If I’m not writing, which is sadly usually the case, I’m usually ranting on Twitter. I can hear you now – duh, Dan, we know, we found this blog via Twitter. Still, it is difficult as hell to get Storify tweet storms to cross-post here, so I won’t bother. Come for the lede. Stay for the tough love for younger veterans.
My Dearest Beru,
By the time you read this, I will be long gone. In fact, I’m hoping Jyn sends this along with the DS-1 plans before we’re overrun by the Empire. Life hasn’t been easy for us, has it? Twenty years on, it still kills me that you married Owen Lars, but I can’t blame you, what with me gone on one mission or another for the Rebellion all the time. If anything, what I do is for you, and the family I wish we’d become.
I’ve been busy, to put it mildly. Since I last saw you ten years ago? I helped train and advise Saw Gerrera’s insurgents. Mon Mothma had me take some youngsters under my wing, and we established a network of intelligence assets within the Empire, specifically among its vainglorious pilots. Most recently, at the behest of Lord Bail, I commanded Leia’s personal protective detail, which was by far the most difficult assignment I ever had. Every time I was able to take leave, of course, I wanted to return to Tatooine. And you. Instead, not wanting to upend your new life with my sudden reappearance, I just took on another assignment.
By the Force, we had such plans when we were younger! We spoke so often about departing for some barren planet in the Outer Rim to start our family. We would be beholden to no one, and nothing but the seasons and whatever plot of uncooperative rocky land we decided to cultivate. I know it was far from easy, after I felt the rebellion’s pull and flew off for training on Alderaan. I know it killed our dream – but darling, please know that it was for us, for a better future, free from a Sith’s tyranny.
Which leads me to Scarif. I couldn’t let that damn young hothead Andor go it alone, which is why I led a half dozen members of Leia’s detail onto that shuttle. I trained them; I trust them, and they trust me. Lord Bail Organa gave me his blessing, and a bag of proton grenades, before we took off. It really is that simple. For what it’s worth, a wristband activated hologram of you has been with me since before you married Owen. Probably not the healthiest thing, but a man has to cling to something from his home world – and for better or worse, darling, I cling to you. Between the two religious freaks from Jedha, no orders besides “fight,” and a wishy-washy defector, I knew this would be a one-way trip.
I do this for what we could have been, what you and Owen are, and for the free Republic in which your nosy nephew will grow up. I have and always will love you.
They used to call me RL-one-six-niner-six; some called me Sergeant Major, or just Smaj for short. One gray bar and three black bars on the rank placard on my helmet. Now I’ve got a moisture farm that oddly smells of charred meat from eons ago, a growing family, and a garage full of droids, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. I retired after giving the Empire and First Order thirty long years, from a harrowing rookie tour on Jedha; Hoth; a bitter loss on a forest moon; to Coruscant, Starkiller, and one final op on Jakku. See that round crest above the mantel? That’s my old unit, Vader’s Fist, the 501st Legion. We were kind of a big deal.
I was bred for this life. I know, that’s oxymoronic – I mean, it isn’t like the Emperor had envisioned RL-1696 growing up to be a TIE pilot, or a star destroyer captain. I went where they sent me, fought whom I was told to fight, and won more often than not. That’s more than many of my peers can claim. At least I survived. By the time I left the academy on Coruscant, I was ready to take on anyone who dared question my emperor’s authority. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.
If you ever see two old former storm troopers together, they’re usually laughing. You see, the joke’s on us. Blasters produced en masse by the lowest bidder – many troopers’ weapons were never zeroed properly and were consequently worthless, except as clubs. Armor that might withstand one blaster shot, if you were a prayerful type and if the moons of your home world aligned a certain way. And those execrable helmets that limited your field of vision, with built-in communicators that could barely transmit past five meters. Like millennia of soldiers before us, however, we made do.
“Hey, FNG.” At first, I wasn’t sure if it was some new designation, but that was how veteran troopers addressed me until we received a shuttle load of replacements from Iridonia. I was a squaddie, sweating my bone marrow away on the Jedha desert moon, all of us hunting for a group of violent insurgents led by Saw Gerrera. You kept your guard up at all times unless you wanted to suddenly find gear and/or crew-served weapons missing. If you took so much as one incoming blaster shot, you replied with every weapon on an AT-ST. You hoped that you had air support in the very likely event that you got hit with a proton grenade attached to a tripwire. I patrolled the streets of Jedha City for a year, before I learned that the moon had served as the base for some Force cult that Lord Vader crushed. We lost some real fighters there, warriors who could’ve helped us in succeeding years and battles. TK-6458 was my closest friend in that platoon, and we never saw the insurgent who hit his hovertank with a thermal detonator. I cheered Jedha City’s destruction from the porthole of a shuttle as we flew away. After we landed aboard Death Star 1, my platoon sergeant slapped 6458’s sergeant placard on my helmet. “I see you finally learned how to hate, 1696. Good. You’re taking over Third Squad. Meet me at the hangar in two hours for an orders brief.”
Hoth, three years later, was arguably the highlight of my career. Ever ride into battle in an AT-AT? It sucks. The troop compartment is cramped and dark, you can smell your squaddies’ fear percolating from under their armor. There’s all sorts of banging from incoming fire hitting the armor plate a few centimeters from your head, a ton of deafening outgoing fire, comm channels clogged with a thousand voices speaking at once but making no sense. With no portholes, troopers routinely puked inside their helmets from all the jerky movement. I asked the AT-AT commander what was going on, but the insufferable upper crust officer went mushroom on me: kept me in the dark, fed me shit. It took no small amount of willpower to not hit the emergency ramp release above the troop leader’s seat. When the ramp finally opened, though, holy Sith, it felt like your very bones would freeze instantly.
We were the third AT-AT in the lead formation, lucky for us since the first two were taken down by snow speeders. Thank the Force, the insurgents only had a handful of those. Once on the ground, I had to literally kick a few of my guys to get them to move. “Come on, damn it, the rebels are just as cold and scared as you are. Move out!” Two of my guys were so new, so nervous, that they fired most of their plasma packs instead of remembering how I’d trained them. My platoon sergeant on Jedha was a proponent of well aimed single shots at close quarters, since the E11 blaster wasn’t accurate past 150 meters. Use your helmet’s aiming reticle, line up your shot, then adjust your aim point low and right, or you’d do what 85% of troopers did: miss. Did I mention how much I hated our weapons? Ragtag insurgents without a pot to piss in could jerry-rig sniper rifles, while we – the Galactic mother loving Empire – couldn’t outfit troopers with a blaster worth a damn.
We breached the insurgent perimeter with a proton rocket launcher (damn, those things are heavy), and charged the first trench while most of the scum still lay stunned in their fighting positions. I took the lead because I had so many new troopers. To be perfectly frank, during the assault I was more worried about an FNG shooting me accidentally-on-purpose, than an insurgent using some antique Clone Wars weapon against us. Another quick stroke of luck: rebel infantrymen weren’t wearing anything heavier than cold weather snivel gear. Crappy weapon or not, a parka and a balaclava aren’t stopping a center-mass blaster shot.
Who came up with the defensive plan on Hoth? I remember hoping the rebels didn’t execute him or her, because we’d need more of that epic stupidity in the future. During the assault, it was almost laughable. Fields of fire didn’t overlap; some heavy weapons like their ion cannon pointed skyward rather than towards us, against whom those weapons could have been merciless; retreating rebels didn’t coordinate their movements, which turned the first two trench lines into routs that stained the snow red. Our surviving AT-ATs would rumble up, suppress a trench line or turret cannon, then we would clean up under a curtain of supporting arms. We secured the inner band of trenches so far ahead of schedule that the Legion’s commander didn’t believe me when I called the AT-ATs forward. All that was left was the mountain, and it looked like we’d become the lead element by default. A few insurgent ships took off as we advanced, but as long as they weren’t turning back towards us, I didn’t care. Let the Fleet handle those, that’s why they get paid the big credits.
Insurgent mechanics, headquarters pukes, and other assorted support personnel shoot worse than rookie storm troopers. If a blaster shot melted the snow within an arm’s length of you, that was just blind luck. My guys, thankfully, hit what they aimed at. You didn’t see many stray blaster beams from 1st Platoon. Even my new guys calmed down, settled in, and became the unfeeling killing troopers they’d been conditioned to be. 2nd Squad started a fire in the hangar when they hit a plasma tank, and that’s when the remaining rebels broke.
Some raised their weapons, barrels down, to signal surrender. No time for prisoners who didn’t look important. The only insurgents worthy of capture were a leader named Rieekan, an Inner Rim princess who advised him, and a pair of mercenary smugglers; Lord Vader said so himself during the operations order, and you don’t defy him if you enjoy breathing. We continued our advance in bounding overwatch as we entered the mountain/hangar; one squad fired while the other two moved forward, then we switched off. I left XN-8250 in charge of two squads to dispatch the steady flow of prisoners, while I took one squad into the hangar bay itself. It was an ugly ship, a Corellian freighter that might’ve seen its best days during the Republic, and its engines were revving. Damn it! Its ventral turret fired, killing two of my troopers, then it took off. I fired on it, but it flew out of range quickly. Then I heard him breathing behind me, and I didn’t dare look, lest I be blamed for not accomplishing the objective. I’ve seen him Force choke senior officers, it’s messy, and I didn’t want to be the first Legionnaire to be honored in that fashion.
I didn’t get choked. I got a promotion and a cushy job instead, sergeant major of the security battalion on Endor. For a few years, my biggest concerns were speeder bike accidents, Ewok hunting (to this day, still my favorite meat), and keeping the shield technicians safe. Long story short, we lost. Headquarters Troop got rolled up so fast by a rebel SOF team that I didn’t even fire my weapon. I spent three years as a prisoner of war on Yavin before being repatriated to a Coruscant I didn’t recognize. There was no shortage of folks in the new Republic who’d refuse service, lodging, or employment, the instant they discovered you’d been a storm trooper. Some of the desert worlds we’d subjugated, lost, then subjugated again, increasingly looked like good places to start anew.
Then I heard through the 501st veteran grapevine about this thing called the First Order, in an uninhabited system past the Outer Rim, led by a Sith no one had seen except in a hologram. The Fleet was gathering there, and the reactivated 501st Legion needed training cadre for an influx of new troopers. Before I could shuck my old/new name, I was RL-1696 again. It’s the only thing I was ever good at, and my boys needed a sergeant major to train them, make sure they survived to train still others.
Starkiller was cold, desolate, and the best stretch of a storm trooper’s career I could have imagined. I ran thousands of troopers through the new Academy, and they’re now deployed in over fifty star systems. I revamped the curriculum so the rookies wouldn’t be so damn raw when they hit the Fleet. I stressed the Big Four: marksmanship, don’t blindly spray and don’t waste plasma packs; small unit tactics stressing lessons learned on Endor, Hoth, Jedha, and Tatooine; fealty to the Supreme Leader; and a callous disregard for life. Having someone like CPT Phasma as Legion Commander on my side, as we literally rewrote the book on training, was immeasurable.
Jakku was our final shakedown, intended as a validation of our years of preparation. You know the old saying that a good plan never survives contact with the enemy? Just before takeoff, headquarters sent us a Jedi to be in overall command, some kid who could wield a lightsaber but didn’t know jack or shit about leading storm troopers in combat. Phasma was pissed! The last time I’d seen her this angry, she shot a trooper cadet just so his peers could practice casualty evacuation. Still, she was a professional to the core and didn’t let it show, except around me. She trusted me, because how can a senior enlisted adviser serve the officer if he doesn’t know what she’s thinking? We accomplished our objective and captured a rebel – sorry, (air quotes) Resistance – pilot, but not his droid. The village that we air assaulted into? Well, it doesn’t exist anymore. Another hard lesson learned from Endor. I hear later that some stupid FNG couldn’t handle the blood on this op and defected. I hope we find that traitorous bastard soon.
We returned to the destroyer after the headquarters Jedi got his fill of killing. I took off my body armor for the last time, each section marked with the name of the storm trooper I was giving it to. I felt naked and out of balance, especially once I changed into civilian clothes I hadn’t worn since my Coruscant days, after Endor. That night, I just couldn’t go through with the retirement ceremony that CPT Phasma had planned. I apologized to her, because I knew she had gathered elements from the entire Legion, even a few old retirees with whom I’d served long ago. We had a quick drink in her command center in gross violation of First Order regs, then I boarded on the next shuttle to the Inner Rim.
I’m here now. The planet is hot, but it’s quiet and no one really cares about your past. At night I’ll look up at the band of stars that mark the Outer Rim, and try to guess which ones I’ve been to. Will we win this war? Who knows? It isn’t up to me anymore. If I have my druthers, neither of my children will go off to fight. I’ve done enough of that for a thousand families. My fight is here, eking out a living out of this farm to supplement a meager pension, worrying about the raw deal the Jawas will offer for the droids I just refurbished. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take the lady of the house on her weekly shopping trip to Mos Eisly. Just in case, though, my old blaster (a parting gift from CPT Phasma) is under my cloak. You just never know.
I needed to get my mind off the trash fire known as this election, so I’ve been watching movies. I’ve recently taken refuge in films that appeal to at least some part of the restaurant milieu and felt, basically, why the hell not? Have blog, will listicle. In no particular order, here goes:
1. Dinner Rush is me, was me, and speaks to the dark 1990s pre-fame heavy drinking Anthony Bourdain in all service professionals. From the perfection of its narrative arc, which covers one chaotic dinner shift at the restaurant (which also happened to be owned by the director – talk about no need for location scouting), the above-the-fray bartender, the crew’s polyamory, and demanding guests, I remember leaving the theater with a warm feeling. It was similar to the warm feeling I got as a kid watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where they sang carols together at the end. I also wanted a drink, a cigarette, and to call my bookie after I saw the movie, but that’s another story.
2. Big Night boils down to, Team Primo or Team Secondo? As someone who’s spent most of his career in the front of the house, but who also knows enough about the back to have established bona fides with my chef friends, I’m firmly Team Secondo. The figurative somersaults both brothers had to execute to save their restaurant spoke to me, particularly as a failed independent restauranteur myself. But, sadly, without either Isabella Rosellini or Minnie Driver.
Quick story for the Team Primo people, especially those who, like me, loved the risotto scene at the beginning; close second, Chef Udo in Dinner Rush saying sausage and peppers were not on his menu. I once worked at a seafood restaurant near Union Square, working every station from prep to pantry (cold apps, desserts) to sauté and grill. We were a small crew, but we worked our asses off and believed in our chef’s vision for the place: namely, be a consistently good upscale fish shack. Consequently, buerre blanc in its many and depredated forms was verboten.
Enter the Dowager Empress, whom I’ll call D for simplicity’s sake. D was a Kip’s Bay divorcee in her 60s with a
rat dwarf dog in a carrier, thick plastic framed glasses straight out of an episode of Rhoda, and firm ideas about what she did and didn’t like in food. Among the more PG-rated bets the staff took were what 1970s pseudo-French “classic” D would ask for each Friday, when she dined at a table towards the back with her companion furball. Our salmon dish had a pistachio crust, was seared on a screaming hot pan then finished in the oven, then served with a schmear of pesto and lemon-rosemary roasted fingerling potatoes. Nope. D wanted plainly grilled salmon (okay so far) with mashed potatoes (nope, and she did not like our parsnip puree either, so we had to break out the ricer) and haricots verts (double nope, but we did have Austrian winter peas that would suffice); finally, she wanted it with (gasp, choke) buerre blanc. I would’ve been proud to serve a dish like this if, let’s say, I worked in a banquet hall serving 100 people at a time. But an 80-seat neighborhood restaurant? Thankfully, D and the server couldn’t hear the chef invite them to have carnal relations with themselves, then barrage the crew with orders: “Fire table 31! Sam, get some grill marks on a salmon, then kill it in the oven. Dan, you’re on mashed potatoes and veg. Do any of you remember how to make fuckin’ buerre blanc from culinary school – you do? – awesome, new guy, you just volunteered, get wine from the bar. Order 3 salmon, 2 filet med-rare, and 1 crab burger after that.” And so it went. We didn’t have to like it, but ultimately, like Primo and Secondo, we just had to execute as best we could.
3.The Blues Brothers makes the list for this scene, which distills the risks and rewards of working the front door of any high end restaurant with demanding guests. Until I joined a company with a strict social media policy, I roasted staff and guests alike on Twitter with the hashtag #restauranting.
4. Eat Drink Man Woman and its American remake, Tortilla Soup, both of which I appreciate far more now as a parent, than I did as a single unattached man. At first, I just enjoyed watching the loving care these films’ protagonists put into their food. The quiet tension at the dinner table, things left unsaid, and love shown through food rather than verbally, could have been taken from the home of any old-school chef. In my recent viewings, I saw Chefs Chu and Martin attempt to reach out to their grown daughters after being absent for most of their lives (an occupational hazard for those of us who work nights, weekends, and most major holidays), the chefs needing to lean on their daughters after being widowed, but not knowing how to ask for help; and so, like many older chefs, they express themselves the only way they know, with food.
I worked with a chef who never had a kind word for anyone in either the front or back of the house, save the owner. If Chef questioned your parentage, insulted your intelligence and/or manhood, or threatened to rip out your eyes and skull-fuck you when you messed up an order, that meant he liked you. Whenever Chef’s wife called the restaurant, his responses were invariably monosyllabic (yeah, no, hmm, oh), the calls seldom lasting more than about thirty seconds. Then on Christmas Eve, she brought their kids for dinner, and every member of the team nudged each other: did you slip a mickey in Chef’s coffee or something? This isn’t the same ornery cuss we’ve worked with. This chef allowed his son to take over the sauté station for a bit, teaching the boy how to flip the contents of a pan and catch them again. This chef expedited the busy first part of dinner with one infant daughter in his arms, his older daughter next to him and calling orders to the cooks like her old man. And, because Christmas is for miracles, we saw him smile. The whole scene would’ve been heart-rending if his smile weren’t so damn scary.
5. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. Heyy, Helen Mirren. How you doin’? I mean, she’s still striking, and this film was made almost 30 years ago. It also boasts two of my favorite actors, Michael Gambon and Ciarán Hinds, long before they became Lyndon Johnson and Julius Caesar, respectively. I worked for an Albert Spica, though not nearly as sadistic or thuggish; his nightly retinue of wannabe Mafiosi, tough guys who’d probably weep at the first sign of blood, and brainless sycophants, reminded me of several scenes from this film. What gets conveyed in the earlier restaurant scenes, if stylistically, is the pride the staff takes in hospitality. When any restaurant runs well, there is a buzzing. That buzzing is hospitality, making sure guests’ needs are fulfilled, hopefully in as seamless a manner as possible and without guests’ noticing many overt acts of service. As much as I gripe about this business, that buzzing of hospitality is the dopamine that keeps me hooked.
6. Tampopo and The Ramen Girl will jog any restaurant pro’s memory to the time when they underwent some painstaking apprenticeship, whether as a stage or extern in a kitchen, or a busboy hoping to be promoted to waiter. At this stage of my career, I’ve become Goro or Maezumi, than Tampopo or Abby, training every front-of-house position from busboy to manager, but the sentiment is the same. You take pleasure, and no small pride, seeing that neophyte succeed. Tampopo also has a ridiculously young Ken Watanabe as a sidekick, which I hardly appreciated until my last viewing. Watch for the noodles. Stay for the sappy ending of the Brittany Murphy film.
7. No list like this could be complete without Ratatouille, the Pixar classic of the cooking rat. Another film about striving in the restaurant business, with the added benefit of the late, great Peter O’Toole as a restaurant critic. And
Sheriff Cobb Brian Dennehy as Remy’s father. When a Korean child turns one year old, a doljabi is the main attraction towards the end of the birthday fete. A number of items are laid out in front of the child, and the first item the child grabs may guide the child’s destiny. The items vary, but often include a string for long life, a judge’s mallet, a book, money, or a hammer. When my son turned one, and because I have a warped sense of humor, I borrowed a serving spoon from the banquet hall and added that to the other items. When it came time for my son’s doljabi, with both grandmothers waving $20 bills at him in the hopes that he’d be rich someday, he proved to be a chip off the old block and took the spoon. His grandmothers looked crestfallen. I smiled with quiet pride until my wife smacked me in the arm. And wouldn’t you know, my son’s favorite pastime – besides Minecraft, duh – is helping me cook dinner on my days off.
And now for some of the least favorite, both in terms of realism and general watchability. With that said, however, these are also films I’ll readily admit to hate-watching, but like a date with an ex, I’ll feel bad about myself the next day.
2. No Reservations
4. Simply Irresistible
An update to my post from last summer. http://wp.me/p1AJQQ-dz
It’s annual inspection time for us, with both cars’ inspections expiring in the same month. I told my mother-in-law I was going to take the cars to Mr. Kim in College Point, and she gave me some wonderful news: Mr. Kim, his partner, and even Beto their undocumented helper, had moved into a brick-and-mortar in September. I took my wife’s car first. The drive is jarring when you consider where Mr. Kim had previously been. Huge oak trees line the thoroughfare, then you pass Kissena Park and almost a full mile of green. Turn left at a side street and you’ll see a former gas station with a two-bay garage, and parking for future jobs where the pumps had been.
Mr. Kim comes out into the rain to greet me. As before, I greet him with a short bow and addressed him as Jungsa-nim, or Staff Sergeant. His face is leaner, which he attributes to the long hours he spent setting up this shop. He claims that I’m one of his first customers at the new place, but six cars parked outside the bays gives the lie to that statement. I ask if he has time for me, and he just grins and waves me inside the office. The same photos and certificates are on the walls, this time drywall painted nondescript cream, not raw plyboard. His old rank insignia is now pinned to the door frame; several ROK Army and White Horse Division hats line the windowsill. His desk, whose top is plied with small parts, printouts, and dirty gloves, sports a new computer. The repair bays are just as pristine as his old shop in College Point, if a bit bare because he had to sell most of his trove of parts to help finance the move.
Like the last few times, I either squat or sit while he works on my car, and pepper Mr. Kim with questions. His partner found the place on Hey Korea, a kind of Craigslist for the Korean community. I remembered driving past when this was still a run-down Gulf station with gas about fifteen cents higher than its competitor across the street. Which, if you think about it, likely contributed to its demise and cheap sale. The biggest expense, Mr. Kim says, was removing the gas pumps and repaving the front to make it conducive to park waiting cars. To afford this, he has used some of the money he’d set aside for his son’s college tuition, but is confident he’ll make that back in the two years before the boy graduates high school.
As he moves from bay to office, outside to smoke, then back again, you can see that Mr. Kim is happy. His posture is straighter, not slouched from bending under car lifts for years; his eyes are no longer closed partway in the beginning of a wary grimace. If he’s happy, then Beto, his undocumented helper, is on cloud nine. He has a car – not new, more a Frankenstein of various Toyota pieces pulled together to make one marginally running car – replete with an inspection sticker, registration, and insurance. I get the sense that this, more than anything else, cemented their odd master-apprentice relationship. They still speak in an odd melange of Spanish and Korean, which now contains a personal banter I didn’t hear in College Point.
I can’t help but think that this is the American Dream in its purest form: two Korean emigrants and an undocumented Mexican immigrant, moving out of an industrial wasteland to this garage at the edge of the suburbs. If anything, the move seems to have given them new purpose. Beto says he hopes to move into his own apartment soon, having saved enough to move out of the two bedroom flat he shares with up to four other undocumented immigrants. Almost shyly, he adds that maybe one day he might be able to start a family.
“Mis hijos serán legales.” My kids will be legal.
I’ve heard variations on this theme for what feels like my whole life. The blank in the title has ranged from China, Japan, Korea, to Hong Kong – and once, incredibly, even Burma. I still don’t know how an ignorant white boy in the Houston burbs, who at the time couldn’t even name the states bordering Texas, knew about Myanmar.
My first memory of hearing this is first grade, right around the time I realized that white boys would pick fights with me simply because of my ethnicity. A related memory is the “a-ha” light bulb moment I had at age 7, when I discovered that if you keep punching, even if you’ve been hurt, you’ll win. Maybe not with the teachers or administrators, but I got into progressively fewer fights each year, until we moved to Texas.
Two months ago, I was watching the news because I feel incomplete without constant heartburn. The scene was a Donald Trump rally, and one of his supporters in the background yelled it, presumably at either a reporter or a protestor. You only have to hear it directed at you once, at age 5, to have a heightened awareness of that hurtful sentence four decades later. It was unmistakable, though, and I froze. To my dismay and horror, not a single talking head noticed. I scanned social media, switched channels, and … nothing, nichts, nada. I don’t even know if it was a live or taped video of a Trump rally, don’t know its location, so YouTube wasn’t an option.
Then it happened again, this time at a playground. I was off that day, and took my kids to a playground closer to my in-laws’ neighborhood than mine. The heat and humidity weren’t nearly as oppressive as they had been, the sun was out – a perfect summer day. He was about six feet tall, white, with dark hair and a mustache. A red Trump hat looked like a sundae’s cherry atop his small head and pear-shaped body. We nodded at each other, the silent solidarity of two dads watching their kids at a playground. I noticed that he’d look in my direction occasionally, but I paid no attention. I tend to keep to myself at the playground. I much prefer to watch my kids play, not engaging with parents I don’t know. Not so Mr. Trump Hat, who found a kindred political spirit in one of the mothers there.
Their conversation, audible from eight to ten feet away, was about what I expected. Immigrants bad, homosexuality deviant, all lives matter, a word salad like a misfiring car engine – it was like when Oswald Bates conjured words from thin air simply because they were multi-syllabic. My kids had wisely stayed away from Trump Hat’s son, who seemed to have problems with playing too rough, and cursing every time he fell. Then Trump Hat crossed a red line. He made some comment about “don’t know why we just don’t nuke those sand n—-rs.” My tweet storm about it begins here.
My sudden rage at that instant clouds my memory, but I said something like, “Hey, man, watch your language. My kids are here too and they don’t need to hear that.”
“What the fuck is it to you?” Trump Hat started walking closer to me, apparently thinking I would shrink away from confrontation. Sorry, but very few unarmed people physically intimidate me, let alone someone who looks like 150 pounds of chewed bubble gum. I kept looking over at my kids, who thankfully were oblivious to the fact that their old man was about to – what, get into a fistfight at the playground? Trump Hat replied that this is a free country, he had a right to his opinion, neither of which statement I’d ever disagree with, but then came the zinger. “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to fuckin’ China or wherever the fuck you’re from?”
“Seriously, man? You want everyone here to know how ignorant and stupid you are right now?” His recent compatriot quickly gathered up her kids and left. One other dad I knew peripherally from this park, another minority veteran, but with horrible taste in moto-themed Marine Corps hats, came up. I couldn’t help but laugh at how ludicrous this entire scene was. I was determined to not hit the guy. I didn’t want to be arrested over something as ridiculous as this. I was afraid, though not for my own safety; rather, I was afraid that if I hit Trump Hat, I might not want to stop. I knew that if I got into my first fight in 13 years, the release would be nothing less than exhilarating; I also knew I didn’t want to disappoint my children, who would very likely see their father get arrested for aggravated battery.
“I’ll knock your chink ass from here to Brooklyn.” I asked, with what, his belly? I called for my kids, told them we were going to a different playground, this one was dirty. In the few seconds it took for them to run over to me, I told Trump Hat, if he wanted to throw down, now was his chance, but I’d also beat him bloody in front of his son. Suffice it to say, my quiet angry voice works better than yelling or other histrionics. With that, he backed off, I gave the Marine veteran a wordless fist bump, and we left the playground unmolested. I badly wanted a cigarette and half a bottle of Jameson right then and there. A glass of wine when we got home would have to suffice. At the next playground, adjacent to my son’s school, the kids found instant playmates. They were black, Asian, white, and Hispanic – an elementary school version of a Benneton ad, and this made me inordinately happy.
Discrimination doesn’t just exist, it’s learned. Parents’ actions and words have remarkable effects on their children, it’s not as if the son of a Klan member would suddenly decide to work for the SPLC. I felt sorry for Trump Hat’s son, not just because one day his old man will run into someone with far less forbearance than me. But because that boy will grow up hating minorities, inheriting his father’s racism, only to possibly and suddenly wonder why society is leaving his family’s views behind. Or sadder yet, the son will grow up hating himself as a closeted gay man because his old man has no use for anyone not straight and cis-gender.
What truly terrifies me is not the prospect of another attack by one or two would-be jihadists who are more Laurel and Hardy than Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. What scares the bejezus out of me is the racism that had been rightfully driven underground, its mainstream voices muted, but now has found widespread acceptance again. It’s the attitudes of men like Trump Hat, or this wonderful human being, or these extras from a possible Deliverance remake. As satisfying as it may be to reply in kind with vitriol, if not a fist to the throat, I keep in mind Dr. King’s words. In particular, I’m amazed at how far short I fall from this passage: “Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.” If you follow me on Twitter, this is not quite how I approach it, but it does make me feel better to read words to which I might aspire.
The night before this happened, and because we have wonderful luck with restaurants when we travel, we had another wonderful service experience. I didn’t write an email to this restaurant, but if I had, this is what I would have written.
Dear Ristorante Italiano (note: the names have been changed to protect the innocent),
Your restaurant was billed as a charming, traditional trattoria outside Narragansett, with good reviews on Open Table and Yelp, so we decided to give it a try. We were also staying nearby, and wanted something closer than Newport; wine math is, the tolls both ways on the Pell Bridge could buy me one more glass of wine.
We were a party of 5: 3 adults and 2 children. Normally, not a difficult table to serve, since parties with children rarely linger in fine-dining establishments. Mind if I call you Amy? Because you looked like a young Amy Schumer, and I’ve mentally blocked your real name. You started off on the wrong foot by taking about 5 minutes (yes, I’m a career restaurant geek who times such things) to get to us. I could see that you were busy. I was doing your job when you were presumably still in diapers, so I get it. With that said, however, couldn’t any of your three peers, none of whom had as many tables as you, have assisted? Just a hello, here’s some ice water, Amy will be with you shortly? They even made eye contact as I did the “where’s our server” fighter-pilot-scan-the-skies thing. The only times I’ve seen this happen is when the server’s peers don’t like him or her very much … oh, wait.
I don’t know about your manager, whom I didn’t see leaving the hostess’s side during our stay, as if the hostess would melt if he wandered more than two steps away from her. I would have greeted the table myself, possibly even gotten them started with a drink and app order, but that’s me. I run restaurants as if they’re an extension of the dining room in my house, which is why I’ve always called them guests, not customers. “Customers” reduces the interaction to something cold and transactional, not welcoming. If I had to guess, we were customers that evening, not guests.
You were serving three other tables besides us, two deuces and a four top. Ten covers – well, fifteen, if you count us – can be a challenge for a veteran waiter, let alone a younger one who may or may not have yet learned how to prioritize tasks during a semi-busy shift. You were perfectly sweet when you finally greeted us – but then you recited the specials before we could even order Shirley Temples for my kids, talking over me when I said we were ready to order. I saw your frozen smile when you realized my wife and I speak unaccented English. Please learn to hide that better going forward, it will stand you in good stead in your restaurant career. I ordered the drinks for the kids, some onion soup right away for them, and a bottle of house chardonnay. I also gave you our entree order, since I didn’t want another lag. You thanked me without making eye contact, and left.
Here’s where things started to go south. My kids were exhausted, as it had been a long day of driving, sightseeing, and swimming. My daughter started fading immediately, leaning against her grandmother. My son had caught a summer cold, which had been exacerbated by his time in the pool earlier; since it’s summer, the restaurant was air conditioned (with apologies to Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff) so cold our bone marrow froze. He put on my mother-in-law’s windbreaker and shivered while we sat at the table unattended.
We didn’t see you for another ten minutes after you dropped off the Shirley Temples. Yes, I timed it again. Your other tables received warm, detailed service – the kind that I was silly enough to expect. Your busboy, who looked all of twelve years old, apologized when I asked him to get you. “I don’t know where she is, sir.” This, too, was odd, since five of your restaurant could fill the one I currently run, and I don’t generally have issues tracking my team members down.
I saw you looking through the cooler next to the kitchen for a bottle of wine. I know very well what I ordered, what the label and foil look like, and have visited that winery in Sonoma; I even saw your hand touch the correct bottle, but move along. Ordering one of your two house chardonnays would seem to be binary (they either ordered this one, or that one); I therefore don’t understand why it took another six minutes to find, then serve, the wine. My daughter was asleep by this point. My mother-in-law had taken her to the car, and told us to just get her food wrapped to go. I had to pass this along during one of the few times you refilled our wine glasses, and ask you to speed up the meal for our kids’ sake. I don’t mind pouring my own wine, but if you bill yourself as a fine dining restaurant – indeed, one of the best in New England – I shouldn’t have to.
One of the advantages of an open kitchen like yours is that people can ooh and ah every time a saute cook
screws up flames his pan because he added too much oil to a screaming hot pan over high heat. As you should hopefully know by now, this bit of showmanship only results in food that tastes like burnt cooking oil. One of the drawbacks is that people like me can see something eerily similar to an onion soup crock appear in the chef’s window, then watch it lie there dying because no one is running it to the table. When a guest asks you to speed up their meal, the assumption is that items will be served soon after they are ready, regardless of course grouping or progression. There is often a perfectly good reason for this, like perchance a sick child, or one who fell asleep.
In any event, the kids’ soups were served with the adults’ salad and prosciutto appetizer, not as they were ready. The prosciutto, wrapped around cheese that was supposed to be mozzarella but tasted suspiciously like Fontina, tasted like it had been dipped in salt. Not your fault, but if you’re serving a dish, my expectation is that you’ve at least made a cursory visual check before bringing it out. Might I, then, remind you of the differences in color and consistency between mozzarella and Fontina? Or how salad greens should look when properly dressed, as opposed to wilting under the weight of enough dressing for three defensive linemen? My son’s soup was starting to go cold, the cheese on top burned not toasted, but at least you remembered to wrap up my daughter’s soup and my mother-in-law’s food. Were you perhaps waiting for an emergency delivery of to-go containers?
The calamari and bucatina carbonara came out quickly thereafter, and only my wife’s intercession stopped me from unleashing the last few paragraphs to you verbally. I made eye contact and lied through my teeth when you checked on us. Oh, we’re great, thank you for
finally asking. When I learned to make carbonara from an unstable Roman who drank a pint of vodka every shift, he told me that cooks who add heavy cream to carbonara should be excommunicated. Harsh, I know, but that’s just as unforgivable as adding heavy cream to buerre blanc, thereby making Georges Escoffier roll in his grave. The pancetta was … crunchy? I expected crispy, but not crunchy like the cook had par-cooked the pancetta until it crumbled. The bucatini sat in a rapidly congealing sauce that, rather than having been bound with raw egg yolk, contained an inhumane amount of – care to venture a guess? – heavy cream. The calamari was passable. Neither good nor bad, perfectly forgettable, which is probably a good thing, considering everything else.
I wasn’t going to belabor you with the technical aspects of the service, but YOLO. No serving utensil, much less small plates, for a couple sharing an app. No soup spoon for rolling long pasta. Not even a soup spoon for a seven year old actually having soup, until we asked both you and one other server. Water glasses left empty until we asked a busboy. Table never crumbed until I brushed crumbs off the tablecloth myself. One of the few things you did correctly was not offer us dessert menus, knowing (at least, I hoped you did by then) that we had to make a hasty exit. I reckon that, for this, I should be grateful.
Our check was the only thing that came to the table with any alacrity. I’m still not sure why you looked so nervous when you dropped the check. I left you 20% because I refuse to be “that Asian guy,” and know full well that many Asian immigrants seem allergic to tipping. I also remember wondering “WTF?” if a table left me 15% or less. I can only wish you looked nervous because of a guilty conscience, but I strongly doubt it.
As we left, you were talking with the bartender. Not even a thank you, or a good night. Just literally turning your back to me like I’m some sort of bug. We were not acknowledged by either the manager or hostess, who hadn’t left their spots at the front, and were still deep in whatever superficial conversation a man my age might have with a flirtatious teenage girl.
Despite all this, Amy, I wish you well. You may well be a larger fish in the smaller pond of greater Newport. You might also be your manager’s favorite, though from my experience at one of your tables, God only knows why. Best of luck translating any of this, along with an apparent attitude that your fecal matter is not odoriferous, to anything resembling success in a larger restaurant market.