Here: shimmering scrap yards outline the horizon; collapsed and crunched heaps of industrial detritus; and mud flats, oily spectacles at a high tide, urban swamps of flushed-out pouring rain, or highway runoff, dirty-metallic, putrid and unpopulated stretches between Flushing and All-New York. The 7 train slips past it all in a mechanical elegance matched only by the cars rushing past, shuddering on weaves of roadways, beneath above and beside MTA tracks.
The Flushing subway station burps passengers out onto the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Out onto a land already teeming with lines upon lines and crowds upon crowds at crosswalks. Buses grumble past; holiday garlands complement the innumerable lit-up signs; signs in Mandarin and Korean and maybe Cantonese; signs assaulting all walkers with indecipherable images of the East; one sign atop another so that it’s unknown what signage is for what shop or market or restaurant, if any.
And food: the sweating and greasy roasting rabbits, chickens, ducks, and swine, all skinned and most headless; these the main selling items, like advertisements, impaled in windows throughout a whole neighborhood’s premiere market streets. Dried anchovies and dried shrimp rest in an eternal reflection of a winter sun, in wooden bins along the sidewalk. They make seas of little dehydrated organic bodies crowded around each other, brittle, weightless, and dead. Their counterparts you find inside the spacious markets: deep bins of live crabs, the legs and pincers rising and falling, the eyes writhing, confused and dreadful of a certain end; oysters and all kinds of mollusk dream under the salt water in gigantic tubs; butchers chop what you like and wipe the blood onto glistening crimson aprons; turtles on display, to be pointed at, chosen, and killed for food. Descriptions in English and Mandarin guide customers. At first we react as if visiting a zoo, mesmerized by organic Others, too strange for nonchalance; then, after a kind of acceptance, fascination alone rules, and the stench of dozens of different fish, and of salty tank water, and of slimy exoskeletons conquers the olfactory much stronger than the alien forms had before excited our senses of sight.
A periodic roar shakes the air. It is the low passing of jets above, on a flight path from the clouds to La Guardia airport. Great noise from above: it is a perfect supplement to the already-raucous character of the streets.
We see, for Westerners like us, the most foreign of all advertisements: flashy, aggressive Chinese movie posters.
Families, bundled up against the stinging winter winds, enjoy fried food and cheap black-market imitation wares.
Ahead stand, at odd angles with the street, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) “Bland Houses.”
In the window of a restaurant hangs the statement: “Where to go when the jellyfish craving hits.” Outside this restaurant a splattering of bubble tea freezes on the sidewalk, the tapioca balls scattered in a crime-scene fashion that begs the intervention of a private investigator.
We are interlocutors in a street drama of mutual misunderstanding; struggling communicators in quick firing inconclusive thoughts about inexplicable storefront curios.
We’re drawn to a Chinese pharmacy. Herbs, roots, ginger, and nuts sit in large bins outside and down the middle of the store. There is a definite emphasis on the largesse of stock in all these shops, as if at the heart of the Chinese patron’s mindset is a demand for Costco-like proportions in a mom-and-pop setting. Sex pills line the shelves at the back wall, all the way to the fifteen-foot ceiling. “American visagra” shows some very explicit and entertaining pictures on the package; “breasts” and “members” would be the most innocuous way to explain the basics of each and every package of Chinese-made sex drive-boosting medicines. On a shelf, apart from the mojo section, are little packages of the enigmatic “Dr. Yale’s Phostose Brain Tonic.”
We join the hordes that migrate along Main Street. On the wall of an arch, beneath the Long Island Railroad, a stained relic: a painting of the world’s fair, mimicking the grandeur at Flushing Meadows Park at the fair’s opening, yet as faded and ignored as the park’s skeleton itself.
Kissena Street drives a wedge into the foot traffic along Main. Two men yell in Mandarin, and hand out flyers. We feel like the only people who don’t understand them. As the eighths-of-a-mile build up, it becomes clear how Flushing may be Chinatown a thousand times over in energy, but surely in its massive, monster-of-an-area size and, above all, those hundreds of signs, hanging out into the street, each an attempt to outdo one before it, to better gain the attention of passersby, until the signs reach nearly as far above the sidewalks as the boulevards, and over the passing cars and trucks.
Even blocks of houses have gone commercial, their front yards paved to hold two parked cars, and no shortage here of great rectangular plaques advertising:
PASSPORT PHOTOS; MONEYGRAM; LUCKY JOY; DUCK; PIG; SQUID; OCTOPUS; FISH MARKET; DOCTORS IMMEDICARE; DENTIST; THRIFT SHOP:
The signs; the shop signs; Main Street an artery clogged with signs; is this New York?
Left on Sanford, pass the grand, Greek-revival-fronted, old Free Synagogue of Flushing. At another left we see the red lights of a fire truck, see the ladder pointed in the air, see a fire truck blocking the street, see crowds gathered around it all. We walk closer. The ladder rests against the roof of a fire house. Firemen escort Santa down a ladder from the roof, Santa waving and smiling to the cheers and laughs of children. The firemen allow kids to sit in the truck’s driver seat, each kid proud with an over-sized fire hat on; parents jump up with the flash of a camera, immortalizing the moment the FDNY saved Santa from a fire house roof.
All the signs have somehow worked. We’re hungry, and go into “Bitgout Tofu & B.B.Q. Restaurant” on Roosevelt Avenue. It’s actually a Korean place. But a wallpaper covers the interior, with characters in Mandarin and Korean. Tea is served up. The restaurant is largely empty except for an entire family, enjoying a meal together.
Outside the orange winter evening light falls heavier and heavier. The signs buzz on slowly at first, but as the light sinks away, a new one fills the neighborhood: the reds and purples and cyans and yellows and greens and pinks of uncountable fluorescent signs lend their collective glow for the night. And the crowds keep on moving because Flushing never gets dark.