You are the owner of this article.

City, tenant are making a big deal out of nothing, by John McGauley

I’d be an incompetent columnist (no comments, please), if I didn’t bring up the controversy over the name of the yet-to-be-opened French/Vietnamese restaurant that will sit next to City Hall — Pho Keene Great.

The Pho is pronounced “fuh” in Vietnamese, the owner explained. I had to pronounce it out loud a half-dozen times before I got the play on words. It’s like those vanity license plates that you read that have double meanings.

But how can you know it’s Pho Keene Great before it’s even served a single meal?

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? How about the unsolved murder on Pearl Street that led to the discovery of a web-based bestiality ring?

Brattleboro play-acts like it’s offbeat, but it can’t hold a candle to Keene, which beneath its seemingly white-bread appearance is more like the bizarre “Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.”

Now, Pho Keene Great will supposedly open in March at 11 Central Square. The City of Keene owns the building, so it’s the landlord.

Here’s how the story unfolded. The owner of the restaurant, Isabelle Jolie, placed a “coming soon” sign in the window of the Central Square space with a business logo and name on Dec. 21. In a Facebook message, Jolie wrote that City Manager Elizabeth Dragon called her and asked her to remove the sign, citing a contract violation as well as “a concern about the appropriateness of the ‘intended play on words’ on a city building.” Dragon told The Sentinel she asked Jolie to remove the sign because the business lease with the city requires it to get permission before putting up signs, and noted that the lease wording is more restrictive than Keene’s sign ordinance.

Jolie took the sign down, saying it was a good-faith gesture and wants to work with the city, but contended that the name wasn’t obscene if the “pho” is pronounced with the Vietnamese language’s proper upward inflection, as if asking a question.

Then Jolie threw down a gauntlet. It’s a potential First Amendment issue and “It is discriminatory to say that a Vietnamese word, a popular food item combined with the name of our city is considered offensive,” she wrote on Facebook.

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.

The story now has legs for the next year. Everybody will lawyer up. The Free Staters will awaken, clean up the front porch of their house in Keene, and mount another campaign against the encroachments by our fascist local government. The Associated Press has already picked up the story; it’s gone national. I’ve already received emails and texts from friends who saw the story in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York. Television coverage will follow.

Reportedly, the city manager and Jolie were going to meet Jan. 11 to discuss the matter. But Jolie postponed, and has said she has no intention of changing the name of the restaurant.

Now, here’s my proposal, and I think it possesses the wisdom of Solomon. The City of Keene is owned by its taxpayers and citizens; can I get agreement on that? I’m a Keene taxpayer and citizen, so by proxy that makes me part landlord of that property, correct? So, I believe that us landlords should be entitled to attend that eventual meeting.

It’s our business, right?

And here’s what I want to say at that meeting, as part-owner of the City of Keene, and partial landlord of the property:

To the City of Keene, which I partly own: “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.”

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.

The City of Keene has a much bigger issue to deal with, like singlehandedly reversing global warming. Oh, yeah, and maybe repairing some potholes.

John McGauley, an author and local radio talk-show host, writes from Keene.

Latest e-Edition