An Incident on Canal Street


First Person


In July of 2001—I was in college at the time, working as a part-time waitress and part-time fact-checker—I found myself on Canal Street on a sweltering afternoon. It had been a long and unglamorous summer, hot in the way everyone knows from New York summer movies, but not, I remember thinking, even remotely iconic, or at least not any frame into which I happened to wander.

I frequently wore a series of enormous house dresses I had gotten at a yard sale, and tried very hard to like certain classic albums by listening to them, intensely, on a loop. Somehow it seemed imperative, then, to fight violently for a spot on the lawn at Bryant Park, no matter what film was showing. I was too young to drink. I was acutely aware of being a total waste of time, and also found this interesting. It is hard to overstate my unsexiness. Two people I knew were involved with Shakespeare productions that were designed as thinly veiled allegories concerning the political situation. Everyone was wearing those mesh slippers, bedecked with sparkly flowers, which you could buy in Chinatown for a few dollars. At home, my dad was fighting with my teenage brother, who had a penchant for stealing the family car. “Your brother,” said my dad, “has a total disregard for the dictates of the social contract, as they apply to him. In this way, he is like Hitler. Well,” he amended, “Hitler and Edwin Booth.”

On that particular day, the street was packed with vendors and workers and tourists looking for bags (although it should be noted that this was prior to the real designer-knockoff bag boom, or indeed, the ensuing crackdown.) This was no country for old men, although obviously it was full of old men. I had detoured through Chinatown in order to get some of the slippers, and also some five-for-a-dollar dumplings, and in the process of acquiring them had learned to add sugar to the soy sauce and sriracha on offer (this is a tip I share with you now) and seen three rats, which one assumes, but is always nice to have verified, I suppose.

Foot traffic is generally heavy on Canal Street, but on this day the sidewalk was particularly congested. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t just congested, it was blocked, blocked by what (it became clear) was an altercation of some kind.

In front of a kiosk selling New York souvenirs (although “I heart New York” was, again, not yet prevalent), knockoff watches, and tchotchkes, stood an elderly Chinese woman who was evidently the proprietor. She was engaged in a shouting match with a disdainful-looking and beautifully groomed tourist, probably in her midtwenties, who had long, shining hair and an expensive-looking hand bag. The older lady was furious, furious. She was near tears. She was screaming. And here is what she said:


I had missed the beginning of the confrontation; I don’t know exactly what it was about. But I have never seen someone so angry, and I knew instinctively that she was right, and that even though the woman was saying, disdainfully, with a horrible smirk playing around her lips. “I say nothing,” in an accent I could not identify, she had said it, and had meant it, and fully deserved to have her pants stripped off.

And then the older woman was lunging at her, repeating her threat in a near howl of pure rage, and it seemed as though she would attempt to divest her of her pants (how was unclear, since her antagonist was clad in skin-tight white jeans) and someone had to come out from the back of the shop, and hold her arms, and lead her away.

People began to disperse; the sidewalk opened up again. The whole thing had lasted only a few seconds.

And still the tourist was calm; the imbalance of anger was a horrible thing to see. She was slightly shaken, it’s true, but her manner said, What a crazy woman! and you could tell when she repeated the story (and she would) she would be the victim, if not the heroine, and no one would know what had really happened, because history, of course, belongs to the victors.