If you canít judge a book by its cover, you canít judge a restaurant by its walls. Behind cracked concrete and neon graffiti, Mr. Chowís Good Eats had great food. I know because I worked the dinner shift there for four years and had eaten every dish on the menu.
I savored tender beef loins curled around broccoli flowers swimming in oyster sauce; supple chicken nuggets fried to golden perfection smothered with shiny sweet and sour sauce; crispy eggrolls filled with lettuce and shrimp, and the plump, Chinese donuts rolled in sugar. Thanks to Mr. Chowís generosity, each of my meals was free, which was the best about working in that hole-in-the-wall place in Chinatown, especially since I was a starving art student.
Mr. Chow was the chef, and he was usually busy in the kitchen. Around four in the afternoon, however, the time I clocked in everyday, he sat in the dining room to take a break and sip tea. He always greeted me with a wide smile, exposing yellow teeth. Mrs. Chow worked the cash register. Glued to it, really. Even when the restaurant had no business, she would open the register and count the bills again and again. I donít recall her ever greeting me when I came to work. Instead, she always glanced at the wall clock as I entered.
The restaurant never got busy until six. Then it became a mad house with Mrs. Chow clicking register keys, yelling orders to the kitchen and Mr. Chow cooking up a storm in front of a roaring fire, and the busboy/dishwasher running back and forth.
"Hurry! Hurry!" Mrs. Chow always yelled behind me for being the only calm one in the chaos. "Customer!"
Always yelling. She would also yell at me for not watching the front door. My absolute favorite insult of hers was "Dirty!" as she pointed at spots on the orange-colored tiled floor just after I mopped.
Despite Mrs. Chow, I still enjoyed working there. The customers were wonderful. Most of them came at least once a week, and I knew half of them on a first-name basis.
Frankie was a burly construction worker. He came in every Thursday night armed with his twins, followed by his wife. Frankie and his family liked to sit at the window booth, which was directly below a sign that read "children five or under eat for free." For the past three years, the twins had been four-years old.
Jeff was a law student at USF. He always wore Leviís and thick-rimmed glasses. He never failed to order a medium coke, cashew chicken and hot chocolate as dessert. He was polite enough to leave if there were new customers waiting for seats but when the restaurant was slow Jeff always stayed and read a book.
"Grisham?" I asked him once. He gave me a smile and showed me the cover.
"Sense and Sensibility," I nodded, "I love Jane Austin!"
Ada came in everyday. She always dressed up in bright outfits, looking as prim as if she were going to a fancy dinner party. Unlike Jeff, Ada never gave up her seat, not even if there were a line outside. On some days, she didnít even order any food. She just sat at her table, cupped her wrinkly hands around the teacup and watched others come and go. My opinion of the Chows increased each time they turned customers away rather than ask Ada to leave.
Whenever I let her, Ada talked my ears off! I knew everything from her husbandís untimely death and her disapproval of her sonís marrying a twenty-year old, to her secret stash of six thousand dollars in cash under the mattress. I didnít mind listening to her. It was nice to know that while I was hiding my past, someone was sharing theirs with no reservations.
Just after my third anniversary at Mr. Chowís Good Eats, Ada started repeating her stories. At first it wasnít obvious, but after a couple of months she was repeating everything and remembering nothing. One week, she wore the same suit everyday. Her hair was a mess and her fuchsia lipstick was smeared all over her face. After that day, we never saw her again.
On a foggy day in San Francisco, a few months after we learned of Adaís passing, I clocked in at the restaurant like any other night.
"Hello, Mr. Chow!" I waved as I entered the room.
"Christina! How are you?" Mr. Chow flashed a smile at me.
"Hello, Mrs. Chow!" I said, smiling as she glanced at the wall clock. It said ten to four. I was early.
Besides the owners, there was one customer in the restaurant. He was an older man with wavy salt-and-pepper-colored hair. In his tailored suit, he was obviously misplaced, and I was extremely annoyed, reminded of the world I was raised in, was trying to forget. Everything about him was repulsive Ė the expensive clothes, the leather shoes, the gold watch, the Burberry briefcaseÖI left that world behind three years ago and had not intended to ever go back.
"Customer," Mrs. Chow pointed at the man, "Go take his order!"
I pulled my hair in a ponytail and with reluctance walked over to him.
"Hi, my name is Christina. How are you doing today?"
"Fine." The customer replied, "And you?"
"Iím good. What would you like to drink?" I asked
"Water is fine," he replied with a quick glance at the water glass on the table.
"Our special today is chicken and broccoli for $8.95, and you get soup-of-the-day with that."
"Whatís your soup today?" He asked, smiling at me.
"Egg drop." Like always.
"Sounds good," he kept on smiling, "What else would you recommend?"
"UhÖI donít know. Everythingís good." I shrugged.
He ordered the special.
Other than him, the place was quiet. I finished my daily duties of filling the soy sauce bottles, making coffee and tea and wiping tables. Mrs. Chow decided to leave her perch at the cash register and give her husband some company during his tea time.
"Watch," she order me, pointing to the cash register.
So, I started sketching in my notebook next to the cash register to pass time. I daydreamed about how my sketches of fashion design would impress some executive at one of the big fashion companies on the West Coast.
Just when I was decorating a pair of boots with ornate details, I heard a chuckle right in front of me. Startled, I shut my notebook and looked up to see the customer.
"That is nice," he said, "those boots are great! You draw?"
"Obviously," I crossed my arms, swung my hip to the right, and raised an eye brow at him, "Are you done eating?"
"That was fast. Was everything okay?"
"Wonderful. Christina, you were right. Food was great."
I quickly scribbled the bill and handed it to him. The man didnít even look at the amount before pulling out his wallet. Along with a twenty, he gave me his business card.
"Whatís this?" I asked, even more irritated.
"Itís my business card."
"So maybe, in a long shot, you will call me for a date."
I rolled my eyes. "Mrs. Chow! Register!" And threw his business card into a basket full of other random business cards Mrs. Chow tended to collect.
Mrs. Chow hurried over and took care of the transaction, then returned to her husband. The man remained across from me at the register table, still smiling. I turned my head away for a second and turned back to him.
"Can I help you?" I asked
"Is that a tattoo behind your ear?"
"Yeah, isnít it obvious?"
"What is it?"
I crossed my arms again, looked into his face and noticed that his eyes were green like mine and his stare was genuine. I had no idea what prompted me to tell him my past, probably because every ounce of me doubted this rich guy would ever care or believe what I said. I uncrossed my arms, leaned forward, put my hands on the table and said in a calm voice, "My step-mom was an abusive bitch. She beat me all the time. One day, she burned me with a hot curling iron, right here next to my ear. And thatís why I got the tattoo, to cover my scar. Thatís what it is, a cover for my stupid scar, okay?"
The smile on his face evaporated quietly into compassion.
I blinked. "Itís okay. No one believed me! Not the police, not the neighbors, not any of the men in expensive suits that worked for my dad." I gave a shrug, "Itís okay."
And just as I was growing stone-faced and bitter, he laid his hand on mine, gave me a solid and serious look in the eyes, and whispered, "I believe you!"
With those three words he walked out the door. I slowly dipped my hand into the basket where Mrs. Chow kept random business cards and picked up the one he left for me.
Robert J. Prince, CEO, Prince Co. Enterprise