Between Canal & East Broadway and a $5 meal
March 28, 2016. Near the intersection of where Canal St ends and East Broadway St begins, I live in the smack dab middle between Lower East Side and Chinatown.
…Or walking street after street of intelligently crafted urban graffiti
You can come into Dimes for a healthy, organic, in-season meal: seared salmon with herbed yogurt, delicata squash, and pomegranate salsa for $15. Seltzer water or tap.
Within those same three blocks, you can choose instead to get your hair cut at a basement Chinese-speaking hair salon for $5.
You can choose to lose all track of the english- speaking world and instead hear the streets sing in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai. In between being couched in English traffic signs, Asians of all origins find a home here without leave their roots.
On East Broadway, Carol’s Bun — a Chinese restaurant that does not sell buns at all —sells lunch with daily brewed Chinese soup, rice, and 3 main buffet dishes of lo mein, sesame chicken, and vegetables for a whopping $3.50.
And, again, these places are not that far at all from each other.
Dimes sure ain’t cheap.
But Carol’s Bun was always just a street away.
I love Carol’s Bun.
It was a cold Monday evening, and I just finished working from home and walked into Carol’s Bun for dinner — the second time I would’ve eaten there today. The food at Carol’s Bun is like what Mom used to make — simple, healthy and made with very little oil. I ate there so regularly, the green-haired Chinese woman behind the counter had come to recognize my face.
When I arrived, a young man in a black hoodie stood in front of the buffet counter.
“Do you take debit?” I heard him say to the green-haired lady behind the counter.
“No, cash only,” she said, pointing to the “Cash only” sign written in black marker on the front of the register.
He started to walk out of the restaurant as I was coming in through the door when I stopped him and asked him how much it was.
“It’s five dollars”, he said.
“I’ll pay for it,” I replied.
“Really?” His eyes widened up. I said yeah and gave him a five dollar bill. He became very surprised and started to plate on his food.
“Are you going anywhere?” He asked.
I said no.
“Can I talk to you for like 5 minutes?”
I know I normally order to-go, but this time, I said “sure”.
When it came to my time to order my food, the woman behind the counter gave me a $1 discount on my $5 meal, saying she appreciates that I came here twice today and that I helped out that guy. When I tried to give her the $5 bill back again, she refused and said 4 was really fine, giving me back the dollar again.
That guy and I both sat down to eat. He looked like someone in his early twenties, wearing a black hoodie and a black beanie hat. Later, I learned that he was down to his remaining $50 in his bank account, and given all the people who flaked on him earlier this week and also refused to let him borrow $5 for food earlier today, he said, “you have no idea how much this means to me”.
“I’m just paying it forward,” I told him, remembering Michelle and Matt in that moment, the generous couple in Astoria who saw me sitting with my busted scooter, halting traffic on the Megler Bridge, who gave me a warm bedroom, food, and a place to stay “for as long as I needed, really.” I still think about them from time to time.
He raised his eyebrows again for the second time and I managed to surprise him twice. “I’ve heard people say that on the West”, he said, “but not here. People here, they don’t do that.”
We sat and ate our dinners together. I learned that he’s a bicoastal weed delivery guy who lives in Oakland. 2 to 3 years ago, he survived lymphoma. He took off his black beanie and uncovered his hairless head.
“People don’t know what I would do for them if they only offered”, he said. “They just don’t know what they’re missing out on.”
He asked that I write down his phone number — saying considerately, I’m not trying to hit on you — and call him if and when I find myself back in California, so he can return the favor. I said, I will.
He left to catch his Chinatown bus to Philly, and off we both went with our separate lives with bigger hearts than we started off with that evening.