#505: Drum Mountain

July 20th, 2015

She tried to offer inner peace even after they deflated the Titanic.

Around her, they disassembled the south end of the fair. The tables, folded. The booth tents, retracted. The sinking cruise ship bouncy house, flattened on the ground.

Only her little table full of meditation booklets for the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association Chicago Chapter still stood south of 24th as they took down the far end of the Chinatown Summer Fair.

The woman came from Mount Prospect in the northern suburbs to offer peace and zen to fairgoers in Chinatown.

“A lot of people today?” I asked the woman behind the table.

“Yeah,” she said, adding “Well, before this” with a gesture at the empty.

The fair itself was fun and typical. There were booths offering food. There was a petting zoo. There were corporate ventures signing up for drawings and raffles that would net no more than a spot on a mailing list. A breakdance crew on the main stage taught children a few B-Boy steps.

Dim sum was sold for local parish fundraisers. Fairgoers of every race, mostly Asian, wandered the Wentworth south of Cermak. Fairgoers of every race but Asian sported recently purchased conical Chinese bamboo hats for keeping the sun away as they wandered.

While some booths were filled with expected dragon-dappled parasols and chubby Buddhas, others were more practical than Chicago street fairs usually offer.

Packing tape. Sponges. Sieves and brushes. Merchandise laid out in cardboard box after cardboard box that no one would quite explain where it came from beyond the fact there is no store and yeah, sure, “wholesale” works.

Chinatowns are remarkable to me. I use the plural because they’re all odd, wonderful, unique and strangely the same. I’ve dined and shopped at ones from San Francisco to Montreal, wandered different identical streets of window ducks and waving cats.

Candy or tea? Chinatown. Fruit of nebulous import origin? Chinatown. Christmas Jews and knives either for cooking or for showing off to combat nerds? Chinatown.

Chinatowns are like the little newspaper-wrapped mystery boxes you can only buy in Chinatowns. You don’t know what you’re going to get with each one, but you can expect a few key components are probably inside.

After I left the fair, I biked through the neighborhood. Beyond the main strip of ersatz pagodas and window ducks is the true test of Chicago’s Chinatown. Here, it’s just a place where people live.

Two-flats where families joked on the porch. Apartment complexes where old men shuffled out to check on tiny gardens. Kids in strollers howling as parents scrubbed their faces. A wildflower-dappled park by the river where teens strolled, momentarily too at peace to show off for each other.

It’s the same as and different than any other Chinatown because it’s the same as and different than any other neighborhood.

People live here. That’s all anyone really needs to know.

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