I am finicky about music and literature, but when it comes to the visual arts, I am no more cultured than Joe The Plumber or Larry The Cable Guy or Liu Bao The Octopus Tentacle Vendor.
Like most men, I have endured my share of art gallery dates. And like most men, I felt compelled by the female anchored to my elbow to say something rather than nothing about the artwork on display. And so from time to time I have found myself waxing dilettante on "texture" and "depth" and "perspective" - things I knew nothing about then, and have persisted in knowing nothing about ever since. For one thing, visual art, like hockey, has never appealed to me as much as I feel like it ought to have. For another thing, I'm colorblind.
But there was one painting in particular that enchanted me, once upon a time. Naturally, it was black and white. A sketch, if you will. I discovered it during my senior year of college, in someone else's art history book. I have since forgotten who sketched the sketch, or whether the name of the sketcher/sketchist was ever known in the first place. I cannot, for the life of me, find the sketch anywhere. I have been googling the words "monochromatic medieval shitshow" for the better part of a decade, to no avail. So I can only remember the sketch. And I remember it sketchily, if you will.
The sketch hailed from the medieval days of yore, and was included in my friend's art history textbook by way of illustrating how texture and perspective and depth and what have you have evolved in the centuries since aforementioned medieval days of yore. The sketch was of a medieval village. A medieval village of, like, yore. The village was spread out across the canvas in two dimensions, roadmapwise, totally flat. No main characters, no depth, no one thing to focus on. An 11th Century Where's Waldo, minus Waldo. If the sketch had any perspective at all, it was that of a one-eyed helicopter pilot flying over the lowly fiefdom of Oafsville, England - A.D. 1043.
As I remember it: a couple of dudes in feathered caps jousting on horseback. A child chasing a pig. A man swordfighting a cloth dummy. The town drunk incapacitated, X's on his eyes, a toppled jug of ale at his side. A blacksmith doing blacksmithy things. A carpenter doing carpenter-like things. Nine ladies dancing. Eight maids a-milking. And one particularly jovial lord a-leaping, suspended in midair for all artistic eternity.
I appreciated the sketch mostly for reasons of camp. How quaint. How cute. How feudal. But it wasn't until my first New Year's in Chicago that I was able to make a metaphor out of it. If it was a metaphor that I in fact made. At any rate, it wasn't until New Year's 2007 that I was able to see a city in two dimensions, in black and white, from a great height, from a helicopter, in feudalistic terms.
I suffered somewhat en route to my arrival at the promised metaphor. The afternoon of my New Year's Eve in Chicago, my lady friend and I got lost in the Northwest Suburbs just as an apocalyptic Great Lakes snowstorm set in. When we first set off on our little stroll, it was cool and clear. An unsuspecting afternoon in the upper middle class projects. Then, within minutes, it was snowing so heavily that we couldn't see where we were walking. A blizzard. We blundered our way into a German graveyard and amused ourselves for a short time, brushing the snow off of tombstones, mispronouncing the names and speculating on the lives those people lived. But that got old fast, given the temperature. My Converse All-Stars were soaked through and frozen solid. So we tried to wander back to my friend Jeff's apartment, from whence we had come. But we succeeded only in sinking deeper and deeper into the morass of Midwestern suburbia. The Home Alonesque homes started to look like German tombstones. We had lost our way. We didn't dare to ask anyone to let us in. In accordance with the rules of Midwestern hospitality, we would gladly freeze to death in the gutters of the fruitily named parkways and boulevards of Mount Prospect before we stooped so low as to ask anyone for help.
We finally found refuge beneath the heat vent of an elementary school. The lukewarm mist reeked of corndogs and turkey ala king, but it was enough to sustain us for an hour or so. After an hour or so, I remembered that I owned a cell phone. So I called Jeff. Where are you, he asked. I have no idea, I said. Under a heat vent somewhere, I said. It smells like corndogs, I said. Not enough information, he said. So I left behind lady friend and deep fat fried warmth of heat vent and I cross country skied to the nearest street sign.
"Apparently, we are at the intersection of Willie Street ... and Memory Lane," I said.
"You're fucking with me," came Jeff's eventual reply.
"No," I said, "I shit you not. We are dying. On Memory Lane. And Willie Street."
Jeff, bless his recently Mormonized heart, Mapquested it. He pulled his Honda up to the intersection of Willie and Memory, just as the Chicago Public School district's underground supply of vaporized lard was running out. My lady friend and I sprinted through the snow. She made it to the car alright. But I stumbled over the kerb and slid for five-odd yards, tearing my corduroy suit coat to shit in the process. When I got in the back of Jeff's car, I was bleeding profusely from both lovehandles, but laughing, laughing - laughing at myself, laughing at the absurdity of it all, laughing even as I shivered away the last calories I had left in me. But I had paid two dollars for that suit coat and had worn it for a year consecutively, and I couldn't help but feel that part of me (the better part of me) had died with the death of that suit coat.
When we got back to Jeff's apartment, warmth was the thing. My lady friend took a shower, as that was the warmest place available. I trembled around the living room and made short work of a pair of White Russians. Then I took a shower. My toes burned as they thawed. I wept and bellowed with the burning. Jeff had to feed me a tallboy of Guinness through the shower curtain just to get me through the showering process. But when it was over, I felt ready to brave the cold again. I was young then. I braved cold then. Everyone pitched in to clamp my suit coat together with heavy duty Office Depot binder clips. And in that sorry state, I went downtown.
We went to a bar but couldn't afford to drink our way into New Year's 2007. So I was able to observe, somewhat objectively, Chicago on its worst behavior. I went out to the street shortly after the kazoos went off. I wasn't yet a smoker, so I just stood there watching. Here was Chicago. The Year of Our Lord, 2007. Happy New Year. Everyone seemed to be puking or slipping on puke. Twentysomething girls high-heeling it through piles of puke, stumbling, puking, stumbling through their own puke, skirts hiked up to expose gartered thighs, skirts unzipped to reveal tramp stampage. Puking. Stumbling through piles of puke. Throwing themselves unsuccessfully into taxis. Amateur frat boy rapists trying to scoop them up and throw them into taxis of their own design. Meanwhile: howling winds, swirling snow. Meanwhile: winos raging, hobos raving. It felt very much like the end of the world.
And there I was, soberly drunk, standing on the corner of Thompson and Grand with a road beer in hand, puzzled by the scene. Country boy Nebraskan that I am, I had heard of the apocalypse in scripture, but I had never seen it played out in reality. I was puzzled by the end of the world. Who knew it would look like this? Who knew there would be so many tramp stamps? And I was fascinated by it, just as I had been by that medieval sketch. I could only stand there and sip from my road beer and marvel. All I could think was, this is happening all over town. All over Chicago. All over America. All over the world, for all I knew. Everyone was puking. Slipping on puke. Throwing themselves into taxis. Jousting on horseback. Chasing pigs. Swordfighting with cloth dummies. Oafs. Serfs. The fiefdom of Chicago. For a moment, I could see the city of Chicago from a helicopter, from a thousand feet up - and from that perspective, it was a glorious first-world medieval shitshow, indeed.
I have made efforts to get myself to the nearest available megalopolis, the nearest available shitshow every New Year's since. I went to Seoul for New Year's 2008. I went to Chongqing last year, and I went to Chongqing this year. It's that top-down two-dimensional black and white perspective I'm interested in. I want to see an entire city on its worst behavior. I want to see the rapture reenacted time and time again, and I want to revel in the morning after, the waking up next to some strange woman, the knowing that we have survived it together, whoever she is. Whoever I am.
This year, I caught a black taxi to Chongqing on December the 31st. Not surprisingly, I had lazed around the apartment so long that, with luck, I would make it to Chongqing just in the nick of the new year. I made a couple phone calls and it was clear that some amount of catching up was in order, so I slipped a little something into my iced tea. I had hoped that nobody in the cab would notice. As it happened, the old dudes crammed into the backseat with me caught wind, and they wanted a swig. So we made merry in backwoods Mandarin until we fell asleep. And by the time I was deposited at whichever Chongqing Normal School I was bound for, my fellow passengers were still comatose and I was sober as a priest. Nay, sober as a Shaolin monk.
What followed doesn't warrant much description. Americans. Embraces. Fist pounds. A countdown. Smooches. There was a dog at the party. Somebody spilled beer on it. A kerfuffle ensued. But who cares? The new year cometh, cameth, had comethed, offering misbegotten promises of good behavior. 2011. The Year of the Rabbit. A year in which no one will deliberately spill beer upon dogs.
Somebody decided that we should go to The Club. I loathe The Club. I have never had a good time at The Club, not since I was young enough to be excited about getting into The Club. But everyone loves The Club for some reason. So we went. And predictably, we had a miserable time. It was crowded and sweaty, stuffy, short of oxygen. It was too loud to talk. I stumbled in and checked my coat. Two minutes later, I stumbled back out and unchecked my coat. Then I went down to the nearest shish-kebab vendor, bought a couple cans of beer, and walked back up to the balcony of The Club so I could watch the new year unfold from a somewhat great height, all of forty feet up, and I slouched there brooding and sipping canned formaldehyde from my perch overlooking the intersection of whatever and whatever streets. Shitshow Avenue and Memory Lane.
I tried to conjure up the usual Year In Review montages. 2010. The Year of the Panda. The year in which certain individuals deliberately spilled beer upon dogs. A year never to be repeated. But aside from that poor dog, I couldn't really remember anything about 2010. I didn't feel a thing about it. It was a year. My twenty-seventh on earth. I was happy to be rid of it. What a shitty attitude to take, I thought. You'll be standing on some balcony in 2011 thinking the same exact thing, I thought. What a shitty attitude to take. And I stood there for a minute, or perhaps an hour, slouched over the balcony, nursing a clandestine two kuai can of beer on the doorstep of a place that sold the same shit for twenty, and I kind of spaced out and murmured bad words to myself. Until a fight broke out in the streets below. With the first punch, I suppose, 2011 began.
There was a pudgy African fellow standing right in the middle of Shitshow Avenue. A Chinese man was punching him in the face. The African was trying to shield the blows, but already a crowd had gathered and several other Chinese men had started punching him, too. Before I could even process what was happening, a horde of people had enveloped the African man. A perfect storm of human beings. And at the eye of the storm: a pudgy African dude, and whichever Chinese dudes felt like taking a shot at him. The African fellow was not fighting back. He was trying to deflect the blows, but he was not succeeding. His assailants were not the same people involved in the initial scrum. They were drunk Chinese men, passersby who happened to be passing by, young men who were bored and drunk and down for punching a black man in the face, secure in the knowledge that all of Chinese Chongqing had their back. Happy New Year.
I have no idea what the African fellow did to deserve being mauled by the biggest city on earth. My Chinese intuition tells me that he must have done something to incur its wrath. Foreigners are stared at in this part of the country, they are heckled and they are cheated on cab fares, but they are seldom beaten down in the streets. So the man must have done something. Nevertheless, watching all of Chongqing gather around a public lynching was frightening. And the violence wasn't the most frightening part. The indifference. The amusement. I suppose the amusement was what disturbed me the most. It was a spectacle. It was an event. The beating dragged on so long that somebody could have sold tickets. People would've bought them. And somebody would have scalped those tickets. And so on. It went on for ten minutes. This African dude was punched in the face for ten minutes. He didn't or couldn't defend himself. And as a Peace Corps volunteer, I could do nothing but watch. Watch and stifle my vomit. Watch as the African man was pummeled in the face by random Chinese adversaries for ten minutes. Watch as he was finally thrown into the back of a police golf cart. Watch as the masses threw a last couple punches for good measure. Watch as the golf cart puttered its constipated way through the crowd. Watch as the man was pelted with beer bottles and half-eaten food. Watch and mutter bad words to myself, watch and then decide to go get myself a couple more road beers. Happy New Year.
Later – so much later that it felt like a new year altogether – we left The Club and made our way to McDonald's. I had a road beer tucked away in my jacket. I had just bought a pack of cigarettes, but upon entering Mickey D's, I was convinced that I needed another pack of cigarettes to get me through the two quarter-pounders I'd just ordered. So I wandered off to the nearest Chongqing Police outpost and asked them where I could buy cigarettes. They gave me a cigarette, then argued briefly about the proximity of the nearest cigarette vendor. By then, I had discovered the bundle in my butt pocket and realized that the whole venture was absurd: I already had cigarettes. But by then, a random Chinese drunk had stolen my road beer.
"No," I said in Chinese, "that's mine."
What he said back to me was unintelligible. But he held fast onto my beer and he swaggered away. Justice swelled in my gut. We were standing in front of a police outpost. I had had a beer. I no longer had a beer. It had been stolen from me by a man who clearly had plenty enough beer in his system. I wouldn't stand for it. I snatched my beer back from him and said, no. The beer is mine.
So he grabbed my arm, zoomed in on my hand, and with impeccable precision, set about twisting my pinkie finger. I could hear the ligaments groaning. I yelped, anticipating in that instant the fateful pop of broken bone. I shoved the drunk away, kicked him lightly in the ass, and rattled off some Chinese obscenities that I am somewhat proud of in retrospect. The man charged towards me, fists of fury a-flailing. He was subdued by the Chongqing Police. Then he was kicked and punched and thoroughly beaten by the Chongqing Police, right there in the street. A crowd gathered around to watch. I walked away very quickly. I went to the nearest cigarette shop, though I didn't need to buy any cigarettes. I just kinda asked the cigarette vendor how she was doing and walked back to McDonald's with my hard-fought road beer in hand and my tail between my legs. I felt bad about the whole thing at the time, and I feel bad about it in retrospect. A police beating, all because I went out for cigarettes I didn't need – a scrum over a road beer I probably didn't need, either.
Oh, well. I suppose that sometime in the distant future, medieval art will become en vogue again. Some post-postmodern sketch artist will sit down to tackle feudal Chongqing. And I will be trapped in charcoal amber, suspended on a canvas for all artistic eternity, road beer firmly in hand, X's on my eyes, a Chinese wino bending my pinkie finger to the breaking point, X's on his eyes, two police officers in full sprint, truncheons in mid-swing – and across town, across the canvas: a black-bearded foreigner pouring a full can of beer on a gorgeous chocolate lab - and yet further across the canvas, a black man being wailed on by hordes of Chinese men, rotten vegetables cascading through the air, hundreds of onlookers smiling and watching – and even further across the canvas, a young American hobo with a backpack and a daydream, a hobo who came to Chongqing for New Year's with a daydream and a backpack and a Z Visa, a hobo who won't realize what he's gotten himself into until a good year or so down the road.