Monday, July 26, 2010
The Umbrellas of Chinatown
I was very happy to return to work today in spite of the Road Warriors’ wonderful week in Massachusetts. The weather today, after a weekend of thunder storms, was gorgeous, temperature in the 80s, humidity low, bright blue skies with some friendly white clouds. My officemate Michael is apparently still running the streets of Eastern Europe or the upper West Side, leaving the comfortably air-conditioned office to me alone. But it wasn’t these external factors that made me glad to return, it was my job. I like my job (drafting opinions for any one of 40-50 judges on the New York State Supreme Court, New York County), because of the wide variety of issues to be examined with the goal of producing a legally and factually sound decision. What it boils down to is, I was born to judge. I have opinions even where no opinions are called for. George H.W. Bush may have had his thousand points of light, I have my thousand points of view.
I had a modest lunch at Ken’s Asian Taste, the disarmingly named restaurant at 40 Bowery, which serves dim sum at lunch. Modest only in the number of dishes I had, shu mei, fish balls, shrimp dumplings, all steamed, nothing fried, $2 each and all high quality. I was also fortunate to witness a fight by 5 Chinese women over their check, full of pointing and grabbing and screeching and rising in indignation and sitting in indignation. The 8 feet that separated us gave me an excellent view of the bobbing and weaving, the feints and jabs that make for a first-rate check-grabbing battle.
Many of the Chinese women card players and women kibitzers (it is with some disappointment that I must report that kibitz and its variants are spelled with one “b” according to the spell check and, more authoritatively dictionary.com) in Columbus Park and many of the Chinese women pedestrians in Chinatown were carrying umbrellas on this particularly sunny day. This is not an unusual sight even on dimmer days. There are two explanations of why so many Chinese women deploy umbrellas to avoid exposure to the sun, the scientific Sinophile version and the cynical Sinophobe version. The scientific Sinophile version is based on the universal concern to avoid the damaging effects of the sun’s rays not only to the skin externally, but as a carcinogenic. The cynical Sinophobe version is based on the deeply-rooted ethnic stratification in Chinese society, which preceded the coming of Chairman Mao and gives every sign of lasting long after his departure for the Great Collective Farm in the Sky. China counts 56 ethnic groups in its population, but the Han Chinese, 90% of the population, are dominant. While not characterized by the ugliness displayed by higher Indian castes, the Han’s attitude towards other groups often exudes superiority. One characteristic that many of the minorities share is darker skin color, the result of their origins in or intermingling with other Asian populations. So, the seeming ease with which Han Chinese tan, and beautifully to my round eyes, is a threat to many Han women who don’t want to be mistaken for the cleaning woman.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
I walked into Fuleen Seafood Restaurant, 11 Division Street, without noticing where I was going. It was an inadvertent return visit which proved more than satisfactory when I ordered beef with orange flavor ($6 including soup, rice and tea). But, I was overcome with excitement in the middle of lunch that did not arise from the plate, rather from the section of the Sunday newspaper I was reading, two days late. I hurried back to my desk to write a letter to the editor in response, but the policies of the N*w Y**k T***s prevents me from disclosing what I wrote in advance of publication by them. Since the earliest my letter might appear is next Sunday (8/8) and this musing will be electronically disseminated one week earlier, I beg your indulgence even as I tease your imagination. I promise that I will reveal my thoughts next weekend regardless of whether the purported newspaper of record chooses to publish them.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
I was in a bright mood when I entered Xe Lua, Vietnamese Restaurant, 86 Mulberry Street. I had already had a conversation with a young man employed in the colorful shop at 44 Mulberry Street whom I stopped as he was returning to work. I had passed the store many times before and imagined that the brightly-colored papers figures in the window were toys, a dollhouse, a model boat, a jet plane, but I never looked carefully at other merchandise on display inside. Today I was able to get the story when the young man came up the block. This was not a toy store, it was Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies, Inc., strategically placed up the block from two prominent Chinese funeral parlors. Before he finished explaining, I saw the urns, shrouds and altars that would not be found in your typical Toys ‘R Us. The paper figures represented some possession, whim or yearning of the deceased. The paper jet plane, maybe 18" long, cost $45 and apparently is meant to be burned or interred with the Loved One.
With that in mind, I entered Xe Lua, 86 Mulberry Street, a narrow, very deep, busy restaurant decorated with a lot of real bamboo. I sat almost directly beneath a skylight from which a chandelier hung. The chandelier was made of empty beer bottles strung in and out with fairy lights. The menu was equally enjoyable with headings such as Under the Sea, Frog Style, Where is the Beef, Chicken Little and No Meat Allow. Even when the petite Vietnamese waitress suggested that the assorted appetizer platter ($14) was too much for one person (after all, she had only seen me sitting down) and I switched to rice pancakes with barbecued chicken ($10), I was cheery. I was even more so when I saw my boss walking out of the restaurant, although I was certain he had not seen me.
However, I did what I have not done before throughout this (ad)venture, I walked out of a restaurant without paying. Understand, I’m not a gonif. I wasn’t trying to stiff the waiters or the ownership. I left without paying because, after a half hour, no food arrived. The homemade ice lemon tea sweetened with a little honey ($2) had arrived immediately which had added to my cheeriness (which admittedly could be an ugly sight), but, nothing else came to my table for the next 20 minutes when an energetic waiter came to apologize for the delay, as did the original waitress, now resembling Mme. Nhu, about 5 minutes later. When the three young Vietnamese who sat down at the next table after I arrived, ordered, ate, paid their bill and left, I did the same, left that is. I had nursed my tea waiting for the food, so I had no qualms not paying for it either since most of it remained, although diluted in the long wait.
I hurried back to the courthouse, stopping to get a lamb/chicken combo over rice, with falafel ($7 including a can of Diet Pepsi), from Halal Harry at the corner of Worth & Centre Streets. When Michael (back from distant shores) returned to our office shortly after I did, I apologized for eating there and told him to await an explanation by blog.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
I returned briefly to a state of youthful reverie when I left the courthouse and crossed over to an open space opposite, which, lacking shade or seats, is usually occupied solely by skateboarders. Opposing demonstrations on immigration were underway. The Obamunist, French-talking, Hate-America-First, Welfare-cheating immigration supporters, the larger group, were mostly young, ethnically diverse and vocal. The Service Employees International Union, which I recall being a member of as a nightwatchman during college, was lending support. In opposition, there was an older, all-white group who, but for the grace of God, would be living in Arizona. This conflict itself did not restore my youthful juices. However, a solitary, tall, gray-haired, but not old like me, guy was waving a red flag with a yellow star and shouting at the immigration opponents (Illegal is not legal, read one sign) that they were capitalist tools, racists and imperialists. My heart sang. It was CCNY in 1960 and I was young, fifty pounds lighter, darker-haired, living at home, socially-stunted, smoking cigarettes, and without direct exposure to periodontics.
Friday, July 30, 2010
I’ll finish this week’s report with 3 brief recommendations.
I had great results from return visits to Hsin Wong Restaurant, 72 Bayard Street, and New Malaysia Restaurant, 46-48 Bowery Street, Chinatown Arcade # 28. At Hsin Wong, I had a very large portion of roast duck chow fun ($8.50); at New Malaysia, I had Roti Canai ($3.25), a cross between naan and a crepe with a peanut dipping sauce, and Nasi Lemak ($5.95), a mound of coconut-tinged white rice, two chunks of chicken on the bone and a piece of potato in a peanut-curry sauce, tiny anchovies sauteed in a spicy red sauce with onions, and (sorry Groucho) one hard-boiled egg. All the food was excellent, and the service very attentive.
On the southeast corner of Canal & Mulberry Streets, twice this week, I bought a box of ten doughnut peaches, the squashed kind, weighing near three pounds, for $2.50, sold at Whole Foods (where I almost never buy anything) at $2.99 a pound (on 7/30) and Fairway (where I buy almost everything we eat at home) at $3.99 a pound (on 7/31). After a day or two to ripen, they were great, very close in taste to a white peach. This stand is a reliable spot for high quality mangoes, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, navel oranges at low prices. Tell them you read about it in the Blog.