When marketing execs are down on their luck...

So I’m standing there waiting for the 136 bus again this morning and this same grizzled, scruffy old guy who I almost always see there comes hobbling around the corner. He’s wearing the same just-a-little-too-short pants, the same lint-covered gray knit cap, the same brown down coat. I don’t know if he’s homeless, though I suspect he lives in the halfway house around the corner, the one that houses all the obvious mental patients that wander the streets on Bryn Mawr back and forth. But I know he’s going to ask me for money. Hell, he asks everyone who’s standing on the bus stop for money every morning. I’m not sure if he really needs it. I mean, he gets on the same bus as I do when it finally arrives, which means he’s at least got bus fare. So maybe he’s just looking for walking-around money, or some extra coinage for a nice meal at Manny’s Deli. But whatever the reason, he’s always working the crowd at the bus stop for money.

But he did something strange today. I see lumbering around the corner, stopping in front of everyone in front of me, see his mouth moving, apparently asking for change, see their heads shaking back and forth: no. And he finally works his way over to me. And instead of flat out asking me if I have any spare change, he first asks me, “Have I asked you before?” I’m a little taken aback because A) I was expect the rote question, “Got any change?” and B) I wondered, asked me WHAT before? So I said exactly that to him, asked me WHAT before, and he responds, “Asked you for change. Have I asked you for change before?”

Now, I’ve never been asked by a panhandler to let him know if he’s previously attempted to tap my generosity. I can see the same guy on the same street corner every day for a year and he never seems to be concerned if he’s wearing out his welcome. In fact, the more familiar he becomes with me, the most likely he is to rush past everyone else to get to broke l’il ol’ me. Nope, it’s mostly just stick the hand out, ask the question and if no clink of the coinage is heard, move along.

But I’ve never been part of panhandler survey before, one that starts with “Have I asked you before?” I’m wondering is this part of some new homeless focus group effort, a street guy questionnaire designed to improve their panhandling technique.

“Now, if I have asked you for change before, would you say I was A) extremely courteous, B) very courteous, C) courteous, D) slightly courteous or D) not courteous? Now on this second part, please rank my bumming from one to five, one being “Not likely to give me money” and five being “Very likely to give me money.”

Anyway, I’m curious as to what he’s talking about, so when he ask if he’s asked me before, I say no. He follows up quickly with, “Well, do you have any spare change?” I say no again and he grunts something and moves on to the next person. And I’m left there to wonder about the panhandlers who doesn’t want to wear out his welcome.


Chinese mystery

I’m pretty sure every decent-sized urban neighborhood has one. Amidst the corner grocery store and the dry cleaners and the new coffee shop and the cell phone store there’s that one business that stands out. Not because it’s the busiest, not because it’s the newest or the cheapest.

No, it stands out because despite the fact that you never see anyone go in or out, it’s always open and always there.

You know the place. That mysterious little shop in the middle of the street. You’ve never been inside, nor seen anyone else go inside. But it’s always been there, always with the sad-looking “Open” sign in the window. It’s dark enough inside that you can’t make out if anyone is working in there. Or if you can see inside, there’s usually the same solitary person inside, the same elderly man or woman moving around slowly, performing some ritualistic, mundane task. You might have caught their eye once or twice, then looked quickly away as if you were seeing something you shouldn’t have.

But it’s always there. Everything else around it has come and gone and changed several times over. The beauty shop that was a restaurant that was a hardware store that was a Laundromat. They go out of business, thanks to the whims of the public (bye-bye stationary store, hello Starbucks). But this one place, somehow hangs on like a freakin’ cockroach after the Apocolypse.

For me it’s the China Star Chinese Restaurant. In the middle of the block, flanked by a dollar store and a hip-hop clothing store, it sits like old man waiting for a bus that's never coming. A thin tree sprouts from the sidewalk outside its main window, as if trying to hide a secret. And not to be outdone, three is a small tree INSIDE the restaurant's front window as well, its branches and leaves making it difficult to see inside (on purpose?).

But you can still peek through, in the tight corners of the window not covered by the overgrown houseplant. You can see the rows of tables and chairs, enough to accommodate at least 30 or 40 customers. And there is NEVER anyone inside. Never. Not. One. Customer. Not one person ever seated at the tables enjoying General Tso’s Chicken or egg foo yung or sweet and sour pork. Never. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for almost 15 years and cannot recall ever seeing anyone having a meal in this restaurant.

But they’re open every single day. Well, except for Mondays. The dutiful owners are apparently businesses-minded enough to flip the signed to “closed” on that traditonal closed-restaurant day. But without fail, they're open the next day. I'm going to assume they actually live in the restaurtant, somewhere in the back among the giant woks and wonton wrappers, because I've never seen them actually open or close the restaurant using keys.

But I know they exist because I once actually went inside and ordered food. A long time ago, when I first moved into the neighborhood. I think I did it more out of curiousity than a desire for good food. There were plenty of other options in the area, some that I've been to before and liked. The gyros place across the street. Franko's Pizza. El Norte Mexican restaurant. But I guess I was trying to be a good guy, throwing them some business. That's the sort of guy I am. Modest, too.

So I ventured inside and was met with depressing darkness. A dingy maroon carped covered the floor. It was too dark to determine if the markings on the floor were a pattern or dirt. Sad wallpaper. Row after row of empty tables filled the room. A televison in the far corner of the restaurant was turned to some Asian game show. In the far end, light came from the kitchen area but there were no sounds of things sizzling, frying, woks being slammed by utensils. I walked hesitantly up to the register where an elderly Asian woman sat. Despite her jet black hair, her face told me that it was quite possible she was interred in a camp in California during World War II. And not as a child.

She nodded at me, smiled a little and said hello. I took one of the menus from the register area. Already something told me this was probably not a good idea. I mean, everything about the place told me that customers here were few and far between. And no matter if the was horrible food or a changing Chinese food demographic, they could not have been getting shipments of fresh food each and every day without their storage area bulging at the seams. How long can egg rolls last in a freezer? What is the shelf life of snow peas? Is three month old shrimp safe to eat?

I decided to play it safe and order something simple, rather than the slightly more exotic stuff. (Coroner: "Well, as far as we can figure, he died from crab rangoon poisoning, complicated by a moo goo guy pan reaction.") I pointed to the combination fried rice, figuring the heat from the wok would kill any parasites. The same reasoning led me to order the egg rolls as well. After placing my order, the woman turned toward the kitchen and bellowed something in Chinese. A voice bellowed and I heard the clanking of metal and the hiss of oil. I sat at one of the tables and waited. On the television, some guy was singingand the crowd was going wild.

After about 15 minutes an old man in a white apron and t-shirt emerged from the back carrying a brown paper bag. He said nothing and walked back. The woman handed me the bag and I gave her a $10. I took my change and left.

When I got home I started eating it and the overwhelming taste of everything was grease. The combination fried rice was oily. The egg roll were oily. The fortune cookies were oily (OK, they probably weren't but I wasn't going to try them.) For the first time in my life, I couldn't finish a meal. But at least a piece of the puzzle was in place. At least part of the reason why the place was empty was a bit clearer. People had apparently wised up and kept clear of the joint.

But, still, they were open every day, rain or shine. How? How were they keeping this business afloat with bad combination fried rice and egg rolls you could give a lube job with? Did they own the building lock, stock and barrel, and thus had no landlord to pay? Did they own a Chinese restaurant supply store and had no overhead? Was there a windmill in the back somewhere generating their own electricity, a natural gas supply and a refinery in the basement? How were they operating a business for the past 10-plus years with NO customers?

I chalked this one up to an "ancient Chinese secret", like Calgon or something (obscure old TV commercial reference) and added it to the list of mysterious commercial businesses I have known with no visible means of income, yet continued to remain open. The cleaners/leather store on Belmont Ave. The pita bread store on north Clark street that is never open and never has a person inside, yet displays racks and racks of fresh pita break in the front window. The bakery near Diversey and Ashland with the ratty awning and dead plants in the window that is apparently still in business. The bar that smelled like vomit from the outside.

So look around your neighborhood and ask yourself: Why is that store still there?


Blank Morning...

At the risk of coming across like an anti-social prick, I hate saying “Good Morning.” Not because I don’t welcome the day and bless the Lord/Buddah/Allah/The Exaulted Grand Tkirta of Algon 5 for giving me one more 24 hour span on this Earth. Not because I don’t wish my fellow man/woman/transgendered person good tidings and hopes for an tragedy-free day.

I just hate saying “Good Morning.”

I don’t really know why, which makes it even more puzzling, even to myself. I’m going to chalk it up to me not being a morning person, which I’m not. I don’t really get going till around 1:30 or so, so wishing me a good morning is pretty much a wasted effort.

But more and more people are saying it, from the woman standing at the bus stop who I have never seen before in my life, to the guy driving the bus who should be less enthusiastic about the morning than I am considering all of the freaks he has to deal with on a daily basis, from the woman behind the counter at the coffee shop (though her AM perkiness might be latte-related), to the guy who sells me a newspaper from his tiny men’s room stall-sized stand, to the security guard on my floor at work, to the two (TWO!) receptionists at the front desk.

And to each one I mumble a barely audible “morning”. Not even a full “Good Morning”. Just “morning”, as if I was only acknowledging the fact that the sun was, indeed, in the sky and any further assessment of the quality of the day was not my concern.

I know they can hear it in my voice. Barely enunciating. Not looking at them. Flat monotone. With the exception of a man scheduled to face a firing squad at dawn, it’s probably the least believable “good morning” on human record.

Like I said, I don’t know why I hate saying it. I guess it could be that I don’t feel that most of the people, even the really cheery ones, don’t really give a fuck. I mean, if I were to stop and actually assess the day with them, would they really want to listen?

Them: “Good morning.”

Me: “Is it? Is it really? What, exactly is good about it? And don’t give me the ‘It’s good because you’re alive’ crap, because there’s some guy living in a mud puddle in the Sudan who probably doesn’t think it’s so great to be alive. So what’s so good about it, huh? Huh? Hey, where’re you going? Come back here…”

The other possible reason is that I don’t know what the phrase really means. Good morning. Good. Morning. Are they just generically saying the morning is good, like some Amish farmer? (“Ah, the morning is good, Jebediah.” Yes, Hezekiah, ‘tis a good morning for a barn raising.”). Is it short-hand for “Have a good morning”, as if it were an order, which no one could reliably fulfill because of all of the out-of-their control factors that go into determining whether the morning will be good or not? (“Hey, you!… Have a good morning.” “OK, I’ll try, but you need to know that it’s way outta my control, so if I can’t, hey…”). If they mean, “I hope you have a good morning”, then SAY that! That’s like walking up to a couple of newlyweds and just saying, “Very happy” instead of “I hope you two will be very happy.” I mean, what are you really telling me when you say, “Good Morning” to me?

But I guess the biggest reason I would rather not bother with saying “good morning” is I have the sneaking suspicion that most, if not all, of the people saying in really don’t mean it. The vast majority of the people saying it to me are people who pretty much HAVE to say it as a part of their job dealing with the public. Store clerks. Coffee counter personnel. Receptionists. Bus drivers. And whether they’re saying it with a twinkle in their voice or saying it as if they were programmed to do so like Robbie The Robot, I can tell. At least 90 percent of the time, it’s no more significant than a car horn on the street.

So maybe we should retire it for a while. Just reduce the morning greeting ritual to a nod or something. Just acknowledging that, yeah, you’re a person, I’m a person, we’re here on this planet together so let’s just try not to kill each other today, OK? Now, what kind of coffee did you want.

I used to take public transportation to high school. Every weekday morning for four years. And nearly every one of those days, I would get on the bus and seated right by the first seat on the bus, across from the driver, was this old guy in a dated, but clean suit. From what I could gather, he was a minister of some sort. At least he was always carrying a bible. He had white hair under his hat, a white moustache, a tiny white soul patch under his bottom lik and a big ass smile almost constantly plastered to his face. And he would say “good morning” to each and every person who got on the bus. Old women. Old men. Little kids. Their mothers. Their older brothers and sisters. Everyone. And me. Every day, for most of my four year high school career, from the dreariest rain-soaked morning to the most testicle-shrinkingly cold December AMs, he’d be there, bellowing “Good morning” to everyone who stepped inside that bus, in a baritone that belied his advanced age (60s? 70s?). He was relentless, not giving up until you responded in kind, whether you were in the mood or not. “C’mon, now, I said ‘good morning’. Put that smile on your face. It’s a blessed day. Alright, there it is. See, that wasn’t so hard.”

I’m sure he thought that saying “good morning” has some sort of spiritually uplifting qualities, that it could brighten the darkest day, lift the spirits of the most downtrodden. But it didn’t. For me, it made the already undesirable chore of spending five hours in the hormone hell that was high school even more annoying. And to start nearly every day with a smiling reminder that it, in fact, was NOT going to be good morning was soon imprinted on my soul.

Yup, I blame him.