Once a week, Owen wakes up and gets really close to my face, grinning wildly. I say, “Good morning!” and he says, “Tofu. Tofu! TOFU!” And I know it’s a tofu day. We get our faces on (this involves coffee for me and a diaper change for him) and head down the nearest alley. We walk under the clotheslines, strung from crumbling walls, heavy with the thick winter wear of people who live in unheated spaces.
Maybe it is washing day, in which case the shared washing machine is out in the alleyway, lid-less and spinning the neighborhood’s underwear together. Groups of people work together to sort recycling (boxes stacked flat, ten feet high, and placed on the back of a motorbike, then carted slowly and precariously off for the refund). Men step out of doorways to spit their morning toothpaste into the storm drains. Kids play with halves of toys: a car with two wheels, a yo-yo with one side. They stare and yell “Hello!” and we wave back.
I nod as we pass by woman who sells eggs, hunched and huddled in her cold shop. We don’t need eggs today, but if we did, we would choose from her crates of blue duck eggs, brown chicken eggs, tiny white birds’ eggs, and another kind I cannot identify, all covered in shit smears. A man in a pleather jacket carooms around us, hollers a “Hello!” and disappears down the alley. We pass the restaurants that are no more than an umbrella, where you can point to a plate of sliced vegetables and have it wok-fried for your consumption in minutes. It’s early, and the owners are busy slicing, chopping, peeling, discarding, and arranging the raw food on plates. They eye me carefully, wondering silently if I want to eat. A few customers sit on short plastic stools, shoveling greasy rice and steaming vegetables into their mouths. The bun man looms. Owen gets excited and starts pointing, yelling, “Bun. Veggie. One. Man. Money.” [repeat] I get the hint and fish out 1 yuan (16 cents) to the man for a veggie baozi, which Owen starts in on while we make our way to the tofu seller.
The tofu seller is busy scaling a fish. His hands are bloody and cracked, dirty with coins and pesticides and fish guts. He sells vegetables and noodles from his shop, too. The tofu and noodles are delivered fresh daily, around 7:30 AM, and there is a crush of people now (a woman in a black cap, whom I recognize as the proprietor of the nearby Muslim noodle shop; old women with knit shopping bags shoving in front of each other). I hold my two coins tightly in my fingers, proffering them to the tofu seller, hoping he’ll choose me next. He does not. He is busy wiping blood from his hands and weighing onions and oranges for a thin old man in a baggy suit, hands clasped behind his bony back. I wait. We all wait. When my turn comes, he nods. He knows what I want, but I hold up my fingers in a “V” so it’s clear that I want “liang kuair doufu.” Two blocks. He lifts the cheesecloth from the fresh-pressed beancurd, revealing a 4-foot-by-2-foot slab cut into neat squares, and slips his fingers underneath the first cube. Lifts it gently into a plastic bag, goes back for another. He is careful not to break or dent the soft, beige square, and his filthy fingers leave no mark on the block. He works slowly, unharried by the waiting customers, peppers and cabbages in their hands for the weighing.
Owen plows through his steamed bun. I set the bag of tofu in the stroller’s back pocket, pay the tofu seller 2 kuai (32 cents), and we are on our way, back through the laundry-hung alley, towards home.