Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Escape Velocity

Before I bring my Great Flood of Dazhou saga to its half-Biblical, half-Kafkaesque conclusion, I would like to write a half-assed eulogy for the recently departed Jacob Burney: sitemate, partner in absurdity, and one of the best fiends ("r" omitted quite deliberately) I have ever had the pleasure and extreme discomfort of knowing.

Fear not - the man yet lives, and is living well. By now, Jacob is breakfasting on a leaning tower of syrup-slathered French toast, topped with two equilateral slabs of Land O'Lakes butter and served with three rashers of bacon, accompanied by a frosty glass of orange juice from concentrate, and a steaming cup of real Columbian coffee, and - and - ... and now I am slobbering into the home-row keys of my laptop.

Jacob is gone and I am happy for him. He has moved on. He is in a better place now, as it were. But his departure has left a hefty dent in Nanchong's already scant reserves of wit and sarcasm. In our day, Jacob and I were the stuff of mid-80's buddy comedies. Consider Jacob: a black, 260-pound NCAA Championship Subdivision defensive lineman, a philosophy major and Marvel Comics enthusiast. (I suspect he may be the only man in the world who owns - and regularly wears - a Batman Forever leather jacket.) And consider me: a six-foot nothin', hundred and nothin' caucasian pseudointellectual with a degree in creative writing and a soft spot for certain self-destructive vices. Oddly, impossibly, the pairing worked, and I commend the Peace Corps for putting us in the same Chinese city, whether or not there was any rationale behind the decision.

Jacob's last words to me were, "I reap what I say." At the time, I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about, and I still don't. But he was happy to repeat those words for me, in case I held out any doubt that he meant them. "I reap what I say," he said, and stepped off the train. And I am happy to accept those words for the profound nonsense they are. Of all the farewells that have been bidden me over the past couple weeks, Jacob's was by far the most appropriate.

So this year, in the parlance of politics, is a transitional phase for me. In the parlance of sport, it is a rebuilding year. In Jacob's absence, I have been left behind to hold the fort. I am, for the moment, the only Peace Corps volunteer in Nanchong. Two newbies will arrive next month, but they have size twelve Air Jordans to fill. Of course, I will not hold it against them if they are not Jacob. Nobody, I suppose, is Jacob except for Jacob. But I hope the newbies will forgive me if, late at night, after one too many Shanchengs, in a fit of Jacobean nostalgia, I beg them to disagree with me about the war in Iraq, or to talk shit about There Will Be Blood and all of the other films and musicians I adore, or to make fun of the way I walk in the most offensive manner possible. It's not that I am a masochist, or that I enjoy being insulted, but regrettably, the number of remorselessly inappropriate people born post-PC Revolution are few and far between, and Jacob was (and is) one of that number. I learned much about language and even more about humanity from Jacob, and was able to test the surprisingly elastic boundaries of my own rationality through my many late-late-much-too-late night debates with the late Mr. Burney. For all that, no mere xie xie will suffice. Jacob will be missed, but some birds are not meant to be caged - a quotation from a film that I'm sure both he and I can agree on.

Thus concludes my half-assed eulogy. Jacob has escaped Nanchong, and in so doing, he has succeeded where I have, on many occasions, failed. I have already related my truly Sisyphean effort to escape a minor flood in Nanchong en route to a major deluge in Dazhou. But that experience - the experience of failing miserably at the most elementary sort of travel, i.e. leaving the place where one happens to be - is so commonplace for me in Nanchong that I often wonder why I bother writing about it. But, like most forms of interpersonal conflict - e.g. conversations with Jacob - arguing with surly taxi pimps is an incredibly efficient means of learning about oneself. And just last night, after being pushed to the brink by an especially surly taxi pimp, I was able to explore the dimensions of my inner asshole: an internal sphincter that, prior to life in China, I was completely unacquainted with.

Yesterday evening, I was invited by the Peace Corps to come to Chengdu, to give a brief lecture the following morning on the nature of my sino-bohemian existence in eastern Sichuan, in front of 95 fresh-off-the-boat laowais. The thought unnerved me a bit more than it should have, but bear in mind that I have grown accustomed to speaking in front of vast crowds of semi-rural Chinese. The knowledge that your audience doesn't understand a word you're saying goes a long way towards curing stage fright. Nevertheless, I was excited about the opportunity to wax National Geographic about life in Nanchong, to hobnob with the new batch of volunteers, and to mooch around Chengdu on Barack Obama's dime. But in typically Pandastic fashion, I lingered around the apartment until well after the last train had departed. Then, having discovered a wealth of Charlie Rose interviews with Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, I sat there agog at the computer until the sun had set and getting to Chengdu via even the shadiest of means had become a near impossibility. That, my friends, is how I roll - which is to say that I don't roll very well at all.

So around 10 PM, I made my way to the train station and shouted the word "Chengdu!" Instantly, I was whisked away by a taxi pimp, who told me to climb onto his moped so we could putter off to some sort of taxi pimp rendezvous point on the dark side of town. But motorcycles, mopeds, Segways, and motorized trishaws are a big Peace Corps no-no, so I waved my hands around and said, "No can do." Grumbling, the taxi pimp called another, pimpier taxi pimp and we waited there in front of the train station for the big pimp to arrive in his pimped-out Volkswagen Santana.

In China, if you are as tactless a buffoon as I am, traveling late at night can become an incredibly convoluted affair. The people arranging your transportation are not the people who will provide your transportation. Instead, you must work within a back-alley network of meta-cabbies and meta-meta-cabbies: taxi drivers who will deliver you to other taxi drivers, who will deliver you to other taxi drivers, who will deliver you to other taxi drivers, who will finally dump you into the backseat of a pimped-out Volkswagen Santana that will, ostensibly, deliver you to your final destination.

When I arrived at the taxi pimp rendezvous and slipped into the back of this particular pimped-out Volkswagen Santana, I was under the impression that we were headed directly to Chengdu. But that would not prove to be the case. Instead, I was taken to the parking lot of a seafood joint just off the Chinese interstate. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to get dinner, or what. So I smoked a purgatorial ciggie and took a much-needed piss in the bushes. Then I was told to get on a bus. There were six other passengers on the bus, and the cabin reeked of Sichuanese peppercorns and feces. This was an unexpected turn. Not the feces, but the bus. How shady were these people, that they had hijacked a government-issue bus whose origin and destination (as posted on the windshield) were no cities that I'd ever heard of? My meta-cabbie came around to gather everyone's bus fare. The fee was unexpectedly cheap - about $10 US - but I fumbled through my ever-disappointing wallet and found that I was about one American buck short. I handed over the rest of my money and gazed hopefully, Bambi-eyed at the meta-cabbie.

"I need ten more kuai!"
"Sorry, sir," I said, "but I didn't know the fare when I got on the bus. I'm afraid I'm a little short."
"Won't work! Impossible! Get off the bus!"
"But sir," I said, injecting a bit of self-righteousness into my rudimentary Sichuanese, "surely, we can stop at an ATM when we get to Chengdu. It will take me five minutes. I'll pay you the fare, with interest, if necessary."
"Impossible! Won't work! Get off the bus!"

I thrust what money I had into the meta-cabbie's hand, but he wouldn't take it. So I appealed to my fellow passengers, with whom I had already chatted for half an hour, with whom I had bonded, or so I thought - the same people who had expressed such disbelief at my nonexistent monthly income as a Peace Corps volunteer. But nobody budged; nobody even thought of donating the piddling amount of chump change it would take to keep the foreigner on the bus.

"Can anybody help me out? It's six kuai," I said, "one U.S. dollar. I'll pay you back. With interest, if necessary."

But no one said a word. The meta-cabbie was shaking visibly. Already, we had wasted more than the five minutes necessary for me to hop out in Chengdu and hit up an ATM.

"Get off the bus!" he shouted in my face.

And that was the moment I accessed my hitherto unknown reservoir of controlled rage. I seldom get angry in the West, and when I do, it is profoundly unimpressive. My face turns red. My cheeks tremble. I stutter and stammer, and sweat to a disgusting degree. But in China, I have learned to shout, and to argue, and to curse, and meanwhile, my emotions lay there in my chest, cold and unmoved as a cadaver.

"Listen," I said, "we stop in Chengdu, I get out of the bus. I use the ATM for five minutes. And I pay you your damned six kuai. With interest. How about that?"
"Impossible! It won't work! Get off the bus!"

The bus driver shouted something-or-other. The meta-cabbie seized me by the backpack strap and I got to my feet. He dragged me off the bus, but stopped short of throwing me out. Instead, he led me out to his pimped-out Volkswagen Santana and offered, somewhat guiltily, to take me to an ATM. The bus, meanwhile, sped off into the night.

Chinese ATMs are programmed not to work when you need them most. We stopped at four ATMs in a row and none of them coughed up the dollar I needed to get to Chengdu. But the Agricultural Bank of China, as usual, came through in the clutch. The meta-cabbie drove me back to the train station and left me to wait in his backseat while he wandered off to badmouth Americans to his meta-cabbie cadre.

Growing up, I was a Notre Dame football fan. Naturally, I entertained teenaged fantasies of one day going to school there, and perhaps walking on to the football team as a punter, and making my punting debut as a fifth-year senior, in the last game of the season, and executing an awe-inspiring coffin-corner punt that would prove decisive in salvaging a victory in the 2005 Poulan Weed Eater Bowl, versus those pesky Pirates of East Carolina University. Ah, youth. My childhood hero was Rudy Ruettiger. As a sophomore in high school, I wrote an exhaustive five-page literary analysis of his autobiography/self-help book. Rudy's number was 45, and as a teenager, so superstitious and smitten was I that I measured everything in 45-second intervals. It was my first and only flirtation with obsessive-compulsion. In the mornings, I never wanted to leave the warmth of the shower, and I (perhaps justifiably) dreaded subjecting myself to the meat market that is high school in middle America. But I couldn't stay in the shower forever because I was afraid of my profoundly Irish mother, so I would count down from 45, and after 45 seconds, I would towel myself off, pop a few zits, and get dressed. Strangely, that remains a habit of mine. When I don't want to do something, I count down from 45 seconds, and then I sit down to the odious task at hand. So it was 11:41 when the meta-cabbie parked his pimped-out Volkswagen Santana in the train station parking lot, and there in the backseat, I vowed to make my escape at precisely 11:45. And when 11:45 rolled around and still no meta-meta cabbie had arrived, I got out of the cab, put on my backpack, and stormed off into the night. It took the meta-cabbie a meta-moment to notice that I was ditching him. He shouted several times, then came running after me.

He yanked at my sleeve and I judo chopped him loose.
"I'm going home. You kicked me off that bus because I didn't have six fucking kuai," I said. "I thought that was rather rude. So I'm going home."
"But the cab to Chengdu is coming! I got that cab just for you!"
"I know you did. But six kuai? Really? Anyway, it's too late now. I'm not going to Chengdu anymore. I need to go home and get some sleep."
"But the cab is coming!"
"I'm going home."
"You owe me money," he said. "I drove you to five different ATMs so you could withdraw money. Doesn't that count for anything?"

It was a salient point. I was unusually moved by it. But I was also unusually pissed off, so I kept walking. He grabbed me by the backpack strap.

"I drove you to five different ATMs," he said. "I wasted almost an hour driving you here and there and - "
"Okay," I said.

I reached into my wallet and handed him a crumpled wad of bills. He went silent. It was as though I'd stabbed him in the gut. He was stunned. He took the money and stuffed it into his pocket. And without a word, he turned and walked away. I was instantly reminded of No Country For Old Men, another one of those rare films that Jacob and I can agree on. Greed is all-powerful, but the greedy can be bought. Then I hailed a cab home. The non-meta cabbie in question was changing shifts, so he drove me all the way to the other end of town to pick up his cabbie successor, and his cabbie successor charged me for the whole escapade. And I paid him the full fare, both because I am a colossal fool, and because Nanchong cabbies (not to be confused with its meta-cabbies) are among the best people on earth, and I tend to give them the benefit of a doubt.

So I apologize to any of you newly arrived Peace Corps volunteers who had hoped to hear me wax National Geographic about my sino-bohemian existence in Nanchong. Believe me: I would have loved to have waxed National Geographic on that particular subject. But I struggle with travel, because I am incompetent. I have no doubt that you will have better luck than I with the meta-cabbies in this country. Probably, you will never need to resort to them, because you won't spend four of your evening hours listening to Christopher Hitchens shoot off at the mouth. Understand that I am an incompetent. Jacob often reminded me of that fact, and I often remind myself of it, too. It makes things difficult, of course, but if it weren't for my incompetency, and the misadventures it breeds, I don't know what else I could possibly write about.

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