I see in the comment on the last post the request for stories from real life. I’ve been in the mood to write such a thing; forgive me if it seems like a shaggy dog story.
My favorite Chinese restaurant here in Ann Arbor, Middle Kingdom, is closed. I think the family retired a few years ago, and the place has sat since, though I guess it will be some kind of chain Greek place now. Ugh! I loved the food, and even though it was a bit pricey, it was worth it. I had a friend who used to live downtown and this would be a Sunday treat for us, always the same meal: Hot and Sour Soup for two, a single large entree and spring rolls.
Look at some of the cool “off menu” dishes they used to have. Just scroll the photos alone!
The guy who ran (owned?) the place was an older heavy set Chinese guy we used to call “Johnny”. because he quit trying to get us to pronounce his Chinese name. In a way he was kind of a Chinese Archie Bunker; no ethnicity, no economic class, or religious faith was spared his wrath. He had a way of grousing about….everything that was harsh, wise, and amusing all at once. I often wished I could have got him to a bar, but he was always wrapped up in family things. That family! Huge, and they all seemed to work in the restaurant. Johnny ran a tight ship; he was always barking at someone about some kitchen matter. But he was cool, good to talk to when business was light, and sharp about what was going on around town. He was one of those guys who grounded you to your town, your time, and your connection to a lot of things. I miss him and the place. It’s funny how it even affects your perception of the immediate area when the place you love is gone.
Two anecdotes to show you what I mean about him.
At Christmas, this was my favorite place to go. Chinese on Christmas! A NYC tradition moved out here. It was a madhouse on Christmas, the place filled with half the atheists and Jews in Ann Arbor. I came with a friend, and was waiting for my meal, with the place going full tilt, and Johnny having brought in every relative he could to work. One of his older sisters was having a hard time understanding a large Jewish family table who were talking too quickly and all at once for her to grasp what was being ordered. Johnny sees her frustration, comes storming across the place, points at me and says loudly “HEY RON! YOU SPEAK JEW?” Yikes! I’m immediately embarrassed, but I get what he asking me for. I go over to the table and just get people to talk one at a time, with me pointing to the written Chinese in the menu for her, which she quickly transcribes onto her order pad. When I’m done with my meal, Johnny won’t let me pay, gives me two thumbs up and a “Merry Christmas!”
The Ann Arbor Art Fair is a loud sweaty mess in the middle of July and the town closes many streets to let 500,000 tourists show up and stroll the many booths. Rather than get the overpriced street food, I decide to go to Middle Kingdom; I can sit in the AC rather than broil on the street. When I walk in for lunch….I’m the only person there! Johnny look like he’s been hit with an axe; “Why do I even bother?” he mutters like a hundred times. After that he goes on an epic rant about town and how cheap everyone is and why he needs to move to Chicago. I finally tell him to relax; people will come in when they get knocked out by the heat, and you know they love your stuff. He doubts every single thing I say; Gloom is his bride. Midway through my meal, people start to trickle in. By the time I’m almost done, the place has nearly filled, and Johnny is racing around flogging the staff. As I go to leave, he points both index fingers at me and says “YOU! I BLAME YOU!”, and gives me a huge grin, the only smile I ever remember seeing him give.