DSQ > Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3

I. The Chinese Restaurant

It was the 1950's and we were middle-class — my father was a college professor — but there were five kids in the family, and if we lost a tooth towards the end of the month, we might get an I.O.U. from the tooth fairy instead of a dime. We only went out to eat once a year, when my grandparents came to visit and took us for a pancake breakfast at Quack's Diner out on Route 20 ("Going East/Going West/Quack's is the Best"). One time though — I think we were on a trip to Delaware, and I must have been about eight — we stopped at a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Chinese food. When I got home, I could tell the other kids in my class, "I've eaten," and I imagined myself pausing for dramatic effect… "Chinese food." (In fact, I'd never be able to pause for dramatic effect — "Guess what?" I'd say, and before the other person even got to say, "Uhm…" I'd just blurt out whatever it was I had to tell them.)

We stared at the plastic Chinese lanterns festooned with fake gold gimcracks and red tassels, at the paper placemats with Chinese horoscopes on them. Everything was so fancy — it was as if we'd suddenly moved into the glamorous world I'd only seen before on television.

The waitress brought us menus, and I memorized every detail: the deep red cover, the English lettering which looked Chinese, the stylized drawing of the man with a cone-shaped hat and Fu Manchu moustache. I opened it, noting the fact that it was divided into sections headlined, "Appetizers," "Soups," "Main Dishes," and "American Food." I would tell the other kids at school all about this, and explain to them that an appetizer was a small dish eaten before a meal to whet your appetite — a fact that I knew because my mother had just told me.

Egg rolls were an appetizer. Moo goo gai pan, chow mein, egg foo yung, sweet and sour pork were main dishes. What would I have: Moo goo gai pan? No, that sounded too strange. Chow mein? I'd at least heard of that. The menu noted: "Main dishes come with rice or French fries." I knew that rice was more authentic, what a real Chinese person would eat — and that if I ordered French fries, my mother would sigh and say, "Oh, Anne." But my mother boiled Minute Rice for us all the time. Would I pass up the chance to have French fries — I'd only eaten them a few times in my life — for the sake of authenticity?

Waitresses came out of the kitchen with trays balanced adroitly on their arms, and we stared at the food on them. None of us dared say what we were all thinking: It looked like platters of worms and bugs. Moo goo gai pan? Chow mein? The whole thing was starting to seem scary and more than a little disgusting.

We tried to distract ourselves from the thought of actually eating that strange food by reading the Chinese horoscopes on the paper placemats aloud to one another: "Ha, ha, you were born in the year of the rat — " "I'm a monkey…" "Dragons aren't real; how come there's a year of the dragon?" "What does C-U-N-N-I-N-G spell?"

Finally, my brother John, at five years old the youngest of us all, asked, "Can we get hot dogs?"

My parents assented, their annoyance at our lack of adventurousness tempered by the relief at the money they'd save.

I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, knowing I'd still be able to say to the kids at school, "I've been to a Chinese restaurant." I'd say moo goo gai pan, and tell them about the Chinese lanterns, and the writing that looked like it was Chinese. But what if someone asked me what I'd eaten? What would I say then? I knew I wouldn't be able to lie, or even deflect the question. I'd just tell the truth, the way I always told the truth — because I was so bad at lying. It would just come flying out of my mouth: "A grilled cheese sandwich."

And then, at the end of the meal, a waitress came over — not the one who'd waited on us — and slipped a roll of Lifesavers into my lap. Five different flavors, in bright primary colors. I knew why she had given me the Lifesavers, but I tried to pretend to myself that she'd been thinking, She's so pretty. She's so smart. I'll give her some candy.

"Hey, how come she got candy?" Johnny asked.

"It's because she has crutches," Susan said.

"That's not fair," Jane said.

"She was trying to be nice," my mother said, but I knew she found being the object of charity embarrassing. "Anne will share them," she declared.

Later, in the car I doled out the Lifesavers, keeping the red ones, the best, for myself.

II. Mashed Potatoes

When I went to the hospital in Utica for surgery, twice when I was six years old and once again when I was nine, I wouldn't eat anything except breakfast. The toast was lukewarm, of course, and had been prepared an hour or so before it was brought to the wards, but I actually liked the way the butter had sunk into the bread. On days when we were served cold cereal, I'd eat that too — there wasn't anything the hospital kitchen could do to ruin Kellogg's Cornflakes. On the days when we had oatmeal, I'd just have toast. The gummy oatmeal was worse than library paste — I knew, because I'd had a few experimental tastes of paste in Mrs. Burke's first grade class. "She eats like a little bird," the nurses would tell my mother. I knew you weren't supposed to tell people when you didn't like something you were served, so I just kept my mouth shut. I was so happy the time we were served something edible for Sunday night supper — cut up French toast, served in a melamine bowl, already doused with ersatz maple syrup, with bits of bacon crumbled up with it — that I remember the meal more than 45 years later.

When I was twelve, I had surgery again, this time at a different hospital, because my family had moved to Rhode Island. There was a whole different set of routines at the new hospital; only the food was the same. Down the hall was a girl named Ginny who had rheumatoid arthritis and had been abandoned by her family, so she lived in the children's ward at Rhode Island Hospital, although she was 17. We used to eat lunch together — or mostly, figure out ways to get rid of enough of what we'd been served for lunch so we wouldn't get in trouble with the nurses for not eating. When they served us mashed potatoes, it was easy, because we could pick up the solid square of them up between our thumb and forefinger, wrap the square up in napkins, and drop them in the wastebasket.

I still think about Ginny, and wish that I could track her down, but I can't remember her last name — I only remember that it was an Italian name. I hope the disability rights movement changed your life, Ginny: got you out of whatever institution they moved you to next, got you a power wheelchair. I hope you got one that was candy apple red or electric blue. I hope you went to college. I hope you found a job where you earned enough money to get a van. I hope when you saw a car parked illegally in accessible parking, you fitted the key to your apartment and the key to your van between your fingers and made two gouges in the paint. I hope you discovered that sex is the best painkiller of all. I hope that at least one time you came and came and came and made so much racket that the neighbors banged on the wall and shouted, "For Christ's sake, keep it down in there."

And I hope that someday you ate real mashed potatoes. I like to imagine you in a restaurant, some place where you're a regular, the gay waiters all flirt with you; but whenever you order something that comes with mashed potatoes, you ask to substitute rice or fries or a baked potato. (When you lived at home, with your Italian immigrant family, your mother had served pasta and occasionally potato gnocchi, but never mashed potatoes, so you thought hospital mashed potatoes were the only kind there were.) One day, the waiter comes out of the kitchen and says, "Ray" — that's the cook — "really wants you to try his mashed potatoes. He says if you don't like them, the whole meal's on him." You don't want to be a poor sport, so you smile and say, "Okay," even though just the thought depresses you. A little while later, Ray comes out of the kitchen, and says, "See, you ate them all. Can I mash a potato or can I mash a potato?" And then he comes over and says, "Let me tell you a secret about my mashed potatoes," and he leans over, as if he is about to give you a hot stock tip or the secret Word at the heart of the Kabbalah, and says, "You know what my trick is?" and then whispers to you that he doesn't salt the water he boils the potatoes in, or that he adds just a little bit of bleu cheese — just a smidgen, or that he uses the back of a wooden spoon — not a metal spoon, it has to be a wooden spoon — to mash the potatoes. "That's my secret, now," he says, and waves his finger, only half-joking: "Don't you go telling anyone else."

Then he says, a little louder, "Now, weren't those great mashed potatoes?"

"I never knew," you say.

III. What's With All the Napkins?

"What is it with all the napkins?" I say to Elaine and Lakshmi. I tell them I bought a vegetarian sandwich at Max's Deli at SFO before I flew to Vancouver for the Society for Applied Anthropology meeting. The woman who made my sandwich added at least twenty napkins to the bag. It's something about being a wheelchair user — people always want to give you lots and lots of napkins. I'm the daughter of Yankee parents who lived through the Depression. If my mother ever got a tattoo, it would say, "Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do." Because I was brought up not to waste, and also because of ecological concerns, I hate throwing away the nineteen extra napkins. But I also don't want to schlep them up to Canada with me, and then back home — where really I have no use for them, since I use cloth napkins — reusable, better than recyclable. I even carry a spoon in my purse that looks as if it's plastic, but is in fact made from cornstarch, so that I never have to use a wooden coffee stirrer.

"That spoon of yours looks really gross," my friend Stephen says. "Do you ever wash it?"

"I just lick it off."

He shudders.

"Honey, It's like a well-seasoned cast iron pan."

Do you know how many trees are cut down every year to make wooden coffee stirrers? I don't, but I do know that every year China cuts down 25 million trees to make 15 billion chopsticks.

Elaine thinks people see you in a wheelchair and that they think, drooling, spaz, sloppy, jerking all over the place, gosh — she's really going to need all these napkins. But I think what runs through their mind is: Oh, you poor thing. I wish I could cure you. But here, sweetheart, let me at least give you lots and lots of napkins. Elaine says she's cynical after having eaten more than one dinner in a restaurant with blind friends: all the sighted people who'd ordered meat were given steak knives, but not the blind ones.

Lakshmi wonders if we could just come out and ask people. But I don't think we'd be able to get a straight answer out of them. They'd say, "Oh, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," or "You people are so sensitive."

Later on, I read an article in the newspaper by someone who's concerned about green business practices and among the incidents he relates is a story about being handed a whole passel of napkins at a Starbuck's. So maybe this happens to everyone, and I've made an assumption about it being disability-related.

But when I was driving back from L.A. this past weekend, I stopped for coffee. The barista brought my coffee over to my table, and then returned, not just with a pile of napkins, but also with seven — seven! — wooden coffee stirrers. So I think that's evidence for my theory — that people feel bad for you, and want to try and make things better in whatever way they can, even if it's just way too many napkins and way too many wooden coffee stirrers.

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Copyright (c) 2007 Anne Finger

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