It’s been really, really cold here in Manchuria for the last couple of weeks, so cold that I haven’t been able to convince myself to drag a bicycle outside for a ride. The thought of putting on all those clothes and freezing for the first hour if not the entire ride is simply too daunting. I stand at the window, it’s a clear day and the flags down on the street are blowing straight across in the howling Siberian winds. So instead I’ve limited myself heading out for a walk when an errand beckons.
Saturday morning rolled around and after staring across the city for 20 minutes and becoming convinced that I would die if I didn’t have the proper clothing I bundled up and headed out of my apartment on the pretense of buying some vital things like butter, a dust pan and some wheat bread. One of the great things or perhaps terrible things depending on your perspective is that they don’t bother wasting heat on the elevator lobbies – they’re just about as cold as it is outside, maybe even more so when you consider that they’re completely clad in marble which leaves you with the impression that you’re standing inside a big pink and black refrigerator. While the sun here is a pale cousin to what you might find in a normal part of the world, it does make the outside just that little bit warmer than the shady interiors. Or at least it seems that way.
Down on the street level I knew immediately that it was smart that I had on so many layers. What told me this was the stabbing ice-cream headache in both eyes that came from simply breathing. When I was a kid and I would bolt my Carvel Soft Serve, I’d try to muster some warm air from down in my lungs and exhale, making the headache go away. But here there was no warm air to summon – I was frozen inside and out and I was no more than half a block down the street.
Walking along I saw a child all bundled up in what appeared to be dozens of puffy clothes. He reminded me of those indigenous steppe children from some National Geographic of my youth, telling the story of the horsemen of Mongolia or some such thing, people who live in yurts, wrap their kids in old Mao-style clothing and subsist through the winter on fermented mare’s milk. He was perhaps two years old and all covered in red and bright blue and he was eyeing my path to see where I was heading. He had a bowl, and he was going to demand some money. As I approached him I veered slightly to my left and he countered. I went right and so did he. I sped up and he fell back. I slowed down and he closed in for the intercept. I feinted left and then right and I realized we were locked in some sort of bizarre wintertime dance – the little beggar boy and the giant western human ATM pantomiming basketball coverage out on the sidewalk. We went back and forth like this five or ten times until his mother yelled something in some guttural language and shot across the sidewalk to scoop him up. I poured on the steam lest she become my next dance partner. He tried to grab my ear as I darted away.
The next morning I was summoned to accompany some friends to town on a custom clothing trip. I love going to the fabric/clothing market because it’s the place where all of the unsold extremely lower end clothing in America ends up. It seems that the path for unwanted soft goods starts down south in China’s manufacturing heartland around Hong Kong and Guangzhou. From there it crosses the Pacific Ocean neatly packed in giant steel containers and assuming the ship is lucky enough to not be taken by Somali pirates or mired in the North Pacific Trash Whorl, it docks in LA where the containers are loaded onto trains. Its next stop is Bentonville, Arkansas, the nexus of the Borg Retail Cube otherwise known as Wal-Mart. From there it’s distributed to stores from Point Barrow, Alaska to Punta Arenas, Chile. Failing to be sold it follows the same path back to LA where it is washed to remove the make-up and deodorant stains garnered from repeatedly being tried on and then dumped unceremoniously into containers and shipped to Dalian to be sorted and sold in the block-sized market on Erqi Lu. I know this sounds preposterous, but if you’ve seen the inventory, you know I’m telling the truth and why I like to there.
But I digress. While standing out in front of my building who should come along but my little friend in the puffy blue snow suit, this time strapped to the back of his mother papoose style. She waved the bowl in front of my face as if to say “You got away yesterday” and I, being the soft touch that I am fished around in my pocket for some paper money. I dropped a 5 in her bowl among the coins and she turned around and walked away without so much as a “thank you” in whatever archaic tongue she might call her first language. I shrugged and turned around to see her exact twin, papoose and all, zeroing in on me from across the parking lot. I veered slightly to my left and she countered. I went right and so did she. I sped up and she fell back. I slowed down and she closed in for the intercept, wait a second, didn’t I just do this yesterday with a much smaller version? I stopped and stared her down, telling her in no uncertain terms that I’d just compensated her friend and that she could go work it out with her. She waved the bowl at me. I turned around and headed towards the curb hoping my friends would show up but they didn’t and the beggar mother followed. Using some innocent pedestrians as a pick, I cut across their path and the beggar mother stopped to harass them. I was free, at least until those ingrates brushed her off and she was back on my case. I finally told her I didn’t have any more money and that she was making me really mad – all in Chinese. She resigned herself to finding another mark and headed down the street.
About this time I started thinking that it might be nice to get out of town.