I had an hour to kill while the Apple Computer dealer assembled and
tested a new hard disk drive for me. Lunch, I decided, would be a good
way to use up an hour, keep my mind off my worries about my computer
files at home, and reward myself for having been up most of the night
recovering the files from a "crashed" hard drive.
It was an oppressively muggy day, that sort of overcast day when the
diffuse light steeps lifelessness into all the colors and makes everything
look the same. A lousy day for a drive. Somewhere south on El Camino,
I spotted a place calling itself "Ten Fu Chinese Restaurant." It
looked empty, perfect for my contrived, kill-time, contemplative mood.
I hung a U-turn and pulled into Ten Fu's "Parking In Rear" area.
This doubled as reserve parking for tenants of the adjacent apartment.
A circle of women were holding hands in the middle of the parking lot,
communing in some deep spiritual ceremony. The uniformity of blissful
smiles assured me this nest of beatitude was best left undisturbed.
I pulled around the oblivious circle slowly, parked, and walked cautiously
into Ten Fu.
The place seemed deserted. My watch said two-fifteen. Two waiters
sprang to life while I waited by the "Please Wait To Be Seated" sign.
One asked if he could help me. "Is it too late to be seated?",
I asked cheerfully. He dead - panned it: no, sir, not too late, right
this way, please.
I was escorted past huge tables for parties of eight or more. My waiter
hid me at a little table, adjacent to a drab freestanding folding utility
screen. This hid the little workstation where restaurateurs keep the
clean ashtrays, toothpicks and ice water. I like to look around, but
said this would be fine. There was only one other party in the whole
restaurant. We were both on the same side of the folding screen, so
they, and a vast expanse of undecorated red wall space, were my principal
view. I ordered Szechuan Beef.
Soup came right away; with no time to warm it from the lunch hour "crowd".
It being Saturday, this might have been soup from Friday's lunch hour.
When my mind's fogged from lack of sleep, I can understand how people
who endure periodic bouts of chronic depression must dread knowing
what the next bout will do to their attitude. I felt like that about
my attitude. I hoped lunch would help. Even so, the soup was still
lukewarm-lousy, compellingly evocative of those tired old speculations
as to what they really put into this stuff. I sipped at it, tried to
ignore the conference at the next table, and soon enough the soup was
gone. Time: two-twenty-five.
It seemed there was just nowhere to rest the eyes in this place, but
upon my pot of weak tea, a blank red wall, and that oddly inanimate
conversation at the table next to mine. I pretended not to listen.
About eight American-born Chinese were talking about one or more church
projects. Swell. At best, I am not generally a big booster of churches
and church promotions. There was some question as to who would finance
all the $20 Bibles which had to be passed out, and as to whether the
recipients would get these Bibles up front, or be required to first
complete a baptism. Just the sort of distraction I needed to fan my
After a bout of eavesdropping like this, I will generally begin to
feel I am inviting comparison to all those others who don't cherish
(as I do) that grand illusion of privacy. I mused as to whether these
joyless folks would ever actually succeed in making one person's life
a little happier or more coherent with their programs and merit Bibles.
Who would teach the recipients how to seek wisdom from these books,
or seek solace in their words? Who would teach these teachers?
The trouble with everybody else's religion in America is that those
who "have it" are encouraged to substitute concrete literalness
for thought, gospel for introspection, and advice-giving for self-examination.
They may use the good words to hide from themselves and from their
own souls, or they might use the words to manipulate and coerce others
in ways the original manuscripters doubtless never conceived. Good
old America: situational ethics, formula solutions. If somebody comes
with a twelve-gauge to shoot my cow while she's being milked, hey,
what should I do? What should I say? How would the Bible handle this
situation? "Plug it into the Bible". Fractured ideas, disconnected
from source or context, "thou shalt nots", proscriptions
and admonitions extracted out of context like so many fragmented files
on my disk drive at home which has irretrievably broken its original
In a short while, I get to go home, back up my recovered files onto
my new hard drive, and rebuild my directories from scratch: clean slate.
Proselytizers can show us the records, they can even direct us to the
methodologies, but they can't teach us how to live. Everybody should
learn how to rebuild their own directories once in a while.
I realize I must be tired. I do not usually see myself as so smugly
cynical, and it dawns on me that maybe I really am. Time: two-thirty.
The Szechuan beef arrives, a generous portion, and warmer than the
soup, too, with pork fried rice and topped with a large slab of yummy
fried cookie and glazed egg roll. I'd never seen a luncheon garnished
with the dessert before. I decide to see how much of the fried rice
and beef I can eat by undermining its undisturbed cookie "roof" until
the foundation collapses.
The distinguishing thing about the party at the next table, I decide,
is that nobody is having a good time. They are not having a meeting
after all. They are going through the motions of having a meeting,
perhaps because they don't know how to go about it, or perhaps because
they are unwilling volunteers. There is nothing for them to do but
let one woman, the apparent "leader", decide on-the-fly what
is to be done, and how she will want them to do it. She patiently instructs
them on what everybody's duties will be, and she does not appear to
see any need to address any group member as an individual. I am reminded
of grade school kids being herded during a fire drill. If these are
missionaries, they'll find no zeal here.
The conversation lacks any spark of spontaneity, with a carefully
metered lifelessness, as if you and I are dividing up chores to mop
up some horrible and very distasteful mess - and would really prefer
not to be discussing this at all. Very much like discussions about
the weather, the presumption of the participants must be that, if it
isn't already a nice day, conditions will eventually improve.
The "leader-lady" is counseling her group that she does
not know yet what their brochures will look like, or how they will
be printed, but that she will be able to determine what "will
be needed" to make the brochures suitable, as soon as she sees
the group's completed effort, which she delegates. The participants'
stony downcast eyes tell the story. They evidently see that she'll
know what she wants them to do when she sees it. Nobody is looking
at each other. I realize that this person has no concept whatsoever
of how to plan a project, of how to enlist the aid and enthusiasm of
the volunteers. The group realizes this too.
I think of the untold human effort which has gone into projects just
such as this, based on the simple and flawless premise that life should
be happy and purposeful, and that we should be able to find others
who can pass on the distilled wisdoms from the discovery process, so
we do not all have to re-invent everything from scratch. On the other
hand, groups like this are solid evidence that perhaps we should, after
A younger man finally interjects with guarded enthusiasm that he has
a computer program which could print the Chinese character sets directly
onto their brochure. The leader lady ignores him, stating, for some
reason, that no matter what the form of the brochure, it must leave
space at the bottom for a name and a telephone number. I silently wonder
why, imagining that perhaps the leader lady has already invested in
a rubber stamp and ink pad, saturated with the blue-black ink of the
'50's public libraries. Yes, by all means, leave room at the bottom
of the form! The young man lapses into silence again.
I see that I shall be able to finish luncheon after all, and so cannot
burn up a little more time waiting for a take-home container, or "doggie
bag," as we are so pleased to style it. There is not enough left
to take home, so I eat the rest. Like these people at the Bible church
group, I am here only because I do not yet want to be "there",
waiting (in my own case) idly for my new hard drive to be set up and
formatted. Unlike the folks at the next table, I can look at my watch
as often as I want. It is hard to say what they are waiting for, since
nothing is happening here for them either.
I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience,
but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will
stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life's fabric, a nothingness
nodule, as it were. I can pay and leave Ten Fu's at two-forty-five,
and I do.
© Alex Forbes, La
Parola July 1994