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December 11, 2011 / Katie

What Happens in Chinatown

photo by Guney Cuceloglu

On an ordinary weekday night I woke up at 2 am with a start and sat bolt upright in the midnight haze. The word “haze” doesn’t do justice to the sooty particles hanging in the air, the thick scent of smoke permeating the apartment. My roommate and I flung open our doors at the same moment as if we had telepathically sounded the alarm: “Do you smell smoke?”

We pulled on sweatshirts and slippers and dutifully woke up our buddhist neighbor. Did she smell the smoke? She politely dismissed our concerns while blinking sleepily in the hallway’s harsh florescent light. We hesitated over what to do next, but by then it was too late to turn back; there was no way we were going back to the haze to sleep without an “all clear” signal. The Grand Street fire only a year and a half before had taught us that lesson.

If there’s something strange

in your neighborhood,

who you gonna call?

The Chinatown Dragon Fighters, of course. We walked down the block and around the corner with a sense of mission to the Engine 9, Ladder 6 fire station and rang the doorbell. Hardly a second later a groggy fireman appeared at the door. Our story tumbled out in spurts–smoke, tenement building, Eldridge Street, fire!

My roomie and I had thought we could simply ask a fireman, singular, to check out our building. Nope. The Dragon Fighters go big or go home. *Alarm Bells Here* Firemen came running down the stairs in droves, pulling on hard hats and black flame-resistant trousers over their boxers and pjs. Four fire trucks rolled out of the station, sirens blaring, lights ablaze, filling up our short little block to capacity. A ladder from one of the trucks scaled up to the roof while several firemen ran into the building. We waited on the sidewalk, shivering in the late autumn chill. A skeptical fireman hung back by us. He shook his head and said with a surly drawl: “It’s food. You can smell it.” The neighbors stood watching from their balconies. The jury was still out.

After several minutes of anxious waiting, one of the more sanguine firemen came over to us to report the cause of all that smoke: a gambler [my word choice] on the second floor had tried to fry fish while plastered and ended up burning the hell out of it. “The man said he had been cooking, but I could tell he had been, you know… [drinking motion]. His breath stunk,” the fireman chuckled.

And just like that the Dragon Fighters packed up their gear and rolled their trucks back into the station. The night closed back in on Eldridge Street. The rats and the teenage dorks playing World of Warcraft in the 24-hour 网吧 were the only signs of life left. A hush fell over Chinatown.

Gambling Rings: 3, Foreign Devils: 0.


I went to work the next morning with sleep in my eyes but managed to shuffle through the day. By the time I got home that evening I was feeling a bit weary. I waited for the elevator in our foyer with the broken wall light. Stepping into the elevator I noticed a white crepe flower, its wire stem wrapped around the emergency “pull stop” button. I smiled to myself. A peace offering?

Living in Chinatown I have always had a love/hate relationship with the place. It’s dirty and crowded and stinks like fish guts. The gamblers who frequent our building look at me with surprise as if to say, “What is that white girl doing here?”

And yet, where else can I feel completely at home, like I blend in and belong with the throngs of black-haired heads? Where else can I make friends with the black buddhist monk who lives in the temple next door? Where else do I get to start the day by walking through a park where Chinese aunties practice dance aerobics and senior citizens move serenely through their tai chi regimen? Where else can I pick up a pork burger and bubble tea on my way home?

Only in Chinatown, where I fall asleep to the sound of mahjong tiles pitter-pattering like rain.

Chinatown never lets me forget who I am or where I came from. I love it all the more because, like all places we call home, I know that one day I will have to leave it behind. What happens in Chinatown, stays in Chinatown. And when you leave, you walk away only with what you can carry.

Part 1 | Part 2  | Part 3

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