When I slouch, I look fat. I took a picture in front of the school with my favorite guard. He was out of uniform. He always smiles at me when I walk past. He is maybe in his late 40s. I assume he has a family. I would like a picture of him in his uniform. He is one of the main guards, I assume. Sometimes, he does not know, I watch him watch the monitor in the guard house. He is always sitting up straight. He does not slouch.
Later, when I look at the picture, I look fat. I am not fat I don’t think. Don’t slouch, that is what we are told all of our lives. The reason we are told that is when we get a certain age when we do slouch; we look like Jabba the Hutt. We think we look like Keith Richards or Patti Smith but we look like Jabba the Hutt, clear and simple.
As I write this, I realize I am slouching. I cannot help it, I am a sloucher. I have been a sloucher all my life. My heroes have always been slouchers. Of course, there are exceptions; Cary Grant is not a sloucher. He always stood up straight and tall. James Dean is the ultimate sloucher. He makes slouching into an art, as does Jimmy Page, Mick Ronson, the Ramones, Crispin Glover and (the aforementioned) Keith Richards. The data is still out on Ariel Bender. I do not think he slouched. Robin Zander, Tom Petersson – slouchers.
On Ed Sullivan, the Beatles are standing up straight. When I watch that old footage, Mr. Sullivan makes such a fuss over what good boys they are – their manners, their posture. He does not make that same fuss over the Rolling Stones. Maybe he does, I actually do not know, but for mythology’s sake, we will say he does not. So, then, the Beatles vs. the Stones battle could actually be the slouchers vs. the non-slouchers, the non-slouchers being the Beatles. They went through a slouching period during 1968 when they were doing the White Album, slouching. They are slouching on the Beatles Again album cover.
The Beach Boys did not slouch. Brian Wilson slouched during his creative psychedelic period. He slouched when he was able to get out of bed, that is, during Smiley Smile and beyond.
Pictures, self-portraits, are a funny thing. We have an image of what we look like when we think of ourselves. We have an image in our head. My mom would always tell me that she thought she looked like this or that and would ask me if that is how she really looked. When I was behaving, I would tell her the camera lied. She looked the way she imagined herself looking.
Supposedly, cameras don’t lie. However, I would like to say, I think, sometimes they do. Or maybe it is not that they lie but that they do not tell the whole truth. With some people, I do not think that a camera can properly capture that person’s aura. I have a few friends who are really nice looking but when you see a picture of them, the picture is never good. And those friends always tell me, ‘I do not take a good picture.’ They are right, I don’t tell them that, but they are right, they don’t take a good picture. Maybe it is because they have become afraid of the camera and the camera, like an animal, can sense fear. Or maybe their auras cannot be captured digitally.
We get these impressions of people, often people we see day to day, people we do not know. When I walk to Chritine Bakery or on into downtown Songjiang, I pass a tea shop which may or may not sell Chinese herbs. A young male mans the shop. He may be a teenager, he may be older. He often stands in front of the shop. He smiles and says ‘hello’ to me when I pass. He seems nice but guarded. He has a teen movie appeal. He could be in a movie with Kirsten Dunst - her next door neighbor, the new boy at school. He is tall with angular features but he has boy-next-door eyes.
Here, the tendency to get attached to strangers is easy. When I pass the tea shop, I hope that he may be standing outside. I hope that we may say ‘hello’ to each other. I think of the track ‘Wave’ on Patti Smith’s Wave. Finally, I feel as if I understand what she is saying. She may be talking to the pope but I reinterpret the meaning. This intangible emotion that we have for the unknown, we are able to invent a scenario, this perfect picture, this dream.
I hope to talk to this boy who works at the tea shop which never has any customers. Never. I pass it frequently. No one ever goes there. Ever. He does not slouch when he stands in front of the tea shop. The Chinese are not slouchers. They have not been raised on the Rolling Stones and James Dean.
This is not the kind of shop where you sit and drink tea. This tea shop is where you buy tea. It is packaged or in canisters, whichever you prefer. Logan told me when I got here the best time to buy fresh tea is in the late spring which I had forgotten until just now. I will have to wait until next year now I suppose to buy my fresh tea.
When I walk by the tea shop, I sometimes notice changes. Last week, they added a television in the back room, which is to the side of the counter. Now, he does not stand out in front of the shop. He sits at the counter with the backroom door open and he watches what I imagine to be Chinese soap operas. Often I walk by in the late afternoon. I will see a face take up the whole screen, a young Chinese actress. Sometimes, the face is crying.
Now that the television is there, he no longer stands in front of the shop. He no longer says ‘Hello’. I feel as if I have lost something. I have lost something within my daily dynamic. To him, I no longer exist. The foreigner has gone into the catacombs of his mind. Now he is lost in China’s As the World Turns.
I walk over the canal bridge. A bicycle approaches. It is early afternoon. It is him. He is on the bike. He says ‘hello’ and smiles, an old friends smile. I smile and wave. He rides past. We have our connection again. This is fleeting. The chance of me seeing him on his bicycle is slim. This is just a snapshot that will soon fall and sink and disintegrate into the river of my memory.
The next move is mine. He would not understand the Pretentders’ ‘Kid.’ “I know you know what I’m about; I won’t deny it.” He is too Chinese. He does not speak English, I assume. He understands McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC. He understands Superman, Spiderman, X-men. He does not understand the Pretenders. I do not have the words to explain the meaning to him. I barely have the words to explain the meaning of the words to myself.
I know about the lazy hometown summers. I spent those same sorts of lazy summers in America, those summers waiting for my life to unfold, waiting, waiting working in a cafeteria, at a record store, or picking apples. I wanted New York, London - the world. When I got it though, it was not as wonderful as what I had. What I had - this fragile moment in time before people around me started dying:
• at twelve years old, listening to Bowie, Iggy and the Dolls with the money I made picking apples in the family apple orchard, dreaming about the future telling my mom I would someday like to have an apartment in Tulsa;
• still young, the summer right out of high school, hanging out with the town skate punks - the soundtrack that summer was 999, the Clash, 60s Who, 20/20, David Werner, the Shoes - playing on the circular swings at Sooner Park, talking about hitchhiking to California, dreaming of having a band that played gigs;
• a few years later, the summer of American History in summer school at University, and All My Children noontime watch parties (Vaubel, Mer, Walker and sometimes Parker), drinking occasionally on Friday night.
• that same summer - the dialogue with my self-confessed impenetrable college friends about Big Star, Nick Drake, the Fall and all of the other music for record store geeks – as we slammed the Thompson Twins, Howard Jones and the Hooters. Mer especially loved to denounce Journey’s Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’. Some of us by then were in bands, we played house parties. The future would never be this good.
These days, I clean the toilet, steep tea and talk about those days when I was a drinker – passing out at parties, setting my hair on fire with candles, burning down houses, writing songs as a youngster about being old, writing songs about mad girls.
(Incidentally, in China, if you clean the toilet before you go away to camp for ten days, the toilet bowl will be filthy upon your return due to the sad state of the tap water here and its general nastiness.)
CJ sends me a message. We can hunt for apartments on Sunday. I write back that sounds fantastic; I would love to hunt for apartments on Sunday. My life is now unfolding at a rapid clip. Sometimes, I feel as if I cannot keep up. Still, ‘Mystery Achievement’ plays in my head.
I walk around downtown Songjiang. Now that I do not drink, I get sugar cravings in the night. The gates of the school close at ten pm. I have to go and be back by then. Christine always has plenty of cakes and pastries from which to choose.
While I am out, I decide to have supper. Supper here is sometimes difficult. This time I have my phrase book which Meg gave me. On menus, everything is written in characters. At one place off the beaten path, I walk in, I point to a Beef stir fried dish in my phrase book. The guy that I am almost conversing with has a runny nose. Runny noses and restaurants do not mix well with me. I walk out.
Down the street from this place is a place in an alley which always smells of grilled food. It is usually crowded. I walk by. It is crowded. I do not feel like being in a crowd. People always gawk at me.
I make my way to the other side of Main Street. Any place I go to will be random. I go into a place that has a few people sitting at tables. It looks nice. I sit down. I have my phrase book. I point to fried noodles and then I point to stir fried beef. I would like to have stir-fried beef with noodles. Instead, I get an order of stir-fried beef and an order of fried noodles. The waiter leaves a teapot of hot tea on my table.
Beside me, a table of people (three women and a man) are laughing, eating and drinking. Occasionally, the man looks over at me as I eat my meal alone. He may be the husband of the woman that he is sitting beside. He watches me as I eat my stir fried beef with my chopsticks. He hopes I drop a piece. Foreigners cannot use chop sticks. That is most likely the topic of conversation at his table. When he’s not looking, I do drop a piece of sliced beef. He does not notice.
I walk to the counter and pay my bill - 29 yuan, close to four dollars. This is a nice restaurant. I will probably not come back.
I walk home. I walk past the tea shop. The boy is sitting at the counter, watching television. I do something rash. I walk in. He turns around and sees me. He smiles that old friends’ smile. He comes from behind the counter and shakes my hand and does not seem to want to let it go.
He starts talking rapid fire in Chinese. In Chinese, I tell him I do not understand. His allusiveness, I now know was just shyness. He no longer holds what he held for me before I walked in to talk to him. He points to the couch for me to sit down. I sit down. He sits on the other end of the couch and starts talking rapid fire in Chinese once more. Again, in Chinese, I tell him I do not understand.
The mystery that I had built up between us is now gone. As a stranger, what I felt for him, I no longer feel. He points to a package of tea. I shake my head no. We sit on the couch. He still talks. He is trying to get through to me. He does not. I cannot even get through to myself. I point to the door. He nods his head. I get up. I walk out the door.
In the future, when I walk by, he will be watching television. He will be sitting up straight. He will not be slouching. He will be lost in a world of television drama and skin crème commercials. He will not be standing outside. He will not be waiting for me. He will be waiting for his life to unfold. His life will unfold but he will not realize it. I will not have to stop and try to talk.