The year is 1979.
Musically speaking ‘My Sharona’, ‘Bad Girls’, and ‘Le Freak’ (Chic) are topping the charts. ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ is not far behind. ‘Ohhh Baby Baby’ by Linda Ronstadt is way at the bottom at #77.
I like the radio but I’m more into my records: Donnie & Marie, Dolly Parton, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Blondie, Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead – specifically Europe 72’. At the young age of 6, I have acquired an eclectic record collection that I like to play on my very small white and pink record player.
My first grade picture depicts a little girl with dirty blonde pigtails, sporting a FiLa purple velour tracksuit, I have a light golden tan from swimming, and dark freckles across my tiny nose. My mother is the tall thin Snow White of über intellectuals and she is my world. Her hair is black as night, skin as white as snow, eyes as green as emeralds and her thirst for knowledge insatiable.
She is so beautiful and so stylish that men are always stopping her on the street and asking for a date. She lives on coffee, nicotine, murder mysteries, and history anthologies. She works as a master educator and curriculum writer during the week and on the weekends as a freelance graphic designer and typesetter. At night we dine in restaurants while she corrects papers and studies for her Ph.D in education and I draw on paper placemats, write poems, and read aloud to her from books.
Waitresses, restaurant owners, and chefs are my baby sitters and source of endless entertainment. I watch them flow effortlessly between tickets, customers, and tables.
We slide into a big comfy faux leather booth at Stickney’s, a restaurant long gone in Palo Alto’s Town n’ Country Village, once known for it’s smoked beef ribs and comfort food. The kitchen is open and the serious cooks wear tall paper toques and they do not smile but they do look up and wink at me from time to time if I’m watching them (ie: kneeling on the booth facing the kitchen with my arms crossed, resting my chin on top of my crossed arms, watching the plates get pushed to the passe and the waitresses who grab the plates and stab their tickets.) The restaurant décor features lassoes, vintage farm tools, and huge wooden pioneer wagon wheel candlebras that are hung low from the ceiling with dimly lit bulbs.
My mother lights up a Winston 100 and Trudy, our favorite waitress, pours her a cup of coffee without asking. The two gossip a little about jobs and this towering 6’2” waitress in thick support hose, white nursing shoes, and a uniform that looks like a square dancing dress in mustard yellow with white ruffles peers down at me with her gleaming smile and asks the question I know by heart: “can I get you something to eat sweet Amy?”
“Yes please! I’ll have a French dip with French Fries and coleslaw please and….”
“And a glass of milk….” My mother chimes in.
Milk is just plain ol’ milk in 1979. In fact we are still getting milk delivered by the milkman at home in glass jars – and sometimes real buttermilk too. There isn’t really a lowfat or nonfat that anyone actually purchases to drink. Milk never tastes good at Stickney’s because they serve all cold beverages in these brown-yellowish glasses that make everything look yucky. And it’s always warm and that’s gross. Warm yellow milk is like totally gross.
My mother orders something too and it sits in front of her untouched as she smokes, sips her coffee, and enters her cerebral academia word. I peer out over my mini French dip into the smoking section of Stickney’s, the surreal layers of smoke hang like long heavy blankets over the entire restaurant and waitresses cut through the clouds and stir them every now an them. The unsmoking section is roped off and completely empty. Everyone smokes. There are vending machines in the entryway to the restaurant. If you don’t smoke you’re weird. It’s just what adults do.
Well, I’m just 6 and I don’t smoke (yet) and I’m a good eater. I like salt. And fat. And sugar. What kid doesn’t? It’s not that I don’t like veggies, I do, it’s just that kale chips aren’t exactly on the menu at restaurants yet (in fact kale is not even in my vocabulary). You order a salad, you get iceberg lettuce with a tomato. Arugula what? Mesculun huh? Bird’s Eye broccoli and carrots, yeah, okay.
I polish of my child size sandwich, finish the poem I’ve been writing in my unicorn covered journal about fairies and daisies, put my head on my Mother’s lap, and stare at the world that exists under the table. The one with endless pieces of bright Bubbalicious stalagmites and legs in support hose that stop momentarily at our table and then carry on to the next. I listen to the kitchen and the little bell the chef hits when an order is ready and then I watch the legs pass our table again this time a little faster. My mother strokes my head every now and then and finally gives me the pat on the back to let me know it’s time to go. Wearily I pop back up to the above table world.
Trudy comes back with our tray of change and hands me the ultimate in behavior modification: a vanilla cupcake with pure white vanilla butter cream and a big red rose in the center. My eyes widen. I look at my mom first to make sure it’s okay and as we unstick ourselves from the vinyl booths Trudy hands me my prize. I give her a hug around the thighs, since that’s about where I come up to on her, and she pats my head and laughs. I like Trudy. Who wouldn’t? She’s more like a nurse taking care of all of us, than a regular ol’ waitress.
I have a method for eating cupcakes and – unlike savory food which I do not like to compartmentalize – desserts I do. I bite the rose off first which never tastes as good as it looks because the food coloring is bitter – I eat this in one bite barely allowing the frosting to hit my taste buds. Red frosting is the worst by far.Then I stick my tongue out and turn the frosted cupcake top clockwise upon it until there is nothing left but cake. Peeling back the liner I savor the vanilla fluffiness and admire the pure white color. My Mom makes yellow cakes at home because she says they’re healthier with more eggs, so naturally I want the shade devoid of extra nutrients and I do not share. And thankfully my mother never asks. She prefers bittersweet chocolate and to me this is also totally gross.
She is and was and is a good cook. A very good cook. Please don’t think I didn’t learn from the best. She instills in me the love of fresh seasonal food prepared simply (at a time before Whole Foods and farmer’s markets exist in Palo Alto) and she always shops the seasons. I look forward to home cooked meals. But there is a time period when her demanding day time career coupled with her nighttime higher education classes along with single-mother-exhaustion makes eating out a necessity and a comfort. We both enjoy eating out because it is time we can spend together cozy in a booth with a little special attention.
Stickney’s is not the only restaurant where hostesses escort me to tables, chefs wink at me from the kitchen, and waitresses hand me cookies and cupcakes on the way out the door. (And again, I might be a cute kid but my Mom is gorgeous and super personable so people sort of melt around us.)
The restaurant that I always beg and plead to go to afore all others is King Chuan, owned by Mr. Ven-Yung Chen whose daughter Shan-Shan is my friend and also a pupil of my Mother’s. Yes, we get extra special treatment here and Mr. Chen often gives us free desserts or doesn’t bring the check at all which is why my Mom always hesitates going – so as not to wear out our welcome. All the same, I know my Mother is grateful. These are tough times and she works very hard.
We both love his beef with broccoli and homemade potstickers (I have never tasted the like since). Mr. Chen seats us at the back of the restaurant, next to the cash register (and next to him) where we can stare through his glass kitchen at his chefs who whip up stir-fries with alacrity and who magically make thousands of noodles come from thin pieces of dough by rhythmically bouncing them up and down interwoven between two hands until they double and triple and so on and so on. The chefs smile through the glass while effortlessly making noodles and I know they get a kick out of us because no matter how many times we see them noodle-making, both my Mom and me stare wide eyed with open mouths completely mesmerized by this technique. Funny and strange how we never actually order the noodles. Stupid too.
If you haven’t figured it out already I really like beef and I really like desserts. I also drink vinegar out of the bottle at home , adore Wonderbread which I’m not allowed to eat, and have no problems digesting Best Foods Mayonnaise by the spoonfuls…I digress…. the sweet delicacy to end all others at King Chuan is the simple but beautiful pale pink cold lychee dessert served on ice with a dazzling mariascino cherry on top. The contrast between the delicate pink and the flourescent red are unusual and striking. And I love the tropical meaty flesh of the lychee with its rose perfume. Heavenly. There is no other dessert I can think of –besides this one – that wouldn’t be a millions times better with buttercream. And what I really like to do, when my Mom isn’t looking, is stick the lychees on my fingers and eat them off mes doigts like black olives – but my Mom gets really upset when I do this and raises one eye brow at me without even having to say one word. Maybe your Mom has the same eyebrow trick?
Mr. Chen is warm and funny and teaches me how to use chopsticks without the rubber band training wheels. For months he patiently balances one chopstick across my thumb and fourth finger and then the other on top. I’m like a puppy with big paws for the first few weeks bumbling around trying to imitate him and make the top stick move up and down and hold the bottom stick still. But I get it finally. “It’s like a parrot” he says “You must pretend it’s like a parrot squawking – the top beak is the one moving up and down while the bottom stays relatively still”. Whether that’s true or not I still don’t know, but the visualization works. After much accidental food flinging and many desperate attempts picking tiny morsels of fried rice off my plate with long plastic chopsticks – I master the art of eating Chinese food elegantly – or somewhat elegantly. Mr. Chen is the best.
His restaurant is softly lit, luxurious and tropical. There is a tasteful volcanic waterfall on one wall with trickling water and lush green plants. I know that sounds rather kitsch but it’s not, at least not at this time period. The deep red carpet and deep red & black lacquered seats have an Imperial feel. The huge Chinese watercolors depicting mountains and dragons upon the walls I can sort of relate to in my six year old way because I take a Chinese watercolor class. I’m still mastering the technique of painting simple bamboo sticks with my bamboo brush, but I like the serene world these majestic paintings portray and get lost in them inbetween battling potstickers with chopsticks. There are no booths at Mr. Chen’s and therefore no lying on my Mom’s lap and looking under the tables for hidden messages or neon Bubbalicious buildings. Maybe there is smoking but I don’t remember. I’m sure there is. There is everywhere. I don’t really like smoking. I do like eating here best of all.
Fastforward 1987. I’m 14 years old. The number one hit is ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ by the Bangles. Need I say more? Whitney Houston is wanting to “Dance with Somebody’, Bon Jovi is ‘Livin On a Prayer’ and Tiffany thinks “We’re alone now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone a-rou-ound”. I have updated my FiLa track suits and bell bottom jeans to a punky alternative (as it’s called) vintage style. I shop at the thrift stores on Haight Ashbury during the weekend taking the train up with my girlfriend Sunbean Singing Stone. Yes, that’s her real name. We both sport 20-hole Dr. Martens, mine are oxblood hers are white and we mix and match with 50’s and 60’s dresses up-top. I have a collection of skull rings. She has a tattoo that says ‘Sunny’ which puts her in the cool, edgy, and mysterious category because nobody in Palo Alto who is 14 has a tattoo at Paly High. Nobody. Kids don’t get tattoos in 1987. Body piercing and tattoos are not even slightly acceptable until 1992. I totally look up to her.
But unlike many of our friends who seem to be uninterested in education we compete for good grades and for top placement and balance our edgy personas with our preppy education (or so we think). I start smoking. It seems like the cool thing to do. And smoking is permitted at school in certain areas – at least my Freshman year – my Sophomore year we are relegated to the train tracks. As my mother quits, I pick up the habit. It feels adult. I don’t like how it affects my throat and I don’t like the smell, but to the invincible who cares?
My girl gang meets at Stickney’s in the morning where we smoke a ton of cigarettes and drink coffee. We never eat anything because none of us have money and who needs food when you have nicotine and caffine? Trudy isn’t there in the mornings thankfully or I’m sure she would reprimand me. She’s still on the night shift and my mom and me still visit on occasion. My Mom is remarried, her degree is finished and she is a principal now and continues her graphic design consulting and curriculum writing. She cooks at home nightly. Eating at the dinner table has always been a must – just not always at our dinner table – and I like sitting down to a meal even though I’m not sure if I like my Step Dad. He has rules and that doesn’t sit too well with me.
I still prefer my record player even though CD’s are becoming more and more popular and shop Tower Records for both. I’m searching for answers through past eras with the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, and The Velvet Underground and new bands like The Cure, Sting, and Madonna. My selection eclectic as always.
King Chuan is a mad house during the day. Paly High School has open campus and all the teens flood Town n’ Country Village for lunch crowding and cramming into restaurants to get a quick bite before hittin’ the books. The line out the door from King Chuan is crazy and I never see Mr. Chen or when I do he is always rushing around trying to take care of the seated adults while staying on top of the togo orders for the teens. I don’t like this daytime craziness. To my friends who haven’t grown up in these restaurants the owners, hostesses, chefs, cooks, bussers, and dishwashers are for the most part nameless and unmemorable – but for me they are my childhood caretakers and my places of refuge and I feel somewhat guilty for reasons hard to explain to see them by day in such unfair chaos.
Town n’ Country village meets 1990 and becomes a ghost town. Now there really doesn’t seem to be “anybody a-rou-ound”. Eddie’s closes (I won’t explain this restaurant but if you grew up in Palo Alto then you will remember this soda fountain/ice cream parlor fondly), King Chuan and Mr. Ven-Yung Chen relocate to Los Altos where he opens China Village plus two others, Hobee’s shuts down, the grocery store becomes a Rite Aid thanks to endless teenage shoplifting I’m sure, Stickney’s is replaced by the upscale chain Scott’s Seafood and all that ranchero/pioneer gear goes bye-bye, Cook’s Breakfast restaurant (the first place I had eggs benedict) becomes offices, The Cheese House (a well loved Danish deli) turns into a pilates studio?, the Ribbon Candy store becomes part of Rite-Aid. And these were all places my Mom and I frequented. Gone. Like the wind. Poof.
Gosh, even the circus that used to set up once a year in the Town n’ Country parking lot with real elephants and performers and tents – gone.
Here comes the “what I learned” paragraph to the story. The part that’s supposed to tie it all up in a meaningful sentence which I don’t really have yet so forgive me as I flounder about a little here…
I learned that restaurants aren’t always just about the food (as we seem to put all the attention on today excusing shitty service for reasons still unknown) but also about providing whatever it is the client might need: a respite, or a little attention, a good gossip time permitting, a cultural lesson, or a table to be a family at. I learned that good restaurants are run by good owners and servers who transform your world and your experiences into something memorable with a sense of timing that makes everything look effortless even though the below-table world shows the true hustle and bustle. Good servers know when to reach out to customers and when to allow them privacy but always seek to make a connection regardless. I miss that.
Shan-Shan has followed in her father’s footsteps and is/was also a successful restaurant owner. She has just sold her restaurant Bamboo Garden and she has also just finished her first book. The subject? Chinese noodles. A lovely story about the tradition and meaning of long Chinese noodles written for her daughter. And soon to be published.
I don’t smoke. And haven’t for 20 years. Neither does my Mom. We just celebrated my 40th birthday which is what inspired this story. For old times my Mom took me out to lunch at Stickney’s (now Scott’s Seafood) and we sat in our favorite vinyl booth. Neither of us had been back, at least not together, for a good fifteen years. Trudy was not there but we remembered her and missed her presence, the food was not bad or good but the serious chef’s still wink through the kitchen if you catch their eye, and the service continues to be friendly.
I miss the old lassoes and wagon wheels. I don’t miss the smoke or yellow warm milk. I guess Stickney’s famous oatmeal lace cookies and crisco buttercream cupcakes are a thing of the past. I do wonder where my punk rock girl gang is today although Facebook has revived some of the old crew – and we’ve all managed to grow up despite our best attempts not to.