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Mei Lai Wah
1985, New York City, February, Sunday morning.
Early Sunday morning is the most advantageous time to explore New York City. People are sleeping off Saturday night. Or they’re taking advantage of not having to go to work and, instead, easing into the day. Whatever the reason, I have the streets to myself, except for a few ghost figures walking here and there. The temperature today? Maybe high thirties. I wear jeans, a leather jacket, scarf, wrapped tight, hat and gloves.
I am going on a bike ride this frigid morning. I know exactly where to.
I hop on and ride my bicycle west to Washington Street, not far from where I live in Greenwich Village. The Hudson River is to my right, exuding steam. The sun has been up just an hour or so. I head south. The street is deserted. I pass stately old-brick buildings, with glimpses of the steamy Hudson to my right.
I see my breath as I pedal. I’m a little stiff so early, but I’m limber soon enough. I savor every foot of having New York to myself. I have the bicyclist’s dream. I have the clear sky. I have the sun. I have cold that isn’t crippling. I have the time. I have the strength. I have a purpose.
I wipe away a few tears with my glove. I reach Canal Street, and even this normally heavily-trafficked street is almost empty. I cross it, keep heading south. I ride across a few cobblestoned streets, my body shaking, looking for Worth Street, which goes east-west. It’s a darker, narrower street, big buildings causing cold shadows, but it’s going exactly where I want to go.
To Chinatown. Specifically to Bayard Street. More specifically to the Mei Lai Wah Coffee Shop.
I reach Mott Street. I bank left and head into the heart of Chinatown. I come to Bayard, turn right, and stop at my destination. 64 Bayard. I get off my bike and lock it to a parking meter. I am cold, and I am hungry. The perfect state to be in to enter Mei Lai Wah.
It’s called a coffee shop, but in Chinatown a coffee shop is different than what we normally know as a coffee shop. Coffee is the least of what it offers.
I walk in, and I am met by 1952. The place is timeless. The owners seemingly have no desire to make it beautiful. It’s purely functional. On the left is a counter. Behind it, two or three older men, in light gray waiter’s jackets, which are spotted and not crisp, are working. They don’t speak English. I’m not sure anyone in the place speaks English. I’m the only one here who doesn’t speak their language. It’s a good thing not to be understood every once in a while.
Straight ahead are booths where more older men sit—rarely someone my age and rarely a woman—and drink coffee. The light is harsh. But Mei Lai Wah is warm, and it is alive with wonderful smells. The scents of the Chinese dishes I am about to order, har gow, siu mai, char siu bao, fill the air and come to me. Shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings and baked pork buns. Such heavy food for breakfast? Yes.
I know these few Chinese terms for dishes from having come here often. At the start, I pointed at them and asked what they were called. I wrote the names down, spelling them as I thought they sounded, in a little notebook I carried. The dishes are on shelves behind the counter in stainless steel warming cabinets with glass doors so you can see them. I say what I want, and I take a seat at a booth. The booth seat is uneven, with plastic hills and valleys.
Once I sit down, I am treated with the gift of indifference. No one pays any attention to me. I am always alone on these trips, because I want to be and because the times I’ve asked friends to join me, they’ve refused, telling me it’s too early to go to Chinatown, or it’s too early for anything. I’m content with that. Let them sleep.
One of the men brings me my dishes, small plates, and sets them before me. He looks at me to make sure I know what I’m doing. Do I really want this? Do I really know what I’m going to eat? I smile and thank him. He walks away. I look at the dishes expectantly. I’ve earned my hunger.
I take my fork and cut into a warm siu mai, a pork dumpling. The dumpling rests in a dark rich broth. I stab a chunk, raise it, and smell it before I plunge it into my mouth. Everything that has led me to this moment converges in the instant I eat this dumpling. I bite into it. The meaty, slightly sausage taste, with just enough fat and sauce, is what I want so much and now I have it. I chew and swallow. I close my eyes. I am warm outside, and now I am warm inside.
I take up the pork bun, the char siu bao, in my hand. It’s shiny brown crust is warm to the touch. I break it open. Steam escapes, and the gooey sugary pork is revealed. I know what’s inside, but this moment always has a sense of surprise. I take a bite. I taste the warm pork. Long live char siu bao.
As I eat, I hear Chinese spoken, rising notes in the air, as the men behind the counter take orders from customers who can understand them. The men in the booths near me stir their coffee slowly, some reading newspapers written in Chinese. I can see the dark, complex characters, each one a cypher, pleasing to the eye even though I can’t read a single one.
Every once in a while, a man emerges from the kitchen in back carrying a large tray with replenishments. There is always a sense of flourish when a man enters with a fully-stocked tray of freshly-cooked food carried above his head. A bit of early-morning theater.
I take my time. I don’t feel the need to hurry. There are vacant booths. I’m not taking anybody’s seat. I am warm. My belly is happy. And I am about to attack my har gow, my shrimp dumpling.
In years to come, Mei Lai Wah will be “discovered.” It will close and then it will re-open. When it re-opens, it will be a different place entirely. The old men behind the counter will be gone. Busy-moving young people will replace them. The place will have been decorated. The food won’t be as good. That’s what happens. If you have a good run at a place, that’s all you can expect, isn’t it?
For now, before all that, I’m here and there is no place I’d rather be. I know eventually I will have to get up and leave Mei Lai Wah and bike back home in the cold. But the delicious food and the inside warmth and the sense of adventure have restored me, and it will be just fine.