Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Chinatown Eel Incident

Sometimes, in New York, I’d wake up much earlier than I
had to. When this happened, I liked to get dressed and go
walking around the city. It’s good exercise to walk and that
city is so beautiful it’s an honor just to see it. I lived just
east of downtown Brooklyn, on Fulton Street, and I’d take
that all the way to the big government buildings past Albee
Square. From there, I’d stroll up the plaza to the Brooklyn
Bridge and cross into Manhattan. On the weekends, the
financial district would be dead, but Chinatown would be
as bustling as ever. I usually wound up there, wandering
around its crooked streets, looking in the shop windows and
smelling the restaurants that never closed.

On the far edges of Chinatown, around East Broadway, there
are lots of places that sell fish. Their displays spill out onto the
sidewalk and crowds gather whenever a fresh catch is in. I
remember wandering past one of these as the morning’s first
burst of energy faded into a pre-caffeinated torpor. I was
thinking of catching the B-train back to Brooklyn and going
back to bed. I was thinking of getting a better job. I was
thinking of a girl. I was thinking of all the stories I would
write as soon as I found the time to sit down and write them.

Stuck in my head this way, I barely noticed the action at the
fish shop. Ice was piled high in the cases and all manner of
still-blinking sea creatures were arranged on top of it. The
people on the sidewalk were shouting at the people in the
store and the people in the store were shouting back, a roiling
storm of Chinese voices punctuated at intervals by paper-
wrapped fish being flung from the scales to the customers
below. It was quite a show, but I was too preoccupied to watch
it. Back then, I usually vacillated pretty quickly between being
fascinated with everything and being morbidly introspective.
I had set out in the former mindset and somehow slipped into
the latter.

I broke out of it, however, when an old man couldn’t quite
catch the eel that had just been tossed his way. It slipped out
of his arms and he was left holding onto only the crumpled
wrapping paper as the slithery thing itself landed on the wet
sidewalk and slid right into my path. I stood there with one
foot raised in the air, bugging my eyes out as it gaped up at
me, its cavernous mouth opening and closing in some kind
of dead-fish daze. “Holy shit!” I said and, as I tried to put
my foot down without stepping on the eel or falling on my
ass, I heard a hundred Chinese people laugh at me. Some
even clapped.

“Sorry!” said the old man.

“Is that your eel?” I asked him and he nodded.

“Oh, yes yes...” he said and then he reached out and grab-
bed my hand. Pumping it up and down, he said, “Sorry!”

“It scared the shit out of me just now,” I said as I went on
shaking the old man’s hand.

“Oh yes yes...” was all he said. He let go of my hand and
crouched low to scoop up his eel. By this time, I was laughing
too. I went on down the street red-faced and smiling. I caught
the subway at the Grand Street station and, as the empty train
clattered out onto the Manhattan Bridge, I stood by the window
and looked out at the dirty tenements and the shining skyscrap-
ers, the endless sky and the crowded ground. It was one of
those times, not too rare back then, when I realized that I
loved that city more than any other, that it was a joy just to
be a speck in its eternal glory.