"To come directly into harmony with this reality just simply say when doubt arises, "Not two." In this "not two" nothing is separate, nothing is excluded." - Verses on the Faith Mind by Sen-Ts'an
4 Visits To The 5th Iteration Of Original Pancake
Words by Kevin Schumaker
From my booth next to the front windows near the far portion of the restaurant I can only see a couple of other booths and a few tables. Original Pancake is a landmark but also a lie. From it’s opening until today Original has had three owners, remodeled the kitchen seven times and had more than one hundred cooks. In that time, and with each different hand wielding the spatula, each different mixer blending the batter, and each different supplier providing the ingredients the pancakes of today bear only a family resemblance to the originals. Plus, the restaurant has moved a number of times. This is its fifth location.
The coffee is good but only barely cutting through the headache. I feel hungover, but I’m not. I’ve spent a lot of days hungover but I haven’t drunk alcohol in a few years so the feeling is especially unsettling. The pounding in my head is a backbeat to the cloudy memories of this same feeling when it arose in darker days under uglier circumstances. Still, it does taste good.
In the booth next to mine a second man has joined the first, who’s been there since before I’ve arrived. The first is a big man with a shock of curly white-grey hair and beard. He’s a bear, broad and physically imposing. He’s older, but with his back to me it’s hard to judge his age.
The new guy is smaller, younger, with thinning and greying hair and wire-framed glasses. He’s not wearing a suit but looks like he owns quite a few. He’s obviously comfortable in the business world, but he’s dressed down this morning. He’s friendly, doesn’t look at all hungover, and he smiles at me as he passes and greats the bear. The both do little bows at each other. It looks silly to me but they do it so causally I doubt many would even notice.
The waiter comes to my booth first and then theirs. I order eggs and bacon with a side of hash browns. Pancakes are over-rated, I think. Hash browns are a favorite; I like when they are shredded. The cubed kinds are a cheat. They’re simply roasted potatoes made on a griddle. I hate them I think, before realizing how bad my mood has become.
The waiter moves on to the bear’s table and the smaller man is making gestures in the air and laughing. The waiter doesn’t react but I find it funny. Being a waiter is weird. You move in and out of people’s lives so quickly, but you’re forced to act like you belong together. This waiter is a poor actor and the small man isn’t helping.
The two men sit and talk, and I’m tempted to listen in, but my headache won’t allow it. The coffee is helping, or more likely the caffeine is helping. When the food comes the waiter is carrying their meals as well as mine on the big circular tray. My bacon is crisp and shiny and as I watch the waiter reach for it I notice a plate of pancakes. They aren’t “original” in the way implied by the restaurant’s name. They aren’t circles, they are rings. Like onion rings but made of cooked batter. I catch myself laughing out loud and wishing I had a plate of those. It must have been what the small man was gesturing about. I’d love to share the plate. They are just so ridiculous. Silly, like the little bows they used to great each other.
As the waiter serves the assorted plates to the bear and his friend I hear the friend laugh. My mood is brightening and the fact that this guy is laughing helps for some reason. The bear turns his head to the waiter and although his back is to me I can now see enough of his face to see he’s also smiling.
I eat my meal without further mirth, but happier than when I came in. The headache has become less of a back-beat than a slight ache. I can listen to the plates clink and clank in the kitchen in the busboy’s tub now without pain. As I pay my check and get up to leave I catch the strangest sound. It’s a woman’s voice singing. I can’t place the woman or even where she is, but I hear it faintly. It’s soft and beautiful. Familiar.
I leave before the bear and the smaller man finish. As I open the door I note that they are still engrossed in each other’s words. I smile in their direction and wonder what the song was, and who was singing it. I wonder about pancakes.
Original Pancake is crowded this morning but I’m seated in the same booth as last time. I feel good today. No headache and a fully charged laptop. My wife and child are off on a mother-daughter day and I have the morning to myself. Heck, I have the world to myself. I’ve come back because I want pancakes. Ever since my last visit I’ve wanted pancakes.
The smaller man is here again, but this time alone. We are in neighboring booths and facing each other. If somehow you removed the seats across from me, and seats across from him we’d almost be sitting at the same table. He’s doodling in a small notebook when I sit down. He looks up, likely distracted from his project by the noise I make as I unpack my computer. Our eyes meet for a moment and he smiles a gregarious smile. The moment passes and he goes back to his art. He smiled and looked but I doubt he really saw me. He’s not rude by not seeing me, it’s just that I’m background. I’m a bit player in his story just as he is in mine. Still, I like him.
My food arrives while I’m diving deeply into the web. I’d like to be able to tell people that I bring my laptop to places like this to write or to study, but the truth is that I don’t. I bring it because it keeps my hands busy while I think. I click on this and scroll through that while my mind thinks and plays and runs. The computer is a glorified fidget spinner.
The bear arrives and my attention is drawn to their silly little bows. Hands pressed together as in prayer the incline their heads toward each other like Bruce Lee before a fight. The smaller man is smiling as usual and the bear sits down with drama. He’s full of life today. Energy and power. I’m thrilled the two are back, and although the fact that the bear is sitting with his back to me and destroys any sense that we are at the same table, I feel like we are a group. A trio.
The pancakes I longed for are warm and fluffy, but ultimately dull. I didn’t direct their size or shape, as the smaller man had last time, and they fill my stomach without pleasure. They serve their better purpose though, since the computer is now ignored and the fork and knife occupy enough of my brain that I can eaves-drop on the pair. I’m a spy all of a sudden. I’d love to be taking notes just to complete the scene. Am I assassin or secret contact? I’ve yet to decide.
The bear is a priest I learn, but not catholic. He’s Zen and the smaller man is his student. (I mentally write this down. My handlers will be thrilled.) They’re discussing the bears upbringing and I end up smiling again. The bear is an artist as well as a priest, it seems, and he was first influenced by Disney. He describes how after seeing a Disney cartoon he could see the world overlaid with such drawings. I’m smiling because I’ve been seeing him as a bear of a man, but now I see him as an animated bear. With the white-grey hair and beard I decide he’s a polar bear. I imagine that he can stalk the barren, frozen landscapes, braving the harsh and cold world, but like all animated bears he prefers diners and pancake houses.
Now I’m trying to cast the smaller man as an animated creature as well. It’s a struggle. His bespectacled eyes are bright and cheerful, but far too human to help me see him as anything other than a person. I’m no longer a spy, now I’m a casting director for an animated film. Perhaps he’s a cat? No, cats are too aloof. Not a dog, or bird or rabbit. Some people, I decide, are too human to be anything else. Me? I’d be a mouse.
I continue listening as they discuss the bear’s background. His childhood, art school, and Zen. I’m listening but I don’t really care what he says. I dislike autobiography. They tell us little of who a person thinks they are, and even less about who they really are. An autobiography is little more than a compromised version between who the speaker thinks the listener expects him or her to be, and who the speaker thinks he or she can pass his or herself off as.
I’m sitting quietly on the black cushion of the booths seat, cross-legged like a child, and I’m listening to the two men’s voices, but I keep getting distracted. That singing is there again. We aren’t really a trio I realize. The three of us and the singer. We are a foursome. I look about the restaurant to find the singer but she escapes me. All I see are families and business men. Wiping faces and talking on cell phones they are all busy with life but no one is singing.
I do see one man sitting alone near the door. He’s a bit like the bear but not as big. Same white-grey hair and beard. Drinking coffee and eating a donut. He’s not talking, or reading or singing. I wonder if he hears it too. The woman’s voice is faint but clearer than last time since it doesn’t have to fight with my previous pain. The song is familiar but I can’t place it.
No, that’s not quite right. I can place it in time and location. I was a child, back home where I grew up. I used to hear this song all the time. But, I can’t sing along. No today, anyway.
I leave restaurant before the smaller man and the bear finish their meals. My legs hurt a bit because I sat cross-legged in the booth. I’m too old to do it, but I have always felt comfortable sitting that way. I realize I’m too old to stop. As I’m reaching the door I pass by the other man. He’s not a bear but a large dog perhaps. Mixed-breed. Loyal. Friendly. He’s smiling as I pass, though not at me.
I think he might hear it. The woman’s voice. I think he’s listening. Perhaps there are five of us in this group.
I never carry money. At least, not more than five dollars or so. I am not cashless because of any philosophical or political inclination. I just never carry money.
Okay, to be fair I do occasionally carry money but it never lasts more than an hour or so. Invariably I’ll find myself at a store where they are willing to give me something I’d like to have in exchange for these dirty scraps of paper in my pocket. I do understand the “value of money”, I just have trouble assigning that value to these ugly green pictures. I suspect I’d be better with money if it was prettier. If each piece was unique or at least had an attractive picture on it.
OK, I’m just bad with money.
Original Pancake is full of its usual noise and bustle this morning and I’m eating meat and listening to the table next to me. The smaller man and the bear are discussing creativity and the design movement called Bauhaus. I’ve come to appreciate our time together, the five of us: the smaller man, the bear, the invisible singer of the song I hear every time I visit, and the man I’ve cast as a dog in my imagined animated version of my visits.
Every time I hear smaller man and the bear mention Bauhaus I laugh a little. I’m familiar with the movement: German, clean, utilitarian. I like it. It’s an aesthetic I feel strongly drawn towards. It might be because of my love of science fiction. Sci-fi universes always had that utility-made-beautiful vibe. The robotics engineer who’d created an AI that was fighting for her or his freedom always lived in these pristine modern environs. Dr. Frankenstein may have lived in a castle, modern scientists lived in Bauhaus.
That’s not why I laugh though. “Bauhaus” was also a band I used to listen to many years ago. They named themselves after the art movement and were popular on college rock stations in the late 70’s through the early 80’s. I was in high school then and college radio mattered.
It mattered to me a lot because I was a strange kid. Too intellectual for most of the high school cliques I hung out with artists, although I have no artistic talent myself. College radio was the soundtrack of the artists’ lives. They would paint and sculpt and perform, but all I could do was talk about it. I could put it into context. Most artists hated me for that ability, but I adored them all. They were all so beautiful when they created. I still adore them.
As I listen to the smaller man and the bear discussing Bauhaus I know I’m hearing artists talk about art and I’m drawn back to my days sitting around in artists work spaces listening to the band Bauhaus and talking about art. It all seemed so important then. It seemed like it mattered. I hear that same devotion in their voices. The same beauty.
The booth with the two men suddenly feels so far away from me, though. I’m startled by the feeling. For a few weeks now I’ve found myself in this booth eavesdropping on these two and loving it. Now, suddenly, it feels unsettling and I realize why. Their strange interaction and discussions now feel so familiar. They are no longer the smaller man and the bear, the interviewer and the Zen priest. They are just two guys talking art. They are two guys holed up in the back of the pancake studio listening to some music I can’t hear and talking art.
The singer that has haunted me on previous visits is singing a bit clearer now, but I don’t bother to look for her. I know I won’t find her by looking around this crowed restaurant. I decide that it’s time to stop listening to the booth next to mine. I can hear their talk but I don’t think I’ll ever hear their music and I’ll never be a part of that particular artist’s coven. The booth next to me is so much like the artist enclaves from my youth and just as distant. Just as unreachable. I get up to pay.
I almost never carry money so I use my bankcard to pay. After inserting the card into the chip reader I opt to press “CREDIT”. This way instead of entering a pin code you can sign your name. After high school I spent a long time in college and then went to law school. One thing law school taught me was that you don’t actually have to sign your name for it to count as a legal signature. You simply have to make a “mark” that you intend to be your signature. I doubt that you have to go to law school to know this, but it’s where I learned it.
Knowing this fact though has given me a little secret pleasure lately. When the screen pops up for me to electronically sign my name I don’t write anything. I draw a picture. Today I draw a house complete with chimney and smoke. Sometimes I draw a dog, or a snake, or a car. It doesn’t matter and so far no one has said anything. It makes me happy, this private joke. I think the smaller man and the bear would also laugh at this.
On a whim, as I walk out of Original Pancake, I decide to say hello to the man by the door reading the sports page and drinking coffee. He’s the one I consider the fifth person in this imagined group and the one I think is an animated dog in another reality. As I approach I open my mouth to give a friendly greeting but I stop because I realize something. He’s humming to himself as he reads the paper. This itself is not strange, people hum all the time. It’s what he’s humming that throws me. He’s humming along with the singer. The song I keep hearing. The song that’s different that the one being listened to in the booth next to mine with the smaller man and the bear.
The man doesn’t look up but gestures toward the seat across from him. There is a coffee mug upturned but as yet unfilled next to the one he’s drinking from. “I like this song,” he says in a friendly voice. “You hear it too, don’t you.” He looks up. “Have a seat, give it a listen. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. ”
I take a seat across from him and listen for a bit. When the waitress pours me a cup of coffee the dog puts his paper down and smiles. All Labrador friendliness. I take a breath and tell him what I think. I try to put the song in context. He laughs.