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Comfort Food: Not All Regulars Are Broken photo


When I was sixteen, I worked as a hostess for a Chinese restaurant in the evenings and weekends. On Saturdays, I helped open the restaurant. Every morning, before unlocking the doors, we ran around in the dark, maniacally stomping on large cockroaches that came out of nowhere. The creatures looked like little, black suitcases with legs—sweeping the carpet like floating luggage. My boss said they were shipment stragglers from China. I didn’t care where they came from, but if I ever heard the sound of a cockroach under my shoe, it will have been too soon.

I loved my job, though. The owners were married and mild mannered. All the staff was Asian with the exception of Ruth, a grandmother from Jersey. She towered over me at six feet tall but I never really noticed it. Ruth made you feel eye-level even when she’s yelling, “Don’t fold the napkins like that, ya dummy.” She was gruff too, with an east coast accent that I adored.

In the kitchen, there were three cooks: tired men with gentle eyes. Sometimes they drank. There was a mangy-looking screen door—always propped open. Always. Even in the winter when the snow drifts in and the steam rises like bones twisting. I wore my good winter coat whenever I entered. The cooks wore tank tops year around. The summer was worse, though. The flies wandered in and circled over big pots of wonton and egg flower soup. Most of them die in those vats. And an old cook would caw at me: “Just scoop it out. Good as new,” with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

All three cooks chain-smoked. I have glimpses of the cherry flickering off the end of a cigarette, how the stick wavered and bobbed on the bottom lip in mid-speech. I remember all the times the cherry slipping, toppling into searing woks of beef fried rice and pot stickers. Indifferent, the cooks would continue stirring and flipping the food while they argued or hummed. It was comforting in the kitchen. The chatter and the weather. The cooks were like my happy, drunk uncles—if I had happy, drunk uncles.

One of the regulars, a punk rocker with a red leather jacket and a gap in between his teeth, came in every Monday night with his friends. They ordered the usual pu-pu platter and coffee with cream. I would carry a tray of mugs along with a pot of coffee, sugar, and pitcher of half & half to their booth. They stopped talking when I arrived, gazing up from the brim of a hat or a muss of hair. This went on for weeks, punk rocker and friends are seated at their usual table while I deliver the refreshments, they order and eat, pay their bill and leave. That is, until the punk rocker stopped me on his way to the restrooms.

“Hey, I like you and I think you might like me, too. We should hang out.” Handing me a scrap of paper, he said, “Here’s my number.”

I took the piece of paper and thanked him before tossing it in the trash when he turned to walk away. I was in my “I want to die alone” phase and wanted nothing to do with boys or romance.

The following week, the punk rocker came in alone. He was furious when I greeted him in the reception area.

“How come you didn’t call me? What the hell?”

I paused, mostly out of surprise. Fumbling with the menus as I finally stuttered, “Because I’m not interested. I’m sorry.”

He stood over me, his voice raised, accusing me of “leading him on” and being a “tease.” He had no idea he was shouting at a teenager with relatively no dating history.

One of the servers walked up, grabbed my arm and led me into the kitchen. The owner followed, patting my back, she said, “Don’t worry. You stay in kitchen. Clean maybe?” For a full week, the punk rocker returned to the restaurant, looking for me. I hid in the kitchen with my happy, drunk uncles.

I scoured stainless steel reserve stations where the plates and platters and silverware were stored. With kitchen gloves and buckets of warm soapy water, I washed the counters down and collected the remains: dead grasshoppers, cockroaches, and moths.

The cooks told me jokes with no punchline and sang popular Chinese songs while I chucked grasshoppers in the garbage. At lunch, they plated almond chicken (my favorite) with extra sauce for me. It was the best almond chicken I ever tasted. The chicken breast was battered and fried, served with a creamy, yellow sauce and garnished with slivered almonds. In the years that followed, I ordered almond chicken at every Chinese restaurant I visited. Each dish tasted like fraud.

Western Chinese cuisine is considerably different than homecooked Chinese food. When my son and I lived in Vancouver, BC, I befriended a couple from China. The husband was an accomplished animator, recently recruited by Electronic Arts. He worked days at EA and nights as a Pizza Hut deliveryman. His wife stayed home to care for their toddler, similar in age to my toddler.

The couple invited us over one night. I hoped for almond chicken. The family lived in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment. The walls were barely visible underneath all the photos framed in filigree and gold. Their home smelled like the ocean. The kitchen was jointed, like an elbow, stacked ceiling high with dishes. The husband beamed when he said, “My wife cooked all day.” By the look of things, one might ponder if royalty were coming for supper.

In the dining room were multiple dishes laid out on a red, linen tablecloth. Roasted fish heads and sea bass steamed whole. Sticky rice in bowls and bamboo leaves hugging bits of braised duck and pork shoulder. When Stephen whined, the wife rushed over with a handful of hard candy. “Eat it with the wrapper,” she gently told him.

At the Chinese restaurant, we had candy, too. Andes Chocolate Mints were placed on a tray, next to the customer’s check. Ruth used to let me drop them in my coffee to dip fortune cookies in. I ate so many fortune cookies that year, I can’t stomach them anymore. Which is quite un-fortunate.

Living in a small town does not allow much anonymity. Everybody knows everybody by name or, at the very least, their reputation. Every Friday, the same husband and wife came in for video poker in the bar at 9 PM sharp. I would nod and smile as they deposited their boy on the waiting bench for pick-ups. When the owners weren’t around, I’d beg the cooks to make my favorite: almond chicken to-go. Nothing was said as I slid a Styrofoam container next to his lap. And every hour or so, I’d bring him a Shirley Temple as a treat. By midnight, his parents would reappear to collect their boy. I didn’t like his parents. They were the kind of people I never wanted to be: barflies.

Not all regulars are broken. Most of them were really nice. John and Misty were retired grade school teachers. They liked to ask about the day’s special but still order their usual: #11: Kung Pao Chicken. John liked black coffee and Misty liked water, no ice, with a wedge of lemon on the side. At times, they even felt like family. Only family would pretend they didn’t see me crawling on all fours chasing a rodent from under their table—and still pay their check in full with tip.

On Christmas Eve, the owners passed out gifts: a small red envelope with a Chinese coin inside. Also, a single mandarin for prosperity. Ruth grumbled under her breath about it being a “lousy bonus.” But me? I would have settled for a plate of almond chicken—hold the cigarette ash.