Monday, July 05, 2010

ANT Logistics

A Friday afternoon at Nanchong Jialing Bus Terminal. There I stood at the front of the line for the three o'clock bus to Chengdu. But when three gave way to 3:30 and still no bus arrived, the line swelled into a crowd, then a horde, and finally a mob. Almost imperceptibly, I was shunted to the rear, along with the bang bang man who had waited with me for an hour. Angrily, uselessly, he tried to jostle his way back to the front. Then he gave up, set his cargo down and bitched angrily, uselessly. Nobody could understand his dialect, and anyway, nobody cared. The man's dust-streaked dress shirt was unbuttoned all the way down; his ribs stuck out like piano keys. His cargo must've weighed in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. They say an ant can lift 50 times its own weight.

Bang bang men are the soul of Sichuan. They are scrawny men, often shirtless men, who keep the scales of labor balanced on either end of a bamboo rod that they wear across their shoulders like a portable stockade. Bang bang men will carry anything anywhere. In a city like Chongqing, where the hills are homicidal and the heat is murderous, there are so many bang bang men out and about that they are rightfully called the bang bang army. They wait outside twelve hours a day, can be found on every street corner, and will perform astounding feats of powerlifting and marathon walking for about two dollars U.S.

For as much as I admire the bang bang men, their profession ranks only a couple of notches higher than prostitution on the Chinese chain of command. So, although China is, ostensibly, a country that respects its elderly, and although this particular bang bang man was old enough to be Mao's grandpa, it wasn't all that surprising to me that both he and the resident laowai were the first people to be excreted by the great bowel movement that is the Chinese queuing system. The question was: could we still make the three o'clock bus to Chengdu, now that it was coasting into its stable at 4 PM?

I polished my elbows. I balled my fists. Well, Petit, I said to myself, I know you don't like doing this, but if you and your bang bang man are going to get on the 3:00 bus at 4 PM, you're going to have to stoop to everyone else's level. I imagined myself blocking for the bang bang man. He would juke and plunge through the gap like Emmitt Smith. Yes, I told myself, for the bang bang man's sake, for your sake, you're gonna have to buck up, suck it up, bite the bullet, nip it in the bud and ... - but I was not prepared for what happened next. The security guards unlatched the stanchions. A salaryman socked me in the breadbasket. A baby kicked me in the neck. Somebody's grandma slide tackled me. I'd been watching too much soccer. My first instinct was to flop to the floor and grab my ankle, roll back and forth wearing an Argentinian mask of anguish until one of the security guards gave China a red card. But all I could muster was the single American English word douchebags! as the people muscled past. The stampeding herd spun the bang bang man around like a top and jostled me forward and to the left until I flew wide of the turnstile like a Steve Christie field goal. I tried to hurdle the aluminum barricades, but by then, droves of people were grabbing their luggage hot out of the x-ray scanner and charging full steam ahead, having waited all of three seconds for the bus that me and the bang bang man so rightfully deserved. In the end, we were left out in the cold. The security guards hitched the stanchions back in place. The bang bang man and I had missed the bus. The good news was: we were back in the front of the line. The bad news was: that meant absolutely nothing.

As luck would have it, when 5 PM rolled around, the bang bang man and I squeaked through the turnstile at the last possible second and caught the four o'clock bus. But about ten miles out of Nanchong, we came up against a long line of cars that stretched all the way to Chengdu, some 200 kilometers away. It took us six hours to get to Chengdu. It's only supposed to take two.

But now that I'm here, I've set myself up in an undisclosed location, perhaps the swankiest undisclosed location in all of Chengdu. I'm reclined in a wicker chaise lounge, sitting outside at 9 AM on an 8th floor balcony with my feet up on the railing. My friends are at work. I have the morning to myself and there is absolutely nothing to stop me from drinking up every last ground of real, actual coffee this undisclosed location has to offer.

In Chengdu, at this elevation, most of the clouds are beneath me. At this height, I am invisible for the first time in months. The smog is my veil. I can see the people below, but they can't see me. This morning, I have decided to sit outside in my boxer shorts, because when you're invisible, you can be as much of an exhibitionist as you want. I am chaise lounging, lounging chaisely, purposefully overdosing on coffee. And I am people watching, something I haven't dared to do since I arrived, because in this country, the people are always watching me.

The funny thing about people watching is that the further away you get, the less human the people are. If you're sitting in a coffee shop watching the crowds stream past your window, you pick up facial expressions, gestures, snippets of conversation ... You can still see the individual at that range. But from eight floors up, the people start to seem less like people and more like - ants.

Eight floors up. Here is behavior without emotion, routine stripped of intent. From this height, you don't see people. All you see is civilization. You can't see the anxious faces of the human beings at the bus stop. All you know is that they're waiting for the bus. In two minutes, they will be replaced by more people just like them, waiting for the bus, same as the ones who came before.

So many people. Every second, thousands of them pass by, thousands of people I will never really see or know anything about. If you are a solipsist, you might regard the nameless, faceless masses as thoughtless cyborgs programmed to deceive you. But nobody I know is a solipsist. Or if anyone is, I can only assume they are solipsistic cyborgs programmed to deceive me. It is a leap of faith of sorts. We tend to regard the nameless, faceless masses as conscious entities every bit as awake and alive as we are, possessed by dreams and hopes and idiosyncrasies the same as we are, and so on. At this point, I'm not sure which of the two ideas is more frightening.

A bus passes. There go fifty people. The light changes. Fifty cars streak across the intersection. Another hundred people. An airplane lofts overhead, invisible as it rockets through one of Chengdu's outer orbits of smog. Another 200 people. The people on the streets. Another hundred. The people in the apartments around me. Another 500, easy. A thousand people in my field of view at any given second. And that's just for one second. The people change, circulate like skin cells, and whether they belong to anything like an organism is a question too big for me to answer.

Fifteen identical cargo trucks rumble by. Another thirty people. The trucks are bright yellow and the blue letters on the trailers read ANT Logistics, ANT Logistics, ANT Logistics, ANT ... I have seen these trucks before, always in Chengdu, always in caravans of ten or more. I used to amuse myself contemplating the services rendered by ANT Logistics, imagining the kind of help ants might need with logistics, of all things. Flow charts. Pie charts. Bar graphs. Efficiency assessments. Drone-to-worker ratios. Banquet halls infested with ants, Chinese ant consultants leading their clients via long trails of sugar to the appropriate conclusions.

But a couple days ago, I learned that ANT Logistics is simply a conglomeration of bang bang men. That's all it is. Stick men for hire. A moving company, if you like. In Chongqing, because of the hills, bang bang men can work freelance. But in Chengdu, where there are no hills, there is little work for the enterprising stick soldier. There are, however, thousands of affluent families moving from the cheap and smoggy city to the ever more unaffordable frontier. So trucks are necessary. Trucks and sticks.

So you call ANT Logistics and ten bright yellow cargo trucks pull up in front of your apartment complex. ANT Logistics, ANT Logistics, ANT ... Thirty men who are well past retirement age pile out of the trucks and start squawking at you in accents that are more music than language. They spit on your floor, blow smoke in your baby's face, do unspeakable, unimaginable things to your squat toilet - but they are not rude people, understand. These are the lao bai xing, the Old Hundred Names, the Joe Smiths and John Taylors and Jim Carpenters of China. Nobody knows it, but China belongs to them, even though they are laughed at, mocked, derided; even though they are regarded more and more as the unwelcome scum that floats atop the bubbling Sichuanese hot pot.

The Old Hundred Names work at a breakneck pace. They are also the laziest men you have ever seen in your life. Half of the men are on permanent smoke breaks. One of them is sleeping, or dead on the sidewalk outside. The smell of rice liquor makes your eyes burn. And yet your house has been picked clean in ten minutes. A horde of Mongols couldn't have done it faster. Your heirloom piano is dangling off the back of an ANT Logistics truck, suspendered in by what looks to be a shoelace. You gesture at the piano but the chief ANT Logician just belches and waves you off. It's no use. These men have loaded up all your worldly possessions, have piled them into their trucks like the Beverly Hillbillies, and with impeccable Chinese skill, or luck, or magic, they will have everything safely installed in your new $1.3 million dollar apartment across town, without so much as a scratch or a cigarette burn.

Coffee. More coffee. Here come another ten trucks. ANT Logistics, ANT Logistics, ANT ... The cabbies across the highway are taking a siesta. A mahjongg table materializes. Even from way up here I can hear the tiles shuffling. An old man in a wifebeater is exercising in the courtyard below. He situates himself in the exact center of the courtyard and stands looking over a manmade waterfall. From where he's standing, the apartment complex splits into two identical and perfectly symmetrical halves. He performs an exercise in which he smacks his thighs, smacks his manboobs, then shakes his hands in the air as though he's flicking water off the tips of his fingers. He does about forty reps, then sits down on a bench to read a newspaper.

Just on the other side of the highway is a river, coasting along way below the speed limit. It can't seem to make up its mind which way it wants to go, and its brown surface is a confusing interference pattern of crests and troths. One stream headed East, the other headed West. Conflicted river. Jostling itself to get on the bus. There is a sunbather sprawled out on the shore next to a pile of aluminum cans, but she's wearing pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and is hiding under two umbrellas thrust down into the mud. And anyway, there is no sun.

All along the river: apartment complex after apartment complex after apartment complex, all of them identical, like the man in charge just clicked copy-paste copy-paste until he ran into the horizon. It's like standing between two mirrors. Apartment complexes, on and on forever. And in the foreground stands a four-tiered pagoda - impossible to tell at this distance whether it is as old as history or younger than the apartments that surround it - and the pagoda stands there with the river in front and the city all around, and it looks scared. Like it knows something is bound to devour it sooner or later. The apartments, probably. Or the river. The warped and leaning pagoda knows. It knows that one day, that muddled brown river is bound to get its shit together. One day the river will march single file, overflowing its banks, and it will inundate the world in its uniform earthtone, reflecting itself and itself and itself, on and on forever, and it will wash all the dirt away like a glass of lemonade spilled onto an anthill.

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