July 16th, 2007

Spatch - Porter Square


As some of you may know, around this time a year ago, after the Great Police Raid Mixup, I had a serious enough of a panic attack at dinner to warrant a trip to the hospital and EKG readings and the privilege of sharing a hospital room with Frank, an assault-and-battery victim, still high and wasted, who told the police he had no idea who his attackers were, but they were those kids who always hang around outside the bar. (Frank also decided at one point that it was a great time to light a cigarette while in the hospital room, which sent all the nurses a-running in, hollering "Jesus, Frank! There's oxygen tanks in here! You wanna blow us all up?") This userpic was actually taken that night: I was released from the hospital around 3 AM and Lynn drove me to the 24-hour CVS in Porter to fill the initial prescriptions. Well, there wasn't much else to do while we waited, so we went out and looked at the ghastly plaza they'd just put in around the shopping center.

The upshot of all this was that I got some very interesting medication, some which I took briefly, and eventually, some that I'm still taking today. There was a lot of touch-and-go over the next six months regarding types of drugs and amounts, but the doctors figured all that out. The nice thing about it was that I no longer feel totally overwhelmed when I ride crowded Red Line trains, and I can actually get out of bed some mornings.

But alas, with every ordeal there comes sacrifice, and this story is no different. The dinner I was having at the time of the attack was my favorite meal: a big bowl of pho, that tasty Vietnamese beef noodle soup and I was having it at my favorite pho restaurant, Pho Vietnam, on the corner of Stuart and Kneeland Streets in Boston. I remember getting up to pay the bill and staggering, almost drunkenly, out the door and somehow I made it to Downtown Crossing and got on the right train and rode all the way home. I discovered myself lying face down in bed with a cellphone leaning against my ear and Lynn saying "I'll be there in five minutes. Put your shoes on."

Since then I couldn't return to Pho Vietnam. I couldn't even bear the thought of pho, no matter where it came from, and even when I'd stopped re-living the feelings and memories of the panic attack whenever I thought of the soup, I still wouldn't give it consideration when pondering where to eat. It wasn't a conscious decision on my part -- "Do I wanna go back for pho? ...not tonight." It was more of the fact that well, the option had just dropped off the list entirely. This was a shame, for Pho Vietnam's pho was the best pho I'd ever tasted, and cheap besides. I don't know what it was about their ingredients, or their special blend of star anise and other spices, or maybe it was because their beef was fresh and always served rare -- or maybe even raw -- in the steaming hot soup so they cooked while you fiddled around with your chopsticks, sriracha, bean sprouts, and lime, stirring the noodles around and enjoying that amazing smell. There were at least three other Pho restaurants in a two-block radius. The fact that I eschewed them all in favor of Pho Vietnam, not even to "cheat" every once in a while, is a testament to the fact that they made damn good soup.

I ate there at least once a week, usually on Fridays because it was a lovely way to start the weekend. However, I'd also go if I'd had an especially tough day at work, which back then was quite often, because there was nothing better than knowing if you just waited these last 90 minutes out, coloring in one half of a square on your notepad every 30 minutes to give yourself encouragement, there'd be a delicious bowl of soup waiting for you. I got to know the servers, young adults who more often than not sat at their own table in between orders, texting on cellphones and gossiping in a language I don't understand. Eventually I became enough of a regular that they knew what I wanted the minute I sat down. There was no need for a menu. I often left $5.00 tips on a $10.00 meal... well, hey, it was totally worth more than $10.00. The restaurant did not want for customers; I had clandestine dates there (and you know who you are), I often saw theatre folk eating on the cheap there, sometimes from the improv group up the street, I saw art school kids ask for -- and receive -- permission to film a few scenes of somebody's project in the restaurant while the rest of us supped. The scene involved an argument of some sort. I pointed out-of-town friends in the direction of the place, and was tickled when they confirmed that yes indeed, it was delicious pho. I came back week after week. And then I disappeared.

It took several months for me to even think about trying to soup again. And when I did, it wasn't at Pho Vietnam, but at Pho Pasteur -- now "Le's" -- in Harvard Square. Unfortunately, whether it was still my brain or the admittedly obvious decline in that restaurant's quality in the past few years, or both, but the soup just didn't do it for me. It didn't have that taste, that special taste which meant "This is pho and boy howdy, is it delicious." I chalked it up to not-ready-just-yetness and thought about when I might be able to go back to Pho Vietnam and exorcise them psychological demons.

Turned out, Sunday was the day. Nearly a year after I'd had my Unfortunate Incident, I decided you know what? It's time to get that pho. Hopefully it'll taste better than Le's, and hopefully I will fall in love with it all over again. I left work at a jaunty pace (well, brisk, really; the storm clouds overhead looked menacing and there were intermittent sprinkles around) and headed for Chinatown. I neared Kneeland Street and was amazed by the complete removal of the entire block that the Gaiety Theater used to occupy (after the Gaiety went, there was still the matter of the forever-closed Joke Shop and its ilk next door. Gone.) Wow, I thought. Lotta change to the area.

Pho Vietnam was shuttered when I walked up. Strange to be closed so early on a Sunday. There was a piece of paper in the window. Ah, now it all made sense to me. They'd closed one time last year due to "No Hot Water", which indicated to me either a problem with the main or with their utility bill. I wondered what amusing reason it'd be this time.

The sign said "RETAIL PROPERTY FOR LEASE - CALL THIS NUMBER." I peered in. The place was completely stripped. All that remained were the walls and the checkerboard floor. The lease ads were plastered on every window that hadn't been shuttered over. No signs thanking customers for their patronage, and no (hopeful) signs pointing customers in the direction of a new location.

Gone. It was gone. Pho Vietnam had closed for good. I was too late.

I have no idea how late I had been. Didn't feel like asking any of the locals. Don't want to know, really. Don't care to know why or how or any of that. All I know is that a year ago, I disappeared from the restaurant and a year later, the restaurant returned the favor. That's all that can be said about that, except that now I'll never get to enjoy another bowl of their delicious soup.

I didn't quite know what to make of the whole situation, except for that's what happens. Things come and go -- restaurants, movie theatres, amusement parks, people -- and rarely do you get the luxury of knowing that your last experience is your last, so make it count, say goodbye, farewell, and Godspeed.

I have a similar story involving one September day at Holyoke's Mountain Park in 1987 when I finally conquered my fears, rode the Mountain Flyer roller coaster and fell in absolute love with it. I stayed on the ride for the rest of the day, getting in as many rides as I could before we had to go home: front seat, back seat, middle seats, hands up, hands down, eyes open, eyes closed, hands up middle fingers extended (hey, I was 12, ok?), you name it, my brothers (who ended up spending the rest of the day on the ride too) and I did it. Mountain Park closed for good that winter, and I never got to ride that damned thing again. But at least I could say I had, and that I'd loved every second of it, and it's what compelled me to make sure I sought out old parks and rides to enjoy them before they, too, were Gone For Good. My farewell to Pho Vietnam involved what I thought at the time were symptoms of a heart attack and a hasty retreat and I'll never have the chance to put things right in that little card catalogue entry in my head.

Things come and go. That's all there is to it. Forget it, Spatch. It's Chinatown. You move on with your memories, good or bad. Maybe I'll find some better soup someday. Alls I know is after making the sad discovery, I went elsewhere to have a sandwich.