Growing up on Staten Island, a trip to Manhattan, while covering only several miles, and less than an hour away, was an adventure. There are things I remember about “going to the city” from my childhood. I remember holding my ears and laughing when the horn of the Staten Island Ferry sounded. I remember eating roast beef sandwiches at Blarney Stone with my grandfather as businessmen drank beers with their lunch around us. I remember the sixth grade trip to Chinatown, during which I got my first look at a naked woman.
As an eleven year old, I’d never seen a naked woman. This was 1974. Before cable reached us. Before the internet. Before DVD. Before VHS, even. Being an only child, I had no brother to teach me, and no sister to spy on. The closest I’d come, was a series of drawings of topless women that my friend Dennis’ older brother, Gary, had hung on his bedroom wall. The drawings, done with magic marker, in psychedelic colors, featured several well endowed – fantastically endowed, actually – women. Dennis and I made regular, carefully orchestrated trips to Gary’s gallery, where a collection of Picassos could not have inspired more awe.
Given this general state of curiosity, and boredom, a trip to Chinatown held about as much anticipation as a trip to China. This was in the wake of Nixon’s visit to China, so it was a hot button topic. Ping pong was all the rage. Second only to, perhaps, panda bears. Much of our curriculum, or at least extra-curricular activities, concerned that which was Chinese. Hanging over our heads all year, was the threat of the trip being cancelled should we not behave like the young ladies and gentlemen we were expected to be. It was a crisis when one of the parent chaperones dropped out the week before. As the days counted down, there were release forms to sign, and fees to pay, and an address by the principal that included the admonition, “Anything purchased in Chinatown must first meet the approval of a chaperone.” The morning of the big day, in some sort of candy apple version of temptation, my mother and father provided me with a five dollar bill in “spending money.”
Essentially, the trip consisted of walking through Chinatown, en route to a pre-fixe dinner. Folded in half, and then folded again, my five dollar bill remained safely tucked away in my jeans’ pocket while other kids spent freely, mobbing magazine kiosks and gorging on candy, and swarming the bins outside Chinese chachki shops, grabbing up imitation jade jewelry, Chinese coins worn down to slugs, and polished stones like they’d discovered treasure. Someone’s newest prized possession Chinese handcuffs wowed a crowd for the ephemeral minutes before it was broken. One boy bought a turtle in a plastic tank, smaller than a lunchbox, that he joyously swung by the handle, until it finally drew the attention of a teacher, abruptly ending the shopping spree.
The restaurant was one of the more touristy places on Mott Street, not too unlike any Chinese restaurant you could visit on Staten Island. Much to everyone’s delight, pitchers of Coke were placed on the tables and quickly refilled once empty. Dinner was a chaotic affair, with thirty or so pre-teens wired on sugar and caffeine, and more interested in commenting on the food than eating. By chance, I was seated at a large round table with, among others long forgotten, Kevin McDonald and Roy Foxx. Kevin and Roy were best friends, and the biggest delinquents in the class. They both smoked, and would prove it by lighting up at an after school rendezvous when challenged. But what they were most infamous for was terrorizing the school over a several month period with Chinese Stingers – bobby pins, coiled like a ram’s horns, so that upon prodding, they would spring, or “sting.” (It’s doubtful whether “Chinese Stingers” were actually imported from China, but the nomenclature was yet another indication of the Chinese craze.)
Kevin and Roy were two characters with whom I didn’t readily associate. So, instead of joining in the “dinner conversation,” I fondled my five dollar bill, wrestling with the moral dilemma of whether to return it to my parents, hence, proving to them my prudence, or declaring it spent, and adding to my nest egg. At some point I sensed a commotion, and turned to see Kevin holding a magazine open on his lap under the table, while Roy served as lookout. It took a minute for the image on the page to come into focus, more a consequence of my mind than my eyes, but when it did, I saw my first naked woman. Asian, breasts supple, squatting power-lifter style and peeing into a wine glass. The world would never be the same. Even if it proceeded without so much as a waver.
Following dinner, the tour continued as we made our way back to the subway. The shopping also resumed, albeit under stricter supervision. With a teacher at my side, I purchased a “Chinatown” magnet, its Roman alphabet letters scripted in faux Chinese and guarded by a dragon. Capping off the day, we paid an impromptu visit to an arcade where the highlight was a live blue chicken encaged in a tic-tac-toe machine that, for a quarter, would meet all challengers. Offering the best bang for an eleven year old’s buck – ever! – this had them lining up. The chicken hustled me for the last of my money.
I proudly presented the “Chinatown” magnet to my parents as a souvenir, and they hung it on our refrigerator, where it remained on display for years. During puberty, I had a recurring nightmare about being pursued through the streets of Chinatown by an Asian woman with long red fingernails. It’s night, and I’m running, gasping for breath as I look over my shoulder. I duck into a doorway to hide, but her hand tauntingly reaches around the corner, fingernails flashing like knifes, and I take off running again. It wasn’t until adulthood that I made the connection between the trip and the dream. To this day, I have a thing for Asian women.
Tom Diriwachter has worked as a playwright in New York for over a decade. He is currently at work on a book of non-fiction.