True colors

Pub date February 11, 2009
WriterL.E. Leone
SectionCheap EatsSectionFood & Drink


CHEAP EATS Red. Green. Yellow. Dark green. Orange. Light green to the point of being almost yellow. Earl Butter was showing me his peppers, which is not a euphemism. If it were, I wouldn’t know what it meant. So lucky for all of us, this was literal Truth. There they were, true peppers, in all their shapely and colorful glory, on Earl’s kitchen table. Some of them were in bags.

"Weren’t you born in Texas?" I said.

"No no," he assured me. "I lived there when I was little."

I said I hoped he didn’t intend to ever go back, because they might not let him in if they knew the way he made chili. As many kinds of peppers as possible, no meat.

For my part, forgiveness was automatic, not only because I love my buddy Earl, but because I wasn’t staying for dinner anyway. What a guy! When he cooks, he cooks for the whole floor, and some of the people on his floor are vegetarian.

Sure, I would do things differently. Either cook for myself, or move to a different floor. But I’m not Earl Butter, and this is an important point: I don’t know who I am.

Not the chicken farmer, that’s for sure. I gave my girls away and moved to a fancy-pants neighborhood in Oakland, arguably Oakland’s fancy-pantsiest: Rockridge. I’m mobile (new car), I’m upward (new car); if only I were young, I would be a yuppie.

And, to the extent that yuppies are kind of antithetical to, say, hippie new-age energy healer/poet types, I would embrace my new identity so hard its ribs would crack. I love where I live, and I love the people around me. On the other hand, I’m still as poor as pickle juice. I can afford to live in Rockridge because my apartment is free, in exchange for taking care of the kids sometimes, like picking them up at school, playing music with them, kicking a ping-pong ball in the park, and other things I love to do anyway, like helping with dinner.

Which reminds me: Earl Butter was making chili. But you can’t make chili on an empty stomach. I needed me a bath. But you can’t exactly bathe on an empty stomach either, if you’re me. So I tugged on his shirt sleeve until I’d tugged him out of the kitchen, clear out of his apartment, down the stairs to the Mission District, and into my car.

And we drove off in aimless search of cheap eats.

Found ’em! On Ocean Avenue, of all the crazy places, riding off into the Sunset. Eat First. What are you gonna do, name like that? We ordered hot and sour seafood soup, spicy chicken wings, kung pao chicken, and sliced pork with preserved mustard green.

But they wouldn’t let us have that last one. "It’s Chinese food," our waitressperson kept saying, shaking her head.

I countered with the unassailable argument, "And …?" But it wasn’t until I’d persuaded her that I’d had the dish before, many times, and loved it, that she agreed to include it in our order.

Reluctantly. Mutteringly.

Earl Butter pointed out that we were the only whities in the place, that everything else we’d ordered was classic whitey fare, and that no matter how badass I felt on the inside, I looked "irretrievably dainty" — even all sweaty and disheveled from back-to-back soccer games.

Waitressperson came back and said they were out of the pork with preserved mustard greens. Earl thinks she was lying. I believe her.

New favorite restaurant.

As for my new-age trucker mother … maybe you guessed already: he turned out to be more energy healer than truck driver, damn him. On our first date we walked and danced on the sidewalk, looked over a railing into a stream, then sat on a bench and kissed like crazy.

What a wonderful woman I was, he whispered in between things. Deep, oniony, complex, cute …

I had to say what else, and that was, more or less, it. He showed his true colors. I don’t know what shade of pale would describe them. Maybe new-age gray. He was not the color of peppers.


Daily: 5–9:30 p.m.

1540 Ocean, SF

(415) 587-1698



L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.