Monday, September 04, 2006

cafe viet nam

“Find a good place to wait,” he said on my cell phone. “I’ll be another half hour.”

“See you soon then.”

I peeled off the long-sleeve cotton over layer, a second layer of white linen, and folded the bright sarong I was using as a shawl. The inside of the bus was still too cold, as the passengers slowly gathered their bags and worked their way out into the night. The outside air seemed not to have cooled a bit since midday. How long before I sweat through all of my clothes and into the padding of my backpack, all over again?

The ticket was still in my skirt pocket: Lucky Star Express Bus, fifteen dollars. Keep your receipt! The tenth ride is free! Now there’s a thought. Only four hours to bullet down the highway from Boston to New York. I tucked the ticket back into my pocket and wondered how long before I lost track of it. I followed the line down the steps into the smell of heat and bus exhaust and garbage. I don’t like this kind of summer heat, and the smell is overwhelming—none-the-less I find a smile creeping up my face.

“Made it this far,” I whisper to myself."DC, tomorrow."

Like the Fung Wah bus, the Lucky Star drops on a corner of Chinatown. Both "Chinatown-to-Chinatown" bus lines use luxury charter buses. Both are, as they say in Boston, wicked fast. Unlike the Fung Wah, at least the Lucky Star stops on a side street, not on an exposed major intersection, and there is one lone street bench where the forty riders collect themselves and their baggage. A small tribe of elderly Asian women appear to be in charge of the tiny bus office and the luggage removal. The driver ducks into the office to pick up his next roster of passengers.

I’ve already traveled the circuit of heat sickness today, beginning with the walk to the two-thirty train—three blocks with no shade except the overpass and my straw sun hat, me carrying my book bag, my messenger bag, and a tote bag. They seemed light when I packed them. They don’t seem light as I carry them. Then the Boston subway system, then the bus terminal at South Station and the shift from too, too hot, to too, too cold. Now too hot again.

A surprise wind scatters papers and leaves, and a flash of lightning illuminates the small park across the street. Hundreds of people sit in the heat of the night. I cross the street to see what’s up. I see, then, the recessed playground where children scramble, while adults and teenagers chat without excess movement. I imagine hot apartments where children have been cooped up all day to avoid the heat, waiting for “the cool of the night,” but there is still no cool, here.

I peek around a building and see another green space filled with hundreds of people sitting near a fountain, chatting in small groups. Just past them is a beautiful view of that stone archway, and now I know I’m close to the river that separates Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s the only landmark I know in all of Chinatown, and even then, I don’t know its name. I scan the block— I have just barely avoided heat-sickness, and I know I need to eat, though I have no real appetite. There are no outdoor vendors. No signs in English. And another lightning flash and thunderclap nearby fails to move anyone. I turn back to the street corner with the street bench/bus office—and I see a brightly-lit storefront right around the corner. Café VietNam! Once again, I feel a smile pulling at the corners of my mouth. Is there anything I’d like more?

Café VietNam is not air conditioned, but a strong fan blows directly onto the empty table by the window. The proprietor seems like an old friend I’ve never met, someone from another time. He fills an old-fashioned plastic glass with ice water and hands me a menu.

“Do you have spring rolls?” I ask.

“Yes, but that will take a half an hour to fry. We make everything fresh—you are waiting for your ride?”

“Wait—What I’m looking for is cold. What do you call cold wrapped rolls?”

“Oh! Summer rolls—you want summer rolls? That is a good choice tonight.” I look at the menu again. Three dollars and fifty cents!

“Yes. Summer rolls. That is exactly what I want.”

“I make the peanut sauce, myself,” says the proprietor.

We watch another lightening flash, and he turns to the kitchen as a downpour erupts in the street, the hundreds of people scattering, back to their homes, perhaps. Some people don’t hurry—the muscled dark-skinned man with a roll of copper tubing over his shoulder carries his burden as lightly as a handbag. An elderly Chinese woman laughs as she wheels a hand-truck filled with boxes of cabbage. I worry about the bicyclers— helmetless on this dreadful-hot night, and now in a downpour. Two groups of teenagers stumble in the door, laughing, and without asking, the proprietor brings them cold glasses of some sort of milky-looking drink from the cooler, like the waitresses back home would automatically bring some customers icy bottles of Coke. I open the hard cover book from my messenger bag.

He arrives next with two of the most beautiful summer rolls I have ever seen—three large pink shrimp show against the green of lettuces, cilantro and mint, chilled rice noodles, held together with translucent rice paper. Sprigs of lemon grass adorn the rolls. And the peanut sauce is amazing. I pay at the counter, explaining my ride might arrive any minute, and he nods, and comes to fill my water glass again. My ride calls—he is lost somewhere in Manhattan, driving in lightning and a rainstorm. It will be awhile.

I settle in with my book, and the proprietor refills my glass with ice water and assurances. “You stay. You stay as long as you need.” I’m so relieved I don’t notice the hour that passes, the customers dwindling, the young man with the mop. “It’s nine-forty-five, miss. We are closing.” I pack up, apologetically, leaving a generous tip for a four dollar meal whose taste I will remember affectionately for the rest of my life. I make my way into the steamy, still wet streets, finding the next place to wait for my ride.

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