Tired of my own cooking I drove the half-mile to the local Half-Mile-O’-Mall to see what the gods of franchise cooking had to offer.
Wendy’s new lawn banner pleaded with me to “Drive-through or walk in and order take out!!” but I wasn’t in the mood for a square slab of pressed steer protein shot full of holes, so pass.
Fifty yards of parking lot away was the sports chapel franchise Wild Wings. Before the world went smash you could amble inside, order a 25 buck bucket of wings slathered with a pint of sweet sauce plus an eight buck beer. Fortified you could watch their towering digital screens filled with giants nudging and grunting and smashing each other in pursuit of an oblate sphere. Drinking at Wild Wings was fine because — at but a half-mile from home — I was unlikely to take a four-beer DUI hit from the cop I’d open the conversation with by saying, “Look here son I’m not drunk as half that I look.”
Then there is the always acceptably mediocre Panda Express. This is a franchise I snubbed in a previous life but have come to rely upon in this one. Dining out Panda Express is my first and second choice. My third is to go home. Panda Express has shuttered its dining area — online orders only (UberEats, etc.)– but the drive-through lane is open. I drive towards the Panda Express but stop short.
There are over 30 cars waiting in the line of the Panda Express drive-through. Average time to order, pack, pay and deliver each order would be at least three minutes per car. That’s an hour and a half to wait for your food. Put it another way that’s watching the Seinfeld Chinese Restaurant episode three times. (You know, the one where they wait for 30 minutes for a table and then leave just before they are called? Yes, that one. Three times. )
I have no idea what sort of folks can wait like that but I do not wish to be among them…
….. And yet through the power of Panda Express’ suggestion, I have formed a yen for Asian cuisine….. I ponder this in park and…..
(Exclamation mark appears above drawing of my head.)
There is, I recall, a standard American-style sit-down restaurant serving acceptably Chinese food just across the way.
Perhaps they are open……………………………………..
………….[driving through marginal traffic]……………..,.,………….
………… [parking lot with standard Taco Truck]
………….[circle parking lot avoiding ordering humans at the inevitable Taco Truck …….
…..Neon Oval sign glows in red “Open”]………..
…..park….. walk to the door and inside.
Empty. Emptier than an echo of a whisper.
Every table, round and square, covered with a crisp cloth table cloth. Every place in front of every chair is set with knives and forks and chopsticks and small ceramic teacup next to a tiny red pup tent of a perfectly folded cloth napkin. Every place at every table is crisp and clean and ready
An elderly Chinese lady at the register welcomes me in that sort of broken English heard often in the Chinese of her age: a kind of swallowing of some words when unsure she is saying the right word… as if she was a refugee of sorts and never had to speak much English out of the home.
She gestures to a table on her right where menus are stacked so we can separate ourselves according to the Empire’s decreed six feet of separation — a habit we have all almost effortlessly acquired.
I make my selections and she runs a calculator and I seriously overpay her in cash, no, keep the change, please.
She goes to the back of the restaurant and I wander back and forth between the crisp clean and ready tables.
Looking at the pass-through counter I see that the cook is a man of roughly her age as well.
And from the casual half-heard comments passed back and forth in Chinese and, yes from the tone alone, you know that they are man and wife and this crisp clean and ready restaurant is theirs; this is what they have; this is what they have made together; this is what sustains them and that it is far too late for them to start over. It’s almost too late for them to get up from being knocked down by an incoming pandemic from a country they had probably fled from as children.
My food came and I thanked her and left. It was fine Chinese-American cuisine. Better and more complicated than Panda Express.
As I pulled out of the parking lot I looked across the street at Panda Express. That 30 plus line of cars waiting for food was holding steady. Which I suppose is something.
Holding steady, that is. Something but not enough.
Holding Steady won’t be enough to save us. It won’t be nearly enough. To save ourselves we have to find a way to save that couple’s small restaurant. Their restaurant is one — only one — speck, one spark of a myriad. And those are the sparks, those are the embers that we must somehow tend until we can to free the flames we’ve imprisoned in our lackadaisical lockdown. Fail at that and the automobile food lines at Panda Express will not sustain us.
Holding Steady cannot sustain us. We can’t stand still like the hummingbird. Like parched sinners in search of a second life, we need to be born again in freedom. We need to pick up our dropped tools and realize the truth of the prophet: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”