Think a million times before you think you know the life of a Chinese takeout.
The summer mornings of our restaurant, Ten Full, are always quiet and dark. The windows, along with the front entrance, are shielded with metal plated gates and the vanguards of the rear entrance, a steel door and its old companion, an iron gate stand firm. No light breaks the darkness inside and the decaying heat from stoves, along with the heat exhaust of refrigerators, keeps the place stifling.
As 11 o’clock am, the opening time arrives, the block of 40th street is greeted by the crashing sounds of metal gates being flung open, revealing the restaurant underneath. Ten Full awakes from its slumber as my dad engages the exhaust fans and the familiar hum of them fills the place like a white noise. Chefs check in and say Liu Jiyeah, Fuzhounese for “good morning” and put on their stained aprons, round paper hats, and black shoes, stained by months, sometimes years of grease and food matter. Chopping blocks are brought out and the shing of the sound of butcher knives being sharpened is heard throughout the place. Whole chickens are sliced and gutted, chunks of pork are chopped, vegetables like broccoli and bot-choy are cut, crispy noodles are packed, and dumplings are folded into round shapes that, sometimes, look too perfectly shaped to be eaten.
By around 11:30 am, telephones begin to ring for deliveries. They add a new sound to the place with their obnoxiously familiar rings.
“Hi Ten Full Can I help you?”
“Chicken with Broccoli, Lunch Special with a coke, sir?”
Those kind orders are always heard and will never change. Ten Full is no stranger to Chicken with Broccoli. Lunch Special. Nor is it a stranger to Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Roast Pork Lo Mein, and Chicken Teriyaki. The trickle of customers into the restaurant turns to a steady stream of impatient people who anxiously wait to dig their forks into some Lunch Special. More and more calls come in, replacing the sounds of feet shuffling and fans humming with banging woks, roaring stoves, and more ringing phones. The oil of the fryers bubble furiously and overstuffed cartons of food are packed in a hasty pace. My mom and the half-reliable cashier are become overwhelmed at the height of the lunch time as receipts pile on top of receipts that have been put on top of other receipts. A small share of angry customers decides to call the takeout restaurant again.
“Where’s my order?” “I’m not paying for my food now.” “I ordered an hour ago.”
By around 4, the Lunch “hour” draws to a close. The stoves become vacated, the flames die down, and crunching of paper and plastic bags disappear. The sound of the exhaust fans is fills the ears once again. The chefs and cashiers take their break and sit in the dining area to finally enjoy the air-conditioning that never penetrates the heat of the kitchen, intensified by July weather. Their lunch time isn’t at noon, 1, or 2 o’clock but it’s their time to eat. They take off their hats to reveal the messy hat hair beneath and wipe their sweaty foreheads as they open a new pair of bamboo wood chopsticks and dig into their long awaited meal of rice porridge and pickled vegetables. My mom stays to attend the counter until they’re finished eating. About half an hour later she scoops a bowl of porridge for herself.
As 6 o’clock arrives, Ten Full is, once again, busy and full of noise. Customers driving home from work along 40th street and 48th ave and people walking down from the 40th Street 7-train station walk in to order their dinners. They come in with drained expressions or come talking about how bad their work day was. Teens, thirsty and hungry from basketball or hanging out also arrive to enjoy a plate of chicken wings or spare-ribs along with a chilled can of soda. My tired parents exchange food orders in Fuzhounese with the chefs in such a loud and forceful manner that customers sometimes ask if there is a fight that is about to happen. Chicken-this, Chicken-that, Egg Roll, Shrimp Roll, Spring Roll, Lo-Mein, Chow-Mein, Chow-Fun, Mai-Fun. Someone could drive themselves insane hearing those words over and over again. Sore forearms lift woks and Chinese spatulas over and over again to complete the dinner service. Garbage bags are filled to the brink and are triple layered to prevent the smelly juices from leaking and dishes, forks, and spoons, along with some old food matter, clutter the sinks.
The clock ticks away to 9 o’clock and Ten Full settles down once again.My parents and the employees finally eat their dinner meals just like how they eat the lunch-meals--- after “dinner time” is over. The air-conditioner is turned off and the door is opened. The cool air of the summer night, with its humid tinge, blows subtly into the takeout. The noise of conversation by the chefs about their brief lives at home and daytime fiascos fill the kitchen and customers come in an easily handled trickle. Dishes are washed all at once in great sink of bubbly water saturated with detergent. Floors are mopped, and woks and stoves are scrubbed down to remove the stubborn grease and old remnants of chicken, pork or other food matter that have made the cooking area their home throughout the day.
My parents call me down at around 10:45 to help me close the restaurant. I walk in and see the chefs and cashier take off their hats and aprons and walk out of the restaurant, hoping to get home quickly to enjoy an hour or two of the night. I proceeded to turn the fryers off. “All the way to the left”, my mom would always remind me as I turned the greasy dial till it read “0”. A couple of hopefuls, gasping for breath, rush in the place to try to get one last order before we close. I try to talk my dad out of taking their order but he refuses my request. The fact that we almost closed makes the order seem that much larger. This always happens. As the customer thanks us for the trouble and leaves I take out the locks. My parents hurriedly throw out the soups and broth, store away good food that can be used tomorrow, and disengage the exhaust fan. It’s steady whir dies down and the restaurant is suddenly truly quiet. It’s 11:10 pm. The policy is that we close at 11, but we always close later than that. The back door is shut then barricaded with a wooden plank. With my dad, I exit the restaurant through the front door and call my mom to hurry up as she doubles and triple checks that the gas is turned off. When she arrives outside, I pull the iron- gate down. The crashing sound of the gate closing resonates through the block of 40th street.