Americanized pan-Asian fast food, cubicle dwelling, and frigid, soul-crushing pessimism.
A couple weeks ago, I taunted a snowdrift.
The weather had been warming steadily for days, and I was feeling cocky. The snowdrift in the corner of my building’s fenced-in back patio, the pile that was the result of hundreds of shovelfuls over the course of the winter, was almost gone, disappearing into its own puddle.
“Now where is thy sting?” I asked it.
Forty-eight hours later, we had a blizzard. I knew I had brought punishment on the city of Chicago for my hubris. I’d sensed spring and allowed my hunched shoulders to relax a bit. For a moment, I let myself enjoy the weather’s prospects. You should never, ever do this.
• • •
I’m writing this in my cubicle at work, in the midst of my third straight lousy, busy, frustrating week.
It’s late evening. Everyone else has left. When things get as hectic as they’ve been lately, this is the only time I can spend five consecutive minutes at my desk without being interrupted. So on nights like this, I treat myself to dinner and hunker down. Deep down, there’s a flicker of worry about this. The reason I was able to buy a place a year and a half ago was my newfound habit of bringing lunch to work and cutting back on my restaurant visits. But it’s been a long, lousy winter, and a long, lousy couple of weeks, so I bury my concerns and take out my wallet.
Having fallen off the wagon, I am reminded of the dilemma of eating out during the workweek: I am sick of every restaurant downtown. This happens to everyone who works at one place for years. You wear grooves into the floors at every counter within walking distance, so lunch, which should be a source of pleasure in the middle of the day, becomes a rote procedure that you don’t even realize you’re performing. This is why when a new place opens, it becomes mobbed for the first couple weeks. It almost doesn’t matter what they’re serving – there will be a buzzing line to purchase and consume it.
Such was the case with Wow Bao. It’s an Asian restaurant that sells “bao,” round pockets of dough filled with meat or vegetables. (Standing in line when it first opened a few months ago, I overheard a jaded patron explaining wearily, “You know there’s no such thing as a ‘bao,’ right? It’s just something they made up for this restaurant.” He was wrong. They exist, and are apparently eaten across Asian countries.)
Wow Bao is actually pretty decent comfort food. They also serve various noodle dishes, soups, potstickers, and rice bowls. But, of course, I OD’d pretty quickly, and so did everyone else. You don’t see the kinds of hysterical lines outside that you used to.
Still, I keep returning, partly because I’m not ready to go back to Potbelly (the sandwich shop that was the previous victim of my overzealotry and subsequent burnout), and partly because it’s actually in my work building, so I don’t have to go to the monumental effort of putting on a coat.
So as I type this, I haven’t been outside for 12 hours.
But why bother getting irritated with that? The weather sucks. As long as I'm spending the evening in artificially warmed air, I may as well be in the office as in my apartment. The winter. The food. The job frustrations. I’m in a period of my life where everything feels depressingly permanent. So I try to inspire myself with a tiny alteration in my order: instead of the hot chili sauce with my potstickers, I choose sesame-mustard. Otherwise, it's an identical meal to 90 percent of my trips to Wow Bao.
• • •
Back at my desk, the food is gone almost before I notice I’ve been eating it. Forkfuls of spicy peanut noodles have disappeared down my gullet, but the only detail that sticks out is that I should probably have stuck with the hot chili sauce. Wow Bao takeout comes in plastic containers that tend to be just brittle enough to break before you can reuse them, but just sturdy enough to be unrecyclable. But even the guilty pang of throwing them away has dulled. I’m done with my work, so I’m really just killing time at this point, too uninspired to begin the process of standing to leave. I poke around on Wow Bao’s website, and since I’m still idling in work mode, I find a typo.
Finally, numbly, I begin to get ready to leave. I notice something odd out the window.
Much later in the day than I expect to still see it.
I don’t trust it. Not yet.
The Banquet of Life is a bi-weekly look at one man's life through the food he eats.