Walls that don't reach the ceiling spark memories of youth

The Baltimore Sun

One of the highlights of my recent trip to San Francisco was eating in a little box in Chinatown.

I do not mean "eating out of a little box," which is a common carry-out dining occurrence when it comes to Chinese food in America. I mean that four of us went to a restaurant recommended by my friend who lives in the bay area, and she asked the hostess if we could dine in one of the "private rooms."

The hostess led us to a small, windowless, wooden room with a curtain covering the narrow doorway. Though its ornate walls rose only about 12 feet toward a 20-foot ceiling, when you sat down at the table, you felt ensconced, even embraced. A couple of clumps of grass and a few twigs strewn on the table would have completed my sense of being a baby bird in a shoebox.

Shielded from the bolder light and conversation levels of the rest of the restaurant, we arranged ourselves around the small table with the feeling that we could share secrets as well as entrees in this charming little box. It was a return to the coziness of a childhood playhouse.

"Have you eaten in a box? Would you think 'this really rocks'? Eat there, eat there, go chow down! In a box in Chinatown!"

Yes, this is an excerpt of my coming children's book, Fun in a box in Chinatown! The manuscript departs from its central quality of being a cheesy rip-off of Dr. Seuss in that it features a flashback of a trip somewhere in Europe with the same friend who took us to the restaurant box in Chinatown!

Enna Hsurb, whose name has been spelled backward to protect her identity, traveled extensively and inexpensively with me during our junior year in college in France. In order to see as many countries as possible on weekends, we stayed in substandard hotels, the kind that are not even written up in travel guides because no one in his right mind stays there, except clueless young people who think they are invincible.

For example, in that family-friendly city of Amsterdam, Enna and I had to push all the room's furniture up against our hotel room door because it did not have a lock. Or a doorknob, even. But at least that room had walls to the ceiling.

I cannot remember the city now, or its museums that were no doubt the inspiration for the trip to said Forgotten City - yet I vividly remember staying in a so-called hotel where our room walls did not meet the ceiling. An inebriated gambler in the room next door spent all night counting his money and singing, also coughing and smoking - he did not respond to our "over-the-wall" entreaties to "pipe down" but apparently passed out about 2 in the morning. We were not amused; we had the first train back to Paris the next day.

I will never forget Enna snapping on the room light at 3:45 the next morning, singing at the top of her lungs, jingling her pocket change and coughing vociferously as we packed to get our train.

So I think Enna took us to the box room in the Chinatown restaurant because, on some level, it would remind us of that exciting year in our youthful lives. Once we had no money and no responsibility; now we had some of each, but the essential quality of our friendship had not changed. We could still have fun in a box.

Since I've been home, I've tried eating lunch in my laundry room to replicate the experience. But something's missing.

I'm sorry to spoil the ending of my book, but here it is: "You can eat food here or there. You can eat food anywhere! A box in Chinatown will do. But always have good friends with you."

Contact Janet at janet@janetgilbertonline.com

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