It’s been said that everything in the world exists at least once in New York City. And as any resourceful New Yorker knows, those looking for the world will find it on Craigslist. So after an extremely dispiriting first day in the city, during which I scoured bike shops from the Upper West to the Lower East and found nothing decent for less than $600, I knew what to do. Within hours, a sketchball from New Jersey showed up at my door with a perfectly functional twelve-gear drop-bar black Raleigh and sold it to me for $200 cash. He told me I was pretty and threw a padlock into the deal. That’s it, I thought. I’m never doing any other kind of shopping.
What else is on Craigslist? Well, this week, a posting for a missing Siberian Husky, a job offer directed at Laundromat attendants, an ad for a $25 poker table and a Joana Leunis Latin Dance DVD, someone willing to trade an Australian lobster farm for property in Florida, someone else seeking Goth models, a man interested in meeting lactating women, and 40 million other titillating propositions.
And last week, the following:
Hep you help me
Life has been nothing but surviving the big city - 10 hours a day 9-to-5 job and Chinese takeouts.
It is good, but certainly nothing I would have said, "this is what I want to be when I grow up" when I was 10.
So, here I am, trying to see if there is anything I can do for this world.
I don't have special skills or much time, but I'd like to see if there is anything I can help - one good deed a week.
Please drop me a note if you have anything needed a hand. I will do my best if I can help.
I'd like to be part of the solutio and hope this will also make a difference to my own life.
it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
I liked the unaffectedness of the language and the whimsy and optimism of the writer. So I invited myself to dinner. “Call me when you get out of there,” ordered my sister. “They caught the latest Craigslist killer, but who knows?”
“I don’t cook much,” said Dana, the tiny Taiwanese woman who opened the door to a one-bedroom on Lexington and 65th lined with small homemade abstract paintings and a six-foot television. Despite this statement, she’d planned on making pork dumplings from scratch. She opened the spice cupboard and the door came off the hinge with a crack. “Whoops. See?” She pulled a chair into the hallway off the tiny galley and I sat on it, blocking the front door. I watched her coarsely chop cabbage, which she then fed into a small food processor and spun until it was the size of pencil shavings. She used a plastic knife to scoop it out.
A tomato-red rice cooker perched on top of the fridge, which was plastered with a postcard from the Costa Brava, magnets representing Pittsburgh, Montana and southern California, and a letter from an Ecuadorian kid Dana sponsors thanking her for a recent donation. On the counter were grapes, reduced-fat Pringles and Tostitos Chunky Salsa; on the wall, a Kandinsky calendar. I caught a glimpse of a few cookbooks behind a cupboard door: one from the Sivanada Yoga Vedanta Center, InStyle Parties, Betty Crocker’s Good and Easy, and Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals 2.
Dumplings are one of the only things that Dana knows to make. Every Chinese New Year, her 99-year-old grandmother gathers her six children and their families around to make dumplings into silver dollar shapes all night in Taipei. Dumplings, then, are the one dish for which Dana needs no recipe. Otherwise, well…"Let's just say my takeout menus used to be organized by nationality.”
She’d gone down to Chinatown on her lunch break for supplies. Usually, pork dumplings, the fairly involved dish she had decided to cook, require Napa cabbage, but in the interest of time, Dana grabbed the first cabbage she saw. Before and after lunch, she works in information technology at Crédit Suisse in midtown. Before the job at Crédit Suisse, Dana worked at IBM, lived in upstate New York, Pittsburgh and Taipei, where she studied English literature. “Big cities are home to me,” she said. “I grew up in one. But I don’t like the person I become when I go back to Taiwan. I like myself better in New York City.”
New York allows Dana to be herself: inquisitive, creative, independent. The day I met her, she was wearing head-to-toe denim and a braided leather belt. No jewelry, other than a silver watch, her mesmerizing hands and a really honest expression on her face. It said: “A complete stranger, over to dinner? Well, why not?!”
We talked about her Craigslist posting as she eviscerated the cabbage. The first person to respond thanked her for it and said they’d be in touch when they next needed a favor. The second person to write was me. The third asked for sex. The fourth asked for money. The fifth wanted a job…and a Social Security number.
Craigslist has treated Dana better in the past. She met a study buddy at Starbucks for over two years; he pored over medical textbooks while she caught up on novels and biographies. “I love to read, but I never make the time,” she said. She’s thinking about posting for a subway buddy, someone with whom to ride on the subway and read. She’s also had a tea buddy, a drinking buddy, a walking buddy, various email buddies, and a buddy who exposed himself to her soon after they met. They didn’t meet again. “I’m not crazy!” she said. But she generally believes in people’s good nature, the infinite possibilities of the world-at-large to provide her with amusement, and counts some of the people she’s met as real friends.
Soon afterwards, Dana’s real friend Vickie arrived. Vickie’s even tinier than Dana, also Taiwanese, and works in risk assessment for American Express.
Dana salted the shredded cabbage and piled it high on a tea-towel, then balled up the towel and wrung it to squeeze out excess liquid. Meanwhile, Vickie whizzed ginger very finely, until it was the size of sawdust, and strained it of liquid too. Then she chopped a few spring onions. The ground pork went into a Teflon pan, the biggest receptacle in the kitchen, and Dana poured soy sauce, sesame oil, and, once the sesame oil ran out, olive oil on top. She stirred the pork with chopsticks. “You do it 200 times until the meat gets stringy,” she said. “I put black pepper in there too. It’s not traditional, but even my parents do it.”
Her mother’s a primary school teacher and her father manages a textile factory, or rather, a factory that produces thread. “So for them, life’s fairly black and white.” Her parents are purists when it comes to dumplings. Her father always microwaves a chunk of the meat mixture to test the seasoning before the dumplings are formed, and there’s no question of adding raw egg to the raw pork, as Vickie does; the two are separately cooked.
For Dana, nothing’s black and white about life. She seeks, she hopes, she doubts and seeks further. She asked me as many questions as I asked her. She walks around, she volunteers. Once a week she heads to Brooklyn to walk homeless dogs, and on Tuesdays she spends time at a computer center helping senior citizens with new technology. When she bought the colossal television overwhelming her living room, she threw a Come-See-My-Big-Ass-TV-Party and the seniors all came over to play on the Wii. For someone so fascinated by things and people, New York is a limitless playground. Living in a city has plenty of downsides, but Dana maximizes her use of its resources, makes its infinity fun. It’s easy to mistake her unfazeable smileyness as naïveté, but Dana’s curiosity about the world’s warts is underpinned by a willingness to accept them. And she is always thinking.
The ginger, spring onions and cabbage went in with the ground meat and we carried the Teflon pan into the living room to make the dumplings. Vickie dumped a spoonful of flour into a fingerbowl of water. “What are you doing?” Dana said, incredulous. “My parents always add flour to the water,” Vickie said. “I have no idea why.” We mounded little piles of meat onto Twin Marquis dumpling wrappers (“We should’ve made the dough from scratch, it has a better texture that way, but if you’re going to buy wrappers, I recommend Twin Marquis”), dipped our fingers into the fingerbowl, and traced a wet circle around the edges of the wrapper. At this point their skillful fingers left me in the dust as they pinched and crimped and expertly folded the dumplings into little purses that sat upright in a self-contented dusting of flour and taut sides. I made one dumpling to their every four and mine looked like excess wet drywall ornamented by unappetizing boogers of raw pork.
Dana boiled water while Vickie, the faster of the two, finished forming the last forty dumplings in the length of time it took to heat the water. Once it bubbled, Dana added dumplings in vast handfuls. Dana’s hands were amazing—expressive, gentle, vibrating with warmth and capability. I couldn’t stop watching them move. Her mouth, too, was irrepressible and charming. She waited until the water came back up to the boil and added a cupful in cold water. “Once the water’s boiled three times, the dumplings are cooked,” she said.
Dana piled the steaming dumplings into a bowl and sat it in the middle of the dining room table. We each had two bowls before us, one for the dumpling and a smaller one for dipping sauce, which we each made by mixing soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and a slightly hot Chinese barbecue sauce. Slippery skin yielded to tender, well-seasoned pork moist with boiling liquid. With this we drank cava the color (and flavor) of pink lemonade.
I ate about thirty dumplings, even though my dubious sleight of hand with chopsticks made it difficult not to wear the dipping sauce. Once cooked, it was hard to tell which had been the pretty ones, but I suspect the ones that exploded in the pot had been mine. “Don’t worry,” said Dana. “They still taste good.”
Later, when the cava had mostly been drunk, Dana disappeared back into the kitchen. She came out a few minutes later with bowls of the dumpling boiling liquid, to which two sachets of Knorr hot and sour soup mixes had been added. She’d also cracked in two raw beaten eggs, which dissolved immediately into Silly String. I couldn’t finish my soup. The dumplings I had eaten had reassembled into one Giant Dumpling in my stomach, which refused to allow the penetration of anything else.
I headed home on my Craigslist bike, dodging potholes as the Major Dumpling sloshed around, thinking about how honest and easy conversation had been. Cities are funny. People value their private space, and boy do I understand that, but over a year of my living in a rural place renowned for friendliness hadn’t managed to pierce a veneer that shattered as soon as I walked into Dana’s apartment my first week back in the city.