After a brief subway ride in the night, my boyfriend Evan and I were dumped, cravings abound, into a mecca of affordable Manhattan food. By day, people know this place as Chinatown.
It didn’t take long before we found a promising restaurant. For me, the frosted glass on the facade evoked enough mystery that I imagined only the best food blurred behind the panels, like it was a TV program censoring lascivious content. Christmas lights draped from the ceiling and a wreath beckoned the holiday spirit.
It was July.
But my heart whispered Christmas was coming early this year.
We crossed the holiday threshold into a world that was foreign to us, except we were the foreigners walking in on someone else’s day-in-the-life.
The door closed behind us, trapping steamy aromas, noises of squealing laughter, and at least five passionate conversations colliding into a conglomerate scream under the din of a cool light.
We may as well have shown up unannounced to the 2nd course of a madrigal dinner, where the Announcer of Guests rises and says, “Announcing the Arrival of 2 White People in over their heads, hand-in-hand.”
Somehow, the noise in the room did not falter, but 50 pairs of eyes watched us enter.
Evan did not waver, as he knew our position and that these first few moments were critical. He sauntered toward the kitchen in a way that tried to tell these regulars, “We come here all the time. You don’t remember us? Odd!”
I wondered if this was only a restaurant for large parties as I looked around for a small table where I could blend my blushing cheeks with the salmon-colored walls. No such seating arrangement existed.
A man approached us, less than thrilled to be the designated cultural mediator. “Cash only.”
He sat us on opposite ends of a table as large as the ones the party of 15 or so people were sitting at. He handed us two menus and left without a sound. This was to be a purely transactional relationship.
I opened the menu and heard Evan sigh across the table, introduced to a menu with dinners starting at $25.
For context, a millennial’s cash budget roughly translates to someone from the 1920’s walking into a grocery store today. We both probably have 2 nickels.
The prices dropped with each turning page. Evan tentatively orbited his chair around the small planet we were sitting at until we were next to each other. We got comfortable. The tea was warm. Someone shouted to us from the other table “Amigos!” We exchanged thumbs up.
They were having a gregarious, good time. Which, I realized, there are two types of people in this world based on how you react to being on the outside of such a group.
I let them perform for each other and stared into the miniature mug of Jasmine tea attached to my face. Evan turned into my dog when anyone comes over: What’re they doing now? Someone just walked to the other side of the table! Did you see that?! I repeat, someone just got up!
Despite them speaking in a language that was foreign to us, every joke they said was hilarious to him.
At one point, Evan turns to me and says, “I want to be like that guy when I’m older,” motioning to the loudest person in the group.
“Please don’t.” I say.
He looks back at the man with perhaps a more critical eye. I wonder if I’ve just crushed a dream of his. I chew on a tea leaf. Evan smiles at the group, who stopped noticing us a while ago.
Something about the people occasionally standing to make a grand proclamation felt like an old party scene in a Shakespeare play, where they take turns making cheers at the end of witticisms about the ironies of life.
There was one lady with a laugh that was an absolute happening, and occurred regularly. To say it was deafening would’ve been a relief for my ear drums.
Our waiter glanced up at us, mouth full, face shrouded in steam swirling from a bowl inches away from a table shared with restaurant staff. We communicated with minimal hand motions that we were ready to order.
Evan and I continued to study our surroundings, but look at each other more.
His entrée arrived, which is another understatement. This plate must have been 2 pounds, and the mountain of shrimp and noodles another 3.
I have never seen a plate this big in my life.
Evan hadn’t eaten since lunch and it was nearing 10:30 p.m., but his eyes bulged at the undertaking.
My beef & pork chow mein dwarfed his noodle dish like it was a mere appetizer. Deconstructed, I’m sure this amounted to a bulk bag of noodles and entire cow on my plate.
Seeing it sit next to my small teacup was comical, only second to profound. It took about two minutes until we were asked if we would like silverware after a waitress saw me obscenely shoveling through the uncooked, crunchy noodles.
Hell no, we didn’t.
I understood why people traveled to this restaurant in small herds. One dish could feed all of them.
We lingered until the noodles on my plate were cooked under the molten sauce and our lunches for the rest of the week were boxed up. The table with Evan’s loud muse and the hawing woman quieted while munching on ice cream cones.
We disappeared back into Chinatown’s back roads.