In Which A Food Safety Issue Leads To A Tasty Deal On An Old Guitar

“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.

49 Replies to “In Which A Food Safety Issue Leads To A Tasty Deal On An Old Guitar”

  1. Tomko

    My definition of class is behaving with dignity and manners even when no one is watching or will ever know.

    My definition of doing a good job is following all the steps of the manual / recipe / procedure, etc. even though no one is watching or will ever know.

    The guy who laid the tile in my house had all of the kitchen cabinets and fixtures removed so that the floor was done uniformly correct, wall-to-wall. No one will ever know his effort unless those cabinets and fixtures are removed. He had class and did a good job. He wasn’t cheap. But, as the saying goes, he was priceless.

        • jz78817

          and? it’s not like we’ve gone back to calling Munich “München,” or Vienna “Wien,” or Florence “Firenze” yet. Heck, we still call the country “India” instead of “Bharat.”

          at this point I would rather country/place names be “isolingual” instead of these hold-overs from colonial times.

        • Kevin Jaeger

          It’s funny how selective this renaming of cities is. In Quebec, where I live, we still refer to Bombay and Peking while speaking French, but in English it’s apparently politically incorrect to do so.

          And on an unrelated note, I once read an entertaining travelogue of a guy who wrote a book – Bombay to Beijing by Bicycle. Apparently alliteration being more important than stylistic consistency.

          There’s a Kindle edition available at Amazon. In answer to Jack’s question – it’s a long way by bicycle.

          • jz78817

            it’s not “politically incorrect,” India’s government officially changed it back in the ’90s and it made its way back through the rest of the world. So why the fuck do you think this is somehow a bad thing?

          • Kevin Jaeger

            I would guess you’re mostly interested in arguing but I’ll answer the question anyway.

            Bombay was renamed at the initiative of violent Hindu nationalists who did fun stuff like attack South Indians and other minorities then living in the city, demolished mosques and instigated anti-muslim riots that killed thousands. And they imposed the name in their chosen language mostly over the objection of the linguistic and religious minorities in the city. Using the name Mumbai honors their actions.

  2. Chris Tonn

    I can attest that I’ve not had health issues from “the dirty Subway.” There are at least two more locations quite close, though – on Sawmill just south of Hard, and in the massive big-box store in Olde Sawmill.

    Plus two closer Penn Stations – in front of Meijer, and in Powell just south of McD’s.

    Of course, if you hadn’t traveled to Bethel, no new guitar for you.

    Thanks for the chabuduo link, BTW. Explains so much. It seems that even some American companies have let this particular culture seep in – one in particular that I deal with frequently operates with such disdain for their customers that I can’t imagine how it became the industry leader.

  3. jz78817

    the problem for them is that Subway will give practically anyone a franchise anywhere. all someone has to do is open up a “clean” Subway close by and take all of their business.

    and I love (love) the sound of 12 string acoustic guitars. the, I don’t know, “sparkle” they have is nice.

  4. Joe

    Said improvement of your local subway will unfortunately include a sign in the window, “under new management”! The Dunkin Donuts around where I live went through the same transformation, I don’t go to any Dunkin donuts stores now.
    Your writing skills and imagination are well beyond “good enough”.

    • jz78817

      probably. minor nitpick- with the exception of some big cities (e.g. NYC, LA) health departments/inspections are usually run by the county.

  5. everybodyhatesscott

    I used to work at one of thr ‘clean’ subways. I’d suggest not eating at subways. I havent since i quit that job 14 years ago

  6. Hogie roll

    Worked fast food a bit in highschool. Our staff was all white high schoolers. Our whole staff would get shipped to a dirty store frequently for the closing shift, just to clean the place properly.

    It was the hardest minimum wage job you could have I suspect.

  7. Rick T.

    Had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Roger McGuinn on his one man show tour this summer at the old theatre in Franklin. A few weeks later John Sebastian came through doing the same thing at the same venue. Both highly enjoyable and one of the pleasures of living near Nashville.

  8. -Nate

    Thanx for the “chabuduo” links .
    This basic lack of self respect has been prevalent in America for DECADES and has cost me many jobs for refusing to do things half-assed .
    I remember when buying a burger meant the guy cooked it then wiped his greasy hands on his apron and worked the register or cash drawer….
    I don’t think I’d mind the lack of a new pair of gloves but _any_ visible insects lunching or rodent poop would make me walk away after I’d had a chat with the BMFIC ~ no need to yell nor be rude, just point out egregious deficiencies and ask if they’re ready to loose Customers because of it .
    Kudos on finding the 12 string ! I find old tools and things the same way, so many things are purchased then set aside all it takes is luck to have been properly stored against damage and YOU being the lucky duck who finds it .

  9. wlitten

    I have a Japanese friend who is a plumber in San Francisco . Describes himself as a twinkie, yellow on the outside, white trash on the inside. Anyway, he is constantly telling me stories about the terrible work that Chinese plumbers are performing in SF. The company he works for get a lot of jobs just fixing other plumbers work. Perhaps “chabudo” explains some of it. Could never tell how much of what he said was true and how much was bullshit because he loves to bad mouth the Chinese any chance he gets. There is no hate like the hate between Chinese, Koreans and Japanese.

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      So true… I often wonder how they feel coming to America and being lumped together as “Asian”. Most of the European rivalries don’t simmer as deep as the ones between the Pacific countries.

      • Ronnie Schreiber

        “I’ve been all around the world and compared to Europeans, Asians, and Africans, Americans are rank amateurs at racism.” – Prof. Lewis Lancaster – University of California Berkeley, Far Eastern Religions.

  10. Dirty Dingus McGee

    A 12 string in the hands of a top picker is an amazing sound. As the line in David Allen Coe’s song, Waylon, Willie and Me goes; “Roger McGuinn had a 12 string guitar, and it was like nothing I ever heard”.

  11. Biff Bohannon

    You were so brave going to the “dirty” subway. You were even braver to go into the Music Go Round where those without talent or hygiene all instruments they cannot play to people who also cannot play them but will pay money to acquire them.

    I’d like to know why you think the Indians were southern. Have you been there?

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      First half of comment: don’t think you’re making much sense.

      Second half: for better or worse the vast majority of my professional life involves Indians.

          • CJinSD

            I found it pretty dark. The protagonist conducts himself in a manner that might have been inspired by Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” only he isn’t supposed to be a monster or a delusion. The lives of the people tasked with killing him are similarly strewn with everyday atrocities. I’ll never look at Apu the same way. It’s about a reporter who is supposedly something of a social justice proponent, when he isn’t expressing his caste by kicking a beggar or raping a domestic.

    • Sammy B

      It’s not a perfect rule, but southern Indians (and Sri Lankans) tend to have a darker complexion. That’s just be sheer virtue of being closer to the equator. Northern Indians or Pakistanis tend to be a bit lighter.

      So it’s not a perfect rule, but that, as well as working with Indians and noticing differences can be a giveaway.

      [this is coming from a 1st generation American with parents born in northern Indian. Like Jack, I also work with a number of Indians and eventually we don’t all look alike :)]

  12. Ark-med

    That level of disinterest in food safety might be fine in Bombay (I have no idea if it is, by the way) […]

    That cavalier attitude to hygiene is accepted at transient low-priced food-carts, at established lower-tier restaurants and yes, at established food-carts (we have some of the latter, extant over decades). You get what you pay for: the chance at a fantastic cheap meal (for now) followed by a day or two of explosive diarrhœa. Seems like a corollary to the hot rodder’s adage: cheap, fantastic, clean: pick any two.

    OTOH, you don’t hear of too many people w/ allergies or autoimmune diseases in India: we’re fighting real pathogens. And the parasites keep you lean — but after they settle into your brain, you start rationalizing overnight demonetization as a great way to flush out a few venal, uh, symbionts.

  13. Frank Galvin

    I was wondering when you were going to drop a Subway story, you’ve been dropping references for years. Curious though, in Powell / Columbus, is Subway a leading sub place? They’re generally avoided in my neck of the woods (New England) unless its the only place available. And it not race or socioeconomic thing either – just really disliked, “mediocre food at a modest price.”

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      I think Subway is considered to be pretty low grade everywhere you go. DG and I had eaten a remarkably expensive dinner in Fort Wayne the night before and we were just looking for the lowest-hassle lunch possible.

  14. Pete

    For as much noise as you make about “buying American” and “buying quality” you certainly seem to eat a lot of garbage food.

    You’d be doing your son a big favor if you cared about what you put in your body at least as much as you do about what you put on it.

  15. Charlie

    I’m really lucky to have a good subway less than a block from work. They seem to care there, going as far as to keep options available past their promotional period because customers want it. Pepper jack cheese and honey oat bread are still around and they keep a clean restaurant. Subway used to be the most prevalent restaurant around here but dunkin has taken over that title as of late.


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