Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dragonfruit and sugarcane

New York: the city of lights, of sounds, of dreams of the future and visions of the past, city of sewers and parks, of Walt Whitman and John Lennon and the Village Voice, of the Port Authority and Occupy Wall Street; the village of the Dutch and city of the world, an archipelago anchored to the mainland by a single poor peninsula but yearning, like the huddled masses called by its fabled statue, to breathe free.

All of that. But this post is about Elmhurst.

I returned from Asia only to find another Asia, my little neighborhood enclave of Filipinos and Chinese, of restaurants festooned in Korean characters and cutesy cartoon manga, Vietnamese banh mi and ca phe sua da and green and red and Panang curries, two pho joints nearly side-by-side and identical which I compare and contrast even though, in truth, I can’t tell the difference between their rich broths and slippery-splashy rice noodles and cilantro sprigs and the fresh bean sprouts that crunch crisply between my teeth.

Through my window, along with the morning sun, floats the warbly Chinese crooning accompanying the housewives’ daily synchronized calisthenics in Moore Homestead Park. (They are dedicated up to a point: on particularly cold mornings their numbers are noticeably diminished.) At one vertex of the park’s triangle, New York Supermarket and Hong Kong Supermarket compete for the same block. Like Pho Bac and Pho Bang, they are the same entity in slightly different garb.

Along the main street are smaller markets with fruits lined up outside in a way that reminds me—unavoidably, nostalgia-bubblingly, heart-wrenchingly—of the Philippines. There are the mangoes I once ate with relish (marked up several hundred percent and sporting a sprinkling of black blemishes courtesy of the journey from their tropical home, wherever they were planted and plucked). There the pomelo, the papaya, the indigo sugarcane I watched growing, falling in harvest, and burning in sacrifice to the field-gods of Negros Occidental.

It’s a crossroads, Elmhurst, not a translocation of my Peace Corps haunts; a Hong Kongtown, not a Little Manila. We never had dragonfruit in Iloilo, and the smattering of languages I hear on the sidewalks is marvelously incomprehensible to me—for every snatch of Taglish there are dialogues in languages that have never known the Latin alphabet except as a crude phonetic crutch. Hearing everything, understanding little, I listen to dramas unfold in such a swirl of accents that I’m sure everything is happening here, now, in this pocket of Queens miles and mindsets away from the palace-complex of Manhattan and its royal hordes of caffeined drones.

Coffee in, cash out.

Java Village, Sugar Club, Hulu and Joju and Quickly, Glober Market—the stereotypically- and hilariously-misnamed grocery that causes me amusement and politically-correct guilt in equal measures—First Taste Bakery and Winners Bar and Ploy Thai, Chao Thai, Boon Chu Thai, the food stalls that have no names and no advertisements except the ones wafting from their fryers and ovens and stovetops and coffeepots, halal groceries and churros, a long thrumming boulevard of Asia and the Middle East and Latin America along a street called Broadway.

I am biased, of course, but in my mind this is the real Broadway—not that tart-of-a-street in Manhattan with its gaudy jewelry shops and chain stores and $60 live movies and the shameless, matching-t-shirted shills begging bedazzled tourists to come to tonight’s comedy show somewhere on Times Square, the world’s flashiest bordello.

My Broadway is quieter. Slower. It isn’t even very broad at all, though it spans multitudes. And unlike Manhattan’s harlot, my Broadway still has hiya. Hiya and a sense of self.

One day I stepped out onto the sidewalk and was met by a thick coverlet of red and yellow: it was as if
every tree in the park had decided to drop its leaves overnight, to blanket the sidewalk against the gathering winter. On that quilted battlefield, old men growled over their xiangqi boards—a vision from Guangzhou, where I watched such city-park commanders marshal their wooden soldiers exactly so almost precisely one year ago. Their speech was the same as their compatriots’ in China. Their body language was the same. For all I know, their diets and daily routines and sensibilities were the same. And this is America?


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