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Chinatown

The tiger and the lobster fight it out.

The crowded Fung Wah bus lets me off on Canal St. The boy behind me on the train was chattering into a cell phone about Ibiza for the entire trip. It is raining hard, cold, but the streets are crowded, solid with umbrellas, people, food, and noise. I have a backpack, and I walk through the crowded streets, aiming for the East Broadway station, but willing to be diverted by dumplings, caught between bags of garbage and stalls selling ginger root, scallions, and obscure ocean fauna.

“Sir! This is the luckiest cat ever!” shouts a man. He is in his 40s, thin, a weedy moustache, a suit. He chases me, smoking a cigarette, cradling a small ceramic kitten with its paws up. Big and tall, I am always a target for hawkers. I shake my head. “Sir! The luckiness of this cat cannot be overstated. The cost of such luck is minimal--”

“No,” I say.

“You need the luckiness of this cat,” he says.

I'm sure I do. Around him, this most-dense part of the city, lights, a merging of languages and colors, yellow and red everywhere, lit by the red, hundreds of stalls with women selling phone cards. Suddenly, a crash, at a fish stall. An aquarium filled with lobsters has broken open and a lobster has escaped into the gutter. There is consternation in Chinese and English. The lobster is growing magically! It gobbles trash and grime as it scuttles, and it slides away from all the hands which seek to grasp it. By the time it reaches Canal St it is 8 feet tall without the stalks, and all of us recoil as one before its huge bulk. It makes a deep clattering noise in its mysterious throat, a noise like cellos beaten against the side of a house, still growing.

Seconds later, 20 feet tall, it runs back down the block, and steals the fish-seller's daughter. The crowd's voices rise as one. How could this happen? She is only 14, very beautiful, with long hair, and her T-shirt shows cartoon characters. She was just fighting with her mother because she wanted a cell phone with text messaging. In a few years she could have gone to NYU.

All we, the crowd, can see are kicking legs as the lobster holds her with his claw, eyestalks waving wildly. Men faint, knocking over stacks of cardboard boxes with a splash. Women scream. The daughter's mother runs to the lobster, but is thrown away. The father begs the lobster to relinquish his daughter. The lobster begins to scuttle to the river. The girl is screaming. Unless something happens, she will spend the rest of her life as a lobster-bride under the bridges. He will take her out to the bay and scuttle up to Maine, where he will rule as lobster king with her as his unwilling bride. It is a life of incredible suffering.

Suddenly I see the man who tried to sell me the lucky cat. His head is down. He is speaking to his product, and I am sad for him, a lunatic among all this chaos - but then the cat takes on a green light and grows, first in his arms, then on the ground, to enormous size, turning in moments from an infant-like porcelain charm six inches tall into a raging jade dreamtiger with flames pouring from its back. It opens its mouth and roars. The rainwater around its paws turns to steam. It is a awesome, awful sight.

The tiger charges up to the lobster. The lobster is defiant, still holding the girl. Each circles the other. Then lightning strikes, followed immediately by thunder. We all turn to see that the lightning has struck the statue of Confucius in Confucius Plaza, and animated him - he rises from the ashes of his pedestal, shakes off loose stone from his robe, and stands between them, looking on in bronze sagacity from Lobster to Tiger and back. All bow to one another, the lobster dipping his eyestalks, the tiger bowing his head. The lobster hands the girl to Confucius. She weeps on his shoulder, but he grips her arm firmly, and is unmoved.

A battle begins. I've never seen anything like this, so terrible to both the participants and the local real estate values. Strange fish are thrown everywhere, pirated DVDs burst into the air, live turtles escape into the sewers, ripe pears explode as the tiger races past a fruitstand.

Roaring and screeching fill the air. A feinting claw, a parrying pincer - the tiger's back is opened by a claw, as the tiger's teeth sink into the lobster's tail, tearing off the shell and digging into the flesh. The crowd roars, cries, screams. Confucius looks on unmoved, his blank eyes unblinking, holding the girl firm until the outcome is clear. The tiger is thrown off the lobster's tail, and crashes through a restaurant advertising dumplings. It is not rising, its flames have turned a dark brown.

The waiters stand back in fear, but a single waiter, unafraid, runs to the tiger and delivers it a full plate of two dozen soupy buns. The tiger laps them into its mouth in a single movement, swallows, and, rises, rejuvenated, bursting back into the street. Its roar, echoed by us, in the audience, can be heard from Wall St. to Union Square. People wandering below 14 St turn north or South turn to see lights over Chinatown, silhouetting the Manhattan Bridge, and shrug, deciding that there's a fireworks display.

Fireworks! The tiger leaps into the air and rips open the thorax with a claw, a sound of plate metal being torn, and chews away an eyestalk. The lobster makes its terrible cry again and picks up the tiger in foremost pincers, rising up on its hindclaws. But it is too much. The lobster makes a noise like it is rattling fist-sized glass marbles inside a giant cylinder of steel. Suddenly it becomes quiet, and the great lobster falls to the ground, dropping the tiger, which stalks a few feet and then falls over on its side, steam rising from its many wounds.

Confucius releases the girl, who runs to her mother and father, her shirt cut, her face scratched. They hold her, all weeping and shouting for one another at once. The statue turns and goes back to his pedestal. The man in the suit goes up to the tiger and pets its neck. It curls gently and its flame extinguishes, then it begins to shrink, until it is once again a lucky ceramic cat. He puts it into a bag with other lucky cats, and it clinks, and he scurries away.

People appear with brooms, and the haggling goes on. Already people have begun to hack and pull away parts of the lobster - dinner after all - and the scene retturns to its normal frenzy, the ionized burn of lobster-tiger battle quickly fading from the air, the words falling from the sky turning back to rain. The man with the lucky cat is nowhere. I shift my shoulders and go to the East Broadway station on the Ftrain, finally heading home, soaked with rain and filled with visions.


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