June 3, 2011
Any of you guys coming to NYC? If you are coming to the City (and to anyone who lives in Brooklyn, “the City” refers only to Manhattan- trust me, there’s history involved) the best part of the City to visit is Chinatown, and the best time to visit Chinatown is the 1970′s. So hop in your hot tub time machines and travel back with me to the era of the ABA, roller-disco, and dancing chickens.
When my Dad, Mr. Blog Sr., was young, he and his friends practically haunted Chinatown. There was not a dim sum joint or lo mein house he didn’t know. After my brother and I were born, it became our place too. At least a couple of times a month he’d take us into the City, usually well past the time Mom would have preferred us to be in bed, and we’d drive over the bridge into Chinatown.
Looking back, it was a really ballsy thing to do. Perhaps even stupid, though as a young kid I thought being up late in Chinatown was about the coolest thing in the world. Whatever you think of the crime rate in NYC today, ratchet it up a few powers of ten and you get the idea of NY in the 1970′s. And in Chinatown? Ratchet it up again and double it. Same for the garbage and filth. If you visit Chinatown today you may be struck by the horrible odor from the mountains of rotting garbage (and a lot of it is rotting fish) and you may also be struck- literally- by those same mounds of rotting garbage falling on you. Forty years ago? Worse. And remember- we were there late, after most of the tourists and decent folks had left. So there was the element of extreme danger but there was also the cool factor- we were up late, with our Dad, in Chinatown.
Even worse, Mom was waiting up for us at home and she was ready to kill all of us for being out so late. Most of the time we never even told her where we went or that would be the end for all of us. She still remembers the time that Dad took me for a ride to the airport to watch the planes take off (long before anyone had any idea of airport security) and we parked right by the fence at the end of the runway and watched. It got late (I was about eight so late probably meant around nine o’clock) and when we went to drive back the car wouldn’t start. Dad flagged someone down and we got a jump. A couple of hours later we drove back to Brooklyn and- trust me, this part really made Mom happy- we stopped for pizza before going home. Any wonder why hanging out with Dad was cool?
There was and to a lesser extent still is a mythical air about Chinatown. Unlike the rest of NYC it has not really gentrified, it hasn’t much evolved. There are shops selling strange-looking toys, stores with things you don’t recognize in the windows, restaurants with strange foods, and of course I never could speak the language so it was and still is very much like you’ve left New York. It is old and crowded. The streets are much too narrow for modern traffic, some of them meander at odd angles with odder curves. Try to park there? Don’t bother, you can’t. Chinatown has about 1/1000th of the parking spaces necessary and of the few that are there, the nearby courthouses hog most of them.
There was a mythical air about my Dad, too: He always got a parking spot in Chinatown. Always. And he knew the best places to buy illegal fireworks. As a kid, that amazed me. It was like- no, it really was- getting involved in some illicit operation. We’d pull up near the park, a guy would come over and ask us what we wanted, we’d give him the money, he’d leave and someone else would meet us at the other end of the block with a brown paper bag of fireworks. See why Chinatown was so cool for me in the 1970′s?
Chinatown was always a place of danger. My grandmother (on my mother’s side) once took the train to Manhattan for a job interview. She was teenager so this had to be the mid-1930′s. She got off in Chinatown and when she came out of the subway she found herself in the middle of a tong war. It was a total, violent, riot. Lucky for her a man saw her and took her into his shop to wait out the mayhem. So my family even has a cool Chinatown story. Who in your family has ever been in the middle of a tong war, hmm?
So Dad and brother and I had a history of going to Chinatown and we always went to the same restaurant, Hong Fat on Mott Street. Dad had been going there for decades and all the waiters knew him. No matter how crowded the little place was we never had to wait for a table. One night we were in there and at the center table there was a loud party of about seven or eight people. I had no idea who they were. Dad looked over and said “there’s Regis Philbin.” I had no clue who he was but I looked and there was Regis. He was really playing up the celebrity bit and was beaming a big cheesy grin to everyone in the place. Dad turned back and muttered “pinhead.” So to me Regis has always been Pinhead.
Another night in Hong Fat we were seated at the table in the window. It had no view except the filthy street but on this night we were treated to a parade of people coming and going into the barbershop in the basement below. The entrance was right below our window. As long as we sat there we saw people walking down the stairs and emerging a few minutes later counting money. We learned later on that just after we left the police raided it. The barbershop was a front for the local bookie. If we stayed a little longer we would have had a great view of the raid.
Hong Fat is long gone. One night, sometime in the late 80′s, Dad and I (my brother was at a scout meeting) drove into Chinatown for dinner. We parked and walked down Mott Street to the restaurant. Strangely, we found ourselves at the end of the block. Somehow we had walked right past the restaurant. So we walked back and, strangely, found ourselves at the other end of the block right where we started. We looked around, looked at each other, and looked around again. Right next to the restaurant was a newsstand where I bought my first copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and we found that easily but Hong Fat was gone, replaced by some sort of luggage store. And not only was Hong Fat gone, it was like it never existed. The luggage store looked about twenty years old. So there we were, standing on Mott street, me never having eaten anywhere but the now-gone Hong Fat and Dad, despite knowing every store and building in the area, never having eaten anywhere else in decades. We were totally lost and bewildered.
And if you go there today, the magazine shop is gone too.
We eventually found another restaurant, and it could only happen to Dad. He one day ran into a waiter from Hong Fat who told him of a place on Bayard Street where a lot of the old staff went and that became our place. It sounds like no big deal, a coincidence, but Dad knew and ran into everybody. I was once with him when he ran into a midget who worked at Luna Park in Coney Island, and that park closed before I was born.
I was once taking some students on a school trip into Manhattan and when we went over the Manhattan Bridge I looked down at Chinatown and got a wistful feeling and a lump in my throat. I miss Chinatown but I miss Dad more. I still get there sometimes but I take the train and it isn’t the same. Well, in many ways it is, but not in any of the ways that count.
I’ve even driven in a few times and you know what? I’m pretty lucky with the parking there too. I guess some of it rubbed off on me.