There's a muffin shop right next to my building, and the proprietor is a petite Vietnamese woman with an incredible ability to multitask efficiently. She can prioritize tasks like no one I've ever seen; rarely do you have to wait while she fills lengthy orders. She's really good at getting people who just want OJ or coffee in and out while two others might be waiting for sandwiches, for example. Lots of people come and go without even having to tell her what they want. They walk up to the counter, she picks out their favorite bagel or donut, they pay her, and everyone gets back to business quickly, no nonsense.
I've been going there for years, and though we don't know each others' names, we chit-chat about this and that while she's making my coffee or sandwich. I know she was in a boat for 9 days when she left Vietnam in the '70s. I know there's a Vietnamese supermarket in the Tenderloin where she says I can get all the ingredients for the awesome spring rolls she makes. If I remember correctly, she hasn't been back to Vietnam since she left. It didn't sound like she wanted to go, either.
Her shop, which is nothing more than a hole in the wall, seems to contain an entire grocery store. You can get hardboiled eggs and cottage cheese, spaghetti and meatballs or a ham sandwich, bananas, oranges, cheese danishes... Once, as she made my sandwich, she kept offering me stuff to put on it. "Tomato? pickle? pepper?" I wanted it pretty plain. "Not even a little cilantro?" It was one final attempt to add some dignity to my sad turkey sandwich. I took her up on that one, and it made all the difference in the world. She has a sign that used to say "No change without any purchase" that has recently had the word "any" whited out so it sounds a little better. I have wondered who or why she made that edit. Was it one of her customers who suggested it? Or her teenage son who works in her shop during the summers?
The other day, I was waiting for my order, and I mentioned that I'd had a baby. I brought it up only because I realized I hadn't talked to her about my maternity leave, being pregnant, or having a baby.
She came out from behind the counter with a big smile and looked me up and down. I realized at this point, and not a minute sooner, that this was the first time either of us had stood side by side without the big refrigerated display case counter that fills most of her little shop between us. Before that, I'd never seen her legs. Throughout nine months of pregnancy, she'd never seen my body below the neck.
"You were pregnant?" she asked.
We both had a good laugh.