Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chinese Buffets James Brown and Raw Oysters

I think it was ten days ago that we wound up at a place called Rhinehart’s in Augusta, Georgia. Everything there is served on paper plates. Every surface is covered with graffiti, the waitresses happily hand magic markers to the customers. The tables are picnic benches. You get the idea. It’s supposed to be like eating in someone’s not too well maintained beach shack or possibly one of the sets from the movie Trainspotting though without the Scottish heroin addicts. The menu is shrimp, oysters, burgers, hot wings, and fried fish. My wife had actually asked the motel if there was a place to get a salad for dinner and this was their idea of a salad place. The south is different, I guess.

Actually, the food turned out to be quite good. I had some local fish called “Ponga” in lime-buttter-garlic over some sort of flavored rice. My wife praised the hot wings and the oysters were really good. Middle of the meal, our son and daughter in law started writing their names onto the table. They then headed to one of the walls and started writing there as well. At that point, my wife insisted on getting with the spirit. She tried to get me to scrawl something on the wall, but I didn’t want to give away the fact that I secretly leave the house at night and tag all the freeway overpasses within thirty miles of us. Believe it or not, there are types of restaurants you can’t find anywhere in California.

We went straight from there to two hours at the super Walmart where the son and daughter in law grocery-shopped and other items their heart out. First evening of our vacation and I felt like we were living out an episode of King of the Hill. Everyone else in my office seems to go on cruises where their state room has its own balcony.

After spending the next morning with our son, we stopped for lunch with my parents’ best friends from when my father was stationed at then Camp Gordon in 1951. I’d mentioned in an earlier post that my parents had so much fun as part of the small Chinese community there that they even contemplated staying in Georgia. I make the phone call. Yes, she does remember who I am and midway through the phone call I learn that her husband died almost ten years ago, something about which my mother knew nothing.
At nine the next morning (we had four hours sleep in forty eight), we get a phone call at the motel. She wants to invite us to lunch with her son (he’s sixty) and his family.

My parents’ friend looks remarkably good for eighty two. She swims in the morning, all of her family lives within an hour and thirty minute drive (five kids, ten grandchildren, and one of the two great grandchildren is at the table). She remembers names and our explanation of why we’re in Georgia well. The only awkward moment is when she volunteers that her daughter in law’s mother had nineteen children and lived to the age of 80. After forty years, it appeared that she’s had a tendency to identify that as first fact about daughter in law. Well, who’s going to forget that someone else had eighteen brothers and sisters.

I try to ferret out some stories about my parents from the pre-paleothic bits of my family history. There’ not a lot. She tells me that they used to play canasta regularly as couples, have dinners, and that they went to Savannah together once (I’ve still never been to Savannah). I do find out that my parents’ first apartment together consisted of a couple rooms above a grocery store that probably no longer exists. One thing I’ve learned about both Augusta and Fort Gordon is that there’s very little there that appears to have existed fifty years ago. Even Rhinehart’s is a more or less new building made to look beaten up.

My parents’ newspaper delivery boy was Chinese, my mother came to the door and he offered to immediately introduce them to all the other Chinese in Augusta. It turned out that my mother had a high school friend from San Francisco who had married a man from Georgia. That was the first place he just happened to bring her and it was “Oh my god, what are you doing here?”

They met the couple who became their best friends there a bit later. The friend says that she mostly remembers that my father loved to laugh and that he always wanted people to have a good time. It was painful to hear. While my dad did indeed love to laugh, I don’t remember his being all that care free once he returned to California. At two points during the lunch, I found myself saying “My god, my mother was twenty years old when she came to this totally strange place to be with my dad. Meeting the paper boy and finding friends must have been a gigantic moment in their lives.”

Between trips to the Chinese buffet (they’re everywhere) line, she mentions that they had a couple opportunities to move to California and never did it. They’re glad they never did. Life treated them well and their kids were all able to build lives within a hundred miles. Four of them stayed in Augusta. I guess when my parents didn’t stay it turned out to be a huge decision.

Apparently Augusta maintains a very active Chinese community group that still has regular get togethers and has stayed intact since the 1950’s. They also exist in California, but I know in my own life it was obvious to me that they were for the older generation and for the recent immigrants. I don’t think many members of my generation maintained much involvement. The other event in Augusta took place in 1970. There was a large race riot there after the Jackson State campus shootings. The most famous thing about the riots is that James Brown, a native of Augusta, came to the city to give a concert to plead for peace. A decade earlier, Ray Charles refused to perform in a segregated concert in Augusta. A bit less remembered is that a number of the Chinese in the area owned grocery stores in the poorer neighborhoods of the city. Their shops got looted and many of them left the city after the riots. A generation later, it’s Korean grocers.

I should mention the other strange bit. After they left Augusta, my parents probably saw their Georgia friends a total of four times. I visited once in 1974 when my friend Paul and I drove cross country one summer in a Mazda RX4 that got 14-16 miles to a gallon. Their kids were into ZZ Top and there was a drum set in one of the boy’s bedrooms. We went to play basketball in the Chinese community center. In 1970, they came west and my parents took them to Lake Tahoe. They decided to take them to one of the shows there and the only tickets they could get were for Tom Jones. My parents were horrified. It turned out that my Dad’s friend was a huge Tom Jones fan and loved it. My parents never again saw Tom Jones on their own. Dad said that it was like watching a male stripper. Bottom line, my father who always laughed here never made it back to Augusta, Georgia.

My mother did return in the late eighties when she drove with my stepfather their in their motor home. They stayed in the motor home while visiting then drove their friends to Savannah.

This lunch was the first contact between our families in close to twenty years. I had no idea. I’m amazed and in some way thrilled to know that somehow a bond has survived across generations. It probably helped that my daughter is named for my father. I guess that was my reason for calling in the first place. My daughter’s never met large parts of my father’s family and my father died several years before I met my wife. I wanted her to make some sense of her name.

I don’t know if my parent’s friend was just reluctant to talk in much detail about my father or if that’s just the way she wants to remember him, but it made me feel good that my daughter heard about a Grandfather who knew how to enjoy life rather than getting rolled under it. As I make it through middle age, I often fear that I worry too much about the latter. I guess it’s okay to write funny things on the walls at strange restaurants every now and then.



At 4/07/2008 01:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm always riveted by these travelogues & reminiscences. Reminds me why you must get after your novel & not get too hung up in the huff & puff of Am. Idol. No one will read those (as well written as they are) years later. Your novel needs your attention.

At 4/07/2008 09:12:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
Thanks and I am still at work with the novel. I'm just trying to write myself out of another corner.

At 4/07/2008 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Marianne said...

I'm with pogblog: You need to write that novel. PLEASE! So that I don't have to force myself to read lame novels by our supposed literary superstars . . .

Food pic made me veeerrry hungry . . .

At 4/07/2008 02:29:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks. I think this is better than being told not to write my novel.

Yes, I feel guilty about falling behind on the schedule for my draft, though I'm still expecting to meet my September deadline.

I'm reading something called Proust was a Neuroscientist and there's a chapter in there on Escoffier and the science of "taste". Something about lime/butter/garlic definitely brings on the "glutamates" which I guess is the taste of taste and is central to our memory process.

At 4/07/2008 03:59:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

CL, you always find the irony before most of us (and perhaps your family) do in many settings.

I was talking with some professional friends a couple of weeks ago about what to do at a conference in Alabama, and my comment was that I wanted to visited a BBQ "joint" and all at the table agreed. So, yes, I want the local flavor and not something high brow.

Speaking of BBQ joints, there's a BBQ place called Joe Cotton's in Robstown, TX, and they serve BBQ on butcher paper, give you a couple of rags, plenty of paper towels, a couple of pieces of bread, slice of onion, and one sits at picnic tables too. They serve Shiner Bock, which is good Texas beer.

At 4/07/2008 04:15:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks (no irony in that I imagine).
I need to check out that BBQ place if I ever make it back to Texas.

Calvin Trillin writes a lot about this stuff, particularly what makes for good regional food as opposed to fake French restaurants in shopping centers.
There is a butcher paper, crab feed, place in San Francisco, but it's clean, modern, and sort of upscale.

At 4/07/2008 07:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marianne, let's you & I keep beating the drum for CL's novel.


At 4/18/2008 07:40:00 AM, Blogger Sunny said...

Chance, sometimes outlets such as blogging about the inanities of life such as Idol is actually beneficial for your writer's soul. Do what feels right for you.

I find all sorts of interesting outlets that help spark my wee brain.

The South is indeed different regarding food, but man that looked like a cool place and nice eats.

At 5/13/2008 09:13:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks...I sort of think that the South is both the literary heart of America and the source of its best "food".

I'm not a fan of southern per se as in hush puppies, but then Cajun, Mexican, BBQ are all also from the south and very American in their way.


Post a Comment

<< Home