[Yeah, this is an atheist blog, but sometimes I get so tired of the same old head-banging topics: religion sucks, fundies are stupid, creationism is nonsense, American politicians have sold out to ignorance. Yadda, yadda, yadda, and blah, blah, blah. When I feel that way, I like to clear my brain by publishing a post that’s apropos of absolutely nothing. Now it so happens that, since my wife and I are atheists, we didn’t join the rest of the people in Central Florida today, all of whom are praying that God will prevent Hurricane Fay from blowing their houses away. Instead, we did the most reasonable thing we could think of; we went out for Chinese food. And because going out for Chinese food always reminds me of my grandmother, I thought I’d share the following story.]
All young boys get embarrassed easily by their relatives. For an eight-year-old male, just acknowledging the existence of parents or grandparents is emasculating. But Nanny was a special case. Being with her was like having one of those dreams where you suddenly discover that you've got no clothes on — only I was awake and fully dressed. To me, that was the worst kind of naked.
The most serious humiliations always seemed to occur when we went to Nanny's favorite torture-site, her personal Chinese place. The Canton Dragon was an overcrowded mama-papa joint under the elevated on Jerome Avenue. Sometimes the restaurant would get so busy that a line of people would extend out the door. Waiting families would stand outside and scream conversation at each other as the trains clattered overhead.
But mere human bodies could not deter Nanny. She always managed to shove her way indoors, using me as a battering ram. Every time she'd push into someone, she'd shrug at the person and say, "Sorry. My grandson has no manners when he's hungry."
If a member of the immigrant family who owned and worked in the restaurant wasn't immediately available to seat us, Nanny would take offence. "Boy," she'd say, shaking her head. "This is some way to run a business. Maybe that’s how they do it in China, but in America people’s feet have corns."
Complaining, Nanny would head to the little couch next to the cashier's booth. She'd lower herself with a sigh that could be heard for miles, and explain to everyone within earshot: "My girdle is killing me." The word "girdle" would send me racing over to study the fish tank in the window. There were never any fish in it, but the plastic palm tree reminded me of China. I wished I was there.
All the waiters knew my grandmother. Whoever noticed her first would come and greet her with a slight bow and a joking "Ah, Mrs. Numbeh Faw." They called her Mrs. Numbeh Faw because, after spending an hour grumbling about the small type on the menu, she always wound up ordering the same combination platter.
"Mrs. Numbeh Faw. You eating with nephew again?"
"Don't you remember? I thought you people were so smart. He's my grandson."
"No. You not ode enough to have so big gran son. Mus' be nephew, Mrs. Numbeh Faw. You not ode enough to be bubba."
Before "Bubba" was co-opted by Southern good-ol' boys, it was the Yiddish word for grandmother. To Nanny, it conjured up a picture of a stooped, gray-haired old crone in a babushka, who smelled of chicken fat and could hardly speak English. Dad's mother, when she was alive, had been a bubba. But Nanny felt that this was in stark contrast to herself. Did a bubba put on costume jewelry earrings and a nice hat with a veil every day, and fight for a subway seat on her way to work? Nanny had spent her life climbing uphill, away from her forebears, to achieve the heights from which she felt free to bitch in a restaurant. Unlike a bubba, she was in control.
Still, she couldn't imagine how a Chinese waiter knew anything in Jewish.
"You understand 'bubba'?"
"Oy, Mrs. Numbeh Faw, you tink we have no Juicy people here but you? Come. I put you at best table."
Nanny prided herself on getting personalized service, even though, to me, all the tables looked exactly the same. We'd sit with our six-page menus and scan the choices.
Nanny would make a big deal of moving her menu back and forth in front of her eyes. If she captured an audience, she'd turn the menu upside-down, too. "What do they have, a deal with an optometrist? Can you read these chicken scratches? No wonder they all need glasses."
Eventually, she'd select her combo plate. Everything I wanted would be vetoed.
"You don't like that."
"Yes I do."
"You like moo goo gai pan? Since when?"
"Since always. That's what I want."
"Listen, believe me. You don't like that. Nobody likes it. I'm not gonna waste my money and have you leave over. Get a number four. It's the best thing here. They make it special for me."
For an appetizer, she'd insist that I ask for either the won-ton or egg-drop soup, because it came free with your meal.
"I don't want soup. I don't like soup."
"Of course you like soup. What are you talking nonsense for? Who doesn't like soup? I'm paying for soup, and you're gonna eat it."
She'd lean over to the nearby strangers at their inferior table. "Ever hear of a boy who doesn't like soup? Meet my grandson."
Eventually, the waiter would show up at our table to take our orders. "Let me guess, OK? Two numbeh faw?"
Nanny would light a Winston as we waited. She'd hold it in her mouth long enough to dye the filter bright red with lipstick, all the while puffing hard enough to send smoke signals throughout the Bronx. Then she'd set the cigarette down.
"This is what they call an ashtray?" she'd say, not so much to me as to the walls.
"What's wrong with it?" I'd ask.
"Lookit! This skimpy thing, by you it’s an ashtray? What is there, suddenly a shortage of glass?"
"Your cigarette fits."
"And what if I want another one later? Where am I gonna put it, in my hat?" She'd turn in her seat to address the people at the next table again.
"Excuse me." Then she'd point to me and say to one of our neighbors, "Tell my grandson. Tell him what you think of the ashtray. It's for midgets, right?"
"Well," her confidant would whisper to me, talking to an obvious idiot, "it is a little small."
Nanny would turn back to me in triumph. "Y'see? Y'see? A perfect stranger" -- and here my grandmother would poke her finger toward the person as if she were pointing at an inanimate object -- "agrees with me."
That was about the time our soup would arrive. The waiter would place our bowls in front of us. "Ready faw too code soup now?" I'd immediately try running avoidance plays. "Mmmmmm," I'd say, blowing on the won ton in my spoon to cool it off. "This is good." Nanny would take one taste and signal for the waiter, who, in anticipation, would be lurking nearby.
"What are you talking?" she'd say to me. "It's freezing. Send it back."
"It's hot enough for me. Really."
"Since when are you a snowman? Don't eat that won ton. Send it back."
"I like it this way. Please let me keep it."
"I don't understand kids today with their rock 'n' roll and their cold soup. No wonder they can't keep their shirt tucked into their pants."
Of course the soup would be returned to the fire, along with our tea. If Nanny was really on a roll, she might even complain to the waiter when our shrimps and lobster sauce arrived.
"Where's the shrimps? I see three. They should call this lobster sauce and lobster sauce. And it's cold. What, is the stove is on strike? My grandson is very disappointed."
Eventually our food would return, still steaming enough to form a cloud. The inferior table next to us would be using their napkins as gas masks. But Nanny always dug right in. I'd take one bite and fan my mouth.
"Stop monkeying around. I paid for hot food, not ice cubes. Eat!"
Our neighbors would watch in disbelief. Leaning over to them, Nanny always had to explain. "Did you ever see such faces? He's some comedian, my grandson."
“Nanny, how come there’s no lobster in lobster sauce?”
“What kind of question is that? Is there any mane in chow mein? Or a cow in moo goo gai pan? This is Chinese food. They call it funny things.”
Fifteen excruciating minutes later, we'd weigh the desert options. Nanny loved Jell-O, but the only flavor she would eat was "red." Anything in the berry group was fine; all other flavors, according to her, were "goyish." Orange and lemon were abominations. Lime, in particular, was known as "Ugh, that Hitler kind."
"Why lime?" I'd ask. "How can a flavor be anti-Semitic?"
"Listen, smart guy. If you can't figure it out, don't ask. Believe me, lime is plenty goyish. And on top of that, it's gassy. They should cook it with a Tum mixed in. Don't hock me with lime. I'll stick to red."
After determining that the Jell-O was "not our kind," we'd settle for pineapple and fortune cookies. Nanny would break open her cookie, remove the paper, and hold it as far as her arm would extend. Twisting around in her seat for "better light," she'd intrude into the air space of her new friends next door. She'd squint at the writing for a few seconds and then drop the paper in front of me.
"I guess they're trying to keep my fortune a big secret," she'd say to everyone. Then to me: "Read it. Loud, so we can all hear."
It was invariably something like: "A penny saved is money well spent." Or: "All work and no play makes busy unhappiness."
"That's no fortune. That's a saying. Why don't they just call them 'saying cookies'? Is yours a fortune? Lemme see. Wait. Read it out loud. I forgot that I forgot my glasses."
After having calculated our waiter's tip (10% to the penny, but generously rounded up if it came out to be a fraction), Nanny would excuse herself to go to the bathroom.
"I have to fix my face," she'd say.
"What's broken?" I'd ask.
"Very funny. Remind me to laugh later. Meanwhile, just sit here and behave for a few minutes. Don't embarrass me."
She'd fold her napkin on the table, and rise with a disparaging remark about her girdle. But as she walked toward the restroom, she'd hold her head up proudly, and smile at the patrons that she passed. Another dinner had been conquered. While she was gone, I'd sheepishly sneak a sip of my tea, which — after having had an hour to cool off — would finally be drinkable.