CHINATOWN, NYC (40° N, 73° W)
Midnight is near; coming or going, I don’t know which. My phone is an inoperable dark mass good for no more than reflecting the brake lights of taxi cabs and the neon signs of Chinatown. The streets are vibrant with commerce as vendors hawk to passersby whose gaits vary on the frenzied spectrum between frenetic and frantic. Mr. Li’s shop waits lurking in this jungle with its mouth agape. Under the rolled shutter doors and past the threshold into the store dim bulbs cast shadows of uncanny darkness. Walls are lined with jars filled with sands of distant earth. Tables hold cabbage, exotic fruits & roots and displays of cheap knives. Beyond the tangible sundries and produce, I am told intangibles are for sale. Mr. Li, they say, sells answers and often they come in the liquid form.
Past the stacked dishware and hanging lanterns, there is a wooden bar with egg-crate stools. On one seat sits George who came west of the Lower East Side in search of a cure to meaninglessness. On another seat is Raul who descended from Lower Manhattan in search of an increased libido. Raul is in slacks and a dress-shirt with rolled-sleeves while meaningless George is in a track suit with a stiff baseball cap. Intent on their private redemptions, both George and Raul ignore my arrival.
I am approached by the titular Li; his hands are dusty with ground ginger even after he wipes them on his carpenter’s apron. Mr. Li studies my face and notices the pulsating vein in my neck before suggesting I might be thirsty. I am shruggish; thirsty maybe; I am in a rush. Ah ah, Mr. Li laughs backwardly. You are thirsty because you ignore thirst, Mr. Li sez. He points at my face, red, he points at my tongue, red, he points at my liver, fire. You are thirsty, Mr. Li reiterates. Just trust the man, George insists, directing me to an egg-crate beside him. Within the minute, Mr. Li is concocting a remedy for my “upflaming liver fire” by mixing mugwort, leftover fruit rind and a miscellaneous fibrous husk into a mug full of sorghum moonshine. If I am to be cured of rush, Mr. Li’s cocktail will be more my speed, Raul insists.
George, as if curious about a new prison mate, asks what I am in for. I confide I am looking for a woman. Both Raul and George gesture towards a nearby cost-controlled apartment of ill-repute. It’s a two-bedroom/one-bath brothel of some notoriety, but they don’t do butt-stuff, George sez as Raul fishes a coupon out of his wallet. I have to interrupt their squabble over the quickest route to the Five Points, insisting to them I am not looking for any woman. I am searching for one in particular. Raul laughs his way into his joke, asking if I thought I would find her here at Mr. Li’s. What’s she lookin’ to do, Raul asks, buy a Gremlin starter-kit? George laughs too, saying “Magui”.
I watch Mr. Li add wormwood bitters and more sorghum before topping the mug with a cocktail umbrella. I drink the ice-less baiju cocktail. 1st sip tastes like I tried to slow down a car by leaning out and forcefully licking the road. The second sip is better as I taste nothing except hints of blood, asphalt and aged-penny. By the third sip, my taste buds have returned under an alias and we’re pleased. I exhale slowly… and giggle my way into an impromptu belch. I feel like Dick Nixon in ’72, stumbling drunk around Beijing as he opened up the East to the global market. Fuckin’ crook, I say to the startle of my new friends. My gums are sore from the sorghum-liquor, but my smile is wide.
Suddenly we’re all boys. We’re cheersing: salud, Gānbēi, slainte, etcetera, et al, until our cups run dry. George’s fog of meaninglessness is gone and Raul says he could fuck a horse he’s so horny. Even Mr. Li is giggly. Raul calls out to Mr. Li, insistent they find my misplaced woman. George asks what she’s like. She’s a lady, I sez. Ain’t they all, scoffs Raul. No, I mean she’s nobility: a titled Lady of Scotland. The fuck she doing with a chump, George asks, emboldened by a sudden lack of meaninglessness. Mr. Li listens patiently as Raul inquires where I’d last seen the Lady. I shrug and turn around towards the front of the store; I left her in one of the noodle shops of Chinatown. I do not know which one. The overall consensus is a lot of shit gets lost in Chinatown. How many Scotch chicks can there be, Raul ponders. She isn’t Scottish, I clarify. Lady Josephina Jesús-María Firth is Mexican by birth, American citizen by naturalization and Scottish nobility thanks to her husband granting her titled land. Earlier in the day, Josephina and I had flown from Keflavik, Iceland to JFK and soon after sought Chinatown to feed on anything other than fermented shark and salted cod. The problem, I explain to my new friends, was the noodle shop only accepts American cash. I left Josephina in search of an automated teller machine and by the time I turned around, I couldn’t tell one noodle shop from the next. And my phone hasn’t held a charge since we were over Greenland. I had lost Jo to Chinatown.
Mr. Li picks up a landline phone and begins speaking New York-accented Mandarin. After he waits a pause, he hangs up the phone. He tells us he knows where the Mexican Lady of Scotland is currently washing dishes in a noodle shop right off of Canal Street. How the fuck did he do that, George wonders. It’s the fucking International Chinese Waiter Union, Raul explains, they’re the biggest spy-ring in the world.
I pay Mr. Li handsomely in my recently-withdrawn cash and step off the curb dangerously unwarily, nearly falling into the street. I wait an extra pause for the sorghum curtain to settle, wondering how furious Jo might be and if it was worth actually finding her if it is going to cost me my life. I look left; I look right; I look down at the cocktail napkin of walking directions; I turn left and depart.