Have You Met The Man?
“Have you met the man?” Tim and Joe lean into my new work cubicle and ask the burning question. It is lunch time, and no, I have not “met the man”.
Dixie’s Barbecue sits in the shade of the freeway in Seattle, in an industrial building that once housed an auto repair shop. The long line of lunchers snakes out of the door and into the parking lot. We join them. Tim says that we have a half-hour wait ahead of us. This gives my new coworkers time to fill me in on the legendary backstory.
Dixie and Gene Porter migrated to Seattle from Louisiana. Dixie worked as a nurse, and Gene opened Porter’s Auto Repair in this very spot. A few years later, Dixie fired up a smoker in the back of the shop. She sold paper plates of brisket to workers from the neighboring factories. Demand exploded, and they converted the repair shop to a restaurant.
The eating area looks like the repair bays were scrubbed just enough to squeak past a health inspector. Gene might still be fixing cars in the back.
We inch ahead in the hungry line. Tim and Joe tell me that the owner’s daughter, L.J., will take our orders and money, and that she might be the inspiration for Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi”. She is known to send hungry customers to the back of the line, or back to work, because they arrived at the register without knowing what they wanted for lunch.
We round the corner through the door and there is L.J., perched on a stool behind the register. She looks like a sumo wrestler, but less toned. She snaps at customers and shouts their orders over her shoulder to Dixie, her small, silent, sweating mother. I scan the menu above their heads. I quickly and safely pick the brisket sandwich, we pay and pick up our orders, and we sit at the only open table and mismatched chairs.
I see Tim and Joe looking over my shoulder. I turn around and there stands Gene, glaring at me. He holds an old, stained sauce pan.
Gene shouts at me, “Have you met The Man?”.
He dips a toothpick into the pot and hands it to me. It holds a tiny drop of The Man, his homemade hot sauce. I taste it.
My face explodes.
Now, I love hot food. And, as a newly hired coworker of Tim and Joe, I feel a certain pressure to not wimp out. So, I look back at Gene and cough, “Good stuff. Hit me.” He spoons a few drops of sauce onto my huge sandwich. “Hit me again.” Gene scowls and shouts, “Again? You crazy! All right, but you better eat all of it — don’t want nobody wasting The Man.”
We dig into our lunches. My face burns. My nose is running and my ears are ringing. I am weeping and I’ve barely started in on my sandwich.
I wipe my sweaty forehead and sneakily scrape the rest of the sauce to the edge of the paper plate. I hear Gene behind me, “I told you not to waste The Man! Put that back on your sandwich. You gonna eat that, you little child.”
I do as I am told.
When you eat food this hot, it is like the five stages of grief.
First is denial. “Oh, this isn’t that hot.”
Then comes anger. “How could he do this to me?” My eyes bulge and I’m sweating from places that have never sweated before.
The next stage of grief is bargaining. I wheeze, “Oh, God … save me … … I promise … no more … Oh Jesus … you said you’d … come back … please … now …”
The next stage is depression. I spend the rest of the day regretting my life.
The fifth stage of grief is acceptance. It can take years to get there. But the fifth stage of spicy food is different because it occurs the very next morning. In the interest of time and decorum we’ll skip it and continue.
Over the next few years, I go back to Dixie’s once a month or so. When I get home, I tell my wife and kids about Gene’s latest diatribe. Or how L.J. threw a woman out for asking if they had anything to drink besides sarsaparilla and root beer. Once in a while the boys reverently ask, “Father, can you please tell us again about how you met The Man?”.
My sons are now 13, 10, and 3. I have a weekday off and Kathy and I take them to the Pacific Science Center. It’s now mid-afternoon, we’re driving home and hungry, and I have an idea. “Hey, let’s go meet The Man!”.
I hear cheers from the back seat, but I immediately regret mentioning it. I’ve seen customers moping at the back of the line or slumping back to their cars because they didn’t order right. And I’ve seen grown men and women — myself included — drenched in sweat and struggling to breathe.
How will mere children survive such cruelty?
We get to Dixie’s about three o’clock. The parking lot is empty. I am hoping they’ve sold out for the day. Then we can eat where there is less risk of being thrown out, or of the owner or his daughter humiliating me in front of my family, or of first-degree burns.
No such luck. The front door is open. There is no line and the tables are empty. Gene is not around, Dixie is cleaning up the kitchen, L.J. sits on her perch.
We have taught the boys to order for themselves in restaurants. Today, for obvious reasons, I plan to order for them. But Ryan, who is three, slips past me and peers over the counter.
“I’ll have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
I go straight to the third stage of grief: Bargaining. “Oh God, please, save us …”
L.J. waddles to the refrigerator. She digs around and comes back with two jars and some bread and makes Ryan a sandwich.
“There you go, little fella. I hope you like what Auntie L.J. made for you.”
We take our food back to a table and wait for Gene to show up with his pot.
We nibble on our sandwiches and wait.
I head back to the register and ask L.J. if we can “Meet The Man”. She says, “Gene’s out back in his shop. And he don’t like being bothered.”
“Don’t”, as in “Do Not”.
I weigh my choices: Skip The Man and disappoint the whole family? Or “bother” Gene and risk whatever consequences L.J. was ominously foreshadowing?
I walk to the back and open the door into a workshop filled with car parts and greasy tools. Gene stands at his workbench with his back to me. I hesitate.
“Excuse me …”
Gene spins around with a jack handle in his hand. “What are you doin’ back here? Get outta here! I don’t let nobody …”
I’m already headed back to our table.
I am explaining to my family when the door bursts open. Gene walks over, and he is carrying his sauce pan. He hands each of us a toothpick and leaves.
A few minutes later he comes back. He hands each of the boys a bumper sticker, a T-Shirt, and a Tootsie Pop.
Then he points at me and barks, “Did you drive down today?”
“Then hurry up and get outta here. I gotta parking lot to sweep.”
Gene turns and walks back toward his shop. As he opens the door, he looks over his shoulder, and winks.
I will be back to meet The Man.