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Idiot Gringos at the Korean Barbecue

 See this intimidating behemoth of a grill? This is where embarassment thrives.

See this intimidating behemoth of a grill? This is where embarassment thrives.

Introducing for this story: My son, Sarah Richards.

If you don't already know her, Sarah is my son. She is a smaller, younger, cooler version of me.

 The resemblance -

The resemblance -

 - do you see it?!

- do you see it?!

During the run of the 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Sarah and I decided to have a night of father/son bonding with three shows on the docket that night.

This evening culminates in the most spectacularly embarrassing display of whiteness I have ever been a part of and hoo boy, y'all know I'm a super white sunofabitch.

But we're not there yet.


Getting you into our pre-Korean barbecue headspace:

The evening starts with us speeding as fast as we can to see our first show. I'd left late, so now we're on a time crunch to get down to Hollywood. If you're not familiar with Hollywood Fringe, there's a specific timetable that all the shows need to adhere to because there's so many gosh diggity dang shows. As such, they start as close to on time as possible.

There's that looming over my head, but also simply the fact that being late stresses me out like a motherfucker. I hate hate hate HATE being late.

I lurch into a surprisingly solid parallel parking job and we power walk into the theatre only to find that I had put in my calendar the start time for fifteen minutes earlier than it actually was. Because I am a goober.

We catch our breath on the lobby couch. I hear Time Crunch laughing at me in the distance.

Time Crunch. Make note of this bastard. He's a motif. He's important later.

Wounded.jpg

The show we see is written by my friend Kerry <last name Polish and therefore unpronounceable> and called Wounded. It's a harrowing tale about veterans and PTSD and brain damage and it tackles sensitive subject material with commendable respect.

Sarah and I leave the theatre in a state of utter amazement. Partly because the show is such a gut-wrenching watch, but also because I personally am overcome with feelings of "I will never write this good ever."

It's in this frame of mind - of having experienced exquisite, traumatic theatre - that we head off to our second show.

The second show Sarah and I see is...

Terrible.

I'm not going to say the name here because that's just not Fringe of me, but let me put it like this: two minutes into the show, Sarah and I give each other "The Look."

"The Look" consists of slowly turning our heads until our eyes meet. We both raise our eyebrows, take a breath, and draw out our lips.

"The Look" communicates thusly: "Oh my god. This physically pains me to watch. What did we sign up for?"

On top of the show being completely unfunny for a comedy and handling sensitive material in a way that was the exact opposite of Wounded (i.e. disrespectful to the point of utter befuddlement), I was the one who had booked this show for the evening. In fact, I had booked all the shows for the evening.

The "play" ends. We bolt out of the theatre and get a good way down the sidewalk before having the ensuing conversation, both of us in fluctuating states of mortification:

Sarah: WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!

Me: I'm so sorry.

Sarah: I just… how...? What...?!

Me: I'M SO SORRY.

Sarah: No no - don't be - this was great. This was wonderful.

Me: ...what?

Sarah: Yeah! In one night, I've seen some of the best and and some of the worst theatre in my life!

Me: Okay. But like, I dragged you out to this awful show and I feel like that was my fault -

Sarah: Drew. Shut your face. It's a fun story to tell.


"Fun story to tell." This is another motif. Pay attention to it.

Those of you who know me and/or Sarah may notice a few of our personality quirks in the exchange above: I feel intense guilt and shame over having made a mistake (in this case, dragging Sarah to a show I had no idea the quality of, but turned out to be really bad), Sarah finds this all hilarious and that it will make a good story .

If only she had a well-read blog.

I'm not claiming that this blog is well-read or anything. I just...

Moving on.


Prelude to Barbecue: We're Almost There, I Swear

Now, none of the above is super relevant to the main story, but I think it imparts a general sense of how our father/son evening is going and the state of mind we're in as the social farce that is our main event ekes ever closer to your awaiting eyes.

Between the bad bad show and the next show (which is a fun game show called Buzz'd Out Live! and Current Drew can say that yes, it was, in fact, fun) we have a little downtime. We decide that it would be good to grab something quick to munch, so we park right outside the theatre and walk down the street to see what's available.

The theatre is in Koreatown and there are no less than four Korean barbecues on the stretch of street we walk along.

We pass by a 7/11. We could've contented ourselves with heat-lamped pizza and oodles of candy, but no.

 I am not fucking joking around about the KFC Castle.

I am not fucking joking around about the KFC Castle.

We come close to the Colosseum of KFC's. No joke, it's the largest KFC I've ever seen. Multi story. The KFC Mecca.

We give that a pass too. We want something more interesting.

Well, let's not cast blame unfairly - I want something more interesting.

I say these words to Sarah: "Let's go back to one of those Korean barbecue places."

Cue dramatic orchestral sting.

"They look pretty sit-down."

"Yeah, but they have meat skewers. We can just get those and go."

"Okay."


Oh Sarah. My son. For the second time that evening, I am about to abuse your trust.

See, I've never been to a Korean barbecue before. Neither has Sarah. In fact, the only experience I've had with Korean barbecue is a food truck.

A food truck. Yeah, that's a real authentic representation of cuisine right there. And because that food truck served skewers, I assume that all Korean barbecue would serve skewers. We don't have all that much time between shows (Time Crunch steeples his fingers manically from his front-row seat on my shoulder). We really just want to grab something to go. Hence, skewers.

I know I'm harping on this skewer thing a bit, but it's this misconception that launches the following tale of woe.


A Quick Munch on a Time Crunch

We go back to one of the Korean barbecues. I couldn't tell you the name. The sign was in Korean although there was the word "moon" written in English on it.

We get a seat for two. We're told to wait. It'll be about five minutes.

So far so good.

We'll just get some appetizers, we think. And then we'll skedaddle.

Yeah, this is a sit-down place, but we just want a quick munch. That's all.

Just a quick munch.

We just want a quick munch.

Guys.

All we want is a quick munch.

We are summoned to our table.

Cool. This is going well.

We sit down. Awesome. We can do this.

What's this grate in the middle of the table?

 REMEMBER ME, MOTHERFUCKERS?!?!?!?!?!

REMEMBER ME, MOTHERFUCKERS?!?!?!?!?!

I steal glances at nearby customers. Oh. It's like a little table grill. That's neat. That's actually very cool.

I sure hope I don't have to figure out how it works.

The dread doesn't quite set in yet.

We get a menu.

We don't see any appetizers.

It's not that there aren't any appetizers on the menu. There very well could be, but see, here's the thing: The server is standing near us and I fully blossom into panic mode.

I'm thinking about how I don't want to look like an idiot in front of the server. I don't give a shit about looking like an idiot in front of Sarah - who is pleasantly smiling - but am definitely in the throes of sphincter-clenching horror over looking like an idiot in front of the server I am meeting for the first time.

I'm thinking about Time Crunch and how I'd like him to stop jabbing me every five seconds with "helpful" reminders about how much longer until curtain.

I'm thinking about money and how little I want to spend on a quick munch.

Ooh, an eleven dollar special. That looks good. Cool, we'll just order the pork belly and split it.

"Pork belly?" Sarah asks, mild concern creeping into her voice, pleasant smile still on her lips.

"Yeah. It'll be good," I say.

Sarah, trusting soul that she is, shrugs and says, "Okay."


Why pork belly?

Because I had it once at some place and it was delicious.

It was delicious because of the seasoning and sauce, neither of which were of the sort found at Korean barbecue. If I had to pick a cuisine style which used the seasoning and sauce I found so appetizing, I'd have to guess that it was Cajun. Don't hold me to that.

It was most definitely not Korean seasoning. Or sauce.

This is not an indictment of the pork belly we later consume. The pork belly is tasty, so no need to worry there. It's just not at all what I expected. Much like the rest of the evening.


The server asks me what I want.

I tell him. "The pork belly special," I point to it on the menu.

He pauses for a moment. "Is that all?"

"Uh… yes."

"Um..."

There's this look that he gives me. I think of it as the "Idiot Gringo" look. As in, he has deemed me to be an idiot gringo.

He looks at me like that. Tries to say something.

I blurt out: "Just the pork belly."

He nods, mutters an "Okay..." and then ducks out to no doubt warn the folks in the back about the utterly mad people at table three.

Time Crunch counts down the seconds. We just wanted a quick munch, but we have entered the most sit-down of sit-down places. If Time Crunch weren't being such a dingaling, we could've leisurely perused the menu. Taken our time to figure things out instead of demanding PORK BELLY from the server.  Pork belly which, in my haste to blurt the words out, I have just accidentally ordered one order for each of us instead of one to split. So much for frugality.

I blame Time Crunch for this. Definitely not my ignorance.

The host comes back within a couple minutes. He drops a plate of uncooked pork bellies and two bowls of rice on our table and turns on the burner for the grill.

Again he asks: "Are you sure this is all you want?" and he has that same "Idiot Gringo" look on his face.


Allow me to describe this look a little bit more.

It's like a cross between disbelief and worry. It's closest to a "Why the fuck are you people even here?" sort of look. The muscles in his face tense. His smile is stretched and the corners are slipping... slipping... slipping... down... down... down... The fronts of his eyebrows quiver and push upward as though trying to break free of their facial prisons so they will not have to witness the bumbling whiteness on display. His eyes are wide and flit about, praying that maybe Sarah will be the one who knows what she's doing, but alas, that prayer will go unanswered... alas... alas...


He gives us a chance to order more food. I say no. You know, Time Crunch.

He mentions there's a salad bar.

Cool cool. Not going. Just want a quick munch. A QUICK MUNCH.

Of course, I don't actually communicate that we're in a bit of a rush. I just go "Mm-hm. Yep. Pork bellies. Just the pork bellies. That's it."

The "Idiot Gringo" look on our server's face devolves into pure exasperation by this point.

These are the words he is thinking: They order the special but just get the pork belly? Okay. Fine. It's a lot to pay for just that, but okay. Whatever these moron white people want, I suppose.

He gives us one more chance. I couldn't fumble it harder if I were trying.


I have a confession. Here's something I haven't mentioned yet (probably because it needlessly adds to my shame): our server's English isn't very good. I'm having trouble understanding what he's saying and it adds to my panic. There's no real reason to confess that to you. The story continues just fine without heaping a spoonful of "I'm a secretly horrible person" into the batter. Must me some sadistic form of penance I'm performing for you.


Speaking of confessions - in a jumbled rush, something close to one comes out of me: "I'm sorry, I've never been to a Korean barbecue before, I don't know what I'm doing."

He balks. "You sure you just want the pork bellies?"

"Um. Yes."

Then he leaves.

A guy at the table next to us, having just heard the most competent exchange of the century, helpfully says: "You should get the brisket. It's good. This place is known for its dank brisket."

"Pork bellies," I mutter and look away and feel generally ashamed.

Sarah smiles pleasantly.


Sarah, I should like to point out, is handling all of this horrific social anxiety with a smile. She has a much healthier sense of humor about embarrassment than her father (which is me). She must get it from her mother (who, in this perplexing metaphor, is... I have no clue. None. Just like my knowledge of Korean barbecue).

"Fun story to tell."

She is wrapped in the serene blanket of those words. She is smiling pleasantly.


I get cooking them pork bellies. I discern, using my detective skills, that I'm supposed to put the meat on the grill in front of me and flip it using the tongs we've been given.

Not so bad. I can grill meat. I do it all the time. I wasn't expecting to have to do this tonight, but I'm in my element.

Time Crunch coughs pointedly and I am struck with fear that the pork won't cook in time. I hurriedly whap each slice onto the grill.

Sarah, while I am constantly prodding and flipping and prying the pork bellies with the tongs to make sure that they're actually getting cooked, goes to the salad bar. She returns with salad sauce on her rice. She had hoped it would be soy sauce. Or something similar. Pleasant smile, still intact.

"I think one of the slices is done," I tell Sarah. I point with my tongs at the only piece that has no lingering scrap of raw pink on either side. "That one. That's a good one."

"'K," Sarah takes her own set of tongs and tears the pork from the grill. "This is great, Drew. We picked the most complicated and confounding place to -"

"Shut up," I burn off slivers my shame in the flipping of meat.

Sarah places the pork belly slice on her plate. She looks around, brings the tub of utensils over to her, looks around some more.

"There aren't any knives," she announces.

Liquid horror fills my veins like I've been hooked up to an antifreeze IV. I dig around the utensil tub. "Oh shoot. Uh maybe we can, uh, maybe..."

"I can't cut it with the edge of my fork."

"Fuckity fuck."

"Welp. I guess I'm going to rip it apart with my bare hands. Like a goddamn savage."

The smile on Sarah's face can only be interpreted as madness.

And then.

She does it.


I am desperately hoping at this point that a) there are no security cameras pointed in our direction and that b) if there are, that no one is watching and that c) if someone is watching, maybe their response will be… oh no, that's where that mental scenario ends. If someone's watching us they are definitely hardcore judging us and -


I peel my meat from the grill.

I hit upon an idea that will differentiate me from my son the savage, who is, as I cast my gaze around for something resembling a knife, currently digging her fingernails into what used to be pig, and see that the utensil tub has chopsticks.

At least it's not my hands.

 Imagine that I'm doing this, but with a slice of pork, but also it fails miserably

Imagine that I'm doing this, but with a slice of pork, but also it fails miserably

I attempt at first to do that thing I've seen people do with ramen where they just grab a bunch of noodles with their chopsticks and chomp away. I think that maybe this will work for all food and not just large amounts of floppy noodles.

It doesn't work. Mostly because you can slurp noodles. Slurping pork belly is impossible. Unless you are very determined. Or make a smoothie. Either way, you're a deranged man and should be locked up. I hold a large strip of pork in my chopsticks, try to bite, but my grasp on the meat is weak and it slides out, plopping back on my plate.

Please let there be no security cameras.

Please let them not be making recordings of us for them to laugh at later and then pass down to their children as a warning of how not to behave.

I concede that I'm going to hove to cut the meat apart somehow too. I have the chopsticks. With a combination of stabbing the pork to hold it down with a chopstick and the very dignified prying and twisting I have to do with my fork, I do end up making proper, mouth-sized bits of pork belly for my consumption.

Hooray.

We eat. Sarah like a savage. Me like a savage but with a couple a' sticks.

The table next to us, by the way, the one that was trying to be helpful, has actively turned away.

I don't blame them.

We just wanted a quick munch.

We scarf four slices each, barely tasting them in the presence of the vile Time Crunch. I ask for the check. Check comes.

It's at this point that I realize the first server didn't split the order of pork bellies like I (thought I) asked and rather gave Sarah and I each our own order.

Oops.

I just want to get out. The Time Crunch is doing a lewd dance on my shoulder and I'm getting really worried we won't make the show. Also, my social anxiety has taken me hostage by this point. If it demanded I pay my own ransom, I probably would have written a check for two hundred dollars at the very least to get out of that place right then.

I do not pay two hundred dollars. I do, however, immensely overtip whilst scribbling on the receipt at the register.

Sarah, meanwhile, still has that pleasant smile. I can already hear her saying, "This was a fun night."

Sure. Yeah. Fun, I think, But. But. What about my dignity, Sarah? What about my...?


What about my dignity?

Here are some postscript thoughts that I wish I could impart to Past Drew in this exact moment, the one where he is writing out an astonishingly generous, guilt-fueled tip: the only one who gives a shit about your social awkwardness, about your embarrassment, is you.

You will be driving Sarah home later and you will be freaking out in the car, making strange bleating sounds that sheep may find alluring, and Sarah will be there, blissful and chuckling. She has internalized something that you haven't.

That embarrassment means nothing.

It's hardly a negative in the long run. A day later, said embarrassing event is already a fun story. You were gabbing off to people about your Korean barbecue gaffe the next day.

All that anxiety and nervousness you feel at the time? That's you blowing things way out of proportion, or reading into a situation far more deeply than is healthy, or putting too much stock into what others - hell, strangers - think of you.

What about your dignity, Drew? Fuck your dignity. What has it ever done for you? Made you feel like shit when something like this happens, that's what. And then you gripe and you moan and annoy the shit out of people in a way that is more socially damaging than the embarrassment.

These are the words and lessons that Current Drew, who wears a bathrobe as he writes this in the comfort of his apartment, would like to impart to Past Drew.

Well, he'd like to impart this to Current Drew too.

No incarnation of Drew has been good at handling embarrassment. Ever. Embarrassment is perhaps the single most mortifying emotion that Drew can feel.

But it doesn't have to be.

Embarassment is a fun story.

We just wanted a quick munch on a time crunch and decided, in complete ignorance, that Korean barbecue would be a smashing idea. What ensued was deeply embarrassing.

That's a good story to tell.

(I hope.)

(I mean, I don't want to put judgments like that in your brain. You decide, you autonomous fleshbag you.)


Oh, look. I'm still there at the register, frozen in time, signing away much, much, more money than I should.

Did you catch any of what I wrote up there, Past Drew?

I'm choosing to remember that I do.

I'm choosing to remember that Current Drew reaches across the liminal veil of time, space, and memory in order to bring some solace to Past Drew.

Just for a moment, only in the time it takes for me to complete the "w" in my signature, I feel peace.

Ah. That feels nice. Doesn't it, Past Drew? Doesn't it feel nice to care a little less what people think? To spin a negative into a positive? To understand that, hey, it's just a social faux pas. It doesn't mean all that much.

The peace condenses to the size of a seed and burrows deep inside so I can no longer feel its presence, only to fully blossom when watered with the cathartic, typing keys at Current Drew's fingertips.

So passes the moment. I finish signing the receipt that bares the monetary proof of my embarrassment, guilt, and insecurity. Like signing a binding legal document which declares my anxiety-ridden mental state to be the only reality of our meal with no other feelings permissible.

I put down the pen.

The story ends there.


 

But there is a tiny bit of wrap up to do.

I am mortified as we exit the restaurant. Sarah is laughing, seeing the humor and joy in all of this mere seconds after - hell, during - the previous debacle.

I apologize profusely for screwing up our father/son evening. First that terrible show, then the farce of our own making we just endured... I apologize ceaselessly and tell her in explicit terms how I long for the comfort of the grave and what I will do to reach it.

Sarah laughs and says that she couldn't have asked for a better evening.

We resolve to learn how Korean barbecue works and then one day return to the place whose name we don't know but has the English word "moon" on the sign.

We see the show. As I mentioned, it's a game show called Buzz'd Out Live! and it's a lot of fun.

I apologize some more on the car ride home.

Sarah, who has saintly patience, reiterates that she couldn't have planned a better night. Some of the best and worst theatre she'd ever seen followed by a comedy of errors at the Korean barbecue and then a game show.

Okay. Whatever, I think.

Listen to her, Past Drew. She's got wisdom. But no, you're just going to spend the whole drive being an insecure dumbbell aren't you?

Classic Past Drew.

That seed of peace will grow, though you do not know it's there.


Sarah is on the phone with her sister a couple days later:

"Yeah, we went to a Korean barbecue."

"Oh wow, that's actually like, quite impressive. You like, need to know how to do Korean barbecue to go to Korean barbecue. I didn't know you knew how to do Korean barbecue."

"Oh honey, I have no idea how to Korean barbecue."

"...oh."

<insert Sarah's retelling here>


 

I have now officially written the words "Korean barbecue" enough times that it appears to me like a collection of squiggly shapes, stitched together and devoid of meaning.

Much like my life!

Ba-dum-tish.

Sick self burn. Sick way to entirely undo the uplifting conclusion you were going for.

Ah well.

Ghosts on a Ghost World - The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Signing Off From Hollywood Fringe 2018