I’m currently reading Raymond Chandler’s The High Window noir (copyright 1942), just to enjoy the rhythm of his words and the wonderfully vivid descriptions he packs in each page. I’ve read all his books many, many times but I pick them up now and then just for the hell of it. Or, as I said, for the rhythm of it. I particularly enjoy his tough-guy talk, so rat-a-tat-tat on point (emulated hilariously, by the way, in Woody Allen’s short story, The Whore of Mensa), and what strikes me most when reading these books is how the times have changed as to what you could say back then. And get away with. Like this little gem on page 46, or lump of coal to be sure on the PC Scale…
In describing a man across his desk, “He had a sort of musty smell, like a fairly clean Chinaman.”
Now I have to admit when I read that line I actually did a spit take, while the voice inside my head said “Shame on you!” But I couldn’t help it, for crying out loud, it was funny. Just as I would’ve laughed out loud if the line had been delivered to describe an Irishman. Or a Frenchman. And then I got to thinking about just why the word “Chinaman” no longer flies. Which I’m sure you’re aware of. Where you can’t say the word Chinaman these days in describing a man from China, but it’s okay to say either Frenchman or maybe Irishman. (Someone enlighten me!)
Anyway, all of this leads to a story of mine which I’d tucked away for safe keeping, never to appear in print I swore, simply because the word “Chinaman” features heavily. So as not to offend. Well, still not intending to offend anyone but simply to relate what to me was an hilarious phone call, I’ve decided this morning to go to my “archives”, shake off the dust and paranoia, and tell that story exactly the way it happened. And I hope you see the humor in it.
This happened back in the 90’s, and all because we bartenders tend to over tip.
I had recently done some apartment-sitting for this friend of mine named Jim, who called me after he’d returned from his trip and I was cozily re-ensconced in my Kleenex box of a studio over in Tudor City. Here’s that phone call.
“Hello?” I said, in that cryptic way I have of answering the telephone.
“Yo, man, it’s Jim.”
“Hey, Jimbo, what’s up?” There was an ominous tone in his voice which I couldn’t put my finger on. Had I spilled bourbon on his new beige couch on one of my nights of debauchery during his absence? Had I failed to hit the bowl a few times creating some bathroom tile no longer pristine? Had he noticed that all his aforementioned bourbon was gone? What had I done???
Mercifully halting my inventory, Jim cut directly to the chase. “You order Chinese when I was away?”
“Uh, let’s see… yeah, as a matter of fact I did.”
“The guy downstairs?”
“Yeah, where else? Their stuff is great.”
“You tip him?’
“Of course I tipped him. I’m a bartender, for Chrissakes!”
“How much?” he asked, plowing straight ahead like Sergeant Friday.
“Five dollars,” I replied. Which is when the Moo Goo Gai Pan hit the fan.
What??? he shrieked, perilously close to a Maria Callas high C.
“I tipped him five dollars.”
“I knew it,” he screamed, “I fucking knew it! You tipped him five fucking dollars for getting on an elevator and riding six floors? Are you fucking cray-zeee?”
“Well what do you care? It’s my money,” I said.
“I care because I just gave him two dollars and he looked at me like I pissed on his fucking shoe. You fucked up my Chinaman! Before you ever ordered from here he was happy with a two dollar tip, in fact he actually bowed when I gave him the deuce. Now, motherfucker, if I don’t give him a five next time he’ll spit on my fucking food on the way up the elevator. If he has the time to spit on my food on just an eight second ride which is all it takes. Jesus H. Christ, I can’t believe you did this. You fucked up my Chinaman! For life!!! Now I can never…
At this point I pulled the phone from my ear as his stricken cacophony of sheer lament took on that high pitch wail you hear when Arab women wag their tongues and ululate into the desert to express their grief. And then, a full sixty seconds later when I sensed a pause in his rant (evidenced by my drapes which had ceased wafting), I said, “There’s a Thai place opening up on East 53d Street.” What else could I say?
Yes, Jim would’ve fit quite nicely into Raymond Chandler’s world, “musty” in thought like a “fairly offensive” American!
See you next time, dear reader, and sorry for all the blue language which couldn’t be avoided. Those were his words. In fact without those words this could’ve been a “Seinfeld” subplot.