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We had just been here. Each heavy, grey door held onto the other, tight and ungiving. (The night had sprinkled misgivings from the dusk, apprehension instead of snow; something's got to fall in twenty degree weather.) I pulled on the twin adjacent handles, muttering "Seventh Floor, Seventh Floor," with eyes backing and forthing between each set of red knuckles, up past the third floor windows, to the seventh's. We had just been inside, less than ten minutes before, on the third floor landing that was too small for the both of us. This town had always been too small to contain the either of us.
"I'll break down this door if you tell me what we're doing," Kevin said behind me.
Metronome eyes slowed and stopped at 50, the number above the thickly painted doors. Cold hands dropped at sides, and feet retreated from the past without looking at the boy who hopefully now realized, if he hadn't already, that we weren't compatible. "But you won't."
I shrunk into myself even more, feeling so cold, when I turned to face him; the both of us standing side by side, but now opposed, the camaraderie of twin locked doors that was there at dusk, gone. There was no warmth, and so I pronounced, at the same volume but closer (we were farther): "You wouldn't."
Forget what that date night held. Forget the sprinkling misgivings that - as a force from the inscrutable bottom- and topless sky - pushed our elbows together; so generous, that weather was from the dusk, sliding our fists into jacket pockets and our bodies closer on sidewalks (we wouldn't have held hands anyway, because the classy don't on first dates, nor anything else really). Forget running up flights of leaning Chinatown stairs, fumbling with doorknobs, slamming palms against doorbells and then against the doors themselves, as he trailed behind, asking again and again, "What are you doing? Why are we here?"
Remember, now, who I was three years before. I was an awkward freshman who returned to my hometown because if I had to volunteer, I wanted to give back to my parents' American elementary town (bilingual, of course). Every week, twice a week, I worked with Chinatown, a place that, like its immigrant residents, was in want, but too proud to ask for the help it needed. I made the necessary sacrifices: paint on jeans?check, soil under nails?sure, kids' fingers through hair?...okay. But what Chinatown really needed, as Margaret Chin, the City Council Member of the Lower East Side - that is, of Chinatown - identified to the crowd of Chinatown Beautification Day workers three years after my return, was funding. Passionate youth was far from adequate.
But funding for what? How much did we need? Who would grant this funding, and how would those people attain it? I wasn't sure, but I believed her and asked no questions.
Glasses, plaid, purple Keds. That was me, and this is the kind of person Kevin is: the farthest from forgetful, in case what is being offered will be important someconversation, somecircumstance. I've abandoned my awkward freshman self, but I've retained the Chinatown friends, like Kevin, who I've made over years of service and hangouts. When White Crane, the strongest Chinatown gang, came after the teenagers I planted flowers and played Truth or Dare afterwards with, I stayed in my hometown. Blades flicked from box-cutters, bottles smashed to become a dozen daggers; kids ran, kids were afraid to go home, kids detoured for hours in the dark Chinatown streets with metronome eyes on heads swerving like telescopes, hunting their predators.
"College stuff?" my Indoor Track co-captain, Emily, asked one day in the beginning of our partnership. She was probably unused to my pace - not on the track, but off. I always wanted to start or leave or go, just go. I shook my head and looked down. "What's wrong?" "We're being targeted." "What?" She was unused to the sky always pushing, friends always acting so tough it made her feel weak. I didn't want to get her involved; I didn't want her to have misgivings. "Never mind. What are you doing this weekend?" "Wait. What do you mean, targeted? You can't say something like that and-" "College apps?" "Yeah." She hesitated, shook her head, looked down at her palm opening, counting off the schools she had left. I was glad she didn't return my question. She wouldn't have wanted to know why I was paying a visit to the hospital.
The hospital's on Walker Street; the seventh floor is two straight minutes away from 81 Eldridge Street. I live in Queens; I've lived in Queens since kindergarten. I attend the city's best high school in Tribeca, just fifteen minutes of quick feet from Chinatown. My Chinatown friends go to schools with fires and fights, and live in apartments smaller than my garage. But Chinatown is their home, and it was mine, and yes, it is, it is still mine.
Maybe we'll get to Kevin's heavy breath too close to my ear, in the third floor landing of 50 Eldridge Street. "Are you a witch?" I smiled grimly and went for the doorbell, and then the door, knocking hard only when sure no one would open up. (I wanted to see inside, but I didn't know how I would explain myself.)
And the way he spoke into the phone, to his brother Mike, as I ran ahead, back to 50 from 81 - "I don't know. She's chasing demons." - because if 81 only had five floors, the seventh floor had to be 50's, and the third floor, 81's.
And the constant questioning: "Why these two buildings? Is this some project? The slums of Chinatown?"
And my pause. And finally, "No." My parents' third-floor apartment, the first that they lived in together, that they paid $6000 under the table for in addition to $600/mo. rent because that was how Chinatown was in the '80s and '90s, was not part of a tenement slum. I had proved it, too, by catching the thin metal door flung open as an 81-dweller returned home. I found the stairs to sag, to lean a little, and the knurls on the white-turned-yellow floors dulled. But the white-turned-yellow mixed with red details and steel railings came off as retro, and the bathroom in the hallway was decrepit, a good sign for the bathrooms inside the apartments.
Eldridge Street is FJ (Fujianese) Street, and Kevin's FJ is worse than mine, so I left him by the bathroom and crept to the end of the hall, to a third floor apartment. I avoided the menagerie of shoes cluttering the narrow hallway. I pressed my ear to the door, beneath the picture of a Chinese god I recognized but couldn't name, and smiled. I smiled because water was running, a television was playing, and two voices were discussing when a child was ever coming home, like he might never but definitely would. It didn't sound so different from home.
But for now, forget 81 Eldridge Street, and remember Kevin's early decision acceptance to Middlebury. Finally, one of us (them? no, us, us, us, for I am a Chinatown kid too), was leaving the dirty district! Kevin lived on the Lower East Side for the majority of his life, right next to the river, in Alphabet City. He's not officially a Chinatown kid, but he lives in the government projects, and for his whole life has been fighting his way up and out. Through his questions, through his analyzing and reasoning, he's climbing out, and I'm not exactly sure myself why someone would want back in.
((But for that first winter break, he came back. He chose the restaurant; I chose the adventure.
"Personal discovery." "If it were anyone else, it would be unexpected. But it's you." "It's gonna be wack. I'm warning you now." "Nah." "Tell me about yourself." "I think of myself as a pretty normal guy." "How long have you been growing your mustache?" "I don't know." "Why don't you shave?" "My mustache makes me ugly. I want to know, when a girl likes me, that she likes me for what's inside." "What about your beard?" "This? It's not a beard." "What is it?" "A goatee." "Why don't you shave that?" "It'd be weird, to shave this and not my mustache. I don't even know how to use a razor." "When are you gonna shave?" "At my wedding." "Like during your wedding?" "Yeah. The bride's gonna come down the aisle and be like, Who is this guy?" "What does your mother think about your mustache?" "She wants me to shave it. She said she'd give me a thousand dollars if I shaved it.")
"What were you doing tonight?" "It doesn't matter." "If it doesn't matter, you can just tell me." "It matters to me. It just doesn't matter to...other people." "Whatever." "I told you before. Personal discovery."
He would have described the adventure as cute if I told him - metronome eyes meeting observant ones - what these places meant and still mean. "Chinatown is a hellhole, a garbage dump. What is there to see?" he would have said. He would have gestured at anything, everything, around us to prove his point: the leaning apartment buildings, the litter, the cigarette-stub-filled sidewalk cracks, the old men spitting on the street and old women searching through trash cans, the kids taking too long to assimilate and those embracing Americanisms too fervently. He would have lookd down at me, towering five feet ten inches, wondering why I had chosen the bottom. "It's cute that a girl like you likes it here," he would have said.
But I am a Chinatown girl. How can one ignore where she's from? I will always be from Chinatown first.
I wish you weren't here.
The seventh floor holding nine years of my mother's life, nine years of 9 am to 10 pm, during which coins were interdependent with zippers; the third floor where she gave up her children because zombies are unfit mothers, and nights after factory work shouldn't be spent soothing cries; the emptiness on Eldrige Street while we were in China and Daddy worked in yet another restaurant - this one in New Jersey, this one six days a week away from home - because the one he worked so hard to open on Rockaway Boulevard brought him to gunpoint three times... How did they do it? How could I explain it? I needed to be in those places.)
Kevin cares about facts more than feelings, and his rationality is what will save him. But he was up for personal discovery, and that's what sent us down Hester - where I attended Pre-K and Chinese school - towards two floors in Eldridge that winter break night, before which we were separated by states but still, theoretically, joined by ideology. As Chinatown kids. As invisible, high vortices of misgivings let go little by little, we arrested each other's ears and bumped into each other's sharp elbows. But from the dusk, I felt his eyes on me when they should have been with me, scanning monoliths down to truths.