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The Fly By Night Owl

by J.S. Kohout 9 months ago in Short Story
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Sometimes you start where you're supposed to be.

The Fly By Night Owl
Photo by Arthur Osipyan on Unsplash

It was 10 PM on a Sunday night, and there was nowhere to be the next day.

Homer Moustakas left the bar where his (now former) staff was drinking. They were commemorating the closing shift of his restaurant. After less than two years, it had come to an end. The dream was over. Folks had started giving him pep talks. Gross. He was drunk and had had enough.

He Irish Goodbyed right the fuck out of there.

Back when his peers were starting their places, he'd have taunted them mercilessly at a time like this. He'd waited so long to do this, and he fumbled it so severely. He may have been a dick back then, but somehow right now, taunting would have felt better than pity.

Some of his friends had failed, and some had succeeded. Some were on TV. Some were dead. But through it all, he hedged his bets. He'd been deliberate and purposeful. He watched other people make mistakes, and he learned from them. Still, he failed.

What was it his buddy Lucas said when experimenting with a new recipe? "If this doesn't work, this loser's gonna' take the chicken-shit way out and punch his own ticket!"

For right now, he was on the T headed to Eastie.

By Ashley Winkler on Unsplash

Deep into the drunk nods, his head rolled back. This snapped him awake, and he looked around. Alarm. He was still on the Red Line. He'd blown past his transfer at Downtown Crossing. The next stop was Andrew square. Where he grew up.

Now was not the time for a luge down memory lane.

Homer used a handhold to pull himself to standing. Every bit of focus went to channeling sobriety. He was a cook. He was always thinking at least 10 minutes out.

Unfortunately, right now, he was the kind of drunk where he was behind by anywhere from 15 minutes to a week. He repeated a mantra in his head, "Cooking is hard. Sobriety is easy." It reminded him that he only ever had to be concerned if that fact flipped.

As the train lurched to a stop, he held on tight. The doors opened. With his head up, he stepped off the train with purpose.

The chime chimed.

As if on cue, he projectile vomited a fist's worth of booze and bar snacks onto the center platform.

The door closed behind him.

Without breaking a step, he continued towards the escalator. The train pulled out of the station. Not a drop on him. Not a drop in the train car. He was a professional.

He'd get on a train going the other way in a second. First, a coffee. Escalator up.

Long ago, he vowed to only patronize Doughboys when he was in this part of town. One of Boston's only 24 hour options, whenever he got into an argument with his parents, he'd hang out there. It wasn't late, but…

Hm. Wait. Maybe not Doughboys.

Starbucks.

A soulless corporate coffee sounded better since he was on the verge of the weepies.

He got his large black ice coffee at the green-goblin. On his way out, he paused at the condiments station. He grabbed a thick dickhead's wad of sugar packets and shoved them in his pocket.

"Never pass up free food," Uncle used to say.

At that moment, Homer made a critical choice not to go back to his apartment. He decided it'd be better to go to his brother Brian's place. He wouldn't have to make a second transfer or go home to an apartment full of nice Scotch. He'd gotten them as gifts from friends when the restaurant opened.

His brother was dry. There was also a good chance he wasn't home. Homer knew he could crash there without temptations. Drunk Homer was trying very hard to set up Sober Homer for success. That was more wise advice from Uncle.

The boy's father, an ornithologist, used to joke about how they never seemed to sleep and were always running around in the night. He dubbed them "The Night Owls: Hootie and Bootie."

By Kew Li Wen on Unsplash

Uncle was their father's older brother. He was colorful, clever, and after Homer's sophomore year of high school, he became the boys' legal guardian. His name was Ulysses, but he had a thousand different nicknames from friends and business associates. Their dad called him "Oots." The boys had always called him "Uncle."

Homer's brother Brian stayed out of trouble. This was remarkable since he took over Uncle's old job as a manager at a Christmas Tree Shop. The secret was the free time. Uncle dealt coke on the side. Brian spent his off-hours studying for a Ph.D. in Mathematics.

Homer was the older son. Brian was the smarter one. Everyone spotted this early. Their Uncle had given them both their first jobs. At 13, Uncle got Homer an entry-level job at a fancy restaurant. He also used the young man to deliver blow to strung-out cooks.

From the start, he set up Brian to go legit. He got a stock boy job at the Christmas Tree Shop. Homer wasn't upset. He loved the restaurant life. At least he had until recently.

He got off the train at Forest Hills and looked around. It'd been almost a year since he'd been down this way. The restaurant had occupied every moment, especially towards the end.

Now he wanted food, but everything around there was closed or closing. Thankfully, right across from the train station was a 24-hour laundromat. It wasn't much, but it had a vending machine. That was all he needed.

As he jaywalked across, he thought about how vending machines were a fantastic business. For example, this machine had been here for years. It was still open. It was still taking customers. Low to no labor costs. Whoever owned it made piles of untraceable cash. Homer knew the value of an all-cash business. Cash and vending machines had played a vital role in the one and only business the Brothers Moustakas ever pursued together.

Brian was brilliant, but Homer was the clever one. Homer wanted to start his own business in the summer before high school. So he looked around to see what odds and ends were available around the house and the neighborhood. It started with a card table and a shopping cart. Then some old kitchen appliances, an extension cord, and a blue Coleman cooler. With that, they had a "food cart."

Down the line, when Uncle found out about this less than legal food cart, he dubbed them "The Fly By Night Owls."

By Marc Noorman on Unsplash

At first, they had wanted to operate during the day between Carson and Pleasure beach. But they soon realized that it would be difficult to operate while keeping an eye out for what Uncle referred to as "the two C's," cops and competition.

Uncle explained. "Operate your questionable endeavors where no one else is trying to do the same thing. Also, avoid places the public expects authorities. Give everyone but your customers plenty of reasons to ignore you. Don't ruffle feathers. Avoid conflict."

The best way to avoid these issues was to set up late and off the beaten path. The perfect combination would turn out to be a path between a bar and a dorm. Preferably a dorm with vending machines, or that was near a 7-11.

It was an evolution.

It all started with hot dogs. Homer made friends with a kid who'd just moved to Boston from LA. He told the brothers about the Mexican hot dog carts on Hollywood Boulevard. They'd bolt a sheet pan to the top of the grocery cart with a propane camp stove underneath. It turned the pan into a mobile flat top. On it, they'd fry hot dogs wrapped in bacon.

The three of them tried it out. They got into trouble almost immediately. On their first attempt, Homer's friend suffered third-degree burns trying to catch a red hot sheet try as it slid off the cart.

Homer heard his skin sizzle. Luckily, the kid was okay. He didn't even throw the brothers under the bus. That said, the kid's parents were smart enough to know that maybe the Moustakas brothers played too rough. He didn't come by the house after that.

Searching for a more manageable "cooking" solution, they settled on a crockpot. Their parents had a couple of them in the basement, and it seemed like something that wouldn't be missed.

The boys also knew Frito pie, thanks to Uncle, who liked to hang out at places that had drinks but rarely had food. Start with a crockpot of chili. Get a few bags of shredded cheese and a couple of flats of Fritos from a warehouse store. There, you had a hot, fast, easy meal.

They charged $3 a bag the first night. They sold nine over four hours. Still, they felt like they were on to something.

By Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Over the next few years, Homer got a better view of how kitchens worked. He watched everything, ate well, and he took that knowledge to the business.

The other thing he learned was that restaurant hours sucked. Usually, by the time they got off work, nothing was open. Boston had its ups, but eating after 10 PM was a down. Restaurant workers would be their first regular clientele.

During his dish shift, Homer would keep the cart in a secure place. Brian would meet up with him after work. Then the two of them would roll everything over towards an industry bar. Sometimes they'd be done by midnight. Sometimes they'd go until two or three in the morning.

The menu expanded over time. Along with Frito Pie, they started offering "Walking Tacos." It began with Doritos or Salsitas and included the addition of shredded lettuce, diced onions, and sour cream. Sometimes they subbed in plain yogurt if that was cheaper. It still used the same canned Hormel chili and bagged shredded cheese. It brought in an extra dollar a bag.

Customers asked for lots of modifications. They also started walking up with bags of stuff like Funyons and Munchos. They'd present their bag and ask for a discounted price. They wanted to try bargaining with the "kids."

They decided to make all the customers provide the snack bag. They'd set up near a vending machine or convenience store to make it easy. Now people were only ordering and paying for toppings. It was less to transport, offered more variety, and shortened customer interactions.

As the focus turned to toppings, Homer experimented. He started with the chili. He added more beans, hot sauce, and ketchup to extend and make the flavor more distinctive. Brian liked it.

A more challenging addition was Coq Au Vin, chicken braised in red wine. It had become his favorite dish at the place he was working at the time. There they served it with roasted potatoes. Homer found Julia Child's recipe for the dish and made it more like a thick stew. He threw it over a bag of plain potato chips. This new dish also gave the brothers an excuse to use the other crockpot. They called this new menu addition "Cock Pie."

Of course, they did.

Then, one night Homer ran into one of his coworkers, Raúl. Homer had tried to stay away from the places his coworkers frequented. He didn't want to be on their radar. Uncle's advice was always, "Don't pee in the lemonade." His version of, "Don't shit where you eat."

But Raúl, a young man originally from Tijuana, was thrilled to get a Walking Taco with weird chili and yogurt while stone drunk at 2 AM. He'd told Homer all about his favorite version, Tostilocos, and how much he missed them. Homer knew to listen to the consumer, so a down and dirty version of Tostilocos went on their menu.

Not only did Raúl become a frequent customer, but he also became an informal advisor. He advised on ways to streamline and improve the menu and did some advance work. He found good spots for them all over town. Locations were now more targeted, and they even had a few regulars across multiple sites.

This was Homer's first taste of success, and there was even an element of a local celebrity. But just as this sped up, Brian began to fade out of the business.

By Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

Each brother handled moving in with Uncle differently. Brian focused on school and the Boy Scouts. Homer focused on the stacks of cash he was making. Raúl stepped in as a part-time Brian replacement. He also taught Homer how to take food scraps from work. He grabbed meat and veggie trimmings, dry beans, condiments, stock, and spices and let them cook in the crock. It was cheaper than just buying and reheating cans, and it got tastier too.

Brian didn't fall away entirely. He took a back seat on the day-to-day but still showed up occasionally, and he "managed the books." This meant counting sweaty dollar bills and ensuring that prices made sense.

Brian told him to lose the Cock Pie. Compared to the rest of the menu, it had the most expensive ingredients, and it didn't sell well enough to make up for it. This upset Homer because it was his first real "original" idea on the menu. He felt it was proof that he knew what he was doing.

"If you can sell it for, like, twice as much?" said Brian, "but I don't think the drunks'll bite. Most don't even know it's not chili."

He was right, of course. He always was when it involved numbers.

Brian also suggested three new options to the menu. "Dealer's Choice," "Special Orders," and "Owl Pellet." Dealer's Choice was always a dollar less than the next cheapest food item on the menu. If things got busy or crowded, the person taking orders would push customers toward it. Then Homer would decide what needed to move. Customers got a deal, and the slower selling items got sold. In quieter times, it gave customers a deal, and Homer used it as an opportunity to chat. He'd learn what they wanted, and he experimented with them.

But Special Order and Owl Pellet were the most exciting. Both options were $20.

Special Order was exactly like it sounds. Allergies. Preferences. They often had to deny substitutions and adjustments. But at this price, they were making it worth their while to slow down a rush.

Owl Pellet came after Brian went away to Scout camp one summer. While there, he dissected a barn owl pellet for a merit badge. His father told him that owls inhaled their food and spit out a ball of bones and fur, but he'd never seen it in real life. It made him think of their father, brother, and the Fly By Night cart.

It wasn't a stretch for Brian to relate this bulging clump of leftovers from a nocturnal glutton with the drunken people at the cart. For this menu selection, Homer would pack the chip bag until it bulged.

At the peak of "The Fly By Night Owls," they also had an electric griddle strapped to the cart. That allowed for a pretty broad menu expansion. By this point, not only did Homer work the "kitchen," but occasionally, Raúl's cousin from El Salvador, Lenca, would help out. Lenca was only a few years older than Homer, but he was a beast in the kitchen. It was becoming a multi-family business.

The summer before Homer turned 18, and he started to focus on his restaurant career, the menu was as follows:

"Fly By Night Owls" Menu 9/21/96

"Mosti-Tosti" was the cutesy name they gave to tostilocos to lure in the unfamiliar. "Dolphin Potatoes" was a reimagining of Gratin Dauphinois. It was potato chips with sour cream, mayo, and mustard sauce. Then, Spam that had been shredded on a box grater, cheese, and a simple herb salad. The "salad" was a simple combo of roughly chopped herbs kept in oil, and mixed with lime juice, salt, and pepper, to order.

"SHE GREAT!" was one of the innovations designed to pimp out their offerings. The name was a corruption of "Cheese Grits." This was cheese popcorn blitzed to powder in a Nutribullet. Then it was combined with butter, hot milk, hot sauce, and cheese. Then they topped it with chopped veggies and griddled spam shreds. Served in a paper cup, it was popular on colder nights.

The "Short Drunk Katie" was a whole journey.

It started when Homer became obsessed with the Japanese dish okonomiyaki. One of the guys in the kitchen took a bunch of people out to the Ebisuya Japanese market in Medford. Homer didn't know Japanese food. They went there because his buddy wanted to cook okonomiyaki and needed some harder-to-find items. Things like "Mountain Yam."

First described to him as "Japanese Pizza," after trying it, Homer felt like that description set up the wrong expectations. It had seafood, pork belly, cabbage, flour, baking powder, tempura bits, and so much more. In the end, it was topped with a sprinkle of green seaweed powder and a crosshatch of mayo and a Japanese-style barbeque sauce. Bonito flakes went on last. The flakes moved and danced as the heat rose from the griddled pancake. It was more than food. The whole process was entertainment.

It looked alive, didn't taste like pizza, and Homer wanted to learn how to make it too.

He worked weekend mornings with a prep cook named Francisco at about the same time. Francisco talked a lot about being "saved." He also made these one-handed omelets using an absurd mess of scallions, a scoop of flour, eggs, and milk. Shaped kind of like a football, he'd keep it in the pan until the outside was toasty brown. Then he'd eat it with one hand while doing other things.

Homer learned that roughly translated, "Okonomiyaki" means "whatever you want, grilled." Homer took that advice to heart. He wanted to see if he could merge it with Francisco's thing and make a one-handed version for Night Owl.

After eating nothing but experiments for a week, he felt like he had something.

It mainly used mise that was already in the cart. The final result wasn't really okonomiyaki, a frittata, or an omelet. It kept Francisco's hotdog shape. This allowed for more to fit on the small electric griddle. He had to lose the bonito flakes. But he did use a knife to poke a hole down the center of the cooked product. In this pocket, he squirted a blast of Kewpie mayo.

"Call it 'Cock Pie: the sequel,'" joked Brian.

The name evolution was gradual. It started as "okonomiyaki," and no one ordered it. Mainly because their crowds didn't know what it was. The rest didn't order it because they knew what okonomiyaki was, and this wasn't it.

They tried "Mexican Okonomiyaki," and people asked more questions. Still, almost no one ordered it. Those who did seemed to enjoy it. But anyone watching it come together wouldn't recognize okonomiyaki or anything Mexican.

After a team brainstorm, they tried "Loquequierasyaki." This broke down to "Lo que quieras yaki" or "Whatever you want" in Spanish with the Japanese word "Yaki" (grilled). This got a few more orders. But mostly, they came from confused Spanish speakers. They tried shortening it to "Quieres Yaki," but it was received about the same.

Brian liked "Lo que quieras yaki," but he recommended turning it into something phonetic. "How about, 'Low Kate Keyairi's Sake?'"

With that name, orders dried up completely.

It was Lenca who looked at the dish and the name and parsed it all out: "Okay, so you have a 'Low Kate.' Sad Kate? No. Maybe she short? A shortie? Um. Short Katie and wants to drink a Sake, right? So…why not... Short Drunk Katie?"

That night it would either sell or get dropped. Might as well give it a shot. They set up around the block from Lansdowne street on a busy, warm, spring night.

This was the magic formula for the weirdest reason.

There were many college kids named Katie. Quite a number of them were short. Almost all of them at the Night Owl cart were drunk.

People started ordering it because the dish's name described them or their friend.

Luckily, it was also delicious.

It was easy to carry, and with the addition of some purple bakery tissue (bought on discount), it was visual too. People saw it all around and ordered it because everyone else was.

By whereslugo on Unsplash

The desserts were easy to make and sell. "Funky Fritos" started with, well, Fritos. On top went a chocolate "pudding" made of Nesquick, sour cream, instant espresso, cayenne, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Then it was finished with a packet of sugar in the raw and a crumbled nutty buddy. The sugar they used was almost always liberated from a Starbucks. Altogether it turned the Fritos into a salty/sweet, crunchy, chocolatey thing.

The "Red Headed Stud" was a riff on the classic Wendy's combo of Frosty and fries. They'd give the potato chips a crush and top them with a Nutribullet blitz of frozen banana chunks, milk (or coffee creamers), and Nesquik. If they had it, crumbled Oreos on top sealed the deal. They would also occasionally include a shot of Jagermeister in with the banana mix for industry regulars. This was an ode to the shots they were already downing at the bar made of Jager, peach schnapps, and cranberry juice.

"CHI-Town D-Lite" was a riff on "Chicago-mix popcorn." Cheese popcorn, topped with a dulce de leche made of sweetened condensed milk. Then peanuts for crunch.

The last item was most popular amongst cabbies, the religious, and teetotaler tagalongs. "Baby Coffee" was the only beverage they offered. That was because it was unique enough that no bar in town offered anything like it.

Inspired by a guest conversation, it started with a pack of peppermint gum. The gum was unwrapped and tossed in the cinnamon they carried for the "Funky Fritos." One benefit of working in restaurants was access to good ingredients. They used Saigon cinnamon. It was expensive and had an intense cinnamon flavor. The final and elusive element was a soft drink: regular Coke with no caffeine. It could not be caffeine-free and diet, which was easier to find. It had to have the sugar. Why? This drink was the answer for when someone was tired but needed to stay awake for a short period before bed.

You chew the gum. The combo of mint and cinnamon smelled great and was also bracing and hot in the mouth. Then you sip the caffeine-free Coke. There was no caffeine jolt, but the bracing combo of mint and cinnamon mixed with the carbonation magnified the sensation of cold and was sharp enough to wake you. The sugar then boosted that effect and led to a sugar crash later, which helped you get to sleep. Awake for the last push, but no caffeine. Baby Coffee.

By Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

The last night of "The Fly By Night Owls" was primarily Homer and Lenca. Brian showed up because they both knew it was kind of the end of an era.

That night was almost (more than?) a quarter-century from the present moment.

In the years between, Homer climbed the restaurant ladder. Brian worked and pursued his education part-time and was almost done with his Ph.D. He still saw Raúl every now and again, and Lenca was his sous at the restaurant… that no longer existed.

It all blew Homer's mind. He missed the raucous simplicity of it all. No rules, just cash. It made restaurants seem so easy.

He popped into the laundromat and scanned the selections. Fritos, Cape Cod Chips, Oreos, Peanuts, Salsasitas, Doritos, Trident, and Nutty Buddies! A Night Owl full house! He scanned the walls for an outlet. It was there, under a chair by the door. All he needed was a card table, some simple equipment, and an extension cord. This could easily be the next location for the "Fly By Night Owls."

He picked Fritos and exited the laundromat. He headed up South Street towards his brother's apartment. On the way, he passed by the Arnold Arboretum. In the dark, he could hear an animal screeching. "I wonder if that's a barn owl?" he thought.

He called out, "HOOT! HOOT! HOOTIE!"

He looked at the Fritos and thought. "I wonder what's in Bootie's fridge…."

_______________________________🐇

More in this Series

Aftermath: The First Ending - The story of parva laminas. One fantastic failed restaurant.

A Drink for Wilted Mournings - The perfect drink for a garbage day.

Short Story

About the author

J.S. Kohout

Obsessively thinking about the intersections of food, entertainment, commerce, human nature, and the end of the world.

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