Tuesday, November 22, 2016


(chinatown 3)
George Appo, or actually
'Quimbo Appo', was an
early Chinese-American,
pickpocket, criminal. He
wrote a sort of autobiography
which was so cribbed-like in
its style that someone else
eventually did it over, as a
pretty nice book. It's called,
'A Pickpocket's Tale, the
underworld of 19th century
New York.' By Timothy
Gilfoyle, 2006. Pretty
fascinating read, as I
recall. I used to know the
address (can't remember
it now, but know both the
location and the building)
where Appo lived, when
not jailed or in prison, and
I used to walk by there
when I could  -  just to
see it, and experience
vicariously some little
portion of his time and
place. It was untouched,
looking as if he could have
just left. That was Chinatown.
There's always a certain,
definitive, NYC steamroller
effect underway with all
the building and renovation,
tearing down and re-structuring,
going on, but one of the
things about Chinatown
was how little of that had
reached there. Once again,
not so much now  -  when
that steamroller has, even
there, reached so deeply
into everything  -  but then;
a lot of things had just
been left as they were,
whether to decay or not.
It was a unique, heady
atmosphere, as energetic
to the mind and soul as it
was lethargic to 'physical'
ideas of work and change.
Appo, also as I recall,
had one eye. The other
was a closed-up slit, the
eye having been lost in
a knife-fight or something.
It gave to his face an
an ever-so-slightly
twisted and affected
look. That was quite
typical of street-warfare
in any old area of Chinatown,
so I never got to the bottom
of the happening. If the
book makes mention, I
truly forget. The cool
history of Chinatown
was that they really
just didn't care  -  I
mean, about western
fashions and habit.
People with knived-faces
probably ran everywhere.
Chinatown had first been
Italian  -  all the first makings
of 'Little Italy' (now moved)  -
along the dangerous killing
fields of old Mulberry Bend,
a fierce slum area, along with
old Rutgers farm, and the
Collect ('Kahl-ect') Pond.
Cumulatively know as
'Five Points', and right
there with a brewery too,
the entire area was always
ripe for crime. If anyone
here has perhaps seen the
film 'Gangs of New York'.
from a book of that same
name by Herbert Asbury,
you'd know the feel and
scene. Later years, along
through the 1920's and
before had the entire area
cleaned up  -  the leather
shops and tanneries which
had befouled the clear waters
of the Collect Pond (the
original, Dutch word for
it had been 'Kaalcheck',
or something like that,
meaning 'Chalk Pond' or
Calcium, or somesuch;
later just rolled over into
'The Collect.' After the
farming years, after the
tanneries and leather shops,
after the years of neglect,
with dead animal carcasses
thrown in, dead and fetid
waters abounding, the
large inland area of water
was drained, most of the
really nasty crime removed.
Executions and hangings
there were halted, and it all
was used as area for the
construction of all those
municipal complex and
federal buildings, the
previously mentioned
Washington Park and
Confucius Plaza. The land  -
like the rest of the island  -
was leveled and built over.
Today only memories and
tales remain BUT the spirit
of all that once was there
still lives. A hundred ghost
versions of Quimbo Appo
a week go by.
I used Chinatown as another
dimension  -  which, for me,
it pretty much was. It afforded
another look at a culture, seen
from afar, that was as different
from the one I'd been used to as
as is chicken from pork : Each
of which was a mainstay of
the Chinese cuisine everywhere
here seen : roasted  -  golden and
bronzed  -  ducks hung by their
necks in every restaurant window.
Stacks of vegetables the likes of
which I'd never seen  -  spiked
and prickly, or hairy and deep
green, they were chopped and
trimmed with immediate need.
Chickens roasted, parts and
pieces immersed in various
Chinese sauces and glazes.
Certain weird and bizarre
delicacies could be had, 
such as the famed 'thousand
 year egg,' or 'hundred-year
egg', or pinar, or whatever 
they were called. some 
sort of pined and pickled 
egg, endlessly aged. I'd
see them around, though 
I never did see anyone eat 
one. Perhaps they were just
a Chinese joke. These
restaurants, on their walls,
in Mandarin Chinese characters,
had displayed entire other menus,
for locals and for Chinese
people  -  different prices too,
and lower. The regular menus
were for the Americans and
other guests. Little regard
for any niceties there. Locals
ate, it was said, where the
'real' food was the best  -
so look for a crowded place
filled with Chinese faces.
Or so the saying went.
A cool thing about Chinese
restaurants there was: as soon 
as patrons left the table where 
they'd been eating, whatever
tea they'd left behind, whether 
in their own cups or in the 
metal tea urn at the table, it
was overturned onto that
table by the waiter, and used
to wipe down the tabletop.
Then it was swabbed down 
and wiped with a cloth, and
ready for the next seating  -  
all in about 30 quick seconds.
Discursive conversations 
could be had, but most was 
the usual, 'let's eat cheaply,' 
dark, underworld dining 
of 1960's and 70's New 
York leftists. They abounded 
there. Whether it was the 
nearness of NYU, about 
15 blocks away, or the
Tombs  -  the massive 
criminal court and 
holding-pen jail for
all those arrested, or just
the general ambiance of
anguish and dissent, it was
there. The Mayflower Tea
House, or Parlor, whatever
it was, would get its share,
as well, of writers and poets.
Unlike the others, it also had 
a wall of counter-service
with really dark, great and 
heavy 30 cent coffee. It
was unbeatable. Ginsberg,
Corso, and all those other
guys of their crowd would
often be there, in twos or 
five, or hours. Coffee made
all the difference  -  I know
that's why I loved it, and
how I'd first stumbled in
there. You could have all
the tea in the world, and the
world's best Chinese tea too,
but it never got over being 
futzy and weak in my eyes.
It was for the ladies, dining.
I needed the coffee, and I
think the Mayflower people
knew that too  -  thus the
coffee counter. The whole
place was down, about 5 
steps beneath the sidewalk,
with a large set of windows, 
by which you could see 
feet passing by, or step 
out and watch the 
sidewalk, at your own
head-level, as people 
passed. Everyone still 
smoked, back then  -  
as they ate, at their 
seats, at the tables and 
counters. Even the crazy
waiters would, half the 
time, come to your table 
with a two inch ash
on the end of their 
cigarette which was 
at the end of their 
lips. Smoke was 
everywhere; and the
people passing by, 
outside, they smoked 
Over time I got to be 
friendly with a few of 
the waiters around. They
weren't really 'waiters' as
a waiter would be defined;
just more rather taut, defiant,
skinny, harsh local men
of middle-age with no 
other skill than smoking,
lurking about, and doing 
the required table-service.
Catherine Street, Mulberry,
Pell or Mott, wherever
these guys were, I got to
know them. I could eat
wildly for maybe six
dollars, and that was 
a lot. Up and down the
mad streets were import
shops : Chinese pencils, 
toys, play kites, cars,
glasses, harmonicas, 
slippers. Such a random
list perfectly fits  -  whatever
came off that import boat,
that week, was what was 
sold. Ray-guns, making
metallic noise, artist rulers,
with stamped measurements 
and messages too. There
were Chinese bookstalls,
radical political Mao Tse 
Tung details, newspapers, 
and statues and decorative 
objects. And then, too,
there were the Chinese 
chemists and herbalists
in their wide and open 
shops  -  cabinets, chairs,
charts, piles of strange
roots and mushrooms,
elixirs, pastes. You'd
find your cure : insomnia,
impotence, ague, skin
conditions, digestive ills,
bent bones and fingers, all
in the ground-up concoction
the 'chemist' would make
for you  -  with incense
and Tao-prayer, of a sort,
if requested. It was all
like no other place in the
world; or my world anyway,
which I was still making
up as I went along. New
days a'borning, and my 
table being swabbed 
with leftover tea.

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