Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Obscured American: Robert the Chef

As published at Unz Review, CounterCurrents and Intrepid Report, 4/12/16:

It’s not right. I came into the Friendly Lounge at 11:45AM, parked my bony ass there for three hours, and saw nobody. In the 90’s, I heard an exasperated crack whore kvetch, “Don’t nobody want a blow job no more!” It’s gotten much worse. In 2016, it’s, “Can’t nobody afford a beer no more?”

Tony the cook, whom I featured a month ago, has lost his job. Of course, Tony said he did nothing wrong, only that his boss suspected him of stealing money when he worked as the parking lot attendant, Tony’s easiest duty. I’d spot him sitting in that box like a bored sentry, smoking in the half dark. There were other issues, for Tony was the only employee to get no Christmas bonus last year. Between booze, pot, $9 packs of cigarettes and up to a hundred bucks for lottery tickets on paydays, Tony has zero savings, so this flailing 55-year-old has been borrowing from several of his Friendly Lounge buddies. Don, the owner, has also allowed Tony to run up a tab, and often doesn’t even charge him for his first bottle or two. Don is not all about profits. Once he kicked 30 women out when they staggered in obnoxiously loud. They were barhopping, apparently. Since the Friendly doesn’t see 30 lovelies in a month, the crusty, mostly impotent regulars were quite pissed at Don.

Since Tony and his sister haven’t paid their gas bills in months, his apartment was already freezing before he got canned, and working under the table for years, Tony can’t collect unemployment. Brain cells pickled, fogged up and half frozen, Tony thought he might get a job at Sugar House, but since that casino gets more than a thousand applications a day, Vern (the Vietnam vet) and I dissuaded Tony from even thinking about it. It takes at least six weeks just to receive a generic rejection email from that scamming outfit. We told Tony he should go back to Bucks County and house paint, since he knows a contractor up that way. The dude would even help Tony move.

The poorer you are, the more desperate you are for that one life-changing break. In his 20's, Tony went to Las Vegas to play poker with his last $200. Staying in a $30 motel, he managed to be worth $2,000 within a week, only to lose it all, of course, such that he had to call his dad for a bus ticket home.

We don’t help Tony just so he can eat, but also drink among friends, for a grimly-appointed yet bad joke, good anecdote, laughter and obscenity-filled bar is about the only place a poor, irreligious man can go to feel he belongs. It’s not the booze, bougie, but the fermented blatherings. Such a spiritual and intellectual need should never be denied. Lick her is just a pretext, amiga. Joe Blows wouldn’t go to operas, symphonies or plays even if they were free.

There’s a Vietnamese guy, Jack, who only shows up maybe three times a month. Jack works in a box factory. Even with lame English, Jack tries to banter, and though no one can understand what the hell he’s talking about, everyone grins just to encourage and comfort Jack. Buzzed by his third Bud, this scrawny and clearly gay man would start to purr a ragged medley in Vietnamese. Lost in ballads, Jack often looked like he’s about to drip hot tears onto his J.C. Penney tie, but it’s probably just Anheuser-Busch, the piss, that’s making his eyes red.

Tennessee Williams writes of “the chansons de geste which American tongues throw away so casually in bars and hotel bedrooms.” Each American barfly, then, is an instant jongleur with a vast repertoire of miscues, mishaps and a few timely breaks. Invigorated by cider, beer, rum and wine, a bunch of Philly blowhards could even dash off the Constitution. George Bush is a teetotaler. Seriously, though most of us would be perfectly content with a bit of liquid bread after eight hours of honest sweating, such a low bar is becoming out of reach, for the nation’s ceiling is caving in, its floor cracking and its foundation gone.

“You’re lucky to have an out, man,” I said to Tony.

“Take the sure thing,” Vern added.

“You wait around, it may disappear. Someone may take your job next week, or your buddy may change his mind if he thinks you’re not really interested.”

They’re real close. Years ago, Tony sold the guy a pretty good car for cheap, only to see it totaled within a week. “It flipped then landed upside down in a cemetery. When my friend opened his eyes and saw a grave stone, he thought he was dead!”

Though Tony doesn’t want to leave the kitchen, he will have to. Having worked as both cook and housepainter, I much prefer the latter. Though as exhausting, it’s much less detail-oriented, thus less stressful. It’s also more solitary, with no man hounding another. At the end of the day, though, you’re just as dazed and ready for a few mugs.

With almost no manufacturing jobs available, Joe Sixpack must jostle to find work in construction or food service. Recently, I met a young chef in Friendly who seems to have his act together. Thirty-two, Robert just bought his first house, something I’ve never been able to accomplish, and I’m 52. OK, let’s hear from this easy going, big bearded dude:

I left home at 19, and have only been back once, for six months. I worked at Wegmans in Syracuse, Rochester, then Northern Virginia. I went from eight bucks an hour to 16. When my sister got sick, I moved back home to help out. I didn’t help very much, but I was around. My mom was a mess, you know. My parents are divorced. I wanted to be around them. I didn’t want to be six hours away.

I’ve been across the country. I’ve been to Memphis. I hung out in Portland. I lived in Chicago. The train to Portland, Oregon was a phenomenal experience. I loved it. It’s such a beautiful country. So gorgeous.

I lived in Syracuse for the majority of my whole life. Eighteen years. I’ve been to Toronto a bunch of times. It’s a phenomenal city. It’s so clean. I’ve been to Ottawa. That’s all right. My grandmother is from Quebec. I’d like to go to Montreal.

I like the East Coast culture. I like the attitude. It’s rough and tumble. I like the anxiety of it. It’s like, “Hey, can I bum a buck?” Get the hell out of here, whatever. You know, when you walk down the street and somebody bothers you? It’s fast pace. It’s like, “Hey, buddy! Hey, buddy!”

My girlfriend applied for a job in Seattle. She won’t get it. She likes the West Coast. She wants everything to be nice. She loves to be super calm. I love the hustle and bustle of the East Coast. If she gets the job, I’ll go over there, hands down. We’ll make it work.

I had no idea that Portland is the go-go bar capital of America. In New York, you can only show the top or the bottom. If you go to a go-go bar in Philadelphia, if you go to Show and Tell, you get both, you get everything there, but in New York, you can only see either the top or the bottom. What do you want to see? You have to choose between pussy and titties. If you want to see both pussy and titties, you have to go to two different bars. It is ridiculous. You don’t get a full show. It’s the state law.

I’d rather vote for Sanders, obviously, but if he doesn’t get the nomination, I’ll vote for Hillary. No problem. Anybody but Trump. I’ve never voted Republican. I voted for Ralph Nader.

I want it to be the United States. I want everybody to be on the same page. I don’t want these backwoods country bumpkins saying, “I can’t wait until we build a wall, to block out the Mexicans, from coming into our country.” I don’t want to hear any of that shit.

For Donald Trump to want to build a wall and not allow anyone to come into the country, it just blows my mind. Immigrants work so hard. They’re not lazy people, they’re not slackers, they’re not awful people, they’re not on meth. You know how many slackers and methheads I’ve worked with in the kitchen? It’s ridiculous!

In my business as a chef, I’ve met so many people who just want to provide for their families. I know two people from Argentina who send money to their families all the time. Argentina is a beautiful country, from what I’ve heard, but it’s not as easy to make money there. They’re here legally. One guy has brought his family over, so now his wife and kids are here.

We only have three or four immigrants in our kitchen at this point. There were two guys from Mexico. They were phenomenal workers. In the last year, we’ve only had maybe ten immigrants. It’s a brew pub on the Main Line. There aren’t too many immigrants out there.

We make mostly Mexican food, but the two Mexican guys were just dishwashers. They left because they found better jobs.

Anyone who comes to this country from another country, they’re not just like, whatever. They’re not just doing it. They’re not just like, “Here I am! It’s going to be great!”

Every minority I’ve ever worked with, that has come to the United States, has been a phenomenal worker. At Wegmans, Whole Foods and those places, they’re phenomenal workers.

My girlfriend works for the water department. She’s an environmental scientist. She wants to make this city a little better.

She makes around 40 grand. She has college student loan that she’s still paying off. She will probably be paying it off for the next 30 years.

I made 45 thousand at Whole Foods, but I quit because it was very stressful. I hated it, so I moved to the restaurant business. I make 29 now. It’s OK. I’m doing something that makes me happy. I’d rather make less money but be happier.

I’m not in the worst place in my life. I’m not in the best place in my life. I’d love to make more money!

We just bought a house, for 200,000, in Lower Kensington. It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood. The place next to us just sold for 240.

I lived in South Philly for ten, eleven years. We paid nothing for a house. My landlord was a white, Jewish man from the Northeast, and he was like, “Are you kidding me? You want to move into this neighborhood?” And we were like, “Yeah, of course. Why not?” It wasn’t a bad neighborhood. It was a good mix, of everybody. Whites, blacks, Cambodians, Mexicans, everybody was there. The whole neighborhood was very solid.

I don’t really have a stance on marriage. I’m OK married. I’m OK living it out, like we’re doing right now. My girlfriend would probably want to get married. She has actually been married before. It was a very abusive relationship and only lasted a year. I don’t want to put on any pressure, but at the same time, we’ve been together for, like, almost five years. We’ve been living together for three.

She studied abroad a bunch of times. She was in Puerto Rico. I’ve never been on an airplane. I’m terrified of flying.

We’re doing our thing. We’re fine. Does she want to get married? Probably. Any day now. We’re fine.

We were going to have a kid, but we had a miscarriage, very recently, in the last couple months. I think my girlfriend is more into the sense of having a kid than I am. I don’t necessarily want to have a kid, but when I found out my girlfriend was pregnant, I thought, This is going to be great! I love this. It changed my whole mind. This kid is going to be everything to me. I loved the fact that my girlfriend was pregnant.

I was very against pregnancy, I didn’t want to have a kid, but when I found out we were going to have a kid, I was very excited about it. My girlfriend was very excited about it. Then we lost our kid. It got a little rough for a while. She wants to try again, but I’m not sure any more.

She’s a year older than me. She’s 33.

It was so unexpected, the pregnancy. You have to set your life towards, you know, I’m not going to be out drinking every day, I’m not going to be out smoking, I’ve got to come home from work, and it was going to be great!

I have a lot of friends struggling right now with healthcare. That’s a problem. It should be more affordable. When I quit Whole Foods and lost my healthcare, I thought, OK, now I can apply for Obamacare, but they wanted to charge me 300, 400 bucks a month! I couldn’t afford that! I ended up paying the penalty.

My mom was a legal secretary. My dad had his own company. He took care of your lighting needs. He would walk into your business and say, OK, you need so many light bulbs, and he would put up a bid. He was basically a salesman.

My mom has gotten kind of crazy. She’s a hypochondriac. She has a lot of back problems. I’m sure she lies about the majority of them. She won’t talk to me or my sister any more. She has a huge grudge because she thinks we’re all siding with my father. I talk to my dad nearly every day.

When my sister got married 12 years ago at the court house, my mom didn’t make it. She said she couldn’t get off work. My dad made, my stepmom made, everybody made, but my mom couldn’t make it.

My mom got pissed because I didn’t call her one Christmas, but I had a bad flu and was in the hospital.

She’s out of her fuckin’ mind. It’s very depressing, actually. It was just me and my sister, and I was the last child to listen to, you know, her bullshit. She actually just sent me a care package a couple of days ago, to my new house. She was like, What is your new address? I gave it to her and, Hey, take a look at my new dogs! She grew up with beagles, you know, and I have two beagles. She never sent anything back, but it’s all right, whatever. I opened the care package when I was drunk. It’s something you should only find when your mom dies, and you go into her house and see that book, that picture book with This is how much you weighed when you were four, that kind of stuff. She sent that back to me. I was wasted. It was very emotional. Your mom is not supposed to send you that. You should only find that when she dies. It should be like, Oh shit, I can’t believe she kept all of this stuff!

No, my mom’s not alone. She remarried, and so did my dad. I love my stepfather. My stepdad is one of the nicest people in the world. He got fucked over more than anybody I’ve ever met in my entire life. It’s his ex wife. She’s ruined his credit for thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars.

In ten years, I’d like to be doing the same thing, cooking, and being with my girlfriend. I don’t know about having a kid.



LJansen said...

Made me smile.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Linda,

I published this early by mistake. Working on this, I got so tired, I had to take a nap, but instead of saving the post, I published it. I haven't slept so well since I've been back from Europe.

When I talked to Robert last Tuesday, I asked him to send me a blank email, so I could send him a draft of this piece. He never did, however, so I'm going to look for Robert tomorrow at Friendly, where he usually goes on his day off. If I see Robert, I will also take his photo.


Linh Dinh said...

P.S. The Tennessee Williams quotation is from "One Arm," a story I talked about a bit in my New Orleans Postcard. As in his "The Night of the Iguana" and "The Important Thing," etc., Williams often examines very bad or desperate sex, and he's one of the best at that theme.

LJansen said...

Hi, Linh. I had to look up chanson de geste.

What made me smile was Robert's willingness to rise to any occasion, take on any task and make it work (even parenthood!). He is one working class hero. My best to him and his chronicler. Linda

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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I lived mostly in the US from 1975 until 2018, but have returned to Vietnam. I've also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), a novel, Love Like Hate (2010), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), and six collections of poems, with a Collected Poems apparently cancelled by Chax Press from external pressure. I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in Tokyo, London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.