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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

late night Chinatown : 1988

When I was 19 and still prey to those irrepressible adolescent urges to just fucking get out and walk around...to stretch my legs...no matter the time of day...I lived in New York City and did a lot of walking around at night.

Sometimes I'd grab a beer from a bodega and throw it in a paper sack and swig as I went. (I guess I thought that was just what you did. New York was full of that.) Sometimes I'd grab a cup of coffee. Either way, I saw things, met people, encountered the city in a way that....well....there's just no way I could repeat.

First, because that New York just doesn't exist anymore. 1988 was a brutal, cold, steel New York. The Twin Towers equaled South. The Empire State and Pan Am buildings equaled North. There was a speed and hustle to the traffic, a merciless flow of cabs and limos and trucks....and in a darkened city full of crack-smokers, dealers, the homeless and cops....nothing, nobody gave a shit about me or messed with me much at all.

And second, because now, years on, I value my life. I value caution. I've accreted a whole set of filters and reticence that there's no way to reverse-engineer out of my cerebellum. Yeah, I walk around from time to time...but some part of my brain is always saying...."been here, done this, move along, nothing to see."

But to get back to it.....one cold night, popping up on Canal street and its shuttered facades....I strolled over into Chinatown. It was late. For some reason, dinner in Chinatown was a popular "thing" for couples having affairs. I don't know why. I guess the anonymity of it. Anyhoo, there was the occasional oddly-matched amorous couple strolling arm-in-arm. And more often there were fast-paced cooks and waiters going home after their shifts.

I passed a lit entryway to an apartment building. A midget was doing water color paintings just inside. He was small with short arms, but he had an m.o. totally worked out. He'd tape parchment paper to the wall and then paint....a scroll is the only way to describe it..a main painting down the middle...and a calligraphic poem down the side. He had about ten of these going. He was still working. It was after midnight.

I wasn't his normal customer.

I stepped in and watched him paint. I drank my beer. He told me about coming over from China. About learning English. About painting. About what the calligraphy meant. All along he painted...and wrote out characters...quite carefully....deft...deliberate. He told me the paintings cost $10 a piece.

I bought the one he'd been working on. I hung it on my dorm room wall and over the years it just got more and more beat up.

It wasn't really my style. But for me, it stood for something.

Hard work. Persistence. The force of one person, working, alone, in the city....and on some level, the city itself and New York's unlikely mixture of folks thrown together by need, by choice, and by style.

I kept the painting, finally, as a record of that moment...years ago..when two unlikely strangers talked about life and art in a cold hallway in Chinatown.


  • Love the piece about the Oakland swimming pool!

    You end this piece by saying you talked about life and art. It leaves me wanting to know in greater detail what the painter had to say.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:10 AM  

  • Thanks.

    I know this will sound like a cop out, but it wasn't so much what he had to say, which wasn't necessarily profound or critical....but how he said it...what was implicit in the what and where and how of his work, and his striking physcial presence.

    To be honest. it's just more of a cinematic moment than an expressly literary one. So, yeah, if you see a scene like this in a film someday..you'll know you read it here first.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 10:50 AM  

  • Cool story, great images.

    I had a sort of similar interaction with a photographer when I studied in London. I was walking through Camden Town and saw this man that had a bunch of wide angle black and white photos arranged around him. They were mostly photos of European cities. What made them so interesting was that they were of busy city areas, but they were taken when virtually no one was there.

    We got to talking about a photo he had taken of Picadilly Circus that had no people in it. Just one bus driving through. It was a striking image, and he explained how it had taken him months of trying, to finally get the right light, and the right balance.

    I bought that one and a few others. Still have them to this day. Whenever I see them I think of what it means to live in a city and how that man spent hours, days, and months trying to show us a different kind of beauty.

    I think about how, if I didn't take that walk, I never would have met that man, or seen what I saw. And that would have been a shame.

    By Blogger simplesinger, at 11:22 AM  

  • What a beautiful turn of phrase:

    "...Whenever I see them I think of what it means to live in a city and how that man spent hours, days, and months trying to show us a different kind of beauty.

    I think about how, if I didn't take that walk, I never would have met that man, or seen what I saw. And that would have been a shame."

    Thanks for that story, anonymous.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 8:44 PM  

  • rrr....soulsinger!!

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 8:44 PM  

  • Thanks Kid O. You've turned a few nice phrases yourself, and I'm glad you liked the music I posted a few days ago.

    By Blogger simplesinger, at 6:46 AM  

  • CITY of orgies, walks and joys,
    City whom that I have lived and sung in your midst will one day make
    Not the pageants of you, not your shifting tableaus, your
    spectacles, repay me,
    Not the interminable rows of your houses, nor the ships at the
    Nor the processions in the streets, nor the bright windows with
    goods in them,
    Nor to converse with learn'd persons, or bear my share in the soiree
    or feast;
    Not those, but as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash
    of eyes offering me love,
    Offering response to my own- these repay me,
    Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.
    -- Walt Whitman, "City of Orgies"

    By Blogger awol, at 5:09 AM  

  • Thanks awol...

    for reading...and responding...and understanding.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 12:15 AM  

  • This is excellent, Paul.

    Having made so many similar NYC, late-night explorations, you've tickled my memory.

    I giggle in response.

    Thanks for the laugh.

    By Blogger NYBri, at 10:10 AM  

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