Spring propaganda season begins early.
No Speak Engrish
The post-game drink is a tough sell tonight; it’s too cold out.
"I want hot chocolate," says one of our wings, adjusting her scarf. Two others bail, reducing us to three: me, our big, and her.
She’s from Indiana, so when the guy behind the counter at Café on Broadway tells her that it’s “a dollar to try” the lobster bisque, she doesn’t realize he is just messing with her. He smiles and hands her a spoonful to taste. She takes it, looking embarrassed.
"Think I’m gonna go for the salad," says our big. He arrives at the table with a hand-picked twelve-dollar salad and two pink lemonades. I’ve got a bowl of gumbo and an orange juice in front of me.
"Oh my god, you guys are so healthy." (She got the bisque — and cookies — instead of the hot chocolate.)
Our big takes out his phone and shows off a photo of his latest pseudo-prospect on OkCupid. I can’t tell if she’s a redhead or if it’s just the backlighting in the room. The smile, to me, is hard to read.
"What do you do if you’re not interested?" I ask. "Do you write them back?"
"No," he explains, "you just don’t reply. I feel guilty about it, but that’s what you do. Or at least that’s what girls have done to me."
Our wing’s experiment with OkCupid lasted only three days. “It was kind of overwhelming,” she says. “All these questions to answer, things you’re supposed to be checking up on. I was still figuring out how to set up the profile and was already getting some weird people looking at it. I think it just wasn’t for me.”
"I hear about that, the creep factor stuff," notes our big, "but to be honest I’ve never known anyone who’s actually had a bad, real-life, creepy experience. For me it’s been pretty good."
"What about you, 張? Are you on it?"
"No," I say. "But I have friends who’ve had some lousy experiences. Not the creep stalkery thing…more just being unable to find anything beyond a hook-up."
"Yeah, they’re not on it looking for a relationship."
"Hey, I am!" insists our big. "Why do you think I’m spending all this time checking my phone here? This stuff takes work. More work than the actual dating, probably.”
He has fond memories of the circumstances that led to his last OkC-facilitated relationship: the thrill of realizing that his profile was being
stalked checked out multiple times by the same girl over a span of a few days, and then finally reaching out to her with a message. He digs it up and reads part of it to us. The breakup is obviously still fresh.
I’d like to ask him when he’s planning to delete that message, or if he thinks he ever will. Or, he might try to keep it and bury it at the same time — for example, he could take a screenshot and then delete the message from his OkCupid account. Then he could send the screenshot to an ad hoc e-mail address like email@example.com, delete the screenshot from his phone, delete the sent mail with the image attachment, and then change the password of the ad hoc e-mail to something that is easily forgettable. Then the only way to retrieve the message would be to go through a password recovery step — which, given time, might be enough to change his mind about wanting to be reminded of her and whatever salt is left in the wound…
But I’ll save this little self-brainwashing tip for next time, when we have booze on the table instead of soup and salad.
At five thirty I get a message from the host of the Oscars party from which I’ve just decided to bail:
"Just trying to get a head count."
"I’m out; bracing for the storm," I write back.
"Haha I don’t think there will be that much snow."
Fuck. Why didn’t I check the forecast before sending that?
I guess it doesn’t matter; the host is not one to ask questions. Maybe he understands. I don’t think it’s so hard to figure out.
At the table to my left, a quartet of stroller parents are teaching their respective toddlers how to raise their glasses and toast one another. Each parent then proceeds to toast each child.
"Now it’s my turn! You wanna toast me, too?"
The bartender swings by my table and asks if I would like another.
"Nah, let’s close it," I say. "Gotta get to the stupid Oscars party."
So what’s your story, 張?
— Girl across the table with the Roy Rogers. "I’m not good at spilling my guts unprompted," I say. "You’ll have to ask the right questions." "Okay. Let’s start."
Girl across the table with the Roy Rogers.
"I’m not good at spilling my guts unprompted," I say. "You’ll have to ask the right questions."
"Okay. Let’s start."
The waitress who takes my order is new; she says her cousin (also working the Saturday morning shift), got her the job.
I’d been waiting for the one she has replaced to bolt. She seemed…ready to move on. So what happened?
"Getting married," her replacement says.
I look across the street. The awning that used to hang above the ground floor of 656 Manhattan Avenue — between Sunshine Cleaners and Biedronka — is gone, revealing a much older sign: SUNDAE DELIGHT. Does anyone in this restaurant remember Sundae Delight? It must predate the establishments on Manhattan Ave that currently serve ice cream tempura.
The waitress brings over my coffee and a basket with two slices of wheat toast. I used to be picky about toast; I couldn’t stand cold toast with semi-solid butter. I got used to it after coming here.
The missing awning is starting to get to me. Was it for the Korean grocery that closed down? I remember trying to buy ground pepper there once, and the cashier told me to go to Biedronka. But I remember walking at least a block to Biedronka. What was next door to it?
A couple days ago I was in the city and I saw someone standing a hundred feet away from me. How long had it been? How have things changed?
The omelet I ordered reaches the table, and I start to remember. It was a dollar store that used to be next door to Biedronka — called Bang for the Buck. The “Bang” on the awning as outlined like a “Kapow!” from a Batman episode.
Now I can eat in peace.
Will and Josie at Table 8.
Mike Hodges, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003)
The occupant of this chair collects rent from me once a month. I have talked to the previous subtenants, and no one is quite sure of what goes on at this table. I pass by it every day (never while it is being used), and as the weeks go on, its surface is filled out with doodles and numbers. Sometimes I’ll see a scuff or a tear in the paper, or an incision made with an X-Acto knife.
After a couple months, the paper will be discarded, the table will be rewrapped, and the process starts over…
If it were my table, the “reboot” would happen differently. Instead of being continually discarded, the wrappings would accumulate and thicken. Every once in a while, I would cut a hole in the paper and take a peek at what was directly underneath. If it turned out to be a bad reminder, I might patch up that hole. Or I might leave it open, just to force myself to reexamine it.
Eventually, the table would be swathed like a mummy in craft paper, and I would have to switch to a higher chair to keep up with the growing height of the table. And then I’d probably put the chair up on blocks. And it would go on like that for a while longer until finally someone took me aside and said, “Dude, you really need to get a new table, okay?”
"And inside, all of the most important things in the world."
Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci
Big Night (1996)
I grab a post-game slice around the corner with Woody. He brings up the Kid — a young banker who’s been signing up for open gym for the past two weeks.
"Did you see today? He showed up with that girl from Court 2!"
"Yeah, I noticed that."
"I think I’m jealous," Woody admits. "I mean, It’s not like I can just show up and get hooked up just like that. But the Kid shows up once and she is on him.”
"Maybe she’s into white guys," I say.
"You think so? That girl is cute, man. You know, the one with the dark hair and the—”
"Yeah yeah I know who it is. C’mon, they’re both probably just out of college."
"Exactly! It makes me feel so old."
I laugh. “But so what? She wants what you already have, if you think about it.”
"I guess so," Woody concedes. "That reminds me, I gotta figure out what to do for Valentine’s Day this year. You got plans?”
"Yeah," I say. "The plan is: procrastinate."
Not having seen the professor in a while, I decide to meet him for dinner.
We have much to catch up on. For him, 2013 was a busy, productive year — the publication of his second book (“I’ve sold twenty-three copies; actually twenty-six, but three returned it”), a new diet to follow (“No sugar”), a near move to the hipster part of town (the family decided to stay put), and new suburban adventures (“In fact I was the leading scorer of the Bryn Mawr Social Soccer Thirty-and-Over League”).
Meanwhile, he is still binge-watching Arkhipovsky videos, proclaiming his boredom with Django Reinhardt, and stuck in Phase I of the ongoing mission to de-clutter his basement.
"Do you know Zaz?” he suddenly asks me. “Her guitarist reminds me a lot of you. You could have done that — find a singer, play guitar, do music. Maybe you should have…”
I offer him the appetizer plate.
"What is that? Pork belly? No, that’s all you. No sugar…no fat either."
"I’m going to order dessert later," I say, "and you’ll eat half. C’mon, the wife is not here."
An hour later, I order the banana lumpia, and when the plate hits the table he steals a piece and savors it.
"So let me tell you," he says, "about my idea that will make me a billionaire, that I thought of two days ago…"
The man with the gold shears and I both listen as his colleague working chair six explains the concept of PBJ wings (which he plans to debut at his his Super Bowl party).
"It’s like chicken satay, but with, you know, jam.”
"I kind of see the angle," I say. "You’ve got the Asian thing — Thai peanut sauce, or maybe it’s the cashew chicken model — merged with the American turkey-and-cranberry thing. It sounds like one of those state fair novelties."
The man with the gold shears shakes his head. ”Not something I want to try,” he says. He doesn’t eat much chicken (“A lot of bad stuff in that meat”) and cooks lots and lots of greens.
"I hated vegetables so much as a kid," I say. "My mother would sauté the shit out of everything. Broccoli was the worst. Into the frying pan and out twenty, thirty minutes later. When I hear the phrase vegetative state, that’s what I think of: the bitter, dead broccoli in my mother’s frying pan.”
"Dude — broccoli, seriously. No more than five minutes, you got me?”
"I don’t think I’ll ever cook it," I say. "Too much trauma."
He laughs. “That’s like my mother’s collard greens. My black African mother would cook those things until they were black. Awful stuff. Throw some pigs’ feet in there, and you keep it on the stove until the greens are black as tar. You would pick one up off your plate, and you’re like, ‘This is a vegetable?’ You don’t need much for collard greens — you just heat ’em enough so they wilt, and then some salt, some pepper, some oil. You don’t even have to cook it in the oil, just put the oil on top afterwards.
"But, you know, I don’t blame her," he continues. "They were just young parents, they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. They probably had a thousand other things to figure out that day. How do we expect them to get the collard greens right?"
The back room is a right triangle with tiny round tables at each vertex. The windows along on the hypotenuse face north, but the seating does not allow you to face a window. I’m wedged into the east vertex, facing a wall. A young woman sitting in the west vertex faces my table, waiting. I squirm in the chair and stare at my coffee.
A man enters. ”Sorry I’m late,” he says, and introduces himself. “Hey, uh, I’m gonna go grab something real quick. You want anything? Coffee? Tea? Maybe another apology…”
The woman laughs. “I’m good, thanks.”
He returns holding a mug, and the game starts. The game of details: reveal, hide, show, back away, needle, listen, extract, parse.
She was a theater major (now an aspiring actress), so he keeps bringing up movies, actors, directors. She hasn’t seen American Hustle or Her yet; she hasn’t heard of Lynn Shelton.
"What’s your favorite movie?" she asks.
"I really like Bill Murray. Have you seen Lost in Translation?”
"No…but I’ve heard it’s good."
"Yeah, I thought it was just very cinematic, it really captured a certain mood. What about you, what’s your favorite movie?"
"Have you seen The Birdcage?”
"Oh…you know, I didn’t like it all that much when I saw it, but my friends did. I mean, I get why people really like it."
"Maybe it’s just because my mom and I both love it," she says.
He explains the Bill Murray hypothesis: “I’ve always found it interesting that comedic actors tend to do dramatic roles really well, but the reverse is rarely true. Dramatic actors think comedy is so easy until they try it, and not many can do it. I mean, if you’re doing comedy, you’ve gotta have that timing down, the delivery down — all that translates to doing drama. But when it’s the other way around, a dramatic actor has to work that much harder to figure it out and get it right.” (She nods.)
She asks how he got into advertising. “Well, I was a media management major…It’s kind of boring to tell you the truth,” he admits. From there he digresses into the college semester he spent abroad in Spain. (She did one in Florence.)
She asks how he’s liked New York so far (he moved to Queens six months ago). His answer begins with: ”I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but…”
She listens with cheerful affirmations. “For sure,” she says a few times. She packs encouragement into the third syllable of Absolutely.
He goes on about his Northeasterlyness (“The farthest west I’ve gone is Pennsylvania”), then Pixar (“I’m a little disappointed that their villains always have to be so over-the-top evil, there’s nothing redeeming about them, there’s no shading to them”), and then My Sister’s Sister (“It’s so funny, so real, I think you’d really like it”).
She asks him for the name of the director again, writes it down, and then changes the subject: ”So, tell me about your family.”
My back is turned to them, but in listening I have arrived at a verdict. Maybe each of them has likewise decided by now — although there are still many details unsaid. Sometimes we save a few for the end of the interview, just in case we’re looking to change someone’s mind.