Monday, November 21, 2016


244. RICE 
(chinatown 2)
Trying to get this piece
going, on about Chinatown,
is like the Wright Brothers
first learning to fly. When
they began telling people
of their plans, it was,'Right,
brothers.' Then, only later
it was, 'Awright! Brothers!'
Chinatown was an allied
yet completely separate
fiefdom of New York City.
If you got there, you got
there, and the burden was
on you. It's much the same
today, but law enforcement
has, by comparison, gone
lock-down tight-crazy. What
once was anarchic, is not
now so much. (Red Hook,
Brooklyn was much the
same). Chinatown was
leftover streets, extra
spaces, voids with
mysterious passageways
and alleys down which
people disappeared. I
never knew where.
Funny extra story here;
much later, one year,
about 1985, I brought
my son and a friend of
his there. They'd wanted
to buy fireworks, cash
deals, off the streets,
where sellers lurked.
They had like forty
dollars with them,
and engaged a seller
in front of a building.
He led them, they
said, around a bend
and into a narrow
passage, to meet
another party for
'the deal.' They came
back ten minutes later,
with nothing. 'We
got mugged. He pulled
a knife, took our money,
and ran off.' They each
were crestfallen and
ashen. 'Chalk it up,
fellas, chalk it up.'
That's what I told
them as we slowly
left the scene.
I left off the previous
chapter with a trip to
the men's room, for
'draining the dragon'
in my friend's parlance.
In order to reach the
restrooms in this, oh
quite typical, restaurant
of Chinatown, one 
first had to wend one's
way through clustered
diners, and waiters. 
The waiters in a 
Chinese restaurant  -  
of the urban, 
Chinatown sort  -
are unique in their 
ways. They gather,
against walls, when
not busy, just 
watching. They 
seldom write things 
down until the very
end, when they have
perfect memory of
all that they've 
brought you, how 
many dishes, etc.
It's all precise, and
it gets amazing. There
was one place, called
'The Mayflower Tea 
House,' which was the
perfect exemplification
of this  - the same five 
guys, at all times, with
a perfect aggregate 
memory of even your 
last orders there. It was
quite possible there to
just say 'again,' and be
delivered exactly of what
you'd had on your last
visit. Within bounds, 
I guess  -  though 
maybe not.
These guys would 
seem preoccupied -   
with something. I 
cannot believe they 
would just have been
vacant. Each an 
abacus of mental 
precision, maybe,
in their heads, 
they watched as
you ate  -  it wasn't
just weird. Every 
so often you'd 
catch one watching. 
Then they'd go 
away. Then they'd 
come back. New 
patrons entering, 
they'd get a 
and finger motion, 
quickly, 'Three! 
Over here.' You
had to be sharp  -  
it all moved, 
quickly and
efficiently too.
Well, getting back 
to the rest-room. 
It was down a quite
steep stairway, steep
enough to have posted 
warnings, for women in
heels, for instance. It
was steep, yes, sometimes 
dark, often wet too, and
consisted of about 40 
stairs  -  I mean right
down to the deep. Two
tiny rooms, both basically
filthy and unkempt, and
poorly marked. Around
each were other, steamy,
doorways to whatever
other warren-like dens
of kitchen, cooking,
waste, and retrieval
by whatever means 
that happened. Pots, 
pans, baskets, bushels,
any of those things in
any array, littered the
area  -  along with, 
often, eggshells, the
head-tops of bok-choy, 
the litters of peas and 
greens, and then the 
obilgatory 50 lb. 
sacks of rice. Chinese,
unbleached, white 
rice. Unlike any of
today's million 
varieties of it, this
was soft, sticky,
Chinese white rice,
when cooked and
ladled out. Enough
to smother the world.
It was once said that
the rice was the reason
Chinese men were 
impotent by age 50;
they ate way too 
much of that. I 
always figured 
that bad idea was 
dreamed up by some
chubby, pimply
American guy 
chowing down 
on his fourth
Snickers bar 
for lunch. Talk
about impotent.
Chinatown had over 
it, on those cold, 
Winter nights, a 
cloud of real
as if you were 
sure to end up
far-off somewhere  
-  one of those 
cliched  'I've 
been Shanghai'd'
deals, (like I saw 
once on a 'Bonanza' 
TV episode; no joke).
Guys being hustled 
down alleys and 
onto wooden ramps 
leading to the river, 
and right into the 
working maw of
some well-strung
Trader-Joe steamer.
From certain corners,
one could smell and
hear the harbor  -  the
East River, not really
that far off. Piles of
freshly-caught fish,
recently deceased
and laid out on ice, 
were the front 
porches of each
fishmonger's cart
along the way. All
the pinks and strange
purples of 50 types 
of fish, just waiting
for fresh purchase.
Surprise. Anguish.
I felt it all.
The two most interesting
streets were Pell Street,
and Mott Street. There
were plenty of others too,
all of historic import. I 
think it was Pell Street, 
a curvy, nowhere stretch
simply connecting two 
other places, which was
the strangest. It was
very dangerous, vile,
and piled up with intrique
and mystery. About
1965, in fact, the US 
Government, in order 
to alleviate some  of 
the problem, took 
down a nasty stretch
of the street and built
a modern, up-to-date
post office, of grey
stone/granite. It really
looked crummy, just 
didn't fit in, and was
always a mess besides. 
I guess they figured any
form of 1960's brute
architecture could cover
a multitude of sins. 
Oh well. It's still there.
Both are, in fact  -  the
building AND the sins.
Around the corner some,
as well, along what once
was notorious Mulberry
Bend, through Five Points
and all that, they tore a
swath of old housing 
stock and put up some
'Confucius Park' or
'Washington Park' - or
some-such faux-patriotic 
localized name. Old-line
Mafia funeral homes
(Italian, from before the
Chinese arrivals) fronted 
it, still bearing those
long, vowel-rich names.
'Montegliore Funerales.'
There were probably
still hundreds of bodies
in the soil underfoot.
There weren't always
'funerals', you know;
just Italian justice.
In Chinatown there 
were still the echoes of
all those searing afterlives
of what had gone on
previous. It was scary,
some. I used to walk  -
often there were 
wet-clouds of cold 
air from the harbor;
they'd collect on late 
February nights and
make everything 
seem really strange.
Often I'd walk right
down, in that 
cold/wet/damp mist,
to the Staten Island
Ferry. Passing along
the financial area the
white, cold mist always
got even stronger.
I'd ride the ferry,
back and forth, 
all night, like it 
was my own, 
personal, five-cent 
Chinese junk.
(Back then, you
could pay once, all
of five cents, and 
stay on the same 
boat all night, just
going back and forth).
Guitar guys, bad 
singers, drug addicts, 
hookers, people
sleeping whatever 
'it' was, off; because
of 'security' now, even
though it's free, they
make you disembark
and get back on  -  most
often a different ferry  -
each trip. It dulls the
experience a little,
to be sure.

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