A Scouting Life: Mystery Man at the Farewell Meal

June 16, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

Humans have an amazing ability to recover. We can be almost like dogs that way; give us a little positive stimulus and we happily live in the moment. Forget about the misery you were just experiencing, here’s a candy bar. We’re easy like that, myself as much as anyone. The storm darkened sky, pre-downpour humidity and stressful drive had created the impression that it was much later than it actually was. I sat down and gave myself a stern talking to. That, a coffee, a smoke, and a long hot shower put me back at the top of my game. I felt electric with excitement when I hit the lobby. There was no bar, so I passed the time thinking about all the people I know in L.A., friends present and past. Even the inevitable twenty minute wait past the appointed meeting time did not temper my enthusiasm.

By the time we eventually did depart it was a perfect West Coast evening. The humidity had vanished with the rain and the desert grit had washed down our respective shower drains. Saltwater breezes carried our truck out and onto the highway, headed for Chinatown. It occurred to me that we had begun our story over a late night meal in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens.

“Kar Wai, what type of restaurant are we going to?”

“Hot pot. Like we went to before. Your favorite kind.”

It was almost like I knew what he was going to say before he answered. I know how important symmetry and symbols are in his culture. He was bookmarking the end of our scout in the same way he began it.

“So we finish just like we started, with hot pot. Does this mean we return to New York tomorrow?

He answered with silence and a smile. I wasn’t letting it go just yet. After months spent in the dark I think I might have gotten a step ahead of him at last. For just this one brief moment, about this simple thing, I had figured him out. I was in tune with the master. My excitement was hard to contain.

“Our special guest, is it Jackie Pang?”

After all, she had been the highlight of our initial hot pot dinner. It would have fit perfectly, exact symmetry. He smiled even wider.

“No, it is not.”

Damn it, maybe I hadn’t figured him out after all. At least I knew how to make him happy, which was simply a matter of not understanding him. That clearly gave him great pleasure.

Moments like the one where we emerged from the hotel, feeling the warm ocean breeze and seeing the palm fronds moving in the wind made me wonder why I had never moved to L.A. The forty-five minute drive to the restaurant answered my question. The place was in a strip mall that was composed entirely of Chinese businesses. At one time not so long ago I would be thrown by the concept of the Chinese part of town being in a strip mall. My first experience in a Chinatown was San Francisco, most of the rest were in New York. I knew them as neighborhoods of narrow streets, bright colors and dark alleys. It wasn’t until this trip that I understood Chinatown as a state of mind more than a physical place. I learned this by experiencing the far-flung diaspora through Kar Wai’s introductions; seeing the varied ways and places that the community existed in every part of America.

Our big surprise guest was a letdown at first. He was a young, very thin and somewhat nerdy Chinese-American fellow named John. After the buildup by Kar Wai I had expected someone more exciting. As was the norm, no detailed introductions or explanations were made. He was simply presented without embroidery. Seemed nice enough, though, and certainly expressed an interest in learning about my craft. Just like our mutual friend he was elusive when questioned, but it soon became apparent that he was an aspiring screenwriter of some sort. After an appropriate bit of attention was paid to our guest I shifted focus to my French friends and, more importantly, the many bottles of Tsingtao we were quaffing.

The food came in waves, and was absolutely delicious. No one complained as I dumped plenty of hot peppers into the broth, and we took turns plucking aromatic chunks of meat out and popping them in our mouths. John and Kar Wai were pretty intently catching up with one another and despite paying them scant attention I noticed something strange happening. Every so often a person or a few people together would approach our table and take a long look at us. Usually women, and mostly of a certain age. Initially I believed they were fans of Kar Wai’s, but it became clear that they were checking out our new pal John. A few even grabbed quick pictures before giggling and scampering off. I needed to know what the deal was with this kid.

“Excuse me, sorry for asking, but are you famous, John?”

He flushed a little and looked away.

“What, are you a movie star in China?”

“No, no. I’m not a movie star. I did a little acting when I was younger but not for a long time now.”

The more I looked, the more familiar he seemed but I could not place it for the life of me. Kar Wai interjected.

“John is being modest. He was a child actor and is in a couple of very big movies.”

He shrank a little deeper into his chair. Something else struck me. Throughout the evening he had referred to someone named “Steven” repeatedly and with great respect. I had mentally filed it in the way one does when gathering contextual clues about a recent acquaintance. Now it repeated in my mind. Steven, Steven, a guy named Steven and a young Chinese boy actor. Wait, no, it couldn’t be…

“Short Round! You’re Short effing Round from Temple of Doom, aren’t you!”

If he was slouching before, now he was nearly beneath the table. Probably didn’t help that I had absolutely bellowed this last bit, my discretion a casualty of beer and excitement.


Gears turned and clicked in my head.

“So that means you are also Data, from The Goonies!”


“Holy crap, man. You were a big part of my childhood. I love you. “

“Why thank you.”

“Holy shit, Short Round. Go figure. So, wait, hang on a second. You complained earlier that you can’t meet any women.”

“Yes, I am lonely sometimes.”

“Dude. Dude. Dude, you are frigging Data, man! We can walk into any bar in town, let the girls know who you are and you’ll be fighting them off. Trust me.”

“No, no, that’s not true. No one cares about that.”

“It is so true. Even if you weren’t Data we could get you laid just by saying you were him. Man, you’ve got gold and you’re hiding it. Don’t keep your lantern under a bushel, man, shine your light so the world can see!”

At this point Kar Wai was laughing so hard he was in tears. The rest of the table was enjoying it all as well. That’s how it was with Kar Wai, the best times were as good as life gets. Fun company, copious amounts of food and drink, talking about creative ideas and potential new projects. Most of all, though, we enjoyed the very Fellini-esque atmosphere that surrounded him and swept up whoever he was with. We laughed our way through the rest of the meal, one hilarious moment after another. Truly good times. My only regret was my inability to get John to throw me a line from one of his films, but he would not be moved on this.

Finally Kar Wai cleared his throat and gave us all a serious look as he raised his glass.

“Thank you all for the hard work on this scouting journey. We have traveled a long way and seen many good things. I now have what I need for a story. Finish your drinks and we leave. Tomorrow morning we fly back to New York early. When we get to New York we should go look at the choices we like for a location there. Time to make decision.”

Just like that you go from high to low. The trip ending was both relief and a letdown. The idea of sleeping in my own bed and getting a proper night’s rest was diminished by the knowledge that we would leave directly from the airport and scout NYC without time to even drop our belongings at home or rest up. Also, by now it was after 2 A.M. in the city. I’d be in the air all the next day and somehow still have to arrange a scout that starts as soon as we land. It never does get any easier.

After making our goodbyes we shambled across the parking lot towards the truck. Kar Wai’s toast had taken the momentum out of the night, and exhaustion was overtaking us. We still faced a long commute to the hotel, followed by a very brief bit of sleep, and a cross-country flight. As we were climbing in the truck the repeated bleating of a horn finally caught our attention. We all turned to see John leaning out of his window.

“Hey, Sammy! Sammy!”

“John! What is it?”

“No time for love now, Dr. Jones!”

He laughed manically as he sped away into the night.

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