Last week, perusing old photographs of Chinatown, I pulled a particular one out and, as I stared at the photograph, a passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” whispered in my mind: “Footfalls echo in memory/Down the passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened.”
The picture is of the Seventh Street side of Wing’s Market. My family opened a grocery store in Chinatown in the 1950s, where United Market is currently located on the corner of Seventh and White Streets. Wing’s Market closed in the mid 1960s when I was a child, but I have many memories of the market – though I never went through the front doors while the market was still owned by my family. I didn’t recognize it from the picture; I had no recollection of the signage. I wondered what became of the sign. Had anyone thought of saving it when the market was closed? Or did it get tossed because it was back in the days when everyone and everything were younger and we thought people and places lasted forever?
China Café and part of L.T. Sue’s Herb Company building are also shown in this street scene photograph, and as I continued to examine, it I realized I hadn’t used the front doors of those buildings either until recent years. Although the L.T. Sue Herb Store was closed before I was born, I have always thought of its China Alley entrance as “the door.” And as many times that I went to the China Café, I always entered the restaurant from the China Alley door.
This realization reminded me of a question a China Alley tourist asked several years ago. She was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Taoist Temple Museum, gazing at the buildings across the Alley. She turned to me and asked, “Why am I looking at back doors? China Alley looks like backdoors.” After a moment of hesitation, I commented that she was indeed looking at backdoors. Well, sort of.
Many of the businesses located in China Alley had two entrances, one facing Seventh Street and the other opening on China Alley, which I suppose could be considered the “back door.” I guess I’ve been entering through back doors all these years, starting from the time I was born. Until their doors were shuttered in 2006, I entered the Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurants through the back door that led into the kitchens. It wasn’t an official entrance, but for many of us, it was the only one.
My friend, Debbie Misenhimer Nardini, and her brother, Jeff, used to accompany their father, Bill, to pick up their Saturday night dinner from the Chinese Pagoda. With their Revere Ware pot in tow, they entered the back door and stood just inside the kitchen while chef Howard P. Chow filled their vessel with boiled noodles with barbecue pork slices and hard-cooked egg. This was a regular Saturday night ritual for her family, so much so that when friends invited Debbie to join them for dinner, she had no idea there was a front door and that it was an actual restaurant.
Outside of Chinatown, Steve recalled, he always used the back entrances to Woolworths and Van Andels when he was growing up. His father’s store, Kings Stationers, was located on Eighth Street, so he just crossed the street, walked across the parking lot and through back door entrances.
My gaze returned to the photograph. Because of our preservation and restoration efforts with the L.T. Sue building and China Cafe, I have entered through “doors we never opened.” I use both the front and back entrances shopping at United Market, but I’m a little sad I can’t re-enter my childhood past and holding Dad’s hand, enter Wing’s Market through all of its Seventh Street entrance glory.
While Eliot’s “Four Quartets” ruminates on time present, past and future, my heart knows China Alley and all of its front and back doors are here, now and always, even as they were in the past.
The photograph had me up and down China Alley, physically and mentally, for a long afternoon. I studied doors and stood in backdoors. All of that “work” in China Alley made me crave noodles. I went home and cobbled together a tasty noodle dish using ingredients I had on hand. I didn’t want to have to stop at the store.
I usually have a package of fresh Chinese noodles in my refrigerator, but if you don’t, feel free to use spaghetti or whatever pasta you have on hand. Swap out the shiitake mushrooms for fresh button or cremini mushrooms. Lots of folks have back pocket recipes; this one is one from my backdoor.