This (ad)venture offers other pleasures besides just eating lunch. Everyday, I encounter sights and sounds foreign even to the cosmopolitan reaches of the upper West Side. The shortest path to Mott Street, the traditional center of Chinatown, from my office cuts through Columbus Park, a city park/playground with basketball courts, concrete tables with embedded playing surfaces, a turf-covered playing field and equipment for the little kids. Every day, unless the weather is at its foulest, older Chinese people move like dancers silently doing their graceful exercises, while another group of black, brown and white, but not Chinese, men exercise on a sparse arrangement of horizontal and vertical iron bars, very evocative of a prison. The sight of handcuffed perps being led in and out of the Manhattan Detention Center (the Tombs familiarly), directly across from the park, strengthens this association.
Meanwhile, groups of Chinese men, three deep in some cases, surround the concrete tables watching and commenting on fiercely competitive Chinese chess games (or maybe this is the real Chinese checkers). The playing surface resembles a typical checkerboard, but it has a series of lines, straight or right angles, made of brass embedded in the squares. The moves, back and forth and sideways, elude me. Chinese only is spoken at these games, but I have no way of telling whether they are all speaking the same Chinese or whether each table attracts a different language group, e.g. Cantonese, Mandarin, Wu, Fukien or Hakka (for more see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language). Whatever they are speaking, players and spectators are very engaged and disputatious, in common with almost any group of urban dwellers out of doors regardless of native tongue. Card games, more likely conducted by Chinese women, are also going on. They seem to be playing a version of rummy, but I haven’t figured it out. Betting prevails. With very few exceptions, everyone watching or playing these games is my contemporary or older, if possible.
Emerging from Columbus Park, I enjoy walking the crowded sidewalks back and forth to the restaurants, with virtually every storefront in operation, many thrusting fresh fish, t-shirts, toys, vegetables, silk scarves and baseball caps into the path of pedestrians. Individual men approach you offering, not sensemilla as they might in other neighborhoods, but genuine counterfeit wristwatches. Signs on stores convey mystery, as with the promise of the “Best Hopia” available in six flavors at an establishment that also offers Butsi, Puto, Slopao and Ticoy. This is not your cheap humor based on typographical errors from Chinese restaurant menus. This is true opaqueness, no more than a mile from where my mother was born.