Fresh Fortune Cookies
by Joel Pomerantz
written 2002 (posted 2002)
first published in Livermore Street, a literary journal
at Antioch College,
I wedged the glass door open with my foot
and dodged in, wiping the sweat from my brow with the back
of my sleeve. I had half-run the twelve long blocks from
Chinatown, over rumpled sidewalks, arms full. I was carrying
various bundles wrapped in red and black calligraphed newsprint.
And one fragile bag of fresh fortune cookies.
I waddled awkwardly to prevent it from banging
into my side as it swung from my one available finger. I
hobbled, breathless, down the hall and into the bowels of
the fluorescent-lit office building. I was afraid I would
miss Martha. But I had underestimated the power of workaholism.
She was still at the Institute, pulling together papers
for tomorrow's meetings, plugging away after things got
The little two-story Bauhaus office building
on De Boom Street was nearly empty. I could hear Charlie
in his cubicle talking on the phone. The vacuum in the meeting
room told me Mark was well along in his almost spiritually
focused cleaning routine.
"Hi sweetie!" she said, with surprising buoyancy.
"Want to dine at Tu Lan before the party?" I knew she loved
Tu Lan, a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place on Sixth Street
where the nonprofit crowd ate lunch. Martha always ate lunch,
and generally dinner, too, at her desk, telling herself
that one of these days she'd eat out.
We had both been craving Tu Lan's crispy homemade
noodles dripping with magical spicy chili sauce, tofu and
veggies. Never mind that the place oozed oil smoke and grease,
which once dripped on my head from the fan over the crowded
doorway—it was worth it for the chance to sit at that counter
and watch the guy with no arm hair throw food into leaping
flames, cooking eight different dishes at once, as he dodged
his coworkers chopping, washing, serving, bundling, shelling
Getting there always required a dancer's gait,
through the nighttime crowd of addicts and scammers who
lined the sleazy Sixth Street sidewalks, but that was half
the fun. I hoped my proposal could help her keep perspective,
tempting her to prioritize nutrition and urban culinary
adventure over another couple hours of meeting preparation.
Martha had come to be good friends with Mark the janitor
in her years of staying late, so when she found out I had
just come from the fortune cookie forge she called out,
"Hey Mark! You want a fresh-outta-the-oven fortune cookie?"
I cringed. I wasn't really sure that these cookies were
fit for human consumption.
"Sure!" Mark said, peering around the ficus foliage and
I took a deep breath. Martha plucked a golden-brown fortune
cookie from the bag and handed it to Mark. I winced. My
mind wandered back. A good eighteen months had passed since
the project began.
We were sitting with Jean in a Thai restaurant, sated with
good food and laughing about the chopsticks. "I like eating
with chopsticks," Jean offered, as she tweezed her last
lump of eggplant off her plate.
"But they aren't authentic!" mocked Martha, turning to thank
the just-off-the-boat server as he carefully placed a little
tray with the check and three fortune cookies precisely
in the center of the table. It only took a few days of restaurant
work in San Francisco to train him not to assume a man would
pay the bill.
"It's true!" Jean replied with an ironic grin, "When I was
in Thailand, everyone ate with forks, not chopsticks. Chopsticks
aren't a Thai tradition at all."
"But confused Americans probably demand chopsticks from
all Asian restaurants."
"What does authentic mean anyway? It's like 'native'—does
it go a thousand years back? a hundred? Is spaghetti with
marinara authentic Italian? After all, the Chinese invented
noodles, tomatoes came from the New World. By one standard
or another, everything could be called inauthentic, especially
"But this situation is different," I insisted. "Martha's
not claiming authenticity—she's denying it. It's easy to
claim that chopsticks are inauthentic if nobody in Thailand
uses them—unless they're an immigrant," I hastily added,
covering my flanks, "from someplace like China."
"Or they're me," said Jean. "I think chopsticks are great."
This derailment serves as a forfeiture in
our familial language of intellectual competition. I don't
mind, I thought, though worried that the contentious family
dynamic might scare off my new friend.
But Martha wasn't scared. She was enjoying it.
"Ah, take a look at this. Talk about inauthentic!"
Martha gloated. She waved one of the fortune cookies over
the table before squirreling the wrapper off and breaking
the crunchy cookie in two.
"I don't mind, I love fortune cookies!" Jean practically
shouted, with a look that played like a wink.
"What's yours say?" asked Martha.
Jean cracked one open and her face dropped. "It's not even
a real fortune. It's advice, and mediocre advice at that.
MAKES HASTY DECISIONS. Almost meaningless, really."
"I kinda like the odd phrasing," I said. "I'll trade ya."
"You haven't even opened yours," said Jean.
"I don't care. I'm not very into these things. So-called
'fortune cookies' always have advice or sayings or lucky
numbers. I want a real fortune!"
"Yeah, something concrete and predictive, like THE
PHONE'S ABOUT TO RING AND IT'S FOR YOU," Jean ad-libbed.
"I know this place on Waverly alley in Chinatown," I confided,
in a scheming tone, "where you can peek through the back
door of a cramped little hallway and see a woman folding
hot disks of cookie around fortunes. She waved to me once.
I bet she'd be willing to put our better fortune ideas into
some cookies for us—maybe for a party. Wouldn't that be
fun!? A bunch of real fortunes in our own cookies."
From that moment on, every fortune cookie
reminded me of my scheme.
In my mind, the plot had been hatched. Of course nobody
expected I would ever do it; it was just a fun excuse, on
Asian dining occasions, to invent better fortunes on grease-stained
Jean had a pen out, handing it to me, pulling out a couple
more from her purse.
BACK WILL ITCH IN 12 SECONDS
"How's that for specific? A real fortune!" I bragged. "And
possibly self-fulfilling, if you're impressionable."
IS A SOCK IN YOUR SHOE
Martha seemed less interested in the idea of a real predictive
fortune, offering a fun twist on the self-fulfillment idea.
Clunkily, I look for a way to meet the challenge:
BELIEFS WILL CHANGE COMPLETELY
Jean held up her napkin:
WHAT YOUR FORTUNE CAN DO FOR YOU...
"Whoa, Jean! That's impressive." We all laughed.
I stuffed the ideas in my coat pocket, not to think about
them again—until the next time I found myself in the same
discussion, borrowing pens from a restaurant hostess. And
Fortunes are like puns, goes my usual speech. A
good one is spontaneous and relevant. A good prediction
makes me laugh at the least—or even sends me in a new direction,
based on newly revealed insights and truths. But restaurant
fortune cookies are never spontaneous—nor relevant—except
if they can force some idea on you. Or when they're so vague
that they apply to anyone, anytime. That's why so few of
'em have real fortunes, in favor of advice or platitudes.
My dining partners usually were easily
convinced and willing to add fortune ideas.
I made it a policy after a while not to read the scrawled
submissions I collected, so I would be able to get surprises
myself from the eventual cookies. I had little idea how
many surprises I had coming.
One day, after almost two years of collecting, I stopped
in on an acquaintance who worked at a travel agency I passed
each day on the way to work. There was Tracy, fighting with
the printer, trying to feed label sheets through.
"I never can tell," she said, feeding a handful of paper
covered with addresses into her shredder, "which paper tray
it'll print from. It's like totally random. The world
is falling apart again! These addresses will be so scrambled
the bulky bulk mail postal workers will go postal!" She
paused in her poetry, held her breath and sent off another
I played with the eggy image in my mind's eye: scrambled
rectangles of paper with small print. "Hmm. Hey, Tracy,
you're a fast typist, right? Do me a fun favor?"
"Sure. In a minute when this comes out on the right side
of these damn labels."
"I'll be right back." I ran out and around the corner to
my flat, leaving the door open. I was back before Tracy
even noticed I had gone. I emptied my pockets onto the desk,
stacking and smoothing a ream of stained napkins and note
scraps. "If I set up the font and spacing, will you type
this novel into the computer for me, maybe on your lunch
break?" I grinned, not sure if she was even listening.
"I am soooo bored, I'll type it fer sherrrr," she drawled,
cocking her head and laying on the attitude. "I'll publish
it for ya too!" She gently patted the rim of a huge
trash can behind her, without looking back. Then the stack
of napkins caught her attention. "Oh hey, never mind, this
isn't much—just a few words per splattered tatter! This'll
be five minutes' work. Bring more! Bring on your crass creative
creations to me, dude! We'll get you into print pronto!"
"Well, I lied. It's not really a novel. It's for my custom
"Kewell! What a freaky idea!"
When, half an hour later, they printed out correctly, I
sliced them into short slips, while Tracy mocked me for
not wanting to read them. "What you don't know can't hurt
you. Right?" she said.
I didn't register the importance of that remark. I just
thought it was Tracy being Tracy, especially when she added,
Walking to work after our little production line had finished
I spent my thoughts trying to conjure the fortunes from
those many restaurant discussions, but all I could come
up with was something silly about a red sports car, that
I had made up. I couldn't even remember the crew who'd helped
write those fortunes. It had been half a year since the
last fortune conversation.
I ignored the bag of little white rectangles for a couple
weeks. Then one day, the day I had a dancing and potluck
dessert party to go to, I decided the time was right to
extend the pot luck idea to its full potential.
After work, I went to Chinatown's Waverly Place. Bouncing
with excitement, I thought about how great it would be to
have a bunch of real fortunes for people. Though I was sure
they were going to be weird, I had no idea how little effect
my months of lobbying had in producing real fortunes. I
instead carried hidden promises, carelessly specific predictions
and purposely obtuse sayings through the narrow darkness
of the pungent alley. I poked my nose into the gloomy street-level
hallway where I could feel the warm wafting air of the little
fortune cookie factory.
I nodded greeting to a middle-aged woman with very callused
fingers. She sat alone on a stool in front of a small, hot
machine. Blue flames licked the back half of a rotating
tray, inches away from her, onto which the machine automatically
excreted a blop of batter with every sharp turn of the motor.
Behind her, hanging on a wall peg, was the classic Chinese
grandma quilted red satin jacket with flower patterns.
I saw this garment worn on the 30 Stockton bus all the time.
It always gave an aura of self-respect to the wearer, whether
she was reading the vertical characters of the Chinese newspaper,
perfectly designed for crowded public transit with no elbow
room, or on a family outing to fish for crabs from the municipal
pier, or walking into a sweatshop, where dignity is sacrificed
into the hands of the management who pat the workers down
for wandering products when they go out for lunch at the
sound of the bell. Self-respect comes at a high price in
those circumstances and an immigrant to America struggling
to speak English needs to find it where she can, and wear
it bright and red, like a flag.
"Excuse me," I said, aware that I was interrupting a process
that couldn't be interrupted without consequences.
The cookie cook nodded to me and smiled. Deftly, between
snagging a fortune from a bag hanging at her elbow and plucking
the still-soft disk from the griddle, as it rotated out
of the gray little gas oven, she waved me into the cramped
I stood beside her, gaping at the bins of bagged cookies.
She slipped the paper into a folded leathery pancake of
sweetened flour and in the same motion, folded it in quarters
over a metal peg. The cookie hardened in the air as she
dropped it into a scoop where a couple dozen other finished
cookies lay, and all at once she emptied the scoop into
a plastic bag, tied the bag and stuck a label on it. She
was doing the process from beginning to end herself.
While bagging there wasn't enough time to grab all the cookies
that rotated by and stuff them with fortunes, so she threw
a few empty floppy disks of cookie into a separate bin of
"Can you put these in cookies for me?" I showed her my baggie
"How many fortune?" She asked.
"I think 80 or 90."
While taking the bag from me, she missed folding a few cookies
from her machine. She plucked them flat off the griddle-mold
and handed them to me. "Try."
I took the rapidly hardening droopy disks and crunched them
into my mouth where they melted into my happy taste-buds.
I smiled, recalling the sweet pungent smell of my sister's
old neighborhood in Boston's Chinatown. "How much?" I asked,
patting my pocket.
"Fie dollah." This was said with skepticism, as if expecting
a counter-offer. I just nodded and smiled.
When she recovered from the shock of my immediate capitulation,
she waved me toward the door, saying, "Twenty minute."
I ran my other errands, and came back for my cookies.
I took the bag and thanked her. On the way out the door,
I couldn't resist the temptation.
BUTTON IS GOING TO POP OFF AT AN EMBARRASSING MOMENT BETWEEN
TONIGHT AND NEXT FRIDAY
Ummm. Playful but stupid, I thought to myself. Jogging toward
De Boom Street, I wondered if they were all like that. I
snatched another sample.
YOU DO CAN HELP NOW
That's not a fortune. This is getting worse, I think. I
don't remember these. Suddenly the lack of quality control
hits me in a nervous swell. Having pushed myself willfully
into mystery, I can't stand being mystified. Maybe I can
just eat my way out of this mess, before the party.
I lift my spirits with the thought that the potential effect
on my sparkling reputation at the party is minimal, since
I haven't got a sparkling reputation to tarnish. Most everyone
there will already know me and my quirks—maybe everyone
EAR WILL FALL OFF AT 1:15
What?! This is bad. What am I gonna do? Gotta consult Martha.
I had no idea what I wanted to do about this mess I had
created. Martha would save me.
Or so I thought.
Martha handed Mark the cookie.
Mark the yogi janitor noticed my wince and paused questioningly,
about to open his cookie.
"Fair warning: I think they're bad fortune cookies."
Martha gave me a look. "Are they bad fortunes or bad cookies?
They smell good!"
Mark laughed and opened his cookie.
DIE OF SYPHILIS
"My girlfriend won't be happy to hear this," Mark deadpanned,
charming in his ability to take it in stride.
We laughed and Martha reached into the bag, feigning nervousness.
ARE YOUR WORST VICE
"These are bad fortune cookies."
"Maybe let's forget this project and I won't bring them
"But they taste so good! I've never had a fresh fortune
cookie before," Martha said.
"Let's go eat before we spoil our appetites," I suggested.
On the way out the door, we passed Charlie's desk. Martha
whispered that he was on the phone to his fianc?e in Boston.
We were almost out of sight when Charlie hollered, "Hi you
guys, come back here—I wanna grab Alice one of those great-smelling
Martha and I didn't sprint fast enough. Charlie had already
leapt up, plucked a cookie from the bag now dangling from
my thumb, and was starting to read into the phone. After
a grunt and two bulging eyes, he spoke slowly, "Uh, honey,
I am really sorry, they got away before I could get you
one." He tossed the fortune along with the uneaten cookie
into the wastebasket and gave me a pained look.
Martha retrieved the fortune.
BEEN YOUR BEST FRIEND AND YOU WILL DISAPPOINT ME
We rushed off in shameful and suppressed stitches to our
tasty Vietnamese meal at authentic greasy Tu Lan, where
they served us some wonderful crispy noodles and sauces
followed by fortune cookies.
We arrived at the party, full and happy. Many sweet friends
greeted us. I felt guilty and subdued with my imprudent
potluck item. Before anyone could notice what I had brought,
I spied a colorful basket and poured the cookies into a
napkin draped across it. A few of the cookies had broken
NAME ISN'T FRANCINE
YOU HAVE TO STOP BITING YOUR NAILS
SHAVE YOUR HEAD AND PAINT YOUR PATE COLORFULLY
SKINNY DIPPING WILL BE THE BEST THING YOU'LL DO ALL YEAR
NOTHING YOU SAY WILL CONVINCE HER
"Martha, that's another one for Charlie!" I chuckled, turning
around to see that Martha was by this time lost in a crowd
of laughing conversation that swarmed in front of the dessert
tables. Skittish with anticipation, I wrote out a tag, "Fresh
Fortune Cookies." Caveats emptor danced at the end
of the marker, but never made it out.
I passed the basket over the heads of the crowd to the table.
The words, "For the table" passed from lip to ear as the
basket made its way. I cowered in the kitchen doorway, waiting
for someone to reach in and sample as they passed it along,
but nobody did.
After a few minutes of painful anticipation, no roar of
reaction materialized. Feeling sorry for myself and ashamed
at the same time, I gave up and went to socialize in the
An hour or more had passed in conversation, when Julie walked
in and said, "Your hair is messy!"
I replied, "What's new?," missing that she was reading a
fortune, until she waved a couple of white slips in the
YOU FLY NEXT, YOU WILL VOMIT
YOUR HAIR IS MESSY
"These somehow feel appropriate to me," Julie said, with
a special Julie sincerity that meant she was contemplating
how they would look in her next framed fish sculpture, nestled
in bluegreen satin with dried anchovies, stained keys dangling
from hooks across the bottom.
As the party wound down, I took a risky glance at the table
where the fortune basket sat. Every cookie was gone, save
one quartered and empty shell. Used plates lying around
yielded a bouquet of erratic thoughts:
WARNING FOR THE NEXT 48 HOURS
YOU WILL BE ARRESTED, ESCAPE FROM JAIL AND BE CAUGHT AGAIN
THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN THE ROOM WILL BECOME A FACTOR IN
YOUR NEXT MOVIE
THIS IS A MILLION DOLLARS
THERE WILL BE A GUSTY WIND
I went to work the next day and guiltily took a long hard
look at the computer file Tracy had put on a disk for me.
WHEN YOU READ THIS, FOR IT HOLDS YOUR FATE AT ARMS LENGTH
YOU ARE SUFFERING A BAD CASE OF THE FARTS
ICEBERGS WILL SINK YOUR SHIP
IF YOU CAN REMEMBER LAST THURSDAY, YOUR LIFE WILL IMPROVE
I was beginning to feel like an archeological forensic researcher,
when I came across this important evidence:
YOU SLEEP NEXT, YOU WILL DREAM OF ME
WHEN YOU DREAM NEXT, YOU WILL FLY
WHEN YOU FLY NEXT, YOU WILL VOMIT
WHEN YOU VOMIT NEXT, YOU WILL STINK
WHEN YOU STINK, YOUR FRIENDS WILL NOT INFORM YOU
WHEN YOUR FRIENDS INFORM ON YOU, YOU WILL FORGIVE THEM
WHEN YOU FORGIVE, YOU WILL FORGET
WHEN YOU FORGET, I WILL REMIND YOU
WHEN I REMIND YOU, YOU WILL NEVER EAT DUCK FAT
WHEN YOU EAT DUCK FAT, YOU WILL QUACK LOUDLY
WHEN YOU QUACK LOUDLY, YOU WILL BE SCORNED BY THE COMPANY
WHEN YOU ARE SCORNED BY THE COMPANY, YOU WON'T CARE
WHEN YOU DON'T CARE, YOUR LIFE WILL BECOME MEANINGLESS
Clearly someone's inside joke, it provided a kind of reverse
"exquisite corpse" game (where each person writes or draws,
in isolation, part of the final whole). I dusted off a few
WHAT YOUR FORTUNE CAN DO FOR YOU...
At least this was proof that the fortunes weren't all invented
by Tracy, I mused.
FAINT, YOU WILL BE OUT FOR DAYS
Ah, I thought, another sequence. But it only
IS THE LUCKY PLACE TO GAMBLE. BET 20 AT 5
YOU MAY NEVER SEE YOUR CURLY LOCKS AGAIN
YOU WILL STOP BELIEVING IN YOURSELF AFTER A RUN-IN WITH
THE FORTUNE COOKIE
Fortunes are like puns. A good one is spontaneous and relevant.
A good prediction makes me laugh at the least—or even sends
me in a new direction, based on newly revealed insights
CLERICAL CLEVERNESS WILL INTIMIDATE EVEN YOUR STRONGEST
But restaurant fortune cookies are never spontaneous—nor
relevant—except if they can force some idea on you.
THINK ABOUT A BROWN DOG JUMPING A FENCE
Or when they're so vague that they apply to anyone, anytime.
CAREER WILL IMPROVE AT 7
That's why so few of 'em have real fortunes, in favor of
advice or platitudes.
IN CONVERSATION. AVOID BLANKNESS
The phone rang. It was Martha calling from work where she
had apologized to Charlie, offering him a replacement fortune
for Alice, pre-screened that read
ARRANGEMENTS YOU SAW YESTERDAY WILL BE YOUR GUIDEPOSTS TODAY
I read her the next artifacts staring out from the screen:
COOKIES WILL DISAPPOINT YOU TODAY
YOU: YOUR FORTUNE IS MEANINGLESS.
"Lucky you!" she said.