One must approach Chinatown with a certain cognitive dissonance. I realized this when I spent the night there recently. I left my friend's apartment to throw something out at 10 p.m. and noticed a strange movement out of the corner of my eye — an undulation where normally there would be none. Upon further inspection I saw what can only be described as a teeming horde of bloodthirsty rats in piranha mode, having a smorgasbord with some garbage.
Shudder, gasp, flee.
Here's where the dissonance comes in: I eat in Chinatown at least three times a week, usually at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. To get to the bathroom there, you have to walk past the kitchen and then down into the basement, where further food prep is going on. The place is as clean as it can be, but that's not saying much. There is cardboard on the floor as matting, layers of gunk on the walls, and boxes of food and produce that probably should be refrigerated. The last time I was there, a prep cook was wearing gloves and cutting some vegetables; she coughed into her hand and immediately returned to her work, unabated. I see such things often, yet I head back upstairs for my pho fix every time.
So I ask you, where do all the rats go during the day? And better yet, where in God's name are they eating at night, besides the garbage piles? If I were to answer that question truthfully, I would never be able to eat another egg roll again.
Which brings me to the maraschino cherries at Li Po Lounge, Chinatown's best bar. The cherries get slung into Singapore slings or old fashioneds, but this sort of fruit at a bar always reminds me that stuff's been sitting around for a while. Let me say that I have never had any bad experience with cleanliness at Li Po; nary a lipstick trace has been found on a glass, nor have I encountered a lime wedge past its prime. But, like the Vietnamese restaurant, the bathroom at Li Po is downstairs in the bowels of the business, and you must walk past grimy storage areas to get to it. This is not the ladies' lounge at the Mandarin Oriental.
A bunch of us had met there to send off a colleague. Li Po is a great destination for such things because your group can commandeer the back of the main floor, where there are spaces tucked away that make you feel like you are at a private party without being too far removed from the rest of the action.
"Will this end up in a column?" someone asked.
"Only if someone says something really stupid," I replied. Taking the bait, another person said that the Jews could have done more to avoid the Holocaust by not bringing it on themselves. Then another smartypants pointed out that they could figure out what I was going to write about by asking which book I'm currently reading. Things were moving apace, and I was all set to synthesize the experience into some thoughtful metaphor for life itself based on Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, when fate took a turn.
"I had to go in the men's room to pee because there are people fucking in the women's," said my friend Allie, retaking her seat.
"There's some fuckin' people in the women's?"
"No," she said. "There are people literally fucking each other in the women's."
I immediately went into Buckeye Newshawk mode and went downstairs to investigate. I saw two pairs of feet facing each other on a toilet-paper-strewn floor. I heard a girl moaning. My first thought: Wow, lucky gal — who can get that turned on in a filthy bathroom stall? My second thought: Damn, I am going to have to eventually use that very stall to relieve myself. Gross. My third thought: Wouldn't it be great if they both came out with toilet paper on the bottom of their shoes?
I went back upstairs to wait for them to emerge, triumphant. Soon, though, I got caught up in other conversation, and I never did get a good look at the perps.
After my third drink, I felt that familiar pressing of the bladder and realized that I would have to do something about it. But I remembered what I had seen in the stall that I would have to use. From the sound of things, there was a lot of pernicious DNA being bandied about. Crap.
But this was Chinatown, and I have grown accustomed to cognitive dissonance here, right? "I bet there are far worse things that have come of people's bodies in that bathroom," I told myself. Then I convinced myself that I could perform some sort of contortionist feat to avoid touching any surface while still peeing into the bowl. But then that reminded me that other people probably do that and miss, further grossing me out.
In the end I went down there, pulled down my pants, sat on that toilet, and peed. I told myself that I could take a shower when I got home. I freed my mind of any thought of wandering bacteria, festering listeria, or gangrenous genitalia. My cognitions were dissonant, man. Totally.
"How was it?" someone asked me when I returned.
"How was what?" I replied, already erasing the memory, my spotless mind bathing in sunlight.
I went up for a last drink and noticed a pair of black Reeboks sitting at the bar. Him! The penis in the bathroom sex equation. Alas, no toilet paper was adhered to his soles. He looked self-satisfied and was laughing with his friends. He slammed money down on the bar and grabbed the beers that he bought them, handing them over one-by-one by their necks, his finger prints near where his friends' lips would be.
I wondered whether he had washed his hands.