“Our question of the day is, ‘What is your passion?’” our soft-spoken server said when she put down our menus.
“I always say, ‘My ass,’” my high school friend Rita said when the server moved out of earshot.
“No, not really.” She smiled. “They don’t invent these things, they just deliver them.”
Rita and I had been working on a writing project together at a nearby café called Bricks and Scones close to her surprisingly quiet suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles. Even more surprising were the number of businesses we passed with cutesy names like The Barking Lot, The Petite Retreat and The Merchant of Tennis. Who knew that LA could be so goddamn punny?
Hungry, Rita took me to Café Gratitude, a place I had vaguely heard of from worldly vegan New Age friends in Santa Fe. I’d been to Body, Annapurna, and even tried to manifest a nicer car, but as soon as I read the menu, I realized that I’d arrived at the holy grail of what Café Gratitude calls “Sacred Commerce.” All the items were titled with simple declarative sentences designed to empower. If you feel benevolent, you might choose a breakfast entrée called I Am Open-Hearted, two very kind, gluten-free buckwheat-flax pancakes. Multi-cultural and beautiful? I Am Bonita might be the quinoa black bean taco you’ve been waiting for. But what did a square white guy like me feel like?
“My husband and I always rename the food, you know,” Rita said. “‘I Am Slightly Anxious And Fearful.’ ‘I Feel Fat In These Jeans.’ ‘I Am Scared I’ll Never Work In This Town Again’.”
“I’m starting to feel anxious about this menu,” I said.
A threetop walked in that was even more intriguing than the I Am Dazzling Caesar salad. An Asian man in a well-pocketed shirt and a video camera sat down across from a Lindsay Lohan look-alike and a woman you would not see in any of those blasé vegan joints in Fanta Se. She had a sheer blouse over a bikini top, daisy dukes, Doc Martens and a belt made from high-caliber bullet casings. Her exposed flesh was covered in pinup girl tattoos and her hair had been colored and styled à la Flock of Seagulls.
“I am staring,” I said to Rita, nodding over to the new arrivals.
“I am starving,” she said and flagged down our server to order. She was transformed while I was at peace. It was a nice combo. She also ordered a digestive elixir called I Am Fiery, brewed from something called noni in addition to ginger, turmeric, cayenne, and minerals left over from colonial times, or so I guessed from the description.
Each open table brought in more interesting clientele. It was hard for me not to shout, “Look over there,” when a hairless man in a crocheted headband positioned himself next to what I guessed to be his gypsy fortune-teller girlfriend. The couple said nothing the whole time we were there. They simply grimaced at photos on the phone of a nondescript woman seated across from them.
I did say, “I think those two took a vow of silence,” and gestured toward their table.
Rita nodded as if crocheted headbands and vows were everyday fare for her in the city of We Are Lost Angels.
Freshly waxed, the man had this reptilian way of sniffing the air before the sides of his mouth turned down.
“He looks like he’s eating a big bowl of ‘I Am In Pain’,” I said.
The server came back with what appeared to be watery blood in a shot glass. Rita sniffed it.
“And now I will drink my own version of suffering.” She took a sip and her face nearly exploded. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
She slid the glass to my side. I raised it to my lips and partook. I tasted an opening blast of cleaning products followed by a finish of rancid vinegar. “Sweet I Am Angry Jesus,” I said and had to turn my head to keep from vomiting all over the I Am A Table. I was greeted by the pinup girl seductively chewing her kale salad without using cutlery while the proverbial film rolled.
Our food was plated on the What Are You Grateful For? dishware, and Rita’s tacos seemed heartier than my gluten-free bagel with seaweed squares and sprouts. For some reason probably having to do with my previous gluten intake, I thought my meal would look more like the bagel and lox you’d get in New York delis.
“I was mistaken,” I said, pointing to my wafer-thin breadish product. Then I scanned the amazing range of humans in the brightly lit café. “But I am grateful.”