One who knows

“My name is Smith. That means worker, someone who works with his hands. My mother’s maiden name was Haddad. That’s Lebanese for Smith. My grandfather was an iron worker. My grandfather’s father was an iron worker. My first name is Akim. That means ‘one who knows.’”

We’re at the China Ruby restaurant in Ferndale. A tiny little joint. So tiny you can hear people’s noses whistling, hear the cook yelling at the waitress, smell the food on other people’s tables. Classic Chinese American, where almost everything comes with a pile of fried rice so tall you can barely make out your dining companions across the table.

Akim doesn’t want to talk about what he does. He doesn’t want to talk about the past. Even after an hour of some of the most riveting, harrowing stories ever passed across this greasy-topped table, he stops me in midscribble:

“You know all that shit I just told you? That ain’t me, man. These things I’ve said about my life have absolutely nothing to do with me. They’re not me, man!”

Breaking into a bank and stealing the bubble gum out of a bubble-gum machine may not be “him,” may not tell the whole tale, but it is a fine, fine story.

“When I was a kid, I had this thing about fire extinguishers. I loved firing those motherfuckers, shooting ’em all over the place. I was a wild kid. I was in front of this one judge so many times, I sent him a gavel full of cologne I saw in an Avon catalog. He was a good guy, man.”

Akim grills the waitress.

“Listen. Don’t you have vegetables? Can’t I just order some vegetables without all that stuff on it? And maybe some rice? Can’t I just order some vegetables and rice? I know you got vegetables. I can see the vegetables from here.”

The waitress shoots me a look and rolls her eyes. I shoot back the look that says, “Hey, I know how you feel. How would you like to be sitting next to him?”

Akim’s girlfriend, the ethereally beautiful Sylvia, the one with eyes of almond and a car trunk full of flowers, tells me it gets so bad she has sworn off going out to eat with him.

“It’s just so crazy,” she says.

Akim is a Detroit boy. Raised and reared. His father used to have a resale shop on Seven Mile and Van Dyke called “Home Sweet Home.” It’s not there anymore. The city would torture the place with constant inspections and zoning violations and harass incessantly about items put on the sidewalk for display.

“I’m gonna resurrect that place one day. I’m gonna bring it back. I have to,” Akim says.

The waitress brings him a plate of broccoli and bok choy and a softball of sticky white rice.

Akim sniffs the broccoli, turns it over in his fingers, like an archaeologist inspecting an arrowhead. His face is inches from the plate.

“Echhh,” he grunts and throws it off the plate. He keeps digging through the vegetables with his fingers. He reminds me of a child bent over a toy box, whipping blocks and balls and army men over his shoulders in search of the one perfect thing.

Akim does not find his perfect toy. He is extremely unhappy. He tells me that when Sylvia wakes up in the morning, she takes a red pepper and bites into it like one bites into an apple.

“That’s what it’s about, man,” he says. “A red pepper. A beautiful red pepper, pure and clean. No fucking MSG. No fucking chemicals. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

He jabs the rice with a fork, turns it over, watches a clump roll down to the bottom of the plate.

“Fucking white rice, man.”

You may know Akim if you’ve ventured to the Fourth Street Fair or the Dally in the Alley these past few years. Well, at least his food. He and a couple buddies run a food concession that represents his stridency, his obsession with his vision of the absolute perfect way to eat, the absolute perfect way to cook. In their bare feet, swigging on beers and bottles of wine, they put out sushi and stir-fry and all kinds of hippie fare.

“Have you heard of the Ayervedic way?” Akim says. “It’s a form of medicine. It’s about roots and herbs and spices, man. People who follow it don’t even have to use toothpaste. Or deodorant. They don’t have to. They put such pure stuff into their bodies that they never stink. They never stink, man!”

Fortune cookies are tossed onto the table with the bill. Akim doesn’t sniff his, doesn’t turn it over in his fingers like a science experiment. He gobbles it down.

“Hey, man, bum me a smoke. I’ll be outside.”

I drop a twenty on the table for a $12 tab and walk out the back door.

Dan Demaggio dines with interesting people for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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