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.

Virtuoso Operatic Balafoniste Under 14th Street

Good music in the subways is getting rarer, but this West African guy lifts my soul without fail every time I’m lucky enough to encounter him.

If you see him, flip him a buck or five and bask in the music for a while. There’s always another train right behind. And the check is in the mail. And it’s only a cold sore.

Guerilla NYC Subway Etiquette

Thoreau said it:

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

These words have too often come to mind when I’ve taken the subway to work over the past decades. Every morning I squeeze into a packed car, I die a little. I die a little more when the aircon is on the fritz.

And my “song” is too often courtesy of a wannabe-DJ straphanger with an urge to share Lady Gaga’s latest by means of leaky iPhone earbuds pushed to their tinny sonic limits.

New Yorkers are supposedly quick to get in your face when you invade their personal space.

The false bravado of Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo is the cliché:

I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!

That was over 40 years ago. Times have changed. Most New Yorkers have switched to passive aggression nowadays. The increasing pussification of the City continues, some might say. It’s even worse underground.

Nobody makes eye contact with strangers on the subway except rubes, drunks, panhandlers, perverts, cops, criminals and schizophrenics. It’s an ironclad rule as old as the tracks. Getting into a beef with a fellow passenger can turn violent quickly and with no place to go you’re flirting with the front page of the New York Post no matter how it turns out.


Artist Jason Shelowitz has begun posting brilliant  parody MTA change service signs instructing passengers on proper subway etiquette. Gotta love it, but Jason suggests savvy riders swipe the silkscreened signs before the MTA tears them down.

Subway Douchery is now recording for posterity, with sharp commentary, photographs of self-entitled douchebag underthings shattering the Golden Rule worldwide.

It’s a start, anyway.

A decade or so back, the MTA launched a campaign to encourage the most basic and sensible subway rule: Let the passengers off before you try to crowd into the train. It actually worked! For a year or two. Now it’s worse than ever.

Most riders wisely won’t risk saying shit when they see douchebags behaving badly underground. The MTA should hire Jason Shelowitz to continue his guerrilla campaign.

NYC Subway Ridership Down Slightly

The NY Times has a fantastic set of mouseover graphics showing subway ridership gains and losses over the past year. The detail of the data released by the MTA is impressive.   Overall ridership is down from job losses, but it’s interesting to see that Brooklyn’s LL fares have grown by 12%.  The lines I use most frequently, the Broadway W and R,  have seen 12% decreases in ridership.  I almost always still get a seat on these trains, but the usual hellish experience on the Lexington 4, 5 and 6 lines over the past few years indicate the IRT is still at or near peak capacity during rush hours.