Bored out of my mind, and with the prospect of college football months off, I sauntered over to Philippe’s to console myself with a French dip and a couple of hard boiled eggs. The phone hadn’t rung for days. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t ring for more days to come. It was Sunday, and the streets were empty Downtown, until I got to Broadway. Men were walking away toward Downtown parks and squares carrying legions of startlingly colored inflatable toys in gigantic bunches along with bright pink and blue clouds of cotton candy on large poles. I looked at them and felt their burden. Then I laughed. If someone had ever jammed one of those toys into my childhood crib, or even just then into my face, I would have broken down and cried.
Philippe’s was crowded after an extra-innings Dodger – Phillies match up. Fortunately for me, well-fed Dodger Blue were exiting as I entered. I stood in one of the many lines of folks who stood on the sawdust floor waiting to reach a lit, fifty foot row of meat chests filled with all the cold sides, pigs knuckles and other assorted monstrosities. On top of the counter were the enormous jars of hard boiled eggs in dark purple pickle juice. I’ve always stuck to the more traditional hard boiled egg, which probably reveals something meaningless about me.
The counter ladies in Philippe’s are each an institution unto herself, all ward robed in the same two tone 1930’s petticoat fluffed waitress uniform, with matching little headdress mandatory. Philippe’s may not have the kitschy tradition of a Carnegie Deli, but then again no self-respecting Angeleno would want it to. A petite Asian woman in the line next to me drew my eye. She looked very familiar, and I feared that she might have been someone whom I had forgotten. Worse yet, she could have been a victim of my behavior during my heavy drinking days. She caught me looking and gave me a scowl. Yet, I could not take my eyes off of her. As a schoolboy might, I hid my glances behind other, lame, gestures. Then it struck me who she was. She’d rejected my advances, sober though they were, before. She ran a uniquely L.A. gift shop on Olive Street. I was half-right recollecting it to be near the Biltmore. I had flirted mercilessly with her, and with a kind firmness, she had indicated she was not interested. Right then, she caught me looking at her again.
“What are you looking at?”
“You… I apologize… I didn’t mean to stare.”
She turned away in a huff to face the counter. A woman that beautiful might not have, nor need a man nearby. Yet, if she did have one, and given how miffed she seemed; I suddenly began to hope that he was as diminutive as she was. The line she stood in was being slowed at the front by a self-entitled pair of ersatz-aristocrats wearing, of all things, Stanford sweat shirts. She tapped her foot. My turn came in my line, and I did what by Philippe’s protocol is the unthinkable.
“Would you like to cut in front of me?” I offered.
The proprietress of the gift shop looked at me, then around to see if anyone would be miffed at her. Seeing the coast was clear, she stepped right in front of me to place her order. It was clearly an order for one or fewer diners. Her figure was perfect. So my guess was that she did in fact eat, as so many women falsely claim to, like a bird. Maybe she wasn’t that hungry. Her clothes and her shop speak of a woman who does not play games but rather watches to understand games others play. My presence clearly did not influence her order. She stood on her toes to take her tray down and shimmy away through the crowd. The counter lady, an Asian woman about 60 years old or so, smiled over the counter at me and took my order. Her smile had reminded me of my own mother’s. I ordered my usual.
The counter lady put together my order on the tray and took my money. She smiled again, and motioning in the direction the proprietress had gone, asked, “Your girlfriend seems mad at you… is she your girlfriend?”
“I’m on probation.”
“I see a church in your future.” She laughed.
“Am I in a box or a tuxedo, or both?” I laughed back.
“Your girlfriend is beautiful.” The counter lady giggled as she put up the small tray with my change in it.
I took a ten from the change and put it back in the tray. The counter lady gasped. I laughed and told her, “She’s probably young enough to be my daughter. You’ll never know how much you’ve helped me…”
More through habit than stalking, I went to the upstairs dining area. I entered a room that had seemed empty and sat down with my tray. As I took my first bite from the sandwich, I heard a woman clearing her throat. I looked to my right, and there was the proprietress. The room was fairly large, and filled with tables and stools. Yet, it was only then that the room proved itself, not empty. We sat, three or four stools apart, at the same table. I felt like a fool. I dropped my sandwich down on the paper plate, grabbed my tray and issued an incoherent apology. She did not speak to halt my retreat. Then she burst out in contagious laughter.
As so often it is between a man and a woman, or should be; the ability to laugh at one self serves one well. I damn near dropped my tray laughing right then. Instead, I set it down and tried to gather myself, as did she. I stuck out my hand, “Hi, I’m Carl.”
She squinted at me suspiciously as she reciprocated with her hand, “I’m Sonia.”
With my heart in my throat, I asked, “May I join you?”
The squint evolved backwards into her initial scowl.
“Oh.” I did not know what else to say.
I tried to pick up my tray again, and she returned to her contagious laughing. I did not know whether to be insulted or laugh. She observed that I wasn’t joining in and suddenly stopped laughing.
“I’m not…” She sniffled a bit, only from her laughter.
“I know… I’m just funny… old story.” I mumbled as I picked up the tray.
“No worries.” I had picked up the tray and moved off, figuring I had hooked her with a pity thing. I was wrong. She started laughing hilariously again. That really ticked me off, in an interesting way. I struck what I mistook for a handsome pose.
“Sonia, be nice now… I’m as much a laugh riot as the next guy, but it kind of makes my testosterone blush when a girl as beautiful as you laughs at me.” Barely suppressing more confessions, I then play-acted macho on my way out of the room, tray in tow.
I could hear her behind me, laughing even harder. I took shelter in another room nearby, hoping she’d feel guilty enough to come and talk to me. Again, I was wrong. When, I could no longer hear her laughing, I suspected that was a bad thing. I imagined footsteps, but then shook that off and finished my meal, alone.