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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Long, Pointless Story About Unpleasant Encounters That Takes Place On A Sunday Which, For Some Reason, I Remember As A Decidedly Pleasant Day



On Sunday the bus was so crowded that I had to stand pressed against strangers. Each of us vied for space on the overhead pole that passengers grab to avoid falling. The bus windows were all steamed up. Everyone wore too many layers.

The bus lurched to a stop and while I fought to steady myself, three young men boarded. Most adults are careful to leave a certain amount of space, but the guy who wedged in next to me must have been from one of those rude, crowded countries where surgeons still smoke on the job. Every time his hand bumped up against mine on the pole I moved back a little, and that's how, inch-by-inch, I managed to slide my hands through several colonies of deadly bacterium. I eventually wound up in the rear stairwell, the germiest spot on the bus, because every passenger, whose hands have been god-knows-where, touches the bus pole as they pass it. So I was in the stairwell, thinking about germs, when for the benefit of his friends, my companion launched into a story.

The story was about a homeless man he'd seen standing on a street corner. At the man's feet was an old black lab, its head on its paws. The homeless man was holding some kind of melon. Shifting the melon in his arms, the homeless man called, "Lucy!" and the old dog got up on its feet and wagged its tail, looking up at the man in (I imagined) that friendly, inquisitive way so particular to old Labs. The man lifted the melon high and then heaved it down, breaking it over the dog's head. "And you should have seen the look on that dog's face," my companion said to his friends, shifting his hand tighter against mine, and they had a good laugh.

"That," I said, "is a horrible story." The bus came to a stop and I exited, wiping my hands on my jeans.

* * *

Since it was Sunday and since I had some time to kill, I decided to get lunch at the first restaurant I found, regardless of how unpleasant the food might seem. That's how I happened on this tiny eatery. Or rather, it looked tiny from the outside because the storefront was narrow, with a low awning above it. But on the inside the place was vast, with tables set up way in the back, each separated from the others by woven grass screens so the whole joint seemed like an enormous room, accommodating a number of smaller rooms.



According to the menu, which had a map of Ethiopia on it (a roundish, landlocked country with a point protruding on its Eastern border) the food was from, Guess Where?! So I opened up the menu and then realized I didn't know what to ask for. I finally chose a combination dish, and in under five minutes, two plates of food arrived. One was draped with a large, spongy crepe heaped with several goopy piles of stew. On the other plate rested a plain crepe, folded into quarters like a napkin.

"Do you know how to eat this?" the waiter said, and that's when I noticed I didn't have silverware.

I said, "well, I'm not sure," because though I figured I knew what to do, you never can be sure about anything.

"You rip off a piece of the bread," he said, indicating the folded-up pancake, "and you make a big mess." Then he produced a fork, wrapped in a paper towel, and he laid it gently at the far end of my table. "We don't use this," he said. Which, I wasn't about to eat with a fork like some kind of paranoid and judgmental American — though to be fair, I kept thinking about my hands, all germy from the bus pole, due to the young men from their crowded little country of rude hand-contact.

And in that moment-of-weighing-things-out I was reminded of this horrible date I once went on. We were to meet at this restaurant in sixteenth street. "It's great," my date said, "and only six bucks for a meal. One plate is enough for two people, so we can split it." On the night of our date I was ten minutes late because I'd had trouble parking, and when I arrived he was already seated. On the table was a big plate of dips and salads, a basket of pita bread, and a dispenser of paper napkins. I sat down and said hi, and we talked for a bit, and then my date tucked a napkin under his chin, which I took as a signal to begin eating. I was starving from the stress of finding a parking spot, and I was just about to reach for the bread when he said, "I don't know about you, but before I eat I always thoroughly wash my hands." Then he gave me very precise instructions on how to wash carefully — not just my palms, but between my fingers, paying special attention to the cuticle area.

Now, in the Ethiopian place I'd just found, thinking back on this date that had begun and ended so badly, I left my food and headed way to the back of the deep restaurant, past the Ethiopian family who I guess owned the place — a small child, a teenager, a middle-aged couple, and an old man, all sitting around a table — and I found the ladies' room. But when I pushed open the door, sitting on the toilet was an old Ethiopian woman, dressed all in white with a white headdress, her head in her hands. "Sorry!" I said, and I backed up and shut the door before she lifted her head and saw me.

10 Comments:

Blogger ahvarahn said...

i loved these. there is and ethiopian restaurant in Boston i have been to, Addis Red Sea. They have these special tables, traditional, that almost look like large drums . Well, in this restaurant they cover the traditional table with that moist pancake stuff (I remember being a bit put off by the pancake) and then just dump the food all over it. special hand bowls and cloths were circulated for folk to wash before eating and the food was great. the girl next to me, her first time in such a restaurant, was blindfolded before we brought her in and stayed that way for the early part of the meal.

6:22 PM

 
Blogger ing said...

Ahvarahn:

How can you eat this type of food while blindfolded? I would end up with stew all over my shirt, I'm afraid.

Some of this posting has been embellished a little, by the way - I've had Ethiopian food before & know the routine (for instance), but I thought it would be fun to make this narrator a little more out-of-sorts and baffled by other people than I normally am. So it's kind of sort of fiction, I guess.

Woo!

8:51 PM

 
Blogger ahvarahn said...

yes there is always call for embellishment (i'm from ireland as you know, which is in fact the essential embellishment establishment) - these stories read very well, and it leads to the question of what else your narrator could have done.

the blindfolded one looked as if she was on her way to walk the green mile to her execution, and that was her last meal, a last request. she had help of course; a friendly hand clasped to her wrist that helped her navigate the strange fare. it's a wild enough experience without it also being a blind one, but she nourished herself, and was also relieved when we granted her a stay of execution and brought her next door for cocktails.

i guess the question now is, was there really a blindfolded diner?

embellish away - wander.

4:39 AM

 
Blogger rk said...

They make some really cool tight fitting gloves, you can find them in the hardware store, a little layer of coolness between you and a world FULL of nasty and horrible germs intent on buggering up yer day...

5:45 AM

 
Blogger Ren said...

Hand hygiene would make my job easier if everyone practiced it... No, really, it would.

So how did you clean your hands? I hate being left on a ledge with these stories...

Word Verification (no lie): imcdc
Get it? "I'm CDC" Get it?

4:30 PM

 
Blogger matty said...

If only we had been together we could have pulled those thugs off the bus and take care of 'em!!!!

I once have dinner with a pal in Manhattan (East Village) and my fork fell to the floor. I wanted a new one. To which my friend, a med student, scolded me --- telling me that this was why the body had immunities. Ugh! I insisted on a new fork -- but ended up with some sort of food poisoning. 24 hours of hell!

Anyway, I was really offended by your reaction to me when you walked in during my business. I think I look glorious in my white head dress! A sort of pale Eyrak Badu!

(I do not care for communal plates!)

kisses,
matty

8:42 AM

 
Blogger ginab said...

for all the good fortune, that story about the dog and the melon really hurt.

there's an ethiopian restaurant in Ann Arbor called the Blue Nile (I think) and because, long story, I had the good experience of spending time with people from Benin, these people cooked they danced and showed me how to laugh and eat, yes at the same time, using my fingers (to laugh, even)...I could eat at the Blue Nile. Of course in Ann Arbor there's the loss of authenticity.

You remember cooking Indian food over to mine and me in trying to be helpful I dressed the table to include chopsticks?

okay, so funny, back up!

I like the germophobe in you. Keep the hands clean. I have lunch with someone from the Seita program and always, just as her plate arrives, she pops out Purell something-something and she offers me a spot yet I can never accept.

Look there, I just sneezed into my hand.

good-great-gosh writing dove x.

-ginab

2:14 PM

 
Blogger ing said...

avarahn:

I used to go out with an Irishman, and I'm quite familiar with the art of embellishment. . . (Wow, that sounded like an implication, but it wasn't.)

What else could my narrator have done. That's an excellent question. She does a lot of thinking, but not much doing. Awesome, thank you!!!!!!

Still wandering, I am.

____________

rk:

Gloves, did you say? I haven't worn gloves since I lived in Seattle, where it gets somewhat cold. No, that's not true. I wore gloves when I did construction work, and also in the garden. It's just to WARM here, y'know?

_______________

ren:

Remind me, are you still working in a hopital-kind-of-setting? Because yeah, hygiene is rad.

I cleaned my hands the old-fashioned way: I dipped them in lighter fluid. Or something. What is the old-fashioned way, Ren? How did people do it, way back when? If you don't know, do you happen to have surviving grandparents who could fill us in? Seriously, I'd like to know. The information could come in handy when I'm on a date.

______________

matty:

There will be other times, and other thugs. In the meantime, all we can do is dream, and eat off the floor. Do you get food poisoning at the drop of a hat, or is it just that Manhattanites haven't learned about a little thing called "Lysol," or, for that matter, a brilliant household genius named Martha Stewart?

I am sorry I didn't compliment you on your stylish white outfit and your regal headdress. Actually, I thought you hadn't seen me. But you looked stunningly imposing, as usual, and I'm very sorry I interrupted you while you were in the midst of an important "business meeting." You sure have a lot of those meetings! And yes, "pale" is correct.

______________

ginab:

I've noticed that most stories about dogs hurt, because in most, the dog doesn't fare well. I still have that picture (by the way) of the ink drawing that Bea-Bea did on your sheets (happy story).

I am going to visit my bank this weekend, and while I am there I'll find out how "points" convert to "miles," and then I'll know whether my fall screams Paris or Kalamazoo.

I will always remember our Indian Thanksgiving. I long for the days I had hours to cook and days to write things. (Rilke: You must change your life)

I'm glad you like my germophobe, but my germophobe is way back there in my personality. Most of me is kind of brazen about such things.

I used to do the Purell thing, back when I bought used books full time. Dries out the cuticles even worse than pages.

8:53 PM

 
Blogger sage said...

I use to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant in Vegas, I loved it, the way the sour flat bread and spicy food went together was just perfect... Great descriptions of the bus ride, I love the line about countries where surgeons still smoke on the job... The homeless story was tragic, on many levels, but also sounds real yet I can't imagine anyone laughing. Maybe they has some ash where their appendix was once seated or more likely a cigarette burn in their heart.

7:18 PM

 
Blogger Ren said...

I'm an Epidemiologist at the Maryland Department of Health. I'm charged with keeping tags on and preventing outbreaks of influenza, malaria, Legionnaire's disease, Hepatitis A, and mycobacterial infections.

People who don't wash their hands are the bane of my existence.

9:03 PM

 

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