Sunday, March 27, 2011

Report #22

Dear Chinese Neighbor,

Our walls are thin and you must know this. I can hear your TV so you should be able to hear mine. I find this acoustic problem troubling because one night when I angrily banged on the wall I nearly crippled my hand against the concrete. Yes! Concrete! You’d think we’d be sealed up like prisoners in solitary confinement alone with only our thoughts behind walls like these. Maybe our ceiling is made of straw. I don’t know. In any case I need you to pipe down a bit, especially that girlfriend of yours. How can you stand her whiny voice? I liken it to a mosquito or a crow cawing at sunrise. You’ve been inviting her over more frequently these past few months and I can tell it’s not going very well. She seems to do all the talking and sometimes her whininess becomes so intense it sounds like you’re arguing with a child over there. I suppose with all that stress you’ve taken to smoking an occasional cigarette in the hallway. This is the real purpose of my letter, to inform you that our little platform at the top of the stairs is no lounge. Actually it’s not the street either, so for god sake don’t spit on the ground and don’t ash your entire cigarette where we walk. I should also inform you that in addition to our building’s thin walls we have large cracks under our doors, which act like high-powered air intakes. I get about 25% of your cigarette under my door if the little window in the stairwell is shut. Damn you for this. I’ve tried to catch you in the act, but when I smell the scent and explode out of my door unprepared for what I might say to you, you’re gone, just a plume of smoke, ashes, and spit.

I have little hope for correcting this cultural fault of yours, but do note that in 40 years or so this act will be considered a faux pas and with luck will get you kicked out of the building. You see, in America, we used to be able to smoke everywhere too, in airports, grocery stores, restaurants, even bars! But then people realized that only smokers like smoke. Your days are numbered.


Your neighbor

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Report #21

It is rare to find individuals who are uniquely their own character. I think the Coen brothers can say this better than me:

Now this story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early nineties--just about the time of our conflict with Sad'm and the Eye-rackies. I only mention it 'cause some- times there's a man--I won't say a hee-ro, 'cause what's a hee-ro?--but sometimes there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here-- sometimes there's a man who, wal, he's the man for his time'n place, he fits right in there--and that's the Dude, in Los Angeles.

I went out on the 2nd ring again, this time to the Northwest section at Xizhimen. There is a large public plaza that spans across the entire highway as it dips below grade. On top of this land bridge are kite-flyers scattered throughout the square and a few kite vendors. There were also inline skaters blasting dub-step through a tiny boom-box while they weaved in and out of plastic cones and did fancier versions of hockey-stops. Four or five tricycles with boxed enclosures rolled up and began unloading dozens of roller skates and inline skates, laying them out in an orderly array. These were mobile roller skate vendors, unaffiliated with one another, but cooperative in that they kept their prices fixed: 5 RMB for a pair of skates for the evening.

The real treasure of the visit was this Dude, an old Beijing man who also had a tricycle (pickup truck style, no box) with four ‘Wangtong Birds’ tethered to a homemade perch on the handlebars. At first I was drawn to the birds, which are a cobalt blue and grey with bright yellow beaks, a little bigger than a cardinal. It wasn’t clear whom they belonged to until Jenny spotted a man casually strolling about 10 feet away from the tricycle who was wearing, not by accident, a blue and yellow jumpsuit. This man was in his 70’s, his white hair wind-blown, but he was fit and the jumpsuit and fanny pack he wore made him look the part too. He had the swagger of guy who was completely at home.

We wanted to get a photo of him with the birds to show the matching outfits, but his purposeful vibe made him seem unapproachable. Then he walked over to his four birds and took one off from the perch, grasping its body in his hand. He took out some sort wooden tube, which he stuck under his bottom lip pointing it up in the air. With both hands he hurled the bird into the air and it began to fly about 30 feet up. He blew into the tube and bird came flying back to his hand. It was though the bird was attached to string like a yo-yo. Once it returned to his hand he fed it some seeds. We watched this routine several times until it was clear that the tube was actually a miniature blowgun and there were no strings attached, the bird is trained to catch a plastic bead that the man fired into the air, return it to his hand, and get a reward of seeds.

The man went through his birds one by one, giving each one a turn. He put away the blowgun and took out a slingshot from his fanny pack, and hurled the bird into the air. This time the bird really took off. It flew about 100 feet up in the air making large circles around the plaza. The man walked about 20 paces away from his trike and fired the sling shot straight up just as the bird was circling around. Its wings flapped haphazardly for a moment and it maneuvered off course, then loyally flew back to the man’s hand as he walked back with his arm extended not even looking as the bird approached from behind.

This was his act. He didn’t have a tip jar asking for money, he just did his thing, and then rode home. Jenny and I tried to interview him, but he wasn’t very talkative, which my white face and long microphone didn’t make any better. We did manage to get a few tidbits out of him: he’s retired, he just does this when he feels like it, he lives in the neighborhood, it takes a year to train one of the birds, and his birds are about 4 years old. There wasn’t enough time before he began riding away to ask: How did you become so cool? Do you wear the jumpsuit all the time or just during your routine? Are you a wizard? Do you want an apprentice?