Senin, 13 Februari 2012

BET ON CRAZY / CHINESE FOOD by Peter Nolan Smith

Last year after Valentine’s Day business on 47th Street got really slow. The rich went on family holidays to St. Barts and Palm Beach. Oil bills taxed New Yorkers to the bone and purchasing a diamond was the last thing on most people’s mind in the dead of winter. Some days no one entered the diamond exchange. At least no one with an honest intention of buying jewelry.

Once we set up the counters and front window, the standard procedure was to plod through the repairs and pick-ups from the setters and polishers. Those tasks usually lasted up to lunch, but not in the last days of February.

By 12am Richie Boy and I were standing around the space heater shooting the shit, discussing our lunch. We ordered Chinese. It was good this time of year. Manny, my boss and Richie Boy’s father, wasn’t happy with our obvious idleness.

“I might as well hired two brooms than you heroes.” Manny hated his help doing nothing.

“There aren’t any customers. What else should we do? Get down on our knees and pray for customers?” Richie Boy’s clientele came from his going out at night. None of them were getting out of bed before noon or out of work until lunch.

“Maybe that would do us some good.” Manny pointed to me. “I got one goy. You must know some prayers for getting money. Who’s the patron saint for money.”

“St. Matthew is the patron saint of money managers. He doesn’t really count.” I had been an altar and a good Catholic in my youth. “Saint Agatha is the patron saint of jewelers. She was martyred for refusing the sexual advances of a Roman. Her body is supposedly incorruptible.”

“Bleech.” The thought of a 2000 year-old virgin corpse disgusted Manny. “But say a little prayer to her. It can’t hurt.”

“I’ve forgotten my prayers.” Some of the nuns learning still stuck with me, but my atheism wasn’t something I mentioned at work.

“Say something. We need money.”

I muttered out several words to St. Agatha in hopes of making a sale, but stopped before saying how much cash I wanted, because lunch had arrived from the Chinese take-out.

“Great, first I have bullshitters and now I have loafers.”

“A man has to eat.” Richie Boy was paying for lunch. “Who ordered General Tso’s chicken?”

“Me.” I loved the succulent meat covered with crunchy batter and the sweet tang of the sauce. None of us ever mentioned the source of the meat until after whoever ordered the General Tso’s chicken had finished their meal. It was just good manners.

“What about me?” Manny asked from his desk. The surface was cluttering with bills, invoices, and folded packets of loose diamonds. He never seemed to make any progress on this pile.

“What you order?” Richie Boy pulled out a plate of dim sum.

“Nothing.” Manny had said earlier that he didn’t want anything.

“Then you get nothing, fat boy.” Richie poked his father’s belly. A good three inches of fat hung over his belt. He liked his food.

“Great.” Manny threw down his pen. “I pay everyone to do nothing and I get to starve.”

“You’re not going to starve. We ordered you Moo Sho Pork.” Richie put Manny’s food on the counter. “Eat here.”

“I’ll eat at my desk.” Manny started pushing his papers aside.

“No you won’t. Last time you did that you ate a diamond with a dumpling.”

“It was only a twenty-pointer.” Manny remembered everything that he had ever done with diamonds. “And I found it two days later.”

“Don’t tell us where. We’re eating.” Richie Boy had a delicate stomach.

Manny stood up and put a paper towel under his collar. His tie was Armani.

Mine was Cerruti. I ate at my desk with a real fork and spoon. Richie was on the phone with his wife. He mumbled out apologies. He had had a late night last evening.

“Were you with my son last night?” Manny was making a small crepe from the pancake accompanying the Moo Shu Pork.

“Only until midnight, then we both went home.” I had left Richie Boy at 11. I had no idea what time he went home.

“You’re a good friend, but a bad liar.” Manny crammed the Moo Shu Pork into his mouth. The sauce dripped on the counter. Pork was tref to most Jews, but Manny, Richie Boy, and everyone from our partners’ firm were bacon Jews. They loved the taste of pork.

“Manny, when you were a kid, did your mother let you eat pork?”

“I’m from Brownsville. We couldn’t afford pork. My mother covered everything in a gravy. I had no idea what we ate. It could have been cat same as that General Tso’s Chicken.”

“Thanks.” I put down my fork.

“What makes you think a Chinaman is going to serve you cat?”

“There are no cats in Chinatown.” Richie Boy shouted from his desk. “We were on Canal Street 20 years and I never saw a single cat and the Italians in Little Italy never let their cats out of the house. Cat makes very good General Tso’s Chicken.”

“If it’s cat, I have to admit cat tastes pretty damn good, but I have a question for you.” I examined a piece of fried chicken without figuring out what part of a chicken it came from. “Why do Jews like Chinese food so much?”

“Because it’s cheap.” Richie Boy never went to Chinese restaurants. He was more into Italian.

“It has nothing to do with the money. Chinese culture and Jewish culture go back thousands of years.” I popped the morsel in my mouth. It tasted like chicken. “They know each other since Adam. Marco Polo found Jews in China. They weren’t their for their health.”

“They probably from one of the lost tribes.” Manny had dropped out of high school at the age of 15. He started working on Canal Street at the age of 16. Chinatown was next door. “My father said we were a lost tribe in America. He was right, but we found China in Brooklyn. When I was a kid, there were Chinese restaurants on every corner and every Sunday the Chinese restaurants were crowded with Jewish families. We never went, because my father was so poor, but sometimes my father would treat us to take-out. We ate on paper plates, but my mother would hide them, so the neighbors wouldn’t know we were so poor. Like she was fooling anyone.”

“So you went, because it was cheap.” Richie Boy wasn’t letting go. Manny liked to save money. He wore the same shirt twice. To prevent his collars from getting dirty, Manny placed a paper towel between his neck and his collar. We called it his ’sweat rag’.

“Sure, it was cheap, but it was also good, plus we ate pork, because eating forbidden foods showed we were Americans. My father never mixed dairy and meat, which the Chinese rarely combine, plus he never ate pork, except at Chinese restaurants. Jake wouldn’t even look at the menu. He’d order #3. Pork Chow Mein. The waiter would say, “#3 and never mention pork. They were respectful that way. Number two, Chinese weren’t goys. At an Italian restaurant there was always a cross on the wall. How can a Jew eat at a restaurant with a Jew nailed to the wall. Feh. But Buddha, he always had a smile and as kids we rubbed his stomach for good luck.”

“You said you didn’t eat at restaurants.” I thought I had caught Manny on this, but he shook his head. “What you think we had telephones back then. Take-out meant you went to the restaurant, ordered, and brought the food home and another thing we weren’t Jews to the Chinese. They thought all white people looked the same, so we were the same as everyone, because they couldn’t care less about anyone as long as you had money.”

“So you never ate in a Chinese restaurant as a kid?” Richie was finished with his dumplings.

“I never said never. We went on Christmas, because they’d be no one there and afterwards we’d go to the movies. Also no one was there too. My old man didn’t like waiting for nothing.” Manny made himself another crepe. He was an expert. “Stop looking at my food. If there’s anything I hate, it’s a schnorrer.”

“Your son is the worst in here.”

“Only because he studied with the best.” Manny bit into the pancake loaded with pork and pointed to the door. Two customers were coming out of the cold. A man and woman. My prayer to St. Agatha had come through.

“Enough talk. Work.”

“You got it.” I put away my food before Richie Boy could get out of their chairs. I was hungry for money and ‘nimmt geld’ or tale money was the first rule of 47th Street. I could eat my lunch later. Chinese food always tastes better with a little money in your pocket. Even cold.

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