Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice and Other Stories and Sure Things & Last Chances. He teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time T'ai Chi Ch'uan practitioner.
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By Lou Gaglia
The half-dozen or so women behind the counter of the little Mott Street bakery thought it was funny when I tried to order tea. I said, “Lāi sha” (something like that), and one of them (she was very pretty, with viciously bright eyes) called to the others along the counter and they burst out laughing, every one of them. I handed the vicious one a dollar and beat it out of there without waiting for change.
In the hallway of my building across the street, my neighbor Mary, an older woman with grown kids, told me I said it wrong. She’d taught me in the first place how to order tea, and I practiced with her, and she even nodded approval, but now here she was telling me that I said it wrong.
“It’s just slightly different,” she said, and I tried again, over and over, but must have failed because she laughed each time I said it.
“What’s so funny?”
“Well, the way you’re saying it, you’re ordering shit.”
“It means shit?”
“The way you’re saying it, yeah.”
“That’s why they laughed?”
“I’m guessing that’s why they laughed, yes.”
On narrow sloping Mosco Street, Stephanie and her father made their way down their building’s steep stairs. She stood in front of him and held his upper arm while he eased down one leg at a time, one step at a time. Near the bottom, he stopped and gripped the railing, then barked at her when she reached out for him again.
Stephanie was my old student’s aunt or maybe his cousin. Whenever she picked him up, she always seemed to have a great book in her hand, and sometimes I talked with her about the book. Once it was a Katherine Anne Porter, the next time a Steinbeck. She was in her mid-twenties, around my age. I’d seen her in the park with her father near the playground just the week before. After we’d said hello, I glanced at Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in her lap.
“Didn’t she write that novel… I forgot what it’s called.”
“No, that was somebody else. Listen to this sentence.” She read from the book. “Some people go to priests, others to poetry; I to my friends.”
“I get it a little bit. I mean, don’t you feel sometimes that you’d be lost without friends?”
“Maybe I’m lost anyway.”
“But if you remember your friends, doesn’t that help? Don’t you miss them when they’re not around?”
“If I don’t have friends, there’s no one to miss.”
Her father was reading a Chinese newspaper. Behind him were empty basketball courts.
“I always miss everyone I like,” she said, half to herself.
Now, heading down narrow Mosco Street toward the park, I waved to her as I passed.
In the park, there was three-on-three tournament, complete with referees and a thirty-second shot clock. I sat on a low wall to watch. The game on my side of the court was between a very good, very selfish player (with two stiffs as his teammates) vs three less-talented players who shared the ball and played hard defense but were losing anyway. I pulled for them to stop the selfish player, to foul him hard or embarrass him by stripping the ball. But they couldn’t do much besides touch-foul him or let him explode past them on his way to the basket. One of the stiffs on the selfish squad looked a lot like my brother-in-law Kevin—pale and lanky (or gangly or whatever he was) with a wispy beard. But I wasn’t tempted to call out to him.
Stephanie crossed the street with her father. She held his arm, and I wished I’d waited at the curb to help her.
She didn’t seem to see me as they passed the courts and sat on a bench. Beyond her, children ran fast around the slide for another climb up the ladder. On the other side of the basketball courts, a thin muscular man hung from a crossbar and slowly pulled himself to chin level. Older women sat together on a bench nearby. And near Stephanie’s bench, two young children chased after pigeons that didn’t need to fly to escape their reach.
There was a timeout, or maybe it was halftime. The selfish player and his bearded teammate were arguing with the referee even though they were winning. I wandered away from the court and took a long slow route around the monkey bars toward Stephanie, remembering Kevin’s recent visit to the city to help me move a couch upstairs. When we were done, he said he was heading right back to Westchester, despite the rush-hour traffic. I walked fast along the sidewalk to keep up with his long strides.
“How can you live here?” he said.
“I teach here.”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in the city.”
“I like it.”
“Not me. It’s a dump.”
I grew quiet as we walked the two blocks to his car. Beside a Bayard Street vegetable stand, a thin man in a dirty smock nodded to sleep, his cigarette burning close to his fingertips. I stopped to nudge him awake and point to his hand. Then I saw Kin crossing the street towards us. Every day, it seemed, Kin found me and talked sports, and he almost never made eye contact, and the conversation often lasted many blocks before I could shake him. Now he nudged past Kevin. “Did you see the Mets last night?”
“They pulled DeGrom in the 5th inning, just for his pitch count. Then they lost. They can’t run, they can’t field, they can’t hit—”
“I didn’t see the whole game. This is Kevin.”
Kin didn’t look at Kevin. “Okay, yeah. You know, Cespedes didn’t run to first again. He hit the ball and he stood there. I should make his money.”
He went on, walking beside me, changing the subject without prompting from the Mets to the Knicks to the Giants. I listened, and Kevin, frowning, finally broke away and crossed to his parked car.
Now Stephanie was on the bench with her father. She saw me and smiled a little.
“Where’s Virginia Woolf?” I said.
“She’s home on the kitchen table.”
Kids were playing on the slide, and skateboarders were trying to jump a short wall near the basketball courts.
“Do you know what happened to me this morning—speaking of Virginia Woolf. I don’t know what it has to do with Virginia Woolf, though. Probably nothing.”
She waited patiently, and I wondered if, to her, I was like Kin.
“I tried to order tea in Chinese, I think Cantonese. But...I messed up. They were all laughing at me, all of the workers.”
“What did you say?”
I sat next to her. “Well, my neighbor taught me, so I thought I was a big shot. I said, ‘Lāi sha, or ‘La Shi’, just like she told me, and—”
Stephanie broke out laughing, and I stared at her. “That’s not tea,” she said, covering her mouth. “That’s not tea, oh my God.” She couldn’t stop laughing, couldn’t stop to explain. Her father looked at her, alarmed.
“Sorry,” I said to him. “I said ‘Lā shǐ’ to her, and now she’s like this.”
This made her laughed harder.
“Well, what did I say? Did I say ‘shit’? Is that what I said? My neighbor said I ordered shit.”
S he shook her head, and I had to wait for her to gather herself. “You said…” But she covered her whole mouth with her hand first and closed her eyes. “You said—it’s something like ‘Come on over here and rub medicine on me’.” Then she burst out laughing again and her father scolded her in Chinese.
“Oh boy, I said all that?” I looked at the sky, thinking of the vicious-eyed one and the other women behind the counter laughing freely even after I walked out the door.
When Stephanie calmed down at last, she said she was sorry.
“No. I’m an idiot,” I said.
“Listen. It’s ‘Nai chá.' Like this. See my mouth?” I stared at her mouth as she said ‘nǎi chá’ a dozen times. Then I tried it, but she laughed each time I said it—until about the eighth try. “That’s it, almost. You have it now—a little bit.”
A referee’s whistle blew, but I only looked over briefly.
“I’m going back there today. They won’t laugh at me this time. I’m on a mission.”
“You’re very brave.”
I smiled, looking all around the park. “We’ve got everything here,” I said. “See, over there we have one selfish team and one unselfish team, but the selfish team is winning. Then on our side, we have people who don’t play basketball at all. They play chess, or they watch their kids or read the newspaper or just talk. Everyone is just doing their thing. It’s nice.”
She stood and went to her father. “What’s your thing?”
“Oh, anything. But most of all, I like to make a fool of myself ordering tea.”
She took her father’s arm and helped him stand, and I stayed on his right as we headed out of the park. A driver stopped his fancy car to let us cross Mulberry Street, and I nodded thank you. Halfway up Mosco Street, Stephanie’s father lost his balance for a second and I caught his elbow, but he pulled his arm from my grip and yelled at Stephanie. I watched her listen patiently, then continue to lead him, and I swung to her side so she didn’t walk into the street.
When we reached her stairs, I gestured to Mott Street. “Wish me luck, I’m going in there. Lai chá, right?”
“No. Nǎi chá. Nǎi chá. You have to remember. If you say it wrong again, oh my God.”
“Don’t make me laugh again, okay?”
Her father gripped the railing and swung his leg around and planted his foot on the first step.
“Let me help,” I said.
“It’s all right,” she said. “We do this every day.”
I watched her take him up the steps.
“It’s funny,” I said without thinking. “Right now, it feels like that Virginia Woolf quote.”
She glanced at me, her dark brows knit, then yanked open the heavy door and eased her father through the threshold. I watched her disappear behind it.
Then she opened the door and stuck her head around. “I’ll have another quote for you tomorrow.”
I stood there as the door closed behind her. Then I hurried up Mosco Street.
Inside the bakery, the vicious-eyed one behind the counter showed no signs of laughing as she faced me.
“Nǎi chá,” I said to her and winced.
“Yes—no, no sugar. Did I say it right this time?”
She turned to the hot water machine and lifted a cup from its short stack. I watched her gratefully as she poured the nǎi part of the chá and carefully placed the lid on the cup.
Outside, I sat on a bench in front of the church and watched the people pass. Then Kin was crossing the street. He wasn’t looking at me, but he wore his little smile, and I knew that soon I would hear all about the Mets and the Knicks and the Giants, and after he ran out of things to say and I finally tore myself away from him, I knew I would miss him too.