I witnessed the best night ever. It didn’t happen to me, but I was part of it, guiding the events, letting out a tune every once in a while until we broke out into a spectacle of fireworks that moved around the room disguised only slightly by the turning disco ball.
We both drank slowly from our plastic containers of lemonade. Every time she took a sip her eyes would squint involuntarily and her cheeks would pucker. It was a look of pain, but she kept drinking more. It was the most rich, sweet and sour drink I had ever tasted, I couldn’t imagine it with the thousand extra taste buds of youth. She took another sip, wincing in pain and I laughed.
“Do you want me to get you a glass of water so you can mix the two? Then it won’t be so sour.”
“No, I’m ok.”
I offered to get her water several times until I realized that I needed some. I got up without a word and poured two cups from the self-serve plastic water container on the counter of the restaurant. When I brought them back to the table she drank greedily from the cup, perhaps unaware until that moment of how much her body desired something neutral.
Eating from my plate, I realized that this was not kid-friendly food. It was rich and intense. The mac and cheese was mixed with hot sauce and other spices that made it almost too overwhelming on my tongue. Next to it were two types of tofu burgers, one was fried, seasoned and crispy while the other was drenched in deep red bbq sauce. She picked delicately at the only quiet thing on the plate, a small piece of yellow cornbread.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take you to get a kid-friendly burger next door.”
I looked around the restaurant. The walls were a bare white except for the two large portraits of Big Mama Thorton and Muddy Waters behind me. Each portrait was five feet tall and four feet wide. They were painted with one shade of maroon that reminded me of a film negative.
Besides the paintings, the place was bare. The seven tables in the front section were clear of any decoration. Around the corner in the dimly lit section that might have been an old blues club, a disco ball turned its light on an empty collection of tables.
Before we left she tossed another penny into the fountain by the front register and the hand written chalk menu on the back wall. We walked next door to Nation’s burger. I had eaten there twice. Once years ago after I had been drinking with my friend Julie. I thought it was delicious, the best burger ever. After a few weeks and fond memories of my meal, I went back sober. The experience was night and day. My burger was greasy, flat and tasted of oil.
We walked next door hand in hand. There were several tall black men standing by the register, one had a head of dreadlocks hidden behind a large knit cap. As we walked in and I saw him I felt safe just because he was there. Another older man showed us his plastic bracelet, he had just gotten out of the hospital.
The man with the bracelet looked down at her and she was already smiling,
“You must be ten,” he said happily with his red eyes and deep voice.
“No! my sister is ten! I’m nine!”
“oh!” he said laughing.
She smiled and held onto the purple pillar by the cash register. A crew of three young Asian men worked behind the counter.
“What do you want?” I asked, “they have hamburgers, hotdogs, grilled ch-“
“A hot dog and French fries and a piece of cherry pie!”
“hot dog, French fry and cherry pie!” the man with the bracelet said out loud, sounding like Samuel L. Jackson on the verge of laughing.
A young Asian guy with acne took our order and we took a seat in the booth by the front window. The man with the bracelet followed us back to the table.
“scuze me, do you have any money I could use ta get something to eat, I bin in the hospital and you wouldn’t believe the weight I lost.” I reached in my bag and got a dollar.
Our ticket number was called soon and when I went to get it I saw the biggest piece of cherry cheese cake, a foot long hot dog and French fries.
“Wow,” she said amazed, “this is such a nice restaurant, they have such nice food and they must have spent a lot of money to put all these nice vases and flowers on every table. This is such a nice restaurant, I love it here!”
I looked at the red plastic vase on our table and the two red carnations in it. One carnation was dead and dried up, the other still had a bit of vitality. I looked at the rest of the tables, each with a matching vase and flowers.
As she ate her hot dog I looked around the space. I was slightly uncomfortable, several homeless men came in to get cups of water. There were two old black men sitting against the wall at a table, I wondered just how prejudiced I actually was given my anxiousness to leave.
One of the older men sitting against the wall seemed to be staring at me. I held his gaze, unsure if he was looking, then looked back at the paper in front of me. I read her a list of activities that were being advertised in the local free weekly while trying to give the appearance of confidence and relaxation.
A while later I looked back at the older black man. He nodded to me, not smiling, but acknowledging my presence.
She kept turning around to the man with the bracelet who now sat in the booth behind us completely focused on his food. She looked like she wanted to talk to him and she positioned her body in a way that did not completely shut him out with her back.
“I can’t eat any more without some water.”
I went to the register and got a cup for water. As I was walking back, a middle aged man, perhaps of middle eastern origin smiled at me. I smiled back and wondered if people were friendlier if they saw you with a child.
When she couldn’t eat any more and I put a limit on the amount of pie she could eat, she walked up to the counter to get a box for the extra slice of pie. She walked back with it, now confident of her place in the space. She looked over at the homeless man eating, looking shyly at him for his eye contact. I could tell she wanted to smile at him, to talk with him, but he was focused on his food. As we were putting on our coats he looked up and she waved,
“bye!” she said.
He smiled brightly, “bye!”
We walked out the front door and she closed it gently, looking through the glass in the door as she did so. She caught his eyes again and smiled and waved her small little hand.
“I like black people,” she said as we walked from the restaurant, “actually I adore them!”
We walked back into the vegan restaurant to use the bathroom and sit in their more empty section in the back to wait for 9pm to roll around. There were several more tables with benches for seats. We sat next to the wall facing the small TV which was shining with images from Soul Train, a show I had heard referenced so much but had never actually seen.
In the back the lighting was very dim, the light source came from the bright area in the front of the restaurant and the rotating disco ball.
A group of four young white people sat in the darkness at a table close by. At first she lay on my lap and tried to sleep since it was almost nine, but then she sat up to watch the images of a crowded room full of afros and dancers.
Playing constantly on the loudspeaker were old Motown classics. I began to lightly tap out the rhythm on the table. She did the same, using my left leg as a drum. Soon she hit the beats harder and harder, pounding into my muscles. When a slow song came on, I grabbed her hand and swung it in the space between us. She insisted on trying to pull our hands down every few beats to try and hit me in the leg. Sometimes she succeeded, other times I was able to pull our hands towards her, though our force never reached her leg. She would laugh each time she hit me, each time I diverted it, each time she was almost hit with the energy of our combined hands.
We were both singing, me knowing some of the lines, she just grabbing what she could at the moment. At that moment I was free, singing openly, letting my energy spill out without a care for its interpretation or judgement, for there was none. It was a state I may never have been in before, singing so openly-playing so effortlessly.
She looked at me, “this is the best night ever!”
Now I nodded my head, it was indeed a great night. Maybe the best night ever.