notes from the noodle nook

four types of pho customers

I’m sweaty. It’s only been 20 minutes since my shift started, but I’ve already somehow managed to pour steaming hot broth onto my gloved hand instead of into the bowl. But now there’s no one to serve, and time seems to slow down in here, inching along at an unbearable pace. I sigh and gather stray bits of carrot and scallion into my hand, and I toss them into the trash can along with my too-big glove in one practiced motion.

And then: a customer! A girl in a Brown hoodie and tattered, wide-legged trousers stands waiting on the other side of the glass. This is Andrews on a Thursday afternoon, and I am somewhere between melting to death and going mad with boredom. I toss a bundle of noodles into the water, crank up the heat to boiling, and throw in a handful of bean sprouts.

Through all my shifts at Andrews on the pho side of the eatery, I’ve had the chance to observe the students who come to get pho. In between random spikes of busyness and interminable dull stretches, in between requests for extra mushrooms and the occasional, apologetic “Could I get one with no bean sprouts?”, I’ve had ample time to sort these customers into four broad categories.

The first category of customer is the distracted or disengaged one. Distraction mainly results from phones and sometimes friends. Occasionally there are students who, even at the front of the line, have their heads bent over their screens as they scroll through Facebook events or Instagram or Canvas. I have to get their attention with a loud, “Hi! How can I help you?

While many students generally put their phones away while requesting their toppings, there are always those who say, “Scallions,” and go right back to scrolling. Then they glance up to say, “Uh, is that parsley?” about the cilantro. Other customers aren’t necessarily looking at their phones; they’ve got an earbud in and are talking to someone, which invariably leads to moments like, “Hang on, Mom—could I get beef?—Yeah, so, anyway…”

The second category is made up of people who aren’t distracted, aren’t disengaged, but talk so quietly I can barely hear them through the glass. The mumblers. Some of them hardly seem to be moving their lips at all.

I wonder, though, if I’ve ever been guilty of the same. Before I began working at Andrews, I didn’t understand why workers were always straining to hear when I, as a customer, could hear them perfectly well. But the world on the other side of the glass is entirely different. The unexpectedly loud sound of boiling water, some pan clanging in the kitchen, chefs joking around, music blasting overhead—the constant roaring noise leaves me trying to read mumblers’ lips. I shout, “Extra jalapeños?” and am met with frantic head shaking. No jalapeños. That’s a big difference. Mumblers, however, don’t seem to realize that they are virtually indecipherable to anyone but themselves. Sometimes they supplement their inaudible requests with vague gestures, and pho becomes a guessing game.

The third category of customer is the standard sort. The kind I have no complaints about. These are the people who speak loudly enough or use obvious, more effective gestures. Sometimes they’re chatting with other people, but they are paying enough attention that the line moves quickly enough. No one is exceptionally memorable in this category.

The fourth and final type of Andrews pho customer is the friendly, personable sort. These people are friendlier and kinder than mere politeness or courtesy calls for. They greet me like an old friend even though I don’t know a single one of them. They are the ones most likely to ask, “How are you?” and to make small talk about the terrors of exam season, the long weekend, the eternal rain. Sometimes they mention what they’re concentrating in or where they’re from.

Although these exchanges are essentially basic conversations between strangers, they have come to mean something to me. Pho can be very dull, very repetitive, and very hot. It’s the friendly small-talkers who break up the monotony and cheer me up. As I watch them walk away to the register, I realize they probably have no idea what kind of effect they’ve just had. Next week when they’re back, they probably won’t even recognize me, but often, I recall their faces, their personal tidbits. Small talk it may be, but it turns out that it can have bigger impacts than expected.

When my shift is over at last, I rip off my gloves and toss them into the trash can without a backwards glance. Good riddance! My hands can at last breathe a little. On my way to swipe out, I say goodbye to co-workers and try not to slip on the wet floor by the dishwasher. I walk back to my dorm to tackle all the readings awaiting me—but hours later, I’m suddenly yanked back into the world of Andrews when I catch a whiff of curry broth still lingering on my hands. I vow to never be a mumbler in the pho line.