I woke with a start when I heard the honking of a car horn. It had been awhile since I’d heard car alarms. Maybe they got wise to the uselessness of them and didn’t bother making them anymore. Whatever, the one out my window was pretty loud.
I looked around the room. I didn’t know where I was or what time it could be. Outside the window, the sky was dark grey. How long had I been sleeping? I was confused.
Soon it came back to me. I remembered taking a nap after devouring three tacos; two lengua and one spicy chorizo. I washed them down with a big glass of cold horchata. The lunch had immediately made me drowsy and my belly wasn’t feeling quite right. Could the horchata been spiked with tequila or mescal? Was the lengua spoiled?
I sucked down a double espresso in hopes of reviving my energy. There was Christmas shopping to get done. There was baccala to soak. I had no time for a nap. But it was no use.
It was daytime when I lay down and now the sky was dark. How long was I out? I was still trying to get my bearings.
As the sleep slowly drifted from my eyes, I noticed a wisp of haze at the foot of my bed. I immediately panicked. Did I leave something on the stove? I sniffed. No, it wasn’t smoke. I sniffed again. There was the distinct odor of grease—one made by overcooked lard. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell—at least not to me. I was drawn to it.
I pulled myself closer to the wisp and it quickly enveloped me The haze was so thick I couldn’t see through it. What the hell? I had to still be dreaming. Either that or I was on some sort of drug trip. But I hadn’t taken any drugs. Just the tacos and horchata.
I don’t remember putting on a coat and hat. I don’t remember getting on the subway. But there I was at a place I hadn’t been in many years: a restaurant called Dinastia China or La Dinastia or derogatorily referred to by one particular hater as La Di Nasty. It was the first restaurant I dined in when I moved to New York in the final quarter of the previous century.
The wisp was by my side. I looked around me and noticed the hot dog joint on the corner of 72nd and Broadway and the subway station across the street. Beyond that it was too dark to see anything. A decorative Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was in the window of the restaurant. I peered through the glass. The counters with the stools in the front were exactly as they were decades ago. There were liquor bottles behind the counter and a cash register.
Rudolph was the lone window decoration.
I pushed the door open. Nat King Cole was singing “The Christmas Song” from the restaurant’s loudspeakers as I entered. The front wall was decorated with autographed photos of celebrities I had never heard of. Next to them was a calendar. I glanced at it and then looked again. That date couldn’t be right. It was an ancient December date I was looking at. Not 2012. I was suddenly chilled.
I turned to the wisp by my side. It just hovered there. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. But I noticed now that the greasy lard odor was gone replaced by the enticing smell of grilled red meat. It moved forward and as if I were a hound on a scent, I followed.
There were a number of waiters in white button down shirts scurrying about. None of them stopped to ask me if I wanted a table. I hadn’t been to Dinastia China since the last century, but I remembered that as soon as I would enter, a waiter, menu in hand, would appear and immediately escort me to a table. Choice tables were always available. Reservations were never necessary. In fact, they were probably discouraged.
I slowly moved past the front area into the dining room. To my right was the commander’s station just as I remembered it. A cluttered desk with a big microphone facing toward the front entrance. One of the waiters was there now and barking orders into it. From the microphone, I knew the orders were relayed to the kitchen and the chef.
The Commander’s Station
“Ropa vieja, arroz amarillo, frijoles rojo, platano frito, wonton soup,” I heard him say.
I didn’t speak Spanish, but I was proficient in China y Latina restaurant speak and knew that the order was for shredded beef, yellow rice and red beans, fried plantains, and wonton soup. Despite the leaden effect of the tacos I feasted on earlier, my mouth, I realized, was beginning to water slightly. The order passed on to the kitchen was one of my favorites. It was what I ordered countless times at Dinastia.
There were a few solitary men and women sitting at tables in the expansive dining room. Their heads were down and there were huge platters of rice, beans, beef stew, fried chicken and other Dinastia specialties in front of them. None of them bothered to look up from their food as the wisp and I moved through the room.
The dining room that time forgot.
I followed the wisp, despite it’s delicious smell, reluctantly now, sensing I should stay back. That what it was drawing me to I should not see. Frank Sinatra suddenly began to sing over the loudspeakers.
Oh by gosh, by golly,
It’s time for mistletoe and holly
A waiter juggling three plates; a big platter of chuletas asadas (center cut pork chops), separate bowls of black beans and yellow rice, and another plate cluttered with fried plantains whisked by me as if I did not exist. I turned and followed the waiter’s progress as he deposited the overflowing plates in front of an older, heavy-set woman, a copy of the New York Post spread out in front of her.
Tasty pheasants, Christmas presents
Countrysides covered in snow
The wisp spun around and around me forcing me to look away from those juicy pork chops and to follow it forward. And then there at a table in the back, near the familiar rest rooms, was another lone diner. I hesitated. I could only see the back of the diners’ head. It was a man and he was hunched over his food. The wisp prodded me closer.
Oh by gosh, by jingle
It’s time for carols and Kris Kringle
I looked at the table. It was a mess. A disgusting mess. There were pieces of yellow rice scattered on the glass top of the table along with a stray black bean or two, napkins were all over the place. Some of the broth from what was left of a bowl of wonton soup spilled onto the table.
“it was a disgusting mess”
I couldn’t look anymore. I wanted to turn away, but the wisp would not let me. The aroma of fresh baked baguettes that now came from it forced me closer.
There was more. I could see crumbs from the dried noodles. Just a few broken pieces remained in the wooden bowl. There was even a lone noodle that had drowned in the accompanying duck sauce.
And there were bones…fish bones. It was a king fish—serrucho—and it was pan fried. I could see the brown, burnt bits of garlic and the fried pepper strips. There were a few red blots of hot sauce on what was left of the fish. And then I noticed that some of the tender white flesh still clung to the big center bone. Who would waste such a treat?
Again I tried to turn around and get out of there. I could see no more, but the wisp blocked my way. I smelled fried chicken and was paralyzed.
From relatives you don’t know
I looked again at the table and knew I had to see who would create such a mess. At first I noticed the fingers. They were slick with grease. And then I saw the distinctive swirl of light brown hair on top of his head. And I heard myself gasp.
I turned to the wisp in shock.”How can this be? So…young…yet…such a slob.”
The greasy fingers reached into the duck sauce and fished out the drowned noodle.
“Please,” I pleaded. “Please don’t let me look at anymore. I can’t watch. Don’t make me watch. Please…”
Oh by gosh, by golly
It’s time for mistletoe and holly
I wasn’t sure if I was crying or not. If I was, the waiters didn’t care. They just continued to go about their business as if I was invisible.
Fancy ties and granny’s pies,
An folks stealing a kiss or two
As they whisper
I shut my eyes tight. I wanted to cover my ears.
When I opened my eyes, I was just outside the same restaurant. I looked around. There was no wisp by my side. I sniffed. No baguette, grilled beef, fried chicken, or lard grease odor anywhere. I heard a car honk. It wasn’t a car alarm. Just a normal impatient honk. I turned toward Broadway. The hot dog joint was there on the corner, but beyond the subway station I could see a gleaming glass high rise with a Bank of America branch and a Trader Joe’s market.
I looked into the window of the restaurant. Rudolph was where it was before. The tacos and horchata drink I had for lunch seemed to have been properly digested. I was now ravenous.
I pushed through the doors and walked briskly through the bar area glancing quickly at the photos of the unknown celebrities but making sure not to look at the calendar.
As I approached the Commander’s Station, a waiter met me, laminated menu in hand. I looked past him at the mostly empty tables. There was a family sitting at one of the big, center table and a policeman and policewoman in uniform at another. The other tables were empty.
“Table?” the waiter asked me.
I looked at him. He looked at me. I nodded.
“Just one,” I said and he led me to a table.
Rod Stewart was singing a cover of the great Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” as I sat.
After devouring a meal of wonton soup, accompanied by dried noodles and duck sauce, followed by the serrucho ajillo (king fish with garlic and peppers), yellow rice and black beans, I wiped my fingers clean.
“Coffee?”my waiter asked.
“No, just the check,” I said.
A few moments later he returned with the check and a rolled up magazine, or something like that.
“What’s this?” I asked as I opened it up. It was a calendar with the restaurant’s name on it. I glanced at the date.
I looked up at him. “2013,” he said with a knowing smile.
As I gathered my belongings and headed out with the calendar in hand, he turned to me as he wiped the table clean. “And I see you next year.”
“Yes,” I said with a nod. “You will.”