Title: Spring Rolls
Summary: A walk in the Night Market
Word count: 2994
Copyright © 2017 Dominic Dowson
Image in Public Domain
Ginger, green onions and soy sauce hit a hot pan, I can smell it. It’s not us though, we’ve got no kitchen.
The smell pulls me from my game and I look around; mid explosion, the room awash in cold-blue despite the digital red burn radiating from the screen.
James, my roommate, is in the, ‘unfinished room’ playing guitar. The rhythmic chug of the metal-punk beats like an artificial heart through the wall of our living room. Damn, but it makes a perfect soundtrack to the concrete-steel titan we call home.
They never finished our building; money problems I guess, so all the units under floor 300 have no kitchens. The, ‘unfinished room’ is where ours would have been; instead, it’s our patio: Poured concrete ending in a bundle of wires and exposed rusted rebar. The far wall’s just a gaping invitation to the outside. Some brick theirs up. We don’t. The view is awesome.
Black, colossus sized buildings obscure the view of the cityscape; but don’t look out. Look down. You can hear the faint beat of the night market from up here; even see the maze of lights burning through the ever present rain.
If you’ve ever braved that humid, living labyrinth; that crush of bodies and assault of the senses, you carry it with you forever, a tattoo of culture, a rite of passage.
I open the door to the, unfinished room, stepping over the cords for James’ amp and pedals. He finishes a chord with a flourish and turns to me eyebrow raised.
“I’m going down to get some food, want anything?” I ask.
James is Swedish, genetically anyway, so while I wear three layers and huddle from the wind, he wears a thin tshirt and a leather vest that hangs open. A cigarette adorns his mouth and the wind lifts his hair, throwing it around unceremoniously. James nods, pushing his glasses up, palms his guitar pick and pulls the cigarette from his mouth to grind it on the wall.
“Yeah, sure.” He says.
I help him load the amp back into his room. Instrument and electronics safe; boots and coats on, we step from our unit into a dim and musty hall.
Fluorescent tubes on motion sensors lie dying in the ceiling; as we walk by they wearily cough to life behind us, one sick flicker at a time. Some architect thought it clever to confine them behind thick glass covers where their glow slowly fades in a tomb of dust and dead flies. It’s such a chore to open the things that the bulbs are rarely changed, if ever.
We stop and wait, 6 elevators, always a gamble where to stand.
The elevators are mammoth things, the kind you see in airports for people with carts of luggage. The softly lit walls are dented and scarred, a ghostly outline on one shows where graffiti was wiped away with industrial chemicals.
“Do you know what you want?” James asks, the buzzing tube lights above hit his glasses showing bars of solid white before he moves his head.
“Mexican maybe?” I think out loud.
“Wanna split a Kam Pong Gi?” He suggests.
I can’t help but salivate at the thought of the small pieces of chicken in their sweet vinegar sauce, the hints of cilantro and hot pepper.
“Yeah.” I say; lost in the thought of it already.
We stop fourteen times before reaching the glowing green, ‘G’ then pile out with the other residents into the dark lobby.
The front doors of our building are long gone, as are the lights; on the floor gray tiles lie streaked with black, treacherously slippery. Outside, conflicting beats fall like artillery across a battlefield of scorching neon and warm rain. The smell of food and the energy of the crowd is an undertow pulling us out into the night market.
Along the sides of the street vendors raise their stalls from construction scraps and bamboo poles. Everywhere, ragged and filthy tarps sag under the weight of the rain they pool. Occasionally, a vendor reaches up with a pole and push the dirty water into a gap in the crowed; while above our heads legions of knotted wires cross back and forth as the booths share or steal power.
Each stall fights for attention in their own way: Music, dancing teens, cheap plastic LEDs or retouched photos half-lit from behind. Some even wire together floods: Artificial suns, heralded by K-Pop bass beats that rip the night asunder. The best though, have just a small area out of the rain. Three or four mismatched stools behind a tattered plastic curtain, splattered with black grime from a road so packed with pedestrians that vehicles are outlawed.
James, at six foot something strides ahead, his Viking build clearing a path for me through the ocean of people. Without control over our direction I turn to watch as fire erupts from a wok to my left. A middle aged cook in a black t-shirt throws a ladle of oil into his pan which crackles as it hits some trace of boiling water. The flame from his blasting propane burner catches the spattering oil raising a fiery phoenix before my eyes.
All part of the show.
He throws in hot peppers and soy, a ladle of a liquid red spice and immediately it begins to roil and pop becoming a thick glaze. A plastic fan behind the wok blows the smell into the crowed. The cook throws in some fried chicken as the scent of it reaches me. It smells spicy but with vinegary bite making my mouth water, I turn away as my stomach rumbles in acknowledgment.
We shuffle along in the drizzle silently, around us the blank expressions of patrons pass like ships in the night. I close one eye as we walk passed an actual storefront, fiercely bright, selling high end electronics.
Its windows are untouched by the dust and dirt of the street, a young associate polishes them even now. Another, muscles in khakis and a button up shirt, stands in the doorway. Arms crossed, paired with a stern expression: The guardian to a world of luxury. Their ceiling holds more bulbs than a hundred stalls, all fighting to keep the night at bay. They too though are obscured by cheap plastic sheeting as we move on, their lights now illuminating advertisements for tempura and gyoza.
And then we come within sight of our destination: “We also serve Poodles!” Well, that’s what we call it anyway. Its expensive yellow sign with bright red neon boasts to all that they do a brisk business. And they do too. With over thirty items on the menu their stall is an experienced exercise in the economics of efficiency. Two cooks stand on a raised platform before four woks. To their sides are tables with ingredients that are changed and replaced, restocked and reorganized by two older ladies. They receive the paper orders and provide the cooks with what they need, calling to them what it is they are to make and how much.
The front counter is operated by two teenage girls. They are attractive in a plain way but irresistible in their stern expressions and flawlessly executed service. We join the line letting people flow around us as the torrent pushes through to the transit station still blocks away.
“Large?” James asks.
“Yeah, with steamed rice and hot and sour.” I reply.
“Mmm I forgot about hot and sour-” James says, the rest of his words cut off as the crowed parts for two men carrying a pole on their shoulders, yelling for people to move. On the pole are barbecued ducks, sides of pork, ribs and chickens that are very, very yellow. They pass through and the crowd closes behind them.
“Hello.” The girl at the counter says to James, my attention swinging back to her. She wears a slightly over sized white paper hat. Her black hair is pulled back and tied, but a few strands have slipped their bonds and hang down in front of her face, framing it perfectly. She wears a red shirt with a white apron baring the words, “We Also Serve Noodles!” in bold defiance of the competition. Friendly, but purposeful; like she desires our order but does not need us or care for us beyond providing a meal that will surpass all our expectations.
“One large Kam Pong Gi, steamed rice, a large hot and sour soup and two cokes.” James says loudly, making sure to be heard accurately over the din of the crowed. It makes no difference, the girl taking our order is a master of her environment and knows her art well.
“One large Kam Pong Gi, steam rice, large hot and sour, two coke?” She confirms, looking up from a small paper pad where she is writing our order out of the rain.
“Yeah.” James replies.
“Anything else?” She asked coyly.
The question is a trap but I’m caught. My stomach empty, my senses assailed by the tang, burn and sweetness of the dishes. Everything looks like what I want and I envy every patron already eating their Pho or Bau. Behind her is a sign, largely advertising, ‘Two cold spring rolls for only $3 dollars’.
I cannot resist.
“And two cold spring rolls.” I add, pointing at the sign.
She doesn’t look. She knows.
“Anything else?” She asks again.
“That’s it.” James says.
Her fingers run over a register beside her, she types less items than we ordered but the total comes up seconds later. $19.80
“Nineteen dollars, eighty cents.” She says, almost before the display can register.
James hands her a twenty and waves off the change. Her face remains impassive as she gestures for us to wait to one side. She hands the written chit to the older woman on her left and then the printed receipt to the other teenage girl before looking up to take the next order.
We move over to join our fellow patrons also waiting for their orders.
The other teenage girl staples our printed receipt onto a red paper bag bearing the stall’s name before dropping in packets of chopsticks, forks, knives, spoons, napkins, fortune cookies, fish sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce and a small container of Kim Chi. She then fits in a piece of cardboard, cut from a packing box to provide a secure floor for the food containers. How many years has it taken them to master this art so completely?
“Hunan beef, fried rice, Udon, spring roll.” The girl calls, turning from our bag to grab aluminum containers a cook is filing on the small steel counter that separates their levels.
A lady in a large black raincoat with the hood up steps forward, her glasses are speckled with rain and she’s hunched over like she’s cold. The girl checks the items then puts them in one of the paper bags, layering cardboard where needed. Folding the top over she staples it twice and hands it to the lady who wordlessly takes the bag, protecting it like a newborn as she turns into the crowed to be swept out of sight.
“Pad Thai.” The girl calls, turning for another container, but my concentration has been stolen away.
Towards the end of the opposite row four men have just wheeled over a metal stall. Well, it’s not really a stall, that’s a bad description. It’s more a metal fire pit with a massive pig roasting and turning smoothly above glowing coals. They don’t even have a counter, just a plastic table with a money box and condiments.
I poke at the leather of James’ trench coat with my finger and point towards the beast. James nods appreciatively as we watch the first customer step up. He is greeted by a smiling man in a white hat, with a large brim, wearing an apron and wielding a very long curved knife. An assistant dressed similarly hands him a pita in silver foil; the man proceeds to cut meat from the rotating hog with practiced skill where it lands on the pita piling to excess. The assistant then dresses it with vegetables and sauces before wrapping it into a cone and handing it to the shocked customer with a wad of napkins and a smile. The customer mirrors the smile as he tries the savory meat; and the waiting line, who all have eyes on him, seem to relax a little as the next patron steps forward.
“Large Kam Pong Gi, steam rice, large hot and sour, two coke, spring roll.” Comes the temptress’ cry, pulling me back from thoughts of roasting pork as she carefully places our meal into the paper bag before us. James takes it and immediately brings it to his chest, holding it with two hands out of the rain, the way everyone does when they get their food.
For good reason.
Moments later a small man runs straight into him and shoves hard. A thief. Believe me, they are the worst. As soon as someone spots them the thief runs through the crowd pushing people out of their way. With fallen meals and enraged patrons the aggrieved party just can’t follow without the risk of a confrontation.
James is tall and agile though, yielding to the collision and turning to protect the food, he stumbles, catching himself on a passerby.
“Sorry.” He says to them, an older Asian man in a cloth trench coat and cap who looks back over his shoulder at the thief with a frown on his face.
“Are you ok?” I ask. Meaning James; but also the food.
“Yeah. Hope the soup didn’t spill.” James says turning back and continuing his way through the rain, back to the building. We are close to one of the other entrances, but as creatures of habit we head to our usual elevators instead. The building takes up the entire block but it’s easier to walk around than through.
Walking on the other side of the street now, we pass the opening of the fish vendors market. Not the eating kind, the collecting kind. It’s not my thing but they are amazing to look at.
As we pass I look down the lane leading into an aquatic world of cold watery lights and cool humid air. There are no bright signs or pumping beats. No one has hooked up industrial floods to a generator; no, this is a world where the lights wink like distant stars from behind bubbles, plants and scores of fish in all the colors and patterns imaginable. The two stalls that we pass at the end of the row sell nothing but goldfish. Large open tanks sit on display with hordes of the golden terrors in them. Some are massive and bulbous things, floating in the water, struggling to move with huge flowing fins trailing behind them. Others look like someone threw hot flickering coals into large plastic buckets: Featureless save for a torrent of bubbles roiling up from a device at the bottom and the twinkle of the golden embers dancing within.
“I’m good.” James says to someone beside him, tearing my attention from the fish.
I look over to see a man holding up packs of Camels from an old plastic bag.
“Ok, next time my friend. I will see you soon. Have a good night. God bless.” The man says, a dark mustache and a day’s worth of stubble betraying his heritage. Then he is gone. Off into the rain and neon after another regular, spotted but not yet courted.
I squint and cover one ear as we pass a stall booming the latest pop hits from Asia. Teens in much needed sunglasses and the latest fashions dance in front of industrial floods and amps with enough bass to make your organs feel bruised. A boy with gold aviators and makeup around his lips waves a handful of neon laminated cards in my face. Each one is an album available on a chip or to download direct to a device. Not my thing. I shake my head and keep walking, lasers dance around my feet. Don’t respond if you don’t want to buy. Anything else is haggling.
James shoves his way through the crowed to cross the street and we climb back up the steps and into the dark lobby. I wipe the rain from my hair, my hand coming away speckled with black from the ash in the air. I wipe it on my jeans. James hands me the food and wipes his glasses on his shirt. I hug the warmth against my chest as we wait for the elevator, the food smells so good.
As the elevator doors open we hear yelling inside and instinctively step back.
This happens sometimes.
The doors to the elevator open and a man stumbles out onto the lobby floor; his face bleeding where someone has hit him repeatedly. Another man holding a baseball bat stalks out of the elevator after him yelling something about his wife before kicking the first man to the ground again.
We sneak into the elevator behind him, followed by an older lady and let the doors close.
Only the one stop before our floor; it’s always faster when you’re going home.
Fixtures gasp back to life as we step into the hall and the darkness parts long enough for us to pass into the apartment. Locks click at the top and bottom of the door as we seal the world out behind us.
Back on the couch I make room for James and turn off my game.
“Want to see the fight from last night?” James asks.
“Sure.” I say with a smile as I take out our steaming food and split it between the containers.
I can still smell the cooking from a kitchen above us. Doesn’t matter anymore though.
I got my spring rolls.