Sunday, April 16, 2006

This is odd. Maureen and I are planning a trip for our May holiday. There is a knock on the door. Maureen answers the door – we are in Maureen’s dark pulled curtain apartment. Jennifer is there. Jennifer tells us she may take a trip to the three gorges. We tell her that sounds fine. We are looking into going to 2,000 year old Qiang Village.

“The village layout appears to have been based on the Eight Trigrams of the I Ching. It has central core of castles from which houses radiate, forming and eight-gate enclosure. All dwellings are connected by passages to entrances and doors, over rooftops, and through a labyrinth network of subterranean tunnels. The tunnels, which carry water to each corner of the village and every house in it, are spacious enough to hide and move about in” - From China Today, April 2006. The accommodations are priced at 10 rmb a night which is less than $2.00

The only foreseeable problem is how to make the arrangements. We can not exactly book it online. The magazine gives no phone numbers. Do we show up and hope for the best? Jennifer has to meet someone at 10:00 AM. The time is now 9:45. She leaves. Maureen and I are left to figure out the schematics.

Maureen boots up her computer. She tells me to write down the information. She hands me a pad and a pen. The pen is a Staedtler liquid point 7; I had bought a 3 pack of these before I left the states.
“Is this my pen?” I ask innocently.
“No” she says abruptly.
In my heart, I know this is my pen. This is part of the 3 pack. I am trying to piece together when she may have taken it from me. I try not to jump to conclusions. Perhaps she brought it from Australia. German pens are quite popular there, I suppose. I mull this over to the hammering and clanging construction soundtrack – always all day, every day from 6 AM to 11 PM. They have laid concrete for the second floor; they are now preparing the third floor for the concrete.

All of the Chinese tour sites that we find are really expensive. Everything is much more than the 10 rmb a night that I saw in the magazine. Three hour panda tours are $300. I tell her that is ridiculous. Those sites are geared toward Americans who do not know any better. I get frustrated; I leave. I know that is my Staedtler liquid point 7 that she has in her possession. Sure Staedtler may be a well known brand but what is the likelihood someone to whom I live next door would have the same pen, especially since this someone comes from a land down under. I try not to think about it. I take a walk downtown. A pen should not be that big of a deal.

Since it is Sunday, I forgo showering. I throw on my standard issue Alice Cooper t-shirt (lettering from Easy Action) and a pair of Blue Cult jeans, a Club Monaco hoodie and I start walking downtown. I often walk downtown and by now I know the shops more or less. Christine bakery is on the edge of downtown. Often in the afternoon, I stop in because at 4:00 or 4:30 PM they knock 1 RMB off the price. Crescents, raisin bread, variegated éclairs, cakes, cookies line the walls. The first time I was there, the attendant handed me a tray and tongs with which to maneuver. Now I am a Christine veteran. All of their pastries, breads and such are sealed which makes it seem much more sanitary. This way I know the whooping cough waif and his mother who are in front of me are not germing up the fresh baked goods.

The other day, when I was in a Taxi on the way to Bai Ren Fa - if Lotus is Walmart, Bai Ren Fa is Target – I spotted a florist which had a few potted plants on the sidewalk. This is down the side street of which Christine is on the corner. Since my three balconies need desperate attention I decide to walk that way and check it out.

As I approach, I see my first balcony candidate on the sidewalk practically demanding I throw down my savings. This candidate was a rather large (approximately 3 or 4 feet tall) boxwood bonsai with a thick trunk – the price 300 rmb ($37). I then went inside and mixed with silk flowers and plastic plants, I see the real things. I spot a corn plant in a beautiful tall ceramic urn – the price 220 rmb (under $30). And then, I saw the most sprawling rubber plant ever. This rubber plant was easily 8 feet tall. I assumed the price would be well over $100 or $200. When I asked the florist punched 600 rmb into his calculator – (around $70). Then when I asked about delivery, there is no charge. Have I mentioned how much I love China and how much China seems to love me. I feel like a modern day spice merchant, merchanting my way from shop to shop, no rubber plant or corn plant will go without getting a leaf or two lifted..

After I price the plants, I move on to my next shopping scenario. The sun is shining. I feel like buying some turpentine. Actually, I am not telling the whole turpentine story. For the last several weeks, I have made a few somewhat feeble attempt to buy turpentine but last night I pulled out all of the turpentine shopping stops.

Let’s start from the beginning of this story within a story within a story: The week after I arrived, I went to Central Shanghai and bought oil paints, brushes and canvas. I did not get turpentine to clean the brushes. Turpentine is a hard word to describe to the natives. I stopped trying. Maureen writes Chinese characters; she wrote it down in characters. Last night at Bai Ren Fa, I show it to one clerk, she looks at me and points to another clerk like she did not know how to read. Bai Ren Fa was packed so I did not bother the other clerk. I then saw some male clerks in the scooter department. If anyone would know, I thought the hip scooter clerks would point me in the right direction. Well, get yourself ready for some déjà vu because: I show Maureen’s handwritten Chinese characters - which I hope say ‘turpentine’ and not ‘kick my ass’ – to the clerks and three clerks become five clerks which becomes 6 clerks and a few bystanders. I have no idea how to act out turpentine. I look like a fool. I know it. I have stopped resorting to acting like I am bathing myself because that never does anything except produce jokes and what I suspect are rude comments. After this goes on for as long as a vintage Foghat or Kansas song, one of the clerks says, “No find here.” I xie xie my way out of there, buy a set of 8 primary color chopsticks, grab Maureen, hail a cab and head home to regroup on the turpentine question.

So...Today…The sun is shining. The birds are singing or maybe warbling, rough night for birds last night. I am ready to buy some turpentine. Okay, I know all the hardware store junkies out there are saying “Dude just go to a hardware store.” The one thing I have discovered about China is there are no hardware stores. Everyone here is still using hardware that produced in the 1800s or earlier. Yesterday, I saw a shovel, no joke, which should be hanging in the Smithsonian, it was so old.

However, before I go into the paint store, I am near Lotus. I decide to stop in for some insane reason - weekends are the craziest days at grocery stores. I think that must be a global rule: all grocery stores across the globe - crack Kroger in Atlanta, Associated in NYC, Homeland in Oklahoma – must be packed and full of idiots who can not steer a cart on Sundays. As I am walking in, I get a sudden wave of depression. This hits me now and then and, unfortunately, I think it has to do with all of the drugs I did in the early 1990s and before. I remember being a kid watching teen-shock movies such as ‘Go Ask Alice’ where flashbacks were talked about and the wall all of the sudden is melting or someone turns into a demon. My episodes are absolutely not like the Hollywood kind. I know they must be a chemical thing which usually only last for a long minute or two. Count down a minute and you get the idea. These episodes are a bit like panic attacks mixed with metaphysical hopelessness and an impending sense of dread that everything is going to go wrong. They feel like wolves waiting at the door. The reason I think they are drug related is because I never had them until after I stopped doing drugs, if that makes any sense. They were at their zenith when I would get stoned. Now they happen when I am not getting stoned. They are a bit frightening but they only last for a minute or two. By the time I am in the store, I am fine. My friend Mike once told me, if you are functioning, you are fine (which is very good to know!) I am functioning so I am fine.

I look around Lotus. Shoppers are everywhere. For some reason, I can not get my head around it. I walk down a few aisles. I leave. I am hungry. I go to the noodle place that adjoins Lotus. I am not sure how to order or what to order. Petrified bowls of food are at a table when I walk in as examples of the fare. However, I do not know how I tell the cashier what I want. She is not close to the food. While I am deciding 7 people barge in and crowd ahead of me. In the United States, I would be pissed. Here, I am merely frustrated. I almost walk out but then the people who barged in barge out in much the same manner as they barged in. One of the staff comes over to me. I point to what I want at the table. She leads me over to the cashier and tells the cashier what I want. I point to the Pepsi in the cooler. She grabs a can and adds it to my tab. I pay her. She motions for me to sit down at a table. Everything is good again. I sit down and try to think or remember when I walked into Lotus, “Why was I having an episode.” I never know why after the fact. This is like a ‘why is the sky blue?’ question. While I am pondering this, I see the server with a tray headed my way. My beef and noodles arrive. I am happy.

As I am finishing my noodles and Pepsi, I decide my next move. Although China seems to have no hardware stores, I did spot a paint store near where I bought my sofa which is in the same shopping complex as Lotus. At the paint store, I show the two ladies behind the counter my handwritten Chinese characters. They point out the window to the vicinity of the place where I bought my sofa. I somehow mime ‘tall’ because the sofa store/mall which is full of different sorts of home stores is two stories. They shake their heads yes. I am happy, I head that way.

Inside, I walk past shop after shop of sinks, toilets, tubs, vanities, desks. I hear someone say ‘hello.’ I look in that direction and say ‘hello’ to a clerk who has her young son with her. I then realize the young son said ‘hello’. I tell him ‘hello.’ He and his mother are now walking beside me. I ask him if he speaks English. He nods ‘Yes’ but he does not nod emphatically so I know he knows a little bit, maybe enough to help. I show him my Chinese characters note and tell him I need something to clean brushes. He leads me to the paint department. The clerk looks at it walks off, walks back with a can and hands it to me. The can looks like a paint-can and it says ‘shiny paint’ on the side of it. The clerk then acts like he is painting a counter. I am afraid he has given me a can of shellac which is not what I need. I ask the little boy again. The little boy tells me it is what I want. I smell the can where the lid pops open. It actually smells like paint thinner or turpentine. I purchase the turpentine; I tell everyone ‘xie xie’ and go on my way.

I walk back to the taxi hailing spot past Lotus, past the gypsy motorcycle taxi boys who call ‘hello’ to me after I pass. I wonder if any of the ones sitting there today are the ones to whom I gave cheap Chinese cigarettes a couple of weeks ago. A taxi pulls up promptly; I jump in; I show him my card with my address; we are on our way. Riding in a taxi here is a lot like playing a game of chicken and, yes, you must look at is as a game or you will freak out. Today, on the ride home we played chicken with other taxis, two scooters, a cycle, a few pedestrians, and a bus. The bus was the only one who would have made me yell chicken. Chicken!

I get back to my apartment. I put my turpentine away. The question with the Staedtler is still bugging me. I know I should just let it go but I can’t. I look in my book bag; I have only two Staedtler’s which proves the Aussie is a no good pen swiping bird-flu catching thief. Before I have a showdown with her, I look in the overnight bag that I took to Wuxi. There is a very slight chance the pen is in the top pocket. I unzip the pocket and I see a mechanical pencil and an inferior Papermate pen. But then under a book mark and a travel pack of tissues is the last Staedtler liquid point 7.


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