The landlord’s wife looks at me as if I am crazy. I am at the apartment to sign the lease. The landlord and Michael Wang went over to the school to get the set of keys for me. They had given Michael the wrong set. He and the landlord zipped back to the school on the landlord’s scooter. The other Michael and the landlord’s wife are waiting in the apartment with me. Once I have my set, I will sign the lease.
The other Michael, our driver, asks me if everything is good with the apartment. He assumes I will say yes. Nothing has been done about the All in the Family visits Bonanza Naugahyde furniture that crowds the otherwise lovely spacious living room. I tell him they were to move it out. He seems to be discussing this with the landlord’s wife whom I am sure is probably quite proud of this furniture. Someone may have shown her a picture taken in a Furrs’ Cafeteria waiting area circa 1978. When decorating the room, she seemed to have that in mind, of course, with the exception that this furniture is much smaller scale. This furniture would never accommodate the buffaloes that feed at the Furrs’ trough.
I walk around the apartment excited that it will soon be mine. I open cabinet doors that I did not open when I was here before. I discover I have a nice sized entry closet where I can hang coats and such. Under the cabinet for coats is a big storage cabinet where I can stash my oversized luggage. This is quite exciting.
As I pace around the apartment, I think of all of the ‘what ifs’ with the hideous living room furniture. The landlord had said he would remove it. He told me it would be gone by the time I signed the lease. Michael who is off on the scooter with the landlord was a witness. Lately, I have tried to not let little things bother me. For a moment, I am paranoid that they told me what I wanted to hear just so that I would stop looking for places. Once I got here, I would be too tired to look at more places and in resignation I would sign the lease. This briefly goes through my head. This is really a little thing. If worse comes to worse, the furniture will just disappear one day. After I think I may have to make the furniture - that looks like it has been flown in from Epplers’ Furniture in Bartlesville - just disappear, I realize I am jumping to conclusions.
Today, I left my apartment at 11 am to do this. Everything is much more complicated here than back in the States. I made it to the office at 1 pm. However, Michael was off seeing people to the airport so he was not at the office when I got there. He flurries in apologizing the whole time at 1:30. I tell him it is okay. I know he is busy.
Fortunately, Jo Howard, the older Australian woman is there. She keeps me entertained with tales of history which she taught for many years. In fact, she taught history during what we now consider history. She tells me she started teaching during the war. Dumbfounded, I ask her what war. Equally dumbfounded, she tells me to not insult her. She tells me she has been teaching since World War II.
In the process, she gives me a history lesson which what does not go over my head, quickly gets filed away into a remote part of my brain. She tells me that Israel was given to the Jews in 1918 by Britain in some sort of treaty. She tells me to read the Kite Runner and Mulberry Empire for a history lesson taught in readable prose.
I tell her I just finished reading the memoir by Tamim Ansary - West of Kabul, East of New York. Not knowing that I would at some point read his book, I had read the email that he sent in the wake of September 11th. The email eloquently pleads with the forces in charge to not bomb Afghanistan. This was an email that did not by any means give voice to the other side but gave voice to the innocents who were not on a side. As brutal as the attack was on the World Trade Center, an attack on the women and children of a third world country who have been held hostage by the maniacs in the Taliban would be much more savage.
When I left New York, my friend Liz at LaGuardia Community gave me a stack of books to go through as possible books to study with my students. Ansary’s book happened to be one of those books that I read while taking an extended – perhaps permanent – break from Moby Dick. Until I cracked it open and started reading it, I did not know that it was written by the same man who had fired off that email; ‘an email to a few of my friends’ as he is says in the introduction of the book. Immediately, I turned back to the back of the book to read the email. I was stunned that this was written by that same anonymous man who wrote that email.
Jo and I talked about this while I waited for Michael who at this point was waiting for someone else in the office. We talked about the bombings in Lebanon. A woman had to flee Lebanon before she could bury her family. This made Jo think of Antigone. Antigone defied the king to bury her brother who was slain as a traitor.
“You know you are old when you get a flash from 500 BC,” Jo ends the discourse and laughs as a Muzak version of ‘Killing Me Softly’ plays in the background.
Michael comes to tell me he is still waiting. The time is 2 pm. Since I have not eaten lunch, I ask him if I can go grab a bite to eat. He tells me yes, he will call me when he is ready to go.
Down the street is the Sydney Café. This is where I got the hamburger the last time that had mayonnaise. I look over the menu and decide I would like to try a repeat performance with burger sans mayonnaise. The waiter does not understand when I tell him no mayonnaise. I have the phrase book with me that Meg gave me. I am wearing these black Hang Ten cargo shorts with like a million pockets. (I hate that whole style but I feel as if it is too hot to worry about what I am wearing; I know I look the Western tourist.) I pull the phrase book out of the pocket below my knee and look up mayonnaise. There is no such entry. Then I look up salad dressing; again, no entry. The waiter looks at me, interested but puzzled. He disappears.
The waiter that waited on me before comes to my food service rescue. His English is decent. He asks me what I would like. I tell him I would like mustard instead of mayonnaise. He understands. While I am waiting for my burger, Michael calls and tells me he is ready to go with me to sign the lease. I tell him I have not got my food yet. I will call him when I am heading back to the office. My cheeseburger arrives. There is no reason to go into how delicious it was with mustard instead of mayonnaise. I inhale the burger, call Michael and go back to the office.
He is waiting for me in the parking lot. We wait for the other Michael and we zip off in the company Volkswagen to my future apartment. In the front seat, the two Michaels jokingly spar with each other in Chinese. In the backseat, I listen and try to get the gist of what they are saying but I cannot. Their language seems playful and sarcastic.
When we pull up to the apartment, a woman is pruning the shrubs around the apartment. She does not look like a gardener employed by the apartment complex. She greets us. She is the wife of the landlord, I later realize. The landlord then rides up on his scooter as driver Michael is parking the car.
Apartment complexes in Shanghai, I am trying to get my head around them. From my limited knowledge, the apartments or flats seem to be condos that are rented out by individuals instead of management companies. I have seen multiple apartments in the same complex and the inside is always different. They are not the cookie cutter insides that are usually the case in American apartments. Some of these apartments are quite nice. The apartment or flat that I am renting has nice woodwork, marble tiled floors mixed with wood floors, lots of cabinet space (way more than I need), and a cedar closet in the bedroom among other things. When he renovated the apartment, the landlord did a nice job. He did not just put together some slum lord special.
Michael Wang talks to the landlord’s wife. This is when Michael starts trying the set of keys that he has on various locks and realizes he was given the wrong set.
When Michael and the landlord get back with the right set of keys, Michael goes over the lease with me. The lease is in Chinese. Before he does this, he assures me that the living room furniture will be taken away. He writes a clause in the contract that says as much. I am relieved.
After Michael goes over the lease with me, the landlord takes us around to show us that everything works. He locks and unlocks doors, turns on faucets, turns on lights, opens the refrigerator and takes a bottle of cold tea out to show me how well the refrigerator chills food and such. Michael then goes and reads all of the meters.
Here, at this new apartment, I will have to pay the bills too. Earlier, I asked Jo how much she paid. She was quick to tell me she was quite generous with the electricity. She left the air conditioning going during the day when she was gone. She tells me she never pays over 100 yuan a month for electric which equals $12.50. At one point, the landlord tells Michael, since the apartment is a large apartment; he will send a cleaning lady twice a month to clean. We decide to schedule her for every other Wednesday.
After we take a tour through the apartment, Michael pulls out 6 months worth of cash to pay the landlord. Here it seems the rent is paid in many different ways as in 6 months at a time. After the landlord counts the money, Michael hops on the scooter with the landlord while the other Michael and I follow in the car. They pay the taxes for the first 6 months at the tax office. Then, we stop at the neighborhood police station. As a foreigner, I have to be registered.
Each time I move, I have to register with the local police station. At the police station, I think of checkpoints in the movies, Jews crossing borders, Roman Polanski, Jerzi Kozinski, Africa, Stephen Biko. The woman behind the glass takes my passport from Michael. They have friendly non-threatening banter. Michael says ‘Oklahoma-ah’ to her at one point. Maybe she asked where I was from. I wonder if that is on my passport. It must be.
We then go back to the office. As we are driving, Michael points out points of interest. He tells me the direction of the university which is close to where I live. We go back to the office. I walk to the bus station from there. On the way back to the station, I pop into a DVD store, pirated ones of course. I find the mother lode of foreign and independent DVDs. As usual, they are less than a dollar each. Sometimes, I find them on the street for 5 yuan (60cents). Here they are 7 yuan (about 80 cents). I buy three without thinking. Later, I will come back and buy more.
I press on to the bus station. The time is 6 pm. I get to the Songjiang bus and there is a huge line which goes down into the tunnel and through the veins of the tunnel. This is like a line for a rock concert. A newspaper man walks along selling newspapers. He smiles at me. He recognizes me. When I am with CJ, CJ has me take a seat sometimes while he buys the tickets. My seat is usually next to where the newspaper man is stationed, on less busy days, by the bus door.
Later, I will look back on this, when I am settled in my new apartment, or when I am teaching my new students at my new school. When I look back, I will remember that I am glad that I no longer have to take a bus back to Songjiang. Maybe I won’t remember that, today, I am grateful; I had a tissue to wipe the sweat from my brow as I sweated in the line, but then that will not matter. I know I will tell myself that I am glad I no longer live in Songjiang. I am starting a new chapter, a new chapter in Shanghai, in the city, not in a suburb. Is this the way Rhoda felt when she left Minnesota?