Jeff Phillips: A St. Paddy’s Day Chow Down at Chopsticks

chopsticks

Last year on St. Paddy’s Day I kept things low key. It was one of our first nice days of the year, so I went for a walk, read a book in a park. I came down with a craving for ice cream, went into a corner store to buy a prepackaged cone. At the checkout the shopkeeper said $2.00 but I remembered seeing a price tag stating $1.05. I turned the package over but the cone I had grabbed didn’t have a price tag. I mentioned the price discrepancy and went back to the freezer to pick out one with a tag, but the shopkeeper said “don’t worry about it, just take it.” He directed his attention away from me to nod at his buddy who walked through the door, a stocky, scruffy man in a red hoodie. The shopkeeper saw me looking, then motioned for his buddy to meet him on the other side of a display case. And just as quick his buddy was coming back around, in the midst of pushing a plastic bag into his hoodie pocket. I had a feeling our corner store didn’t care much about its regular inventory, but that’s okay because I got a free ice cream cone and possibly I deserved this Karmic return since many years ago on St. Paddy’s Day a few friends and I gave cash to a car full of strangers so they’d pick us up some Shamrock Shakes at the McDonald’s, since at that hour only the drive-thru was open. The car full of strangers drove off without completing the exchange, they were a few bucks richer. I thought of intoxicated St. Paddy’s Days past, and I realized how much I had enjoyed my clear headed day. Maybe I wouldn’t need a pint to celebrate this holiday after all.

When I went home I decided I needed a haircut and borrowed my roommate’s clippers to shave my head.

When my stomach demanded dinner, I decided I was in the mood for Chinese, so I went to Chopsticks which was down the street. Chopsticks was a compact takeout/eat-in storefront with a gold waving cat and a currant colored Buddha statue up at the counter. Crimson paper lanterns were strung up above.

I approached the counter, placed my order for a dinner special of Shrimp with Lobster Sauce. The middle-aged Asian American woman up front thanked me for my order and said she’d bring it out to me. I found a table, and as I took a seat, I noticed a guy off to my right. He wore a green shamrock t-shirt that was a little too small for him. His belly peaked out from behind the hem of his t-shirt and folded over the belt holding up his torn jeans. The oil in his tussled brown hair reflected the overhead light and his baby face was red with sun burn.

He shoveled fried rice up to his mouth, flinging some clumps at his neck. I could see them slip off the tight skin around his Adam’s apple and down inside his t-shirt. When he finished his rice, he turned his attention back to his Orange Chicken and slurped it down, only a bite or two a piece. Sauce smeared his cheek.  It was obvious he was in the vigorous process of soaking up the accumulated swill from a St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl. After devouring the last piece of chicken, he stood, the broccoli was untouched, and stumbled over to the counter.

“Yes?” The woman asked.

“I want more Orange Chicken.”

“Dinner special?”

“Yeah.”

“$11.96 please.”

“I don’t have any more cash on me.”

“You used your credit card before, do you want to use that again?”

“That was my debit card.”

“Did you want to use that?”

“You have it.”

“No, I gave it back to you.”

“You have it. You have,” he paused, about to burp, or possibly to force up something else. “My debit card.”

“No, after I ran the card I gave it back to you. You put it in your pocket.”

The guy’s eyes seemed to pinch shut as he tried to keep from wobbling. “Can I have my debit card? You have my debit card.”

“Check your pocket. I gave it back.”

The guy sighed and started to speak slowly, like she wasn’t understanding him, even though she had a fluid command of English.

“My debit card. My debit card. My debit card. My debit card. My debit card,” he repeated, slow and pronounced while she tried to politely remind him “I gave it back to you, you put it in your pocket. Check your pocket.”

But the guy didn’t check his pocket. He continued to slur his repetitive fixation on the object he was after. He seemed to think she wasn’t comprehending. He leaned off to the side and lost his balance, almost falling to the floor, but recovered his footing. He walked back to his table as though he suddenly forgot what he was doing up there. He now paid attention to his broccoli and flung each piece into his mouth to chow down, jaws wide open to echo the smack of the chew. When he finished that pile he reached into his pocket and pulled out his debit card. He held it up and waved it for the woman to see.

“Found it!”

“It was in your pocket.”

“Yah honey.”

He used his finger to lick up all of the remaining sauce.

Another customer came into Chopsticks and placed an order for Orange Chicken, to go. The cook started making it and the customer stood off to the side.

The green shirted guy got up and approached the counter.

“I want more Orange Chicken.”

“Oh, so you do want to put that order in?”

“Yah!”

“$11.96.”

“Can you just make it for me?”

“You have to pay for it.”

“You were just going to make some any way, just give it to me.”

“No, we weren’t. And no, I won’t.”

“Give me that guy’s!” He gestured back at the meat he could see frying on the grill.

“No, it’s for another customer.”

“Come on, you can make it for me.”

“If you pay.”

The customer that was waiting off to the side turned to the green shirted guy. “Come on man, stop harassing her!”

The green shirted guy looked over at the customer who spoke up, his eyes wide and teary.

“No,” he whimpered, like he was small child, accused of something he didn’t do.

He stood waiting for the customer to respond, but the customer had now turned away, deciding not to interact with this fool beyond a quick reprimand. The green shirted guy looked like he really was going to cry. He tried to bus his own table. A few napkins, soaked in sauce, fell off his tray, onto the floor and he stomped all over them. There was a packet of mustard that wasn’t sliding off the tray into the trash can. The sight of this was an easy distraction away from his wounded feelings, his face relaxed again. He set the tray down, picked up the packet and tore it open so he could suck out the mustard. As he brought it to his lips, he squeezed too soon and mustard squirted out onto his green shirt. He looked up at me, our eyes locked, and he groaned. He seemed to be starting in on the hazy climb to self-awareness, to sobering up. He was, at that moment, only aware of the mustard stain being gross, but soon, hopefully soon, he’d catch some glimpses of his larger part in the mess.

He sauntered to the door, leaned his head against it without pushing it open. It looked like he was about to splatter the glass with wet puke, but then he gave it that shove and stepped out into dusk.

For me, the green shirted guy is now embedded into the St. Patrick’s Day mise en scène, as much a classic character as a leprechaun. He made me wonder how many times I was in similar shape, not even a few years prior. There was a time I was at the South Side Irish Parade, getting a snack while chugging Miller Lite tall boys in a McDonald’s. Some friends and I hunkered down at a table right next to a nice family trying to enjoy their meal. My memory of it is murky, though I do recall the manager coming over to tell my friend to go outside with his beer, and my friend attempted to claim innocence.

“I don’t have a beer!” My friend held a can down at his side, not at all hidden.

“Come on man, I’m not an idiot! Look at all these families, this is a family establishment, don’t try this with me!”

I think he was yelling only at my friend because the rest of us had finished our beers, or maybe the manager yelled at us too, but that part was washed out of my memory.

Faint images surfaced of more destructive moments. There was the time a friend and I, both drunken, walked home from a party, picking up roadside construction barriers and tossing them out into the middle of the street. The time another friend and I stumbled into a half erected condo building and ripped up some wiring. Both incidents were also marked with rip-roaring elation, laughter and hollering. It was a miracle we weren’t caught and prosecuted.

The guy in the green shirt posed little menace, and my initial, inner judgment of him as a piece of shit dissolved. He may be a fool, but his trail of napkins weren’t any measure of vandalism. I’m no saint, or forgive me for this one, I’m no Saint Patrick.

The man who made a mess of himself on St. Paddy’s Day is an archetype. He’s a reminder of where we’ve all been, and what crossing the line looks like. Reminders are good. And after enjoying my Shrimp with Lobster Sauce in the peace and quiet now suffusing the dining area, I decided to shed my evening’s teetotalling. Why not return home and crack open a few beers; take a moment and toast the Hero’s Journey, however unsteady and aggravating to the people around us.

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Lovely story. Yeah, I’ve been there, there was a sleeping out in the open, insulting my friend as we all laughed about it and at the end of the whole drunken nuisance no one took offence. Thanks for sharing! Reminds of myself.

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