Laughs Among the Chop Sticks

15 August 2015

The unexpected is among the first laws of drama and comedy. Clever surprise…what you don’t see coming… either deepens the plot and adds mystery or can be laugh aloud funny. So it was in the last place I’d expect a laugh, a Chinese restaurant, where waiters are usually dour and predictably humorless. Like many immigrants, they seem unfamiliar with the nuances of conversational English. So catching on to New York humor and using it, are perhaps, the most difficult tasks of assimilation.

Anyway, five of us walked into a Chinese restaurant…sounds like the start of a joke. But, no, it’s a yearly tradition, when a friend comes up north for vacation, to have dinner at a very unpretentious, but very good Chinese restaurant in New York City (Szechuan Grand by name, on 24th Street and Ninth Avenue). We were early enough to get a table that was being set up as we sat…but with no linen table cloth, nor linen napkins that adorned the other tables (we got an uncovered table and paper napkins). An inchoate grumble from the five of us sent the waitress to the linen closet. Back she came with a linen table cloth draped over her arm, ostentatiously displaying it to us…with a cheerless look that bordered on annoyance. And as she spread it on the table, she said seriously, “This cost extra”. No, no, said one of our number, take it back. Along with the table cloth on her arm were linen napkins, and those she set about, putting one in front of each of us. “These cost extra, too,” she said. At that point her face lightened slightly and we realized we’d been hoist on our own western petard.

Then she set about taking food orders. Four of us got through that process unscathed, but our fifth had trouble deciding which peppery, gingery, lotus laced entrĂ©e to have. Asking her about a particular shrimp dish, she looked at him like a doctor assessing a skin rash and said, pointing to his very Caucasian arm…”no, no, you not yellow enough for that.” Who knows where that came from, but talk about comedy coming from unexpected places. Somewhat later, when everyone, but me, was chop stick deep in their food, I motioned to her and with a shrug asked, nu…where’s mine? The chef, she told me, had trouble catching Kevin (the chicken) in the alley behind the restaurant. But don’t worry, it’s coming soon. Thanks, I thought, for the FYI, but intimate details of kitchen goings-on I didn’t need.

I suppose it’s nice knowing that a new generation of ethnic waiters and waitresses will take the baton from the irascible, galling breed of Jewish deli waiters whose number has been downsized because of $20 pastrami sandwiches. Maybe humor will be the Szechuan waiters’ shtik. I hold out little hope that on next year’s visit to Szechuan Grand our waitress will still be slinging hash, as it were. I’ll just check headliners at comedy clubs to find her.

By the way, we never checked to see if the linen cost extra.