They Steal Young Girls

by

03/23/2009

Chinatown, New York, New York 10002

Neighborhood: Chinatown

“You can’t walk around here! They steal young girls and sell them as slaves.” Grandma’s voice hit a higher pitch with each syllable, her blue eyes sparking with agitation behind the dark rims of her glasses. I was momentarily stunned by her vehemence as much as by her words.

We were in the backseat of the family Chevy, a sturdy 1950s green coupe which my father was navigating deep into the traffic-clogged streets of Chinatown, his last reserves of patience ebbing fast. This was a couple of hours into another of our traditional Saturday family drives, this time a nostalgia tour of downtown Manhattan. Surrounding cars blared their horns in dissonant intervals, agitated by the snail-like progress towards the next intersection, and a musty odor breezed through my half-open window, blending the unusually warm autumn air with the complex aromas of a city afternoon. My mother, calm intact, had suggested pulling into a nearby illegal parking spot to regroup. It was then, as the car snuggled into the curb, that I spied the little gift shop, its intriguing windows ablaze with gold-threaded red silks and peopled with tiny dolls the likes of which did not show up in Woolworth’s, one of Grandma’s former employers and a favorite haunt of mine. My eight-year-old enthusiasm kicked into high gear as I pointed out this fortunate opportunity to exit the car and savor some exotic local splendor. My words were still echoing over the car’s rumbling motor when Grandma’s outburst exploded with the force of a popped balloon.

“Grandma, it’s just a gift shop!” I retaliated. “They don’t have slaves anymore. Especially here.”

“They used to,” she shot back, her brows still knitted into tense little seams.

Grandma adjusted her position in the seat for emphasis, her solid 5’2″ frame all well-corseted and no-nonsense. The tight silver curls of her permanent did not budge, styled according to her exact specifications by long-suffering instructor Margaret at the Wilfred Beauty Academy in Queens. No slave monger would have laid a finger on Grandma without being sorry – if there were any slave mongers at all, I thought.

“But the store is so cute…”

Outside, the crush of pedestrians whooshed past the car against a backdrop of eclectic establishments whose signs were filled with mysterious symbols and pagoda-like designs. The occasional lilt of Chinese conversation punctuated the atmosphere, growing more faint under the continual symphony of horns and mufflers as the speakers disappeared around a corner or through a doorway. The blended vapors of indefinable foods cooking in sizzling pans and sooty street particles rising from the curb became more insistent as I edged closer to the open window. Here was high adventure – not to mention additional gift shops – waiting to be discovered on the narrow rambling streets.

My parents, facing the front windshield squarely, appeared to be considering my exchange with Grandma, or were perhaps just hiding some degree of amusement. I assumed that they had not had any first-hand experience with the slave trade in lower Manhattan. My father refrained from commenting on his mother’s explosive observations, probably preferring to bask in this brief interlude from traffic. I waited for a response to my request, knowing that visiting the shop by myself wouldn’t be an option anyway, a drawback of being an only child.

“Look,” sighed Grandma, her discomfort still palpable. “I’ll go with you.” That was certainly better than a parent coming along. And they were already nodding their weary assent from the front seat. “Just for five minutes.”

I lunged for the car door before they could change their minds, confident that no crime would befall in the five yards to the shop’s entrance or beyond. And I longed to explore beyond.

Warm, grainy air hit our faces as Grandma cast a sideways glance up the block, and I studied her in perplexity. Born in 1890, she had grown up a short distance north of Chinatown, and her father’s tailor shop had been even closer, just below Canal Street. To me, both time and place were out of a storybook. In her youth, she said that important people like the Vanderbilts, elegant in their long dresses and formal suits, rode horse-drawn carriages around town. Teddy Roosevelt was police commissioner. Carnegie Hall opened to the public with Tchaikovsky conducting on the program. Tin Pan Alley catapulted popular music into big business with the same kind of old-fashioned tunes that Grandma’s brother, Uncle George loved to play on the piano, singing along despite the cigar clamped between his teeth. The bicycling craze swept the city. The world was astounding. Of course, for Grandma’s immigrant family, surviving daily life superseded their opportunities to hobnob with the Astors at the theater. Theirs was a different side of the city, one with a rougher texture where both finery and optimism were often in short supply.

The moment we entered the shop, a diminutive Chinese woman about the same age as Grandma greeted us, her accented speech polite and friendly. I reverently surveyed the aisles, the shelves, the ceilings. The place was jammed with wonders – paper fans awash with delicate flowers and birds, and little cups detailed with far-away landscapes. I ran my finger over the tempting surface of a rich black lacquered box and then moved on to assess the assortment of jewelry. Somewhere, the subtle notes of tiny chimes layered the air with peace. I breathed deeply with satisfaction. “I wish we could stay for a whole hour.”

Grandma was visibly pleased at my delight. In the background, I heard her begin to exchange a few guarded pleasantries with the woman – first about the weather and then about me and my eagerness to shop for trinkets. They both smiled in my direction. Perhaps the woman had grandchildren of her own. I caught their faces in the periphery of my vision as they chatted – two woman similar in age, height, and build. The woman’s job was also similar to Grandma’s old job at Woolworth’s. In a closer geographical setting, they might even have become friends, I thought.

Suddenly a small display of rings caught my eye, gleaming under the light. They were decorated with the same types of mysterious symbols that were outside on all of the store signs. “I’m going to buy this,” I announced, selecting one in silver and digging in my pocket to count out the change necessary for the under-a-dollar pricetag.

“I’ll buy it for you,” interjected Grandma emphatically. She carefully reached into her handbag, her firm grip remaining on its sturdy straps, an ingrained habit since she was robbed of her weekly pay on a trolley car many decades before.

“Do you know what the symbols on the ring mean?” asked the woman.

“No,” we answered in unison. Neither one of us did. She then pointed to each – happiness, peace, fortune.. . .

“This is magic,” I said, convinced that all of those wonderful symbols would bring me good luck. Both women laughed. “Grandma, thank you so much!”

We said goodbye to the Chinese woman and rejoined my parents who were snatching a few restful, albeit illegally parked moments before we hit the next tangle of traffic.

“You see, nothing bad happened,” I said. Grandma just smiled. The Chevy hummed into action, and my father pulled once again into the conga line of exhaust fumes. Grandma offered me one of the Charms candies that she always carried. Rolling the tangy fruit square noisily in my mouth, I studied my new ring. Resting my chin on my hand, I could feel its cool outline on my face. Grandma looked off into the distance for a while — or perhaps it was into the past. Maybe Grandma was thinking back to her growing up years when lurid newspaper stories, whispered tales of tragedy, and the bold revelations of Jacob Riis and others shaped a vision of Chinatown, the Italian area of Mulberry Bend, and other closely surrounding multi-ethnic districts, spawned in the wretched tenement traditions of the once-infamous Five Points slum. It wasn’t until decades later that I read about this history and its horrors – Riis and the tenements, Herbert Asbury on gangs, Gwen Kinkead on Chinatown, and others. The Whyos and the Five Points Gang committed crimes to order; opium dens and turf wars consumed their victims. Pickpockets, murderers, racketeers, homeless children, sweatshop workers – all formed a tightly woven fabric of sadness and terror. And, yes, there were stories of women sold as slaves in the nearby Tenth Ward. But I didn’t know any of this yet on that early autumn day.

For Grandma, such horrors must have seemed closer to reality than the finery and glitter of uptown. No doubt she and her best friends, Josie and Elsie, received warnings from parents and teachers: never go near those places; terrible things happen. And, no doubt, these warnings, fed by sensational journalism of the day, highlighted tales that would scare them from ever venturing outside of their own working-class district – perhaps tales of being sold into slavery. Maybe something terrible had even happened to some young person who lived on their street. Maybe the terror of it lingered in the hushed evening shadows as they sat on the steps of their building and talked. And all of it rang clear down the generations, still evoking fear long after the old gangs died out, the hideous tenements were swept away, and the selling of slaves became a footnote in city history.

As an adult, I explored some of those nearby streets. Mulberry Bend was now a century-old park. Chinatown bustled with visitors eager to try tasty dim sum. Five Points – the legendary ancestor of it all – resurfaced as an archaeological dig behind a government building, only its broken relics and ghosts remaining.

The ring nestles safely in a box of my nostalgic treasures. Sometimes I study it and then hold it against my face to feel its cool outline once more, to conjure up its childhood magic. My memories of Grandma are indelible, just as her memories of her own youth were indelible. Now, many years later, I understand the logic of her fear, why it was so real. But more than that, I will always lovingly remember that, despite everything, she got out of the car that day just for me.

   

Carol J. Binkowski is a writer and musician and is the author of Musical New York: An Informal Guide to Its History and Legends & A Walking Tour of Its Sites and Landmarks.

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