The Chinese Food Factory
By Art Gatti
Shortly after arriving on Bank Street in Manhattan’s all-but-deserted West Village, I took on the family of a hippie earth mother from Princeton and we squoze into my tiny apartment and tried not to step on each other’s feet too much.
In 1971 there wasn’t much going on a block from the Hudson River. Cargo shipping moved to the Jersey side of the harbor. There were no more jobs. The neighborhood was full of vacant or half-functioning factories and a lot of beat-up old apartments and tenements housing longshoremen on disability or welfare. Empty streets and sidewalks.
Next door was a semi-functional Chinese food factory (yes, there were such things) a place that’d supplied local hospitals with barrels of chow mein, as well as public-school cafeterias for “Chinese Food Thursdays”. Industrial-size barrels of Accent MSG sat on their loading dock.
The owners were public-spirited: they’d fill up with goppy, noodley stuff any size pot you brought to their loading dock – for a mere two bucks.
In 1973 it closed and lay vacant for several months. But one day a notice was pasted out front that there’d be an open house to rent the empty factory space. It was then that the woman and I had a crazy hippie brainstorm: Since my second-story shoebox would be abutting the building’s second-floor space, renting that space told us we could break through both walls and join the spaces together for our growing family.
Laws? What laws?
When the day came, I was at work, so the earth mother did the walkthrough.
Another backstory: in its busy past, the place was in the custom of doling out free meals to poor Chinese workers earning below-subsistence wages in nearby kitchens and laundries…men who’d arrive with a bowl and chopsticks, and who’d be allowed to sit a spell and eat.
As my mate explored the upper floor space, she noted the most prominent feature–a large, deep, walk-in freezer that had been nonfunctional –open and unused– for years. She probably imagined it as the ultimate in closet space. Until she peeked inside…
“There’s a dead man in there!”
Toward the final days of the Chinese food business, none of the employees had a reason to go upstairs. The corpse was that of a very old man, probably skin and bones when he arrived with his eating implements, sometime during the sunset of the business, a year or so earlier. He had simply wanted a place to sit quietly and eat. And then, the long bench he sat on—so inviting to stretch out on….A body with little inside to rot, a soul who left no smell. Lonely. Peaceful.
So we passed on the rental scheme and made do—like the rest of our neighbors—with my tiny place. Tiny and full of life.