On this 15th anniversary of 9/11, I found myself thinking a lot about New York today: about the horrible events and all the people who died, yes, but mostly about how much I’ve gotten to love the city and look forward to seeing it, like a friend who’s survived an ugly attack but miraculously is back on her feet. She carries some scars, but she still has a brilliant smile and knows how to have fun when the moment arises. I also thought about my visit last New Year’s Eve to the September 11 Memorial and how sad it must be to be there today: it was sad when I went, even with partygoers from Times Square staggering around the reflective pools of the Memorial. And yet, you had to give the city kudos for pulling itself back together when things looked so hopeless.
During my last visit to New York I had the opportunity to visit the older neighborhoods of the city. Back in July, I contacted Andrea, author of the WordPress blog Jebus Mews & Andrea, who lives in New York, and asked if she’d like to meet up. She and I have a few things in common: an interest in history and old buildings, cemeteries, and their stories; travel and the outdoors; and a love of cats. We also both happen to be Asian American women with shared frustrations about tradition and a great enthusiasm for food. Especially food.
(I won’t lie, I always come back from New York carrying an extra five pounds because there is so much damn great food there. JetBlue ought to charge me a fee for the extra weight I put on their planes when I fly back to Cali.)
Happily, Andrea was game and even offered to give me a short tour of New York’s Chinatown, where she grew up. Being the good host, she suggested we meet up at a vegetarian (and kosher!) Chinese restaurant, Buddha Bodai, on Mulberry Street just a few blocks from the Canal Street station.
I hadn’t been to New York’s Chinatown in a long time. The one time I visited, back in the 70s, I signed up for a tour (‘Why?’ I ask my younger self) and was taken to this “traditional Confucian temple.” It was clear the people who ran the temple had remodeled the place for tourists: there were painted plywood cutouts of “traditional Chinese deities” in the lobby and a gift shop at the exit. I bought this set of porcelain horses, which I think Younger Daughter now has. We also ate at a “traditional world famous Chinese restaurant,” which was mediocre compared to the places I’d eaten at back in California. Looking back, I’m sure the guide got a kickback for taking us to this place, but I was probably the only person who realized the tour was mostly fake. My tablemates at the restaurant, tourists from Iowa (I had no idea where that was back then), asked me what to order. I told them the egg rolls and chicken chop suey looked good, then ordered the pork chow mein for myself. They loved their food; I felt disappointed and ripped off.
Anyway, I thought because I had been in the neighborhood once, it would be no big deal finding the Buddha Bodai restaurant, especially since I now had a smartphone and Google Maps. What I didn’t realize was that while some streets had remained almost the same as they had been back in the mid 1970s, others had been completely re-routed or rebuilt to allow for wider lanes and entry onto the Manhattan Bridge. Even some landmarks, like Columbus Park, had been fixed up beyond recognition: no junkies, no drunks lying on the grass, but with a new playground and remodeled community center.
Also, I noticed that there was one building that had Buddha Bodai’s address on it, but it was a mobile phone shop. Which seems to happen a lot in New York: I don’t know why, but it’s not unusual to find duplicate building numbers a few hundred feet from each other. Fortunately, Andrea found me standing haplessly in front of a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop, just half a block from the restaurant. She mentioned as we began walking that it was the oldest Haagen-Dazs shop in Manhattan. I knew I was in the presence of an expert, so I let her lead.
We talked a lot—about cats and travel and living in New York vs. living in California—so the food disappeared in kind of a blur. It was good and the portions huge: I ended up taking home my char siu bau and some of the fried rice that came with the meal. But I was eager to check out the neighborhood, so as soon as we paid for lunch, we hit the pavement.
While Chinese immigrants didn’t start arriving in Manhattan until the 1870s, the neighborhood they moved into happened to be part of New York’s oldest and most notorious area, the Five Points. For over a century it was where the most recent immigrants to the city lived: first English, then Irish, Germans, African American freemen, then Chinese. The movie “Gangs of New York” (which was filmed in Italy) gives a little overview of the violence, crime and gang activity in the area. It was also a culturally dense place, a neighborhood where different ethnic groups clashed, melded together, then claimed the city as their own. Columbus Park, where Irish and African dancers met to show off their moves, is said to be the birthplace of tap dancing.
It’s a bit unfortunate that the neighborhood has now become trendy among people looking for a “real, gritty New York neighborhood.” Andrea pointed out to me a number of old buildings that had been bought by real estate investors and nouveau riche wannabes and turned into luxury condos. Norman Reedus (that’s Daryl from The Walking Dead) bought a penthouse on top of an old industrial building (the white structure on top of that brick building in the picture). The neighborhood is still filled with Chinese markets, restaurants, and houseware stores, but looking at these changes, you have to wonder for how much longer.
It was hot and humid that afternoon: I found out later the weather service had issued a warning that there was a high risk of heat stroke for people working outdoors that day, and to drink lots of water and stay out of the sun. Which we weren’t doing at the time, though I was beginning to feel a little lightheaded. I told Andrea I needed to go indoors and sit inside an air-conditioned room for a bit. She suggested we go to Little Italy and look for something cold and sweet.
She took me to Ferrara’s Bakery & Cafe on Grand Street. I’m sorry I didn’t get any photos—Ferrara’s is a New York institution, known for its cannoli and other Italian delights. It was crowded and busy and I was going somewhat gaga over the noise and the display of cakes (so many many) and the AC not being very cold because the management left the doors wide open to the street for reasons that escape me. I chugged the iced tea, which wasn’t very icy—I guess it had all melted in the heat—and tried the sampler plate, which had teeny tiny cannoli, tiramisu, Neapolitan cake, and eclair. Each one was a bit of heaven and I wished I was able to order the full sized version of each one. I also knew I would be horribly sick afterwards, so I was good and stuck to the tiny cakes.
At that point Andrea’s husband Victor joined us. He wanted to go shopping at Di Palo’s Italian Cheese Shop while we were in the neighborhood, so we went.
They call it a cheese shop—their specialty is fresh mozzarella and ricotta—but the place is stuffed to the ceiling with everything good about Italian food: bread, smoked meats, pasta, olives, dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, desserts, and yeah, cheese. I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to try to bring food home in what might be a hot subway ride (thank dog, it wasn’t, the AC on the subway worked like a Frigidaire), but it made me wish I had a real kitchen at home so I could actually cook pasta and smother it in simple, delectable sauces.
At the subway station Andrea and I gave each other a hug—she and Victor were headed for Brooklyn, and I was off to Queens and my family—and promised we would meet up again. My head was still spinning from the heat, but I was happy too.