It was about 10 PM on a Friday night when I entered the small Chinese takeout restaurant near my apartment, across the street from the Staten Island Ferry terminal.
It was empty and I hadn’t been out all day, so I told them I’d sit and eat the food there.
I placed my order and two people walked in, a black man and a black woman, both in their early forties, wearing loose-fitting athletic clothes and heavy jackets. The temperature was below freezing, and they were dressed warm.
They headed to the counter and picked up paper menus. I walked to the table closest to the window, faced my back to it and sat down.
“What kind of chicken wings do you have?” the black woman asked.
“Just regular chicken wings,” said the Chinese woman. She was about 20-years-old.
“You got honey barbecue wings?” the woman asked.
“No,” said the Chinese woman. “Just regular fried chicken wings.”
This wasn’t the answer she wanted.
“Why don’t you have honey barbecue wings?” the woman asked.
“We just don’t,” said the Chinese woman. She was pleasant.
“I’ll have an egg roll and french fries,” said the black man.
“What else you got?” said the black woman, cutting in.
“We have regular fried chicken,” said the Chinese woman.
“Nah,” said the black woman. She was angry.
“I don’t want that shit,” she said. “I want honey barbecue wings.”
She’d grown agitated and turned to her male companion, who’d by now sat down.
“They don’t got what I want,” she said, raising her voice. “I’m over this shit. I’m out this shit. Fuck this shit.”
The guy with her was at a loss for words. I’m not sure what their relationship was or where they were coming from, but he seemed to want to distance himself from her, if possible.
“I need to eat,” she said. “And they don’t got what I want. I want honey barbecue wings. Fuck this fucking place. I don’t need this shit.”
I was tucked away in the corner watching this all unfold. But still, the place was empty and if someone— black, white, Asian, Indian, alien, whatever — is standing in the middle of a restaurant pouting and cursing, it’s hard not to get a little put off by it.
So I figured, well, I don’t need to eat here. I can just take the food I ordered, which I was still waiting for, home.
I walked to the counter.
“That order,” I said, “I’ll take that to go.”
“Is it because of what I think?” said the Chinese woman, darting her eyes over at the black woman.
“Uhh, yeah,” I said, reluctantly. I thought the exchange would end there, but it didn’t.
“If I could just tell them to leave, I would,” said the Chinese woman. “But, I can’t.”
“I hear you,” I said, placating her. “But it’s not that serious.”
“How do you deal with it?” she said. “You live in the neighborhood. How do you put up with it all day?”
Now, I felt weird. In a slowly-gentrifying neighborhood, which still features most of the tell-tale signs of urban blight— remember, this is where Eric Garner was fatefully killed by the police this summer— this restaurant recently replaced an older one. It was much dirtier and dingier, but perhaps also more in tune with its surroundings. They made honey barbecue wings! So, I understood where the questioning was going, because you don’t want anyone going crazy in your restaurant, but the assumption that I needed to put up with anything was odd. I mean, I live here, right? And it’s not like I run a Chinese restaurant. They’re the ones who are open for business all day.
“I’m in Manhattan most of the time,” I replied. “But really, this is a quiet neighborhood. I’ve been here a long time. This is not a big deal.”
While we were chatting, the black woman had resigned herself to the fact that she wouldn’t find what she was looking for in this particular restaurant, so she called a dollar cab, which by then had arrived. She exited, leaving the man behind, cursing along the way. The restaurant was quiet again.
The Chinese woman and I continued talking— about using a wok, how to pre-boil food so it cooks faster, and so on — and after a few minutes had passed, I figured, well, maybe I could eat in peace after all.
“When it’s ready,” I said. “I’ll eat it here.”
I sat down and waited bit longer for the food, which had been taking quite a while. I’d been in the restaurant at least fifteen minutes.
A white man walked in. He was older, dressed like a college Professor, in a flannel shirt and tweed jacket, and looked like he may have just come from a staged reading of On The Road. He seemed nice enough, and when he got to the counter, some casual chit-chat took place, because he appeared to be a regular. When he ordered, he made a reference— joking, I imagine— to a song.
“What is that?” said the Chinese woman.
“It’s a Miles Davis tune,” he said, expecting her to catch his reference.
“Oh,” said the Chinese woman, giggling. “I don’t even know who that is.”
The food came out.
The black man sat across from me and ate quietly, as did I.
A couple of times we looked up at each other, his hand thumbing a french fry, my fork carrying a small divot of rice, and made eye contact.
I smiled. He smiled back.
I motioned with my eyes to the front of the restaurant, toward the woman. The black man laughed, quietly, to himself. So did I.