Everything is wrong with me
Friday, August 12, 2005
 
my chilita experience
I’ve been living in Little Italy/Chinatown (an area of Manhattan I’ve christened "ChiLiTa") for over two months now, so I figured it was time to take a minute to reflect on my experiences. And so below are some things I’ve learned about myself, my new apartment and my new neighborhood in the past few months.

[To clarify going forward, Little Italy is really just one street in Manhattan, Mulberry Street, that runs from about Prince Street down to Canal Street, about six blocks. There are restaurants and trattorias just off Mulberry Street, but the area surrounding - nay, engulfing - Little Italy is Chinatown. I live just off Mulberry Street, so that when I walk out my door, one block west is like a cheesy version of Florence and one block east is like a Beijing street fair. And yes, it is as weird as it sounds.]

Check your windows before you move in. My living room windows, as well as the window in my roommate Brian's room, have bars on them. This is great for safety but terrible for something much, much more important: air conditioning. Since he doesn't like the heat and it's just plain unsafe for me to be in temperatures above 80 degrees, Brian and I spent most of our time in the apartment the first two months figuring out how we can get an air conditioner in there. We have only given up on this dream just recently.

But before giving up, many a hair-brained scheme were hatched. When I first saw the bars (AFTER we signed the lease), I thought, "This is not a problem. I’ll just get a torch and weld the mother fucking bars off. How hard can this be?" There was another reason I wanted to do this: it would prove to myself, my female friends, and my father that I am NOT, in fact, homosexual. Nothing screams "I’m straight" like welding with a torch, you know?

With that in mind, I called my dad.

Me: "Dad, we have bars, like iron gates, over our windows and we want to put in an air conditioner."
Dad: "You can’t."
Me: "Well, how about this? I was thinking of welding them off."

Waits for telephonic high-five from dad or at least "You go get ‘em, son!"

Dad: [heavy drag from cigarette]: "No."
Me: "What? Why?"
Dad: "Jas, have you ever used a blow torch before?"
Me: "No. I don’t think I’ve even seen one in person. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them on TV though."
Dad: [silence for approximately fifteen seconds]
Me: "Hello?"
Dad: "You can’t do that. No."

So then Brian and I thought that we’d just suck it up and buy one of those portable air conditioners, the ones that look like R2D2. This idea was disregarded almost immediately, since the cheapest one costs about $450. I love the cool air as much as anyone – hell, I need the cool air as much as anyone – but $225 is a lot of money. That’s like a whole night of drinking right there.

And so because Brian and I didn’t think to look at the windows before agreeing to lease the place, we’ve spent the last two months in pools of our own sweat, rot, and poo. Well, not those last two. But definitely the first one.

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Check your doorbell before you move in. Most apartments in NYC have an intercom/buzzer system. Someone buzzes, you say, "Who is it?", they answer and you let them up. My apartment does not have this. In fact, my apartment does not even have a doorbell. I wasn’t sure how one could live in a building without a doorbell. After all, how do visitors drop by? I'm on the second floor, so it's impossible to hear someone knocking on the caste iron door downstairs. Thus drop-in visits by friends and, more importantly, food deliveries seemed impossible.

I remedied this by getting a wireless doorbell. The problem is that the only place where the receiver picks up the signal from the buzzer is, naturally, in my bedroom. So when someone rings the doorbell at the front door, it buzzes in my bedroom. Sweet.

The wireless doorbell lasted for about two weeks. One Tuesday morning, I was awoken by the doorbell ringing. I didn’t answer, because I couldn’t think of anyone who’d be ringing me at 6am. Eventually, it stopped. Then twenty minutes later it rang again. Again, I did nothing, and again, it stopped. This happened about fifteen more times over the next two hours. While this was going on, I laid in bed, wondering what was greater: my conviction that owning a gun is bad or my desire to get a gun and shoot it over and over again out my window at whomever below was ringing my doorbell (grabbing my bird in the process, of course).

When I finally went outside to go to work, I figured it out: the doorbell had fallen off the doorway to the ground, and somehow landed in the middle of the pavement. Chinese people, as will be discussed later, go to bed around 9pm and wake up at 4:30am or so. So they had been walking over the doorbell in the middle of the sidewalk for hours, setting it off in my bedroom. So I picked up the doorbell and threw it down the sewer. No more doorbell.

And so deliveries and friends, when they come, have to call my cell phone so I can go and let them in. I’ll deal with it, because I’m not getting another one of those stupid fucking doorbells.

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Check your local garbage schedule before you move in. One of my favorite perks of living in Little Italy is the food. Well, not really, since the food generally sucks. But I needed a way to open this one.

Restaurants produce trash. Lots of it. And Little Italy is a high traffic area, so the trash can’t be left piling up. After all, what would all the lovely tourists from Kansas City and Des Moines think? So every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, private (at least I think they’re private) trash trucks come to pick it up. At 1am. Very loudly.

So three nights a week, just as I’m falling asleep, I am jolted awake by garbage trucks and garbage men yelling at each other. Ah, the charms of Little Italy. It’s just like Firenze, only much angrier but much less sexually aggressive.

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Closet space is important in your new apartment. There is no closet or pantry in my living room. I didn’t realize this before we moved in, but I did shortly afterward. And I thought, "Closet? Who needs a pantry or a closet? I’m a guy – that shit isn’t important. That kinda crap is for gays. And I’m not gay. At least when I’m sober."

Wrong – closet/pantry space is important. Do you know where I put my cereal? On the stove. Know where my pasta goes? Not in the cabinet, since there’s very little space there and it’s filled with pots and pans and other crap that I barely use. No, boxes of pasta, granola bars, chips, and all kinds of other crap go on top of the fridge or more likely on the floor next to the fridge. I imagine this is where jackets will go come wintertime, and by January we should be living in a full-fledged flophouse. I’m looking forward to being evicted.

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There are no "normal" grocery stores in Chinatown. I'm not big on food shopping. I usually order out, but when I do make food, it's simple: sausage, chicken, meat, pasta, chili. That's about it.

And when I go shopping, my list of needed groceries is not complicated. In addition to the above mentioned items, I keep it simple and get stuff like ice cream, Gatorade, eggs, butter, cheese, and of course Magnum condoms to impress the hot aspiring actress working the register. So I don't even really need a full-fledged grocery store. Most of these items can be bought at your local neighborhood deli/bodega, open 24 hours a day.

But there are no deli/bodegas in Chinatown. Not a one. The most "normal" local store is four blocks away, which in Manhattan terms is very far, as it seems every block has one bar, one deli, and one Duane Reade. And that store closes at 7pm. Again, a rarity in Manhattan, where you can buy a car (legally) at 2am if you wanted to.

And I have no idea what 70% of the stuff sold in Chinese grocery stores is. Sometimes I can make out the basics, like rice, noodles, and water. Otherwise, I got nothing.

This number jumps to 90% when we talk about the stuff sold in the outdoor markets. My roommate Brian and I have a running joke that goes something like this:

Brian: "Dude, I'm going out to get some Gatorade. Do you want anything?"
Me: "Yeah, can you stop by that outdoor place on Mott Street and get me some of that tree bark-looking shit?"
Brian: "Oh - thanks for reminding me. I wanted to grab some of that stuff that looks like inside out frogs. Need anything else?"
Me: "Now that you mention it, in addition to the tree bark, can you get me a half-dozen of those things that look like spiny testicles? I wanted to make something special tonight."
Brian: "So Gatorade, tree bark, inside out frogs, and spiny balls. Got it."

The end result of all this is that I have cooked a legitimate meal a grand total of two times since moving into the new apartment and things like yellow Gatorade and microwaveable macaroni and cheese are equivalent to cigarettes and porn mags in prison ("Dude, I'll trade you one three handjobs and eight packets of soy sauce for one frozen pizza").

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I am pretty sure that Chinese people eat Chinese food for breakfast. Yes, this sounds like a stupid statement to make, but you get it. When I walk to the subway at 9am, I see Chinese people in line at or hanging around metal food carts ordering or eating what appear to be pork dumplings. I love Chinese food as much as the next guy, but I’m not so sure about dumplings at 9am. Part of me is disgusted by this, but part of me looks on enviously and thinks, "You know what? That's pretty awesome. Good for them."

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Some Chinese people are real old. You will have a tough time convincing me that some of the elderly people in my neighborhood are not 200 years old. I love old people and have always been comfortable around them, but I swear to you that some of the Chinese people walking on my street at 7am carrying bags have got to be at least 150 to 220 years old. Good lord. I don't know if it's a Chinese thing or what, because it seems like you have people in their 50's, their 60's, their 70's and then their 130's. Weird.

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It's important to break down language barriers. In Chinatown, there are always Chinese people handing out flyers, usually for cell phone stores, in Chinese. They’ll be standing in the streets, shoving these flyers in the faces of everyone who walks by. However, they don't do this when they see white people. They'll pull the flyer away when the see a white person approaching, then run it to the Chinese guy behind him to shove it in his face.

I always got a kick out of this. It was as though I was a member of the Tsar's secret police and those handing out the flyers were Socialists, and so when I walked by they retracted their flyers to give to a more sympathetic person. Eventually, I started having fun with it. I'd approach one of the flyer people and they'd move away from me. But I'd keep approaching and take one of their flyers (all in Chinese, remember). I'd look it over for a little bit, shake my head in disgust, and then hand it back to them and walk away.

The reaction is priceless. The first few times I did it, the flyer person would stop in his/her tracks, study me reading it, then look at me shocked when I give it back and walk away.

I love messing with the Chinese. This is just my way of getting General Tso back for all the gastrointestinal distress he's caused me over the past twenty years.

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I swear I'm not racist. I think by now the Chinese Students Union at NYU is drafting a letter of reprimand to me and is also emailing their chapters at universities across the country to do the same. But I promise you I love the Chinese people. Hell, I've said many times on this site that I've been trying to make out with an Asian girl for years to no avail. So that goes to show you that I'm not racist - the Asian girls I've tried to make out with are. So there.

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There is no late night pizza in Little Italy. Ironic, isn't it? From 10am until about midnight, you can have your pick of about twenty different over-priced and crappy pizza places. But after midnight, there's nothing. As a matter of fact, there's nothing in Chinatown either. The 24 hour diner that delivers has been a staple of my NYC experience up to this point. Sadly, this is no longer.

To combat this, Brian and I have been ordering pizzas before we go out. When the pizza arrives, we put it right in the fridge, so that when we come home, alone and drunk, we can destroy it. Though not ideal, it's probably the best solution I've ever come up with in my personal or professional life. And yes ladies, both of us are single. And geniuses.

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Little Italy is scary at 3am. For being so lively (read: overcrowded with moron tourists), ChiLiTa is a scary-ass place late at night. I lived in cities all my life, in Philly, Boston, London and New York, and I have never felt as unsafe as I do in my new neighborhood at night.

It's a complete ghost town when it's late. All day long the streets are packed and alive, but from 1am to 5am it's completely dead. The stores are closed and no people are around, but what irks me most is also the complete absence of traffic. Even at the latest of hours, you can see a cab or other cars buzzing around the streets. Not so in Little Italy. It's dead quiet. Eerie. Every time I walk home with fifteen Bud Lights in me I'm afraid that I'm going to be attacked by a gang of Asian youths looking to rob me of my cash and my innocence.

And yes, I am a pussy. Thank you for pointing that out.

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"Authenticity" is important in Italian restaurants. Just a quick note to all the restaurant managers in Little Italy who hire "Italian" waiters to be authentic: Good sirs, believe it or not, there is a difference between Italian and Costa Rican. I know that the waiter serving me is not from Umbria. I know that he is more likely from Tegucigalpa. So let's just dispense with the charade, shall we? Thanks.

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Beauty helps. One of the features of the Little Italy restaurant is the in-your-face host who stands outside the restaurant and attacks defenseless tourists with menus. Then begins an awkward ritual wherein the tourists look at the menu and the host starts the manipulation process, ensuring said tourists that his gnocchi is best gnocchi on Mulberry Street.

Typically, these host are douchebag guidos. Pushy, gelled, and ready to sell. To me, the worst kind of human being. I wouldn't eat at any restaurant that has some greaseball guy with sunglasses outside who comes walking up to me gesticulating and saying "bella" over and over again about my lady friend. If I had a lady friend and if I actually ate at these restaurants, of course.

But one restaurant - just one of the thirty or so - has figured out that maybe people don't like the pushy guido host ramming a menu in their face. So this restaurant has stationed two attractive young girls outside, acting as hostesses. And the results have been astounding.

If you watch the flow of traffic on the street, you can see how people will literally run away from the pushy guidos hosts and into the waiting arms of these girls. And I'm not just talking about men here; women do it too. The guy hostess come shooting out of the restaurants blathering on about specials, while these two girls maintain a calm and pleasant demeanor and everyone comes to them, like harpes of Little Italy. It's amazing, precisely because it's so simple and yet so effective.

And really, it's only a matter of time because I do something to make them feel awkward. Stay tuned.

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Overall though, I love the new neighborhood and apartment. They have their quirks, but I'm getting used to them. As long as there is a liquor store nearby and I can get pizza delivered, everything will turn out just fine. Probably.

[Have a good weekend]



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