Sometimes, years later when you tell a story, it can seem so much like a dream. You start to recount the events and the more bizarre it gets, you start to wonder if it actually happened, or did some character in a movie do it? Yeah, I worked in a Chinese restaurant for a bit. Strange thing, because I’m not Chinese. Not close in fact. I’m not suggesting that when operating a restaurant that specializes in ethnic cuisine, that you should have to hire staff only from that particular ethnic background, but for Chinese food…..I’m thinking you do. If I open an Ethiopian restaurant in Toronto tomorrow, and I need a staff of 10 or so to get it started, I just might not be able to easily find 10 Ethiopians that would be qualified to help me. The thing about Chinese food is that no matter where you are in the world, you can be pretty sure that there’s a good supply of Chinese people. Right or wrong, when I go into a Chinese restaurant, and a white guy comes to take my order (which has never happened, by the way), I’m thinking the place is a little suspect. Here’s the story of how I became that guy.
My first job when I was in High School was at KFC. I worked there for about 2 years. I went through 4 managers while I was there, the type of stability which I would imagine is par-for-the-course in that industry. The 3rd of the 4 was a Chinese guy named (or nicknamed) Ringo. By this time I had a few buddies that worked there too since the previous manager’s recruiting system involved asking me if I knew anyone that needed a job once every 6 months. Ringo was something else. He had a ponytail (it was the 90’s), he was fairly muscular, and loved to wear a tight Miami Vice T-Shirt. He was a laid back boss and sometimes would take us out after work. He knew a place or two where we wouldn’t get carded. These weren’t awesome places, but we didn’t have cars and weren’t old enough to drink, so this was living on the edge for us. He was in his early 30’s and my mom definitely found it weird that he would want to hang out with teenagers. As an adult, I now understand that concern, but c’mon now…… we were hilarious. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with us???? He had his reasons. Maybe his other friends were too stuffy. This guy was waaay into MC Hammer at the time too. I swear I couldn’t make this up. He would sing these MC Hammer songs with his Chinese accent all day at work. It was just fun. He once asked us why we didn’t have any hot girls working at our location, because apparently the previous KFC he worked at had several. It wasn’t far away, and he started the process of trying to get some of them to transfer over. This was huge for us, most of whom still had a lot of work to do in the ‘confidently meeting girls’ department. From that time forward our excursions with him generally involved some female company as well. It was a blast.
I don’t remember the details surrounding Ringo’s departure from KFC. I don’t remember if he was good at his job or not. At that age, it’s hard to care about things like that. Going to work was a party, and now that I’m older I understand that we probably weren’t the most productive bunch in the world. I’m pretty sure Ringo was let go, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if there was some money missing or something like that. I could investigate this further, but it’s not crucial to the story. A couple of us kept in touch with him over the next few years. He was working as a waiter at a Chinese Buffet for a bit. Then I had heard that he got his own restaurant. It was right near Greek town. Small place, close to a subway station, but nothing fancy. I went down to visit a couple of times. The last of which I’d been out of school for a bit. I had decided to come back for an extra year of high school with the intention of taking Co-Op for a semester or put off adulthood depending on which sounds more believable, but due to my own laziness and/or lack of focus, I was never able to find a placement. So I took a semester off. I signed up for night school, and had a part-time job, so I was keeping a little busy. Ringo told me that his daytime waiter had quit, and he didn’t have anyone to wait tables from 11am-3pm during the week. This sounded good to me. A new adventure with a familiar friend, and I could get back in time to go to class or work at my other job. Sounded perfect, so I did it. I became a waiter at a Chinese restaurant.
Was it a problem that I didn’t speak Chinese? Ringo didn’t seem to think so. Lunch service would have maybe 5 tables. He probably didn’t need a waiter, but he was in the back cooking, and it was hard to keep walking away from that to seat customers. Most of the time I just hung out. He didn’t pay me well, or consistently, but he’d feed me breakfast and lunch while I was there, and always made sure I had bus money. If a Chinese person that didn’t speak English came in, I would just smile at them, and hand them a pen and paper with their menu. If they seemed like they were asking questions, then I’d just get Ringo to pop out for a minute.
We had a couple of regulars. One girl came in every day. She was a student at an Adult Learning Centre nearby. Every day she ordered the same thing. Chicken Wings with Pork Fried Rice, and a large Chocolate Milk. Strange that a Chinese restaurant would carry Chocolate Milk you say? It’s because we didn’t. EVERY SINGLE DAY when she came in, I would take her order (which was always the same), and walk into the back to tell Ringo. Ringo would reach into his wallet and grab $5, and send me out the back door so I could run across the (busy) street to buy a Chocolate Milk at the Convenience Store. Had the customer really been paying attention, I was in plain view. I always tried to seat her away from the window, and if she was near the window, I’d run way down the street, then cross, then back down, then cross back so she wouldn’t see me. I’d be panting as I ran through the back door, poured the Chocolate Milk into a glass, and casually walked it over to her table. EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR MONTHS.
To take it a step further only because I can’t leave this one out, I worked the evening shift once, and only once when the regular waiter called in sick. This was tricky because even though I’d been doing lunch service for a month or so, I never got any better at being a waiter, mainly because I was never tested with any level of restaurant traffic. Dinner was busier. Still not busy by successful business standards, but more than what I was used to. At one point in the evening somebody had requested a Spring Roll with their order. I brought the order back to Ringo, and he shot me a pained expression, like he was obviously hoping nobody would order Spring Rolls because he didn’t have any. “Ice, I need you to go to another Chinese restaurant nearby to order a Spring Roll. It will only take 2 minutes!!” OK, let’s start with the Ice thing. It was the early 90’s and my hair was styled not too unlike Vanilla Ice’s hairstyle minus the dye and the shaved eyebrows. I could do the thing where I insist that I had that haircut first and blah blah blah, or I could just let it go, and let you think what you want because I’m old and I don’t care anymore. Ringo called me Ice….exclusively…..sigh……Now the thing about the Spring Roll. This didn’t seem like a good idea, but I shot out the back door (like I do), and ran over to the Danforth (Torontonians will know where this is). I ordered a Spring Roll to go from a competing Chinese restaurant. It took what seemed like forever, probably because there was a dining room with people who might be waiting for me to bring their food or bill or something like that. I remember this place was right across the street from the Danforth Music Hall. There was a concert that night by a group called Moxy Fruvous who were pretty big locally at least during that time. They were right off the heels of the Barenaked Ladies, and it was the same sort of funny-hippie-pop as I recall which I despised at the time. I remember seeing all of the people lined up with their wool socks inside of their Birkenstock sandals. Gag! (2 interesting side notes. First, I decided to google this to see if I could find out what date the concert was, and was able to ascertain that the date this particular story took place was October 2, 1993. That’s probably only interesting to me. Second, the group Moxy Fruvous had a member – Jian Ghomeshi – who went on to become a successful radio talk show host, then became even more famous for trying to sue his former employer for $55 million dollars for letting him go after the word got out that he was into rough sex, but then he withdrew the suit when all sorts of women came out of the woodwork to say it wasn’t always consensual. This was one of Toronto’s top news stories of 2014. Apparently he’s a big deal. I hadn’t heard of him because I don’t nor can I believe that other people have time for talk radio. I was familiar with Moxy Fruvous though, and they were getting ready to perform across the road while I was waiting for this Spring Roll). I made it back, Ringo with the “What took you so long?” BS, and me putting a Spring Roll from another restaurant onto a plate, and walking it out to a customer. So unbelievably grateful that they did not order a second.
Maybe a month or so later, my father’s office had a real back log with their files, and needed someone to organize that mess. 40 hours a week, and much better pay. I traded in my Cantonese Chow Mein for a shirt, tie and paper cuts until the second semester was ready to begin. I know Ringo lost that business not too long after that, and ended up working as a waiter again for a bit. We might have hung out a couple more times, but I lost track of him after that. Those were some fun times.