Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tarzan and Tong

Thai Isthmus is a Thai restaurant on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, and I order carry-out from them about once every week. While waiting for my food, I've come to know Tong, the owner, pretty well. Our relationship is based on roughly two years worth of weekly five minute conversations. Its become a part of my life, so much so that if I miss a week we greet each other with our arms outstretched as if we were attending a reunion of sorts.

Our conversations, though brief, have revealed much about the two of us. Secrets have been told, fears revealed, concerns about family members shared, and opinions aired. It's much like the relationship between a therapist and a patient, only it's free, and neither one of us pretends to be anointed with the spurious power associated with a graduate degree in psychology.

Tong and I have made a pact that our conversations possess the same confidentiality that other professionals have with their clients. We call it the "proprietor-patron confidentiality," and after a thing is said, Tong holds his index finger to his lips (the international sign for quiet, shhh, or, in our case, secret). Tong has told me many things that I would never reveal under any circumstances, and I hope he feels the same way.

Tong's real name is not Tong. It's a nickname he's had his whole life, and he tells me that many Thai people are referred to only by their nickname, especially by close friends like we've become. It's a tradition. Tong suggested that I, too, should have a nickname, something that would foster familiarity between us. After giving the matter much thought, I chose Tarzan, figuring everybody likes Tarzan, and we shook on it. Whenever I place an order over the phone, and he says, "name please," all I have to say is "Tarzan," and he says, "see you in fifteen minutes, Tarzan." Of course I get there early so we can have our much-looked-forward-to chat.

Among the things I've revealed to Tong is the time I pretended to be Jewish in order to take one of the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, off of work. Dame Edna was appearing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, and I needed the extra day to appear refreshed for the show. So I made up the innocent lie. Upon returning to my job, in order to add some credibility to my fabrication, I even went so far as to wear a yarmulke for a day or two. And it wasn't really a yarmulke at all, but a commemorative pot holder we picked up at Niagara Falls. I did have the good sense to turn the embroidered waterfall towards my hair, so it appeared plain black to the casual onlooker.

And that's not the half of it. One day, the very sweet and generous Holly Wogstad offered me a pulled-pork sandwich and I turned it down and was met with an embarrassed apology. The charade worked so well that I took Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hanukkah, and Passover off as well. I did this for two straight years, and nobody batted an eye until one May 5th when Marza Delgado, the Acrobatic Accordionist, was in town. In order to attend the performance, I used Cinco de Mayo as a personal holiday, claiming it was incumbent of my Mexican heritage that I do so. It's not normal to play the accordion in such a risky manner.

When I returned to work, the snoopy Arlene Dibbens, who apparently has the memory of an elephant, inquired as to the paucity of Mexican Jews in Chicago, and how it was such a pleasure to meet someone with such a rich heritage. Then, coupled with her sarcasm, she and the others began referring to me as Hector Bernstein. The mockery soon caught on and I was not only Hector Bernstein, but to some, Rabbi Gomez.

I left that job and have put the embarrassing Hector and the Rabbi behind me, but I've been looking over my shoulder ever since, wondering if the whole incident will somehow catch up to me one day. I know Tong wouldn't reveal the episode to anyone, as he gave me the secret "shhh" sign upon hearing the story. But the other day I got a Pottery Barn catalog in the mail, addressed to Tarzan. So I'm wondering how the Pottery Barn knows that Tarzan is my Thai food-ordering nickname. I'm hoping it's just a coincidence. But when Cinco de Mayo rolls around, if I get any mail addressed to Hector Bernstein or Rabbi Gomez, I'll know there has been a breech somewhere.
Till then, though, Tarzan trust Tong.