Street Life in China Town

What is the difference between a coral reef and the streets of Washington? Answer: The animal life is stranger in Washington.

We were in Chinatown, I and Officer Mike Halstead, who is part of the Asian liaison unit of the MPD. We were walking. The street guy with the motorcycle helmet, a white fellow with a battered look, pushing a stroller with his life in it, came up and started chatting, almost coherently. He never takes the helmet off. It’s black and scratched, with a visor. It seems he got hit on the head some time in the past, and now lives in his helmet.

I guess it makes sense.

Then there was Hollywood. Hollywood is a black guy dressed in more colors than a rainforest bird: brilliant dyed-yarn hair, enormous sunglasses, and a parasol on his head. So far as I know he doesn’t do anything wrong, may be perfectly sane and just likes, well, brightly colored yarn. But if you found him growing on a coral reef, he’d fit right in.

Anyway, the Asian-liaison folk have a small substation in Chinatown. They’re supposed to have fifteen officers but don’t because they’re undermanned. Their job is to handle crime committed by or against Asians. Halstead is your basic white American gringo, but the unit has several speakers of Asian languages, and wants more. They spend a lot of their time looking after petty crooks, car-window-smashers and such like, who aren’t Asian.

You hear a lot about community policing, putting guys on the sidewalk where people can see them, getting to know the locals. Halstead actually does it. I think it’s a good idea. He dropped briefly into this restaurant, that bar, the other store, saying Hi, Yuan, or Bill, or Chin Ping, or whoever, and chatting a moment. They all know him and he knows what their sisters are doing and whether Lee Wing is over whatever his problem was. He knows the street people by name and history, what they do for a living and whether they need to be caught for it.

The businesses like community policing. Chinatown depends on tourists and walk-ins from other neighborhoods. Thugs and aggressive panhandlers don’t help business. Foot guys like Halstead keep the low lifes under control.

Asian crime exists. Halstead took me to a brothel right on the street, an unobtrusive second-floor establishment.

“They’ll see us on the camera and lock the doors. Watch,” said Halstead correctly. We went in the glass street-level door and heard the “click!” as we went up the stairs. At the top, through a locked glass door, Halstead pointed to the small rooms used by the girls, who were nowhere in evidence.

“They run into the back room.”

Why, you might ask, don’t the cops do something about a cathouse operating more or less openly? They have done things, and still do. But it’s trickier than it looks. Ostensibly these places are something else, usually massage parlors. Massages aren’t illegal. You have to prove that more is going on. But that just gets you the girl, who is back on the street in a few hours, and anyway the house can always find more girls.

To get the ownership, you have to prove that they are profiting from the sale of sex. The owners will typically say, why, my goodness, I had no idea such things were going on. You mean, it isn’t just a massage parlor?

Some of the girls, said Halstead, have 25 customers a day, at forty bucks for the massage and major add-ons for additional services. Over a month that could come to a fair number of guys. The gals must be extroverts.

We went to the China Doll to eat. If you want good food at good prices, see where the beat cop eats. The staff chatted with us and Halstead told me the story of the crudball who stole a violin from a car. Seems the guy didn’t know it was worth five grand, and neither did the local fences, who wouldn’t take it. So the guy tossed it in the trash. They never got the fiddle back, but Halstead said he enjoyed telling the thief that he had tossed a $5K instrument.

It was getting dark. We left and Halstead explained to some lost tourists that, no, they probably didn’t want to walk to a shoe store they had heard about in a bad part of Northeast. They would have lasted, on a generous estimate, about fifteen minutes. Life on the beat.

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