20 May 2009

The People’s Preferred Methods of Transportation

It was not the heat; it was the humanity. It was truly that. Or them, the humanity. The other humanity, not Robert and Sara but them. All of them. All the Chinese people.

It was as if they’d stepped into Dante’s Inferno, and Robert was reminded of the one not written by Dante Alighieri in the early 1300s, but the one directed by Harry Lachman in the mid-1930s (Lachman also directed other films including Charlie Chan in Rio [1936], Baby Takes a Bow [1934], The Face in the Sky [1933], La Couturière de Lunéville [1932], The Compulsory Husband [1930]), and Week-End Wives [1929] but Dante’s Inferno starred Spencer Tracy [whose birth name was Spencer Bonaventure Tracy which is a very cool name considering it quite likely that Tracy may have at one time portrayed John Paul Jones in a play or a movie and Jones’s most famous ship was named the Bonhomie Richard, which sounds somewhat like Bonaventure, and that he supposedly had a long affair with Katherine Hepburn, though she only conveniently revealed the affair after his death in order to spare Spencer’s long-dead wife the posthumous embarrassment when he couldn’t deny it, and, since she, Hepburn, was practically a man anyway, she could very well have been named Richard like the ship, and it must have been an adventure to have even spent any time at all around her—an adventure good or bad at home or abroad. Sort of like the one they were having now]. Why did Robert know these things? No one would ever know.).

It was those kind of coincidences which really bugged him at times like that stuck in the pedestrian tunnel under the Xi’an Train Station with about 500,000 other people though it was a safe bet that only they were the only not-Chinese people in the whole shaft. The 300 pounds of luggage didn’t help; the little squeaky-wheeled luggage cart did help a little bit but the luggage itself didn’t.

I’m sweating like…like…like a coolie, he thought and immediately discarded the thought like a crumpled juice box while considering where and amongst whom he was doing that sweating and thinking. He was not the only one profusely perspiring, which, because of the vicious humidity, was abundantly and olfactorally clear. And it was confusing how a place so dusty could be so wet.

“Are you hot?” he asked Sara. “And wet? And dry?”

“Shut…the…fuck…up,” she gasped in reply.

“Me, too,” he continued.




Already lost in that briefest of conversations, he decided to stop speaking and, unwittingly, saved his own life.

Any question of where to go was quite definitely answered by the amalgam of humid humanity that pulled and/or pushed them in one decisive direction until finally, like little corks floating on a sea of fleshy lava, they popped burning onto the not-much-better surface.

Blinking there in the cruel Chinese sun alongside half a hundred thousand of their newest friends and each of them holding a Chinese/English map of the city bound into their different guide books, they began asking motorized cyclo drivers the question they would ask a many hundred thousands of times in the months to come. While blinking.

Zai nar?” they asked. “Where is it?”

They were pointing to the place on the map indicated as The People’s Hotel, a place they had telegraphed reservations. That had been fun; really, telegraphing anyone for anything was like sending a telegram for more gunpowder to help beleaguered cavalry troops at the wooden fort or sending salutations to one of the older Barrymores at a place called the Birdcage Theater. They wondered if the telegram had even arrived or been delivered and if it had even worked where what would be waiting for them in the hotel lobby beside the usual angry, drunk Australian backpackers. The cyclo drivers, most of whom seemed illiterate, thought they meant the city itself and kept answering to that effect.

Xi’an,” they said. “Xi’an.”

Sara and Robert found this adding piquant exasperation to the aftermath of their ordeal of a three-day train ride and thirty-minute stagger through the hellish hundred yards of pedestrian tunnel.

Bu. Bu, bu, bu, bu,” they’d insist. “No. No, no, no. no, no.”

And they’d point to the dot that designated the now-crumbling-with-neglect-and-animosity hotel Soviets built when they were still coming to places like Xi’an or like the People’s Republic of China entire until Mao Ze Dong lost his mind.

“Jiege difang,” they’d insist. “This place.”

The cycle drivers would insist right back though with greater clarity.

“XI,” they’d say. “AN.”

It was like an old joke and Sara along with Robert could barely stand it. And that was where things stood until some man, some anonymous Chinese man, took one of the guidebooks into his own hands to tell the drivers in shot-gun Xi’an dialect where the pair wished to be deposited.

Dou xiao chen?” the kind man asked them. “How much money are you willing to spend for the ride?”

While Robert was calculating the relationship between renmenbi and dollars, Sara snapped.

“I don’t care. As much as it takes.”
The kind man smiled and held up his hand in what looked like a surfer’s gesture for “things are cool.”

“Things are not cool,” Sara answered.

It was weeks later they would learn the gesture was the one of the one-handed counting signs for “six.” Six renmenbi were officially 85 U.S. cents though it was not until weeks later the couple would learn they had been ripped off by 78 unofficial U.S. cents and be pissed quite off. The government-approved exchange rate was 1-to-7; U.S. dollars were going at 1-to-30 on the street. The counting was done one-handed because back in ancient days when the Chinese understood and practiced capitalism, such hand-symbols could be used beneath the protective covering of capacious changpao and thereby keep asking price and counter-offer private from eyes not directly involved in the transaction.

While Sara supervised the loading of their 600 pounds of luggage into the designated cyclo, Robert sat on the street curb and for some elusive reason began to ponder Mendelian genetics with what was left of his quickly sautéing head. Sweet-pea blossoms in pink and blue tumbled across his brain’s gyri and sulci.

If I took a half-blue and a half-pink, he wondered, would I get a three-quarter pink or a three-quarter blue? Would it have round or wrinkled seeds? Would they be tasty?

He snapped out of his Austrian garden revery to the sound of Sara.

Zou [Get up and go],” she was saying. “Zou, zou, zou.”

“Hey,” he answered. “You’re speaking Chinese.”

“Yeah. Amazing,” she said. “Now get the fuck up and go.”


“That’s what I said.”

The streets through which they traveled were as clotted with Chinese people as had been the pedestrian tunnel back at the train station, if not more so if such a thing were possible and it was.

“There’s a lot of Chinese people out there,” Robert said.

She sighed and she banged her head a little bit on the cyclo’s sheet metal body each time the driver hit a bump or another Chinese person. Rocking back and forth in the back and forth of the vehicle, Robert snagged his shirt on an exposed bolt and gave the blurry 50s plaid cloth a v-shaped tear. And that was the worst thing that happened that day. It had been his father’s shirt and Robert had many times seen the pictures of his dad holding a newborn Robert and wearing that shirt.

“I ripped my shirt,” Robert told Sara.

“Oh, honey,” she answered. “That’s awful.”

“I think we should get one of these.” Robert answered her answer with a gesture indicating the cyclo in which they were riding. “It would help if we had one of these for the trip back to the States.”

Maybe they could actually get one home. Registration and tags might be a problem, but Americans were already bringing Chinese babies out of the country and if they could do that with a human being, how hard would it be to transport a half motorcycle-half rickshaw? Probably not too hard at all. They could name it, their own personal cyclo, Caifu Meng and dress it in a pink Ralph Lauren onesie and the guards wouldn’t blink as long as they kept throwing money at them. It would be worth a try.

Robert was thinking about how he was going to unload the 1200 pounds of their luggage when they finally arrived at the People’s Hotel of Xi’an for Visiting Soviet Dignitaries and Other Honored Guests. The grimy white statue of Chairman Mao smiled warmly as they passed. Robert was reminded of the statue of Walt Disney outside the Happiest Place on Earth except there was no mouse at Mao’s feet smiling along with the Helmsman. Still, it was good to be home and the sound of enraged, slurring Australians filtering out from the lobby and into the driveway was almost a comfort. They made it almost seem cool.

(from Artificial Rats & Electric Cats, Camber Press, 2008. Click on the title or the cover image for more information.)

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