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“The Poconos or Put-in-Bay?” I waved two travel brochures in front of my good friend and restaurant chef, Peter Huang. My boyfriend, Adam, was planning a weekend getaway for my upcoming birthday and he’d left me in charge of location selection. The only problem was that I couldn’t make up my mind.
Peter and I, including many others from the surrounding community, were standing in a parking lot on a blocked-off Rockwell Avenue in preparation for the first Asian Night Market of the summer. Rockwell, between the two intersecting streets of East Twenty-first and East Twenty-fourth, was barricaded from traffic to host the weekly outdoor event from sunset until 11 P.M. Every Friday evening during the summer months, local businesses—some Asian and some not—set up a booth to display their merchandise or food.
And as restaurant manager of the Ho-Lee Noodle House, I, Lana Lee, was tasked with the duty—by my mother—to accompany Peter to at least seventy-five percent of the events.
Not that I minded in the least. Would I take hanging around outside on beautiful summer nights over being cooped up in our family’s restaurant? That would be a yes.
The evening was just beginning and the market wasn’t yet open to the public. Peter was busy prepping our rented grill and workstation while my job was to handle cash flow and take orders. He had given me specific instructions to not touch his grill, and without a fight, I complied. Instead, I busied myself with the travel brochures that Adam had passed on to me the other day. When it came to stuff like this, I was never good at making a decision.
“I don’t know, man, I’ve never been to either one before.” He leaned over the grill, and the black baseball cap that he always wore sat low, covering his eyes. “Flip a coin or something. That’s what I always do when I can’t decide.”
I grumbled at the colorful pamphlets in my hand. “I don’t know why he can’t pick where we’re going. It was his idea to begin with.”
Peter chuckled. “If you pick something lame, maybe he’ll pick something else.”
“Hmmm … not a bad idea…” I stuffed the brochures back in my purse underneath our workstation counter. As I stood up, a food truck pulled into the parking lot and maneuvered itself carefully near the fence adjacent to our location, next to two other trucks that had arrived earlier.
The truck nearest the stage sold bubble tea in every flavor known to man, and would be sure to bring long lines, especially in this heat. The truck that would now be in the middle spot sold barbecued meat on sticks. They also pulled in a lot of business since their product was so easy to carry while walking around the night market.
The current vehicle pulling in, Wonton on Wheels, was owned by Sandra and Ronnie Chow, who had been friends of my parents since I could remember. Sandra and Ronnie were always starting one business venture or another, but they were new to the food service industry.
It was only a little over a year ago that they’d jumped on the food truck bandwagon and, so far, it seemed to be going pretty well for them. Even though the married couple had been friends with my parents since I was little, they’d become more distant over the years and we hardly saw them anymore. My mother used to drag me to their house to play with their son, Calvin, who was only a few years older than me. I remember him being something of a bully. My dad would try to convince me that Calvin teased me because he liked me, but at that age I couldn’t have cared less. After all, boys were “yucky.”
Sandra, a rail-thin woman with sunken cheekbones and a sharp nose, hopped out of the passenger seat and inspected her husband’s parking job. After she’d made a loop around the vehicle, she stood near the driver’s side window and gave him a thumbs-up.
“Good thing we didn’t bother bringing any wontons with us,” Peter said, watching as the couple worked to set up their truck. “They’re totally going to steal the show.”
As far as Asian food trucks go, Wonton on Wheels was a genius idea if I’d ever seen one. They prepared wontons in a variety of ways: on skewers, as salad cups, fried, steamed, and of course, in soup. I had sampled a couple varieties myself … you know, for research, and found that I was a fan of their steamed wontons in chili sauce. Thinking about them made my mouth water.
I decided to focus on our station instead of drooling over wontons. Maybe at some point later in the night, I’d get the chance to slip away and grab myself a couple.
After the register portion of the booth was set up just the way I wanted it, I checked the time and noted there was about ten minutes left before the general public would be allowed through the barricades.
Sandra had wandered off from the food truck and was now standing at a booth diagonal to both of our spots. She was chatting up a woman who appeared to be peddling handmade jewelry. The woman locked eyes on me and waved me over. Sandra turned around to see who the woman was waving at and smiled when she realized it was me.
I smiled in return and waved, letting Peter know that I would be right back.
When I approached the jewelry stand, the woman came around to the front of her table and grabbed both of my hands. She was a petite woman with chubby cheeks that reminded me of my mother. “Waaaa … Lana Lee!” She leaned back and gave me a once-over, nodding in approval. “You are so grown-up now!”
I kept the smile on my face, unsure of what to say. I didn’t recognize this woman at all.
“You do not remember me, but I was good friends with your mother when you were a little girl. My name is Ruby.”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but it’s nice to meet you … again.”
“That’s okay.” Her eyes darted back to the Ho-Lee Noodle House booth. “Is Anna May here too? I bet she is a beautiful woman now.”
Anna May is my older sister and as far as I’m concerned she’s okay looking. “No, she’s working at the restaurant tonight, but I’ll be sure to tell her you said hi.”
Ruby pinched my cheek. “Your mother must be so proud of you.”
“I hope so…”
She stepped aside so Sandra and I could say hello.
“It is so nice to see you, Lana.” Sandra extended her hand. “It has been a very long time.”
Most of the older generation of Asians are opposed to hugging, but I can’t help it, I’m a hugger. I blame my dad for that one. So forgetting my manners, I wrapped my arms around Sandra. “Nice to see you too.”
Sandra winced as my arms squeezed her shoulders.
I jumped back. “Oh, I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay,” she replied apologetically. “I hurt my back this week. It is nothing serious.”
Ruby tsked. “You hurt your back … again?”
The two women exchanged a look that was lost on me.
“So…” I said, feeling slightly out of the loop. “Is this your first time at the night market?”
Both women nodded.
I inspected the table of jewelry Ruby had on display. “These are gorgeous.”
Organized in velvet trays were cloisonné earrings, jade bracelets, rings and necklaces made with opals, mother-of-pearl, and turquoise. She even had a selection of Chinese hairpins and hair combs.
“Thank you.” Ruby admired her table of accessories. “I make everything by hand.”
“Wow, really?” I studied the intricate beadwork on a pair of pearl earrings and wished I possessed the skill and patience to create something that delicate. “You should talk to Esther Chin about carrying some of these in her shop. I bet these would sell like crazy at the Village.”
Copyright © 2019 by Vivien Chien