Dear Rob, March 9, 2005
There must be something about drinking that the day after I feel great – even if I am tired. The whole two plus hour ride over shitty roads through shitty little towns, I felt happy. “Shitty” here is an affectionate statement of fact. The ride seemed endless: will we ever reach Longchang? But it was endless in a way I wanted it to be, the bus rattling and bumping along, befuddled, as if it had forgotten Longchang was where it was supposed to go. Country people piled on and piled off, lit cigarettes in hand, and squeezed around each other, hauling their bales of goods, of baskets, or suitcases, with them. Two women got on at one place with lengths of sugar cane in one hand and tea eggs in the other, but no one bought. The worn, rusted floor of the bus was littered with wads of chewed sugar cane fibers. I was tempted, but didn’t buy.
The day was sunny, a rare thing, and the air was spring-mild. Houses ran past the bus: the adobe ones eroding in tiny fissures, the blocky cement ones with tiles on the front, older ones of grey brick forming three sides of a square, half new and half old ones of an old brick end stuck onto a big cement and tile thing. I admired the little touches: the way some railings were formed of brick stacked geometrically, or the railings of cement pierced with flowers or stars, or the perfect symmetry of some new square houses: window door window. Cabbages were hung through railings or metal window grates, dozens in a row, hung to dry for making a kind of kim chi. Or they were strung along ropes hanging across the front of houses: green leafy necklaces for spring.
Some fields were flooded with water. Others were fluffy cushions of tiny yellow flowers. The entire landscape was marked, sculpted, demolished by humans.
And in the Longchang noodle house where the woman said the dishes piled in dirty water had been “disinfected” and I sat down anyway, a lean kitten meowed under my table. I dandled a noodle from my chopsticks. The cat batted it down. He doesn’t eat noodles, she said. He eats fish and ganzhe. Sugar cane? I laughed, unable to imagine it, but remembering the pooch I had seen fed a chocolate bar. No, not that ganzhe, she said, and I wondered what this ganzhe was. She tore off a piece of toilet paper from the roll on the table and dangled it until the kitten sprang, and sprang, from the soil-layered cement, taking down the paper a bit at a time. I laughed at the mighty creature’s playfulness, laughed unbridled, and for once I was not laughing more than anyone else: the woman was laughing too. Her face was a blast of incandescent laughter. Not the same face that had said These dishes are all disinfected, relax. Two girls come in in bright-colored coats, cheap yellow and pink comfort, and I told them: there’s also Cat Meat Noodles here. But not enough for two.
Maybe the drinking last night, and bellowing Neal Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” or “As Tears Go By” at the karaoke, released me. I was let go from the build up of tiny aggressions and minute frustrations – the irritation of constantly being looked at, noticed, whispered about. “Yeah yeah, it’s a goddam foreigner,” I say to them inside, when heads turn to look at me. I am at peace now, in front of a little train station. I have one third of a bottle of local booze in my backpack, and I think how fun it would be to drink it with you, in some shitty little town or smoky train, with a few local characters, to kick back and laugh at the tired carnival of life. Of which we are a minute, but still shining, part!
And on the train the profligate surging and cursing and sweating of a ten minute human scrum. A boy’s face was contorted, Guernica-like, turned upward. He and an old man struggled to reach their seats. The loads on their backs sucked them backwards, while blocking the mass of people pressing into the car. A man and a woman were trapped. I helped the man out of his shoulder straps and settled the bag on our little table, and they crowded against us, waiting. I burst out laughing. What a mad, torturous folk dance! It was pure joy, an ecstatic, worthless struggling. Ah! Cried the woman, and a big soft bundle fell off the overhead rack and onto the boy’s face. The old man’s back basket was the linchpin of the blockage. I stood up on my seat and reached over and down and hauled the plastic and bamboo anvil up onto the back of my seat, to let the people flow past.
And later the train attendant, in blue uniform and the face of a battered diplomat, a hardboiled noir elegance, stepped shoeless from seat to seat. Get up, get up, he barked, rooting people up from their places. He reached up and wrenched out badly stacked bundles and bags and ruthlessly rearranged them. What is all this junk? he ranted, are you moving by train? keeping up a patter of pure exasperation that tickled even the people embarrassed. Here, eat these, he said, dropping a bag of oranges in my notebook. As he reached up his jacket lifted and I saw on his belt a skull carved of jade, a belt buckle with an Izod alligator on it, and a shiny alligator-skin-like case with a cell phone in it. He was sweating. Someone toss me my shoes, he called out. Later he stopped and looked at me. How about going to the next car? he asked. It is air conditioned, comfortable.
It’s too cold, I said, I like it here.
It’s safer there, he said, you foreigners require protection.
These three people are good people, I said. I am very safe. They smiled.