November 26, 2020

We discovered that restaurants were surviving on take out sometime in early summer 2020 so I’d started our weekly go get food and have a dinner here at the Birdsnest. Jenny and I would eat out at the backyard bar or inside depending on the weather.

It became kind of elaborate just the two of us and the dogs, and no one was inside eating at restaurants, so takeout was pretty much it. I always tipped well when I picked up the big bags, as if we’d actually eaten at wherever because we were all just getting by and trying to figure out how to survive a global pandemic at the time. I like to think everyone did that.

We had to buy some new dishes to accommodate our new form of dining. Large ramen bowls, chopsticks and spoons for when we brought back Ramen from College Avenue, some nicer fancy glasses for the takeout cocktails, and I’d started with Daughter’s Thai up the hill, then moved on to the sushi places, Burma Super Star in Temescal, Calavera downtown, Bar Cesar in Piedmont. We moved from our survival supplies to “going out” again, even if it was at home.

As Thanksgiving approached it was clear that in 2020 there would be no family gathering. That was before the vaccines and it was just too risky, what with all the people dying after each holiday in the USA when they fucked around and found out unfortunately. We didn’t want to take a chance with mom, or our brothers and sisters or ourselves.

Back in the days before the pandemic when it was Ms. Bird, and my dogs Vegas, Sailor and Dashing and I — our Black Dogs Three incarnation, I’d make us a Thanksgiving dinner fit for the dogs and I, not realizing that menu wasn’t really Ms. Bird’s favorite. It was all memories from my youth. The yams from a can with marshmallows, the Campbells mushroom soup, green beans and those fried onions, a turkey either a loaf when I was poor or a real turkey that took hours after I wasn’t poor anymore so leftovers for a week. We’d have the sweet rolls, the gravy, some mashed potatoes and canned cranberries that made that squishy satisfying moist splurt when you turned the can over and saw the ridges the can left encircling their red glistening quivering glory.

Jenny abided that a few years, not eating most of it, but maybe the spuds, until she just couldn’t anymore, and she forced some upgrades. Nothing from cans. She implemented fresh cranberry sauce, simmering for hours with spices in a saucepan. Fresh green beans with homemade mushroom soup and onions cut and breaded then fried in a pan in canola oil. I made her prawns on a skewer. It took a long time and required many pots and pans.

The dogs and I tore into our turkey, all feral on the floor while she was at the table, sophisticated with candles and wine. Those were good days. I miss Vegas and Sailor. Dashing is still around and he’s a baddass wild animal. And we have Tallulah who’s a good girl coming into her own culinary proclivities.

So, it was 2020 Thanksgiving and I was all about the take out, and I started searching the web for Thanksgiving take out in Oaktown and found the Lake Chalet up on Lake Merritt. Dinners for three people, enough for the dogs and I, while I could grill up Jenny’s prawns. It was kind of expensive, but they promised all the important items, the green bean casserole, the turkey and gravy, rolls, and mashed potatoes.

I ordered our feast a week in advance at their guidance and thereafter was daily becoming more and more excited as Thanksgiving approached — as you can imagine. There were to be cranberries and extra gravy on the side. It would be our first take out Thanksgiving. It would be glorious. The pictures were inviting. The possibility of not having to wash all those pots and pans was perfect.

I got an email Thanksgiving morning that directed me to show up at 2:30 and it gave me a group number. I left the house around 2 and drove down to Lake Merritt and found a parking space above where the Chalet stands like an ornate mausoleum against the blue water behind it. I put on my mask, put the hand sanitizer in my pocket and made my way down the marble steps to the entrance where several tables were set up in front of the entrance to the restaurant where a young woman stood behind them. She was wearing a mask and moving between bags on the tables and back into the restaurant, calling out names that no one was reacting too. There were only a few bags on the tables. It looked like there was some action inside, and as I walked up, I noticed there were a lot of people on either side, all masked, all standing there watching me.

I said hey and told her my name and she said ok, one second, then she went inside. The door was opened so you could see her in there asking someone if the food was ready for me, then she came back out and said it wasn’t ready yet. I checked my phone and saw it was 2:30 so I stepped back into the crowd and just kind of looked around.

Once I’d settled in and become part of the crowd, this dude with back hair looked over at me and said, “The food is never ready yet” then he looked back at his phone. I could tell he was smiling behind his white surgical mask. I started the eavesdrop and it was grousing all around. “I’ve been here since one”, “What’s going on??”, “It doesn’t seem that they were prepared for this”, as the woman behind the tables kept coming out calling names for people who never stepped up to claim their meals.

I felt so bad for her. She was working with the cluster fuck she’d been given, and she was so nice to everyone, apologizing for the food not being ready. Every once in a while, someone would come up and get their food then sulk away after waiting no one knew how long. She was trying to maintain some sense of hospitality. Some sense of order.

I watched the people walking around Lake Merritt, some roller skating, on bikes, just having a good time out there. There was a guy with a boom box blaring, shirtless and totally buff who walked through the crowd that stepped back to let him pass, as he nodded his head to the beats. There were the ducks and other birds who walked through on their way to dinner. Dude with black hair eventually walked way down, over to the lake and sat down after asking the table woman if his food was ready a few times over the last hour. I saw him gazing across the water a moment before he looked back down at his phone.

We became slowly broken when new food in bags arrived, but no one was there to claim it and every person who approached the door tables asking for their meal and was rebuffed and told their food would be out “soon”.

A few people attempted to negotiate the unclaimed bags. Others offered that maybe their system was broken and the numbers and names weren’t adding up. Things started to feel like José Saramago’s “Blindness”. A Kafkaesque futility began prevading our souls there. And that young woman at the tables just kept being nice to everyone even though no one’s food was ready for them to take it home.

By then the running joke among my motley crew and I of hangers on was that our remaining group was laughing to each other beneath our masks as we watched this experiment play out, watching how people dealt with the “just wait, almost there” trope. It was pushing 4 o’clock at that point.

Just then this tall blond woman with long hair flowing behind her double mask descended the stairs flanked by a couple girlfriends attending her like bridesmaids, and she walked up to the table fully confident her prize would be handed to her post haste.

Her food wasn’t ready yet.

We watched her with curious abandon as she told the table woman “I have ten guests ready to eat in 20 minutes,” and she demanded that the “website told me this is when I can pick up our food” with her bridesmaids all dramatic and shocked, just shocked. At this point it was looking like a Greek tragedy.

At that point I couldn’t do the waiting any more so I bailed. I walked up the steps with the woman at the tables telling them their food would be ready soon and the tragedy faded behind me like a play that was going to go on for another 24 hours.

I got home and had a little food and hung with the dogs and Ms. Bird. She said I needed to get a refund because it was kind of expensive. We discussed alternative food for a while and just kind of dicked around until another hour passed and I told her I was going to go back down to Lake Merritt and see if the food was ready to which she laughed and said sure, go for it.

When I got there I didn’t recognize anyone. Dark hair guy was gone. Tall blondie and her entourage weren’t there but there were plenty of people standing around. I walked down the steps then through them, right up to table woman and said “Do you have food for John?”

She went through the brown bags and said my last name and I said yep. Two bags. She said, “Right here!” and I said, “Happy Thanksgiving” and gave her a 30 dollar tip and told her she was awesome and was doing a great job and how challenging is must have been getting all this food out to people today, with the pandemic and all, and I thanked her again. She smiled, told me she appreciated me and took the money and told me to have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

As I walked away towards the stairs the crowd turned to stare at me. They lowered their phones and I could see the envy and stunned confusion in their eyes. I laughed all the way home, replaying that moment in my mind. And the food wasn’t even cold.

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