After the waitress seats us, the professor’s wife leans in and asks if we’ve ever eaten at the restaurant before. When we say no, she squeals, “Oh, you’re going to love it” and recommends a drink on the menu: hot ginger lemon apple cider. You can also add bourbon to it and it’s delicious, she says.
My daughter – Little M – and I hadn’t planned on having dinner with her professor and his wife. But the quaint, tiny neighborhood restaurant near Ocean Beach in San Francisco was packed tonight. We were next in line for a table when the professor, sporting a fedora and full gray beard, and his wife, petite and full of positive energy, walked in through the front door and smacked into a wall of people on the waiting list. So we offered to have them join us for dinner.
I know my daughter was nervous. Our plans for a laid-back dinner suddenly became a high-stress situation, where she felt compelled to impress. I was fine with it. The prof taught Asian American studies, a subject I care about and was well-versed in. Thank goodness, he didn’t teach physics or math.
“I’ll have the hot ginger lemon apple cider,” Little M says. “But no alcohol, please.”
I waited for the others to order.
“I’ll have the same,” the professor says. “But I’m going to have the bourbon because I’m grading papers tonight.”
And without missing a beat, he looks at my daughter, smiles and adds: “Expect your paper back tomorrow.”
It was funny. I laughed out loud. I didn’t look at Little M’s reaction (she was sitting beside me on a bench), but I didn’t have to. I knew she smiled, but inside, she was dying. But for me, the joke eased any tension there was. It was good to know the old prof has a sense of humor. It told me dinner was going to be all right.
And it was. The prof and his wife were delightful, the food was delicious and the conversation was stimulating.
About two hours later, as we parted ways, and Little M and I walked back to our car, I told her I was confident that she did impress. She was on. She did great.
A while back, a buddy – frustrated and tired – texted me late at night, telling me he chauffeured his teenage son and his friends to skating parties and teen clubs, morning through night.
“I was dad the driver today,” he wrote. “Sheesh. Drove my son and his friends all around. Got home at 1:20 a.m. I’m now tired and pissed!”
I laughed. Ah, the taxi-driving days. All those memories come rushing back to me.
I pick up the kid in front of the high school and she jumps in says, “my friends are coming over to the house.” It’s not a question. It’s a statement. And before I say anything her three friends pile into the backseat, and she’s switched the radio station from a gentle Sarah McLachlan to the angry rap of 50 Cent on 106 KMEL, and cranks the volume level up about a hundred decibels.
I pull into the street and she shouts, “Can we go to Taco Bell?” So I go through the drive-thru, and it’s the biggest frickin’ order of my life and I have to wait forever for a) them to figure out what they want, and b) for the food to be made. And of course, the other kids don’t have money. I hear the jingle of coins in the backseat as they count their change. But their orders are only a few dollars each – they are dainty girls after all – so I front the money.
“Thanks, Mr. Wong!”
The food arrives, and as I drive home, it’s chaos in the car as food exchanges hands. “Pass the chalupa!” one witty girl says in back.
I share this story with my friend the next day. And my friend stays quiet as I reminisce, and when I’m done, he says: “Right. I have done it.”
He’s taken his son and his classmates to get food at Mickey D’s, he says. One ordered $10 worth of food and had no money, so my friend had to pay for it. The kid didn’t say thank you, and in the ensuing weeks, neither did his parents.
“That sucks,” I tell him. “That’s when you tell your son, ‘I don’t want that kid in my car again.’”
“Right,” my friend says. “He wasn’t even a friend. Just a kid who needed a ride.”
“Take heart,” I tell him. “You’re just a taxi driver for a few more years. But then again, you have to buy him a car.”
I can’t wait for June 2011. I tell everyone about that date. In fact, I often joke that I will print up T-shirts with the number “6/11” emblazoned across the front. That’s the date Little M is supposed to graduate from college. That’s the date I get my financial freedom. No more having to pay a weekly allowance and no more outrageous out-of-state college tuition fees and overpriced text books – or so I hope.
When I tell this story to friends, they always laugh. And that’s exactly what a friendly, retired couple did as we walked our dogs together this past week. Because of summer travels, we hadn’t seen each other for months. So we caught up with each others lives in the neighborhood greenbelt as our dogs got their exercise. And that’s when I told them about 6/11.
They laughed. And then the wife gave me a reality check.
“Dream on!” she said, smiling.
They are in their 60s, with eight grown children and lots of grandchildren. And they clearly were about to school me. (more…)