Todd Heisler/The New York Times Ms. Yu manages to make repairs swiftly even though her fingers were damaged in a fire when she was a baby.
On a recent Saturday, Sandy Yu, protected by a red parka, was one of the few sidewalk vendors who showed up along a normally jammed Fifth Avenue commercial strip in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
“Battery change — how much?” asked a young woman, holding out her watch. “Five dollar,” said Ms. Yu, putting down her thermos.
Ms. Yu, 37, took her tools from a box of baby wipes. She plucked out the watch’s battery with tweezers, replaced it with a new one, cleaned the mechanism, then reset the time and calendar.
All this took Ms. Yu less than a minute — without the full use of her hands. Her fingers are fused together as a result of a childhood accident. The customer, who did not seem surprised by Ms. Yu’s speed, handed her a five-dollar bill, which Ms. Yu tucked into her shoulder bag.
For the past six years, Ms. Yu has set up her watch repair stand in the heart of a seven-block stretch of vendors, grilling corn and frying empanadas, selling jewelry and toys. She rarely moves from her chair, except when she’s tending to her children — washing her 3-year-old son’s hands, or brushing her 8-year-old daughter’s hair. Many passers-by know her: “Will you be here tomorrow?” one man asks, anxiously. “Twelve-thirty,” she replied.
She is there on summer days when the sidewalks are carnival-like — bags of cotton candy topping vendors’ carts like flags — and in the dead of winter, when people hurry past, heads down. For two dollars she does minor adjustments, like taking links off watchbands. For $10 she replaces watchbands and does simple repairs.
“Always, I want to be working,” she said. She sets up her stand even if it’s raining. “If I’m working, I still have a hope” the day will clear, she explains in halting English.
Some people have told Ms. Yu that there is a stigma attached to working outdoors on the street. But, she said, “I am not ashamed. My job is so flexible.’’
If her children are sick, for instance, she can stay home with them. And she likes the independence: “I work alone.” She lives nearby with her husband, David Hu, 41, who operates his own watch repair stand on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, and their three children. The couple came here from China in 2003.
Ms. Yu learned her craft from her husband, who owned a clothing and jewelry store in Guangzhou. Before they met, he had become “interested in watches,” she said, “and bought a lot of books” on the subject. “If someone had an old watch that was broken, he would buy it. Little by little, he start to know it, to organize it.”
She sometimes shopped at his store. “I noticed him,” she said about her future husband, a shy, handsome man. “We talked a little bit.” Her friends encouraged her to try to meet him. She was not interested, but one day a friend took her watch to the shop for repairs. When it came back, there were two small hearts clipped onto it.
Recently, a woman in a brilliant blue sari handed Ms. Yu a gold watch for a battery change. “What happened to your hands?” she asked. ”I was in a fire,” Ms. Yu said. Later, she explained: When she was about 8 months old, her grandmother put her close to a primitive stove in her family’s farmhouse kitchen. It was filled with burning hay. “The fire came near where I was sitting,” she said. Burns covered her face and hands. When her family took her to the village doctor, “he put my fingers together,” she said, reshaping her hands.
It wasn’t until 2003, as part of her visa application, that she had a medical exam. “The doctor said they should have separated my fingers,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I’d have more fingers to use. They made a big mistake.”
Ms. Yu rarely has a chance to speak English beyond her brief contact with customers. “I learned English from doing homework with my older son,” she said. She also studied intermittently at the Brooklyn Chinese Association, and said she hoped to go back to school and get a high school equivalency diploma when her children are older. She worries that her vocabulary is shrinking: “Since I stop studying English,” she said. “I lose, lose, lose.”
She and Mr. Hu have lived in Sunset Park since they arrived from China. “Everybody knows me,” she said. “This neighborhood is always lucky: We didn’t get the hurricane, or the one before that.”
The light was fading. Soon she would pack up her watch repair stand, load it onto a dolly and wheel it home. “There may be a better place,” she said, but “for now, I am satisfied.”