We’ve lived in this neighborhood since 1994, and never tried the Chow Mein. We sit between two venerable vendors of the delicacy, but the need never arises; I remember the stuff as mush with hard fossilized noodles, laced with cruelly bland celery, and there are so many other “ethnic” restaurants around we never gave it a thought. For that matter, I’m not a grand fan of Chinese food, at least in its Yankee incarnation. Glutinous mashed-up heaps of vegetables with six or seven atoms of meat: that’s my experience. I always associate the restaurants with a certain amount of dust and kitsch, be it the inevitable laughing fat-guy statues (ha ha! You paid nine dollars for 67 cents worth of expired vegetables!), the shellacked  menu items in the display case, the red satin lampshades with gold tassels, the coarse paper placemat with the listings of the years and which animals represent them. (I think I’m a Year of the Dog man, myself.) You’re sure this isn’t the entirety of Chinese design, it being a large ancient country; perhaps Chinese people come to America and regard the décor with horror, just like an American who discovered that every McDonald’s in China was decorated like a stuffy 1920s parlor with a big plaster Jesus on the wall.

Saturday night we could eat wherever we wanted, since Gnat was at a sleepover . . . but it was cold, and when I suggested that I fetch something and bring it home, my wife was relieved. She asked if I might pick up Chinese at the neighborhood joint to the west.

“Don’t they just have Chow Mein?”

“They have everything, I’m sure.”

I scowled; the neon sign in the window said CHOW MEIN. For some reason I thought that was all they had. The kitchen made a cubic ton once a week and sold it by the bucket. You’d walk in and say “half bucket,” there would be a clanking of machinery, and the horrid phlegmy rattle of the Mein splorging down the chute into your pail. But no, she was probably right.

I drove to the restaurant. It was across from a 1950s strip mall – well,  actually, it was in a 1950s strip mall of its own, across from another. And by “strip mall” I mean four stores under a single roof. The one across the street has been modernized and updated with a heavy metal cornice,  but this one still has the original roof, angled up to the sky in the official optimistic to-the-stars angle. All the stores were closed. The gas station was closed. It felt like midnight; the stars were bright and the sky dark thick ink. The wind had a mean feel, as if it really wanted to shove some snow around – preferably down your collar – but had to settle for leaves.

The sign said CHOW MEIN. It glowed green and red. It had glowed green and read for forty years.

I walked inside, bringing a gust of cold air behind me. The cashier was chatting with a customer, or rather at the customer; she didn’t provide much room for interpolated remarks. There was one other fellow slumped in a chair, waiting for an order, a woolen cap on his head. He was stubbled and bleary and looked at me with suspicion. The restaurant was small – four booths along a wall, three tables in the middle, two tables against the other wall, the usual bright hot calamitous kitchen in the back. No grinning fat-man statues; maybe they were atheists.

The cashier was complaining about Visa.

“They charge too much! Twenty five cents just to swipe the card! Four hundred dollars a month! I have to raise prices.” She threw her hands in the air: Visa had pushed her to the edge. The cook brought out a bag, and the stubbled fellow rose to get his food.

“They charge to use the card?” he mumbled. “Legalized extortion.” He got out his wallet. “My card doesn’t charge me.”

“They charge the retailer,” I said. “The retailer pays a percentage for each charged transaction. You don’t.”

He peered at me: who are you, who knows the ways of International Banking?

“Well I hope you didn’t vote for Pawlenty,” he said, referring to the recent governor’s race.

“What?” said the cashier.

“Pawlenty. At the block party all the yuppies were complaining about taxes but they all had Pawlenty signs on their yards.”

Jeebus. Oh, it’s possible that he was referring to diminished state aid to local governments, which makes cities raise taxes to pay for the things they want, and it’s possible he was referring to the redefinition of taxes as “fees” or the stadium bill, but I don’t think so. Just a hunch. He had the look of a fellow who believed that the Governor’s first act was to ask his secretary to bring in the secret plans for Screwing the Little Guy, along with his fiddlers three. He muttered a few more things, and now the simple act of ordering Chinese food was saturated with the dank aroma of politics.

He left. I ordered. The cashier – who, I’m sure, was the co-owner – went chattering back to the kitchen, never stopping in her monologue about Visa and the weather and the city and the taxes and the prices, and I took a seat. A father and his young daughter came in to pick up an order; they sat at a table. I wondered if anyone had ever sat and ordered a meal to eat here in the last ten years.

“I’m a dragon,” she said, pointing to the placemat. “See? Year of the dragon. What’s mommy?”

Another couple entered and headed for the back booth. I had been proven wrong, instantly: they were probably regulars who came here every Saturday night, ordered the same thing, tipped the same pathetic tip, then went home, their night on the town complete.

The cashier brought menus. They asked a few questions. They’d never been here before, it seems. Wrong again.

Two other people came in for take-out; the cashier knew them all.

My order was up in ten minutes. I drove it home and dumped the kung pao chicken on a plate: a gluey heap of chopped vegetables in brown sauce with a few flecks of chicken. Spicy? I’ve licked envelopes with more flavor.

So that was my weekend? More or less. Oh, I watched a movie, but that’ll be for tomorrow. I concluded the massive print-off of the 2000 Bleats. I watched some “Lost,” and all those who are turning on the show are all wet. Sopping. Drenched. “Oh, they’re not explaining the central mystery in order to play out the string! They’re making it up as they go along!” I don’t get that sense at all. I was not surprised when one of the main characters put the boot in the bucket, since Entertainment Weekly had featured the person a week ago with a big story whose headline said “NOW THAT (character’s name) IS DEAD, WHAT’S NEXT FOR (newly liberated thespian.) This is the downside of trailing the leading edge; even if you get two episodes behind, you have to shield your eyes when reading stories about the series. (All I know about Battlestar Galactica so far consists of fretful blog-entry headers on The Corner.)  

On Friday I did some archiving and sorting, and came across something I digitized a few weeks ago and instantly forgot: the soundtrack for Lucas Arts’ “Dark Forces” game. This was their Doom-clone first-person shooter in the Star Wars world; I loved that game. (I loved the sequel even more, and it had one of the best levels ever: an escape from a ship slowly tumbling to the planet. Down was up and up was sideways.) The music brings back mid-90s gaming in all its tinny-speaker glory, and I offer this wav to all who played the game so many years ago. Enjoy! New match & quirk, and I’ll see you tomorrow.





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c. j lileks. email may be sent to first name at last name dot com.