TuCan: The $1 Kingdom



25 Lispenard St, New York,

Neighborhood: Chinatown

I have given my neighborhood a trendy new name. TuCan. What does it mean? Too Close to Canal Street. My windows are over Canal Street, but my street is named “Lispenard.” Have you heard of it? Neither has any cab driver in New York City. Every day, I attempt to direct them to it. They invariably take offense and say “just tell me the address.” A hostile silence always follows my reply, and a gender war generally ensues. Monsieur Lispenard was an eighteenth century New York landowner, and a Huguenot, but that’s no excuse for mail addressed to Liz Bernard Street, Lithpen Arch Street, and Lesbianard Street.

Canal Street used to be a rank, fetid canal which was paved over in the nineteenth century because of the rats and mosquitoes that plagued the area, causing a threat to the public health. The rats and mosquitoes that plague the area now are entirely different.

In addition to its colorful native fauna, Canal Street offers many sensual diversions. This is especially true in summer, when restaurants release their pungent effluvium onto the sidewalks of my exotic kingdom. Queasy, headache-inducing incense hawked on every corner offsets meat of questionable provenance burning on skewers. Mornings I awake to enjoy a nautical whiff from “Sea World”; it’s just like the one in Orlando, except for the frying in recycled animal fat.

Perhaps that same aroma thrilled Peter Stuyvesant as he wended his way to the Tombs for a public lynching, as my neighborhood has been a place of criminal punishment and correction since the 1700’s. It’s comforting to know that the prison next door isn’t maximum security or anything; it’s just a temporary home for the dregs of our urban society, a brief stopover on the way to Riker’s.

On the sidewalks, a thousand street vendors hawk worthless trinkets indiscriminately to the dazed throngs. I must walk in the actual street, or “highway.” With the Holland Tunnel at one end, and the Manhattan Bridge at the other, Canal Street offers not only an unparalleled assortment of five dollar Rolexes, old perfume, bootleg Usher CD’s, and counterfeit Prada bags, but a unique opportunity to be mowed down in one’s prime by an unlicensed crackhead speeding in an eighteen wheeler from Miami to Maine. Traffic lights are not even mildly discouraging to the carefree insouciance of this environment. If one is foolhardy enough to attempt a crossing, one finds oneself in SoHo, a popular suburban mall.

Footsore families from as far away as France, Belgium and Jersey City blow their meagre paychecks on blinking, beeping, digital trinkets that their clever offspring generally break before they hit the Tunnel. These gewgaws are made by tiny infants slaving in sweltering hovels somewhere in China, who earn twelve cents a year for their trouble. If these poor children only came to TuCan, to work in the nearby sweatshops, they could earn almost ten cents more! Certainly, there are phenomenal bargains to be had in my Kingdom. I noticed a man selling brand new sweaters for one dollar. One dollar. Who, I wonder, is making these sweaters?

The tourists are hungry for life. That is why they like to festoon Canal Street with the greasy leftovers of their overpackaged repasts. These they freely distribute from the windows of their gridlocked vehicles, while their powerful mobile sound systems compete to regale us with hip-hop, salsa, and R&B. Crank up that Megabass! It’s a fight to the finish, each pulsating speaker punch-drunk to assert its owner’s superior musical taste. Apparently, if my Usher wipes out your Christina Aguilera, it’s proof of my sexual prowess.

When I moved here it was famous for hardware, which some would criticize for its silence, but Canal Street is now both the car alarm and store alarm capital of the world. Here every deafening variation of beep, ring, and scream is installed and tested. The five-alarm combination blast is la specialité de la quartier. A demonstration of state-of-the-art noisemaking is performed on a nightly basis, and I am serenaded daily by a man shouting “Onedollaonedollaonedollaonedolla.” Perhaps he is selling mink coats. In December of ’99, I experienced a period of silence, during a freak snowstorm. I will never forget that magical seven minutes.

This fun-loving festival of refuse, wailing, honking and shouting lasts from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, when the road rage and deadly exhaust emissions of bewildered foreign tourists and families of angry shoppers are replaced by the road rage and deadly exhaust emissions of angry interstate truckers and angry New Jersey wage slaves.

TuCan is the only neighborhood in New York with no Korean grocery or grocery store of any kind. The Food Emporium is thirteen blocks away, in “Tribeca.” Should I ever get a hankering for, say, shrimp congee, pork buns, or blood soup, hey, no problem! If I get a bizarre hankering for milk, however, I can hike up to SoHo to Gourmet Garage or Bean and Beluga, and pay double. If I get hungry, I might order a couple of slices from “Pizza Plus Plus”. What’s the extra “plus” for? I don’t know, but I’m glad it’s there, and I’m lucky if I can get it. I’ve begged Pizza Plus Plus to stock two percent milk and orange juice, but the closest they get is Fanta. Perhaps I could learn to like it on corn flakes. Six months ago a store renovation on Broadway raised my hopes for a Gristedes, but no. It’s a Duane Reade. Good thing, too, because the next closest Duane Reade is almost two blocks away. You can’t have too many Duane Reades. Thankfully, they carry not only Fanta but Slim Fast. Is that food? I sure hope so.

June 23, 1983 is a day I’ll never forget; the day I learned the truth about TuCan. It was also my wedding day, and we were very late getting to the U.N. chapel. I was dressing, looking for something blue. It turned out in the end to be my bra straps, both of which are plainly visible in the wedding pictures. The doorbell rang unexpectedly. “I’m from the E.P.A.,” said an official voice, and I rushed to the buzzer. A mere seventeen months into my initial inquiry, the city had seen fit to investigate the horrible smell.

It came from somewhere on Canal Street, but where? A sickly-sweet cocktail of rotten meat, rancid oil and neglectful human hygiene might begin to describe it; it hadn’t been there, and then one day it was there. I let the inspector in over the protests of my anxious future ex. “Let them all wait!” I cried, “Don’t you see this is the chance of a lifetime?” I knew that this special moment might never come again. The inspector placed mysterious gadgets in the windows, scribbled on a pad, and glanced up at me in my wedding dress. “Tell me!” I begged. “Tell me the truth!” His pithy answer had an air of finality about it that haunts me to this day. “Nuthin’ I can do, ma’am, dis just ain’t a residential neighborhood.”

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