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They Said I’d Never Make A Fortune

So many cubes of braised tofu, countless Hunan broccoli specials; turned out they could legitimately be written off and called research. Frequenting of Sino-American eateries, from an IRS perspective, had been strictly recreational — until the Ding Ho job.

The assignment got ladled into my wok in completely unexpected fashion. Prior to that serendipitous recruitment, I’d mused idly on occasion about what sort of characters came up with cookie fortunes — the oracular statements you'd crack free, extract, and post-prandially peruse in Chinese restaurants.

In those uninitiated days, my guess was they were not individually composed, but rather turned out in copious quantities by some People’s Fortune Collective, a half-spruced up sweat shop specializing in vague prognostications and aphorisms to go.

All that changed when my friend Doug, a brilliant but chronically cash-challenged painter lived and worked in a studio boasting one of the Mission District’s least desirable addresses, rang up and said he had a potential freelance gig for me. “You're going to like this one," he promised, cryptically.

We tried to help each other out, when opportunity arose, promoting our respective (nobly stagnating) careers.

Only months before, I'd hooked Doug up with a lucrative short-term contract that involved drawing waterfront container cranes and making them look like a galloping racehorses. He railed against the job with a bitter passion, reiterating revulsion throughout the process, although he was not slow to cash the check.

Doug told me to come over to his studio. The proposed employment was right across the street. Go figure, I shrugged. Other than a parking garage which served also as a crack house, dump, and homeless encampment, the only businesses active on that side of the alley were a commercial linen launderer/distributor and a fortune cookie factory. It was hard to imagine what applicable skills I could bring to either.

Those two enterprises adorned that pungent, potholed stretch of asphalt with unusual byproduct — tiny tumbleweeds of lint and fiber fragments from the laundry, and wisps of bleached white sugar expelled by the bakery. Small balls of thread and miniature drifts of glucose crystals snaked spookily along the sidewalk at all hours, undulating in the ground-breezes.

Wind got a grip on the loose fortunes too, often depositing them under front doors up and down the block. Residents viewed this as a perk, akin to getting a horoscope personally delivered each morning.

The cookie factory had a stark, weathered, peeling stucco facade. It was emblazoned in letters and characters, " Ding Ho," which I later learned meant something like "the very best."

Doug fraternized with a youthful, assiduously Americanized Chinese couple who had inherited Ding Ho, and he soon gleaned they had ambitious goals for the company.

There was no problem with Ding Ho cookies themselves. They retained a simple recipe. Inside, the fortunes needed help.

Currently, their crudely printed slips were old-fashioned and repetitive. They were ungrammatical and riddled with typographical errors. The new generation of Ding Ho directors desired an update, a makeover, a Great Leap Forward, incorporating a fresh corporate identity and classy business cards. Thanks to Doug, I had been billed as just the person to produce those items.

Our first meeting took place within a cramped and cluttered office, partitioned off from a corner of the factory. Everything in or near that building smelled like cinnamon buns toaster-ovened too long. All unprotected surfaces were subtly shellacked with sheath of seared sugar, a molasses-based glaze.

Along with the ordinary litter strewn across the metal desk in this curious headquarters were reams of pastel colored tissue paper: stacked sheets of uncut fortunes — three column format, bearing 54 or 60 portentous predictions per page.

Cropped single fortunes were scattered all about as well and four or five yards beyond, in the production area, a staff of compact, diligent, impassive middle-aged Chinese women toiled at the business ends of vintage cookie machines.

Cookies-to-be shot out relentlessly in circular, embryonic form, sizzling discs, and workers lunged, stabbing at them at once, using special forks to fold hot dough expertly into the traditional shapes. Fortunes were tucked in concurrently and the whole procedure was performed at an absolutely astonishing pace which was of necessity replicated again and again.

The machines were steel but so worn with use that their glow suggested the paler patina of zinc. Cookie folders hunkered, wearing shapeless garments, tall as their mechanical collaborators. Molten discs fired out no matter what. Stuffed and shaped, marketable cookies were tumbled deftly into tall cardboard drums to cool, while the tossed rejects filled cartons on the floor.

Ding Ho’s latest executives were an unusual pair. Dalton was imposing, a beefy specimen with evident occidental blood and dramatic, moused up pompadour. May, the heiress, played it elegant, old world, but petite, soft-spoken and chic, very chic. It was May who ran the meeting and clearly made the decisions.

"We want to preserve tradition," she declared, "but we can improve on some old obsolete ways." She passed over a sheet of fortunes. The typeface was archaic, and the text offered the likes of: "Best to have wise and chartable nature," and "Flamily quit and accomplish great deal without noise." Another predicted that, "You will be awarded a medal for disregaurding safety."

As I handed the five dozen fortunes back without comment, May disconsolately shook her head. "They're hardly ever spelled right," she lamented, "and even when they are, they don't make sense very often. Not to me."

I mentioned that some consumers considered that customary, appreciated a certain amount of naive charm, but she said it didn't need to be so, not anymore.

"We want something new and different, honoring the past but still without mistakes," she insisted.

May’s sulking husband then soberly explained that Ding Ho represented the number two producer in San Francisco. The company would never — could never — overtake its lead rival, Infallible Fortunes. Dalton used a palm to pat his armored coiffure, as he described a Byzantine, time-honored pastry hierarchy, which even now held sway over fortune cookie territory and turf.

He referred to the dominant firm formally and with unfailing respect, except when recounting that it had introduced a series of risque "x-rated" fortunes. Most Ding Ho production, it turned out, was destined for markets far from the factory. Top targets included St. Louis, Atlanta, and outlying suburbs of Los Angeles.

May asked whether I thought I could create a batch (more like an avalanche) of modern and intelligible fortunes — maybe 4,000 to 5,000 of them. "I don't see why not," I replied, overconfidently. She swiftly sealed the deal and adjourned our confab by handing me a pillow-sized, twist tied plastic bag full of Ding Ho cookies. They were not the rejects either.

Only after tackling the project in earnest did I realize what I had gotten myself into — page after unforgiving page of "Confucius says" style squibs. It required a mighty application of discipline. It also called for a regulable variety of personality disintegration, dedicated descent to a level where there was no function, only form. Luckily, I’d had practice at that.

Tricks of the trade learned organically. Dropping articles essential; writing in longhand recommended. Solitude was critical; likewise, lowlight and frequent indulgence in restorative beverage.

Temporary assumption of guru-like persona came next, and assisted in me in scrawling such gems as, "You sift sand of dark beaches and climb dormant volcano," and, "Purple mystery of dawn no big thing for child of moon." Not to mention the moody, apocalyptic, "Clearing uphill may overlook thorns of descent."

More than once a solid quarter hour of meditative cogitation would yield only a pair of weak, desperate puns — "Gifts of hats will make your presents felt," for example, or "Wheels of overheated bicycle spoke softly." And I found evidence of the all-pervasive writer’s affliction, enduring brief but worrisome bouts of "Fortune block."

Out of consideration for the employer, I proofread everything scrupulously, steered clear of the more contemptible cliches and resisted the temptation to insinuate insulting efforts like, "Your dining companions secretly despise you."

Deep in, after considerable mental struggle and turmoil, my finest fortune was born, somewhere between numbers 2500 and 3000: "Hour from now, you will hunger again."

Market-driven mercenary I'd become, instead of retiring on the spot, I kept on producing terse abstruse chunks of fortune copy until contract terms got met. And once they were, pay was in cash: Crisp, non-sticky 20s from the center drawer of Dalton’s desk.

You couldn't find better clients. With no editing, they shepherded tens of thousands of my fortunes into print. They raved about the fanfold logo I’d designed, slapping it onto cards and letters, wholesale boxes and cookie-bag stickers. And each meeting ended with the ritual presentation of a stack of snacks.

Not long afterward, Ding Ho itself folded under cloudy circumstances. Was it a casualty, finally, of the generations-old fortune cookie war? Today, I've not had the pleasure (or perhaps it would be more of a chill) of being served one my own fortunes. For that to happen now, the cookie would need to be some kind of stale.

There is a memory instead, centered on stained sidewalks in a risky neighborhood. A placidiy of sorts occasionally came to visit. I’d encountered it by accident no longer late at night but extremely early on a weekend morning. So still all you could hear was hissing of the sugar snakes, amid waltzing wind, and the whisper of wind whipped fortunes.

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