When my friend Victoria asked if she could join me on my weekly excursion to NYC’s ever-expanding Chinatown, I was happy to have company. We both welcomed a leisurely stroll as the winter temperature had risen slightly even though the sun had disappeared into the clouds.
I usually take the direct route down the Bowery which is in itself a street in transformation with all the new and revolutionary buildings changing the once seedy landscape. Victoria wanted to shop for wool cloth on Orchard St. It had been at least six months since I had last walked that way and even back then it had been shocking how it was almost unrecognizable with all the gentrified changes it was now home to.
Orchard Street was the heart of the immigrant experience at the turn of the last century, known as the lower east side. Both of our grandparents had passed through its portals on their way up the American ladder. As a child, my parents would take us there from the suburbs for serious wholesale shopping and a corn beef sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen. Even back then the place was dirty and I dreaded having to use the bathroom. My father would load up on nails and plumbing supplies. My mother would get us our year’s supply of underwear and socks. To refresh our sagging energy after all that shopping, we’d get a delicious egg cream soda at a stand in front of Eckstein’s dry good store.
There are a few of the old-time holdouts still in business but mostly the old wholesale stores are now replaced with trendy boutiques and restaurants. One shop caught our attention. Outside it, bolts of cloth were piled up on a table: our welcome sign. It had that feel of the past. It was a bit chaotic. Fabric was lined up everywhere in no obvious order. The balding owner ignored us too. We caressed every bolt as we searched for woolens. Finally the owner approached us. When Victoria realized that the fabric that caught her fancy was pure cashmere and cost $50. a yard, her enthusiasm waned. The owner, with a thick accent, tried to show her more reasonable choices but she explained that she would return with the top that she wanted to match up. And we left.
Outside, back on Orchard St., Victoria turned to me and said, “That place reminds me of the way it used to be. That man is part of a dying breed.” I smiled. ” Actually, in his own way, that man is part of a wave of the future. He’s a Russian immigrant, probably Jewish but doing what he knows best.” Victoria looked at me. “How do you know he’s Russian?” “Well, there are so many Russian travelers in India these days, that I am very familiar with the accent.” She accepted this explanation and we continued walking until we hit Grand St.
“Come on. Let’s turn here.” I said. Years ago this street was very much a part of the lower east side shopping trail but now it is where Chinatown has usurped some of the old boundaries. Chinese owned businesses lined the streets. Victoria was tiring from all the walking and there were no egg cream stalls to help us out. “I need a coffee. How about you?” She asked. I noticed one of the ubiquitous Chinese bakeries and coffeee shops across the street. ” Look,there’s a Chinese bakery across the street. I love these places. And they have good coffee too.”
We crossed the street and entered another world. Because I am a lifestyle traveler, it is natural for me to seek out foreign communities in my own backyard. We opened the door and were greeted by a case of unusual looking pastries, though by now I have my favorites. On the back wall was a flat screen monitor showing a historical Chinese movie. The actors had the smoothest complexions and the blackest hair. Mostly men were seated at the tables near the pastry case, drinking coffee and speaking amiably amongst themselves. We passed on the pastries and got our coffees. I could see that Victoria was enchanted by the atmosphere.
We were the only Caucasian faces in the place. On the walls red and gold new year decorations still hung. The young women working behind the counter could easily have been actors in the period film that was playing in the background with their fine complexions and infectious high-pitched giggles. We lingered over our coffees and partook of that age-old ritual of afternoon tea (and coffee) with a friend and left refreshed.
When we reached the corner of Grand and Essex St., I was back where I usually shop. I took Victoria to one of my haunts where I usually buy scallions (4 bunches for $1.00) and broccoli and whatever else is fresh and well priced. By now I am a familiar face. I enjoy the recognition. I was welcomed by the Chinese man who works there. He said to me, “Your sister?” Referring to Victoria. I said,”No.” Then he said, “Same face.” I said, “Same mind.” And he laughed heartily. I was pleased to hear him laugh.
On Mott St. I showed Victoria where I buy mushrooms and snow peas. The worker outside is Mexican. He’s been there many years and now speaks a fair amount of Mandarin Chinese. We speak in Spanish. “Una libra de los champinones, por favor.” I say with pride. He does not allow you to hand-pick them. We move through the throngs. Victoria is amazed how crowded the streets are at this off hour during the week. Our last stop is the tofu lady. I always pick that up last because it is messy and wet and sometimes leaks if you aren’t careful. There is always a line in front of her stall. Again, we are the only white faces in the line. I get out my dollar bill. Four cakes cost $1.00. Victoria asks me about the difference between the cold tofu and the hot one steaming in a big cauldron in front of us. I am not sure. A woman behind us in heavily accented English says, “Cold one for cooking. Hot one for eating now.” I am pleased that she offers this explanation with such good intention: to help and inform.
Now we are back on the Bowery, walking back. I turn to Victoria. “I love shopping here. I miss Asia when I’m in NY and this helps to connect me in some small way.” She looks at me. “You know that shopping for food isn’t a minor connection. It’s something people have been doing forever. It’s a big connection.” Yes, I think Victoria is right. We continue walking home.