Wednesday, May 16, 2007

An Anthropological Visit to a Neighborhood Where Preserved Cabbage with Pig's Blood is on the Menu

I took the train down to Grand Street, to go to a meeting on the Lower East Side, yesterday. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I was amazed to walk up the stairs from the subway and find myself in China. Every person was Chinese, almost every sign was in Chinese, every spoken word I heard was Chinese. The first couple of blocks – past Forsythe and Eldridge streets – were lined with food markets, their doors wide open. There were at least five fish markets. They had bins of whole fish on ice, pink and gray and blue, the color of coral and the color of the sky, razor clams bundled in rubber bands, mussels, milky white squid, giant clams, tuna the color of the ripest strawberries. Blue-claw crabs were $75 a bushel, and fish mongers were grabbing them with tongs and dropping them into a paper bag. Nearby, a whole roast duck was $8.25. The fruit and vegetable markets were crowded with shoppers. The sidewalks were mobbed.

I walked east into a warm wind and crossed Allen Street, which was divided by a paved esplanade. At Orchard and Ludlow Streets the neighborhood was not quite so Asian. On the north-south streets, apartments in the tenements were being renovated. Things widened at Essex Street. The tenements had been removed and replaced with housing projects and strip-mall like stores – low, one-story, uninteresting, set far back from the street. The sidewalks were still busy, the neighborhood was clean and seemed safe, but the neighborhood lacked the busyness and pleasant congestion of the blocks of tenements.

I walked almost as far as the site of my meeting, the Henry Street Settlement – just to make sure I knew where it was – and then headed back, turning north on Orchard and west on Delancey. Delancey was as broad and almost as busy as Houston Street, but with an esplanade down the middle. There was little action on the sidewalks. At Forsythe Street, the Sara D. Roosevelt Park was green and pleasant, wisteria blossoms hanging from vines. I turned south on Bowery and apparently entered the lighting district, because literally every shop sold lights and bulbs and fixtures.

Back on Grand, I came upon the Hester Street Playground, which is basically a southern extension of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park. It was mobbed with people, including a couple of dozen men and women playing handball against both sides of a big concrete handball wall. Next to the courts there was a confrontation. A young, angry man wearing a tee-shirt over his brown arms and shoulders was in the face of a young man who was carrying a video recorder and a young woman who was carrying sound equipment. They had apparently been filming the handball games. “I don’t care, man,” the angry guy said, “that’s real nosy.” I was 30 feet away, but there was enough menace in his voice to make me uncomfortable.

I moved on. On the next block a man who was not Asian or apparently of Asian descent was standing on the sidewalk talking rapidly in what sounded like Chinese. In front of him was a hand truck stacked with couple of copier paper boxes; another box was on the sidewalk next to him and on top was a stack of self-published booklets he was hawking called “New Immigrants Guide and Manual of Spoken American English.”

By now it was past 12:30. I still hadn’t eaten and my meeting was at 1. The sidewalks were crowded with people presumably looking for places to eat, but I managed to pick a restaurant that was completely empty. It was too late though to be choosy. I read the menu and decided to forego the preserved cabbage with pig’s blood, the pork intestines with soy bean sprouts, the lamb stomach with black pepper sauce, the duck’s palm with Chinese mushrooms, and the frog with ginger scallions. I ordered fish fillet and tofu, for $4.95. It came with a small soup that was too hot too eat, a bowl of white rice, and a stainless steel pot of green tea, some of which I poured into a tiny cup and let cool. The meal itself was chunks of fish lightly deep fried, pieces of very soft tofu also lightly deep fried, a few greens and a light brown sauce. It wasn’t bad but it was so hot that I had a hard time eating it before I had to leave.


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