Chinese mystery

I’m pretty sure every decent-sized urban neighborhood has one. Amidst the corner grocery store and the dry cleaners and the new coffee shop and the cell phone store there’s that one business that stands out. Not because it’s the busiest, not because it’s the newest or the cheapest.

No, it stands out because despite the fact that you never see anyone go in or out, it’s always open and always there.

You know the place. That mysterious little shop in the middle of the street. You’ve never been inside, nor seen anyone else go inside. But it’s always been there, always with the sad-looking “Open” sign in the window. It’s dark enough inside that you can’t make out if anyone is working in there. Or if you can see inside, there’s usually the same solitary person inside, the same elderly man or woman moving around slowly, performing some ritualistic, mundane task. You might have caught their eye once or twice, then looked quickly away as if you were seeing something you shouldn’t have.

But it’s always there. Everything else around it has come and gone and changed several times over. The beauty shop that was a restaurant that was a hardware store that was a Laundromat. They go out of business, thanks to the whims of the public (bye-bye stationary store, hello Starbucks). But this one place, somehow hangs on like a freakin’ cockroach after the Apocolypse.

For me it’s the China Star Chinese Restaurant. In the middle of the block, flanked by a dollar store and a hip-hop clothing store, it sits like old man waiting for a bus that's never coming. A thin tree sprouts from the sidewalk outside its main window, as if trying to hide a secret. And not to be outdone, three is a small tree INSIDE the restaurant's front window as well, its branches and leaves making it difficult to see inside (on purpose?).

But you can still peek through, in the tight corners of the window not covered by the overgrown houseplant. You can see the rows of tables and chairs, enough to accommodate at least 30 or 40 customers. And there is NEVER anyone inside. Never. Not. One. Customer. Not one person ever seated at the tables enjoying General Tso’s Chicken or egg foo yung or sweet and sour pork. Never. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for almost 15 years and cannot recall ever seeing anyone having a meal in this restaurant.

But they’re open every single day. Well, except for Mondays. The dutiful owners are apparently businesses-minded enough to flip the signed to “closed” on that traditonal closed-restaurant day. But without fail, they're open the next day. I'm going to assume they actually live in the restaurtant, somewhere in the back among the giant woks and wonton wrappers, because I've never seen them actually open or close the restaurant using keys.

But I know they exist because I once actually went inside and ordered food. A long time ago, when I first moved into the neighborhood. I think I did it more out of curiousity than a desire for good food. There were plenty of other options in the area, some that I've been to before and liked. The gyros place across the street. Franko's Pizza. El Norte Mexican restaurant. But I guess I was trying to be a good guy, throwing them some business. That's the sort of guy I am. Modest, too.

So I ventured inside and was met with depressing darkness. A dingy maroon carped covered the floor. It was too dark to determine if the markings on the floor were a pattern or dirt. Sad wallpaper. Row after row of empty tables filled the room. A televison in the far corner of the restaurant was turned to some Asian game show. In the far end, light came from the kitchen area but there were no sounds of things sizzling, frying, woks being slammed by utensils. I walked hesitantly up to the register where an elderly Asian woman sat. Despite her jet black hair, her face told me that it was quite possible she was interred in a camp in California during World War II. And not as a child.

She nodded at me, smiled a little and said hello. I took one of the menus from the register area. Already something told me this was probably not a good idea. I mean, everything about the place told me that customers here were few and far between. And no matter if the was horrible food or a changing Chinese food demographic, they could not have been getting shipments of fresh food each and every day without their storage area bulging at the seams. How long can egg rolls last in a freezer? What is the shelf life of snow peas? Is three month old shrimp safe to eat?

I decided to play it safe and order something simple, rather than the slightly more exotic stuff. (Coroner: "Well, as far as we can figure, he died from crab rangoon poisoning, complicated by a moo goo guy pan reaction.") I pointed to the combination fried rice, figuring the heat from the wok would kill any parasites. The same reasoning led me to order the egg rolls as well. After placing my order, the woman turned toward the kitchen and bellowed something in Chinese. A voice bellowed and I heard the clanking of metal and the hiss of oil. I sat at one of the tables and waited. On the television, some guy was singingand the crowd was going wild.

After about 15 minutes an old man in a white apron and t-shirt emerged from the back carrying a brown paper bag. He said nothing and walked back. The woman handed me the bag and I gave her a $10. I took my change and left.

When I got home I started eating it and the overwhelming taste of everything was grease. The combination fried rice was oily. The egg roll were oily. The fortune cookies were oily (OK, they probably weren't but I wasn't going to try them.) For the first time in my life, I couldn't finish a meal. But at least a piece of the puzzle was in place. At least part of the reason why the place was empty was a bit clearer. People had apparently wised up and kept clear of the joint.

But, still, they were open every day, rain or shine. How? How were they keeping this business afloat with bad combination fried rice and egg rolls you could give a lube job with? Did they own the building lock, stock and barrel, and thus had no landlord to pay? Did they own a Chinese restaurant supply store and had no overhead? Was there a windmill in the back somewhere generating their own electricity, a natural gas supply and a refinery in the basement? How were they operating a business for the past 10-plus years with NO customers?

I chalked this one up to an "ancient Chinese secret", like Calgon or something (obscure old TV commercial reference) and added it to the list of mysterious commercial businesses I have known with no visible means of income, yet continued to remain open. The cleaners/leather store on Belmont Ave. The pita bread store on north Clark street that is never open and never has a person inside, yet displays racks and racks of fresh pita break in the front window. The bakery near Diversey and Ashland with the ratty awning and dead plants in the window that is apparently still in business. The bar that smelled like vomit from the outside.

So look around your neighborhood and ask yourself: Why is that store still there?


Michael said...

This reminds me of a "shoe repair" shop in my neighborhood when I first moved to New York. A room mate of mine went there to have some loafers resoled and was told "we don't do that no more".

We concluded that it must be a front for something else which is probably what a lot of these "mystery businesses" are. Makes ya wonder, don't it?

alphawoman said...

This looks like a street in Newport, Ky which I can not imagine it being, but you're right, those little stores are everywhere!

Susan in Italy said...

Those stores always used to make me sad; I felt sorry for the lonely owner until an inevitable moment in any Chicago upbringing, when I realized that many of them could be fronts for other type of businesses, if you know what I mean.

jbwritergirl said...

So, I was visiting my folks and they wanted to order Chinese food from the little place around the corner. I thought it sounded like a good thing so I drove over there to pick up the food.

I can't remember which emotion popped up first--fear or disgust! Right as I pulled in I noticed two signs in their window.

1. Special of the Day--Chow Mein
2. Dog Grooming Open 6 Days A Week.

So I had to wonder where the Chow in the Chow Mein came from.

I left with the food in my hand but upon returning found it difficult to swallow even one bite. (I woke up later when my folks were sleeping and made myself a sandwich)