I cracked open the fortune cookie and, as usual, the fortune was unnecessarily dramatic. "YOU WILL SOON HAVE A GREAT CONFRONTATION," it said. "In the two blocks between this Chinese restaurant and the office?" I wondered, to myself. But seconds after I had taken a bite of the cookie, the room began to spin. And spin . . . . And spin . . . .
"Mr. Levey, I'm sorry I had to treat your fortune cookie with certain chemicals. But it was imperative that I speak to you, and I was afraid you would hang up on me if I called you at the office."
"Who are you? Where are you? I can't see you."
"I know you can't, Mr. Levey. I must have it that way. You see, I am a restaurant consultant."
"A restaurant consultant who doesn't want to be visible to a member of the press? Now I've heard it all. Usually you guys are busting down the doors to offer us lunch."
"But you've already had your lunch, Mr. Levey. Did you enjoy the szechuan chicken?"
"A little heavy on the red pepper today. But come to the point, will you, Mr. Invisible Consultant? I've got to get back to the mines."
"The point is this, Mr. Levey: We need to stem the tide of Chinese restaurants in the nation's capital."
"Why? Most of them are very careful about how much red pepper they use."
"But there are too many of them! When I started in this business, there were five, maybe six places, all of them in Chinatown. You knew who the competition was. You knew where you stood. But now you go into every little strip shopping center in Arlington, you see a Chinese restaurant. Same in Laurel. Same in Bethesda. Mr. Levey, these greedy fools are going to kill the golden goose!"
"If all those places are opening, and staying open, there must be enough business to go around."
"But they do not understand marketing theory, Mr. Levey! What keeps Chinese restaurants successful is mystery. They used to be the only places you could get exotic dishes like chow mein and egg foo young. And they used to serve them on those wonderful raised metal plates, with the wonderful rounded metal tops. But now, egg rolls and mooshi pork are being served everywhere, and they're being served on platters. So no more mystery. And pretty soon, I'm afraid, no more successful Chinese restaurants."
"Well, you do have a point, Mr. Consultant. I could go into any Chinese restaurant in town right this minute and tell you 90 percent of what's on the menu without even bothering to read it."
"Precisely, Mr. Levey! I knew you'd see what I was talking about. So don't you agree with me that we need legislation?"
"Yes. To stop so many Chinese restaurants from opening."
"Mr. Consultant, that one ain't gonna fly. This is a free country. You can't prevent a restaurant from opening. Can you imagine a law being passed that would order Ford not to make any cars this year because General Motors had already made enough?"
"You mean in Washington, D.C., the capital of the free world, where the law is king, we cannot enact legislation to correct a situation that is becoming a major problem?"
"You need another civics lesson, my invisible friend. The way you address a problem like this is to lobby."
"Lobby? You mean like the place where people stand to wait for carry-out?"
"(Sigh) Mr. Consultant, this conversation is going nowhere. There's nothing I can do for you. Will you please excuse me?"
"I should have known you'd see through my cover . . . ."
"I should have known that you'd figure out which restaurant I'm really a consultant for. How did you guess? Did my golden arches arm patch show?"
"You're a consultant for McDonald's?"
"Of course, Levey! Haven't you read the research? The big threat to our burger business is Chinese restaurants. Soup, an egg roll and hunan pork will run you about $4.95. That's about what our customers spend on two Big Macs, a large sack of fries and a Coke. When our customers discover that, we might begin to go into a tailspin."
"You know what else your customers will discover, Mr. Consultant? Chinese food doesn't come in a greasy wrapper. It's never heated to death under a microwave. It never has pickles you didn't ask for and don't want. And it has something else that McDonald's food never has."
"Hot peppers!" I cried, as I breathed heavily in the direction of that invisible voice.
"Arrrrrgh! Gasp! You got me! I'm fading . . . ."
"How was everything?" the hostess asked, as I got up to leave. "Not bad," I replied. "But the fortune cookies tasted a little funny today." She gave me an odd look as I waved goodbye.