When I went to see the lion dancers on Saturday, I saw silver hair that I instantly recognized, on a small person who was wearing a joyfully bright sweater– someone whom I don’t know well but who makes me happy every time we meet. She’s urban in the best possible way, a fast-talking lady with her own impeccable style. Although the music after the performance blared too loudly for any kind of conversation, that brief visit with her and her husband buoyed me for the rest of the day.

Connection is the life’s blood of the Chinatown/International District. Its small shops guarantee that repeat customers are remembered and greeted in a way that “customer service” training will never replicate. No “Did you find everything okay?” in this neighborhood–here an elderly shopkeeper scolded me once for not coming in more often, another, after I bought a slab of roast pork, gave me a piece of rum cake that his friend had brought back from his vacation in Jamaica.

One late summer afternoon, I finished a hard day of writing with perilously low blood sugar. I walked outside with plans to get banh mi from a bakery down the block and was disheartened to see the lady who owned the shop making her way across the street, hand in hand with a small grandchild. 

“Oh no, you’re closed,” I said and she immediately responded “Are you hungry? Come.” She and her grandchild reversed course, with me following obediently behind. She unlocked the bakery door, swept in, and told her son, who was immersed in closing procedures, to stop and attend to my purchase. That’s the kind of moment that breeds lifetime customer loyalty and in this shop, that moment extended through generations. At another time, as I bought my banh mi, I told this lady’s granddaughter how much I loved the Thai chili that she put on my sandwich instead of the jalapenos that other places used. “Oh we grow it here,” she said and led me to the sunny front window where a massive green plant held center stage, covered with ripened little Thai chili peppers. “So many,” she said, “Here, take some home with you.”

What I took home with me every day when I lived in the CID was the warmth that comes from genuine human interchanges. Sometimes it was my favorite supermarket clerk at Uwajimaya peering at me and saying in a worried tone, “You look tired.” Sometimes it was a street person lurching out of an alleyway to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. But I never left my apartment without returning from an encounter that made me happy to live in this place. It’s given me one of my dearest friends and a woman I think of as my daughter (I should be so lucky!).

Now I live in a neighborhood so overrun with tourists that nobody has time for more than a flash of recognition when they see a familiar face. But my old neighborhood is less than a mile away. Although I no longer have resident status, a fact that still hurts each time I walk past my old apartment building, I still see people I know when I’m on my way to its sweet little library or when I need to buy Mama noodles or when I’m starving for Tai Tung’s noodles and Harry Chan’s smile or when I come down to follow the Mak Fai lion dance troupe as they bless the neighborhood with drums, gongs, and firepower.. I may never live in the CID again but I’ll always use it, I’ll always love it, I’ll always find essential connections on its streets.

Don’t let it fade away.