think what else I wished for that may come true.”