Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chicago (and Ms Mona) Comin' to the Food Network

(me, too. me, too...)

Okay, this is going to be fun. It's one of those stories I sometimes get accused of making up but honest to Pete, it's almost entirely true. And although this is a fish story of sorts, it's not the kind you're probably expecting. It is, however, a 'keeper' in my yet to be written book of tall, if not historically accurate, tales.

A few months back a close friend of my lovely Mona's called the house and invited us out to a 'group get together' at Glenn's Diner in Ravenswood. I happen to like Glenn's but not nearly as much as I dislike 'group get-togethers.' I dislike them so much I insist on putting quotation 'glyphs' around the very phrase. Glenn, a close friend of our close friend, is the proprietor of one of the hottest fresh fish joints on the North Side of Chicago. He had just been booked for a feature on The Food Network's 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' and requested our attendance for the shoot date. This 'group' he was assembling was to help provide the basic background noise, scenery, and some local neighborhood color to the filming. But since none in our invited party actually live in that particular neighborhood, and since it was one of those after work kind of 'get-togethers' (which I really dislike), and since we were all battling the same late Friday afternoon Chicago rush hour traffic coming from different directions of the city by car to get there on time; because of all these reasons...and then some... our entire table was late when the scheduled shoot time was upon us. Quite late, in fact, according to cell phone records.

As I was serpentining (flying over speed bumps) eastward and southward through every shortcut alley I know on the north west side of this bumper to bungalow speed bump ridden city, the little 6 year girl in my back seat (our friend's otherwise charming and precious daughter) was getting...well, a little queasy. Maybe queasy isn't the right word. She was getting car-sick. Actually, car-sick isn't even the right word. She was throwing-up all over my back seat is what she was doing. That's the right word. Throwing-up. And I'm putting it as nicely as I can recall (which is every time I reach into the back seat for something) even these months later.

Sooo...we were terribly late for our reservation, the crew had been filming around our empty table for an hour, people were standing in line to get in, and the back of my neck was... wet. Maybe wet isn't the right word. Whatever, I wasn't exactly in the mood for fish as I barreled down the final side street, hit the air brakes, and emptied my carload of 'get-togetherers' out on the curb in front of the restaurant. I spotted a Good Will Drop-Off dumpster in the alley under the El tracks at Montrose Avenue (Go ahead, drive by. It's there) that was brimming with donated clothing, and quickly tore off in that direction, doors still ajar. I threw the SUV in PARK, jumped out, and grabbed a few torn summer dresses and a Van Huesen button down shirt from the top of the over flowing charity heap.

I proceeded to wipe down the back seat with my new found tax deductible evidence; make that the back seat, both back doors, the headliner, seat belts, the little things you click the seat belts into, windows, headrests, carpets, mats, briefcase, glove box, CD collection, Open House brochures...It was all just kind of smearing, if you know what I'm saying.

I frantically (good word) looked around until finally spotting a garden hose in the backyard of a Two-Flat but the chain link fence had a Beware of Dog sign on in. And since I was now very possibly reeking of whatever that child ate for lunch that day, I thought better of throwing my hat in that particular back yard, ass biting, proverbial ring and considered Plan B. ( Let me say right now that the scene from 'Pulp Fiction' where The Wolf gets Vincent Vega and Jules to totally 'clean' a back seat in Jimmie's garage before Bonnie gets home in 20 minutes is, well...pulp fiction.)

So I reached back up into the Drop-Off and grabbed another soiled rag, this time a double knit pant suit that smelled worse than the back seat of my Bimmer. I soaked it in a puddle of muddy water that had been stagnating under the El tracks since the last rainfall and sopped up as much as I could considering my tattered resources. I then circled the block four times before finding a semi-legal parking space. I parked the vehicle leaving it unlocked with the windows and sunroof wide open, just hoping an unsuspecting car thief would stick his snout inside.

I walked coolly into the restaurant some 40 minutes after splash down and gave the waitress my order. Fish. Yuck. Everyone else was already on their second cocktail. And I, being the lifetime designated driver for such (and all) 'get-togethers' from now until my last sober breath on this Earth is exhaled, ordered my fifth and final coffee of the day. A little wired... Ya think?

Of course, the camera immediately zooms in on Mona and they ask her all the good Food Network fish questions about her dinner, and the flavor, and how it compares with fish from Hawaii, and the wine pairing, and all these other 'foodie' (hate the word) things. She answers and beams with such a sweet southern accent you have to smile. Meanwhile, they don't ask me anything although I'm pretty sure the camera that was stuck in my own silent face half the time caught me almost choking on a fish bone as I was staring down the six year old across the table, war now declared. Anyway, if you watch the show this Monday night, I'm the one in the blue floppy hat that isn't smiling.

So the dinner tasted like fish, which is good I suppose since it is the best fish joint in Chicago, but then another couple (who I never met before) sat down and more food and drinks were ordered and then, as quickly as it all began, the action was cut, the lights dimmed and the final check was presented. Silly me. I thought it was all going to be free.

But instead...the bill was almost $500 with tax and tip (which in Chicago is over 30% combined and another post for another morning). I barely knew half of those 'getting-together' that evening so the final math (division of who ate--and didn't eat--what, and who drank the most--not me--and who just came for dessert, blah, blah, blah) was excruciating. Several of us pulled out credit cards then were immediately informed that the check couldn't be spread over more than two cards. And that they didn't take American Express, which I was holding out in my hand like I was hailing a taxi cab in Montana. No takers. My lucky night continued. Priceless.

The two strangers (to me) got up hit the ATM a block away for some much needed cash but one of them never came back. Thirty minutes later we still hadn't resolved the bill and it was getting embarrassing. No embarrassing isn't the right description. Humiliating is better. Actually, humiliating and pissed-off is most accurate. And sobering (for me, that is). Luckily for everyone (including Glenn, I suppose) the members of the film crew had packed away the cameras, struck the set, and were already bellying up and throwing back at the bar, having their own 'get together.'

Glenn, the gentleman proprietor that he is, stepped up and quickly whacked a hundred off the bill (and his profit, I'm sure) but by this point my mind and the evening were both quickly dulling. My wife, however, was glowing. She is soon to be a Food Network star, at least in our own household kitchen, where Channel 72 is the only programming ever on that particular screen.

You can see her (and the rest of the above mentioned cast of characters) on the Food Network this coming Monday night, November 24th, at 9PM. Like I said, I'm the one in the blue floppy hat. I would have taken it off but my neck was still a little... sticky (yeah, that's the right word). Also, the shirt I'm wearing in the show was the only decent thing I came across in the Good Will Drop-Off. And like the old man on the radio has been saying almost every weekday morning in Chicago for the last 50 years...'And now you know the rest of the story....'

Geno Petro

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