Death, and the Restorative Power of Tom Ka Gai in a Houston Dive
Kelsey Buzzanco, 26 December 1988-11 March 2010
Death recurs. Not for the deceased of course, but for the people who’d been in that life. Not in the Shakespearian sense of cowards dying often and the valiant but once. The death of someone who meant something recurs. It often doesn’t take much—a sound, an aroma, silly memory dancing through your head . . . and you’re remembering someone who’s gone, and you relive the day he died. Kelsey died again for me several months ago last year when I found out that our favorite restaurant had closed, and I winced at another link to him disappearing.
I was going to Bohemeo’s to meet someone. I’d been in that strip so many times because I’d eaten at the best Thai restaurant ever, Kanomwan, so many times. Kanomwan is closed, shuttered, with liquor license application for the new owners in the window. It was a gut punch, the closing of a dive restaurant. Something that happens all the time, especially since 2020, when COVID and the shutdown drove so many people out of business.
But Kanoman was different. I went there more than any place in Houston since I moved here. Right after I arrived at UH I went to lunch with a few of my new colleagues at this Thai place on Telephone Road (across the street from its current, or last at least, location). The food was amazing and it was full of UH people, professors and staff. It was like a hidden gem but it wasn’t very hidden. It was always full. The place itself was a dive, with tchotchkes and a wall full of baseball hats people had brought there. But it was clean and had its own ambience.
But the main attraction was Yuthana Charoenrat, a name which I’d never heard until just some months ago, though it was someone I’d met hundreds of times. I knew him as “the grumpy Thai guy,” while others called him “the Thai Nazi,” in homage to Seinfeld’s soup nazi. I know there are all kinds of inferences about western imperialism that can be drawn from not knowing his name, but everyone who had been to Kanomwan called him “the grumpy Thai guy” or just “Grumpy,” and it was easy to remember. He was the owner but more than that. He dominated this small restaurant more than anyone I’ve ever seen own a room–like a Sinatra, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, or Muhammad Ali. Larger than larger-than-life.
Grumpy took orders (a really bad word for requesting food, and in fact in this case Grumpy gave orders). Only he took orders. No one else ever did. No matter how busy the place was, no matter how many people were already seated, no matter the length of the line, only he took orders. And you ordered off the menu, strictly. He had no tolerance for someone who wanted a slight modification in the food. There was one “vegetarian” option on the menu, and I went there with a lot of different vegetarians.
When they asked for some modification, like taking meat out of something, he just glared and said he couldn’t. I once had a friend complain about not getting enough shrimp and I was terrified that he’d kick us out and I wouldn’t be allowed back in. It was his room and he set the rules, and no matter what, you obeyed, because the consequences—not being able to eat there again—were too great. If you were sitting too long at your table when you finished, or if he was ready to close after 1:30, he wasn’t shy about coming to the table and saying “you go now!” And I always did. There are certain gods with which I will not trifle . . .
Now, the food was amazing too, and I’ll get to Kelsey’s role in all this in a minute. I started going there with UH people and the place became addictive. I’d look for people who wanted to go to lunch to eat there, and it wasn’t hard to find people. I’d go with colleagues often before I became the department pariah, and I’d take my Teaching Assistants there at the end of the semester to thank them, and I introduced the place to just about everyone I knew. When I had a cold I’d get takeout, some kind of hot shrimp soup that would make me sweat like a business major trying to write an essay.
The food was always great and the Thai guy was always grumpy . . . except when he wasn’t. He had a couple weaknesses. He could sometimes crack a smile and show some attention to an attractive woman. I once was going out with a very good-looking Mexican-American woman (punching way above my weight class) and we went there often. But we skipped a few months and when we went back he asked where we’d been—well, he asked her where she’d been. She played along and looked at me and said “he won’t take me here.” Grumpy told her “you call me and I’ll come pick you up,” and he laughed.
But now we’re getting to the Kelsey part. Because while he might break character once in a while for a woman, he was genuinely and downright pleasant when Kelsey came in, and Kelsey came in there a lot. With me. With his mom. With his friends after he got his driver’s license. Kelsey was a Thai food junkie, and his main fix was the S-3, the Tom Ka Gai. Every Thai place in the world has it on the menu, and I always get it, because it’s a test for me. It’s tasted the same everywhere . . . except for Kanomwan. It was the best Tom Ka Gai in the world, obviously some kind of secret recipe from some secret deity handed down to the Thai guy’s wife, who did all the cooking and who never came out from the kitchen. The first few times we went to Kanomwan Kelsey tried some other stuff on the menu, the H-5 and H-6 for instance, but once he tasted Tom Ka Gai I don’t think I ever saw him order anything else.
But it was a lot more than a restaurant for Kelsey and me, or for me at least. And probably for Kelsey too. I think he saw it as his secret, his claim to knowing a little bit about the “other” Houston, outside the Galleria and River Oaks and all the rich places. He knew Kanomwan and that gave him social currency and cred as a kid. And like I said, after he got a drivers license he was there all the time and took his friends.
But for me it was our place to have sit-downs, to have meets, to discuss the family business and negotiate. It was our version of the Ravenite Social Club. We’d sit down to eat but also to figure out the world. It was a refuge for us, where we could just chat about nothing, or about everything. I might tell him stories about the Buzzanco family, or talk to him about politics and history, or discuss something going on in his life.
And Kelsey often had things going on in his life. He wasn’t the most mild or obedient kid, which was fine. But he drifted over the line more often than he safely should have, and I tried to rein him in. And when it was time for that conversation, I took him to Kanomwan.
I never told him that I wanted to talk to him, or he’d tell me he couldn’t go. So I’d just say I felt like eating Thai food and we’d head over. Grumpy would come to the table and ask me what I wanted because I ate various dishes on the menu and mixed it up. He’d just look at Kelsey and say “S-3.”
And we were off. I’d bring up whatever topic it was I wanted to talk about and Kelsey didn’t want to talk about it. But since it was a public place and the S-3 held him hostage, he had to engage me a little bit at least. And that’s the place where we had the most meaningful communications. He had to sit there but he also knew he’d be rewarded with Tom Ka Gai if he listened to me, and I suspect he was a little more at ease in that environment than he’d be elsewhere, surely than at home where he hated every “serious” discussion I brought up . . .
Now that might not sound like much but for me it was really a refuge and it gave the Grumpy Thai Guy’s place a special importance—the closest thing to a safe house I’d have. Outside of the personal space we shared, Kanomwan was probably the location of most of our interactions. We loved the food and reveled just being in the presence of the Thai Guy, which always made us smile. And it always made me happy to see the old man come over to Kelsey and smile at him and make some kind of small talk. He didn’t do that for many people other than pretty young women, so I figure he was able to see something about Kelsey that wasn’t apparent to everyone else—the same stuff I saw in the kid. That spark, that magic, those eyes that reeked of mischief and the spirit of a wild colt.
And we know how this story ends, alas . . . Kelsey died by suicide in March 2010. He’d often been uneven emotionally and I’d often try to get him to talk about it, which he hated. Hence our frequent visits to the Thai dive on Telephone Road. But I knew things were getting worse when I’d asked him a couple times in the weeks before his death to go to Kanomwan and he passed. That was unlike him and it made me think . . .
After Kelsey’s death, I knew I couldn’t go back to Kanomwan. The old man would ask me about Kelsey and it was a conversation I didn’t want to have. I had no problem talking about Kelsey, and still don’t—I want people to remember him. But talking to the Thai Guy was a tough nut for me to crack. I don’t know why. There was something special there, though they really barely knew each other. Kelsey made the old man smile and the old man had a soft spot for the kid. In my own fevered imagination, there was something magical going on and I wanted to keep it pure. So when friends asked me to go to Kanomwan I’d pass.
But weirdly, tragically, coincidentally, the old man himself died a few months later. He wasn’t that old and didn’t seem to be in bad shape. But we’re all day-to-day and his time was up. And I was freed. I was shocked and saddened by his death, though in reality I didn’t know him either. But I could go back to Kanomwan, knowing that I wouldn’t have a painful conversation about Kelsey.
After Kelsey’s death I never went there as frequently as I had. Maybe a dozen times a year? But whenever I did, I felt like Kelsey was walking in besides me. I felt a sense of heartache when I sat down, because I expected the kid to be sitting down next to me. The first time I went there after they both were gone, Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer” jumped into my mind, and it made sense—”I don’t remember losing track of you/You were always dancing in and out of view/I must’ve thought you’d always be around/Always keeping things real by playing the clown/Now you’re nowhere to be found/I don’t know what happens when people die/Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try/It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear.” Yeah, it’s cheesy but I’ve listened to that song a million times and I think of Kelsey each time.
So when I saw the signs in the windows this summer telling me Kanomwan was closed, metaphorically passed on like Kelsey and Grumpy, it stung badly. Another epoch in the life of Kelsey Niccolo Sandino Buzzanco was gone. There are plenty left in my mind of course, but that was a big one. I remember going there with him like I remember his first steps, his first time riding a two-wheel bike, his fist day of school, and so on. It was a big deal.
And now I’m commemorating another March 11th with him gone. I had 21 with him, and now 13 without him. It’s unimaginable that he’d be an adult now. But one of the images I’ll always have will be him sitting at a table at Kanomwan with me either laughing or uncomfortably trying to change the conversation or just excitedly putting a little rice in the little cup and pouring S-3 over it. Nostalgia burns like a fever and it makes me happy to be able to think about him and cry. Weep, talk, eat—not a bad epitaph for Kelsey.
Kanomwan was “cosa nostra” for us, our thing. And now it’s gone. And the world is less meaningful than it was before . . . .
I loved that place and the old man. I loved Kelsey for being such a great friend to little Jasper. Thinking of you, Buzz.