Update: The Restaurant Pho Keene Won!
Sometimes, I’ll Look at the Comments on a news site’s story that I use as a source for a True story. Not very often, since most news comments are a vast wasteland, but the comments on one of the Pho Keene stories I read caught my eye. The top comment was, “Who knew that Keene lacked a sense of humor?” And there was one response: “Anyone that lives here.” Let’s start with the story, from True’s first issue of 2019:
Seems Keene city officials aren’t clear on New Hampshire’s official state motto: Live Free or Die.
I see both sides of this, including that Keene doesn’t want such a sign on the city-owned building, even if City Manager Dragon didn’t “get” the play on words until the last minute. If a presumably educated professional such as she doesn’t see it for months, just how offensive can it be?
And really: the restaurant’s Facebook page has had their logo (also shown below) posted since last February (and their web site’s domain name was registered in 2017!), so any protestations that they “didn’t know” the restaurant planned to use it fall flat.
If pho is pronounced “fuh,” what did the owner mean that when pronounced correctly, it doesn’t sound like a profanity? In Vietnamese, she says, pho is pronounced with an upward-lilting voice, so it’s more like “Pho? Keene Great”. Because, you know, the American-born are experts at foreign language pronunciation, especially Asian tonal languages. That argument falls pretty flat too.
Yesterday, Keene Sentinel columnist John McGauley said he “had to pronounce it out loud a half-dozen times before I got the play on words.” Not too good with words, John? Well, that can’t be it, considering this outstanding bit in his column:
No matter how you parse it, Keene fights so far above its weight when it comes to stupid, weird and strange stories that somehow manage to capture the spotlight. Remember the Free Staters and the great Parking Meter Wars? How about the cops being called out because a number of people spotted a giant walking vagina downtown?
Alas, he didn’t provide pictures of the latter, and I didn’t find any with a Google search either.
“It is discriminatory to say that a Vietnamese word, a popular food item combined with the name of our city is considered offensive,” Jolie complained. And then she “threw down a gauntlet,” McGauley said: Jolie says the fight could come down to a First Amendment free speech issue.
That set him off but good: “Cue the great American pastime of making everything a big deal, a threat to our Bill of Rights, lawsuits, an oh-so aggrieved party. Everything now has a ‘chilling’ effect on the First Amendment. I am so tired of that banal dance we do.”
Yep, Americans tend to overreact indeed. But a white male blowing off a minority’s claim of discrimination by whining it’s “that banal dance” (which, well, sounds like a big overreaction) ain’t gonna fly. I can hear the charges of “white privilege” all the way here in western Colorado, and it would be hard to say they’d be wrong.
Wisdom of Solomon?
But McGauley offers a “proposal” which he thinks “possesses the wisdom of Solomon.” First, he’d ask the city, “Why did you make this an issue? Can’t you just leave well enough alone? Hey, it’s a funny play on words; it’s not as if it’s spelled-out as you-know-what. Did some pinch-mouthed pantywaist complain, and if so, why did you have to listen to them? You made it a big story now. Have you never heard the expression ‘let sleeping dogs lie?’ If you spend my money to hire an attorney to fight this, shame on you.”
Which I can get behind.
But then, “To Isabelle Jolie: Shut up about your First Amendment rights and discrimination. We’re so tired of hearing about all that perpetually aggrieved crap. Open your restaurant with your play-on-words name and we’ll decide if it’s any good. You got a lot of publicity with your stunt, and you knew it was a stunt. You got what you wanted. End of meeting. End of issue. You can all go home now.”
Yeah, that sure is wise: “Shut up about your actual Constitutional rights already!” Uh huh. And his reaction if his column were, say, censored by a government official would be, “Yes sir: I’ll shut up. My rights aren’t important.”?! I’ll just bet.
And does he really think the city will let her open the restaurant with a big eye-catching sign on the city hall building with that name, especially considering the restaurant’s door is next to city hall’s? Not on your life — not when they have the police at their command. (Which is one of the big issues in racial discrimination lately, yaknow?) Unless, of course, there’s a big court battle first, which pretty much will have to be based on the First Amendment.
While “Pho Keene Great” might “sound” dirty to “some pinch-mouthed pantywaist,” the fact is, it’s not, and the city would lose that battle — but then Jolie (and by extension, her restaurant) will incur the wrath of taxpayers over the legal bills, just as he suggests. That’s a lose-lose, not a wise compromise.
(And in case you wondered, pantywaist means “a man or boy considered as childish, lacking in courage, effeminate, sissy.” It’s more of a slur that’s not really as germane to the situation as, say, prig might be.)
So, He Wants a Solomonic Solution? How’s this: both sides have a valid argument here, but the city’s is much weaker, especially since the words “Pho Keene Great” are on the lease signed — presumably by Dragon — last April, even before getting to that pesky First Amendment bit.
Thus I would suggest this compromise: outside, the sign outside says “P.K.G.” Inside, the placemats, T-shirts, and whatever else can spell it out in its full glory. Everyone gets to walk away happy, and we can all let the dog lie down and go back to sleep.
Update: City was Pho Keene Beaten Down
Pho Keene Great has their sign — with their full name spelled out in all its glory. It’s a few yards from, and slightly higher than, the City Hall sign. The restaurant leases its space from the city of Keene, N.H., in the same building that houses city offices.
“The sign was reviewed for color, size, all of the things we typically review for the zoning department,” said City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, admitting “it complies with all of the regulations.” She even went so far as to agree the restaurant’s name and logo do not violate city code, and “I’m excited to see what they might bring.” Considering they might have brought a lawsuit, this is a nice resolution.
The restaurant did have to change out the garish green, which is now only used as an accent. Otherwise the sign would considered too bright, and the city code prohibits “fluorescent signs,” which are defined as signs that reflect too much light. PKG owner Isabelle Jolie decided on a stylish black motif, which happens to go very well with the T-shirt they’ve offered all along, which has been selling like mad thanks to the controversy.
Is it shocking to learn that city officials don’t want anything in town that’s “too bright” by their standards?
But it is an interesting question. What does that mean? The city code spells it out in great detail: a fluorescent sign is defined one one “whose color reflects not only its own color, but also converts the shorter wavelengths into radiant energy causing them to appear three to four times as bright as ordinary color. These colors do not reflect light toward its source in the intense manner that reflectorized materials do, but rather in an amount similar to white painted surfaces.”
The code also prohibits “obscene signs” — but doesn’t go into any detail on what “obscene” means, making the prohibition very difficult to enforce in cases like this.
“They didn’t apologize,” Jolie said, referring to city officials.“But the city manager was gracious in her email to us, the one that was sent today approving of the sign.”
The restaurant missed its scheduled “soft opening” on March 1. Its web site now says its “working hard and diligently” to open on “March 8st.”
And how good do they promise their food will be? Why just “Pho Keene Great,” of course!
An Unrelated Update
Each year, I create a “Weirdest of the Year” document with the oddest, most telling story of each month of the year, and then I choose the “weirdest” of the year from that lineup. You can get 2018’s document with a free email subscription to This is True, which is highly recommended if you enjoyed this story. But if you really want it without having to subscribe, you can get it here (PDF, 119K):
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