The Canary’s Dead

November 6, 2013     Wednesday

Today is…oops! Heh heh. Something about NaPoBloMo or NaBloPoMo. I don’t know. (Someone fix the teleprompter please.) Good evening ladies and gentlemen! There’s a rumor that there’s a blog going on around here…somewhere. Well, there is. I’m sorry that I missed my favorite holiday Halloween to upload some scary little story or anecdote, but to make up for that I have one scary item (originally two, but this post is a long one—be forewarned), not a short story, but actual art-imitates-life-imitates-art story. This post is dedicated to Angie Jolie out there keeping the faith in Riverside, SoCal! She’s been hounding me to get back to writing, so here I am. I will attempt to blog a post (post a blog?) a day about my life, such as it is.

I have this friend. He’s 22 years old, young guy. His English name is Peter. I probably have written about him before. We met quite some time ago; in fact I have known him longer than anyone else here in Harbin, including Zoe. Now what would a guy my age have in common with a guy that age? No, I’m not gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I know, I know. Very sad decade-old call back. Well, as you may remember I used to work for the Evil Grace (there was also Good Grace), but anyway I used to work for Evil Grace at Cambridge College under miserable circumstances. At the college (with no curriculum, no support, no nothing) I decided to teach Frost’s poetry. Short, American, northeast, memorable. One of my favorites is Acquainted with the Night. On the way back from the college or some other God-forsaken poor excuse for a language school, I would leave the main street of Heping Road and walk down the back alleys and lanes. Peter’s mother and father own a small convenience store along this sad, refuse strewn, noisome back alley. Why did I walk down the back alley that stank to high heaven and looked like Fallujah on a good day? A masochistic tendency no doubt.

At that time I wallowed in fetid depression. I was very lonely and my life was unrelieved from daily frustrations (thank you Bitch Queen Grace). It was down this back alley that I met the scrofulous donkey eating out of an oily plastic bucket of food scraps with whom I associated and commiserated. “Hello, Donkey. I’m an ass and you’re ass. Why are we still living here? Oh! That’s right we’re slaves!”

This was perhaps not the worst China had to offer, but it was pretty close. The neighborhood was in transition (reminding me of my time when I lived in a North Chicago crack-house by the way—another story, another day), in transition, which is to say that the municipal government in their infinite compassion were bulldozing the dilapidated apartment buildings and evicting the tenants—all of whom were living under unimaginable deplorable conditions. Remember: Harbin is a major city. And yes, all major cities have slums, but Peter and his family lived under particularly grotesque conditions.

The people in this area had to fetch water from the local car wash franchise in order to perform their daily ablutions. Every time Peter’s upstairs neighbor washed clothes (in a shallow plastic pan), the water would stream through the cracks onto his sleeping head. They had no showers and the toilets did not flush. Electricity was channeled along crazy hopscotch wiring snaking from the main power lines and jerry-rigged to split among the various tenants. The residents of this little rundown neighborhood whose lifeblood ran along polluted arteries lined with foul-smelling trash bins had to dump their effluvia and cloaca into a common public latrine. In winter, it was fearsome. In summer, it was downright radioactive. Still, the citizens were fighting the powers that be to keep their neighborhood. Why would anyone in his/her right mind fight for such an eyesore, such an abysmal pit? Most of them were elderly and had “owned” these government apartments for many years. They also had nowhere else to go. They would never be able to afford the new condos that would be built on top of the old apartment blocks. Anyway, I digress somewhat, but I merely paint for you Frost’s “saddest city lane”. Here, I met Peter.

He is a big fellow as many of the Northeastern Chinese are. He was wearing a uniform, looking smart like a pseudo-swat officer. His metal helmet was cradled in his hand and rested nonchalantly on his hip. Peter has a big baby face, fleshy lips and a broad smile with excellent teeth despite the fact that he’s never seen a dentist in his life. In his parents’ store he engaged me in conversation. At first, I wasn’t sure if he was a cop or not. I wasn’t that familiar with all of the different police and military uniforms. Turns out he was just one of the guards who work in an armored car. These poor fellows have it bad, too. They have to wake early, travel far, to get to the where the actual money is stored. Collect it and deliver it to the various banks for their business day. Then, they are forced to sit—with no cell phones, radios, TV, nothing, not even a book—in an airless room until it’s time for lunch. After an all-too-brief lunch, they sit again until 4:30 pm when they must roll out and pick up the money from the banks to return it to the depository. All this for about 2,200 yuan a month. You can do the math. Anyhoo, I was actually amazed at Peter’s ability to speak English better than the average Chinese person, and his accent was very good. It was because of this that I was thrown off and suspected that he might have been a government employee. Hell, I even once suspected him of secretly spying on me for the Party, but that was my congenital paranoia flaring up again. Peter never even graduated from high school.

After he showed a zestful lack of interest in all things scholarly and a proclivity and aptitude for brawling, the powers that be put him into boxing school where he spent most of his waking hours, and education be damned. Peter has a very expansive and happy spirit. He is a broad river. A happy boxer. I know because after we struck a conversation and traded stories about training in martial arts, we decided to trade blows. The truth is he was very patient with me. I’m only 75 kilos (okay 77…78) and he’s 100 kilos. At least. I would pepper him from the outside with flurries of mosquito bites and once we clenched, he would absorb all of my body blows and then deliver a vicious uppercut (that I always had trouble dodging even though I knew it was coming) that rattled my teeth and made the world churn briefly like a washing machine. He would hold me up and solicitously ask “你没事? Nǐméi shì?” And I’d lie and say yeah sure, no problem. And with smiles all around we’d go back to it. An old David with a frayed decayed slingshot molesting a jovial Goliath.

He was infinitely patient I say, because he didn’t mind holding the kicking mitts so that I could also get some kicking practice in, even though I’m seeing the downhill side of my athletic ability. He let me hold onto the illusion that I could kick and move like a man in much younger clothes. It was good exercise at the very least. Then, sometimes after work, we’d get something to eat, and before I found out that his father suffered from alcoholism, we’d also have a bottle or two of beer. He was my only friend really. He was kind and respectful and such loyalty merits trade in kind.

Zoe of course doesn’t understand why we’re friends and I think that the same could be said for many of my friends. I am an (pseudo) intellectual and have no business mucking about with blue-collar types with whom I have very little in common. But God gives us space and time to discover just how important we are to each other, that’s all I can say. And Peter is important to me as I am to him. He has remarked on more than one occasion that I am his best friend and this is a rare and precious thing in China. Family abounds in China, but friendship? Like what we have in mostly democratic America? Not so much. So, what happens when you have a slightly dysfunctional family? To whom do you turn? Peter is younger than my AWOL daughter, so I suppose I could be playing father, trying to make up for my transgressions, but I don’t analyze it too much. Guys can just hang out and say mostly stupid things, but when the chips are down, be there for comfort and advice. So it is with Peter and me. Whenever Zoe kicks me out into the street, I can at least go hang out with him until she cools off. And he likes to recount to me his umpteen million trysts with young nubile Chinese girls. You’d think that would be the scary part of the story, but it’s not. (After all what could be scarier than China’s increasing population?) Here’s the scary story—I know, finally right?

Peter finally left that awful bank guard job and opened his own cell phone store, a small illegal shop on a well-trafficked corner. (Recall that this guy never finished high school, but had the chutzpah to open his own store.) The structure is hammered, taped, screwed together with odds and ends, but as it is on prime real estate, Peter has to pay 2,000 yuan a month for it. There’s a trap door through which he descends into the putative living quarters. A rip off, but there you go—and not even a toilet, not to mention a shower! He now has to live and work in his little place 24/7. The funny thing is that he opened the shop on the same street where I teach a night class at a nearby high school, so now we see each with greater frequency.

I didn’t mention this before, but Peter introduced me to Pan-pan, his boisterous golden retriever who also figured into my salvation as I used to spend some of my meager free time playing with him down at Li Gong University. Peter is a bit of an animal rights activist. Mostly, he just shows up when there’s a (tame) protest and re-blogs other activists’ posts on his site. Peter’s not the writer, remember. Anyway, After he opened shop, this nut filled this one meter by three meter cubicle with two Siamese cats, two turtles, one orange carp, one lizard-thing whose tail was pulled off in a recent attempt to bolt from its plastic jail, and two parakeet looking birds. I never understood this aspect of Peter’s personality. Financially, it makes no sense to keep a menagerie. I have upbraided him because he keeps a large dog (now illegal in the city) and really can’t afford him, nor can he give the big slobbering canine a proper home. Pan-pan now has to hide during daylight hours from the dog police (although no one really is looking for transgressors of this bizarre city ordinance). Okay, so Peter has a small zoo in his small store. Last night I went to visit him.

“Pan-pan?”

“My mother is keeping him for now.”

“Good, good. What happened to the turtles?”

“That little boy took them and gave me this little one.”

“That kid who thinks I’m Russian?”

“Yeah.”

“That little bastard. And the lizard?”

“That pretty girl took it.”

“Did you sleep with her?”

“No, no. Her boss gave her an apartment, so she stopped coming by. We never hooked up.”

“The one that got away.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Hey, where are your birds? Are they in there? I don’t see them. Here Tweedy bird.” Whistle, whistle.

“No, there’re zombies now.”

“What the fuck? Zombies?”

“Dead.”

“Dead? What happened?”

“Remember when we had those two bad air days.”

“Get the fuck out.”

“I stepped out to empty my shit-bowl. I opened the door, not even ten minutes, not even five minutes. When I came back into the shop….”

He trails off. I am aghast. Those recent haze days during which the PPM soared to supposedly over 1000 PPM killed those two birds. The air that wafted into his little coffin-shop was enough to smother and poison two little birds.

“Peter, you know, in America, the miners, the guys who work underground to dig out the coal, they used to keep canaries with them, to warn them, you know,…if…. Holy shit Peter.”

We laugh. What else can we do?

Tomorrow I will post an even more frightening story. Stay tuned.

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