Thursday, May 24, 2007

turkish ice cream man

Kending is Taiwan’s Hawaii, with palm trees and beaches and volcanic rock. Located at the very southern tip of the island, no plane is needed to get there. I went there with my cousin last week, visiting from Korea. As we both teach English, our conversation together in those days alternated between tales of our students, good or bad, and heads-up over pretty women walking our way. After asking for room rates at places like “Hotel California” and “Happy Dream Hotel,” we settled on the place run by the Catholic Church, which was cheaper by a whole 10 bucks. There was no TV in the room, but we were provided a crucifix on the wall free of charge, and the AC worked well. Outside our room was a profusion of bushes, some fragrant, and a place to hang laundry done with hand soap on the bathroom floor.

We rode a scooter and rode double to some of the more famous beaches, such as Baishawan (White Sand Bay). There Roger threw himself under frothing waves and emerged wobbly. The undertow was vigorous. I hung back, and it churned at my knees. Another day we rode up the east coast, and got off where the land fell away and showed us a craggy, Irish coast velveted here and there in green. A vigilant but endlessly playful dog found us there and crouched at our every move. We figured she must’ve lived at the military radar station. We sat and chewed betel nut, spitting the blood-red juice on the ground. Roger said he didn’t feel anything. He recorded the sounds of the birds and breeze with his MP3 player. Overhead I saw a jet come over in a straight line from the northeast and curve slightly west, maybe Hong Kong bound.

At night we showered and went out to the main strip where masses of people walked along. All there was to look at were kabob sellers, dart and water balloon games, and shop after shop selling flowery flip flops and swimsuits. One soft serve ice cream vendor played a short recorded message so repetitious that even Roger picked it up: “liang bing bing,” he grumped. Or we sat in restaurants and gave each other heads up when pretty women came near. It was exquisite fun.

One night we strolled along and bumped into a crowd. It was a big-bellied man, not Chinese, a portly Sylvester Stallone, wielding a long-handled scoop with the dexterity of a cheerleader with her baton. The sign above his stand read, in English and Chinese, “Turkish Ice Cream.” He was scooping ice cream, but the service was full of tricks and traps. I stepped forward bravely and asked for one. The scoop stuck to the metal of the spoon. He simply stuck the cone onto the ice cream and held it out to me, dangling like that from the spoon. I reached for it and the cone spun around – and, I thought, onto the ground. But with another flick of his hands the cone reappeared again before me. I reached more quickly, and was able to touch the cone before it disappeared again. A third time, the spoon with ice cream attached fluttered out of my grasp and clashed with a set of cowbells hung from the sign. Finally he relented and let me have it. “Xie xie,” I said smiling. How odd it was to speak Chinese with this man.

Another time he held out the cone on the spoon to a girl. She kept taking cones but was left each time with an empty cone in her hand. She would pull one off and he would slip another one on. We all guffawed at his repertoire of tricks, at the flummoxed look on people’s faces. Or he would hold out the cone with his hand, but at the last moment it would roll backwards along his palm – and forward – and back again. Then the cone would flip upside down. And the customer’s hand would be hanging there like a bashful pigeon. Once he dug in his scoop and the entire blob of ice cream would come flying out in our faces. He hectored us, shouting out “Ah --- la – la – la – laaaa!”

“Ganmaaaa?” (whaddaya waaant?) shouted a girlish voice and he echoed her with his own whiny “gan ma?” A boy timorously reached out for a cone, and the most shocking trick of all was for him to hand him the cone slowly, his eyes trained fiercely on the boy’s in some inscrutable, unbearably suspenseful message. Nothing happened, and we all roared at the torture of our own expectations. But he kept his brow furrowed in that look, letting on none of the crowd’s delight. Which incensed our delight even more. Another boy got a poke in the privates with his own cone.

A little girl and her older brother of 8 or 9 ordered. The girl took the cone but the ice cream stayed on the spoon and she stood there looking at her mother. The boy was a model of older brother determination, and when the cone finally stopped flopping and flipping he seized it with grim resolve. After the boy had bought 2 cones this way the big man, shirt now pulled up over his belly, noticed the little girl still standing there with the empty cone. He dug up another scoop and held it out to her. Aware that she had been played, her child’s sense of injustice bubbled over. She looked at her mother, lower lip puffed out, and then she was flailing about, cone rolling on the ground, carried from the scene by parents who could hardly resist laughing through comforting words.

Later we returned to his stand, after the grilled bacon and scallions, after the darts and balls and bungee trampoline, and he was there but deflated, without the sustenance of the crowd. One or two people looked at him curiously, as if sensing something lingering there, some peculiar possibility, but he seemed utterly bereft of genius, or mischief, this perspiring clown. He sat down in the shadows of the shop, a long way from Anatolia, subsisting on the money of the Taiwanese bourgeoisie but no less an enigmatic stranger. When Roger saw him later in the coin-drop net cafe and hailed him with a loud, “Hey, Turkish ice cream man!” he raised his hand in a dismissive wave, resigned to this second skin that earns him money, but ever so weary of the performance that lights him up and leaves him empty night after night.

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