a cautionary tale

So, as promised, here is a Chinese restaurant story from the road, a cautionary tale about Why You Shouldn’t Work When You’re Tired:

I was fried; I’d gotten about 4 hours of sleep to my usual 8, gotten up early to catch a plane & then drove all day after that. Just before sunset, I arrived in a Wyoming town (which shall remain nameless), checked into the Travelodge, & went out determined to get my much-desired shot of a particular Chinese restaurant (which shall also remain nameless). This was a restaurant I had tried shooting two years before. Of all the photos that didn’t turn out from that trip, this was the only one I couldn’t let go of; I really thought this lonely-looking restaurant had great photogenic potential. So here I was, supposedly on vacation, giving my workaholic self a dispensation to go to work on this restaurant. I drove the short distance across town, got there & realized that I was just a few minutes too late; the sun had set & the light was no good. The perfect picture had eluded me again. This was not so terrible, because I knew I would be coming through town again on my way back home at the end of my vacation. Since I was there, though, I figured I should go in & try to get a release signed, because who knew if anyone would be there to do the signing on my return trip.

I took a breath & went in. There was only one table of customers, a tired-looking white family who all looked up at me as I entered. The dad had big bags under his eyes. A young Chinese woman greeted me & I asked for permission to shoot. She said, You should talk to the boss. A short man approximately in his 30s came out of the kitchen. I started to tell him what I wanted, & he beckoned me into a little side room, where there were only 3 or 4 tables. He swept a pile of Chinese newspapers off one & invited me to sit down. He asked if I wanted anything to drink & I politely asked for water. It was obvious the language barrier was significant; I could feel my tiredness as I tried unsuccessfully to explain what an artist was, or at least, what I would be doing with the photos. He mostly cared about getting a photo for himself, so that he could bring it back to China on his next visit. I promised to send him a small print. Then I started the standard questions like, How did you end up here? I got out my microphone & leaned across the table to hold it to his mouth. His story was the usual one: started in San Francisco, couldn’t afford to buy a house there, moved to Wyoming because he had a friend here. Out of his very fragmented English, one phrase emerged loud & clear: "no choice".

Since I always want to know about restauranteurs raising their kids in these places, I asked, Do you have kids? He shook his head no. The logical next question was, Are you married? But as soon as it came out of my mouth I knew I had fucked up. Pouncing eagerly upon this opening, he fired back with a big smile, No, are you? Still caught off guard by my own mistake, I said, No. Do you have a boyfriend? Recovering a little too late I said emphatically, Yes! But I could see we had gone in a bad direction. I steered away to other topics, got him to sign the release. He asked if I wanted something to eat. Exhausted, I accepted so I could avoid the tedious search for dinner in this town of extremely limited options. He got up to make it. Still trying to get something useful out of the situation, I got out my other microphones to capture some ambient noise while I waited.

The woman came in to talk to me. Her English was a lot better than his. She said that she was studying education & had a job teaching little kids. I said, So, you have that job and you work here too? She said, I’m just filling in this week while his wife is out of town. I groggily filed this piece of information away & asked her if she was related to him. With the subtlest possible hint of distaste, she said, No, he’s just the boss. Just then he came back with my order packed up in a big brown bag, & she slipped away into the main room. I was relieved that he had packed it to go because I’d been worrying I’d have to sit there with him watching me eat. I thanked him & offered to pay, knowing that he would refuse. This has happened before & I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it until he trailed me out of the building, asking, Is that your car? Are you staying in a motel? Can I come there?!

Yikes! I said, No, sorry! & fled with my food. I felt completely slimed & a little freaked out, so when I got back to the motel I told the nice Indian dad at the desk, Uh, I don’t want any visitors, so if anyone comes looking for me.... He immediately said, Of course ma’am, giving me a very proper, dignified nod that conveyed his complete understanding & control of the situation. Considerably reassured, I went up to my room, where I blew the psychic slime off the food before eating what I could of it. Dude had packed an enormous portion of chicken fried rice, plus a quart styrofoam container of cola (which I barely recognized because I never drink it). Enough food for two hungry lovers, I guess, blech!

As I sat there forking broccoli flowerets out of the mountain of rice, it dawned on me that the desperate restauranteur must surely have propositioned his pretty young employee as well. She had obviously been eavesdropping on our conversation & was watching my back for me. Sisterhood is powerful! I wondered if maybe she was doing that unpleasant job purely as a favor to the wife, who might be one of her best friends in a small town like this.

In the morning, after a solid night’s sleep under the protection of the proper Indian innkeepers, I considered that I couldn’t really blame the poor guy, running his miserable Chinese restaurant in this godforsaken town; if he felt he had no choice in where to live & how to make a living, might he not also feel that he had not much choice in who he had married? If I were him, I’d probably be throwing myself at anyone who came near me, too! Nevertheless I was more than happy to get the hell out of dodge, & swore not to do any more work until the end of the trip. When I came back through a week later, I’d had plenty of rest, all my shots were from a safe distance, & I was glad that nobody came out of the restaurant to see what I was doing. I figured the wife must be back by now anyway.