The man in front of me was massaging his face using a fine-toothed comb. He hardly had a mustache, in fact it was a poor excuse for one, so I wondered if the intense grooming was for the purpose of growing more of it. I thought about how it might feel to have facial hair on my lip, if it would tickle my nose and how it would smell. I pointed my lips forward as if to sniff an imaginary mustache, but smelled only the distinct aroma of Chickenjoy.
I’ve learned not to do a double-take when a sensation reminds me of home, because other things might very well produce the same kind of stimulus. Brooklyn’s KFC (Kennedy Fried Chicken) probably used the same frying oil, and why would there be Chickenjoy, a Filipino fast food dish, on my packed downtown Q train?
Right then a man beside me ruffled his bags and drew my eyes to his feet. They were cradling a bucket of my childhood favorite fried chicken in a bag labeled Jollibee. (For the uninformed, some trivia: McDonald’s is the top fast food chain in every country in the world except for the Philippines, where an overly jolly bee is the mascot of a burger and chicken joint called Jollibee.) The bearer had just come from the Jollibee in Queens, the first in New York.
“Is the Chickenjoy any good?” I asked in Tagalog to strike up conversation.
“Oh! I didn’t know you were Filipino,” the man responded.
I laughed and repeated my question. Ronnie said he just came from his shift as a fry cook at the restaurant, where he makes Chickenjoy all day.
“How about you, Ma’am? Where do you work?”
I was embarrassed at the automatically applied term of reverence, but did not correct him. I answered him, learning in return that he was going to his second job at a Colombian restaurant in Brooklyn. He said that the chef there was a fan of the Filipino-style chicken pieces, fried naked to an unparalleled crispiness that cannot be achieved by the use of batter, coatings, or soaking in buttermilk (“Batter-whattt?!” a Pinoy cook would say.)
“This is for them,” Ronnie said.
“Come visit the store sometime and ask for me in the kitchen,” he went on, although I knew that Jollibee had been open for years and I never had the urge to go.
Maybe I was afraid to find out that what I remembered too fondly didn’t taste so good anymore. Or maybe I’d learn that it did, that I actually missed it, but that it would never taste right in New York.
A response to the Creative Exercise : Travel Companion