I was in Bloomingdale’s today, mainly because I was in the neighborhood and I wanted to get away from the heat. I also wanted to look at the kind of people who go shopping there, not because I don’t see enough of them on the streets of the Upper East Side, but because Bloomingdale’s somehow, especially when it’s relatively empty gathers them all together distilled: if you are the neighborhood on a weekday morning, go in, and forewarned for this, see if you can find just the slightest tinge of desperation in the people there, almost all of them losing their looks, with either their own or other people’s money, spending – judiciously, the wild-spending Bloomies’ shopper is a stereotype. Bloomingdale’s has a number of restaurants, and, having some time to kill and not wanting to go out into the heat, I picked the most simple of these, the B-café, which is really a counter in the housewares department, with the usual assortment of sweet carbohydrates and coffee that you find in these type of places everywhere.
Two old women, serious and grim expressions on their faces, were shopping for a cooking pot nearby, but that was it. I bought a cup of coffee, opened my notebook and sat down. Behind me came two of the employees – apparently I found the coffee shop they go to when they’ve had enough of walking the floor and need to take their break. One of them, the more talkative one, told this story mainly as a monologue: the other one, the listener, popped in every now and then with a hmm or an a-ha, but I’ve mainly left this out. I wrote the story as quickly as I could, but my hand kept cramping – she was talking quickly – and I lost a word or two, which I’ve had to fill in with the best possible guess, but this is almost exactly what she said. If you doubt that it’s true, so did I: I’m merely reporting what I heard. I suspect, like I assume you will as well, that we are dealing here with a very clever liar.
-I can’t believe you just asked for some hot water and put in your own little leaves or something like that. What is that, is that something [herbal tea|herbal?
-It’s a special blend of herbs I use for cleansing, trying to stay healthy. It’s what I drink three times a day, you didn’t notice it before?
-No, I never did. Really? That’s what you drink three times a day? Is it some kind of special cure or something?
-No, I learned it from the King of Vietnam. I know that sounds crazy, right? I mean, he used to be the King of Vietnam but he lost his throne when the Americans or the French or something kicked him out. I was living in California at the time. Did I ever tell you I lived in California? I thought I was gonna be an actress or something, or maybe a model and this was before I found Tommy so I was pretty much on my own and had to do something other than go to auditions to pay the rent every day. Anyway, I got a job at a restaurant, it was a creepy sort of place, it was just a small family restaurant but this young kid was interviewing everybody and it was obvious that he only wanted to hire really attractive women. At first I thought, there’s no way I’m going to take this job because these people were kind of Asian, right? I mean, really weird and incredibly sneaky looking, and here I was all alone and I didn’t know what they wanted from me but they were offering really good money to do this 6 hour a day waitressing job so I took it, and it turned out it was one of three restaurants owned by the King of Vietnam. So when he lost his throne he moved to America and he had just these BUCKETS of money so what he did with it with, he opened up three restaurants, two in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles. I was working in the one in Los Angeles and the kid that hired me was his son who I guess was a sort of a playboy and just wanted to make a good impression with the restaurant when his father was around although most of the time he would go out partying with his friends and even though he invited me I never went out with him because I could tell he was bad news, right? And I was getting paid more than fifteen dollars an hour, which was a lot of money for me back then and I didn’t want to risk it by either going out with him or not going out with him so I would be nice and friendly but I would pretend to have a really jealous boyfriend or something until he lost interest in me, but he ended up keeping me in the restaurant anyway. Every now and then his father would show up who was the King, right?
Only he wasn’t the King any more he was just some rich guy that owned three restaurants in California. I think he wanted a place where he could feel like he was the boss of something important, something that served food and he could sit in the back when his friends came over, and there were these three hot women to serve him and I was one of them but most of the time he was a total gentleman to me and he never did anything sexist at all. He was a very quiet guy but you could tell he had a lot of power. He used to tell me all sorts of things but I only ever understood half of them and there were all sorts of remedies they had in the royal castle, different kinds of herbs and things to keep people young and there were other things he told me too, all about Vietnamese politics but I didn’t follow most of that, but he kept telling me and the other girls because he was pretty lonely, right?
Not many people wanted to hear him talk about things no one could understand I guess, and we didn’t understand it either, I couldn’t even keep together half of the names of all the people in the stories but all he wanted was to feel important, like he had something important to tell someone so I would sit and listen and I started joking with myself that I was like the royal chronicler, you know, only one that had absolutely no Idea what was going on, but the one thing he DID tell me about that was very interesting was all the medical cures. All the people in his family died really really old except the one that died in like, palace stuff or something, and the thing he was most worried about was that his kids weren’t drinking the herbal tea that was keeping everyone in the family young. So one day I decided to do something nice for the guy because really, there were paying me a really nice salary and he was a sweet old man when he came down to it and it made it really happy when we listened to his boring stories, so why not, right? I mean even his kid didn’t want to hear them, he had this 1970s muscle car and he spent all his time working up that and picking up every hot chick in California and the girls in Los Angeles are very hot, it’s not like here, right? If you have the money like he had and you live in LA and you didn’t even have real class but pretend class you can sleep with another model every night.
But the King, the only thing he was worried about was this herbal tea, so I asked him to teach me how to make it. In Vietnam you could get killed for knowing about this tea which is why in America, no one knew how to make it so I asked him if he could teach me how to make it for the people in the restaurant and he wrote down every type of leaf and some of them were hard to get and we had to find equivalencies. He even called a botanist once and sent me to the University to write some alternatives down and there was an old Vietnamese guy too, they worked until three in the morning, cursing and smoking even though it was a no-smoking restaurant until they figured out how you can make this stuff with herbs you could buy in Los Angeles. I used to trick his son into drinking it – really, I was flirting with him – and it made the old man very happy and finally I decided what if it works so I tried it myself. I thought it would taste bad, but it didn’t. In the meantime I had met Tommy and when he moved to New York I left but I was drinking that tea every day. Since then I’ve been doing all these diets, all these cleanses and juiced diets and other stuff and I’m really afraid of Free Radicals because that’s the kind of stuff that causes cancer so I take all kinds of pills and I go to Chinatown downtown and there are all these herbal shops down there and sometimes the people speak Vietnamese so I give them the list and they give me the herbs and every day I drink this tea. It really works too, it’s the reason I always feel so young and happy! No, I didn’t keep in touch with him? The King of Vietnam? Why would I keep in touch with the King of Vietnam?