Thursday, April 25, 2013

Kid-napped in Queens

I wound my way down Main Street in Flushing Queens through a bustling Sunday crowd as the boom of planes departed overhead. Flushing always reminds me of the movie Blade Runner. I could hear the many different Chinese dialects as shoppers haggled over the usual dried Asian goods and fresh groceries. I followed my nose to food stalls on every street corner stocked with hot scallion pancakes, longs rice noodles, pork dumplings, fish cakes, spiced chicken wings and the like. But I was there to shop for vegetables.

So into the crowd I dove, not quite blending in and apparently standing too long to look at vegetables; a spry old woman grabbed my shoulders, muttered at me and then pushed me out of the way to let a stock boy refill the cucumber bin. The produce is incredibly fresh and the shoppers demand high quality. With that kind of floor traffic I imagine the bins are refreshed at least hourly. The prices in each store vary but are notably much cheaper than what I’m accustomed to here in Park Slope, even by food co-op standards.

I left the madness of Main street and headed towards Roosevelt Avenue to the Korean neighborhood but got turned around in the crowd. I stopped a family en route to a Presbyterian church and asked if they knew where I could find H-mart. As they gave me confusing directions to Parsons Boulevard a voice belted out “I know where it is!” I turned around to see a ten year old boy in a blue hoodie with a key lanyard around his neck. He held a large paper file under one arm. “I go there all the time. It’s near my house.” The church bound family hurried across Union Street. It was already noon.

“So how far is it?” I asked. “It’s not far but you have to promise to walk me home, I’m carrying a lot of money.” With apprehension I agreed but asked in a low tone voice “Why are you telling me you’re carrying a lot of money.” He just giggled and pointed me across the street and I followed with a raised eyebrow. “Just follow me.”
[Flash back, decades ago in the ‘80s] I caught a train bound for Philly to spend a weekend my friend Bill Covaleski. In mid-ride a Chinese woman with an infant got my attention away from my magazine. In an imperative tone she spoke to me in Chinese pointing to her sleeping baby. She repeated what sounded like “wei wie wei” getting more agitated with each word. She nodded her head and I nodded back politely (which I now realize was my first mistake). She put her baby down next to me, repeated the same words and walked briskly through the door into the next car.

I thought to myself that she was just looking for a bathroom or maybe the snack car and returned to my reading. After ten minutes the baby awoke. I said “Hey there little guy” and he started wailing. I picked him up and tried to calm him down as the woman next me said “You have to do something about your baby!” to which I said “This is NOT my baby.” The woman in the seat in front of me gave me advise about calming infants then made a snide comment about first-time fathers, to which I replied again “This is NOT my BABY.” Ten more minutes passed and he quieted down and fell back to sleep as I hummed an ABBA song. It was then I realized that his mother may not be coming back. I had panicked visions of telling little Wei Wei that he was adopted but I raised him as my own. I thought about taking Mandarin classes to one day assimilate and return him to his people. I hoped he would one day become a good doctor.

But then the baby awoke again and then let out a piercing scream as if I were skinning him alive. The woman next to me ruffled her newspaper in protest, got up and stormed off. Soon a conductor arrived. FINALLY! I told him what had happened; he took me seriously and told me not to go anywhere. Holding the crying baby I said “Trust me, I’m not going anywhere.” The train sped up and shot passed the usual local stops. Someone yelled out “Holy shit!” I said “Hey, NOT in front of the baby!” The train slowed down and pulled up to a small station but the doors did not open. We idled for a few minutes. The police boarded the train as the conductor pointed their way to me. With a screaming baby in my arms they asked me many questions about the woman—what she wore, what her manner was, her ethnicity. Then they took the baby from me. Through the window I saw them leading her away. She was without any emotion on her face. The police lead here away holding tightly to her ill-fitting pink and cream cardigan. I had no idea what had really happened, but the conductor told me she was hiding in a locked bathroom. To this day I often wonder what happened to little Wie Wei.
Meanwhile back in Flushing, we finally arrived at his house. Over the course of 20 minutes and many winding blocks I learned that his name was Ju but prefers to be called John; he once lived in Pennsylvania but doesn’t remember where or anything else because he was very young; he had lived in three houses before this one; he always feeds his ice cream cones to the birds because they might be hungry. He emerged from his front door with an ice cream cone in one hand and a cell phone to his ear speaking in Korean. As we ambled further I asked again “Are you sure you know the way to H-mart?” “Of course, I told you I go there all the time! I have to get some stuff for my mom.” As we crossed the corner I grabbed him out of the way of a passing car. With adult authority I declared “Here are the rules. When you cross a street you stop, look and you put that phone away.”

He nodded and he put it away. “Hey do you play video games?” I said “No, I’m too old for that kind of stuff.” I though better than to tell him that I was on the lam for killing and looting a hobo while playing Red Dead Redemption. We stopped to feed the birds. “Is that a real leather jacket?” he asked. “Yes it is” “Wow, I want one but my mom says it’s too expensive.” “Save up your money and quit playing video games.” He laughed and said “Nah.” The scenery became more suburban—cheery tree lined street, double garages, lawn ornaments, decorative mail boxes. I wondered if we were still in Queens. “Are we even close to H-mart?” He nodded, then sarcastically quipped “No it’s like ten more miles.”

Finally I stopped a jogger who told me to take a right, get back onto Union and walk eight more blocks to 29th Avenue. Arms akimbo, I gave Ju a sly look with both eyebrows raised. He said “I was going to tell you that.” But not long after, there we were. Closer to a mile from where I started, I stood before Korean Mecca—the largest H-mart I’d ever seen. It was the size an an airplane hanger. “See, I told you.” he said as I stood below the giant H. I asked him how he was going to get his groceries back home. “I’m going to play video games right now, I’ll get them later” and he skipped off around the corner and disappeared.

I felt a bit played, but after that mile long trek I had arrived. The worth of it was the free food samples for the Sunday shoppers—tofu simmered in kimchee and squid on rice. I was starved after all that walking. The store was bright and clean, with a prepared food section that wrapped around clearly marked isles. The fresh seafood and meats seemed to glow with a healthy color. The produce looked very fresh and was literally half of what I pay here in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the Korean chili flakes (gochucaru) were an authentic brand grown and milled South Korea (not China). I lugged 20 lbs of Korean radish (mu) and over 15 lbs of sea salt and chili flakes up and down Union Street to the 7 Line. I had to laugh about that kid—what a curious character. As I entered the subway station a plane flew low over my head. Ciao Queens, I’ll be back with a very large granny cart.

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