The Furious Kvetch at Benyamin Bissell


(Photo: Me and my date on a recent Saturday night. Credit: Mattius Klum/National Geographic.)

I am getting old. I know this because a couple of nights ago, on my third trip from bed to bathroom, I took a look at my hands and they were old. As you push through your thirties and witness wrinkles and roughness slowly take the place of smoother, twenty-something skin, it gets harder and harder to tell yourself you’re still on the early end of advancing age.

My mind still says I’m many years from middle age. My hands tell me otherwise. They are now the hands of a forty-year-old man. That’s a neat trick since I’m only 38 and not even a half. Which of course means I begin my fortieth year in less than half a year’s time.

It’s no wonder I’ve been grumpy lately. I tried to keep my short fuse in check on a recent date with Gino Vesuvius, my second transit-averse, suburban Oak Parker (pastry chef Chris was the first and remember how well that worked out). All I can say is the CTA-taking, cityside blogger in me must still be looking for a challenge.

Our initial encounters were surprisingly nifty. I met Gino’s first-date drive through the suburbs and raised him a second-date ‘L’-train tour of my favorite Chicago eateries. When he expressed his affection for Cincinnati chili while we scarfed down cheese coneys at Cinner’s, I figured Saturday’s date–our third–would be a cakewalk.

The day began well, with blog–diva Jasmine Davila and me lunching and traipsing through a snow-smothered Grant Park. I should have taken our sudden, headlong flight for life across the intersection of Monroe and Columbus when we were surprised in mid-crosswalk by a phalanx of five snowplows quickly descending upon us in slush-flinging unison as the sign of impending doom it was.

You can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Gino Vesuvius met me at my Marina City high-rise home and we headed for Lou Malnati’s on Wells. I’ve lived five blocks from the iconic pizza palace for four years, but it took my first real Chicago Italian to inspire me to finally eat there.

I wanted to mark the occasion of finally meeting one. Back in New York, the primary reason I fled Queens for eight years in Brooklyn was to shorten the commute to the homes of the many (many) Brooklyn Italians I dated during my time in Gotham. Since arriving in the Midwest, though, it’s been a fallow, arid time in the Michael-loves-guidos department. So on Saturday night, Gino represented an entire city of unexplored potential for me.

I had a bad intuition about things as we made our way to the pizzeria. Not only was I feeling unexpectedly old, but as Saturday wore on I was also feeling unexpectedly symptomatic. It’s a common occurrence with Attention Deficit Disorder; when you least expect it, the regular sensory inputs of life–sights, sounds, touch, taste–can add up in your brain to a sense of absolutely overwhelming stimulation.

It’s like having a migraine and wanting to put your head under a pillow to shut off your senses. Except in this case, instead of everything in the world giving you a headache, everything just conspires to annoy you into exceeding bitchiness.

“What’s with places like Lou Malnati’s?” I asked Gino as we made our way down Illinois toward the eatery. “They’re supposed to be Chicago legends but most of their locations always turn out to be in the suburbs. I mean look at Portillo’s; they have one freaking location in the city and 7,000 in the suburbs but they call themselves Chicago’s hot dog. What the hell is that?”

“Did you forget to have your coffee again today?” Gino replied. Two dates and I was already pegged.

We didn’t last long at out first table. “I know I wanted a high-top but my snow boots don’t have any heels and they keep slipping off the foot rest.”

I asked the server if we could change tables while Gino kept cultivating the benefit of the doubt.

I opined on the second table before we even had the chance to sit. “This one’s kind of close to the next party. Can we sit in the back room instead?”

Gino answered for our server, “Only if you promise not to tell me that you feel a draft next, Lucy.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have changed my fish oil to a cheaper brand. Omega-3s are great for warding off A.D.D. annoyances, and something had to explain my forgetting to make–and drink–my usual half a pot of coffee for two days, straight.

I made eye contact with Benyamin as we entered the happily uncrowded, low-top tabled back room. A smiling Middle Eastern man with a one-word nametag, I knew immediately the Bissell in his hand spelled trouble.

Before I could parse that suspicion, I had other life-or-death struggles to attend to.

“My God, could the music be louder in here? Oh, look, they sat us right next to the speakers. And it’s 80s music, too. Not even the good kind, not even a Go-Go’s song.”

“Michael, am I going to have to sedate you?” asked Gino.

But I was too busy asking a passing server to turn the speakers down a smidge–easier on the ears, you know–to notice.

Unfortunately, after he did so, I noticed a lot. Especially the incessant, rhythmic rumble of Benyamin’s manual floor sweeper as he attacked the dining room rug with remarkable gusto, as if he were a Forty-Niner and there was gold hidden beneath the carpet.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Thrrrumph-thrrrumph. Thrrrumph-thrrrumph.

“It’s awfully quiet now, huh?” I asked.

“Look,” Gino answered in a carefully modulated tone, each word chosen especially for this specific sentence. “Let it be. It’s OK. Read the menu.”

Thrrrumph-thrrrumph. Thrrrumph-thrrrumph. Louder now; Benyamin was closing in.

I did my best to humor Gino. I looked down at my menu, but it was unintelligible to my eyes. I tried to sound the peculiar words out, but they all sounded the same. Thrrrumph-thrrrumph. Thrrrumph-thrrrumph. THRRRUMPH-THRRRUMPH!

I looked up to see Benyamin smiling down at me, about to slide his Bissell under our table.

In my defense, what I did next any native New Yorker worth their salt would have done, too: I kvetched. And then some. As Gino later recounted numerous times throughout the remainder of the evening, I damned near spit venom.

“I think you scarred the guy for life,” he told me. “He’s just standing there, innocently doing his job, when all of a sudden, in mid-sentence, your head snaps back like a cobra’s, your eyes turn black, you glare at him, lean forward, and hiss, ‘Can you pleassse not do that right nowww!!!’ Then as he’s scurrying away in fright, you put your forked tongue back in your mouth and crawl back into your turban.”

My neighbor Mindy Squarepants put it more succinctly later that night. “You’re the worst kind of high maintenance, Michael. You’re the high maintenance who doesn’t think you’re high maintenance.”

Mindy recently had a head injury, so I’m not sure if she was quoting When Harry Met Sally on purpose, but she’s right.  Still, I stewed at Gino’s repeated teasing. It was just last month, inspired by a fellow A.D.D. blogger, that I drew my line in the sand over my A.D.D. symptoms. I do my best by capsule and cognizance to rein them in, but when they occasionally break free and take a trot around the racecourse I no longer feel the need to apologize.

The world wouldn’t expect someone with a chronic condition like cancer or a missing limb to apologize for the limitations placed on them by their situation. Never again am I begging forgiveness for mine, either.

So for future reference, did I say or do what you think I just said or did? Yes, I probably just did. Now can we please stop talking about it and enjoy our Chipotle already?

Ever the gluttons for punishment, Gino and I tried to do that very thing the following night. The fourth time was not the charm; we went down in flames. I don’t blame him for it, he’s still a great guy and a faithful reader. Which means you can’t say he wasn’t warned, too.

Maybe we’ll go out again, who knows? I wouldn’t write him off just yet. Something I know more surely, what we want and what we need are not always the same thing in this life. For example, I want a man who loves me for who I am.

But it’s becoming pretty clear as I hurtle toward forty that what I need is a man who loves a challenge.

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