Are you familiar with the term finagler? It's Yiddish, referring to a person who skirts the rules, circumvents the system to get what she wants. A person like -- come on, you know who I'm talking about -- a person like... my mother!
Oh, that Mom of mine. When she's not hatching a harebrained scheme she's seizing an opportunity to bamboozle and dupe. If I had a nickel for every time Dad declared she had some 'splainin to do... It's no coincidence my cellphone plays the theme from I Love Lucy whenever she calls.
My siblings and I still laugh about our trips to the multiplex when we were younger. It was always an exercise in sneaking in -- from the contraband popcorn and candy Mom would pour into the "feed bag" at home, to the Under-12 movie passes she continued to buy after our bar mitzvahs had long since passed. "I thought I told you to shave this morning," she'd scold my younger brother. "Now go stand behind that pole while I buy the tickets. Hello, one adult and two children, please."
For higher forms of art, my mother promises theater companies a "review" in her entertainment agency's client "newsletter" and widespread word of mouth (on which, I must admit, she has always delivered). Being in the business has paid off: In the last 20 years she's wangled press tickets to every play, concert, opera and ballet to pass through D.C. And for this I cannot criticize. I've been treated to dozens of shows, often seated in the center of the third or fourth row, and it cost me only a few paragraphs of critical acclaim pulled out of my ass, printed on letterhead and faxed with gratitude to the marketing office at the Kennedy Center. Better still, our press packet usually comes with an invitation to the opening-night cast party. That little bonus once led to a fling with a guy in the cast of STOMP.
As finagling relates to foodstuffs, it's pretty much what you'd expect: A bushel of bruised tomatoes from the farmer's market that my mother graciously offered to take off someone's hands ("They were just going throw them away! Can you believe that? Tomato soup for dinner!"); a platter of leftover desserts from the luncheon/wedding/fundraiser of the week; the obligatory dinner rolls wrapped in a napkin and stuffed in her purse "fuh lata"... My Mom is the patron saint of leftovers, rescuing orphaned pastries wherever she goes.
These tactics and behaviors were not developed late in life; over several decades my mother has collected an impressive CV of season tickets and seven-course meals. But I think it was this one encounter -- an inspiring (and admittedly innocent) orchestration of chutzpah and opportunism -- that finally earned her an honorary PhD in Stickin' It To The Man:
Last year during an afternoon at a local shopping mall, my mother stopped by the food court for a bite to eat. She stood before the Chinese buffet a while, contemplating which three entrees to choose for her lunch-deal combo meal. After a few minutes the man behind the counter grew impatient and offered a suggestion to speed things along.
"Here," he said, "you try taste. Orange Chicken." With a toothpick he speared a sticky nugget of fried batter and handed it across the sneeze guard. My mother popped it in her mouth and grimaced as if she'd bitten into a rancid lemon. (Now is a good time to mention that, while Mom's mental filter was never reliable, in recent years it's disintegrated completely, leaving behind a veritable waterslide for all her thoughts and expressions -- the good, the bad, the ugly.)
Understandably, the man was miffed. He turned to a woman ladling soup from a kettle and muttered something in an Asian language that made her chuckle. Which Asian language was anybody's guess; just because these two were selling Chinese food doesn't mean they were Chinese. You can be sure my mother had no idea.
But that didn't stop her from blurting, "You know what? I speak Chinese, and I know what you just said about me, and I don't appreciate it one. single. bit."
She planted her hands on her hips and stood there, unblinking, daring them to call her bluff.
Half a minute stretched into eternity while my mother stared down this quivering wisp of a man. There was no sound but air whistling through the vent overhead, no movement but the tiny bead of sweat that trickled down his forehead. The soup lady dropped her ladle and scurried to the kitchen through the swinging double doors, like she was runnin' from trouble at the O.K. Corral. I'm pretty sure a tumbleweed dusted by.
Finally the man crumpled; his jaw dropped open and out gushed a string of apologies in broken English. "So sorry lady!" he wailed over and over. "You take hot sour soup! No charge! On the house!" He shouted for the woman cowering behind the kitchen window and she filled a large container in one fell swoop.
"Well, okay..." my mother scowled. She grabbed the soup, slapped a few napkins on her tray -- extra hard, for emphasis -- and started to turn away from the counter.
And then, just as everyone started to relax and breathe again, my mother whipped back around and barked,
"Wait a minute -- YOU FORGOT THE CRISPY NOODLES!"
(and they say there's no such thing as a free lunch in this town...)