Dating The Old-Fashioned Way

When charm, skill, play, and persuasion won the day

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Last Friday, I had a massage appointment in Emeryville. I was early, and my phone had died two hours before. I had forgotten to charge it, and left the house with 1% battery.

I strolled around, found a little shop called Inna’s jam, and bought a small jar of preserved lemons. I had forty minutes to kill. The young woman behind the makeshift counter (probably Inna herself) told me about the Emeryville Greenway nearby. I made my way there and set out on a graveled path lined with trees, shrubs, and flowers.

I walked the equivalent of five or six blocks. I noticed I felt free and that time had slowed. It occurred to that was because my phone had died.

At the end of the greenway, where it stops near Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, stood a food truck with “Royal Egyptian” emblazoned on its side. Nearby were several picnic tables scattered about a lawn. At one table sat four or five people. A man stood at the head of the table, regaling the others.

I peered into the truck, curious. It’s not every day you see an Egyptian food truck. Plus this one had cute slogans painted on all sides.

“Royal Egyptian Cuisine advises the following: Your food is your medicine. Don’t eat it if your grandmother does not recognize it as food.” “MY RULES MY WAY That’s what earned me the bragging right. — Chef Elmy’s menu.” And: “Because I love you, I truly do, I will not poison your body by selling you Soda of any kind.”

The man standing at the table turned and came my direction.

I said, “It’s okay, I already ate. I was just curious about what you’re up to here.”

He did not slow his progress or turn around.

“You have room for a little soup?” he asked.

I hesitated. Then said, “Yes, okay, sure…”

He entered the truck and began bustling around.

After a couple of minutes, he passed a plate of bright greens with pickled vegetables and a bowl of tomato-bean soup with dollops of tahini through the truck window.

I fished my wallet out of my purse. He clucked and shook his head. “You want to insult me?”

Then, he said, “I have one condition. You must not sit alone. You must sit at the table with the people. No sitting alone with Chef Elmy’s food. You must introduce yourself.”

Bemused, I approached the table.

“Hi. I’ve been told I must sit here, so here I am.”

The denizens of the table seemed accustomed to such proceedings. They shifted to make room for me.

The young girl seated across from me was a jiu jitsu champion with an Egyptian father and Italian mother raised in Germany. The other three people at the table were Brazilians, including the young lady’s Brazilian jiu jitsu coach.

Chef Elmy returned.

He seemed happy to see us together. He rubbed his hands together.

He said, “People must eat together, talk together, in person, together. Not alone, not alone with their phones all the time. This is very bad.”

He brought up online dating. He said, “It is bad, very bad.”

He described being a young man in Egypt. “You had to work to get a date in those days! It took weeks, months! You committed yourself to impressing that girl. You were charming, caring, you tried, you bettered yourself. You worked to impress her.”

The implication was, by the time you got the young lady to assent to a date, you were half in love with her. You had already committed to a degree.

My son is nearly 21. I see from him how strange it’s gotten. He’s isolated. He’s online, which surprised me. Why should the young people be dating online? I thought that was for us older, desperate folk with chock-full schedules and routines that didn’t much allow for new potential paramours to enter our orbits.

But no, the young people are online too. My son showed me photos of some prospects. I was aghast. Many of these young women looked like sex workers — dramatically made up, wearing very little, posing provocatively. Why?

Elmy turned to me.

“How is the soup?”

“It’s wonderful,” I said. And it was.

“You must come back and try my other dishes.”

Then, he said, “You know Kim Novak?”

I said, “I know she’s an actress.”

Chef Elmy said, “You look just like her. Elegant like her. With her same short hair.”

I promised I would be back.

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