Chopstick Charley’s and The Joe

by Tim Gilmore, 8/18/2017

Because this is what a Chinese restaurant looks like in film noir. Because a Chinese American restaurant should be dirty, stained, greasy and cheap. Most importantly, because Chopstick Charley’s is the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city.

And that’s saying a lot. In her 2008 TED Talk, “The Hunt for General Tso,” Jennifer 8. Lee says, “There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy’s combined.”

Because the letters have fallen from the front sign, so you have to read the less weathered blanks where the letters used to be. Because the front windows have been bricked in, two small square portals left, each the size of a man’s face. Because everyone who doesn’t already know Chopstick Charley’s assumes this place has long been closed.

These are the reasons the back corner booth is the best place in town to meet for secret psychogeographical sessions. Also, it rains through the ceiling on the front corner booth.

Everyone’s favorite is the woo dip harr, shrimp wrapped in bacon with sweet and sour sauce.

“Miss Kitty,” as everyone calls her, sweats by the register and yells into the phone. She tells the caller that she’s already told him she won’t cook for him. She repeats her statement four times, insistently, then lowers her voice, says, “Okay, 40 minute!” and hangs up.

The air outside is humid and smells of frying eggs. The air inside is humid and smells of frying eggs and stale red carpet faded brown. We must discuss, in this back corner, details we can mention nowhere else in the city.

When the motel was built in 1951, its eatery was called the Tropical Restaurant. It didn’t last long. Kitty Cheung has cooked here since 1974, but Chopstick Charley’s has served lo mein and egg drop soup since the mid-1950s. Philips Highway was a different place back then. Its dozen or so motor hotels made it a day’s getaway for the middle class. The abandoned motel on the property, “The Joe,” sponsored luau nights in the 1960s.

I ask Miss Kitty if she might share any stories from all the years she’s been cooking here. Her eyes open wide. She nods dramatically, bends forward and laughs loudly, then stands back up, composed and calm, and rings up an order. Whatever stories she holds, she’s not sharing them.

“You and your husband own the motel too, right?”

“No, no,” she says and waves her hand as if to flatten me. “Just caretaker.”

But property records list Chun Wo Cheung as owner of the long-shuttered low brick-walled motel that hooks an L around the back of Chopstick Charley’s.

Sounds of skitterings, you can barely hear them, disperse across the apartment above the front office of The Joe. I’m almost sure someone’s up there. I can just see him thumbing a worn copy of Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles: “No sirens. Silent street. No wind to speak of. Good night for stealing gas.”

Susan Bush remembers the man she knew as Charley. She and her late husband Sam King owned Gator Lodge down the street. Sam had Italian craftsmen install the mosaic tile in Gator Lodge bathrooms. Vincent Acri, an Italian cook and baker, ran the kitchen. Sam took such good care of that motel, says Susan, that “every blade of grass” stood “perfectly in place.”

She remembers the man who owned The Joe and the adjoining restaurant in the 1960s as Chopstick Charley himself, says he was “a no-nonsense kind of guy. If you came to his motel for hanky panky, he would throw you out.” He was determined The Joe, then called The Palace Motel and then The Three Hundred, would not be an “hourly place.”

In the years before Interstate 95 barreled parallel to Philips and left the old highway a blasted shell of itself, people occasionally rented rooms for a midafternoon fling, but the motel prostitution and drug dens of the 1980s and ’90s here were yet unimaginable.

Susan remembers that “Charley” was “tiny” and “spoke very little English.” His wife, whose name Susan can’t recall, was a broad-shouldered white woman with dark curly hair who stood a head taller than Charley. They had a little girl—“Her name was something like Mae Mae”—who spent all her time in the restaurant “with both parents doting on her constantly.”

Now 85 years old, having remarried after Sam died in 1972, Susan says with a somewhat dreamy yearning, “I wish I could remember more. I wonder what happened to that little girl.”

Suddenly she feels certain that same little girl has become Miss Kitty. “Or maybe she’s even a granddaughter. If Charley were alive today, he’d be about a hundred years old.”

So I ask Miss Kitty if she’s related to the original owner, descended from Charley himself.

“Oh no no,” she says. “Restaurant had two or three owner, 1950 to 1974. Papa Lee became owner. Papa Lee is my father-in-law, okay, thank you.” And she hurries back to the kitchen.

Though city directories list Chopstick Charley’s for the past seven decades, The Joe is listed as The Palace Motel in the early 1950s, The Three Hundred Motel in the 1960s and ’70s, and finally The Joe in 1977, when it began to share space with Metter’s Auto Parts.

No Charley is ever listed. From the 1950s through the ’70s, directories list Jung Ong as owner and resident. By 1980, directories list Mrs. Fong S. Ong. The Cheungs come in by 2000. Surely, “Charley” was an Americanism, a nickname, but this ownership history doesn’t match what Miss Kitty tells me at all.

So here’s what you must do. Assume management downstairs. Check yourself in upstairs. Now the old motel is yours. Open the logbook. Work backward. Tell the story. Tell the stories of every night spent in The Joe / The Three Hundred / The Palace from the 1990s back to 1951. Astonish us all with how much experience a city collects in a single address. Be wondrous. Whatever you see, however much blood, whatsoever betrayals, love life. It’s infinitely full and filling. Show us. We’re depending on you and everyone is desperate.

The screens rot off the doors. The wood warps in brittle waves and crumbles in the humid heat. I’m telling you: it’s the muting quality of time that will allow us to survive. The catastrophe that’s bigger than the world in its moment falls quieter, quieter. It does not go away, but becomes what we can bear. Then we begin to carve from it its stories.

Stationed upstairs of the front office of The Joe, you log our covert operations from room to room. We watch. We record. A young couple runs flirtatiously across the back courtyard in the crook of the L in 1966. We meet with 1959 in a back left corner room and 1974 due right of the double oak. Your logbook of all these years will fill the front office, floor to ceiling.

Whatever happened here was human and must not be discredited. It mandates the peculiar discussions in the back corner booth in Chopstick Charley’s, nowhere else in the city, where we meet for hours.

Did you see the single rose blooming by the side window of the boarded office of The Joe? You order the egg foo young. I’ll share with you my woo dip harr. Let’s compare secrets. Read to me from your logbook. You know I’m just teasing you when I’m hard on you. Your hand folds slender, but not as small as it once did, into the breadth of my palm. I too once was small.

I am reaching for you. Always I’ll be reaching for you. Even when I was your age now, before you, I reached out for you.

Our stories continue one from the other. We can log them together. Don’t give up on that. Breathe anew, moment to moment, the secret urban jet streams of history. Remember. Charley’s a no-nonsense guy, whatever his real name. He must be at least a hundred years old. If anyone can find him. Above our restaurant table, the ceiling might collapse with the weight of the very next rain, but Susan King thought the same in 1963.