Since someone had already prepared the loaves of dough, this story begins in medias res, with the noodle-maker pounding a loaf on a floury table. It also begins in the middle of a conversation.
A: … I can’t stand them, they’re everywhere. You get on a subway, at least half the passengers… you go to a neighborhood that used to be, say, Polish, Italian… How many Chinatowns are there in New York now? Thirty?
B: Shhh, don’t you realize where we are?
A: I don’t give a shit.
B: I don’t like that kind of racist talk!
Where, in fact, were they? In a small restaurant called Red Panda Hand-Pulled Noodle, on a narrow, winding street in Chinatown (the original). Red pandas are the lesser ones. It would have been pretentious to call this hole in the wall “Giant Panda.”
- and B. occupied half of a small double table. Between the two parts stood a sheaf of menus; a water pitcher covered with plastic wrap; a dispenser of small, thin napkins; and three round metal tins bulging with chopsticks, ceramic soup spoons, and western cutlery.
The table faced the kitchen, which made it popular with tourists and others interested in the floor (flour) show. But since it was only about 5:30, the other half was unoccupied. By now the servers, both young women, were glancing at A and B from behind the counter, and whispering to each other. Even if you don’t speak Chinese, I bet you could read their lips.
Time to let the narrative dough rest. “A” and “B” are two of my friends. (Call me “C.”) I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy (mine included) by using names. Also, to raise a complicated matter that will soon be cleared up, this story is not exactly true, it’s more of a fantasy.
The noodle-maker finished pounding, and started on the next steps: stretching the dough into long cylindrical strips, then twisting it into skeins, like the kind wool comes in. The guy was tall and stringy, with sinewy arms. You might even say his sinews looked like the dough he was working. And the dough was like those big rubber bands people with sedentary jobs use for exercising their forearms.
Meanwhile, the servers seemed to have reached some kind of understanding. At least, they stopped whispering, and the shorter one came over to A and B’s table, with a neutral expression on her tired, round face.
Server: What would you like?
They both ordered hand-pulled noodles, dry, regular width, A’s with fish balls, B’s with vegetables.
RPH-PN also serves noodles in soup, which are less greasy, but harder to manage. I usually select this option, with shredded duck and small wide noodles (wider than regular, but by no means the widest). It’s taken me a long time to develop an efficient technique for extracting the noodles from the soup without splattering my clothes. My technique combines chopsticks with a ceramic soupspoon. The restaurant also serves another kind of noodle, knife-peeled. These are prepared by a simpler process, and don’t come in different widths.
You might even say that knife-peeled noodles are like homogeneous populations, like Scandinavians, before the recent tsunami of refugees. Our own country is more like a hand-pulled-noodle recipe gone awry. On the personal level, A. is also sort of hand-pulled: difficult, but interesting; whereas B. is knife-peeled: unobjectionable, but limited. And C.? C. is an exotic hot pot that most Americans would find unpalatable.
As soon as the server left the table to transmit their order to the kitchen, A. resumed his rant.
A: Have you noticed that half of them don’t even use chopsticks? It’s a joke! We eat like them, they eat like us.
B: Maybe, the ones who don’t use chopsticks grew up here, so they’re as American as you are.
A: Yeah, right, let’s all be politically correct!
As usual, A’s face was red with anger. B. wore his characteristically pained expression, but mixed with apprehension.
At this point, two things happened. A pair of huge Chinese-American guys –the kind that might use silverware—crowded into the other half of the table. In the kitchen, the server was whispering to the noodle-maker, who had paused from pulling the skeins. Was there a plan afoot to do something nasty to A. and B.’s food? Probably not poison, but spit, perhaps, or too much salt.
Where was C., in all this? Hiding in the large pot of boiling water? Peeping in through the steamed-up front window? C. was not actually present. To let the cat out, he’s imagining these events. But his imaginings are based on the fact that he does frequent RPH-PN, sometimes with A. and/or B.
The short server brought the food to the table and took the orders of the two “cut” Chinese, who spoke Chinese. (Don’t ask me which. I can’t tell the difference.) As B. prepared to dig in, his dinner companion spoke up again.
A: I dreamt about my wife last night. (Yes, he has a wife, a very nice one.) She was in a sleeping bag in the middle of a field, fucking this Asian guy. Actually, I think he was a Jap, not a Chi…
B., whose chopsticks remained frozen in mid-air, cleared his throat loudly. Too late! The neighbors had heard.
CG#1: What the fuck!
CG#2: You hear that shit? Let’s mess this guy up!
And there the story ends. As I said, it didn’t really happen, so it can end where I like or, in this case, back where it started, in the middle. What would have happened? Maybe, B. could have talked the Chinese guys out of messing A. up. Personally, though, I think A. could have used the reality check –a moderate pounding of the old noodle. As for B., what he needs is a liberal complacency peel. And C.? Don’t ask!