The Young Master Shall Purchase Some Mustard

The Young Master Shall Purchase Some Mustard

In the early 2000s my wife and I lived at the corner of West Broadway and Canal Street in Manhattan.  It was an odd-shaped, triangular building, wide at the windows over-looking Canal and tapering down to just a few feet at the rear.  We sat above a Blimpies (for those that don’t know, Blimpies was a regional sandwich chain devoted to the hero sandwich — known in other places as a “sub” or “grinder”.  It was not particularly good, but I had a certain nostalgia for Blimpies and would sometimes get the “Italian Combo” with hot peppers and lots of oil and vinegar.  No matter the shortcomings, Blimpies had something human about it that put the robotic taste of a Subway sandwich to shame).  It was one of the noisiest apartments I have ever lived in, trucks barreling to the Holland Tunnel would shake the building to its core.  From my window, the sign for Canal Hi Fi was framed in such a way that it appeared to be “anal Hi Fi” which always made me smile.

By the time I lived there, SOHO had already turned in to the strange, half-empty, high-end tourist mecca it now is.  Long gone were the artist lofts and edginess which once defined the area.  Of course, there were some long-standing institutions like Cup & Saucer, Toad Hall, Lucky Strike and Raoul’s that kept the area honest.  When it came to dining, the turnover rate was high — an Italian spot would open with shifty waiters trying to sell you coke with your late night pasta only to reappear two weeks later as a Spanish restaurant with tepid patatas bravas.  My wife or I cooked at home most nights, heading out to Queens or Chinatown when we wanted a change.  My wife has an antipathy towards Indian food.  Her palette is so refined that the melange of spices can be overwhelming to her — in general she likes clean flavors, minimal ingredients and perfect technique.  So, I do not get to eat Indian often.  However, when she travels…the cat will play and that means eating some Chana Masala. So it was in that Soho of old that she took a trip back to Japan and I grew restless in the apartment. On the odd spit of a block that is Watts Street, I found an Indian restaurant, festooned in “Grand Opening” decorations.  The space was large and the interior rather lavishly decorated in Hindu finery.  It was painfully empty.  “THE YOUNG MASTER HAS ARRIVED!” a heavily accented voice boomed through the space.  The owner of the voice stood behind the cash register with all the nervous, desperate energy of a restaurant owner with no customers.  I told him that I would like to order take-out and see a menu.  “THE YOUNG MASTER WILL DINE AT HOME!” the man shouted into the kitchen giving two hand-claps.  Hmmmm….Samosa.  “A MOST EXCELLENT CHOICE!!!  SAMOSA FOR THE YOUNG MASTER!”  Lamb Vindaloo, baingan bharta. Again, he shouted my orders into the kitchen adding “THE YOUNG MASTER HAS A TASTE FOR SPICE!” After five minutes or so I added an order of papadums.  “QUICKLY NOW, PAPADUMS FOR THE YOUNG MASTER!!”  I paid, hurried home, and enjoyed my surreptitious Indian meal and vowed never to return to the restaurant.

The British plunder of India was, putting it lightly,  a bitch.  Besides, the economic theft, the human abuses, the destruction of cultures, it also left a sycophantic linguistic legacy in their former colonial subjects — a legacy that comes to a pronounced surface in matters of customer service.  After all, under British rule, the “customers” weren’t really customers, they were usurpers and what they got was politeness with an under-current of pure rage.

Japan, while itself a brutal colonial power, was never colonized and I wonder if that has something to do with the extraordinarily high level of customer service that you find in this country. For the most part, whether it be at the counter of a 7-11 or at a high-priced restaurant, the customer is made to feel not just welcome, but special, cherished.  There is a sense of gratitude that you are spending your hard-earned money at Life Supermarket when so many other options abound. The other day I had to buy a bottle of Dijon Mustard (fancy, I know) at the food department at the Atre department store in Ebisu.  The cashier was in her 60s and rather elegant — a retired concert pianist perhaps? She took my mustard, sort of beamed at the label, caught me eye, nodded with a smile and rang up my purchase. I scrambled in my wallet to find exact change. She greeted this transaction as if a minor and beneficent miracle had occurred. Her words of thanks were heartfelt and penetrating.  It reminded me of my sainted Aunt Beulah who was astounded by anything my sister and I did.  “Lesley,” she would after my sister tied a scarf around her neck, “isn’t that remarkable, the way you wear that scarf so uniquely.” With both Beulah and this nameless Atre cashier, the reaction buoyed me up, made me raise my chin high.  I had bought not only the exact right mustard, but provided a wondrous civic duty in having the precise coins. I was a better man for buying Dijon.

Not every transaction in Japan is so noteworthy as my mustard purchase, but the base-level of customer service is high.  Things are done quickly, efficiently and politely.  It is a shock to the system when you leave Japan and face the sullen hostility of a Dunkin Doughnuts employee in East Providence, Rhode Island. There is nothing obsequious about Japanese customer service — there is not a sense of grovelling, of sarcasm, of anger.  The power dynamic — customer to employee — exists, but somehow the levels of equality are smoothed out.  Like so many aspects of Japanese society, it is as if everyone understands that to survive in such over-crowded terrain you have to fit in your place, so the entire box can be closed smoothly.  I am still finding my place in that box, occasionally popping out like a large pencil pressed into the narrow plastic space meant for a pen.  But, that dissonance has the benefit of leaving me not so inured to the daily miracles of Japan and the refined joy of a perfectly purchased jar of mustard.

2 Replies to “The Young Master Shall Purchase Some Mustard”

  1. I am still heartbroken that Pearl Paint is gone. You could meet anyone there. What a legendary Mecca for artists.

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