Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.

I spent a number of days doing jury duty downtown last week. The lowlight on Friday was being selected as part of the jury pool for the murder trial of one Robert Camarano, a dopey junkie scumbag wannabe-wiseguy representing himself in court just to thumb his nose at the justice system one last time before vanishing into an obscure life sentence upstate.

Camarano is accused of stabbing his 60-year-old girlfriend to death in her apartment at 8th Avenue and 15th Street in June, 2008. After hearing him in court during the jury selection process, it became clear to me he was guilty as fuck. I knew I couldn’t give the guy a fair shake, and said so frankly. The judge excused me from the jury. Camarano is dumber than a sack of hammers but has the certain low animal cunning common to all heroin addicts of insufficient means. As Tom Waits said in 9th and Hennepin:

I’ve seen it all, seen it all, through the yellow windows of the evening train.

On lunch break Friday I ambled the scant 50 yards behind the Criminal Courts building to Baxter Street, the western edge of Chinatown. Some of the best Vietnamese joints in the city are near there. One of my my current favorites is the oddly named New Pho Pasteur, which was once recommended to me by a Brit character I met over pints, who sells saffron and other pricy, spicy exotica to top City restaurants.

Saffron Pete was spot-on in recommending the curried mussel hot pot and thin sliced pork chops. They were the best Vietnamese sit-down food I’ve had in NYC.

But tiny Pho Pasteur was packed as usual for Friday lunch so I grabbed an outdoor table at the Malaysian joint across the street. After an excellent roti canai and a middling beef rendang I grabbed an iced kopi, to go, and headed for Columbus Park, just 100 yards south.

Remember uncle, no gambling.

Columbus Park, the only park in Chinatown, is an important cultural center. At the crack of dawn you’ll see scores of folks doing tai chi exercises, some bizarre to Western eyes, just as you would in cities across China. And on pleasant days, Chinese chess (xangqi) is a huge draw for older, mostly retired, Cantonese speaking folks, and the younger, often unemployed, mostly Mandarin and Hokkien speaking newcomers. As seen in the above photo, xangqi attracts hordes of rapt onlookers. These are real players.

This park, and most of the adjacent court buildings, were built directly over the notoriously lawless and squalid Five Points slums, recently re-glamourized by Scorcese’s Gangs of New York.

Five Points has sometimes given me the creeps — but always excellent food.

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