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John has a British accent -- cultured, smooth, well-practiced, but fake. It keeps dropping off mid-sentence and goes out entirely when he has to raise his voice to be heard over the Saturday-night crowd of beautiful people and liars at Mao Asian Bistro and Sushi Lounge, hereafter to be known simply as Mao, because it's not a bistro, hardly a sushi bar and Asian only in the way the Power Rangers were: as seen through a distortion lens of American consumerism -- cartoon Asian played out by real people.
201 Columbine St.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
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Imperial rolls: $9
Tuna sashimi: $14
Seaweed salad: $4
Lobster club: $20
Poached lobster: $38
John has a last name, but he won't tell me what it is. "Don't know you, mate," he says. "Why would it matter?" When he calls me "mate," his accent suddenly goes Aussie. Bad Aussie. Crocodile Dundee-impression Aussie. I ask what he does, and he says it's something for the government -- "something for your government" -- then raises a hand, waving the question away. He's lying, but he's trying hard.
He asks what I do, and I tell him I'm in I.T., a corporate computer geek blah blah blah. My name is Ed. Ed Norton, like the actor.
"I.T.? Really?" John asks, accent gone entirely. "Where at?"
Liars, aren't we all.
I'd met John-No-Last-Name accidentally. The crush at Mao's bar had me pinned next to a beautiful girl, he was on the other side of the girl, and all three of us were trying to attract the notice of one of the overworked bartenders. The girl had won. Smoothly, John had used this opening to pay for her drink and his. Smoothly, the girl had said thank you, flashed her pearlies and extricated herself.
"American girls," John had said to no one in particular. I was there to hear it, though, and said I agreed as the bartender took my order for a Tsing Tao and presented John with a pinkish martini in a frosted glass. The drink was gay as a trivet, yet somehow suited him with his dark two-piece, fake accent, fake everything. No matter their pedigree, martinis suit anyone who holds them right -- and John handled his like James Bond's insanely jealous younger brother.
The crush was not the sort that Mao had attracted on any given weekday during its first month, or any weekend in its second. Those nights had been wild and extreme, humming with a live-wire buzz that let you know the minute you walked through Mao's grand front doors that you were somewhere, that you were entering the city's hot spot du jour, that this was the place, the moment, to be Denver-hip and Denver-pretty in a spot far more South Beach than Cherry Creek. Those nights had been a frivolous put-on of luxury and money, with girl-on-girl softcore on the flat-screen TVs (soon replaced by Hong Kong chop-socky kung fu flicks), eighty-year-old Captains of Industry bouncing the nineteen-year-old-daughters of trophy mistresses on their knees in the main dining room, and the leering portrait of a mass-murdering Socialist despot gazing out fondly over the heads of all the children of the revolution. Sure, the menu was a joke, the appetizers had tasted like rewarmed Applebee's, and I'm pretty sure I was nearly poisoned by the sushi -- but in those first months, no one was at Mao for the food.
By the time I returned on this Saturday night in mid-March, things had changed. Some. No longer the newest, no longer the hottest of hot spots, Mao still had a respectable four-month crush at the bar. The crowd was youngish and pretty, the fellas in their Saturday-night best, the ladies all catwalk fine, the mob dotted here and there with elder Creeksters still digging the luxe. But what had been an over-the-top freak show of blatant excess and bad behavior had mellowed, and now -- whether you were at the bar or settled in one of the high-backed red-leather booths or sitting at a dining-room table beside a floor-to-ceiling window with its view of nothing more impressive than the Village Inn across Columbine Street -- Mao felt like a very luxurious, very well-appointed restaurant where something naughty could happen at any moment. Not a very luxurious, very well-appointed, laser-lit, members-only Chinese swingers' bar where something naughty is actually happening right behind you. It was an improvement: In public places, potential naughty is always going to be better than actual naughty, unless, of course, the naughty is happening to you.
Anyway, it was a big enough crowd that it was easier to stay put than try to fight my way out. Which meant staying next to John for the time being. Which meant making friends.
"I.T.? Really?" he asks. "Where at?"
"Schwab," I say, thinking of the office I passed on my way into Mao. Turns out John-No-Last-Name, John the super-spy with the in-and-out accent, is an I.T. guy, too, at some company whose name means nothing to me. Now he wants to know if I like working for Schwab. I smile big, say sure, say it's better than not working at all, right? John wants to know if they're hiring and apologizes bashfully for the fake accent, which he says works a surprising amount of the time. "I'm working on it," he says. "Girls hear it and they're done."