Walking to my office from the last Manhattan F train stop before Brooklyn, I felt like I could imagine what the old Lower East Side was. Or maybe what it always has been — and always will be. A neighborhood of immigrants. The home of the undervalued and overwhelmed.
The social service agency where I worked was located on the eastern edge of ever-eastward-expanding Chinatown. The area is still brimming with unassimilated culture, but the immigrants these days are the young white folks from uptown, adding their soy latte paper cups and Whole Foods plastic bags to the polystyrene clam shells and broken liquor bottles of previous inhabitants’ detritus.
Every morning along East Broadway I passed several of the small food distribution warehouses that supply the innumerable restaurants in the area. It’s all rubber tires and wooden palettes, beeping carts and honking horns, orders barked in Chinese and answered in Spanish.
Lazy, unaffected stray cats lounge on bags of rice. Cases of five-gallon jugs of monosodium glutamate wait, cooling in the early shade. Bags of overripe onions and packs of bean sprouts sit waiting for refrigeration, sending into the air a spoiled, acrid bouquet of lost time.
Waxed cardboard boxes of chicken parts drip quietly inches above the pavement. Oil and bile and festering water from thawing seafood mix with milky pools of unidentifiables in the streets. The draught, gently, blindly finding its way toward the pungent gutters, never frozen in winter, never quick in summer, would glisten in the sharp early sun of crisp fall mornings, would stir cigarette butts slowly in shades of gray and beige in the murky mornings of springtime.
God knows what time these poor guys got out of bed to haul crates, push carts, load vans. They’d have been at it for hours before I passed by at 8:30 in the morning. I’d avoid the puddles, careful not to slip, hopping to one side then the other to miss skillful dollies and swiftly moving carts, pressing onward toward the warming day to a place I had the nerve to complain about.