Benson Yee gave the old woman who was standing in front of him a warm smile. “Thank you for choosing Lotus Garden for your holiday party, Mrs. Singer. We’re looking forward to having the community center as our guests again this year.”
Mrs. Sylvia Singer was a regular customer of the unassuming little restaurant. Hidden away on one of San Francisco Chinatown’s narrow side streets and housed in a plain storefront, it wasn’t on the radar of the tourists who preferred to stroll along glitzy Grant Avenue. In a neighborhood filled with the usual dim sum parlors and Chinese restaurants, it was one of the few places that served vegan cuisine. Following a Buddhist tradition that stretched back to the Tang dynasty, No. 1 Lotus Garden was not your ordinary tofu-and-sprouts kind of eatery, and anyone who discovered the place treated it as if it were an elite club for only those who were worthy.
“We wouldn’t dream of having our get-together anywhere else; our members look forward to coming here every year. Even those of us who’ve moved away come back. It’s a tradition now.” Mrs. Singer paused and looked at Benson. “You look tired, Ben, are things going all right? Things are still on track for your studies, aren’t they?” she asked in a concerned voice.
“They’re going fine. I’ll be defending my thesis this spring. You probably won’t see me here very much after New Year’s. I still have lots of work to do before I’m ready.”
“Well, congratulations! You are such a hard worker. I’m going to miss you. Your mother must be very proud of you.”
“Thank you for saying that, Mrs. Singer,” Benson answered with a self-conscious smile and adjusted his glasses so they would ride a little higher on the bridge of his nose.
“I wish my son Josh was as ambitious as you. I love him with all my heart, and he’s a good son, but he’s got no focus. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. It’s my fault, I suppose; I had him late in life and spoiled him by never really pushing him. I’ll never get any grandchildren at this rate,” she finished with a little sigh.
Benson smiled sympathetically and handed over Mrs. Singer’s credit card receipt. “Some of us are just late bloomers. I’m sure Josh will make you proud one day. Thank you again, Mrs. Singer. I’ll talk to you again when you decide on the menu, and we’ll see everyone next month.”
Her business now concluded, Mrs. Singer adjusted her coat around her shoulders and stepped out into the chilly weather. Benson shook his head as he stood by the window and watched her go down the street. Mrs. Singer was always complaining about her son Josh, and it made Benson sad that a mother couldn’t speak of her son with pride.
“Ah, Benson. Ni dzo mut yeah, lan dzoi?” Benson turned toward the front door when he heard a voice speak to him in Cantonese. It was Stephen, one of the guys from the neighborhood, who was taking a friendly jab at him for standing around just staring out the window.
Benson answered back with equally good humor. “I am working hard. I’ve been on my feet since early this morning. If you weren’t so lazy, you wouldn’t be wandering around while everyone else is working.”
Undaunted, Stephen said cheerfully, “Hey, I’m working too. My Christian Mingles group from church is having a ski trip Christmas week. It’s for people who can’t get home to their families. We got a bus and everything. I came in here to see if you want to join us. We could use a few more guys to even things out. ”
“Thanks for asking, but I’m working on Christmas Day.” Benson’s family owned No. 1 Lotus Garden, and he had been helping out there since he was a teenager. To him, working on Christmas Day was no different than working on any other day. Nevertheless, he was glad that for once he had a genuine reason to turn down another one of Stephen’s attempts to get him to join his church. He had been using the excuse that he was too busy in the lab with his research, but it seemed a stretch, even for him, to use it as a reason for being occupied on Christmas.
“I don’t know, working on Christmas Day doesn’t seem right, dude. Well, there’s still time to get someone to cover for you. It’ll be fun! The camping trip we had last summer was a success. You know George, Mr. Fong’s son? He met his girlfriend there and he just popped the question to her over Thanksgiving,” Stephen reported proudly.
“I can’t. The Jewish Community Center booked two extra tables with us this year for Christmas Day. They’re our best customers. I’d better stick around.”
“Then you can come by the church for the Christmas show. It’s going to be really great, our choir’s been working extra hard this year.”
“Thanks, but I’m not into that kind of thing.”
Stephen made a clucking sound. “All work and no play. You’ll never meet a girl that way. If you’re not careful, your mother is going to fix you up with one of those mail-order brides from the old country. Well, if you change your mind about coming along on the trip, let me know,” Stephen said, giving Benson a friendly punch in the arm before leaving.