Chinatown Temple

Temples: solaces that wrap your body in ribbons of cool during New York City’s muggy summers. In the early mornings it is mostly quiet, the plastic over the worn cushions soundless, streets not yet bustling. Draped in yellow cloth, the resident monks drift from room to room, sweeping, placing offerings of fruit in threes—never four—on red plates, and lighting the first incense of the day. The temple feels strangely empty, despite the large bronzed statues that inhabit the temple.

By late morning, people have begun to filter in at a more constant speed. Candles float in glass bowls of oil, drifting as tips of incense sticks attempt to capture their fire. Smoke spirals upwards from the sweet incense, ends buried in a giant urn of sand that sits on three stout legs. There is a lady that always sits up front next to the red donation box, white hair wound with gray.

Kids run around carefree in the streets after Saturday school, before they are herded into the temple by their parents’ reminders to pay their respects. The children that arrive are the restless type, fidgeting but quiet. The few minutes they spend lighting incense are intruded by thoughts trying to link carelessness with prayer. The most pure are always the most frustrated. It is the cradled baby who cries in temples.

In the afternoons, the temple echoes the lethargy of day; the people that come in now are slicked in sweat, breath-less the instant they walk through the door, greeted by majestic statues and a world more foreign to them than the rude streets of New York. Tourists don’t bring offerings. They bring only fascination and tired cameras on sunburnt necks. The candles swimming in oil become more active as inexperienced hands grasping incense try to catch the little flame. As it grows dark, they embark on more exciting journeys, battling once again through the angry streets of Chinatown. The little window at the front of the temple begins to glow from the city lights.

Nights in temples belong to the desperate. While the monks go around picking out the dying incense, the people bent from working all day settle in the red cushions, heads bent, knees flat, and worn hands embedded with the spheres of rosary beads. They are the discoverers of the back room, where there are no windows and only warm hues of gold and red, and where a singular statue sits front and center; she is a lady compassionate to the struggles of a circular path in life.

The owners of stubborn prayers and crinkled hands set the temple afire with prayers trapped in this snow globe city. Only momentarily do they spiral upwards in smoke before they drift back down, enshrouding everything in gray.

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