Part of my personality is very sociable and working at Toscanini’s, my ice cream store, is perfect for that, but there is a balancing urge for anonymity that I long ago recognized and think partially explains why I like to go to movies and concerts and sit where people don’t talk to me. I’ve always loved the movies and always sought out new things to see. So years ago when the Boston Herald’s Jim Verniere recommended a movie starring Jackie Chan and playing in Boston’s Chinatown, I took his advice.
Washington Street is lined with once grand theaters and the Pagoda is one of the smaller palaces. You can still recognize the facade although now the lobby sells excellent Vietnamese sandwiches. On a still night, when the harbor fog had rolled all the way into Chinatown, I went to see Armor of God, one of Jackie Chan’s first successes and actually not a very good movie. Except for Jackie Chan. The theater was dark and the movie was being projected with what might have been a 40 watt bulb. I had seen better images in grade school science classes. Most of the audience seemed to consist of Chinese teenagers seeking refuge from their families. I was the oldest and only non-Chinese person in the theater. But when I left the theater and returned to Washington Street, I was hooked on Jackie Chan’s unique combination of movement as character and Buster Keaton-like physical comedy. Soon I was going all over the city to see Hong Kong movies–at the MFA, the Brattle, and eventually hosting a series at the Coolidge. Hong Kong Cinema was at its zenith. Being part of the audience was exhilarating.
In a Hong Kong movie anything could become a weapon, particularly, I remember, umbrellas and food. Umbrellas were used to obstruct views, startle people, push them away, as support for implausible acrobatics, and even to float above armed and often confused soldiers. Food is also, in the hands of a master, deadly. Baozi could be thrown at people one by one or in flurries always accompanied by whizzing sounds while flying and a solid thump when it hit its mark, both unlikely outcomes of an airborne steamed pork bun. Occasionally, one could be wolfed down while throwing others at bad guys, or simply eaten because the protagonist is hungry after a series of chases through hutongs (traditional Chinese neighborhoods).
Hong Kong movies are weak on scripts but strong on action. Actors have the same old-fashioned qualities of cowboy stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Probably because sound effects were cheap, all the action is accompanied by noises as memorable as the sounds of phasers and transporters in an episode of Star Trek.
One evening, after an afternoon shift, I am driving from the ice cream store to Harvard Square. I am with Donna Moran, once of Fitchburg and forever beyond Fitchburg. We are proceeding down Mass. Avenue. I am eating one of Toscanini’s delicious chocolate chip cookies. Donna is playing with the radio looking for The Next Big Thing. We approach the busy crossing near Brookline Street and the late, much lamented Hi-Fi Pizza. It should be known that I am not an aggressive driver. Family members make fun of my slow progress. Still. A person who I will simply describe as very Central Square begins to cross the street, without looking, against the light. I don’t drive at him but neither do I slow down so he can jaywalk in front of me. As I pass him he shouts, “Hey, shithead.” I stop at the next traffic light and in my rearview mirror I see him running down the middle of Mass. Avenue, gesticulating wildly.
Suddenly he is next to my car window.
“You shithead. You almost hit me!” and he takes a swing.
Owing to another incident, I had been studying Tae Kwon Do at The Dance Complex and instinctively block his punch. Studying Tae Kwon Do at the Dance Complex doesn’t impress many people and may only intimidate people who are folk dancers. But that “inside block” makes me feel very confident. He takes another punch while I chew on half of my cookie and I block that too. Things were going well, but I had a feeling that if he kept punching he would eventually hit me so I do what any Hong Kong movie star would do, what any perpetually adolescent Hong Kong movie fan would do: I use the cookie as a weapon and make a wonderful sound. I wrist-snap the cookie and whistle, emulating the sounds I’d heard in many dark theaters. He jumps back, perhaps thinking that I have a Chinese baozi and not a chocolate chip cookie. For a moment he is afraid and then he realizes what I’ve done.
“It’s a cookie. It’s a goddam cookie!”
Unfortunately, he resumes trying to punch me.
I think I block one more punch and the light changes. I drive away. Donna and I exchange glances.
“Did that really happen?” she asks.
My chest swells with pride. “Yes,” I say. “It did.”
And then and there I vow never to leave home without a self-defense pastry close at hand.