Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In the Company of Frogs

One frog’s fountain flows forth magnificently, a glittering spuming arc in the late-afternoon light. His brother’s perpetual drool splutters out into a sad little puddle at his feet. An elderly man totters over, reaching into the weaker stream to rinse his hands. Spying him, a young boy dashes over and covers the mouth of the more enthusiastic frog, shielding the old man from an inadvertent shower. The man doesn’t notice, but I do, and I raise my polystyrene food container to the boy in salute.

Bounded by the Bowery, Essex, East Broadway and Grand, this chunk of Chinatown in Manhattan may be my very favorite part of the city. It helps that my top cheap meal—$1 pork dumplings and $1.25 veggie sesame pancakes at Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge—is here, but even at those rare times when I’m not craving pork orbs swimming in soy sauce, sriracha and soup broth, a stroll through this section of town gives me both acute relief from Manhattan’s concrete sterility and fond reminiscences of eastern travels.

Streets here could have been airlifted wholesale from Hong Kong, complete with vertical signs lettered in sharp-edged characters, boba tea outlets with names like Quickly and Kung Fu, and cross-continental walking tours of Chinese cuisine. (Including the delicious, cumin-laced lamb burger from Xi’an Famous Foods, imported from one of China's most epically historic cities.)

But on this swampy afternoon I’m not too keen on walking, so I grab my dumplings and settle into the little playground at the corner of Hester and Eldridge. I choose the corner with the frog fountains, of course, where the gurgling of water dilutes the street noise ever so slightly. At the other end of the square, the play equipment swarms with children recently released from their school shackles. The benches are staked out by chattering elders, who I imagine have been holding court since sunrise.

A little girl wobbles over to the handwashing frog, her dark kinked hair flowing in lush twin cataracts down to her shoulders. With wide-eyed toddler goodwill she’s smiling at everything—the fountains, the doting park patrons, even me. Her gap-toothed older sister keeps watch from afar.

We’re between buildings and shade settles over the square, tempering the summer heat. Fewer children venture over to the cooling fountains as I inhale my tenth dumpling. On the adjacent bench, one of a quartet of gossiping old women breaks off from her group to perch on a frog, grinning like she’s that same little girl from minutes earlier, advanced eighty years or so in body if not in spirit. She knows she’s being irreverent and juvenile, and doesn’t care one jot.

She’s living in the moment, in the company of frogs.

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