As I said, my imagination goes wild. I imagine a very Chinese apartment – utilitarian yet stylish, garish yet functional, black yet white. CJ, the agent and I walk through the apartment complex. A lot of the apartments look as if they are being refurbished but the refurbishment looks as if it has been abandoned, makeshift of sort. I think of those tiny towns in Oklahoma where people use camper tops as a foundation to build a sprawling shack. I tell myself ‘This is China’ over and over. Part of me feels as if I am walking through an apartment complex in Skiatook, Perry, Blackwell.
At the edge of the complex, we enter a building. The interior is concrete, fulfilling my utilitarian dreams. We walk up a flight of steps. We walk up a second flight of steps. We walk up a third flight of steps. We walk up a fourth flight of steps. At the top of the stairs, the agent puts a key into the metal security cage-like door. This feels like New York City’s Alphabet City of the 1980s. We all take a breath. She opens the door.
The living room is tiny, definitely not big enough for my fantastic orange ultra-mod couch. Off of the living room, the kitchen and bathroom are on one side and the bedroom is on the other side. The kitchen is a tangle of wires and grease stains. The bathroom could be called Trainspotting Chic but that would be too generous. The bedroom is big but is old and dingy. It smells of mold and sour milk. Off of the bedroom is an enclosed balcony, more like an enclosed hothouse. The rent is 1,600 RMB. My company is fronting 2,000 for a housing allowance. I am willing to put in another 1,000 just to make sure I have a nice place. I tell the agent I want to keep looking.
We walk back toward the office. I ask CJ if we are looking at other apartments with her. He tells me this is the only one she has. She will call him if anything comes up. During our discussion, the agent is on her phone. Back at the office, she and CJ talk. She smiles at me.
CJ and I leave and go to the next real estate agency. This agency is even livelier than the last one. A younger woman comes to our aid. Although I do not exactly know myself, she seems like she might understand what I want. She and CJ talk. She goes to her computer and starts pulling up what I assume are prospective apartments.
CJ tells me she is taking us to see a place. This is very exciting. Even though she does not know me, I feel as if she knows me. We follow her down the sidewalk. We walk over the canal. We are not in close proximity to the school anymore. She points out a footbridge to CJ and tells him that is how I would get to school. MY GOD! She was reading my mind. This is really weird.
We walk toward a really nice Mediterranean-style apartment complex with wonderful balconies. Oh, this is going to be perfect I tell myself. ‘She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge.’ I imagine wrought iron, stucco, and split levels. I think of Laverne And Shirley’s 1960s apartment with the Beatles poster. This place I will deck out in fake fur rugs and flea market artifacts. I will play Pavement and Sergio Mendes. All of my friends will come over to smoke from a hookah. While we are walking, CJ tells me the rent on this place is 1,900. This is too good to be true, I tell myself.
This IS too good to be true. We walk past the perfect Mediterranean style apartment in the perfect Mediterranean style apartment complex. We walk on down the sidewalk. I think of ‘The End’ by the Doors. And, I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs. He was right. Jim Morrison is a buffoon, what a waste. That reminds me, I saw ‘Strange Days’ at a CD store for 10 RMB ($1.25). I might as well grab it when I get back to Songjiang. “And through their strange hours, we linger alone.”
CJ and the young lady talk the whole time that we walk. I wonder if it is about me or if their talk has anything to do with me. Maybe they are talking about the weather, dumplings, television, Chinese pop music. I wonder if he is telling her how difficult I am. I would not blame him. I deserve it. I have got to stop being such a dick.
Finally we turn into an apartment complex. This is nicer than the first one. There is an absence of half-finished home-improvement projects. The curb is lined with nice cars, mainly late-model Volkswagens. We walk to the back of the apartment complex which is nice. Perhaps a back apartment would be quieter. The agent fumbles with her keys. She finds the right key. We go into the apartment building door. We walk up two flights of stairs which is fine.
After fumbling with more keys, she opens the door to reveal a somewhat unimpressive apartment with wood floors and another tiny living room. The bedroom is huge. The glaring drawback at this apartment - other than only having a shower with no tub - is the white oversized Liberace-in-Vegas bedroom furniture. I feel as if at any moment Bea Arthur will come stumbling in drunk from the balcony singing ‘Send in the Clowns,’ mistakenly thinking that she is on some mid-1970s variety show with Melissa Gilbert and Scott Baio. She feels like she cannot compete with Charo who is on next. But of course, Charo had just collapsed while guest-starring on ‘Chico and the Man.’ She is just not her cuchi, cuchi self these days. She may need to go to Betty Ford. Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’ plays over and over in my head. “Everyone is so near.”
We leave the apartment. I still have a month to find something. I try not to get discouraged. We will find the perfect Shanghai Crash Pad for me I know. We walk back through the apartment complex. The process of finding a place is still exciting, still new. I tell myself I am finding a place in a major world city. In many ways, this place is like London, Tokyo, Paris, New York. I try to imagine my 12 year old self imagining my grown up self living in Shanghai. My 12 year old self would be impressed that my grown up self is living in Shanghai. My 12 year old self would be puzzled that I am not wearing a New York Dolls T.
Across the street from the apartment complex is another realty company. Our young vivacious agent takes us there. She has friends or colleagues there I assume who might help. She talks to the women manning the office. She makes a phone call or two. CJ is listening to her. She gets off the phone. She tells me we will wait ten minutes. She knows a bit of English. CJ tells me we will wait 20 minutes. We sit and wait. The office is full of women. They all chatter to each other. I wonder if they are talking about careers, grocery prices, recipes, serial killers, sex.
Ten minutes later, our agent tells us we are ready to look at the next place. This is very exciting. We go back across the street to the same apartment complex. This apartment is in the middle of the complex. I am told this is a bit nicer. This is a two bedroom. The rent is 2,300 a month which is still within my budget. We trudge up three flights of stairs. She opens the door. There is an actual living room with a couch. On one end of the apartment are the kitchen and the spare bedroom. The bathroom is on the same side of the apartment as the front door. At the back of the apartment are a nice sized master bedroom and the enclosed balcony. The apartment is nice but it by no means takes my breath away. However, so far, this has been the best place I have seen.
There is one inherent glaring problem with the apartments here, or at least the ones I have seen. They are all furnished. This sounds like a good thing except when you tell the landlord that you have your own couch. You do not want the one that has been vomited and spooged on. You have become a bit hyper sanitary in the last few years and the thought of someone else’s semen stained couch in your apartment makes you a bit faint.
All sorts of solutions are posed. Put all of the hideous furniture that you don’t like – oversized desks, small crappy flimsy K-mart desks, wrought iron coffee tables, mismatched lawn chairs, fiber board nightstands, Sooner Rental sofas, stained padded headboards – into the spare bedroom. Why of course, why didn’t I think of that? Make my spare bedroom into a storage room for mismatched ghetto furniture. I have a better solution, why don’t I just chuck it all out the fucking window?
Of course, I do not even mention that I might want to paint the place. If I mention it looks like someone thought about painting it, but didn’t, in the Reagan years, that would fall upon deaf ears. For a moment, okay for less than a moment; I mull this apartment over. I tell CJ I want to keep looking. We leave.
Outside, the agent tells us there is another place that we can tour. This place is nicer. The rent is 2,500. This is another 2 bedroom. We walk. We are walking farther from the school. I had this vision of rolling out of bed and walking a short distance to school. I may have more of a hike. If the place is awesome, I will not mind.
The agent and CJ continue talking. They seem to be joking with each other. I pretend that sparks are flying between them. They will soon be necking at a random bus stop or humping in front of a Buddhist Temple. Who knows?
Maybe there is no electricity between them. I am sad because they have never listened to Captain Beefheart’s ‘Clear Spot.’ “Magnet draw day from dark, sun zoom spark.” I then wonder if ‘Clear Spot’ is among my top five favorite albums. Yes, I tell myself it is. I remember when Terry Slade, the doctor of music made me a tape of ‘Clear Spot’ back in the 80s. I did not know what to think at first and then it hit me as the most strangely beautiful art as music ever. It was like seeing a Hamilton Beach Electric Blender being re-imagined as a bikini.
Some folks put Galaxie 500, Johnny Cash, Chet Baker into that top five category. Captain Beefheart hangs out with Patti Smith and the New York Dolls in that category for me. ‘Subway Train’ goes through my head about five times a day at least. “You stop and you stare as I’m leavin’ my favorite place.’
We cross the road where we got off the bus. If we had not got lost, the walk to the school would have taken us approximately fifteen minutes. If the apartment is in the complex we are walking past, I am digging it.
Suddenly, I feel as if I am in London. We are walking beside a tall concrete wall. The side street that we are walking down does not seem very busy. There is a skyscraper being constructed across from the apartment complex. In the lot where the skyscraper is being constructed, there is a long building that looks like a long two story garage. It has windows on the second floor. I can see bunk beds through the windows. This must be where the construction workers stay during the construction. This makes me wonder if they are low paid migrant workers. The accommodations look minimal like a bunkhouse at a ranch.
We walk to the end of the block and turn into a complex. We walk to the middle of the complex and then walk to the end of an apartment building. Beyond the building, there is a small wooded park, mainly cedars. This is very nice, a park right outside the door.
The agent rings a buzzer on the door. We are buzzed into the building. We walk up four flights of stairs, not my favorite thing to do. As we are going into the apartment, I am told this apartment occupies two floors. The family still lives here. This IS exciting. Immediately, I think of a nice London flat when I walk into the apartment. The entry is also a small dining room with a refrigerator in the corner. To the right of the entrance is a small square kitchen; next to the kitchen is a small stairway. Opposite from the front door is a nice sized living room, not grand but nice. The living room has a big picture window. Yes, my sofa would go nicely here. We look around a bit and make our way upstairs.
The stairway is U-shaped. At the top of the stairs is the tiny spare bedroom - with peeling baseball wallpaper – which has been made into a junk room. A child’s captain’s bed takes up most of the floor space. Under the captain’s bed is a pile of junk. Next to the spare bedroom is the bathroom with a small bathtub. Granted the tub is small; I am not bitching; there is a tub.
Across from the stairs is the master bedroom which has a day bed and a double bed shoved into it. I ask the owner if the daybed will be moved out. I think she tells me yes, but I am really not sure. The rest of the bedroom furniture is nice. It is like furniture from West Elm. We then go out onto the rooftop balcony which is amazing. I envision cookouts, student gatherings, coffee drinking, card playing, belly dancing.
This place, I really like. The problem, the big problem for me is that the place is not available until the first of September. I want to be settled into a place the middle of August. The problem for CJ, with the place, is the noise. CJ is very protective of me. I guess he does not want me any grumpier than I already am. Yes, there is a construction site across the street and there is an interstate flying by my balcony. But, I tell him the noise will not bother me. I lived at 116th and Lex in NYC for Christ sakes. Of course at the time, I was drinking half a bottle of vodka a night so nothing much kept me awake.
He wants me to think it over. The agent got a call while we were looking at the place. There is one more place she wants to show us. We walk back in the direction from where we came. We walk almost back to the agency. We walk into an apartment complex. The agent and CJ point at something. I do not know why they are pointing. Finally, I see, the school is across the street. This is nice.
What is not nice is the climb up to the 6th floor. The apartment is in a 6-floor walk-up. This does not thrill me. However, when we open the door, I am stunned. The apartment is beautiful, big and open with two big bedrooms, tile in the entry, a real entry with two big entry closets, a huge living room, a really nice kitchen – no oven, of course, there are no ovens in the kitchens that I have been in China – a nice bathroom with a big bathtub. The furniture is new mostly.
Except, and here is where I get hot under the collar, because this is what makes me crazy about this place. In the living room, there is a huge sectional, a huge fake black leather sectional which is worn and even ripped in a few places. I ask if the sectional can go. No the sectional stays. I point out that it is worn and ripped. No the sectional stays. CJ tells me that I can move it into different corner. I tell him that is not the point. The sectional is ugly. I do not want it in the apartment at all. All of the options for the sectional are laid out before me. I do not care. Why can we not just throw it out the window? I point out the window to CJ. CJ looks in the entry closet. We could probably stuff most of the sofa in there. I don’t know whether to hit him or kiss him. I do neither. The agent asks me if I really like the place. I tell her I really like the place but the 6 floor walk-up does not thrill me. The sofa scenario does not register with them.
We leave. The agent goes back to her office. CJ and I head back to the stadium to catch a bus. I want to hug him and tell him what a good person I think he is but I am afraid that it would seem fake. Instead, we wait at the bus stop for the bus.