SFO Chowder

Why can it be so hard to tell the truth? Why do we go out of our way to not offend people? I ask this because when someone asked me a question today, I did not respond with the whole unvarnished truth. Here’s the story.

After rolling out of bed at 3:54am so that I could hurry to catch the Max to the airport, and then waiting around for almost two hours before a flight that arrived early in San Francisco, I found myself at the San Francisco (SFO) airport at 9am, waiting for a flight that would not leave until nearly 3pm. Since I had some free time (and I had to wait a couple hours to even check in for the China flight) I decided to wander for a while. There were a lot of places to wander.

I had to leave security to check in with Air China, and once I was outside security I could not re-enter until I had a new boarding pass. Leaving the secure part of the terminal, I sauntered down a long airy corridor toward what I thought was the exit. I passed a food court on my left, an exhibition on the world’s tallest buildings and another food court (the corridor was about 250 yards long), I came across a sign that pointed me toward the domestic terminal. I walked down a long flight of stairs and into a smaller ground-level hallway. At the end of the hallway, the room opened up to the check-in area and there was a Peet’s Coffee kiosk with a few tables and some chairs at a bar. I ordered a double espresso. The barista gave it to me in what looked like a double-cupped Dixie cup. I stirred in a packet’s-worth of sugar and sat down at the bar to write. The coffee tasted better than I remembered from the last time I went to Peet’s. I sat there for about an hour before returning to the international check-in area. When I got back here, the Air China booth was still closed. I found a place to sit down and charge my phone where I could read the news.

At eleven, I returned to the Air China desk and checked in without incident. The line at security took a while, but it was still before noon when I entered the terminal. Thinking it was still too early to eat lunch, I began to walk around to see what I could find.

After wandering for an hour, doing some window shopping and searching without luck for a good book (I was tempted to spend $45 on a book about designing great presentations), my decision about where to eat came down to two places: a Japanese sushi place and a fish restaurant called Yankee Pier. At this point I had checked out nearly every restaurant in the airport. There were several pubs, a few Asian food joints, a Burger King, a Subway (which smelled as bad in San Francisco as it did at The Vue in Portland. Update: There’s now a Subway at the Great Wall Mu Tian Yu, and it didn’t smell very good either), some pizza places and one restaurante Mexicano (which smelled really good, but I could not imagine eating a bunch of Mexican food right before a 12-hour flight).

Sushi or chowder? I finally settled on the chowder. I walked in and sat at the bar with the businessmen traveling alone. They looked weary. I hoped I didn’t yet. The woman behind  the counter passed over a laminated menu and after some deliberation (the Caesar salad also sounded good) I ordered a bowl of chowder and an iced tea with no ice.

A couple minutes later, the woman brought me my tea, with ice. I was trying to do something with my phone so I didn’t notice it right away. When I did see the ice, my invisible (composer) self told me to just ignore it an drink it anyway. My other half (conductor) said no way, and I asked her to bring me another one. It felt good to be assertive.

My chowder soon arrived and I was hungry enough to begin wolfing it down. At least I wanted to, but it was way too hot (I like lukewarm chowder and no ice in my tea, okay? Get over it), so I slowly ate it, resisting my hunger pangs. When I was almost done, the woman asked me how the chowder was. I hesitated.

“It’s all right,” I said slowly, concealing my true opinion. The truth of the matter was that the chowder was quite salty. It had decent clams and very good potatoes, but their flavor was dominated by the salt. “Do you make it here?” I asked, trying to be polite.

“Yes,” she replied. “I don’t know how they make it, but we get lots of compliments about how good it is.”

I nodded and smiled, thinking to myself that people were either very polite, or they had never had good chowder before. Then again, maybe the cooks incorrectly measured the salt that morning. My judgment could be too harsh.

I had to ask myself: why didn’t I just tell the woman what I thought of her chowder? It would have been helping them out. The cooks might not have known it was too salty. Perhaps I  was just sticking with the adage “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” I kept my mouth shut, paid the tab, thanked the woman and headed back towards my gate. My stomach was full and I could relax and wait for my flight.