Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Metropole Patois

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It’s a six-man operation, at least, behind the counter. A Cantonese venture set up like a Stanley Kubrick shot: All in one-point perspective, the wall-clock providing both focus and axis on the far side. An array of woks to the left, vat-like rice-cookers on the right, pallets and trash cans in the back, and a prematurely bejowled slight woman in her thirties in front, answering phone calls in broken English. She’s been here as long as I have. Broken English is the patois of business, and she knows it. All pleasantries minus the pleasantness; why prolong the farce?

Always they put women up front, on the phone, direct to the public. Presumably it’s because female voices are more of a soothing tone, but like the pleases and thank yous, its original purpose has long since devolved into tradition for tradition’s sake, just as the tough-guy demeanor of the head chef, barrel-chested, crew cut save for the faux-hawk, a sleeve of a dragon tattoo peeking out of his muscle tee. The Central American delivery boys (the job title never seems to rest easy on “men,” though men is what they are – everybody here is thirty if they’re a day) hop out of his way like goats before an oncoming jitney, surprisingly light-footed if outwardly unconcerned.

She stacks the orders wordlessly to the boys/men, he takes mine while she punches in some caller’s number on her computer – its stock and trade is delivery, especially on such a wet, rainy day as today; the front window facing out to naught but neon lights, harsh fluorescence from across the street, and twinkling of not-Christmas decorations refracted and rebounded across all surfaces, glaring and cold – and jokes/lectures in Cantonese to the other two cooks. He holds court with his bravado, she, perennially grim-faced, doesn’t bother to even notice. She certainly doesn’t hop out of his way when she goes back to pack delivery bags.

The other two are of a kind: An older man in his late fifties, and a younger man, both walking skeletons, couldn’t fill a shirt if it was wrapped around them twice, both donned in blank t-shirts,┬áknock-off Levis jeans and baseball caps. The younger’s sports the camouflage pattern of the first Gulf War with some Eagle in front of a red, white and blue logo reminiscent of some minor sports league, so painfully outre as to exist in its own plane of existence: Twice through the looking glass of one’s own culture, incongruously in the epicenter of one’s own culture. They both grin and laugh at the big man’s ministrations, then sidle off and disappear at will.

The whole storefront is off a catalog of Broken English kitsch.┬áThe displays are straight off some identikit American Take-Out template; a calendar bears the logo of a restaurant supply chain proudly showing off every Chinese holiday in the known universe and some others besides, the ubiquitous Beckoning Cat figurine prominent among the tchotchkes – not originally a Chinese totem, in fact oddly Japanese, but yet an ever-presence in just about every overseas Chinese business from here to Havana. The storefront is an island, an embassy, its own sovereign property of, if not China, then overseas Chinese businesses. They’re self-supporting: Chinatown buses ferry Cantonese workers to every podunk township in the Eastern Seaboard specifically to staff joints such as this, like ships adrift in a sea of white people.

Speaking of white people, usually the only white people here are delivery customers. The bare, unadorned, tiny seating area for those with nothing else to do but sit and watch these short-order cooks cook, is usually peopled mostly by Hoods with a capital H. Those for whom Chinese-American cuisine offers fried chicken and french fries, and for whom there’s a TV that invariably shows Americana in its purest form: (Sur)reality shows. Not today, however; it’s raining too much. There’s only me and one white girl, wearing yoga pants and intermittently preening, like a particularly taciturn pigeon, in front of the full-wall mirror that’s supposed to make the 12-foot wide place look bigger than it is.

She asks for the menu – as identikit it is as any McDonald’s franchise – before hopping out of the way of one of the Central American men, despite towering over him by at least a foot. In fact, these men make even the lady behind the counter look tall, imperious though she is regardless, but each makes his presence felt nevertheless – unobtrusive but unrelenting. The man with two earrings, a facial scar, and a t-shirt advertising a boxing match, chats in Spanish to his younger companion, shoulder-length curly hair hidden under a baseball cap. The cooks chirp in Cantonese. The white girl preens. Oil and water. Cooking oil and rain.

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