I often took my kids out of school for the Yom Kipper holiday, a kind of a semi-sanctioned free pass. But we habitually avoided the claustrophobic synagogue in favor of some excursion into the world—something unusual, a trip to the seashore or the woods. A meal of some challenge, something exotic. It’s important to mark out the year and best when it’s self-generated.
One year when it was just Noah and me, we decided to wander around Chinatown and we’d had such an eye-opening good time, we decide on Chinatown again. This time all three kids are along, Amelia, Eli and Noah. Be on the lookout for a mystery — it’s the theme of the day, an assignment for being let out of school. Our family’s religion is looking for things—beach glass in Venice, wildflowers, birds, good things to eat. This looking, being on the case, is the serious side of our day—but we’ll never get there without some lively irreverence. No fasting for us, and it’ll be pork buns to boot for our picnic in the heart of Chinatown—a picnic in Portsmouth Square. It’s a bright day, air washed from the first rain of the season. We are watching old men gaming on the concrete tables. Chess and some gamboling game with colored discs. A trio of hipster junkies wobble out of the pagoda shaped bathroom, blue tile roof with the uplifted corners sitting on shiny red columns. Street tough, skinny kids, raggedy and high—all in black. We’ve just come to sit and eat after a quick buzz through the Grant Avenue tourist traps and a long walk through the open stalls on Stockton Street.
Market day, and it seems every shopper is slung with dual pink heavy-laden plastic bags. Like a uniform. In another era those bags would resemble some variety of hanging viscera. We’re standing outside a fish market on Stockton with our own pink bags full of pork buns and fried rice. Fruit, flowers and fish smells all around, but it’s the rank bouquet of the spiky, football-size Durian that dominates. Some say- caramel flavored gym socks. Some say- onions, sherry and marshmallows, but the flavor is complex, and it’s a smell that stays with you. Sweet and ripe cheese-y.
The whole front of the fish store is open. The roll-up door raised for market day. This is a live fish store with tanks of languid mullet and carp gasping in stale water. Turtle feet scratch endlessly on their white plastic tubs clawing in obsessive longing. Big bullfrogs are piled up in a bucket. The sound of bargaining in a tonal language. The voice without the emotional modulation but the feeling carried in the words themselves. Each word is a little song. On an ancient wooden block, so scrubbed down it looks as if the wood has sagged, the fish guy’ll cut, gut and filet the fish right in front of you. No FDA needed to guarantee freshness.
A family is standing at the proscenium of fish-land, Mom, Pop, three kids all in brushed denim-casual, ironed stiff, all with white new tennies huddled together outside the market. They are doll people, all blonds and daft with the spell cast by all the unfamiliar sights, a kingdom so unlike their suburban Minnesota or Nebraska ever-afterville.
The fishmonger has a sweaty comb-over. He and his customer bargain for a big fish. They have been doing this for 10,000 years. The seller looks at the row of blondes and makes a show of lifting a big one out of the tank by the gills, smacking it down on the cutting block and taking a sawed-off baseball bat out of a holster on his waist thwacks the wet fish head hard three times, then five times. He takes his scraper as scales go flying onto the little family. This is not a theatre. This is food. This is business. This is life. They flee in a big hurry back to the safety of the fake tourist glitter of Grant Avenue. The four of us check in with exchanged looks, smiling, a satisfying moment. Maybe we’ve seen what we came for.