The Chow Sin Sushi Bar
Unfortunately for Stan, he still has to make a living, regardless of
whatever else may be happening in the outside world. His workspace has been
dramatically rearranged and compacted, with the 35” Mitsubishi now pushed up
to the edge of his desk and a 13” Sony Triniton parked by his mouse pad. The
Mitsubishi is permanently tuned to CNN with closed captioning enabled, but
the Sony is where much of the real action is. Stan cycles through NBC and on
to Fox, anxiously moving up to ABC and then pausing at CBS. Repeating.
Repeating. Occasionally he would focus on his monitor and type in a fresh
string of words.
Readers, Stan Keaton has a lot of heavy things on his mind today. We have a
most difficult problem facing us, an unanticipated problem. The enemy has
caught us with our pants down around our knees, and now we must scramble to
find a way to zip them up. To put it bluntly, as is my wont, America has no
decent war music. No remotely respectable twenty-first century fight music.
No hip-hop, rock & roll, techno, alternative or pop, nothing worth a crap to
provide a relevant soundtrack for a new type of war. In Vietnam, they at
least had friggin 'Purple Haze'. Are we going to have to settle for Incubus?
as America moves from mourning to mobilization, from mobilization to
Cloberin' Time, we are left with a dearth of meaningfully aggressive tunes.
Our rock & rollers have become a soft and undisciplined pack of pacified
pussies. They can write about peace, love and understanding; yeah man, they
can write about homicide and suicide and misogyny, but they are unable to
address this historical moment and write about the one thing that would be
most meaningful to all of us at this point in time - the desire to shoot
off a missile - just because - and hit a camel in the butt. I don't give
a shit what that unelected ding-dong Bush wants. I want to hit a camel in
the butt with a missile!!!
America would be so unprepared? We’ve produced a treasure trove of popular
anti-war music that stretches back to when I was just a scrawny long-haired
Stanley, watching the Viet Nam war live in color on a black and white TV.
But what pro-war music do we have, now that we really need it? We
don’t have enough experience with the genre. We’ve got no grinding,
screeching terrorist-butt-kicking tunes. Not even yer death metal or yer
gangster rap can help us out. Oh something’s going to be coming down the
pike soon, you can bet your boots, and it’s going to be the big
heart-wrenching ballads and the taunting redneck patriotic missives – ‘A
Nations Teardrops’ and ‘Don’t You Tread on Glory’ are coming, although you
can bet your bottom dollar that we won’t be hearing Bono singing “Yomama,
Osama” anytime soon. So we're destined to be halfway through the upcoming
war before we even have a decent soundtrack.
diatribe, as heartfelt and insightful as it may be, was not the piece that
Stan needed to be working on at the moment. He needed to be focusing on
something a bit more straightforward, something that brings in a paycheck.
Stan was sitting on a 7:00 PM deadline for a rather clear-cut piece of
reporting on Clear Channel Communications. This was intended for the next
days Washington Times, a trifle for the Culture section with an ‘Our
Changing World’ spin to it. The piece should rightly write itself, but Stan
kept getting distracted by every movement from the television. History was
unreeling on the other side of the screen, and it was far more interesting
than anything he would ever produce. For instance, at this very moment CNN
was doing a special segment on today's interactions between the Bush
administration and the Taliban.
It seems that the Taliban will not give us Osama Bin Laden until we
provide proof that he is guilty. Preposterous! We want him! It’s as if the
Taliban is intentionally trying to get our goat. And yes, we do have
proof, but as Ari Fleischer astutely points out, "They would like nothing
better than to hide where they are hiding and have the United States reveal
what we know and how we know it." Like Duhh. And the Taliban seem to
understand that they have been backing themselves into a corner, so they
have effectively been reduced to trying to look like tough guys, shoving
their smug faces into the camera and mouthing counterproductive bullshit
like "The Taliban will never surrender to evil and might." And we’re just
like fuck you.
Good segment. And then Stan sees something bizarre.
On the screen, there is a chicken of the purest white. The camera cuts
to an extreme close up and a soaring eagle is reflected in the birds eye.
Suddenly the chicken is airborne, rising higher and higher until it passes
the upheld torch of the Statue of Liberty. ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’
is playing in the background. GOD BLESS AMERICA reads the red, white and
blue words materializing on the screen. RICHLAND POULTRY read the words
“Susan, Susan, come here” Stan shouts. Stan waits expectantly, but in vain,
since Susan has gotten used to these sudden shout-outs. That was some bad
craziness, he thinks, trying to equate chicken parts and patriotism. And the
symbolism strikes him as something less than appropriate. What next?
Looking over at the clock, he realizes that the ‘what next’
better be his Clear Channel article. Shit, he should be finished with it by
now, but the few lines he’s managed to put together thus far read like
There is a most unsettling phenomenon currently taking place
in the American radio industry. Since September 11, radio programmers around
the country have been self-censoring their own playlists, trying to prevent
anything potentially insensitive from reaching the airwaves. A good example
of the trend is the recent action taken by media giant Clear Channel.
Less than 48 hours after the first plane struck the World Trade Center,
Clear Channel Communications sent out a multi-paged list of songs and
artists for their stations to avoid. Their defense is that they are
attempting to display sensitivity to their audience. They want to avoid
hurting the listeners feelings by rekindling recent memories.
What is Clear Channel and why should I care, you might be
asking yourself. One reason to care is the fact that Clear Channel is an
omnipresent monolith. You probably have been listening to them on a daily
basis if you listen to music radio at all. They are one of a very small
handful of holding companies that control the vast majority of commercial
radio – Clear Channel alone owns over 1000 stations!! And that is the
reason why all radio, wherever in the country you may be, is starting to
sound the same. It is the sound of monopoly power.
“So what is Clear
Channel and why should I care,” says Susan, reading from over Stan’s
shoulder and causing him to jump in his seat. God, it freaks him out when
she’s able to sneak up behind him like that.
“You just missed
seeing a chicken soar like an eagle,” Stan tells her as he twists around on
his chair. “It was mind boggling. A commercial. First one I’ve seen since
“So that means things
are starting to get back to normal, right? Once they start showing
“You think? The
chicken was flying past the Statue of Liberty.” Against his better judgment
the image does have him chuckling. “I’m surprised that it didn’t land on the
torch. Then they could have had a tie-in with their oven broilers.”
“You’re making me
hungry. Let’s go get something to eat.”
“Not now, I’ve got a
deadline.” Stan had received the assignment just this morning, so he really
hadn’t spent that much time procrastinating. He was glad that his
other article wasn’t on the screen for Susan to see.
“Come on Stan. If you
would jusr turn off the television for a few minutes you could get your work
done. Let’s at least go grab a beer.”
“No need,” says Stan,
feeling pleased with himself as he reaches down to pull two Coors Lights out
of a white plastic cooler he had stored underneath his desk. “Here you go.
And I promise. I’m getting busy right now.” It might be hard, though. CBS
has a camera crew in Pakistan showing film of a smiling President Musharraf
who at this moment is confirming that the US is indeed dropping all
economic sanctions against his ill-gotten government.
“Help me out, Susan.
I’m having a rough time figuring out what to write. This Clear Channel thing
is such a ludicrous story. And they told me that any humor should be ‘gentle
humor’. Whatever the hell that means.
accepts the beer, and decides to sit for a moment, this being the closest
thing to a conversation Stan has indulged in all day. “Yeah, I guess it’s
tough, what with irony being dead and all. So what’s the story with Clear
Channel? They own a lot of stations. So what?”
“Well, aside from
ruining radio with their cookie-cutter formats, last week they sent out a
list of all these songs they’re banning for morale reasons. And we’re not
just talking about Slayer or Corpse Grinder, they’d never play those to
begin with. We’re talking about James Taylor doing ‘Fire and Rain’. Or
‘Great Balls of Fire’. Or ‘Light My Fire’. Any song that has the word ‘fire’
in the title.”
“Fire? No way. Would
that include ‘You Light Up My Life’?”
“Questionable. That probably falls in the province of a judgment call. They
did ban anything with the words ‘New York’.”
“Wow. ‘New York, New York’ must be double damned.”
“How about ’Benny and the Jets’ or anything else with the word ’jet’
in it. ‘Leavin on a Jet Plane’. Yes they did. How bout ‘Wipeout’. ‘Dancing
in the Streets’, just silly stuff. Take a look.”
“I can’t imagine someone hearing ‘Wipeout’ and breaking out in tears.”
Susan is flipping through the sizable list that Stan has handed her, and she
sees that something else has been added; Stan has written down the names of
numerous other songs as well – ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’, ‘Wooly
Bully’, ‘Ready for War’ and many more. She squints in order to read the tiny
comment he’s made by Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking on Thin Ice’. Vaguely
threatening in a way that the average Islamic fundamentalist terrorist will
be chilled to his very soul by. Plus, Yoko sings in a style very
reminiscent of a Saudi bushman, a fact that became overwhelmingly obvious to
me after a recent relistening to "Ahab the Arab". Susan hands him back
the list. She doesn’t ask because she doesn’t want to know.
“So you can see my dilemma,” Stan says thoughtfully, trying to
maintain eye contact even though it’s obvious that something very
interesting is happening on CNN. “How can I write about this without humor?
“I don’t know, Stan. Just write it. I’m hungry.” Ravenously hungry
and tremendously bored. She could put up with the hunger. “Just put down one
word after another till the job is done, okay? That’s your forte. That’s
what you do. It doesn’t really matter what you say. Just state the facts and
let the absurdity work on it’s own. You know that nobody is going to read
something like this anyway. It’s like, say radio news and everyone is Zzzzz.
“All right, all right. I’ll spit it out. I’ve got to file by 7:00
“Well that gives you maybe thirty minutes to finish. And I would like
to eat before we head to Old Town.”
“Old Town? I don’t want to go to Old Town tonight. I’ve got something
else I want to work on.” Stan was thinking about the new piece he had
started. It was an article on war music that had been inspired by the Clear
Channel don’t-playlist, and it was killer.
“This is not debatable Stan.” Susan sounded serious. She looked
serious, too, wearing a heavy scowl that for some unknown reason seemed to
be directed at him. “I told Lex that we’d go see his son Lenny at the Chow
Sin. You’re the one that told me all about him. Did you know that Lex hasn’t
even seen his son’s act? I had to twist his arm to get him to go.”
“So here’s our agenda. Pay close attention, Stan. You file your story
by 7:00. Then we’re going to pick up Melinda and we’re going to get some
dinner and drinks, and after that we’re going to go and get us some laughs.
So, go go go. Write like the wind and let’s hit it.”
Friday Night at the Chow Sin, where the lights are low and the waitresses
slow. Melinda’s foot keeps sticking to the floor. There must have been
something nasty dropped there earlier in the day. Must have been. She keeps
looking, but doesn’t see anything down there.
These tabletops are
certainly tacky enough. Red and white checkered plastic, the same kind that
you find at the neighborhood Italian joint. A small red hurricane glass with
a stubby white candle melting away. An oversized green tin ashtray, large
enough to preclude any emptying duty by their constantly on the move
waitress. The girl does appear to be hustling, but Susan notes that she
doesn't really seem to be carting that many drinks along for the ride. Maybe
it's her clothes that seem fast. Susan is starting to think that it could be
tough to make the two drink minimum if they don't get some service soon.
"So tell the truth,
Susan, how come Stan didn't join us tonight," asks Lex, unsuccessfully
trying to hide the fact that he's mighty darn happy to be out and about with
two pretty girls all to himself.
"It is my treat, after all, and I know he doesn't have to work at
night." Lex is looking rather sharp tonight, decked out in a deep blue
sharkskin suit that actually fits him.
"Sure he does, Lex. He has to go to showcases and clubs and that sort
of shit. How do you think he makes a living? Writing up proposals for Fungal
She put that rather cruelly, Lex thinks. Well, then…
"Oh. I thought he just had to sit around and listen to records all
"I thought he had to sit around and listen to records all day. Yeah,
right... and by the way, they call them CDs these days."
Damn! Just missed that waitress!
"It is working, Lex.
Going to shows and listening to crappy music is still working. If you've
been doing it for a long enough time, it's as much of a chore as sitting in
"Au contraire", says Rex, failing once again in his attempt to snag
the waitress, who he is absolutely positive saw him signal. "I'm not able to
get high on my job."
Susan throws her head back laughing. "Au contraire yourself, Lex,
we've seen you after work when you've been so wired on caffeine and nicotine
that you look like you're ready to pop out of your skin!" This is pretty
hilarious. "But you're absolutely right. Screw Stan. He does have a better
job than either of us."
Susan puts her elbows
on the table, and leans over in order to talk to Melinda without having to
yell quite so loud. The room is growing smaller and the music is getting
louder. Some old jazz thing is playing, she’s heard it before. Sounds pretty
cool. Coltrane blows a flurry of notes and swoops back down into the
recognizable refrain of 'My Favorite Things'. Susan has him pegged.
"You like?" she asks Melinda, pointing to her ears.
“Like what?” says Melinda. “I’d like a drink.”
"Coltrane. Do you like Coltrane?”
“No. It gets me too wired. You go ahead.”
Now their damn
waitress is standing over to the side, sharing a smoke with the doorman. Lex
is nodding to the music, but looks ungrounded without a drink. Susan just
“I don’t know, Melinda, should I be worried? I mean, I went off and
left Stan at home, and I bet he doesn’t even notice that I’m gone. He’s a
brick wall. Stan has been pretty obsessed lately with this whole war thing.
I mean, really. Very deep into it. When he's not working, all he wants to do
is watch the news," Susan says, furrowing her brow to signal that she is not
altogether pleased with this situation.
"It’s like, on some
level I guess I can understand what’s going on with him. To a very limited
degree. I work with a couple people who are acting pretty much the same way.
They're streaming the news from their PCs all day long, and they have to
tell you every little thing that’s going on. But Stan, what he’s doing now,
even when he's writing he has the television on. He has two sets by his desk
– one of them is right on top of his desk, actually. And you know what he
did the other day? He bought a little pocket TV so he can stay tuned even
when he goes to clubs, for God's sake."
Melinda concentrates with all her might and telepathically attempts to
summon the waitress.
"Melinda, did you just say 'Come here'? No? Huh. Anyway, it used to be
that Stan would always play music while he worked, but now it’s non-stop
CNN. I don't know why it doesn't drive him crazy listening to that shit all
day long. It drives me crazy. He has TVs on all over the house."
"Stop me if I'm starting to sound too much like you", she says to Lex,
in a sarcastic tone which lets him know that she does not appreciate him
Ouch, thinks Lex. That was certainly unnecessary. True, but
Time for a cigarette. Susan reaches for her pack, but Lex is quicker
on the draw, whipping out his cigarette case, a sleek silver box that he
pulls from his jacket’s inner pocket. A rough edge catches a silk thread,
and he pretends not to notice.
The case is brand new, a special little present from Lex to himself. It
is exactly like Rangler's. Except better. By obtaining and brandishing this
fetish object, he is able to exert a strong juju influence over the fate of
his would-be tormenter. Which is a lot of fun for Lex.
"Hey, Lex, let me see it," says Melinda, reaching across the table to
take it from his hand. The case feels almost weightless in her palm. She
pushes a small tab on the side and the case springs open.
Melinda is delighted with what she sees inside the silver box. There
are twelve pretty white cigarettes with filters of emerald green. She is
willing to bet that Lex has even more of these on hand for reinforcements.
Totally cool. He must have had to go through two cartons to get ready for
tonight. She laughs happily and takes one. Now there are eleven.
Eleven lucky cigarettes. Melinda knows all about the lucky cigarettes.
She is not alone in her knowledge; everybody at work now knows about the
lucky cigarettes. Rangler made sure that the story would be widely
disseminated. Fucking pig. Now, whenever Lex would go outside for a smoke,
there would always be some wiseacre to ask if he was 'feeling lucky'. One
day, someone had left a vintage pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes on his
desk. They were surprisingly smooth and mellow.
"Lex," says Melinda, handing back the case, "that is so sweet."
Back over to Susan, before Lex has a chance to enter the conversation.
"It’s not like Stan has been running around and rabble rousing. That’s not
his style… He’s just going off in the distance, off..." She pauses to thinks
about what to say next. What is wrong with Stan? Stan the Man.
"He is so obsessed. He is just totally obsessed. That's all I can say.
It's not like him. It’s been like two weeks, already. I pray to God he gets
over this whole thing soon."
“Ten days” says Melinda.
“Ten days,” says Melinda, “Since the world changed forever.”
Susan, Lex, and Melinda are sitting at a small table in the Chow Sin
Sushi Bar, a small club upstairs above Le Tableau in Old Town Alexandria. A
couple of weeks earlier, they wouldn't have had much chance of getting
inside, at least not without Stan, particularly on a Friday night. Tonight
the place is half empty.
Stan had given the Chow Sin a very kind review in the City Paper -
Susan's thoughts are laced with a touch of malice - so it might have been
real helpful to have him along with them tonight. At the very least, he
would have insured their access to the waitress, and probably would have
been good for a free round.
They are here to see Lex's son, Lenny Bruce, who has landed a coveted
Friday night gig at the little comedy club. Lenny also stands a good chance
of scoring the even more coveted house MC position, intro's, outro's and one
set a night. The manager authentically likes Lenny’s act and wishes him
well. "Kid, right now, half empty means that you're packin em in. Look
what’s happening at some of the clubs in the city. They're dyin."
This will be the first time that Lex has caught his son's new act.
Melinda understands that this is the reason he has stocked up on the lucky
The lights are sharply raised as a stool and microphone are moved to
the little stage, and then eased slowly back down. The music gradually fades
away, and soon individual bits of chatter become audible at the nearby
tables. A few people start in with a Showtime stomp. These people are ready
for a laugh.
A blue spotlight
illuminates Lenny, who is sitting on a wooden stool, holding the cordless
microphone towards the crowd with his head stretched forward, smoking,
exhaling through his nose, and coolly surveying the crowd.
The stage is dark except for the small circle of colored light.
"Did anybody here happen
to catch President Bush last night on television, doing his rough and tumble
routine? Everybody, right, yeah - I only go for the easy material most
"You, sir? With the attractive yellow shirt. You would actually raise
your hand to answer a rhetorical question? 'Ooo ooo, I saw it, I know
exactly where this guy is coming from!'
"Yeah, all right people, I know it's rough times, tense and
tumultuous times, and you're sitting at home after a tough day at work,
lobbying on the hill for some energy trading trust that you only vaguely
understand - and you think it's going to be a slow week but they keep asking
you for one-on-ones... 'Pipeline in Afghanistan, I dunno, let me get back to
"It's a drag, yeah, a real mindfuck. You finally
get home and there your wife is, kvetching at you from the kitchen about
something or another, maybe she's bored, maybe you need to go to the kid's
goddamn soccer practice for once in your useless life... Yeah, so now you've
made yourself a nice stiff drink - you supersize it so you don't have to go
back into the kitchen and see that bitch right away - and all you want to do
is just shut down the brain and enjoy a little fantasy time, chill out a
little bit, maybe check out 'Friends' or something, I don't know, and BAM,
there's the president's ugly mug on the screen. 'Where's Jennifer, man'?"
Listening to the audience laugh, Susan decides that the audience is
way over-reacting. This is nothing but Vegas shtick. She checks her
companions for their reactions. Melinda is
laughing. Lex is smiling
and a million miles away. Susan frowns.
"So Dubya comes on the screen looking mean and talking tough.
The man is taking no shit."
'The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the
terrorists or they will share their fate.'
Stan can do a better Bush than this guy, thinks Susan.
I can do a better Bush than that, thinks Lex.
He sounds just like Bush, thinks Melinda.
"I'd be shaking, yeah, I'd be
No shit was taken - I'd be shakin' - No shit was taken..."
I want a drink, thinks Susan.
No shit was taken? thinks Lex.
Oh he's funny, thinks Melinda.
"Of course, they can't shake right away. The Taliban, they have this
problem with television, not unreasonable, so they've trained a whole
sleeper cell that's working for a temp agency up in Omaha - 'No no, we said
Admin-a-Staff not Afghanistan' - and this is the group that has to watch the
tube for the senior Talies. Yeah, and the next day the temps send back a
transcript by fax."
What next, thinks Susan, a Gary Condit joke?
He's starting to roll, thinks Lex. I wonder if he sees me sitting
Oh he's funny, thinks Melinda.
"Good gig, being a media watcher... I used to do that for Gary Condit
- Anybody remember him?"
"I do!" shouts the
guy in the yellow shirt. Lenny ignores him.
"So the next day, when they get the report, like they've got Fax
machines in their caves you know, the next day they're shaking all right.
America's got shit you can't even imagine. Hey, you can't imagine it either.
I mean every ten years or so, we've been building us up a nice stockpile of
this stuff, we've got a pile of spanking new weapons that haven't been field
tested yet, and... Look out towelhead, Piggy in the middle!"
It's the waitress!
Lenny loses the complete attention of table #14.
Everyone feels enchanted.
Lex is a very practical man. "Just let me get both of my drinks now.
I'll have Chivas on the rocks, a double."
"And your other drink?"
"No, that's it, a double Chivas."
After less than ten seconds the waitress is already starting to get
impatient with Lex. She looks at him with the affront of a countess.
"A double is still one drink. Did you want me to bring you two
"Okay, sure. Good plan."
"Would you like your order in a single glass?"
here knows what you call a Taliban who owns a goat and a sheep? A bisexual!"
"Yeah, that's the sort of crap material you really want to hear
tonight. Fess up, people. You think I don't know this sort of crowd?"
'HooHah, what a pathetic bunch of
Was that supposed to be Pacino, thinks Susan.
Good Dick Cheney, thinks Lex.
Al Pacino!, thinks Melinda.
Lenny snubs out his cigarette, and stands up. "Hey, Johnny, put the
spotlight on the crowd. Uh huh, let's take a good look at 'em. Whoa, you
guys! Now I can see you and you can't see me. That's the way I like it."
Lenny lights another cigarette and starts to pace the little stage.
"You know how freaking tired I already am of hearing Dubya talking
about 'the Evil Ones?' Johnny, back on stage with the spotlight, already.
I'm tired of looking at these people..."
"So anyway, Shrub, man, he really digs that word, evil... Evil. The
Evil ones... Motherfucker takes a phrase and just beats it into the
ground... Evil. He compared the Taliban to fascists, totalitarians, and
Nazis. But who did he leave out? Don't you answer me, Yellow Shirt. Yeah,
he forgot the Communists. Wasn't that the last Evil Empire that we were
bumping chests with? The great Ronald Regan's arch-nemesis?"
'Hello citizens, I don't know of any country other than China - that evil
land mass on the other side of the world - no other country with so many
nuclear missiles pointed our way'.
"At this very moment, they've got...you want another joke, I know, but
hang with me a second... China, if they choose not to annihilate us, they're
such a damn good market. Lots of potential and still growing. And we do have
a plan. We get them hooked on Microsoft and McDonalds and in five years
we'll own there sorry asses. Yeah, yeah, we gotta keep trying anyway..."
"Okay, then, does anybody know the difference between Osama Bin Laden
"Osama is a dead man," shouts Lex.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, a round of applause for my father, Lexter
Bruce. Put the spotlight on him Johnny."
"You suck!" shouts Lex. Melinda kicks him underneath the table.
"Dear old dad," says Lenny, moving off of the stage and into the
spotlight with Lex. "Fucking tyrant is what he was. Wanted me to be a
scholar, like he was. He'd quiz me all the time. Browbeat me, that's a
better word. Dinner was like Jeopardy with Adolph Trebeck. Used to beat the
shit out of me if I couldn't name the capitol of Uzbekistan. Taught me
everything I know, I guess. And tonight - the man is out on the prowl." He
tussles Lex's hair, then takes Melinda's hand and lands a courtly kiss on
"Dad, where's Mom tonight?"
"What's your name?" he says, turning to Susan. Tony Bennett polite.
Susan understands her situation. Her gut instinct is to tell Lenny to
fuck off, but there are obviously a lot of people here who need to laugh
tonight, they're counting on her, and she will reluctantly play her part.
She wouldn't mind a laugh herself, but
this guy is lame.
"Susan" she replies, feigning a
"Well, Susan - are you a
woman? Or just a weekend amateur? Whoa, slow on the uptake - Look out Dad.
She may be a little too old for the job, maybe Johnny can use her..."
Lenny jerks back from the table and hisses into the microphone. "Are
you screwing my dad? Are you? Are you? If you are, I've got to say thank you
very very much. Because he sure screwed me for long enough. Yeah, ya
Lenny smacks Lex smartly on the back of his head before reclaiming the
Lex is beaming. That boy, he thinks. I'm so proud of him.