What I really wanted was a hamburger, but it seemed the only restaurant that was open on lower Haight Street was some trendy vegetarian joint. My girlfriend, Susan, liked to eat healthy, and she figured she could get a salad or something. It was early on a Sunday, before noon, and the place was pretty much deserted. As we took our seats in the booth, we noticed only one other couple sitting there amidst all the old dime store kitsch.
The waitress came out from behind the bar and gave us our menus. She was a twenty-something trendoid, probably just graduated from college, with a major in art or English, from the looks of her. She had her long hair dyed red with a white skunk stripe down the middle, and wore blue velvet bell-bottom hip huggers and an orange and blue belly shirt that looked like part of an old gas station uniform or something. She had the nose ring, the multiple earrings, and the navel ring. None too appetizing.
The girl had us pegged as tourists: "Where you folks from?" she asked.
"New York City," Susan told her.
"Ah, ha, ha!" the waitress laughed, and walked off.
"I don't think she believed us," Susan said.
"It's probably our southern accents," I suggested.
"And that blue jean jacket really makes you look like a hick."
"Thanks," I said.
As soon as the waitress went through the open door to the kitchen, she shrieked at the cook: "What are you doing?!"
Now I've worked in restaurants before, and the thing is, when you get back in the kitchen, you just assume that the customers can't hear you. And it's usually the case. Probably if there had been more people in the place, their noise would have drowned out the kitchen conversation.
"I'm just getting ready to boil up some rice," the cook said. We had seen him come out of the kitchen with a rack of glasses when we first walked in. He was a man of about thirty-five, with long brown hair. In his dirty jeans and t-shirt, he looked like a hippie.
"Do not throw that rice into that water," the waitress commanded. "Rice must be steamed."
"This is the way I always cook it."
"Then you have been doing it wrong. To properly cook rice, you must steam it."
"That's not going to work," the cook said.
"It most certainly will. The super-heated, pressurized steam moistens and tenderizes the rice," the waitress declared knowingly. "If you throw the rice down in the water, it will come out soggy and tough."
"Maybe there's just more than one way to do it," the cook tried to compromise. All those years without meat must have weakened his brain.
"Of course, there is more than one way. That much is obvious. However, my way is the right way."
"Well, I'm the cook."
"But I have an interest in this restaurant as well. I cannot very well serve my customers a substandard dish."
"All right," the cook said. "I've had enough of this. I'm not going to cook any rice at all. No rice today. People can just have potatoes or something else instead. Does that satisfy you?"
"Well, I suppose no rice is better than better than boiled rice," the waitress quipped snidely.
It was hard for me to believe that the cook had given in so easily. He should have screamed at her to get out of his kitchen, and threatened her with a skillet of hot grease. Most cooks I have known would not have hesitated for an instant before employing such means.
Now, the whole time this little melodrama had been going on in the kitchen, I had been looking at the menu, searching in vain for something halfway decent to order. And as I was doing so, I must have been making some pretty ugly faces, because Susan said, "Are you going to be able to find anything to eat here? If not, we may as well leave. The atmosphere doesn't seem that good anyway."
"Oh, no, no," I assured her. "Everything sounds great. It's just so hard to choose. And I really like this place. I want to stay."
Fresh off her triumph, the waitress bounced over to our table. "I've been to New York," she said. "I'm a playwright, you know."
So now she believed us. Or else she was just hedging her bets. Maybe she thought we might have been involved in the theater or something—and she didn't want to miss her big break.
"A theater there offered to produce my play," she continued, "but I told them I had too much going on here now."
"Good for you," I told her. "You should definitely stay here. This is a much more happening town."
It was time to order. For some reason, they didn't serve salads, at least not normal ones: all the dishes were vegetarian knockoffs of different kinds of southern food. So Susan ordered the Unchicken Cutlet (with mashed potatoes and cream gravy just the way your grandmother used to serve it).
"And you sir?" the waitress turned to me.
I couldn't help myself. There was nothing on the damn menu I wanted anyway. "Rice," I said.
"I just want a big dish of rice. I'm on a special diet, and that's really all I like to eat." I knew she would go for the special diet line, since I figured plenty of lunatics and eccentrics probably came in there with all kinds of whacked-out requests.
The waitress tapped her pencil on her pad. "Well, it might take about twenty minutes. We haven't put the rice on yet."
"Oh, that's fine. I'll just smoke a cigarette or two in the meantime," I said. Even though it was sort of a health food place, they allowed smoking, I guess since cigarettes aren't made out of animals. They sold beer too. But not Budweiser. It's just not trendy enough. So I had a Heineken. Somebody really ought to figure out a way to make these products out of animals.
"I can't believe you did that," Susan whispered once the waitress got out of earshot.
"Hey, it's a vegetarian restaurant. They have to serve rice, so they might as well just work this problem out right here and now."
The waitress disappeared into the kitchen. "That man out there just ordered rice," she told the cook. "We need to get some going."
"I told you, no rice," the cook said.
"That's all he'll eat. Come on. I'll show you how to do it."
At this point I felt sure he would attack her with a cleaver like any normal, self-respecting cook. Instead, to my amazement, he still tried to reason with her.
"Listen, you don't know what you're talking about. I've been cooking rice since I was eight years old, since before you were born. I know how to do it. In the whole time I've been cooking here, no one's ever complained."
The waitress was unimpressed by the cook's credentials. "I learned how to cook rice from the Chinese," she proclaimed smugly. "They have been preparing rice for thousands of years."
"Fine!" the cook shouted. "You know so much, you do it yourself!"
The wisdom of the ancient Chinese had won out. Twenty minutes later, the waitress set the Unchicken Cutlet in front of Susan. Though I didn't tell Susan since I didn't want to ruin her meal, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cook had spat in grandmother's gravy. And then, a broad smile of satisfaction on her face, the waitress set my dish before me: a big, steaming plate of rice, garnished with some sort of leaves. Oh boy. Just what I wanted.
"Well, I hope you're pleased with yourself," Susan said once the waitress had gone. "You'd better eat every last bit of that, too."
Once again, I couldn't help myself. I signaled the waitress back over.
"Is there a problem, sir?"
"Yeah," I said. "I wanted this boiled."