HOW DO WE LET 15 YEARS slip by without seeing some of the best friends we ever had? Everybody’s busy, that’s how. I think it was Karl Kraus, the Austrian G.K. Chesterton, who declared, “You don’t even live once.” Kind of a dark view, Karl. But I take your point. Carpe diem.
Our friends Thanh and Thuy, in Levittown, PA. Interesting history here, which I’ll tell you in a bit.
I arrived here in Levittown on Thursday after an early-morning vamoose out of New York City.
Went left under the El rails at 31st Avenue and 31st Street, Queens, making for the on-ramp to I-278. Piggy’s getting out of Dodge. When we got to Levittown it was only 10 in the morning. Thanh and Thuy were at work. Same for their son, Charlie, 20. Daughter Monica, 16, was at school.
When I pulled up in the drive, I noticed that a guy who lives across the street and two doors down had his work vehicle at home. I walked over and rang the door bell, because, I mean, how long’s it gonna take for one of the neighbors to ring him up? Motorcycle in their driveway… guy’s setting up a tent in the backyard… When the officer came to the door, I said, “I thought I ought to walk over and introduce myself before you walked over to introduce yourself.”
The mighty iron piggy inspired Thanh to fire up his vintage Honda 400 and take it for a spin down the block. It hadn’t been started in a year. Low-miles 1981, a fun little scoot. Antique tags, no futzing with annual inspections. But maybe that’s why it’s badly in need of tires and fork seals. Also needs a valve adjustment and has a flat spot in the power curve.
Thanh (or Dominic, his Catholic Confirmation name) was an engineering student at Villanova when South Vietnam fell, in April 1975. We heard those countdown days unfold live, huddled over a radio at our study table in the basement of Mendel Hall. Thuy was 13 then, living in Saigon. Her family—mother, father, eight kids and an aunt—fled by night in a South Vietnamese river patrol boat. The captain put everybody off onto a barge that had been fenced-in with cyclone wire; a big flat rolling deck at sea. When all his passengers had climbed onto the barge, the captain scuttled the patrol boat. Thuy remembers many smaller boats dropping off people there. No drinking water, everyone packed-in and miserably seasick. The family was split up into three groups just by all the panicked pushing and shoving whenever an American ship arrived to take people off. Take them who-knows-where, but anywhere was better than the barge.
Eventually the family was reunited at Subic Bay, sent to Guam after that, then on to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. A Catholic parish in Worcester, Massachusetts helped to resettle the family in that city. Thanh and Thuy met in Worcester five years later, purely by chance. Thuy was 18 and Thanh was working as an electrical engineer.
They discovered that their families had been neighbors in Bùi Chu, North Vietnam. This was before Thanh and Thuy were born. Both families moved south of the 17th Parallel in 1954-55, with about 300,000 others, mostly Catholics. This was after the Geneva Accords settled the terms of the French defeat by the Việt Minh.
When Dominic was in high school in Saigon, he used to ride his bike past Thuy’s house to get to school. They wouldn’t meet until a dozen years later, and on the opposite side of the globe.
The 19th-century Catholic cathedral the French built in Bùi Chu, Thanh and Thuy’s ancestral home.
Thuy’s an accountant now. Dominic teaches math at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. The actor Tony Danza taught there for a year, in 2010, and made seven episodes of a TV series about it. Also wrote a book called, “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had.” I identify with that. Not every teacher, maybe, but most.
“Thanh, all the best. Thanks for the guidance. Take care, Tony Danza.”
The bride scanned and emailed these pics to me yesterday. Here’s Thuy and Thanh at their old house on Grays Ferry Avenue, near Center City Philadelphia. This must be around Thanksgiving 1985, judging by Daughter #1 and Daughter #2. We were down from Maine for a visit. Also here, the Dinhs’ big dog Chief and little dog Queenie.
Thuy, doing D1’s nails.
The bride, with Daughter #3 in utero. Here’s a good opportunity to report D2’s leaky diaper event. (You’re welcome, Jen!) Thuy got out the hair dryer to have a go at D2’s pants and shirttail.
Fresh diaper, dry clothes, happy again.
Yesterday, in Philly. My old friend Thanh and his son, Charlie. Thanh piloted the RAV4 and hauled the family and me down to Wing Phat Plaza, at 12th and Washington.
Thuy’s a tremendous cook but was happy to let someone else feed us for once. I offered to treat everybody to a biker’s dinner, raisins and pocket lint. No takers.
Monica, experimenting with her hair. My gals did, at 16.
Tonight she took the purple out. Last time I saw it she was calling it pink lemonade. Hard to say what’s next.
My bowl of phở, Vietnamese noodles with beef, onions, scallions, lime, mint, hot sauces for dipping… I’m still handy with chopsticks.
After grub, we head over to the Hùng Vương Supermarket. I’d like to try every exotic food here. Lots of live creatures and things like grass jelly, lychee drink, basil seed drink…
I’ll try it. What is it? Wait, don’t tell me before I try it.
Calamari! Here they call it cá mực. I could live on cá mực.
The Silence of the Quackers.
Snouts. Piggy was appalled. When most Americans eat snouts they call them “hot dogs.”
I rode shotgun on the ride back up the Interstate to Levittown.
This was dinner last night, the traditional New Year’s delicacy in Vietnam: sticky rice with pork and mung beans wrapped in banana leaves with a side of pickled leeks. Fantastico! Thanh and I had beer with it, dunno how traditional that is.
Ate these, too. Taro, or eddoe. Tuber grub. Tastes like potato.
So much for the little detour down Amnesia Lane and the weird foods aisle.
Back on the motorcycling thing, here’s the exit from New York on Thursday. I meant to get out of Queens under cover of darkness but it was going on 6 when I split. Rode down 31st Avenue and turned left at the King Souvlaki truck.
Followed the El to Interstate 278 west, the fastest route through Queens, Brooklyn, and over the Verrazano Narrows and Goethals bridges.
The sun popped up and got the angle on the city. Lit it up nicely under a gray canopy.
Traffic was thick but moving at freeway speeds, 60mph, 70 here & there.
I don’t follow this close at speed. The minivan dude was taking the exit but abruptly crossed the solid white lines and got back on the highway. Never even saw me. Happens every day. Keep your head on a swivel, Moe.
Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn. I have roots here. My father’s family lived on Metropolitan around the turn of the last century, decamped to Philly around 1910.
That sun over my shoulder lit up Brooklyn as well. Go west, young piggy.
It was tough getting into the city on Tuesday, easy as pie getting out on Thursday. The air was cool, low 50’s. By the time I got headed south on the New Jersey Turnpike my fingers were numb with cold. It felt wonderful. Without setting my boot on the road even once, I was out of the worst of the morning commute and ready for morning coffee. The swill at the Thomas Alva Edison fuel stop would do. I’m known in all the best places. I’ve never slept on the ground at Chez Edison. Or I don’t think I have. If you’re gonna sleep on the ground at a Jersey fuel stop, Molly Pitcher is much more uptown. The concrete there is strictly 5-star. Drop my name.
That’s it for now. Headed south in the morning when the Dinh’s go to church.
You know what it says in the Biker’s Bible: I’d rather be riding my motorcycle thinking about God than sitting in church thinking about my motorcycle.
Tony DePaul, May 31, 2014, Levittown, PA