The Play

May 18, 2007

Many years ago, my wife and I started a business. Although it was not clear to us at the time, in hindsight I recognize that our business was doomed from the very start, for many reasons.

Keep in mind our business began in the days before the first IBM personal computers or Macintosh computers were available on the market. To create “camera-ready originals” for quick printing, a business had to purchase documents created on photographic paper by expensive phototypesetting “cold type” machines. After type was “set,” it had to be cut apart by hand and exacto knife and “pasted up” with rubber cement or “hot wax” to create a “camera-ready” master for a quick printer.

Producing these documents takes a talent for design, a skill my wife possesses and I lack. Just as I am on the edge of tone-deafness in regard to music, I am on the edge of visual blindness when it comes to graphic design.

A typical interaction consisted of a customer entering our shop with some scribbles on a piece of paper intended as the genesis of a advertising flyer.

My wife would labor at the primitive “what you saw was hardly what you got” computer screen for a few hours, eventually producing a gem of visual design. On receipt of our phone call, the customer (always in a desperate hurry) would dash back into our shop, exclaim with delight at the sight of the art work, add it to his bill (which he was never in a desperate hurry to pay), and dash next door to the quick printer.

We had various types of customers, each more irritating than the previous. Some of our most irritating customers were restaurant owners seeking to produce menus. These were not owners of big fancy restaurants—who used the expensive, downtown Portland typesetting companies who catered to advertising agencies and big department stores. Nor were they franchisers of big chain restaurants such as McDonald’s or Denny’s who had big corporate offices to produce slick menus in-house.

Our customers were owners of small restaurants, probably as doomed in their enterprises as we were in our pathetic graphic arts business. They were especially difficult because as people with talent at cooking they also had artistic temperaments and so they interfered with our efforts to serve them in the same way you might interfere with their business if you were a fairly good home cook and insisted in going into the restaurant’s kitchen and telling the cook in detail how to prepare your meal.

One day an attractive young couple entered our little shop in Beaverton, Oregon (a suburb west of Portland). Elizabeth was tall, blond, blue-eyed, slim, regal and exquisitely beautiful. She easily could have appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine.

As her mate posed in splendor beside her, Elizabeth explained that her husband, Tony, was a very talented chef who had cooked for fine restaurants in his native Italy. At first, Elizabeth, cool and articulate, did most of the speaking. Tony, who looked like every male Italian movie star you’ve ever seen, understood English quite well, and would begin a communication fairly well for a couple of sentences, but as he became excited (which only took a moment or two) his hands began to gesture wildly and his Italian accent overran his comprehensibility to an English-speaking listener.

Elizabeth explained that Tony would soon open a small but exquisite Italian restaurant in downtown Portland. To finance the enterprise, she planned to continue her day job as a nurse, assisting her husband at the restaurant in the evening.

It was hard for me to imagine regal Elizabeth changing bedpans and applying bandages to dreadful wounds, though it was easy to imagine male patients expiring happily as they gazed adoringly at her beautiful face and form from their sickbed. However, for all I know, Elizabeth was a competent and caring nurse.

They sought our assistance in preparing the first menu for their new restaurant.

I presume that chefs know to have the tools and materials they need before they embark on preparing a meal and nurses usually have the necessary instruments and medicines ready at hand before they assist with an operation. However, it seemed not to have occurred to them to prepare their menu before they entered our shop. In fact, as they began to prepare their bill of fare from scratch at our counter, they quickly began to stage a magnificent quarrel about the content and design of the menu.

As the confrontation escalated, Elizabeth became colder and colder, more and more regal, dismissing Tony’s ideas with chilly scorn. Tony in turn became hotter and hotter. His voice rose, his hands gestured wildly. After a little while, it became apparent to my wife and me that their battle was going to be a long one, so we retired to the back of our shop and tried to ignore the histrionics and do other work.

Every so often, they would call one of us to the counter to answer a question. Our answer would inspire a fresh outburst of marital discord.

Somehow, after what seemed hours of conflict, they came up with the information for their menu. Eventually, after many hours of labor deciphering their scribbles, my wife produced a splendid menu. When they came to pick it up a few days later, much to our surprise, they were sunny and cheerful and presented themselves as delighted with the product we presented.

After they expressed their appreciation for the menu and paid us, they invited us to visit their restaurant after it opened in downtown Portland. As we were chronically broke and working long, long hours at our miserable business, we never took them up on their offer. For all I know, it was a fine restaurant.

We were puzzled what the “drama couple” episode had been all about. I now have a theory, perhaps 35 years later.

After the session of battling over their menu, they would come together, perhaps on the floor of their half-furnished restaurant, and engage in love-making so fierce and splendid wallpaper began to peel itself off the walls.

My wife and I had only been innocent victims of their foreplay.

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5 Responses to “The Play”


  1. Reminds me of a O.Henry story.

  2. teaspoon Says:

    How selfish of them to involve you in their foreplay without your permission! 😉


  3. Hm. When my father (whose parents were both very Italian), my brother, and my sister and I all get together it seems to outsiders like we are having a horrible argument. If you didn’t know better you might think it was a terrible fued. In fact, that is often our way of talking. We are in no way angry, we’re just having a converation. Perhaps it’s like that for ACTUAL-from-Italy Italians too, only more so.

  4. modestypress Says:

    Jane: I am flattered by the comparison. teaspoon: people probably involve us all in their foreplay without our permission. waxing: once while visiting my aunt Rose in Monterrey I was struck by a family living next door to her appearing to have a furious argument in a language other than English. When I mentioned it to her, she explained that they were Portuguese, and what appeared to be an angry shouting match was just a friendly normal family discussion.

  5. vroni1208 Says:

    Hey, I’m from Monterrey! But that’s neither here nor there. I loved this posting because I imagined the exact same thing while I was reading it. 🙂


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