torsdag, februar 22, 2007

Gypsy Cab Rides, Part II

Special thanks to Lucy for sending along a photo of Ollie. This dog is sweet as pie, but he puts a fierce lean into you if you take his seat, man.

Gypsy Cab Rides, Part II

When we last saw our intrepid, albeit incompetent, hero--which was, admittedly, a little beyond where last episode left off--he was leaving the Shanghai airport after a week in Korea. His bones are weary, though he's flown there only from Seoul, for only a few days earlier the Seoul police dropped him off at his hotel after a particularly riotous night in Incheon (which he might justifiably blame on his host). Never fear. The police dropped him off only after a cab driver refused to believe where his hotel was because our hero was traveling, against recommendation, without a business card to help direct the cabbie. Even Koreans carry the cards to help better direct one, as the road system is screwier than Saint Paul's (and that's saying something).

There he is, our bright-eyed American boy. He wanders out towards the cab bay but passes through a gaunlet of gypsy cab drivers--people living off the books. Some of them hold signs on which is written, "I drive specially for you." Things like that. They all look knocked about a bit. Most of them seem too depressed to offer a ride.

The little adventure voice pipes up. And, without the slightest hesitation, yer man leaves with one of these broken drivers. Why not.

(Right about now I'm reminded of the old "Bad Idea Jeans" commercial on SNL. And right about now I really think I should never have let my parents or siblings or anyone I know in on this blog!)

He crosses the road to the parking garage. This man's leading yer man's bag at a furious pace, as if he's a common luggage thief. In the garage, a second man is waiting. Sure, that should be a flag. But, no. Your hero sallies forth, that jackass.

And with a rev of engine and in the drone of an undercarriage in need of a bit of patching, off they go. Into a land of a different language. And an eerie landscape. And probably totally foreign ways to get robbed and left for dead in the vast, treeless, mist-covered expanse of former swamp between the Shanghai airport and the outermost developments of Shanghai itself.

There this friend--yes, as we said, we're not talking about any of us, but a friend--there this friend was in the back of a ratty old…I don’t know what. Think of something one might have considered sporty in the ‘80s. In Mexico. Age it 20 years and fill it with rust holes and an engine that quivers above 55 miles per hour. Your driving 80. The interior smells like motor oil. Your seatbelt is broken, and not just non-functioning. It looks as if someone smashed it with a chunk of granite, perhaps to free themselves and escape death.

You’ve got a driver who looks vaguely South American and whose Chinese seems as clumsy as his English. And you’ve got a talkative man in the passenger seat who isn’t missing teeth but has, it seems, enough black-lined gum space between teeth to measure out enough space for an extra tooth or two if those teeth just abutted one another.

He’s rail-thin. It really is like a skin-covered skull. He grins wildly. There you are racing through the reclaimed swampland on a highway that seems to have eight lanes in either direction but there’s not even the grey outline of a city on the horizon.

And you’re arguing about the price. You’re yelling. He’s grinning.

You know from the guidebooks and hotel information—it’s a new hotel, by the way, so no guarantee anyone knows where it is…and you’ve neglected to print out the address even in English, because you…WAIT, your friend…because your friend is an idiot who even at age 32 is still too willing to just wander into situations, often for no other reason than to call it writerly.

The Art of the Deal

I won this plaque for a school-winning short story in 5th grade, "The Taffy Terror." It was essentially a story of capitalist greed gone berserk as the machines of competing taffy factories break and flood the city. I could have used a deus ex machina ending during this goddamn cab ride.

You lie about what you’re carrying. They know. Adverse to traveler’s checks, you’re carrying a wallet that’s about as fat as a good ol’ American cheeseburger with all the toppings. And you’re meat, man. Your out in the swampland in a piece of shit car with your piece of shit luck and you’re sweating profusely through your shirt and into your suit, the suit you wore on the plane because you didn't want it to wrinkle in your luggage. And you’re arguing about the price of your illegal fare, because the two of you ran out of things to say about the Olympics. And because you didn’t even do the smart illegal thing and agree upon price ahead of time.

Any idiot knows that.

So the landscape keeps unwinding in a way that looks as if one is always passing the same field, the same hovering mist, the same lonely tree.

Finally, you come to a price that’s about three times what you’d pay in a cab. It’s an adventure, right? The deal is agreed upon when you toss in 5000 Korean won, which is basically like $5.

You hand him the money.

Now this deathmobile pulls over. Near an abandoned bus. At a future toll booth site still well-under construction. A few men in sunglasses, even though this is a cloudy day, stand talking outside their cars with tinted windows. They pause to eye you and your vehicle.

The gap-toothed man places a call on his cell. The other man watches the rearview. You look back at that bus, waiting to see the curtain move.

“My brother is coming,” says the gap-toothed man.

“Tong Mao!” your friend says, naming the hotel. “Knock this shit off and take me to the Tong Mao!”

Your friend is sweating terribly, totally unhinged. He's thinking about how he can get his luggage from the trunk and flag down a police car. "Calm down," the tooth man says. "My brother, he come to get you."

He puts the money in an empty space in the dash.

“Calm down, calm down,” he's saying.

The argument goes on.

“Tong Mao!”

These may be the only words in the language at this point. Frantic, your friend is watching the men in shades, then the bus. The guys in the front seat are watching behind the car too.

Ten minutes pass.

By this point, your friend has leaned forth, snatched up the cash, and is now clutching and pumping that fist at the tooth man. “We had a deal!”

He’s still grinning. “Calm down, calm down! My brother, you see.”

Soon, a cab pulls up. A man in what looks like a discarded butler’s outfit is driving it. His white gloves have holes in the fingertips.

All of you are outside now, arguing. Cars loaded with their Chinese dreams whip by on the highway.

"He take you there," the tooth man is saying. "He take you there. Tong Mao."

"Tong Mao!"

And, of course, yer man hands back the cash rather than demanding to pay on delivery at this point. But he's smart this time: he demands his luggage in the back seat with him, having already considered jumping out, should there be a stoplight anywhere in this country.


An ancestral cemetery near Gardslov, Sweden. Not a bad place for a rest, I think.

Away he goes with "the brother," who looks very Korean, not at all Chinese like the tooth man. The brother doesn't speak. Only grunts.

You race along. You eye the dashboard. You take out a notebook and write down the cab driver number and do your best with the Chinese symbols around them. The driver grunts and eyes you in the rearview.

Tick tick tick tick...

Your paranoia really kicks in, now. You're watching the vehicles around you. You're looking for signs of other people in on this. You write down the license plate number of suspicious vans, like that black one with the black spray-painted back windows, the one that drove alongside your cab inexplicably. Raced right up, slowed to your speed. And then the driver took out a cell phone and looked over at you. Maybe he was thinking, "What the hell are YOU looking at?" But you know better. He's saying something like, "The bird is in the nest" or "The idiot is in the cab."

Abruptly you see what you think is the car you were first in. Two silhouettes. Shit. They are following. You write down that license number when it gets closer. Abruptly, that car exits.

The driver grunts.

Oh, but wait. A magical thing occurs in the next 15 minutes. Buildings begin to materialize on the horizon. You approach something like a neighborhood. There's a stoplight ahead. You grip the handle of the suitcase, give it a slight tug to make sure it is free of the seat it's wedged behind. You can do this. Just jump out.

But you stay in the car. You don't know why.

Any of these streets could be your last. You don't even know if this is Shanghai, man. People are appearing at corners. You try to get a bead on the neighborhood's character, but what do you have to go on there? This is a totally new experience.

Then you see it! The financial tower across the street from your hotel. You recognize the architecture from a Web site.

As if to punctuate the moment, you lean forward, point at the hotel (across from the tower) and say too loudly, "Tong Mao!"

Stress tourette's, I guess. The driver grunts. You notice that in one of his shoddily gloved hands he's holding 2000 won. Other won bills stick out from his pants pocket.

When you pull up to the hotel, a bright-eyed bellboy takes your bag and bows rapidly and welcomes you. "How is to you today!?" he's saying. "Welcome to Tong Mao!" With one arm he's motioning you inside, but you and your driver are having a mean staredown.

The driver creeps forward. Your stepping back with the bellboy, who seems a little confused but is trying not to show anything other than the pure joy of welcoming a guest, and you're craning your neck to get a look at the license plate. You take out your notepad and scratch down the numbers while the cab driver glares.

And then you're through the revolving doors. You're in the lobby. The bellboy tells you he'll wait for you at the elevators. He does. You're drenched in sweat, though no one else is. Why not. You're an American. And for the slightest moment the check-in girl's eyebrows furrow. Then her face is clean and bright again and she says, "Welcome to Tong Mao!"

After that I showered, changed, and went to the hotel bar where I discovered they had the Danish beer Carlsberg on tap. Had this hotel been built just for me? I'd been in Denmark again just a few weeks before my sweaty entrance to Shanghai. That beer was a welcomed reminder of more successful travels.
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