I spent a great deal of my childhood in the back of my father's station wagon. There are five Clark kids and as I've reported in other forums, we didn't go out to eat often. Still I was always tantalized by the buildings that expressed concept in the color of the bricks or the pitch of the roof. Just before my father pulled away at a green light I'd stretch my neck and eyeballs as far as I could to catch a glimpse as a heavy door creaked shut... ox blood curtains, chiseled stemware, or bright white table cloths.
There was one restaurant in particular that never failed to capture my attention. It was at the corner where my father made the slow left turn leaving the mall and across the street from the race track. I could see the whole dining room if I concentrated on the large arched window to the left of the double doors. The décor -- pale blue, gilded lions, ruby eyed dragons, and servers in tuxedos -- was that of a 1930s Chinese restaurant catering to older diners who loved to bet on the ponies. At the edge of the huge parking lot huge sweeps of black made a Chinese character-like H to frame a back-lit sign that read "GAM WAH" -- done in black sweeps of ink.
I knew better than to ask. I was only about 8 years old and rarely did I interrupt my parents -- especially when they were arguing about who was going to cook dinner when we got home. It was late and they were both tired of shopping for school clothes and shoes to match my dad's new suit. But I convinced myself I was being helpful when I'd blurt out, "We could just go to GAM WAH, tonight." My mother would turn to look at me, my father with his eyes on the road and both would almost simultaneously exclaim, "Are you serious?" or "Don't be ridiculous."
Every time I made the suggestion. My mother told me that she had no desire to sit in a dining room full of cigar smoking gamblers, while my father chuckled to himself. I would ask again... and again before I got a driver's license and traveled less and less in that station wagon. It wasn't that I didn't like my parent's cooking, quite the contrary. There was little to complain about at 852 Middleneck Road. But I was fascinated by what others might be eating... was sweet, whipped butter being slathered on warm bread? Was a morsel of sauce covered chicken being carefully lifted by a chopstick? Or maybe someone was wearing that silly plastic bib while they yanked the claws off a hot red lobster.
I was a semester or so from leaving for college -- we'd eaten out together a lot now the three of us. I was the youngest and the last one left in the soon to be empty nest. Our after-work carpool often detoured to the Italian place downtown or the Chinese restaurant where my mother vouched for me when I ordered a Manhattan (it was what I was drinking now at 17). But we had never set foot in Gam Wah. I'd almost forgotten about my awe of the place until we were leaving the mall right before closing. It was late and I joked as we rounded that corner and the big sweeps of black in the parking lot caught my eye. "We could go to Gam Wah." There was silence. I couldn't tell whose stomach was rumbling. But my father made another left and there we were in the parking lot where I had only imagined my feet hitting the pavement. My heart was pounding. Could it be? I was finally going to eat in the dining room that had outlived my childhood?
I had watched many restaurants come and go. Sometimes a place that I had stretched my neck to see in 1969 was gone by 1971. Even the little fast food joint that was a well-kept secret between me and my mother was gone. So hungry she had a headache my mother couldn't stand it anymore and made me promise not to tell anyone. She cranked her window open and answered the questions posed to her by the frozen mouthed clown. I remember her being frustrated by the conversation (years later she watched the Muppets with her grandchildren not understanding a thing Grover said. I realized she relied on lip reading as much as hearing.) The flat burgers that arrived were wrapped like warm little presents and they were gone as quickly as they appeared... as was the evidence that fast food had been consumed in that car.
But here stood Gam Wah, unchanged -- a tantalizing stalwart. Before long we were seated on pale blue vinyl surrounded by gilded dragons. I silently took it all in. The server bowed at our table to wordlessly fill our handle-less cups with tea. I flipped through the huge leather bound menu but could not focus on the NO MSGs and HOT & SPICYs. The place was unapologetically gaudy -- the fountain tumbling into the coy pond, the huge dragons, the life-size jade Buddhas. It all served the purpose of making even the three time loser feel like he'd hit the exacta. Our server wrote our order in Chinese characters and went to a table next to ours -- delivering a fresh cocktail to Mr. Wilson -- a man in a leisure suit the same pale blue as his vinyl chair. There were inside jokes and greetings between staff and customer that were more family reunion than, "Booth or table?"
Gam Wah was more than a place to eat. It was an unchanging, unflinching declaration of their wildest dreams. Loud, overdone -- just by being itself it spoke to those gamblers who, with the right amount of money put on the right horse, could have this opulent dining room dripping with gold and bustling with straight backed servers in their own house. Being treated like a winner, like royalty, made them giddy. Lost money and bad choices were forgotten. The spirit was contagious -- caught by winner, loser, or the just plain hungry.
"Is it all you hoped and dreamed?" my mother asked me.
"No," I said, the warm cup of tea to my lips, "It's more!"