There is still a faint smudge of soy sauce on it, the tiny strip of paper that bore my fortune, formerly nestled in the shell of one of those barely edible cookies with the cardboard texture. I don’t recall the date I got it, but it would have been some time late in the summer of 1979. I’d finished my meal at Yung & Yees on Church Street in the heart of Harvard Square, after which I cracked open one of those coiled-up wafer that arrives unfailingly with the bill — an enduring novelty of Chinese eateries.
Ah, The fortune cookie! Mine read: YOU ARE HEADED FOR A LAND OF SUNSHINE.
I’m about to tell you why that little missive from out of Y & Y’s kitchen aligned so coincidentally with one of my life’s major changes. It made for a remarkably poignant moment for this otherwise thoroughly orthodox non-believer in any kind of fortune-telling.
Surely you’ve cracked open a few fortune cookies of your own; been bemused by the content. Those “fortunes,” for generations now, have been bland aphorism or trite faux-Confucian Words of Wisdom ( i.e. “a labor of love is a labor indeed”). I got one not long ago that was a variation on the philosopher Descartes’s famous nostrum, “cogito, ergo sum.” Reading like a translation from the Chinese, it said, “I think and that is all that I am.” Who knew the poisonous legacy of Age of Enlightenment would turn up in fortune cookies?
It’s occurred to me that mass producers of fortune cookies took the measure of our litigious, post-religious age of fragile psyches and rampant superstition. They decided against dispensing even seemingly harmless life forecasts. The better to avoid lawsuits by troubled souls who take their fortunes far too seriously, e.g., “you will soon find true love and happiness.” The disappointed-in-love might do something truly UNfortunate to themselves or others, God help us. I’d wager a few palm-readers or mediums have been hauled into court or faced death threats.
Of course, fortune cookies in those Chinese emporia go with the beaded curtains and plastic kitsch. Crack it open, read the fortune, smile, eat the fragments (maybe) and leave the fortune for the busboy.
I forget whether it was lunch or dinner for me that day at Yung & Yee’s. I had things on my mind. I was 32, unattached and holding a Boston University graduate degree in Broadcast Journalism. I was at the end of a memorable, if unremunerative career as a newspaper reporter. I’d been five years in a rent-controlled studio apartment north of The Square and was due for a rent increase. I’d been waiting for word on my effort to secure a television job — it would be my first commercial television job — in Florida. I knew Florida only from postcards, supermarket citrus product and those long-ago bus advertisements inviting us to ‘come on down.’ And, indeed, I’d ‘gone on down’ for the first time the previous May to visit a former Cambridge roommate. I’d been enchanted by the florid, sub-tropical American life among gentle Atlantic breezes along Biscayne Bay, the lively, trendy neighborhoods of Coconut Grove and the colorful Cuba-celebrating streets of Little Havana. A Miami television reporter was not immediately within reach for a beginner in TV news. I’d have to work first in a smaller TV market. So I’d gone looking for work during that short stay and reached out to people at the CBS-affiliate with the whimsical call letters WINK-TV across the state in Fort Myers. I’d been told to stop by for an interview. Accordingly, I rented a little Chevrolet compact, driven west across the wild, watery “river of grass” known as the Everglades and met with an avuncular and endearing retired Pittsburgh sportscaster named Tom Bender (Lord rest his soul). He was then the acting news director at WINK. I’d shown him my video resume reel and gotten a favorable reaction. He gave me hope of possible employment. So I was waiting for word….
I was still waiting on that summer day in ’79 when I cracked open my fortune cookie. There it was: YOU ARE HEADED FOR A LAND OF SUNSHINE.
Days later, word came: I’d been hired by WINK on Florida’s west coast, aka, A LAND OF SUNSHINE. My commercial TV career began there in stark humidity and some sunshine. It was the culmination of a drive south pulling a Uhaul trailer with my non-air conditioned ’75 Dodge Dart. I was stalled briefly at a motel in Savannah by Hurricane David, a relatively minor storm that gave me a chance to ponder the coming changes in my life. My first day on the job at WINK was September 10, 1979. Florida was a bit of culture shock. I’d half-expected that.
Much has transpired in my life, many reversals of fortune and some blessings — best among them, a son — since that first time in The Land of Sunshine. I’d work there again — twice at WTSP-TV in Tampa/St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay’s 10, as they are known.
And now, in semi-retirement, here’s the unsettling and mysterious and surprising part: I’m back to Florida — for the third time, lock, stock and barrel — for financial and other personal or ultimately, and frankly, uncertain reasons, having surrendered a beautiful townhouse in Lancaster, MA that I miss terribly, along with life in Central Mass where I was in fairly easy reach of my old Boston and vicinity stomping grounds for wakes (sadly) and for impromptu reunions with childhood friends from Dorchester. Not that there aren’t many Boston natives and old friends here in Florida. Some days it seems the State House golden dome is right above the palm trees. But there were all those new friends from the past two decades in Clinton and Lancaster, MA, and the guys on early Saturday mornings at Lou’s Diner…. And I’m living, at the moment, in a mobile home in central, hot, swarming Pinellas County. The mobile home is — pink.
No, I’m not at all sure what I’m doing here this time. I suppose it’s a long story, as if this story isn’t already long enough. Ultimately, I think I’ll be back in the cold and sleet and high prices and fraught New England politics — for a final chapter. For now, I’m back in the standardized, sun-baked, palm tree – accented land of six-lane traffic. Oh, yes, there’s far more here than that, and much that is wonderful and beautiful, most especially including old friends and colleagues from my old Florida days. And the Gulf beaches.
But some wild restlessness, some outsized fear of dwindling funds probably drove me here this time. What retiree hasn’t been battered about by such fears? That’s part of it, anyway. As I said, it’s all rather uncertain. Sheer — fearful unrest. And homesickness, so recently after leaving home.
Home is where the garbage is, said the rat. Along with baggage, we acquire a lot of garbage in our lives.
But I spared that little old strip of paper — that fortune — the fate of Yung & Yee’s garbage pale. It’s yellowing under plastic, reminding me that what’s truly elusive in this life is that true Land of Sunshine. I’m still looking….