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In praise of Mei Lai Wah

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In praise of Mei Lai Wah

Dennison | Dec 11, 2001 08:39 PM

I had to suffer through the interminable torture of NYC jury duty this week down at 100 Centre across from The Tombs. I thought I went well prepared -- brought along some work to do and a book as backup. I soon found that my preparation was all in vain and by midmorning of Day One I knew I didn’t stand a chance. I could feel the life energy just being sucked right out of me. Those buildings are so absolutely permeated with fear and hopelessness that jurors pace nervously, feeling trapped, helpless and overwhelmed. They think it’s boredom, but in fact it’s much worse than that. The courts share the building with detention facilities and the air is thick with despair. When it came time for lunch, I found myself with almost two hours free, but no appetite whatsoever. A very rare feeling it is for me to wander around Chinatown without any desire to eat, but absolutely nothing appealed to me. I finally grabbed a bahn mi that tasted like cardboard and ate without joy in the park surrounded by elderly men playing high stakes chinese chess.

With Day Two this morning came the miracle -- I won the lottery for early release and walked out by lunchtime with a letter stating that I’ve fully completed my civic duty for the next four years. I had to celebrate, but what’s more I knew that I needed to recharge my batteries -- I desperately needed food for the soul. But where? I didn’t feel like dealing with the anime-kid waitstaff over at Funky Broome so I headed towards Bayard St. instead. As I drew closer I realized that what I really needed wasn’t at New Green Bo, but rather next door at the Mei Lai Wah coffeeshop.

I walked in, inhaled the familiar deep Chinese coffeeshop smell and suddenly it was the early seventies and I was a little kid sitting at the counter with my granddad and my older brother. We’d go catch a double-feature, probably a Sinbad-the-Sailor flick or maybe it was some bloody kung-fu, but whatever it was it was likely to be on 42nd St, back when noone would bring little kids to Times Square. Except for my granddad of course. Back then he was the coolest guy on the face of the planet and Mei Lai Wah was where he hung out. So regardless of what we did or where we did it, we always wound up there, him shooting the **** with his army buddies and us pretending not to listen. They all learned to speak English in the U.S. Army, so it was all extremely colorful to my young ears. Come to think of it, it’s still colorful decades later.

Anyway, the thing about Mei Lai Wah is that they’ve been serving up the best cha siu bao (roast pork buns) in Chinatown for decades. No one else even comes close. Rich, sweet and fresh, the baked ones have always been my favorite but my brother has always preferred the steamed ones. For my granddad it was the dai bao, the “big bun” packed to the gills with everything: pork, chicken, lop cheung (Chinese sausage), all that and more. So that’s what I had for lunch. Cost a buck-ten for the dai bao and I think sixty cents for the cha siu bao. Plus a cup of coffee. My granddad and all of his old WWII vet cronies are no longer with us, and much of the clientele doesn’t even speak the old village dialect anymore, but it still felt like something of a homecoming. Exactly what I needed.

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