Interiority Burger

I turned to my friend and said, “This is pretty good, but not that good.” He agreed, “It’s fine. It gives me some ideas for other sandwiches.” “I was expecting something to blow my mind.” “Yeah," he said. “I thought I would eat this sandwich and declare: ‘You must change your life!’”

The infrastructure is getting restive

This is the third entry in City Mouse, a semi-fictionalized column by Morley Musick. Previous entries are here.

Though some of my friends have experienced internal upheavals because of The Matrix, or hallucinogenic drugs, or thought experiments posted on effective altruist forums, I have never deeply questioned material reality. But I have, from time to time, experienced a similarly vertiginous doubt: that interactions I had perceived as innocuous, or at least moderately genuine, in fact had a sinister ulterior motive; that everyone has been lying to me with some end in mind; and that I have lied, without interruption or remorse, too. This nightmare prevails on me after parties, sometimes, when I begin to feel that the social graces I have acquired have in fact irretrievably harmed me, that charm itself is a huge conspiracy. 

Dark secrets emerge retrospectively hidden in the handsome and knowing eyes of my companions and beneath their shimmering talk: little blood diamonds of contempt and malice, fraud and double meanings. In this nightmare I am not only the victim of a huge and impersonal evil that extends from the party all the way through New York’s social fabric, but also complicit in its operation.

A New York Times article recently inspired this feeling. It was a downtown culture piece by Joe Bernstein concerning the Tompkins Square grifter Ashwin Deshmukh. A former business partner of the upscale vegan diner Superiority Burger, Deshmukh had allegedly conned a sizable number of people into believing he was their best friend and then stolen their money.

He would, the article reported, disclose his troubled inner life in long and apparently frank exchanges, get someone else to open up in the same way, and then persuade them to invest in a restaurant or bar project he claimed to be connected to. Once they handed over their money, he went dark, never invested the cash, and never returned their calls again. Sometimes his lenders would catch him riding his bike around the Village, and force him to pay up. Other times he simply disappeared.

Now Deshmukh is the subject of multiple lawsuits and a shame-piece in the Gray Lady. The Instagram pictures of the heart-shaped pizzas he’d carry into parties, to promote his business Williamsburg Pizza, remain online on the Wayback Machine. One sports the message “I like you” written in pipetted ricotta. 

I distrust this homespun message. Entire neighborhoods of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn seem to me pervaded by its airy ricotta ethos, by advertisements that address us as intimates, by heavily capitalized pseudo-bonhomie.

Deshmukh and most of the East Village accentuate my occasional doubts of social reality, and the article lent credence to the feeling. But, as it so happened, my friend was in town—an excellent friend, a wonderful cook and gourmet—and he wanted to visit Ash’s star project. We went to Superiority Burger on a Tuesday.

The hipster clientele wore wispy, blouse-like shirts with puffed sleeves, or taut chain wallets, or keychains on the outside of their pants, or DARE T-shirts—the last of which, having been worn ironically at the height of their popularity, have now climbed a second level beyond their original intended meaning, as nostalgia pieces for a previous era of irony. 

In this atmosphere of heady significations we waited for forty-five minutes, at a small bar toward the back of the room. And then another hour, and then a half hour more, me begging with the maître d’ at some point, and repeatedly considering and then deciding against $20 bar drinks.

When at last we were seated, we asked the waitress what her favorite thing to eat was.

“The collard green sandwich,” she replied. “It’s beautiful.”

There was something so tender, so dreamy, so private, even, in the way she said these last words. It was like hearing a lover whisper into our ear right before bed. That such feeling had been attached to a sandwich did not strike me as unusual at the moment, and we waited in eager anticipation for our food. 

Another half hour passed. A man walked in the door, photographed the room, and then left without saying anything. And following him a group of friends, all of such dramatic looks, and wearing such idiosyncratic, chunky footwear, that it seemed as if they had wandered down into the restaurant from the Ecco billboard nearby, the one that reads: “What makes a family?”

When the vaunted Superiority Burger finally came, I found that it was not nearly as exciting as had been promised. It was, after all, just a veggie burger. The collard green sandwich, similarly, just boiled vegetables served between well-made bread.

I turned to my friend and said, “This is pretty good, but not that good.”

He agreed, “It’s fine. It gives me some ideas for other sandwiches.”

“I was expecting something to blow my mind.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I thought I would eat this sandwich and declare: ‘You must change your life!’”

We laughed, and a moment later a small door opened near our feet. An extremely small man poked his head through the doorframe, looked up at us, and then proceeded to step out fully. He was holding a clipboard with papers spilling out over it. He wore suspenders, a transparent visor, and exquisite, half-rimmed glasses.

“Will you come with me, gentlemen?” he asked politely. 

I couldn’t believe my eyes. 

“Come with you?” I asked.

“Yes, please, right away, if you don’t mind,” he said.

My friend looked at me in disbelief. Then Daniel Johnston’s fragile voice came over the restaurant’s sound system, singing “True Love Will Find You in the End.”

“Is this a sign?” I asked the man, gesturing up at the speaker.

“Not at all,” he replied. “It’s just a song. Will you please come with me? I have a customer service questionnaire I’d like you to fill out.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know if I want to answer any questions.” I felt a little rattled and disoriented. I’d never seen a small man pop out of a small door before, or at least, not a man this small, or a door this small. 

Our waitress exchanged a glance with him, and then turned to us and winked dreamily, encouraging us to join him with a subtle nod. The music started its loop from the beginning. “True love will find you in the end. True love . . .” and then the restaurant walls shuddered, like an animal waking up from a long sleep. There was clearly no time for prevarications. 

“Come, come,” the little man said. “The infrastructure is getting restive.” 

He took our hands and led us through the entranceway, which opened onto a bright and airy office filled with rows of analysts, each sitting at his or her own desk, all of them ergonomic dark wood, a mixture of standing and sitting arrangements.

At each desk were three monitors: the center monitor displayed the Bloomberg Terminal, a green and red arrow, mostly on an upward trajectory, for a graph labeled “SPTY BRGR FX”; to the left of the graph was a matrix of videos, of hundreds of eyes and hundreds of mouths with red dots tracking the pupils and tongues, presumably of SPTY BRGR customers; and on the right were EKGs, monitoring their heart rates. A low-volume cacophony of voices played throughout the office, identical, or so it seemed to me, to that of the restaurant in which we had been eating just moments ago.

“We analyze conversations of diners only after the voices have been anonymized,” said the small man. “There is no way for us to know who is saying what.” 

He then licked his finger before unfurling a long scroll: “Now, before we begin, I’d like to preempt some possible critiques.

“I am aware that this restaurant’s part-owner has been discredited in the press. I am aware he has been accused of theft and twelve counts of fraud. But I need you to understand that Ash was a minor broker in a broader operation which can function with or without his involvement. His termination was capitulatory and impersonal, his largesse and social presence dispensable in the larger scheme of things. To reject his deceptions would be to misunderstand how economies function: that is, through the projections of vitality and other tenuous things.

“Analogously, I would add, to rage against the machine is to undervalue financial liquidity. Should you desire to eat pad thai today and tortas tomorrow, you should expect dollars to pass freely between Bangkok and Oaxaca, and with those dollars, a certain amount of relaxation concerning how they’re spent. Mutual understanding—not transparency—undergirds cultural and commodity exchange. And understanding demands vigilance, if you follow, and vigilance—from the latin vigilare, to stay awake, not to sleep—demands on the part of all clients a certain openness to insomnia, and an ease in this world beyond dreams.”

These last remarks he read in a particularly dry and matter-of-fact tone. He looked up at us. 

“Let me get to the point. Here we act with the simple expectation that your social effervescence valorizes. We feel this is reasonable, but if the party is over, the party is over, the doors close, and another chef and another decorator and eventually another crowd is carted in.”

He coughed into his handkerchief.

“I pulled you both aside today because you seemed dissatisfied with your experience in a way that was atypical of our customer base,” said the man. Turning to my friend, he added, “When you said you wanted the sandwich to compel you to say, ‘You must change your life,’ what exactly did you have in mind?”

My friend stammered. “I, well, one might say a few things, though I am not as knowledgeable about Rilke’s early work . . . and its youthful excess, well, all ought to be forgiven, in light of his later accomplishments.” The man looked expectant. “But as applied to a burger, the poetics of despair, holistic transformation . . . could a category error, here, be present, at least as concerns the writer, the ‘last inward man’ . . . but I’ll revise, that, and start again, I think . . .” The official began to look at his watch.

“Oh, I don’t know,” my friend finally said. “I was just saying whatever popped into my mind.”

“Well, try to be more specific. For we have a number of condiments available that might improve your experience.” He gestured at a library of sauces. 

“We have a number of workarounds for dietary or spiritual restrictions. We have pills that change the way your tongue processes umami-producing compounds. We have proprietary coins, and cognac for celebrities. Cornichons that relieve aphasia, gelees against ennui, novelty sweaters for hairless dogs . . .”

“Wait a second,” I said, not comprehending a word of this. “Earlier you said you didn’t know who was speaking. You said you anonymized diners’ voices when analyzing their conversations. If that is true, then how did you know my friend here said that he thought the sandwich would change his life?”

“Oh, that’s simple,” he said. “Your table is right outside my office.”

My friend looked at me and then at the man. He said, “I’m going to be honest. I find some of the things you have said very disturbing.”

“I see. It looks like we have to go through all this again,” the man replied, retrieving his scroll. “You two are aware I have gift cards to give away, if you complete the survey?”

We looked at him, and he seemed, somehow, to have grown. And I realized too that the modest brown shoes he had worn when he had greeted us had in the course of our talk metamorphosed four times: first into Allbirds, then Dunks, then Louboutins, changing with his mood. They now crowded his legs in fierce monotone, two Big Red Boots shaking in anger. 

“We have complimentary Xanax!” he said. “We have ten thousand followers to give to your account. We have keys that allow you to open the doors of many banks. This is just a simple focus group questionnaire! And it won’t take more than ten minutes of your time.” The questionnaire had expanded and begun to writhe on the floor, like a snake.

“Where is the goddamn door!” I cried.

He looked at me, tall as a tower—and then shrunk, and heaved another sigh. 

“I see. Well, you have your prerogative, we have ours: you want to get a bite to eat, I have to answer to shareholders.” He was ushering us out now, pushing us back toward the dining room as if by invisible hand.

“Yes, yes, you can ask all you want for a refund. You can ask Ash for your money back. Good luck getting it! You can post whatever kind of vulgarity you want on Google reviews!” 

“But if you want to go somewhere quote-un-quote ‘relaxed,’ want to eat somewhere quote-un-quote ‘real,’” he said, pointing two fingers past the threshold of his little world, “in a word, if you don’t want to live and eat in front of a two-way mirror, you’re gonna have to take the train to the last stop, my friends. And from there, just keep walking!”

In fact, the restaurant he referred to was only ten minutes past the terminal, a few steps from the beach. The sign outside displayed its name in huge electric letters, which when turned on shone like moonlight.

Astroturf rugs had been laid out carelessly on either side of the entrance and in the summer, drunk men sit outside here, their feet planted squarely on the imitation grass. They have big, red faces and wear gold chains. They drink clear shots of liquor from small glasses, shout merrily, and embrace the older Uzbek and Russian women with them, who are just as loud. 

The waitstaff all have dark features. All of them are handsome, pretty, with dark black hair and dark eyes. One is hardy, with broad shoulders, one is thin, with sunken eyes, and one has full plump cheeks like a little boy. There are three televisions inside, all playing music videos quietly, one in each of the two corners by the windows, and then one more, above where the proprietor sits, writing in her accounting book.

Beside her is the refrigerator, stocked full of bright green tarragon soda and huge vases of kompot with whole cherries swimming in the bottom. Sparkling water from Borjomi, Georgia is also for sale—potent, evil stuff that tastes like mud, and somehow delicious taken with the food. 

It is all so angelically simple, and the food is more flavorful and better executed than the small list of ingredients that go into each dish would suggest. 

The dishes are nonetheless not balanced. One flavor or another prevails. But this is just as well—it is tiring, tiring like the city is tiring to eat foods shaped by restless, manic palettes like my own, by chefs who have tasted everything, and, overburdened by this knowledge, cannot leave well enough alone. 

The pleasures offered here are no less substantial for their simplicity. And it is hard to think of how to depict them without immediately destroying the place for everyone, like a negative exposed to the light. 

But how can one not, when the steamed manti are so enormous, so soft, and so frail. They resemble cuttlefish if cuttlefish looked how their name suggests they would look. 

They come out in bamboo steamers, their crimped edges springy and light, their insides brimming with cumin and black pepper and dill. Then, for contrast, pickled herring and potatoes, with huge squeezes of lemon—the herring swim straight down your gullet, eager and invigorating, as if ready to spawn! 

The potatoes take the edge off their salt and energy; the onions cut through the potatoes; the lemon, through everything else. The sprig of parsley and the borscht are the colorful counterpoint to the otherwise brown and gray meal—necessary but understated components.

And at last, the kebabs, more flavorful than any I’ve ever had. They come out on a silver skewer, dusted with sumac, tender but still with a satisfying resistance. Between each piece is a small nub of speared fat, which melts onto the squares of lamb as they’re grilled.

You can bring beer here in from corner stores, and they will bring you tall, thick beer steins to drink from. Nonetheless, the waitstaff also compel you to hide your beer bottles in brown bags—which they also generously supply. 

This mixture of outer submission to a law they have misinterpreted (brown bag inside BYOB establishment), coupled with its ostentatious flaunting (beer served in beer stein), is just one of the many powerful, esoteric measures this establishment has taken to safeguard its perfection. Present company excluded, it appears to be entirely free of speculators.

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