Perhaps I’d have found cheap restaurants on my own. But I doubt it. In Chinatown, Jeff the super introduced me to another side of the city, a world within a world, at once alien and alluring, delectable and disgusting. Chinatown was a melee of sights and smells. Mott Street, the main drag, was lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and outdoor market stalls stocked with oddly shaped fruits and unfamiliar root vegetables that looked like unearthed tree stumps. Fishmongers stacked rows of fragrant specimens on ice along the sidewalks, heads and tails intact, dozens of different species set out in the sun alongside barrels of edible shell creatures ranging from shrimp to snails to wriggling live crabs. Until then, I’d only been shopping at Krogers or the A&P.
Jeff certainly knew his way around those twisting streets. He favored a tiny basement restaurant than specialized in dense noodle soups, the fatty broth studded with floating islands of meat and bone. I never felt comfortable or especially welcome there and considering that we were always the only Caucasians in the joint, I understood why the service was non-existent. I much preferred the row of Szechwan-style restaurants on East Broadway. The best one was all the way down the block, practically underneath the Manhattan Bridge. This restaurant’s name is lost to me now – Shanghai something? The walls were papered with dozens of signs advising diners on the specials of the day in Chinese characters, though the regular menu offered rudimentary translations: “lions head” was a giant globe-shaped pork meatball served on a bed of savory soft-cooked cabbage. Bony chicken nuggets in sauce had an addictive sweet spicy tang until you accidentally bit into one of the painfully hot red peppers dotting the dish like land mines and lost your sense of taste for the next hour or two. Jeff insisted on practicing his beginners Chinese everywhere we went, to the general bemusement of waiters and countermen all over Chinatown. I can’t remember what dialect he was specializing in, perhaps Cantonese or Mandarin, but something was off with his delivery. Jeff never seemed to establish the common ground that basic conversation is built on; he’d proudly deploy the vocabulary words he’d just defined for me and the targeted Chinese-speaker would invariably shake his head “no.”
As with all Jeff-related endeavors, there was more to this picture than immediately met the eye. He was no mere student. Oh no, he was a teacher. Another hat he wore (his phrase) was that of ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, a tutor for recent immigrants. Despite my growing skepticism about Jeff’s character I was impressed by the compassion in his voice when he spoke of his handful of “clients,” and his geeky enthusiasm for Chinese culture.
Later that summer he asked me to attend an evening meeting with him, a recruiting event for an ESL teaching volunteers group. I told Jeff that I had just started my job and wouldn’t have time to donate until I got out of debt. But he didn’t let it drop and I didn’t have anything to do when the night arrived, so I went along thinking I could get a free beer or glass of wine, and a peak at the other potential volunteers, i.e. hopefully people my own age for a change.
The party took place in a loft ten floors above Broadway near the Flatiron Building. As we waited for the rattling antique elevator in the litter-strewn lobby, Jeff motioned me closer to him, speaking in a nearly inaudible voice. There was nobody else around.
“You might hear some people tonight call me Jed.”
“What, as in Jed Clampett?”
“Wha-what do you mean?”
“It was a joke, never mind, what’s the deal with this Jed business?”
“Well it’s another name I use. Jeff, Jed, Jay sometimes.”
“Huh. So this means Reidel isn’t your real last name.”
“It is now. I’ve used other variations.”
“I know this is a dumb question, Jeff, but why bother? Doesn’t it get, uh, complicated, maintaining these different identities?”
“Mark, the great thing about New York is how you can lead different lives.” Chinatown storefronts 1981
I was relieved when the elevator doors open with a thud.