It’s common practice for a bar/restaurant to save their first dollar and hang it on the wall. Sometimes it’s framed. Other times it’s taped. But it’s up there for luck. Or at least celebration. A sort of diploma from the school of capitalism. Some businesses even save their first dollar bill, five dollar bill, ten dollar bill, and twenty dollar bill. The higher denominations like graduate degrees. There are establishments with a dozen or so bills on display, no doubt commemorating certain landmarks, like finally turning a profit, a year in business, their first million. I’ve seen places that exhibit foreign currency, marks from Germany, and lira from Italy, and yen from Japan, even though they’re not legal tender inside these borders. But Sun Lin Garden takes this tradition to another level, the entire interior wallpapered with bills scribbled on by patrons in thick red magic marker.
Located at 69 Bayard Street in Chinatown, there’s a large neon “69” in the window. Most of the people that I know call the place “69.” Albeit with a grin on their face. But it’s cheap. And the food is great. Best of all, it’s open 24 hours.
You don’t make reservations to go here. In fact, you don’t really make plans. It just kind of happens. The idea pops into your head. You’re in the neighborhood. You get a craving. On this particular night, Karen and I had dinner at Acme, then drinks at Time Cafe, before seeing a late Sonic Youth show at Knitting Factory, and when we emerged from the club, the summer breeze seemed to carry the scent like the wavy lines that lead to food in cartoons, and we followed it up Canal.
When we enter, the dining room is empty, except for the round table in back where employees eat family-style, and the man behind the cash register waves us in, tells us in his broken English to sit anywhere. I’m already seated, menu in hand, as Karen spins around like she just stepped foot in the chocolate room of Willy Wonka’s factory. This is her first time. She’s an actress from Chicago. We met when she auditioned for a one-act that I’d written. I offered her the part on the spot. We’ve been dating for almost six months.
“I’m starving,” I say to get her attention.
“Do you see this?!”
She sits, and we get down to business. I tell her that the beef chow fon is fantastic, and she says, “Let’s get that.” She says that she’s in the mood for sweet and sour chicken, and I say, “That sounds good.”
We start with a couple egg rolls, and share the bowl of duck sauce that’s on the table, engaging in a dipping contest and laughing drunkenly. The beef chow fon comes out next, and Karen takes charge and serves it, even if her hand is about as steady as my grandmother with Parkinson’s and half of it lands on the table. This is enough food for both of us, and by the time the sweet and sour chicken arrives, we’re full and picking more than eating.
Karen’s eyes wander, looking over the notes on the near wall, and she starts reading aloud. “JULLIAN LOVES ANNA.” And “JEN AND ALBERT 4 EVER.” And “BIG ANTHONY + JASMINE.” And “ROTH FROM LONG ISLAND.” And “TKE” on a six dollar block. Inevitably, she asks the question that everyone finally gets around to asking, “How much money do you think is here?” We make a game of counting the vertical rows and multiplying them by the horizontal rows. Then add everything up. The total we arrive at is $4,865. To allow for the occasional five and ten we make it an even $5,000.
Three dollars of that is mine. Singles hung on separate occasions. Memorials to past relationships. “TOM + LAURA,” located two-thirds of the way up on the right hand wall, dates from sometime in 1994. Laura was my first love. The girl that broke my heart. Forever changed the way I relate to women. I was still living on Staten Island at the time. She was from New Jersey. We were on one of our first dates, but I already knew she was the one.
There’s also a “TOM AND LAURA,” higher up on the same wall, from early 1995. Different Laura. Commonly referred to as “Laura #2.” My mother once had a twenty minute phone conversation thinking she was talking to the original Laura, and when she finally realized, made it worse by trying to explain. It was all a terrible coincidence. Or maybe I was trying to recapture the past. Either way, Laura #2 and I only dated a short time. She never really stood a chance.
The third one, simply two names, “TOM” and “CHLOE,” is on the ceiling, summer of ’99. Chloe was a French girl with dreadlocks like a Bo Derek for the new Millennium. A coworker introduced us at a party, and she ended up living with me for the next two months, trading porno sex in exchange for room and board. There was no lease. She stole my Tops baseball card collection and never even said goodbye.
The words, “We should do one,” snap me out of my reverie and I look to see Karen smiling, the corners of her mouth turned up, cheeks blushing, eyes twinkling. I can practically hear the people back home saying that with a smile like hers she should be an actress. Though it’s not rehearsed. It is the innocence of childhood. Mixed with the hope of adolescence. And the sensuality that is woman. But I vowed never to hang another dollar.
“There’s no more room,” I said.
“Yes there is.”
“I don’t know if I have a single.”
“I’ve got one.”
“It’s against the law to deface legal tender.”
“Someday they’re gonna bust this place. And track all these people down.”
“Don’t you love me?”
It’s a rhetorical question, but still, it hangs in the air, a crisis in our young relationship. Finally, I raise my hand to call the waiter.