These things always start out slow. News reports trickle in from across the globe; strange accounts of half-eaten corpses, markings indicative of human attack. We’ll ignore it at first; we don’t believe in monsters. One day though, soon enough, they will come, and we will find ourselves face to face with an endless trail of blood-thirsty undead.
They will sniff us out, the zombie hordes. They will hunt us down, strip us of flesh, chew and suck the marrow from our splintered bones until nothing remains but hollow, broken skeletons scattered across the wreckage, leaving this fair city, San Francisco, California, nothing but a bloody skid mark on the path of civilization.
The Mission, I think, will be the first to go. All of those young, creative, passionate folks, so full of life and false confidence; zombie fodder, 101 to Delores Park. Like Sherman’s March, a trail of smoldering wreckage, abandoned bicycles and half empty tall cans of PBR, the remains of an ill-conceived generation. Next to go, the Castro. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense to defend the land at the base of a hill. Better to find yourself a stockpile of pet food and head for the massive reservoir at the summit of Twin Peaks. You can wait it out and keep your coat lustrous. The Marina children will be collected by their parents at the first sign of trouble. Nobody cares about the Marina kids but their parents anyway. Gnawing through our juicy Tenderloin, the undead will become increasingly difficult to distinguish from the locals, resulting in an all-out blood bath. You don’t want to be in the Tenderloin today any more than usual. Union Square will be abandoned once the looting stops; nobody’s sticking around to defend Niketown or The Cheesecake Factory. The same goes for the waterfront and their shamelessly overpriced restaurant scene. Chinatown is our only hope.
Chinatown would have several unique advantages in the event of a large-scale zombie invasion. It is well isolated, bordered to the South and the West by hills overlooking the city. If those hills are sufficiently fortified, the zombies will be looking at a tough climb. And, although Chinatown is the city’s most densely populated region, it’s status as a tourist destination ensures that standard food and water reserves are geared towards supporting numbers far beyond the resident population. Access to food and water, strategic geography, these are just a couple of obvious resources, easily met or exceeded by neighboring regions. Chinatown’s strongest assets are less apparent.
Much like in Blazing saddles, when the residents of Rockridge build a replica of their city as a diversion, the residents of Chinatown have erected Grant Avenue. Grant provides all that American tourism expects of a safe and sanitary sampling of Chinese culture. Here you will find the infamous Gateway Arch, marking the entrance to Chinatown’s tourist sector, a concentrated strip of jewelry stores, dim sum joints and knicknack shops. Grant Avenue will provide our last line of defense, funneling the enemy through an intricate maze of distraction: foam nunchucks, shiny watches, buddhist statuary, bright red mandarin hats with fine black pigtails sewn in, and those machines where you put in your loose change and watch as your penny is pressed into a little copper memento, a picture of a pagoda in a dimpled frame with a witty and unexpected inscription, something like, “Chinatown, San Francisco.” The residents of Chinatown are clearly well-versed in the art of diversion.
Deeper still, and less tangible than geography, precious resources, and practical experience with mob-control is a quality that may prove Chinatown’s most valuable asset in confronting a full-on zombie assault. It is their thorough and ubiquitous understanding of food. There is no ability more vital to sustaining a population under siege than that of securing provisions.
Just one block west of Grant is Chinatown’s central marketplace. Stores crowd onto sidewalks, and sidewalks into the street in a maze of meat, seafood, delivery trucks, pallets of produce and dry goods, and hordes of little old ladies clamoring after it all. On any given afternoon, one can find a greater and more diverse supply of food products within these few square blocks than in any other part of the city.
It doesn’t take long to see that the food-handling practices here don’t always conform to western sensibilities. Most Americans, for instance, do not feel comfortable selecting chicken parts from an unrefrigerated cardboard box placed between some lychee and a strange product that for all intents and purposes probably functions as a cucumber. The average american would likely favor a salmon fillet, neatly trimmed and arranged on a bed of ice decorated with lemon wedges over a monkfish gasping for air and thrashing about in a shallow plastic tub. Salmon fillets come all wrapped up in a sense of security and reassurance at no extra charge. Struggling monkfish, just moments from having their heads hacked off and insides torn asunder, are freaking creepy.
Squeeze through the entryway of one of the many fresh markets found on Stockton Street, and you enter a world that would chose the creepymonkfish, invariably. According to the tiny lettering on the green awning out front, this place is called City Super. The aisles, should they warrant such a description, are designed to allow only one small person to pass at a time. This, I imagine, is intended to keep at least the larger and more timid tourists from wandering too close to the action. Make your way back, past stands of produce, pig and cow parts representing all major organs, and any number of unidentifiable products which appear to be edible and yet entirely uncomfortable to swallow, and you will find City Super’s answer to the standard supermarket seafood department. Here, tucked along the rear wall of this narrow, crowded space are rows of bubbling aquariums containing live crab, lobster, and a remarkable variety of fish. Lining the floor below are various buckets and crates containing still more water-going species: frogs, sea urchin, turtles, snails, all piled high and awaiting a sordid and certain fate. Lift a finger in any direction and some innocent creature will be gathered up and taken to the sink behind the counter to be bludgeoned, butchered, and packaged in your humble honor. Strangely comforting it is, this logical brutality.
Here on Stockton Street, I have seen a fish monger tear the shell off of a live turtle and clean it as it continued to struggle, I have seen an old lady chase down a bag full of groceries as they attempt escape, I have seen salmon heads sold off of newspapers laid out behind bus stops in broad daylight, and nothing fills my heart with a greater sense of pride and hope for the future than the fond memory of the day I watched a 100 pound old lady subdue a 25 pound fish with her bare hands. Chinatown is not afraid of food. Food is present here, it is accessible, and it is understood. Animals are put in their place, on cutting boards, into pots and ovens, and ultimately on the table and into your belly. To my thinking there is something very American about that attitude, something practical, something decisive.
Americans, however, are far more cautious about what they chose to ingest. We buy products that appear to be, “clean,” and, “sanitary,” that come wrapped in multiple layers of sterile looking packaging from a shelf in a neatly organized grocery store with eye catching displays and excessive signage describing the cleanliness and sustainability of the methods employed in their procurement. This cleanliness is an illusion; food is not clean, nor should it be. Fish eat other fish, pigs wallow in their own filth, cows chew their own regurgitant, and chickens are hateful and disgusting creatures. Produce is no better, feeding off the combined excrement of them all in addition to its own rotting filth. Eating itself, an unsanitary practice.
It would seem that we Americans are loosening up a bit, becoming more daring when it comes to dining, more interested in where our food comes from. Spend a few hours roaming around Chinatown’s markets though, and you get an idea of just how uptight we continue to be. You won’t find the cleanliness and the pleasant smells or the customer service or the strict adherence to health code that you find at major grocery chains, but you will find something different, something more honest and straight-forward. You will find a very reassuring sense that nobody is going to apologize to you for the harshness of reality. And in that respect, Chinatown offers a perspective on food so unlike our own that it seems to be pointing in an opposite direction entirely.
Should we, as humans, ever find ourselves unexpectedly returned to the natural order from which we have so carefully extricated ourselves; I will, with any luck (and perhaps a little compassion on the part of a culture that would seem to view my kind as lumbering, char siu swallowing, beef cattle) be found in Chinatown. When you’re about to be hunted, it makes sense to go where they seem to have the most intimate understanding of the food chain, where they grasp more deeply the relationship of predator to prey.
Zombies are not going to feel squeamish about dismembering us and consuming our entrails, they won’t Yelp us or ask each other if we contain gluten. They’re going to tear us apart, like food, like basic sustenance, like the fuel they require to go on unliving. They will see us in that same light with which Chinatown views a turtle or a chicken or a frog, as something to be incapacitated, dismantled and consumed. When they make it over those hills and break through those tunnels, or when a few of the more curious decide to turn left and Wander away from the nicknacks and the flattened pennies, I’ll be waiting, a shotgun in one hand, a pork bun in the other, and I’ll look back with the eyes of a suffocating monkfish and give them hell, the filthy bastards.