Every Tuesday evening I go to my favorite noodle shop in the West Village and order a steaming bowl of Tom Yum Bouillabaisse and a glass of Thai red wine. Week after week my order is the same. I crave the tangy, spicy soup filled with baby clams, shrimp, and slivers of sweet scallop. After months of this ritual, the waitress now just asks with her trademark smile brightening her girlish face, “The usual?” Sometimes, if she’s busy, the chef lifts his glistening brow in a knowing nod to me and asks “tom yum?” and starts the soup before the order ticket is rung in. Then I settle into the red vinyl stool, maybe read a magazine, or just watch the cooks’ stir fry technique – a vigorous shaking of the wok and stirring of ingredients with a flat metal spatula.
When my dinner arrives, the first sip of the light tomato broth laced with lime and fish sauce restores me to a psychic place that is an effort to find on the disengaged streets of Manhattan – a place that feels like home.
My idea of home has changed dramatically over time. As a child it was the place where my parents lived. I wasn’t creating my own home, I was taking up space – like a sofa – until something better came along. Early adulthood was a cycle of dorm rooms and roommates until I graduated to the expected conclusion – a husband and a house with a yard. Life shaped me instead of the other way around, and I grew roots.
But homes can be broken, and roots can be transplanted. I moved to New York City – alone – in 2003 to make a fresh start. But I wasn’t prepared for a life that included twelve addresses in five years. My meaning of home was truly challenged. It no longer meant a stable roof over my head, or a driveway, or a yard. I craved a place where I felt comfortable, welcomed, and nourished. Was it even possible for me to find this home in a city that does its best to erase me?
Then I discovered my noodle shop. The brick walls and warm reddish light drew me in on a cold autumn evening. Through the steamed-up windows I could see several cooks in their short-sleeved white chef shirts doing the dance of the kitchen. I opened the door and heard the roaring whoosh of the wok. I smelled chiles and ginger and lime. I began to feel at home.
I took a seat at the long counter facing the kitchen. The chef barked an order to a cook who dropped a handful of squiggly rice noodles into a little mesh basket. He lowered it into a basin of hot water, like snakes slinking into a dark hole. After several squirts of sauces and a handful of vegetables, the cook slipped the noodles into the blazing hot wok with a wet crinkly sound. Moments later, the dish reached the diner next to me. He had ordered Tom Yum Bouillabaisse. And so would I.
I cherish my noodle shop. But I don’t want to keep it only for myself. A home is meant to be shared. I’ve had a few friends join me in my Tuesday evening ritual. Sometimes they order the Tom Yum Bouillabaisse, or sometimes a bowl with chunks of fatty pork or glistening slices of roast duck tossed with egg noodles. Still nothing compares to the nights I sit there alone, in the company of strangers, feeling taken care of inside and out.
*This essay originally appeared on www.eightmillionstories.com.