Life in a city


Last night I stopped at the Cambodian Chinese restaurant, Kim Huoy Chor, a block west of Snelling on University. It was an Embers back some decades. I was on my own and brought in the Atlantic Monthly to read while working my way through the more than satisfactory buffet. All you can eat plus a drink for under $10 including tax. Not the super-shiny mass production buffets that seem to be popping up in malls around the area. So shoot me, I like all you can eat, even if it gets kinda soggy sometimes.

There were about five other tables occupied.

Two 45-50 year old guys ate and skipped back and forth in matching books and discussed Heidegger, existentialism and other such things well beyond me. At one point one of them mentions “Schlomo Levin (or some such name) – he was a German Jewish philosopher in the last century.”

In the booth behind them, a young woman turned around and said: “I was at Macalester with Schlomo Levin’s grandson! I can’t believe it!” I did not hear a lot more of the conversation but I thought – “that’s cool.”

Ten minutes later the philosophers dropped another name; the young woman turned again and said “OK, this is too much, she’s my aunt…..” Apparently there is agreement that Aunt Z/Professor Z is among the more wondrous people in the family, seminary and perhaps world.

I finished my meal and on the way out stopped in front of the booths and said: “I’ve been sitting here enjoying my dinner and peering at the Atlantic, but I have to say, this is something that would never happen just any place. Existentialism, one and two degrees of separation – it would never happen in Woodbury! You might expect this at the café Les Deux Magots on the Left Bank in Paris or maybe at a coffee shop in NYC. But at a University Ave. buffet in St. Paul? This is fantastic!”

Everyone agreed. We introduced each other. One fellow said he was afraid I was going to be mad at being disturbed by their animated conversation.

From a nearby table, an Asian woman smiled and waved her book at us – paperback on differential equations or something like that.

I said: “Yes, ‘hurray’ for you too, but I am afraid you have a topic even beyond Heidegger for me!” She denied it with a slight accent – “No, no – I’m just a PhD candidate in education, this is a hard quantitative requirement for me too!” We all chatted and smiled and were warmed by moment.

I went outside and promptly locked my keys in the trunk of the car. Don’t ask….

So back in I went and borrowed the Macalester grad’s cell phone to call for rescue. We settled in for further exploration. The existentialist student and I found a shared interest in poetry. We all exchanged a bit of history and current status. The professor then noticed that the PhD candidate had a book written in German on her table, so he moved over to her table to carry on a conversation that may have covered Sartre and integers – but I don’t speak German.

I told the Macalester graduate (who looked to be about 15 years old) that my wife and I graduated from there in horse and buggy days. She was there in her role as an Americorps volunteer with Admission Possible, which encourages less advantaged students to go on to higher education. She was eating dinner with a Central High junior who is considering her next steps. Of course, I had to mention that my son and daughter are Central grads….

Thirty minutes later, my rescuer came with the needed key and I left. The Mac and Central women had left, but the philosophers had moved over to the U of M student’s booth and the conversation seemed not to have abated when I looked in the plate glass window as I drove away.

My keys, you ask? Ummmm, it turned out that they were in my back pocket all the time.

I said already, “Don’t ask.”

Jay Wilkinson originally wrote this essay for the St. Paul Issues Forum.