Slow Boat to Chinatown

Slow Boat to Chinatown

Words: Olivia Purnell
Photos: Vinny Picone, The Madbury Club

– Chinatown by 2, I said!!!!!!!!!!! Rafael’s texts always
have so much punctuation.
– Coming, I type.
– NOW!!!!!!!!!! Damn.
I put my phone on silent. We need to have a few hours of daylight and noodles to shake off last night before the next night starts to happen, but I’m not going to let him rush me.

Last night was President’s Day, and a dwarf dressed as Abe Lincoln danced on the bar pouring shots into finance bros’ mouths while I collected twenties, clapped and gave them all my best Hell Yeah face.
– Don’t be that guy, Abe Lincoln said to me when I gestured for him to get off the bar. At 5AM I am that guy. Everybody should be that guy. But I let him sit up there, a little higher than eye level. And I drank too much whiskey with him. But I didn’t let him pour it in my mouth.

I don’t mind being outside, even in the sleet. The chill feels medicinal and the streets aren’t as tight as usual. They’re almost empty for the weather. Rafael isn’t ready for the cold like I am. His Starter jacket isn’t keeping him warm like it’s supposed to.
– Think warm and then you are, I say. It’s a mentality.
– That’s bullshit, he says. It mostly is. We duck into a pet store.

It smells alkaline inside, like a bag of wet pennies. It’s empty except for us, the ferrets, the gerbils, the fish, their food, and their shelter.
– You don’t have any dogs? I ask the woman behind the counter.
– No dogs, she says.
– Is this really even a pet store then? She shrugs. So do I.

I’ve thought about leaving the bar to do work like this, in a shop. I’d never be hungover. I’d sit and answer questions with a shrug. Or fold shirts. I could fold the shit out of some shirts. But I’d never have met Abe Lincoln, or Rafael, or all the firemen. I wouldn’t know about our noodle spot. I wouldn’t be right here, right now.
- Let’s go. I’m starving, I say.

Rafa’s got his face pressed up against the glass of an aquarium in a row of glittering tanks while tiny purple fishes run laughing through his fingers, and he wants to take them with him to the hard land of the winter.
– I want one, he says. But he doesn’t want to take care of a fish. I don’t have to tell him that.
– Take my picture, he says. And I do. He smiles hard next to his new friends. The lighting’s not great, but the fish look brilliant. They’re glowing electric in his phone screen. So are his teeth.

The storefronts are just as packed as always, even though the streets are wet and empty.

A shop on Mott is selling brooms in every color, children’s plastic balls, paper lanterns, red and gold tasseled ornaments, fortune banners, and umbrellas. Piles and piles of stuff. No prices. Just piles, some wrapped in plastic to protect them from the snow. Inside, more piles. Is this for locals or tourists or both? I’ll come back for a broom tomorrow. The pink and orange one appeals. I’ll get Rafa one too.

Firefighters from the Tribeca station or the Wall Street one — I never remember which ladder is which – came to the bar en masse, maybe for Abe Lincoln, or for President’s Day, or the promise of women who like a man in uniform.
– This round is on me, I said, pouring sugary redheads into like 15 shot glasses. For all that you do for this city.
– Here fuckin’ here, they yelled. And I took a shot or two with them because they run into burning buildings to save lives.

Later, the drunkest of them pulled a sink off the wall in the women’s bathroom. It flooded. The captain, a man with a veiny bicep at least as big as my waist, said loudly, our brother, our responsibility! And the whole ladder somehow put the sink back on the wall, and cleaned up the water and this guy’s puke and all the mess. I don’t know where they got the rags or the tools. That’s love.

Think warm and then you are, I say. It’s a mentality.

My head hurts less just being inside.

- Thank God.
- Right? Rafael says.
The smell of broth and hot meat is borderline primal. The inside of my mouth responds to it.

The man behind the counter recognizes me and writes my order down from memory onto a scratch pad, smiling as he looks up. All the bowls and mugs in the place are steaming, but it’s cold enough for him to wear his puffer indoors. Our breaths cloud in front of us.
– Noodles with wonton and beef, right?
–Yes, please.
– Always the same, the man says and shakes his head. I shake my head too and look away.

I wonder why he writes it if he knows it and I know that he knows it and the kitchen knows it and they also know about all of us knowing. We all need our rituals, I guess.

– We’re not late, Rafael says into his phone with his mouth full, even though we are. He tips his head back
to keep the noodles in.
– What the fuck? he says to Jordan or Sara or whoever, swallowing hard.

He on his phone makes me remember mine, and I pull it out of my pocket. I’ve missed five calls. He hangs
up suddenly.
– We gotta go, he says, wolfing a last bite, grabbing his jacket.
– Are we fired? I ask.
– Everybody’s fired. The bar’s done, he says.
– This makes no sense.
– Last night, he says, as though I already know.

Rafa rolls his eyes. I nod, parsing this information too slowly for his liking.
– She said to come by right now and get our last checks if we want them.
– I want mine, I say.
– Yeah you do.

Outside the snow is getting thicker and fatter, catching on the ground. It’ll pile up and paint Chinatown over. The delivery motorbikes will look like little white horses by midnight. Rafael seems renewed by it, catching snowflakes on his tongue for a moment before dashing down the street.
–She’s only waiting ten minutes! he says over his shoulder. I jog after him, feeling slow, fat with beef and noodle. Rafael’s getting farther and farther ahead.
– What are we gonna do now? I yell after him. He yells back but I can’t hear him.