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"He asked in a more joyful tone if I wanted to buy some fortune cookies. Relieved, I said yes."
- Nick Mistretta
Discovering China in America
My expedition led me down every alley and side street where the real hidden treasures can be found. Looking up to the sky, I discovered interesting architecture with laundry hang drying outside on the fire escapes. Women went about their daily business and sometimes peeked out windows as if the tourists were the attraction. I examined every nook and cranny, for some of the most unusual shops hid in these narrow passageways in obscurity. That is where I met Frank.
As I walked down Ross Alley with my head on a swivel in an attempt to miss nothing, I encountered a small man in a ball cap and jeans with a steel-eyed stare. "You need something," the man said in a surly voice. I froze in my tracks, worried that I had unknowingly committed some cultural faux pas.
He asked in a more joyful tone if I wanted to buy some fortune cookies. Relieved, I said yes. Frank introduced himself, then led me into the pitch black cookie factory. He explained the source of the darkness just as all the storeowners before him had. "I got funny one for you," Frank said as he handed me a handful of fortunes without their cookie cocoons.
The cookies can be purchased with the fortunes humorous or not. I bought a small bag of the funny cookies for $4 and munched on a few while Frank talked. After my brief education on the history of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, I grabbed my backpack and waved goodbye as I headed out into the light.
After leaving the fortune cookie factory, I walked to Jackson Street, turned right, and staggered back onto Grant Avenue. The day had been long and my body was growing weary from my travels. I wandered a couple of blocks amid the glitzy tourist traps on the same street where my journey had begun several hours earlier. That's when I stumbled upon an inviting watering hole - the Buddha Bar.
It was like a beacon in a storm. Like most of the establishments I had ventured into that day, the bar was dark, but probably not unusually so. I decided this would be my last of many stops - the end of the line. I moseyed up to the bar and hoisted myself up onto a stool for a cool libation.
I engaged a local resident name Jon in conversation about the neighborhood, as we sat watching the parade of tourists glide past the open door. He informed me that Chinatown was the safest part of San Francisco despite what I had read in many travel guides.
As we talked, I fumbled through my backpack stunned by the amount of tacky gifts I had purchased - several post cards, two lucky charm necklaces, a cheap ring, a bag of fortune cookies and a small ceramic Buddha. I had fallen prey to the constant barrage of souvenir shops despite my best efforts at self-control.
I pondered the day's journey as I sat in the dark talking with strangers. I realized then that tourists who seek the enchantment of Chinatown should do as I had done - wander about without the restrictions of an organized walking tour, and certainly without the confusion of my self-inflicted haphazard path. Much of the day's enjoyment had come from the excitement of blazing my own trail through a new and fascinating land.
Just then, a man dressed in a business suit at the other end of the bar briefly joined in our conversation. He said that the old market area moved from Grant Avenue to Stockton Street after the tourists moved in. "It used to be more interesting in the old days," he said in a tone of somber reminiscence. I imagine if Lewis and Clark were alive today, they would whole-heartedly share that sentiment.
Nick Mistretta can be reached at Nickmistretta@aol.com Currently he's attending college in Denver Colorado, and his travel and writing aspirations will take him Down Under later in 2000.
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