Friday, December 10, 2010

The Somewhat Bearable Lightness of Being a Hobo

This year I wanted winter to come and it came. Now I want it to leave. But it won't go away. I know winter will linger well into March. The fog has descended and the fog will remain. And I will write away the next four months of my life in my meat locker of an apartment, with a space heater tilted upward towards the most vital organs I have to offer. I hate winter. Always have. But this year I wanted it to come just the same. I wanted winter to come because it was familiar. Last summer, like all summers, is a blur to me. But I can remember last winter. That memory is comforting to me. I can remember very clearly where I was last year at this time. I remember the fog, how the windows were windows onto nothingness. I remember the cold. I remember breathing fog. I remember me, a spry young 26 year old, writing away those winter months in his meat locker of an apartment, with his space heater tilted upward towards the most vital organs he had to offer. And it comforts me to think that he is me and that I am him, and that we are both waiting for the next big thing, whether it comes or not. Most of all, it comforts me to think about the next big thing.

I spent this past Thanksgiving weekend in Neijiang, a Nanchongesque city some 200 kilometers southwest of Nanchong. After the party, I stowed myself away on a boxcar in the middle of the night and left everything else behind. Like a vagabond calling card, I left behind my hobo satchel, my winter coat, and what little dignity I had left. Most of my earthly possessions remain back there in Neijiang. So I have been parading around Nanchong in autumnal gear – my usual sweater-and-collared-shirt combo – in the foggy depths of Sichuanese winter.

If you go around underdressed in China, people will tell you one of two things. They will compliment you on how healthy you are – voluntarily freezing one's ass off is clearly the mark of a physically robust human being - and they will tell you to put on more clothes. I get this several times a day. You are so healthy! You should put on more clothes! I get it in Chinese, and in English. Ni-de jiankang hen hao! Ni yao duo chuan dianr yifu! You are so healthy. You should put on more clothes. After a while, I get to feeling like a total stud. Or a hooker. A rugged beast of a man. Or a two-bit laowai gigolo. You tell me.

There is nothing I fear more than shopping. I will go shopping with women, because I enjoy the company of women. Who doesn't? But I never go shopping on my own volition, least of all in China. Least of all will I go shoe shopping in China. I've tried it before. I do not have abnormally large feet, not in the West. But my feet are anomalies here in China. Nobody has seen anything like them. Nobody sells shoes my size. Not the Chinese Big & Tall, not the Nanchong Clown College. Nobody. I go out shopping for shoes and wind up feeling like the Elephant Man. Sorry, sir. We don't have your size, sir. It seems you are freakishly disproportioned, sir. Perhaps if you had bound your feet years ago, sir, you wouldn't have this problem, sir.

So I've worn the same shoes for two years now. I own two pairs of shoes. I have worn both pairs for two years. I have my Pumas, which where good as new when I found them at a Goodwill in Omaha two years ago. They fit me perfectly when I bought them for one US dollar. Then I have my pointy-toed dress shoes, which I purchased for a similar fee at a similar thrift store. Both pairs of shoes have fallen to shit over the past few months. The Pumas are unwearable by now. The pointy-toed dress shoes, too, are unwearable, but I wear them anyway, because they are in slightly better shape than the Pumas. And they are dress shoes, after all.

So you can imagine me trolling the frigid, unforgiving streets of Nanchong in my sweater and misaligned collar, unshaven, unshowered, my shoes falling to pieces with each and every step. And perhaps charity is your natural reaction. Somebody get this man a coat. Somebody get this man some shoes, fer chrissakes. But it is really nothing to me. I prefer to troll about in such disarray. I have been doing it for years, and on several continents. Sichuanese winter is not Nebraskan winter, nor is it Polish winter, so I do not fear it. And there is little I enjoy more than a pair of shoes with a history. I was perfectly happy in my dishevelment. The way I saw it, I'd endure the winter until I retrieved my coat from Neijiang. And I'd wear those pointy-toed dress shoes until there was nothing left of them but socks.

My students were not of the same mind. As I was leaving class today – shivering ever so slightly, trailing gnarled strips of leather in my wake – a student approached me, wished me a merry Christmas, and thrust two very large bags into my hands.

"Thank you!" I said.
"It's nothing," she said, and disappeared.

I didn't open my Christmas presents, not right away. I wanted to be surprised. Perhaps my students had given me a book. Or a snow globe. But after a couple of blocks, I couldn't resist. I stopped on the side of the road, opened one of the bags, cleared away the tissue paper and found a shoebox buried underneath. I cracked open the shoebox and saw that there were indeed shoes inside. And in the other bag, beneath the tissue paper, there was a winter coat. And taped to the coat was a card.

"Mr. Panda – You always look so cold! You must be very healthy! You should wear more clothes! And your shoes are death. Let us provide for you. Do not thank us. It is nothing. We just wish you happy every day! Happy Christmas!"

Hmm, I said.

My old shoes carried me to my new favorite restaurant, this dumpy little dive where they serve rice noodles with beef chunks in a delectable MSG broth. I sat and read the card over and over again. I looked at the jacket. I looked at the shoes. I felt an immense amount of Catholic guilt. How to explain to the kids that this is how I live? That crummy shoes and freezing my ass off in winter are simply how I go about life? That the straits I sail in China are really no more dire than the ones I explored in Mexico, or Poland, or Korea, or Omaha? That I am never really comfortable unless I am uncomfortable? How to explain that I am a hobo, that thousand-proof moonshine courses through my vagabond veins, that I care not for luxury unless it's cheap and dripping with irony? How to thank them? I put on the coat. Was it ever warm. I shivered with warmth. I did not put on the shoes, but took them out of their shoebox and compared them to the warped strips of leather bound to my feet. They were exactly the right size. How did my students know I wore size ten and a half shoes? How did they even find size ten and a half shoes? Christ, I said aloud, and I tried to light a cigarette, but the owner of the restaurant swept in and planted one of his own cigarettes in my mouth. He lit it for me. I smoked it. Christ, I said again. This place beats you and it breaks you, then it overwhelms you with kindness. And in the end, you no longer know what to think of the place.

So I sit here in my meat locker of an apartment on a Friday night that has soured into a Saturday morning. I sit here writing, wearing a poofy black down-feather jacket and a pair of perfectly fitted Chinese shoes – half-sneaker, half-dress shoe. I look like J-Lo from the waist up, and like a Chinese vegetable monger from the waist down. I no longer need the space heater. From here on out, I will save energy. I will just wear the jacket. My old shoes sit there in the corner of the room, frowning, decomposing with jealousy. My winter coat sits curled up at the bottom of my hobo satchel in an apartment some 200 kilometers away in Neijiang. Me, I feel as good as new. Younger, in a way, than I have ever felt before. Wiser, perhaps. Dumber, certainly. But still restless, still hungry, still homeless, just another hobo waiting ever so patiently, ever so foolishly for the next big thing to come my way.

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