Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Most Important Decision--or When East Side Girl Met Spiceboy: Part One

Yesterday, when we were sitting in holiday traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, spiceboy asked me this question:

What’s the most important decision you ever made in your life?

Crazy, right? I mean, how does one even begin to answer a question like that?

We talked about it for awhile, and all of the obvious things came up—getting married, moving to Boston in 2002, moving to NYC last July, etc. And as I was walking to work today, I realized that I left out something major—a decision I made that seemed totally inconsequential at the time, but one that changed my life completely. But in order for me to tell you what that is, I have to tell you a story.


It was July 19th, 1998. I was walking down the street in Pittsburgh, Pennyslvania when I spotted a sign in the window of a small restaurant, which, for the purposes of this blog, we shall call Spice World. The sign read:

Help Wanted.
Experienced servers and bussers.
Apply within.

I had just quit my last job—a short and humiliating stint as a waitress at a Texas-style steakhouse where I was required to country line dance on cue. By the time I realized that I couldn’t dance and despised both steak and country music, all of the other summer jobs for college students were taken, and I was broke and desperate to pay the rent.

I passed by Spice World every day on my way to classes but I’d never eaten there. I didn’t even know what type of restaurant it was—I just knew I needed a job. A few minutes later, a beautiful waitress sat me at a small table in the back of the restaurant, and told me to wait for the owner.

The owner was spiceboy.

He looked impossibly young for a restaurant owner, which surprised me. And he was Chinese, which surprised me even more. His voice was deep and he spoke without a trace of an accent—also something completely new to me. Growing up in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, the only Chinese people I’d ever come into contact with owned the Wok and Roll and spoke with thick accents. As girls, my sister and I would sometimes giggle about the way they spoke.

Until that moment, I had never pondered my whiteness at all—it just was. But all of a sudden, I was the lone white face in a sea of color, which was disoriented and exhiliarating. All around me, beautiful waitresses with skin in varying shades of brown sauntered up and down the aisles, chopsticks stuck in the back pockets of their jeans, their slim hips swaying to the funky music that played on the stereo as they took orders from customers, their accented voices carrying above the music.

I didn’t need a mirror to know that I had none of their exotic appeal, none of their easy grace. I had never really tried to look outside of my own little world before--I didn't need to. But sitting in Spice World, I felt like a standard issue white girl, complete with bad shoes, suburban hair, and a Pittsburgh accent.

spiceboy leaned forward and asked me qusetions. If I were following a template for a love story, the script would call for me to INSERT ROMANTIC TENSION HERE. But that’s not the way it happened. That stuff didn’t come until much, much later. The truth is, I felt uncomfortable and fidgety under his gaze. I felt too. Too young, too loud, too typical.

“Do you know anything about Southeast Asian food?” spiceboy asked me.

“Uh, no,” I replied. In fact, I knew nothing about Southeast Asia at all—food or otherwise. Then he stood up, and I thought the interview was over.

Instead, he showed me a wall filled with various “Best Of” plaques and certificates.

“These are our awards,” he said. “They’re nice, but that’s not really what we’re all about.”

He looked at me for a long moment after he said this, and I understood that he was telling me something important. I tried to think of something witty to say, but nothing came. So I just looked him in the eyes and nodded.

Then he offered me the job.

How was it possible that I had stepped off of the streets of Pittsburgh and into a completely different world? A world where Chinese men spoke perfect English and everyone ate with chopsticks and there wasn’t a single Bloomin’Onion or 20 oz steak in sight?

And if finding this new world was as easy as picking a door and walking through it, then what else was I missing out on?

I still remember the way the sunlight streamed through the front windows and onto the wooden floors. I still remember the quiet sounds of plates being places on tables and the strange yet savory smells coming from the swinging door that connected the dining room to the kitchen.

True, I was more TGI Friday’s than Southeast Asian, but suddenly my long, boring summer looked different. Suddenly, I had access to something that seemed foreign and exciting and full of possibility, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

I took the job.


Anonymous Dear Friend ABS said...

I do miss the beautiful wait staff at Spice World.

4:17 PM  
Blogger CageQueen said...

That was so poignant and sweet...I *love* love stories!

6:54 PM  
Blogger Paperback Writer said...


Great post.

Ah, Spice World...love that damn resturant!

9:07 AM  

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