It's been a pretty depressing week. Aside from the usual disappointments that life brings, I've been unable to look away from the abomination that is my Twitter feed, which alerted me Sunday that our country had experienced its deadliest mass shooting in modern history. The shooter, being a white man, was practically eulogized for his love of country music in initial headlines, instead of being pilloried as the terrorist he truly is.
Seeing that headline juxtaposed on Twitter with headlines vilifying Michael Brown—the victim of a police shooting—because he loved rap music gave me that feeling of bitter defeat and hopelessness that seems to spring from your very bones. I'm fairly certain I let out a withering sigh or three. I also spent a significant amount of time this week calculating how long I could afford insulin and food with my current savings, were I to retreat to a yurt somewhere in Teanaway County. Not long enough, sadly.
In lieu of the yurt, I went for the next most comforting thing available to me: pho. Sure, Seattle seems to love its North American comfort foods these days—poutine is ever popular and you can't throw a rock without hitting a piece of fried chicken—but I would argue that pho is the truest Seattle comfort food. Certainl, the most ubiquitous. Regardless, when you need to cry into some broth about bump stocks or school or whatever is currently plaguing your psyche, pho is always there for you.
While pho is pretty much universally good here, there is no such thing as the best bowl of pho. I can already hear you typing your indignant comments about Pho So 1 or Monsoon or whatever, but the best bowl is an entirely subjective matter, just like the act of eating pho. Everyone has their favorite place, and everyone has their ritual. The best one is the one that works for you.
For me, that's Pho Thy Thy. It's not flashy, just your typical hole-in-the-wall on The Ave, designed to feed the University of Washington's hungry masses quickly and efficiently. And it does that extremely well. Until recently, their offerings were pretty much the standard pho joint fare: veggie, chicken, and beef, along with a smattering of fresh and fried spring rolls. They've since added bun (vermicelli bowl) and mi (egg noodle) dishes, but the pho remains the same wonderful concoction it's always been.
Thy Thy's basic model is similar to that of Than Brothers in that it is very cheap and the service is very no frills, but its broth is head and shoulders above theirs. I've always found it to be somehow huskier and more fragrant, with that not-overpowering, perfectly subtle sweetness that all pho broth should have.
Speaking of broth, no matter what your particular formula for doctoring up your pho is, you must always take a sip of broth first. Tossing in lime and sriracha and plum sauce to your broth before you've even taken a sip is blatantly disrespectful to the person who worked hard to simmer it. It's also important to your own pho experience, as your pho ends up reflecting what you put in it, so you need to know what you're starting point is.
Anyway, at Thy Thy, I always ask for a small veggie, but with the important substitution of beef broth. Though I love tendon and tripe and flank and all the other meats you can enhance with a broth bath, I really love fresh veggies and tofu and not falling asleep instantly after I eat. As a happy omnivore, though, I don't find pho quite as comforting without that beefy flavor. Thus, the substitution.
I picked up this particular trick from my late friend Peter Starrs, who was a very meticulous eater and a fanatic Thy Thy regular. While Thy Thy was always a favorite among us poor skaters, as it was close to Red Square and the pho used to cost less than $5 a bowl, Peter ate there every day some weeks. Indeed, while Thy Thy's pho is exactly the type of heartwarming dish we could all use to see us through the onset of fall and the fucked up news cycle it has brought, my heart is most warmed this week by a certain story about Peter's love for Thy Thy.
The couple that owns it have kept their roles since I first started enjoying their pho a decade ago—he's always in the kitchen and she's always working the register—but the cast of characters on the floor changes with the seasons. While your waiter is inevitably Vietnamese and in their late teens, suggesting they employ a lot of family friends, the job tends to be a stepping stone. Somewhere to work your way through school, essentially.
Back when we skaters were frequenting Thy Thy the most, there was this very shy, awkward young man waiting tables there. He was mercilessly efficient, in keeping with the spirit of the place, but so bashful about it that you couldn't help but pity him a bit. He always seemed peeved to see us roll in and slide our skateboards under the benches in the good booth by the window, but he was always a good sport about our odd orders and strewn backpacks. Only once, when my incorrigible friend Nick ordered extra jalapeños and made the fatal mistake of reminding our waiter friend to bring them before he'd even finished unloading our pho from his tray, did he snap.
"I know!" he bellowed at Nick, with a vehemence I've not seen since. The smoldering look that accompanied this admonition was priceless. Obviously, we laughed our asses off. At Nick, at our waiter, and at the whole hilarious interaction. But all we ever did, stupid skate bros that we were, was laugh at the guy. We laughed at his shyness, we laughed at his odd mannerisms, and, most of all, we laughed at his gaudy polo shirts.
You see, he always had these extremely loud polo shirts from the '90s, but way before the '90s had become cool again. Every time we visited, he was rocking a different oversized, tricolor Nautica polo. I guess maybe he'd seen a bunch of old rap videos and decided that bold colors and XLs were what's up, despite us being in the skinny jeans phase of the aughts.
One winter day, when we were all sitting around at some coffee shop, bullshitting, and the subject of his polos came up. We were endlessly amused by them, of course, but always in a snarky, condescending way. Peter, however, did not partake. It was early December, and he'd been Christmas shopping for everyone. Everyone, it turns out, included our waiter friend.
Peter had bought him a goddamn polo shirt.
This probably doesn't sound that wild, but to us, it was mind-boggling. For one, who buys their waiter such a specific Christmas gift? For two, Peter was pretty much James Dean on four wheels. We'd always assumed that Peter's number one concern was Peter. The idea that he'd been at a thrift store, seen a polo shirt, and thought, "Man, that would be perfect for my pho guy," was absolutely insane to us.
Indeed, despite having been best friends with Peter for nearly a decade at that point, I still wondered if he actually cared about me. But that December I was forced to confront the fact that he did, quite a bit.
In that same spree of Christmas shopping, Peter bought me A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, as well as a collection of short stories by Pushkin. Though we spent 99.9 percent of our time together nerding out about skateboarding, he'd somehow picked up that my other big passion at the time was Russian literature. Not only had he gotten me a gift, which I never expected from him in the first place, he'd gotten me a better gift than I could ever have gotten myself. (For the record, A Hero of Our Time is an incredibly prescient skewering of aristocratic male entitlement and it's still one of my favorite books. The Idiot pales in comparison.)
The moral of the story is, however, that Peter gave so much more of a shit than we ever thought. And he did it in a way that is particularly uplifting to me. Simply put, he paid attention.
Gift-giving is often reduced to banality—you buy your kid the latest gadget, you buy your partner some generic jewelry, or, in my case, you buy whoever's birthday it is a bottle of midrange booze. But it can be an art. It can show someone that you really, truly know them. While Peter never bothered with the typical trappings of friendship, he found his own way to show he cared, and I've honestly never felt more cared about. I like to imagine our waiter felt the same way when Peter surprised him with the shirt.
I'm not suggesting that we all need to go on a wild gift-giving spree, but I do think we need to pay more attention to one another. To those little idiosyncrasies that define us, those unique qualities and tastes that typify us as humans. I'm not naive enough to think it would prevent mass killings on its own, but I think that it's a part of the solution.
My roommate, an ex-Marine, recently described to me how he and his buddies had modified a Mac-10 to be fully automatic using only a file one drunken night in Tucson. They made an unwieldy "bullet hose," as he put it, but they still made it fire full auto. Banning bump stocks is a start, but the technology to commit mass murder is widely available in America, whether legally or otherwise. While I continue to support stringent gun control and statistics do too, I think it's also worth looking at some of society's social ills.
To put it bluntly, we need to figure out why so many Americans want to kill so many other Americans in the first place. I don't think it would be outrageous to say that our nation is increasingly devoid of real human connection. That we are more and more isolated by the day, more enmeshed in our devices, more focused in on our myopic online worlds. We see other people all the time on social media, sure, but we see a simulacrum of them. A two-dimensional reflection of who they are, not the flesh and blood person.
As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman pointed out in the classic military psychology book On Killing, it is nearly impossible to kill someone without first dehumanizing them. And it is very difficult to dehumanize someone when you really, truly pay attention to them. When you see them as the living, breathing amalgamation of peculiarities that they are. That we all are. Polo shirts might not be the solution (especially white ones), but remembering this particular shirt gives me a glimmer of hope. Combined with a good bowl of pho, it's enough to make me reconsider that yurt.