Sunday, January 10, 2010

Public Girl

The postmodern slacker hero tends to find his closest confidants among the service sector. Bartenders, shopkeepers, barbers, cabbies, record store cashiers: by definition, these confidants are not friends. Their job is to remain as removed from the plotline of your life as possible and, from that abstracted vantage point, to occasionally serve up meaningless advice that solves none of your problems but makes you feel damned good about yourself.

The Dude confides in Tony, his limousine driver.
"Fuckin' A, man. I got a rash," says The Dude. "I was feeling really shitty earlier in the day. I'd lost a little money, I was down in the dumps."
"Ey, y'know what?" says Tony, gesturing into the rear-view mirror. "Fahgettabout it!"
"Yeah, man! Fuck it! I can't be worrying about that shit."

When I was back in Nebraska last winter, I aired my grievances to a gas station attendant at the BP on Galvin Street. The guy was a retired drug runner, and he was constantly getting in trouble with the management for posting NORML propaganda all over the shop, which apparently didn't jive with the broader interests of Better Petroleum. Nevertheless, whenever I went in for a coffee, he would give me just the sort of nonspecific wisdom I needed at the time, would regale me with tales of his titty bar exploits across the border in Council Bluffs, his most recent car wreck, and so on. Once, for no reason at all, he was pretending to be Australian for the day, which didn't hinder our usual bull session one bit, except that he called me "mate" instead of "dude." Our confidence was a beautiful, insubstantial, mutually beneficial thing. But it ended all of a sudden one afternoon in April, when he invited me to meet him and his crew at the Brazen Head later that evening. An unspoken line had been crossed and from that day forward, I bought my coffee from the Kwik Shop next door, where the attendant didn't seem to speak English or any other human tongue, for that matter.

In China, my service industry confidant is a convenience store clerk. Whenever I pop in for a tube of yogurt, instead of asking me whether I've eaten, as one does in Chinese, he asks me how I've been. He listens for a bit, dispenses some fortune cookie advice. Then he talks about his own shit: running two shops, working 14 hours a day, feeding the dog, keeping the girlfriend at bay. We can spill the beans back and forth for hours. By the end of it, I feel so much better that I'll walk right out the door without paying for my yogurt.

The other night I swung by for a couple cans of fake Budweiser. The clerk's dog, a handsome young yellow lab, is more human than canine. He wears a purple jacket with his name embroidered on the back: Green Tea, it says. He stares me down whenever I come in because he, too, knows I am a foreigner.
"How's it going, pengyou?" my confidant asked.
"Fuckin' A, man. I got a rash."
About an hour into our bull session, a cute but heavily made-up girl threw some dried squid snacks on the counter and complimented my Chinese.
"My Mandarin is alright," I said, "but I can't make heads or tails of Sichuanese."
"Let me teach you," she said. "Sichuanese, Shanghainese, Hunanese. I am a master of dialects. And I'll teach you for free."
I'm studying fifteen hours a week as it is, but I let her write her phone number on a one kuai bill and agreed to call her over the weekend. I walked out the door with my beers. Green Tea yelped.
"Hey, pengyou!" shouted the clerk.
I stopped in my tracks.
"Oh, right!" I remembered. I pulled a wad of dough out of my pocket.
"You moron!" shouted the girl, snatching a bill out of my hand. "My number's on that one!"
"Oh, right," I said. I stuffed the bill back in my pocket and handed the clerk another one.
"... and last week's yogurt," he said.
"Oh, right."
I fumbled around some more and gave him a ten spot.

A couple days later, I was at my confidant's rival shop, the one next door. I usually go to his arch-nemesis, the old bag, for my coffee fix because sometimes I don't have anything to confide to my confidant. Other times, I don't have three hours to burn shooting the bull. And anyway, the absence makes our occasional bull sessions that much more cathartic. Everybody needs a little time away, a wise man once sang. I was walking up the aisle to the checkout counter when I heard a "Pssst!" from the other side of the Red Bull display. Glimmering through the grated metal was a pair of black-painted eyes. It was my Sichuanese tutor.

"Why haven't you called me yet?" she asked.
"I dunno," I mumbled. "I've been lazy."
"Do you still have my number?"
"I haven't spent it yet."
"Call me tomorrow," she said.
"How you been?" I asked.
"Bad. Really bad," she said. "I'm having problems with my boyfriend."
She pouted.
"Oh," I said. "Sorry to hear that."
"Just call me tomorrow."
She turned and left. I set my jug of instant coffee on the checkout counter.
The clerk looked me over.
"Have you eaten?" she asked.

Later that night, I paid my confidant a visit and noticed the dog wasn't around.
"Where's Green Tea?" I asked.
"He's sleeping."
"Sleeping? Busy day?"
The clerk nodded.
"Does he have a girlfriend?"
"Of course he does," said the clerk.
"He seems to have a lot of them. I always see him out on the street in his purple jacket," I said, "sniffing three butts at once."
The clerk laughed.
"Whenever I see him sniffing butts, I run out and smack him on the head," he said. "I'm afraid he's going to catch doggy AIDS."
"Just buy him a pair of matching dog pants."
"They don't sell pants in his size."
"Well, does his ... thing ... still work?"
"Oh, yeah," he said. "It works."
Green Tea's virility seemed to be a source of great pride for the clerk.
"Do you think he's fathered any children?"
"Certainly he has!" the clerk shouted. "Some nights he doesn't come home at all! I find him in the morning, sleeping in the gutter with a smile on his face."
I laughed and smacked my thigh.
"By the way, while we're on the subject," said the clerk, leaning low over the counter, "I have a secret to tell you."
I looked around and ducked towards him conspiratorially.
"You know that girl you met in here the other day?" he asked. "Your Sichuanese tutor?"
I nodded.
"Right. Well, I don't know how to say this," he said, "but she's ... a public girl."
"A public girl?" I scratched my head. "What does that mean?"
"Well, you know that shop next door? The old guy?"
"I know the one."
"One time I saw her run off with him. Then, with the owner of the dumpling joint down the street," he said. "She's always hanging around on the street. Like I said, she's a public girl. Thirty year olds, forty year olds. I've seen it all. Who hasn't she slept with?"
"No kidding," I said.
"So I'm not saying you can't take Sichuanese lessons from her," he said. "I just wouldn't put your thing in there. And if you do, be sure to wear one of these."
He took a Jissbon packet from the impulse rack and flapped it in my face.
"I had no idea," I said. "She seemed like a nice enough girl."
"Take my word for it. You're my friend," he said, "and I don't want you to get doggy AIDS, neither."
"Thanks," I said. I shook his hand, even bowed a little. Then I turned and walked out the door.
"Hey!" shouted the clerk. "Yogurt."

The next day, the public girl called me six times. I sent her a text message suggesting I was busy for the next several years. And then, as I rolled back over in bed, with a few effortless thumb movements I banished her name to the ranks of the Trixies and Candies and Surreals and Lemons, filed her name away in the growing folder reserved for all stalkers past and present, whose phone calls I will never intentionally answer.

1 comment:

Chris said...

My bad...I misread the title. I dropped a consonant and wound up with something a trifle racier. Of course, it may have been a bit more accurate.