“The Subway that way,” Danger Girl said, pointing north from the entrance to our neighborhood, “is closed. I guess that means…”
“…we can go to the dirty Subway,” I replied. “Sure, what the hell.” Until recently, and from the time it had opened a decade or so ago, the Subway a mile or so south from our house had been owned by an old-school Columbus family. My mother used to babysit one of the children. The father was this tall, aristocratic type. He had a black 928GT five-speed twenty-five years ago, back when those cars cost twice what a 911 did. I don’t know how they fell into the Subway business but they did it as you’d expect; the owner’s name was on a plaque next to the cash register and at any time day or night you could have performed an open-heart surgery in the dining area without worrying about contamination.
I don’t know who bought it from them but about two weeks after the plaque with the owner’s name went down, the employee rotation underwent a complete change. The staff of sometimes dim-witted but always conscientious high-school students gave way to a group of short, sullen South Indians. Their English is, to be fair, better than my Telugu, but it rarely verges on the comprehensible. They’re all very nice people, and they are clearly trying very hard, but they don’t observe the same standards of hygiene that the old owners did. The tables are fuzzy, the floor is sticky. I stopped by over the summer and saw a small colony of ants working their way through the cookie rack. That was the end of my Subway cookie habit.
It’s the dirty Subway. But I still patronize the place, mostly out of stubbornness and a determination not to be all white-privilege about whether floors should be mopped. And now that the Subway to the north of us is closed, it’s the only one within a mile or so. So Danger Girl and I took a deep breath and she pulled out onto the main road, headed south for lunch.
It was the usual slightly disconcerting ordering experience: the “American” cheese looked a little hard-edged so I picked the mystery “shredded” stuff. Everything else seemed fine and I was carrying the tray to the table when Danger Girl spun her heel and went back to the woman who was running the register. They had a short, sharp conversation and then DG returned to me. “Disgusting,” she said. And she started to explain what had happened, but my own personal queasy-meter was already on the edge so I just set the meal down and frog-walked her out the front door. “We’ll go somewhere else,” I said. “Like… um… the Penn Station on Bethel.”
On the drive down, my wife told me the story. There were two people working the restaurant: the young dude taking the order and doing the first half of the prep, and the woman doing the second half of the prep and running the register. In the course of preparing DG’s sandwich, the woman removed the latex glove from her right hand, held it in that hand while running the register, then put the glove back on, inside out, before completing the sandwich build. Then, when it was time to run the register for us, she removed the glove, kept it in her hand while she ran the register, then put it back on again.
The interaction that I’d seen, but had not heard, was DG asking the woman if she’d been using the same glove for multiple sandwiches and then holding it in her hand between transactions. The woman lied and said that she had not done that, even though DG had watched the whole thing happen. As a former restaurant owner, Mrs. Baruth is extremely sensitive to this sort of thing.
“That’s just so cheap and disgusting, using the same glove again and again… turning it inside out repeatedly so you wind up with bacteria and grease and dirt from the money on both sides of the glove… ugh.” She’d calmed down by the time we got to the Penn Station. The fellow running the grill there was a Peter Tosh lookalike with tightly-wrapped dreadlocks and for a moment I feared that we’d be visiting a third sub shop before the afternoon was out but as I watched out of the corner of my eye he pulled two fresh gloves, chopped the meat for the sandwiches, then discarded both of them into the trash before moving back to the register, just like they tell you in the food-safety manual.
After we finished lunch, DG agreed to wait in the car while I went into the Music Go Round to get a couple of used gig bags. They didn’t have anything that looked usable, but as I was idly perusing the racks of used Fender and Seagull acoustics I saw what looked, to me, like a Japanese-made Alvarez acoustic. Sure enough, it was a 5021-model twelve-string. These are not terribly valuable guitars, mostly because the Alvarez name has been attached to some real junk over the years and because most players assume that any Alvarez that is not marked with the “A-Y” Alvarez-Yairi headstock logo is either Korean or Chinese.
But the truth is that during the late Seventies and very early Eighties, during the same time that they were moving the production of most Electra guitars to Matsumoku, St. Louis Music was still having non-Yairi-branded Alvarez guitars made in Japan, and these guitars received a general suite of upgrades: nice tuners, solid spruce top, mother-of-pearl headstock inlay. These were still budget instruments compared to a Martin or Gibson acoustic and many of them have led a very tough life.
This one, however, was in like-new shape. No dents or scrapes on the top. Tuned up fine. Stable neck, thick frets. I paid $189 for it. Took it home and played a few tunes with it. It’s one of the better-sounding 12-strings I’ve played. I’m embarrassed to admit that although I own an unreasonable number of guitars, I rarely keep 12-strings when I buy them and until this afternoon I didn’t actually have one in stock. They’re a lot of hassle to keep tuned, they can be tiring to play, and if you try to play a solo acoustic gig with one you will quickly realize that most songs don’t lend themselves to the “chime” of a 12-string. But this one I’m going to keep and play for a while.
I wish I knew how this Alvarez had survived thirty-five years in this kind of condition. Was it in a case under a bed? Was it someone’s pride and joy? A long-stored inheritance? Regardless, it’s a pleasure to have it and a pleasure to play it and a pleasure to kind of crawl around the seams and joints of the thing and see how carefully it was made. There’s not a single bit of “premium” wood in the guitar and compared to, say, my Taylor 714ce Adirondack it might as well be a park bench with cast-iron fittings, but it sounds the business and it’s managed to hold up a long time under the two hundred and sixty pounds of tension that you get with a 12-string in standard tuning.
Without Danger Girl’s mild freakout about the dirty glove situation at Subway, I’d have never found this guitar. So it must have been fate. As a professional storyteller, I’m very tempted to wrap this up into a neat little narrative that goes like so: Our hero experiences memorable interactions with two different cultures. Running away from the restaurant that’s become a filthy hellhole since it was taken over by Indians, he finds a guitar that was made in Japan with such care and quality that it still sounds good three and a half decades after it was placed on the boat to America.
The problem with this narrative is that it fails to rise above mere stereotype and preconception. It also fails to consider that not every Japanese product is of high quality — most Japanese guitars made before 1975, for example, are little better than junk, and it wasn’t until the mid-Eighties that you could rely on the solder joints in a Japanese wiring harness. Nor are all Indians sloppy and dirty when it comes to food preparation.
It’s probably better to view this as a clash of cultural ideals. One of my readers posted this link about China’s “chabuduo” culture last week. (If you’d rather read the same sentiments in Reddit-speak, here’s an amusing post.) “Chabuduo” means, simply, “good enough (for now).” It’s the culture of half-assing everything from electrical wiring to brake-pad installation to food safety, and it’s the default method of operation in modern China. It’s not genetic — Taiwanese don’t believe in it, and it certainly wasn’t the case with many of the wondrous accomplishments of ancient China — but it’s come to define that country’s attitude towards everything.
The people who bought my local Subway operate on the chaduduo principle. No, you probably won’t get sick just because somebody kept turning their gloves inside out — and it saves a dollar or two a day. In the course of a year, that’s $500 in the owner’s pocket. The people who built my guitar made it much better than it needed to be, but what good does that do any of them, thirty-five years after it was made? Who’s to say that the Japanese people at the Alvarez factory are “good” and the Indians at Subway are “bad”?
I suspect that eventually the Subway in my neighborhood is going to have to clean up its act. That level of disinterest in food safety might be fine in Bombay (I have no idea if it is, by the way) but it won’t fly in suburban Ohio very long. Yet I’m not going to go back there until I have some evidence of said cleanup. In the meantime, I’m going to take a look at the idea of chabuduo and see how it applies to my life.
The next time I’m tempted to handle my Kindle Fire to my son and let it babysit him for a while so I can rest, I’ll just remind myself that parenting shouldn’t be chabuduo. I’m going to work on my fitness and my weight a bit harder in 2017; I’m strong enough to drive a race car right now but “good enough” shouldn’t be the guideline. And I’ll put more effort into my writing as well. I don’t want to provide my readers with chabuduo. I’d rather that my creative efforts be like a good Japanese Alvarez acoustic: carefully made of solid materials, durable, ethical, capable of bringing a smile to someone’s face long after I’m not around to see it. Better than good enough. That’s my goal now. Feel free to hold me to it, all of you.