My new neighborhood is Chinatown, near the East Broadway subway stop in Manhattan.
It makes me happy in a lot of ways.
The streets are wide, and the traffic isn’t busy. Large vans wait patiently for little old ladies to shuffle across roads. It’s not crowded, but there are people moseying. Latino families with macho dads; young white couples with kids in prams; Chinese and Vietnamese families (with the teenagers all wearing Hello Kitty sportswear, cute quirky backpacks, and super-stylish hair); old Jewish couples; and people like me in summer-cut suits, who have clearly landed from somewhere else.
Everyone seems to be ambling around, moving at a slower pace than the rest of this determined, jumbled-up city.
I walked home from work today and I could feel my face start to relax as I got closer to my front door.
There is a big, old library across the street, with leafy trees outside. The shops all sell the same things- cooking equipment, noodles, haircuts (“Cash ONLY! No refunds”- I definitely would think twice before getting a restyle done there; guessing they’re on the defensive for good reason). Cooking equipment, noodles, haircuts. The little stores have the same groceries, lined up on dusty shelves in the same garish packaging. But all the shopkeepers hang out outside and chat like they aren’t in competition with each other. It’s like they only set up shop to have a place to be together, and talk, and watch TV.
There is a shady park, rammed full of play equipment, where families sit and talk while their kids tumble around.
This evening, I saw a mother, with a baby in a carrier on the bench, doing tai chi exercises with what was clearly her mother. They swung their arms together in perfect silence and unison while pigeons chirruped at their feet.
Old men sit and smoke on the square, while their grandsons fire remote-controlled cars at their ankles. The grandsons are all pudgy with spiky black hair and laugh like crazy when they get told off.
As I sat watching all this- smiling like an idiot in the evening sunshine- a kid, about 12 or 13, sprinted past pursued by his dad with a water balloon. The kid was screaming with delight “I’m too tired! I’m gonna die!” The dad caught him around the waist and shouted, in broken English, “Your dad is old man and his needs not tired! I get you (*smashes balloon on kid’s head*)!” The kid screamed with laughter. Then they both laughed at me, laughing at them, and walked off arm in arm. I don’t think my heart could have been any more warmed if I had microwaved it.
I have never felt more like I was sitting right in the middle of a proper community- everyone seemed to be smiling at each other. Some of them smiled at me, which they really had no call to do considering I was walking around taking pictures and gawping at them rudely.
All this chillosity is probably because I’ve left Bushwick. I didn’t want to say much at the time, and harsh everyone’s mellow, but that didn’t feel like such a happy place. it felt like a place where everyone wanted to be somewhere else, or someone else. Actually I felt that lots of the people I met there paid more attention to what they wore, than how they felt inside, or made other people feel. A snap judgement; I know that what is below the surface of any community is impossible for any outsider to perceive in just a short month, and that anyone from Bushwick reading this will think “You are a moron. Begone”, but that is how I felt.
Partly, probably, I’m just getting old and I’m not too impressed any more by all-night parties and the people that go to them (especially, if we’re honest, when I don’t know them well enough to feel like I’m a part of it). No matter how many drugs people are throwing around, or what the music is like… parties and clubs all look the same at the end of the night, and you end up smoking too many cigarettes, and talking to some idiot who wants to tell you what their tattoo means and how it’s super significant that it’s in black and white, and on their left arm, not the right. (Stand up, Stokes Croft). My party days are probably nearly over. But that’s ok. I realised today in the pre-chat of a conference- while comparing tablet keyboard usability and weight with the delegate next to me and swapping ‘subway puddle’ stories, and (this is crucial) genuinely enjoying the conversation- that I have officially left the Cool Zone. (Well, I was only ever circling around the lobby anyway, so they won’t miss me.)
And partly: I know that lots about this neighborhood reminds me of Thailand, a place I lived for a year, and was really introspective and content, and learned a lot about myself and about others.
I’m not in denial; it’s not all beautiful. The big plastic signs, and the occasional smell of food waste or fish markets isn’t for everyone, nor is the clanging of metal equipment from the kitchens and the screams and shouts from the windows as people holler at each other (it sounds like someone’s doing a murder, but I’m sure it’s just a dinner order or something).
And to be honest, anyway, every place that you experience is through the lens of whatever internal whirlpools are drowning you at the time; sometimes you see more to be happy about when you’re closer to the surface, and you’re not getting dragged down. If I was to see this on another day, in another year, I might only be able to see the cracks and the grubbiness.
But “home” is something you can’t put your finger on. To sit this evening, and quietly listen to the sound of children laughing, on a bench surrounded by grass and trees and calm, planning my evening meal, watching the sun set over the Manhattan skyline in the distance and people scurrying home… was one of those little diamond moments that make life worth living. Like the first touch of warm sand on the soles of your feet, these moments unfurl you, and leave you open.