Across Jackson, there's a low, white, free-standing building with a hand-painted sign outside: Buù Diên. The cafe has been there for seven years, and was originally built as a gas station. It's just one small, old, low-key outpost in a neighborhood that's changing meteorically fast. Made up of three ramshackle rooms that at one time housed three separate businesses, the cafe is the only business left. People stop in throughout the day to get the bittersweet, smoky-tasting Vietnamese coffee, which--hot or icy--grips you like a squished oyster in its maniacal thrall. It's the fiercest coffee I've ever drunk, almost like taking No-Doz on top of coffee so that your mind careers in looping orbits ahead of you, until the city has been long asleep and is ready to rise again.
Often men come here alone to meet with friends, though during the school year, high school kids stop by in the late afternoon. Among misshapen, dusty stacks of tamarind candy, artichoke tea, and packets of dried jackfruit are the disenchanted, smoking, perhaps out-of-work men, white and Asian, who buy Lotto tickets one after another with patient repetition, while Vietnamese movie stars and singers pout from posters on the wall. It's a great place to sit and think. Even if you order coffee, the co-proprietor, Ms. Anh Tran, brings you tea too, in a cup so small it could be a doll's. The tasty, toasted French bread sandwiches that everyone eats here are half lost to crumbs that tumble onto the counters and the floor, before an intent man with an apron appears to clear them away. Behind the melange of snacks in the glass cases there are, for some reason, stacks of video rewinders for sale. An oversized, decrepit-looking pay phone sits on the dusty counter, functional or not. The place is scraggly--face it, I told myself a long time ago--but I have always gone back.
Ms. Tran's brother, Vu, describes the origins of the cafe, which he and his sister own with their parents. "Buù Diên means 'post office,'" he says. "We named the cafe this because it's a memory in our family. In Saigon, next to the main post office, there's a kiosk selling sandwiches and coffee, and everyone calls it 'Buù Diên.' Everyone goes there to meet; lots of high school students. Starting from the sixth grade, I went there every day of my life." Tran came to the U.S. in 1985. The post office kiosk is still going strong in Saigon, he says. "We miss our country, and we miss Saigon. That's why we used this name for our cafe."
The Saigon post office has inspired a very relaxed, chatty neighborhood place. One recent afternoon, a young woman came into the shop and ordered six sandwiches to go. Ms. Tran greeted her with familiarity:
"Hi!" the girl said.
Without a pause, Ms. Tran asked, "Are you married yet?"
It was funny to American ears, furiously direct.
On the same afternoon, Buù Diên's big-screen television was playing some kind of variety show taped from Vietnamese TV, which included a medley of songs from West Side Story. An all-Vietnamese cast sang and danced "America" in English, closely approximating the film version's number, except for the accents, and the costumes: Rather than a tight, button-down shirt, the Bernardo character was wearing a tunic embroidered with dragons.
Buù Diên is a place that might likely be sold and razed by the landlord someday, perhaps soon. The trend toward upscale properties in the ID is one factor, and another is simply that the overall success of Little Saigon means more competition for the Trans. Ms. Tran says she is worried, and that business has been dropping off because of the recent surge of new delis at the nearby corner. While she talks, her children play a tentative game of stepping on and off the parking lot curb on this blustery day, which, with its big clouds and sky colors, seems weighty with the threat or promise of change.
Across the street at the Saigon Bistro restaurant, the owner, Tam Nguyen, speaks about the changes in the neighborhood and the construction project next door to him, which he says will be a mixed-use structure, with office, retail, and residential space. "I'm not happy with it," he says. "It's too much development. We merchants don't know how to deal with the city politics, and I'm afraid I will get squeezed out."
Saigon Bistro also has a south and west view, and the little shopfronts below look rather ramshackle. Buù Diên appears tiny from this high viewpoint, like a toy below the sky. A bunch of sparrows dart past the window and over the Acme chicken processing plant. Rush hour traffic has thinned out, and a rat runs through the construction fence. Change is unstoppable in any city, and the effects are sometimes breathtaking, sometimes destructive. The rat turns around and runs the other way. This city seems stereoscopic with motion and expectation, as shop owners wait to see how these changes will affect them, and how the changes themselves will change.
A truck full of tomatoes is parked in Buù Diên's lot, its driver asleep, the door beside him open to give him a breeze. Behind the building, somebody from the street, maybe a veteran, has written messages in English and Laotian on cards and propped them on a window ledge: "Aim high!... All night long I could not sleep... because the world never was able to change."