Friday, February 24, 2006

Gloomy Laughing Creatures of the Night

Return engagement at Pam. Took mom. They sat us in the same claustrophobic corner two-top as last time, but the food was better. They even added fried garlic to the koo chai upon request, which made a big diff. There's something about the glutinous noodle, earthy greens, molasses-y dipping sauce, and crunchy fried garlic colliding all at once that makes this dish so addictive and unusual. Mom was already talking about dropping in just for koo chai and having a whole plate of three to herself. It's a dangerous slope.

She wasn't really up for the aforementioned fermented fish kidneys with lime leaves etc., and I, still recovering from a Korean throwdown late the previous night, was in no condition to press the point. So we had the same seafood special she'd read about here on LZ, and added paht kee mow, a flat noodle dish usually made with cabbage but here leavened only with peppers. To its detriment. I was a little disgruntled by the general sameness of the main dishes and oiliness of the noodles, but mom was happy with everything until ...

The durian.

I've had enough raw durian to know what I'm getting into when I order it. I've even cut open a durian with a machete and eaten it in slices, watermelon-style, deep in a rain forest. (There is more to Lord Zim than is dreamt of in your philodendron.) But nothing had prepared me for the rank grimness of "Durian and Rice Pudding" chez Pam. The perfumey freshness at the heart of durian obsession is boiled out, leaving only an oniony wet corruption. Unless they'd accidentally dropped some onions into the pudding pot along with the fist-sized chunk of salt. Hard to say. Poor mom made such a face that I had to jump up and filch her a ginger candy. And now we know.

We walked slowly back in a nasty wind, stopping for a couple errands on Eighth Ave., and once mom was back home I went out again, this time to meet an old pal at a curious, slightly seedy spot on 56th called simply "Restaurant Francais." Under kitschy French posters, a chanteuse accompanies herself on accordion as another woman reads tarot cards in the corner and a prematurely wizened Irish bartender plies the 35+ clientele with wine and weak cocktails. It's also a restaurant, but I wouldn't know about any of that. No matter where I meet him, R seems always to have dinner at the bar. When I arrived tonight, he was done dining but perched on a barstool, gamely folding napkins on the next stool. He was chatting with two exotic young women who worked there and thus were being paid to fold. It seemed a pretty far reach to make time, but I unsaddled my coat and scarf and let him talk me into folding too. The bartender regarded me with such sadness and concern ... as though I didn't know how ridiculous I was. Oh, I knew. Almost as soon as they'd drafted me, both women up and faded away. Are we not men? We are patsies. Anyway, they had work to do.

I had already taken Sonya's seat, and then R took Souad's place across from me at the tiny booth so we could talk as we folded. When the stack was done, Souad appeared briefly to scoop up the tower of white linens, and we were done. I started to doodle, R foisting Freudian interpretations on every last line and circle. We kept an eye on the singer perched a half-level above us. Perched on a barstool, staring blankly at the wall, bathed in a lurid red light clipped to her accordion, she looked like an extra from "City of Lost Children." The mystique paled when she stopped singing obscure froggy songs: Mary Hopkin's 1969 nostalgia-fest "Those Were the Days" segued into an "I Will Survive" so pensive it made me laugh. Then she laughed too; maybe she was just testing us. R led the thin clapping between numbers. Following a few arias and languid interpretations of '50s Americana, she called it quits to pal around with the off-duty servers and tarot fans collecting in the corner. Every once in a while tall, lithe, ebony Sonya would waft by and I'd hand her one of her forgotten personal effects -- her ever-vibrating cell phone, her Fendi handbag -- and each time I did she looked alarmed. She immediately rifled through the purse to make sure I hadn't. I wasn't offended. I wore the smirk of honesty.

Bellied expectantly at the bar, R somehow started talking with a girl who'd been sitting alone up there for a while. She was blonde and had a pretty face, but she'd had a lot to drink. It wasn't easy for her to chat with us from way up there on her barstool, so before I knew it she was scrunching in beside me. She was pretty big, and it was a tight fit to begin with. I doodled furiously, doing my best to be pleasant but not too. She was nice enough, but when R got up to have his damned cards read, she didn't move. I guess she liked being cozy with a stranger. It all struck me as damned peculiar. I wasn't clear which of us was more desperate. During several strained games of tic-tac-toe on the edges of my now panoramic doodle, I learned she's from Wisconsin via California, has five siblings, lives in a studio, loves loves loves NYC, and isn't using her major at work. I made a couple references to my girlfriend, to little avail. When she said she wanted another martini I suggested she have a water instead. She mopily agreed that was a good idea and somehow a glass of wine materialized instead.

Then R came back scowling from the reading and said he was going, and I made as if to join him. But she didn't move and wheedled so piteously for me to stay that I felt paralyzed by pathos and even made R sit back down. Conversation was strained after that, and our bubble of bonhomie grew thin. Ten minutes later R and I wrapped it up and walked out, leaving behind a fantastic doodle and one girl suddenly alone again in a room full of gloomy laughing creatures of the night.

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