Copyright © 2016 Jay Gershwin
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The Art of Delivering Chinese Food
When my father was a hippie in the early 1970s he experienced enlightenment and got a job delivering Chinese food.
He worked for Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace.
“Here,” Mr. Yong told him one morning. “Eight-fifteen Maple Lane. Apartment two. Delivery.” He handed him a plastic bag containing shrimp with snow peas and General Tso’s chicken.
My father went outside, opened the takeout boxes and dumped the food into the street.
When he arrived at 815 Maple Lane, he climbed the stairs to apartment #2 and knocked. A man answered wearing only a condom.
“Fried rice!” the man yelled over his shoulder.
Behind him, my father saw a woman lying completely naked on the couch. She was so excited by the arrival of Mr. Yong’s that she kicked her legs in the air and whooped.
“Wait a minute.” The man felt something was wrong when my father handed off the bag. “Where’s the food?”
“Use your imagination.”
“I ordered General Tso chicken, motherfucker.”
“You don’t need the chicken to have the chicken, my friend. Close your eyes and imagine the chicken, and the chicken is yours.”
“Give me back my ten dollars.”
“Your ten dollars doesn’t exist,” my father said, tearing up the money.
The man pushed my father down the stairs. My father fell all the way and landed in a heap of arms and legs at the bottom, got up and checked his pulse, then returned to Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace.
“The customer say you deliver empty box,” Mr. Yong said, angry. “What hell happen? Where you put all the food?”
“I threw it away.”
“Here.” Mr. Yong refilled the order. “Try again.”
My father went outside and dumped the food into the street. Then he crouched over a rain puddle and scooped a handful of mud into each of the takeout boxes. Finished, he returned to 815 Maple Lane and knocked at apartment #2. This time he heard sex sounds through the door, which amounted to a knocking on a different door, the door of existence.
Footsteps. The door opened and the same man, still completely naked but sweating now, said, “That’s better. It smells great out here.”
He opened a box, jammed his thumb into the mud and licked it clean. There was a moment of confusion when the taste of dirt didn’t match up with his memory of General Tso’s chicken. “This tastes like shit.”
“Is that the shrimp with snow peas?” called a female voice.
“I should call the police on you, man.”
“I am the police,” my father said, which was very zen.
The man stared at my father, trying to understand what was happening. Poor guy. All he’d wanted was some after-sex Chinese food and instead he was getting a crash course in zen.
“What the fuck, man?” he said finally. “Am I on TV? How hard is it to bring me a box of General Tso chicken?”
“You don’t get it,” my father said. “You are General Tso. General Tso is you. These takeout boxes are a vision of you becoming General Tso and making chicken from the silence of your own mind.”
“Paul? What’s going on?” called the female voice.
“Dude, you’re freaking me out,” Paul said.
“I’m illuminating your mind. You can have Chinese food anytime you want, friend. You don’t need me to come over here and deliver it.”
It was a powerful lesson in zen.
My father left him there. But the lesson wasn’t over just yet.
When my father returned to Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace, three new takeout orders were ready for delivery: potstickers, moo shu pork, sliced chicken with orange flavor, honey dew shrimp, seafood delight, hot and sour soup, fried wantons, brown rice, sugar snap peas and grilled fish ball skewer—all boxed away.
My father gathered the takeout bags and pedaled back to 815 Maple Lane, where Paul stood naked in the doorway with a blank look. Without a word, my father handed him the bags ($39.95 worth of Chinese food) and left.
He returned to Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace and gathered another batch of delivery orders: tofu lo mein, pressed duck with pineapple, scallion pancake, sautéed prawns in Malay barbecue sauce, soft shell crabs, fried rice with pork, egg foo young, dumpling and noodles in curry soup, green jade delight, fried squid, banana tempura, mee fun Singapore style, cold noodles in sesame sauce, and General Tso’s chicken. Altogether it was $88.95 worth of Chinese food, seven different orders.
He delivered everything to 815 Maple Lane.
The door to apartment #2 was wide open. Paul and his girlfriend were now sitting naked at the cluttered coffee table gorging on Chinese food. They looked up in amazement as my father walked into the apartment and set down the takeout bags. The air reeked of soy sauce.
“What are you doing, man?” Paul said.
My father stood there with his hands on his hips.
“I’d like you to consider an old parable,” he told the naked couple. “There was once a fish and a fisherman. When the fish was caught the fish asked, What is the sea? The fisherman tried to explain. But the fish didn’t get it. And so I ask you both, Who is General Tso?”
Paul and the woman sat there open-mouthed.
For the rest of the afternoon, until he was fired at three o’clock, my father delivered all the takeout orders to Paul and his girlfriend at 815 Maple Lane so that by the time he walked in with the last sack of food they were bodily twitching in a state of neurological shock, teetering at the edge of enlightenment.
When my father was young and newly married, he decided to invent a new flavor of Kool-Aid called “Hemingway in New York.”
“If coffee can taste like raspberries and soda like licorice, why can’t a glass of Kool-Aid taste like Ernest Hemingway in New York?” he said.
He was fascinated by The New Yorker’s famous profile of Hemingway’s 1950 trip to New York City. He wanted to capture its ambience: bearded old Papa in his tweed jacket and wool necktie lumbering through the streets of Manhattan.
“You’re a fool. How can Kool-Aid taste like Hemingway in New York? How is that even possible?” my mother said.
“Just wait,” he said. “You’ll see.”
If he could invent a flavor of Kool-Aid that tasted like Hemingway in New York, he could sell the patent for millions and spend all day at his typewriter becoming a famous writer himself.
He began by looking through recipe books. Was there a particular spice that captured the smell of an important novelist on Fifth Avenue?
“Besides, why are you so obsessed with Hemingway in the first place?” my mother said. “Why can’t you be obsessed with your own God-damn life?”
It was a good question but my father made hundreds of concoctions till at last he produced a prototype. “I’ve done it,” he announced, running into the bedroom holding a glass of gray-colored Kool-Aid. “My God, we’ll make millions! Here, taste.”
My mother sipped and said, “Tastes like grape.”
“Grape?” he said, aghast. “It’s not grape. It’s Hemingway in New York!”
But others had the same reaction: “Tastes like grape.”
What I need is more information, he told himself. He reread The New Yorker profile looking for clues and learned that the author—Lillian Ross—was still alive and writing for The New Yorker almost fifty years later.
“I’m going to New York,” he announced at dinner.
My mother got up, carefully poured chicken soup over his head and threatened to end their marriage if he went. Most men in his position would have surrendered, but being covered in chicken soup was my father’s natural habitat in those days. He slicked back his hair, left the table and flew to New York the next day.
In Manhattan he made his way past skyscrapers and into a midtown café where Lillian Ross met him in a gabardine coat and old-lady gloves she removed while sitting across from the weird collection of sweat, typewriter ink and unwashed jeans that defined my father.
“The original profile was actually quite longer,” she told him without shaking his hand. “It was cut for brevity.”
“Yeah? Which parts?” my father half shouted. He could smell a breakthrough.
“When Hemingway was in town,” she said and glanced left, right and lowered her voice to a whisper, “he rode the carrousel in Central Park.”
My father was stunned and thrilled.
He jumped to his ruined sneakers. Finally! he thought. He’d uncovered the singular piece of information he needed. If he could translate “Central Park carrousel” into a flavor and add it to the recipe he’d already concocted, there was no question he’d get the taste he was after.
Sure enough, within a week of returning home and experimenting with hundreds of fructose varieties, he whipped up a batch of Hemingway in New York that tasted like no other.
He approached a man outside the supermarket. The man sipped and frowned at the glass and said, “Interesting. What flavor is this? I don’t think I’ve ever had this before.”
“You tell me. Describe it,” my father said, excited.
The man said, “Well, it’s definitely not the normal flavor of Kool-Aid. It tastes like… I know this sounds crazy, but it reminds me of this book we read in high school. A Farewell to Arms. Remember that?” He sipped and squinted, searching for an apt description while my father trembled with delight. “And you know what else? It reminds me of New York City.”
“Yes!” my father cried, raising his fists.
My father polled hundreds of others and got the same reaction, so that when he finally offered a glass to my mother, she too was charmed.
“My God,” she said smiling, “it does. It tastes like Hemingway in New York.”
Triumphant, my father said, “Just think! We’ll have every English major in the country drinking this stuff.”
He sold the recipe to a Japanese energy drink concern, who mass-marketed “Hemingway Kool-Aid” to creative writing students as a kind of Red Bull for creativity, complete with TV commercials of Hemingway sitting at his desk and cracking open a can. “Ahh,” Hemingway said. “A Farewell to Writer’s Block.”
The $1 Million Haiku
One day my father came home from work in his moth-eaten blazer, threw his briefcase on the floor and announced he’d quit his job to become a haiku writer.
“We’ll starve,” my mother said.
He’d never written a single haiku in his life, but the next morning he holed away in the study with a borrowed fountain pen and began composing hundreds of haiku.
At day’s end my sister and I sorted through the crumpled paper in his wastebasket, fascinated. We figured we had six months before we all ended up on welfare. Other kids’ fathers were lawyers or doctors. Ours was the author of gems like:
The goddam neighbor’s
dog barking all night next door—
wish I had a gun
But a month later one of his best haiku—“Childhood”—was accepted by a literary magazine with national distribution. The magazine itself was just a xeroxed kitchen-sink production by an alcoholic in Florida, but its release marked the beginning of the weirdest phase of our lives.
Within twenty-four hours, a clothing manufacturer contacted my father and offered to print the haiku on a T-shirt. “We’ll give you $10,000 for a one-time printing right and a 15% royalty on all sales.”
My father hung up and whooped.
Over the following week he was contacted by a greeting-card company, an advertising agency, a calendar maker and a mug producer, all wanting to license “Childhood.” The week after that, the haiku appeared in Esquire. Playboy. Rolling Stone. Time magazine.
Overnight, “Childhood” became the rage of American pop culture.
It sneezed from one person to another at bus stops and office watercoolers. It was transformed into one of those cliché sayings that appear on everything from helium balloons to bumperstickers, like “Shit happens” or “Fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck.” It was recited at weddings and funerals, tattooed on people’s arms and scrawled in yearbooks.
Altogether, my father made over $1 million. “See, hon? I told you,” he told my speechless mother one night. But like the rest of us, he was overwhelmed by his own success.
“Childhood” is just nine words long, but the rights have since been sold to a German multi-media conglomerate who refused permission to reproduce it here. All I can say is that it’s a beautiful poem.
The real victory came when he was approached by a martini-and-cigarettes-era New York publisher who offered to release it in a hardback book with fifty of my father’s other haiku. To celebrate, we had dinner at a French restaurant where my father poured champagne and raised his glass. “Here’s how.”
When we finished eating, we walked outside past the white-glove doorman and were ambushed by paparazzi. “James, over here!” Cameras flashed. My father pulled his blazer over his head and tried running for the minivan.
He was mobbed by hundreds of shrieking fans who wanted to touch him. They ripped the blazer off his back and tore it into confetti. One girl flashed her breasts and demanded an autograph. Another girl leaped onto his back for a piggyback ride but knocked off his wire-frame glasses so that he ran the wrong way and crashed through the plate-glass window.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying across a platter of moules à la crème, covered in shattered glass.
The next morning we opened the paper and found a photo of my father lying facedown with the headline: “Haiku Genius Has Illegitimate Child with Michael Jackson, Attempts Suicide.” It was the first of many such articles. My father became an instant favorite of the celebrity scandal scene. Evidently the tabloid journalists, tired of the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the world, turned their attention to a tortured haiku poet instead. Over the following weeks I learned that my father was actually a woman who’d had an affair in the Bahamas with a Wall Street mogul, that he’d been a crack baby, that he ran a Taiwanese sweat shop.
But the biggest blow was yet to come.
“My book flopped,” he announced at dinner. He held up a copy of the New York Times Book Review, where his haiku collection had been panned. They called him a one-hit wonder.
“None of the haiku in this volume capture the grace of ‘Childhood’,” the critic wrote. “I can’t help but wonder if the author has been distracted by his numerous abortions in Mexico, his cocaine binging in Zurich, his extramarital gallops in Malibu. Nothing destroys a poet like success—which seems to be the only explanation for this sad, loose, deeply disappointing book.”
Like many celebrities, my father was ruined by his fall from grace. He bought a Corvette and totaled it the same day, was in and out of rehab, punched paparazzi and was summoned to court, appeared in a leaked sex tape, was thrown off a flight to Los Angeles, was arrested outside a nightclub, totaled his BMW, was parodied by late-night comedians.
One night we turned on the TV and saw my father on The Late Late Show. He sat in the armchair with a limp wrist, roaring with laughter. “Are you always this pretty?” the host asked him.
My father was missing his two front teeth after a bar fight in Malibu and he tossed back his head and roared with laughter.
But the fame didn’t last. “Childhood” was just a fad and it soon disappeared as untraceably as childhood itself. My father returned home and shut himself in the study, but with no money now, no fame and no way to earn a living, so that he sat alone in the afterglow of his own brilliance.
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A man looks for the meaning of happiness by delivering Chinese food… in this first-ever story collection by underground cult writer Jay Gershwin. Among the stories are “Hemingway Kool-Aid”… about a man who invents a new flavor of Kool-Aid that tastes like Ernest Hemingway… “The $1 Million Haiku”… about a man who writes a best-selling haiku that makes him a millionaire… And 7 other remarkable stories.