I spent a year in Chinatown, living in a space that was six feet by thirteen feet. It fit my bed perfectly when I’d unfold it in the evening. In the mornings I would have to fold it back, otherwise I couldn’t open up the front door. There was no kitchen in my apartment. It bordered my room out in the hallway, but I didn’t dare use it as the ancient Chinese couple down the hallway would throw vegetables at me when I attempted to use my own stove.
They were very protective about their space.
Mornings were rough in that place as the kitchen was next to me. They began cooking at 5:30 a.m. clanging on pots and pans and screaming at each other in Cantonese. Occasionally I’d hear the sounds of a chicken, then the slamming of a knife, and the terrible flutter of stressed wings. I’d throw a pillow over my ears and roll around in bed in complete denial of the situation.
I had my own bathroom which barely worked. The shower would always pour rust for twenty seconds before clear water would pour from the faucet. Some days the shower would squeal from the pressure of the water. Twice the knob exploded and the sounds of people screaming and water splashing on furniture would emit below my apartment.
The alleyway that I faced was built in traditional Chinatown style. Multiple Escher like staircases zig zagged next to each other in a strange tight fashion to the rooftops. Dozens of strings criss-crossed with multiple versions of bleached granny panties and large bras everywhere. It was surreal to wake up and see out the window only a church steeple and hundreds of undergarments swinging back and forth in the wind. Pigeons occupied the alleyway, cooing at all times of the day and night. I grew accustomed to throwing water at them to deter them from coming in my apartment from the windowsill to street fight on my bedroom floor.
Being that the apartment was so small, bringing people over was reserved for only one type of entertainment, which proved difficult to conceal considering the thinness of the walls.
Eleanor, the granddaughter of the elderly Chinese couple, would occasionally sit outside of the fire escape next to my window and smoke a cigarette. She was about 50 years old, plump, and always giggly. As I’d pass the fire-escape Eleanor would put her fingers to her lips and say “Grandmother doesn’t know I smoke and you don’t either” She’d then giggle hysterically and occasionally cough hoarsely afterwards.
She wanted to be my mom a lot of the time. I nicknamed her my Asian Food Godmother, as once a week I’d wake to a knock on my door, and find boxes of Asian food you could not get in the marketplace unless you knew your way around them. On the backs of the boxes were hot plate instructions written on Post-Its. She’d occasionally ask if I was well fed, and I’d smile back “yes”. I knew it was her, but she never admitted to it. She’d wink with an acknowledgement and that was all.
Eleanor knew of my temporary boyfriends who would be in my place. She’d often knock on the door and say “There better be a woman in there this time!” while all the residents of the floor would chuckle in their own rooms. My face would become flushed either way with whatever company I had. She loved embarrassing me, and quite honestly… I did too.
The day I was leaving my place to a bigger apartment down on Bush and Stockton,I saw her outside on the fire escape. Instead of one cigarette, she had a whole pack in front of her. She had tears in her eyes and was sniffling audibly. I sat down next to her and watched the sun set over the Northern sector of the city.
“That’s it? You moved everything out?”, she said.
“Yep, thats it… no more Chinatown, Eleanor”
“You know.. .. I never had a son”
“Yes, and I never got married either” she said. She raised her arms in a slight shrug. “Clearly, I mean.. look at me. .. I’m old.. It is too old for me to marry”.
“Ah.. I don’t..”
“Yeah but I always always ALWAYS wanted a kid, you know? I always wanted to have a little baby and watch him grow up.”
“Eleanor, it’s never too late”
She emitted a laughter mixed with tears and nervousness.. and then tousled my hair.
“I’m gonna miss you, little kid”
“I’m twenty-six, Eleanor”
“You look like you are twelve, therefore you are twelve to me.”
I scrunched my face at the logic.
“Here, have a cigarette,” she said, rolling a Camel Light from her sweaty well manicured hands.
“Twelve year olds don’t smoke”
“Haha! Smart ass. I smell you smoking all times of the night.”
She quickly changed the subject while wiping her tear stained face.
“Marry a nice girl ok? No more of this gay stuff”, she said to me in all seriousness. She grabbed my arm. “You don’t have to love her you know. Just have kids. You’ll have beautiful and funny children. I don’t want you to die from ‘gay stuff’. I don’t want you to be alone either”
Unflinchingly I said “Okay, I will settle down and not die from (pause) gay stuff”. I didn’t know how else to respond and I didn’t want to ruin her moment.. Despite my complete lie in the promise to marry a female, in the back of my head I was still mortified that I didn’t speak up about her other comment.
“Now!” she said while letting go of my hand, “Get out of my face and have a wonderful life, my boy”. She dismissed me with her hand like an aristocratic madame, flipping her fingers out like royalty.
“I’m sure we will see each other again Eleanor”, I half lied to her and myself.
“I better see you in the newspaper. You better become something out of yourself”, she said.
As I walked away, I watched her wet eyes look at the sunset again. I knew it was the last time I was ever going to see her, and it was. It was the last time I saw anything of that place, the shared kitchen, the small room, the broken bathroom, the alleyway with the fighting pigeons, and the crossing lines of cotton traveling the ropes to get dry.
And it was another chapter of another place done.
Sometimes I think of Eleanor in the weirdest times. She and the various other eccentric tenants in my life come into my brain when I’m feeling the most vulnerable and wanting to feel visible. .. and I hope she’s stopped smoking on that fire-escape that rests on the crackling walls of 521 Green Street. I hope that she’s broken her own myth that it was too late to marry, and that she’s found that someone that loves her for who she is. And I know, I just know… that when I’m about to go from the world, she’ll be pulling my ear on the way towards the light screaming
“Why didn’t you marry a girl?! I said you were supposed to marry a girl damnit!!!!!”