Story and photo by Pete Shaw
About 17 years ago, I was hanging out with Friend Cyndy, and after a good amount of Friday drink she suggested we head to a not far away Vietnamese restaurant, Phở Jasmine. Jessica, my better 99%, was game. I forget what we ordered, but I remember it as a fine experience. Prior to the onset of Covid-19, when Jessica was tired from the end of her work week and wanting to get down and dirty with some good Vietnamese fare, many Fridays found us going over to Phở Jasmine on North Killingsworth, across the street from Portland Community College’s Cascade campus. If it was not quite a ritual, it was common enough that we got to know the owner, Joy, and her daughter, for whom the store is named.
Since the pandemic began, Jessica has gotten take out food from Phở Jasmine, but I have had to keep my distance due to health considerations. However, the other day, on a whim–the type that Friend Ahjamu says is your ancestors dispensing their Wisdom upon you–I stopped by, first to say hello, but also to grab some bánh mì for Jessica and me.
When I sauntered into the restaurant, Jasmine was behind the counter. Jessica and I have known her since she was about 10 years old. Often, we would see her somewhere right near that counter, perhaps doing schoolwork.
I had not seen her for quite a length of time. The last I knew, she had been planning on studying nursing at OHSU. It seemed a fine idea, a perfect fit. Jessica, a physician, was encouraging. She knows the qualities of a good nurse, and she can spot those traits from a mile away. Between the last time I saw Jasmine, when she was making those plans for OHSU, and my recent visit, she had moved to Clearwater, Florida and returned. She now has a psychology degree. Suddenly, here she was, 26.
Time flies an arrow.
But fruit flies like a banana.
I am most familiar with that joke because the late, great Townes Van Zandt tells it between songs on his Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. That fits well. Soon–she says February–Jasmine will be heading to the Lone Star State. She has family there.
Jasmine exudes the same Kindness as her mother, and she clearly has the same inner strength. She came back to Portland to help Joy run the restaurant when Phở Jasmine was finally able to open up again after the onset of Covid-19.
Despite my mask, Jasmine instantly recognized me when I entered the restaurant. Surprisingly, she did not have terror in her eyes, and despite probably every nerve in her body advising her to do so, she did not soak me down with mace. Instead, she went back to the kitchen to tell her mother I was there. I do not know how one says in Vietnamese, “Hey, mom, that fool who hangs around with that awesome woman is here. Better lock things down just to be safe.”
Joy walked out, looking exhausted as often she does. She works at least 12 hours a day at the restaurant, save for weekends when the store is closed. But also as usual, she was beaming. She had her mask on, of course. But the warmth of her smile, as always, exuded from her eyes, as any genuine smile does.
Behind her, on a small corkboard, was a photo Jessica and I sent her and Jasmine for the Winter holidays quite a few years ago. Maybe I was easy for Jasmine to recognize because I was wearing the same coat and hat.
Joy was glad to see me, and of course, I was happy seeing her. It had been awhile. Too long. With good people, any absence is.
Quite a few years ago, on a hot Summer afternoon, I was walking by the restaurant. She saw me and invited me in for tea. Her husband had recently been diagnosed with, I think, liver cancer. She was trying to be optimistic. Maybe she truly was. I sat and listened. I offered what Jessica and I could.
Joy has seen not only the death of her husband, but also her two sons. I have no idea how she carries on as she does. But she does. When she tells me of a recent house fire, it almost feels mundane. Of course, it is not, and I am happy to the point of tears that they are here, right then, with me.
One of the first times Jessica and I went to Phở Jasmine, Joy came over to talk. I remember her being excited when Jessica told her she was born in Vietnam. However, Jessica left that land when she was about five years old, as Saigon was becoming Ho Chi Minh City. She does not understand Vietnamese. Still, there was a bond there, and for a spell of visits, Joy would say hello to me, ask how I was, and then turn most of the conversation to Jessica. Which of course was fine, and even more, was fun. She would talk sometimes about visiting her mother in Vietnam, and if I do not remember most of the details, I do remember enjoying it all. Sometimes the food, always delicious, was just an excuse to listen to her.
But all things must pass. Joy will be closing down the restaurant at the end of this month. After she sells it, she will be “following Jasmine.” I tell her that seems Wise, for she has raised an extraordinary daughter.
When Joy heads back to the kitchen, Jasmine brings forth and rings up a take-out order. After the transaction, I say, “So, Texas,” with a feigned touch of confusion.
I resist, barely, the urge to go on a long-winded sermon about Van Zandt and how to live is to fly.
Jasmine goes and gets my food, and returns with it. I take the sack, and I realize this may be my last chance to talk with her. I tell her I will soon send our contact information. I ask her if she has ever been to New Orleans. She has not. I tell Jasmine about how amazing a city it is, nothing like it in this country. I urge her to go there someday.
Joy once lived in Houston. She and her husband opened a Vietnamese restaurant there. I am pretty sure Jasmine was born there. Only a few hours from New Orleans. I ask Jasmine if her mom has ever been there.
She tells me all her mom has seen is “the back of that door, and that wall.” It is sobering to hear her say that. Actually, it is heartbreaking. But the way she says those words while pointing to the entrance and then back toward the cooking area, with something approaching righteous indignation, believing that her mother deserves better, is another reminder, along with that Kindness and resolve she shares with Joy, of what Jessica saw in her–what has always been obvious about her–and that her mother will indeed do fine following her.
I tell Jasmine about when Jessica and I lived in Chicago, and she had just finished her residency. It seemed we would be moving east, close to where I grew up. I was excited to head back Home, where I had and still have many Friends, and at that time, my folks, and my brother and his family. But then Jessica decided she wanted to head in this direction, to be closer to her parents. I imagine when Jessica dropped that news on me, she worried that it would be the end of our relationship, that we would part ways. In fact, it was a no-brainer. I would follow her anywhere.
If you pursue a partner in life, I tell Jasmine, make sure they are someone who will follow you wherever you go because you are doubtlessly worth it. I tell her she has always struck Jessica and I as Kind, which is something different from nice, and as well, she has always seemed to us a good person, and that she deserves someone who will revere those qualities.
She demurs, shyly, an echo of the young girl Jessica and I first met so many years ago.
“Well, don’t sell yourself short.”
Joy and Jasmine need to start prepping for more orders. I tell Joy that Jessica and I will drop by soon for one last meal cooked by two stellar people. And hopefully, time permitting, one more nice time together.
I will miss them. Food always makes for good Friends. And when your Friends make good food, life can be beautiful.
In my basement there is a box of cassette tapes. One of them features The New Crackers in their one and only show, played almost exactly 34 years ago at the Owl and the Fiddler, a now long gone coffee shop once located on Front Street in Red Bank, New Jersey. The band featured Friends Brian and Matt on guitars and vocals, and me on bass and vocals. I had only been playing bass a few weeks–there are a ton of jokes to be found about this–but I knew an inordinate amount of Bob Dylan lyrics, so they hit me up to join them on stage. I could not hit a note to save my life, but playing music is as fun as fun gets.
The show was sparsely attended. Friends Mike and Tom were there. Friends Josh and Ed were there too. I was and remain close with Brian, Matt, Mike, and Tom. Josh and Ed were more lunchtime Friends, although Josh, when he was not healing from weightlifting injuries, was a force on my intramural soccer team that won the championship our senior year of high school.
Josh was a remarkably witty and intelligent person. You could figure that out if you spent five minutes with him. You’d have to work for it, for he was a young man of great humility. But it pretty soon shined through.
We attended a Catholic school, Christian Brothers Academy. The school was somewhat loose about Catholic indoctrination. In our freshman year religion classes, we studied non-Christian religions. Junior year saw us looking at the Bible more as a piece of literature than a fact laden document. I often got the impression that while it was desirable that we would grow up to be devout Roman Catholics, simply being reasonable human beings was also a great goal. There are likely some rose colored glasses making sentiment of that assessment, but I think it still holds a fair amount of water.
Where that line between growing up Catholic and going along another path was drawn is hard to know. But certainly somewhere far afield was Josh and Ed’s band, God Kicks You. When their album was due for release, they put up posters around the school. One was on the wall across from my locker. It was a photocopy of a Renaissance painting of Jesus on the cross, in agony near the moment of death. Josh and Ed drew in a speech balloon with Jesus urging purchase, saying, “I was hanging around the other day and heard the new God Kicks You album…”
One of the religion teachers took exception and reported them. Josh and Ed soon found themselves facing expulsion. Their folks came to the school, petitioned on their behalf, and soon things, as much as they could be, were paved over.
Throughout it all, they remained remarkably calm. I remember sitting at the lunch table with them as they carried on their usual banter, me laughing as always at the way Josh would raise his voice in mock anger and indignation. They seemed completely distanced from their fate. I assume it weighed on them. Not much, but enough that they sent the teacher who reported them a card thanking her for saving their souls.
Our high school had an art magazine, The Arister, that came out at the end of every academic year. I never would have thought to get a copy of it–my extracurricular focus, so to speak, was sports–save that Josh had mentioned he had a piece in it. I got it, read his poem, put some thought to it, and then put it away.
Sometimes in later years I would come across that copy of The Arister in my bedroom at my folks’ house. I remember one time, in my mid-20s, opening it and reading Josh’s poem. By that time in my life, sports had taken a back seat to art. I don’t remember the poem, but I recall it displaying a deep sensitivity. I remember thinking, Man, this was way ahead of most of us.
Every so often I would think to myself, I really should track that guy down because it would be fascinating to know what he is doing. And of course, how he is doing. It would be great to hear again his rising voice, his cackle, and to know what that great intelligence and wit and all else that was him had become. I thought that as recently as a year ago. I was sure it was all more and more beautiful.
But some things become tough seeing through. I had not talked with him since we graduated high school, and like I wrote, we were more lunchtime Friends than anything else. We were bound together in some way, but loosely. Truth be told, I was scared he would not remember me, and if he did, if we met up, that the conversation would go stale fast. I have had that happen once or twice. I know that is sometimes the way of things, but that does not make it hurt any less.
On that tape in my basement, Brian, Matt, and I perform Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” The tape recorder must have been close to Josh. For all I know, he was in charge of it. You can hear him and Ed scraping cutlery over the mic, and occasionally providing commentary regarding my god awful vocals and nearly-lost bass playing. Hitting an in-key note, if you will excuse the pun, was probably accidental. In short, I was worthy of Josh and Ed’s jeers, gentle edged as they were.
What I will always remember about that night was when the song comes to the line, “And Madonna she still has not showed,” Josh saying, “Tits?” The song was recorded in 1966, but at the time of our show, the entertainer Madonna was all the rage. I am not sure if it was funny unto itself, but within the context of Josh and Ed’s back and forth, the thought of it still makes me laugh, particularly as it is preceded and followed by a few moments of silence from them that is rare on that tape. Timing is everything.
A little while back, I found out Josh had passed. It did not hit me like a gut punch, although I did slump a bit. A door that at times seemed slightly ajar had been permanently shut. From his obituary, I gathered he had not changed much at his core, or at least the portions of that core I was privileged enough to know.
When my father moved out of the house in which I grew up, that copy of The Arister got sent to the county recycler with so much else of my past. One day, perhaps sooner than later, I will take out that cassette from the basement. Doubtless, I will find that I sound even worse than I thought, and not just due to the tape’s deterioration of over 30 years. Matt’s take on Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” will not sound as bad, although the bass sure will. I forget the other three or four songs we did, but I can assume that the guitars are great and the banter of the audience–Josh, Ed, Mike, and Tom–funny.
Well, no. Later than sooner, I think. That night is stuck in time, and as time tends to do, it has left behind barbs in my flesh. For the rest of my days, they will always hurt. Though I do my best to deny it, that tape sits in my basement, stranded. And for me, that voice of Josh is now all that remains.