Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fits like a glove

day left in the residency I am doing in Houston. This has been a good one. The kids in this high school have been great and the teachers pretty top notch. The queen bee of the crew that I am working with is a tall bespectacled young woman with curly hair that looks like it might want to get a bit wild but knows better. There’s a nice confidence about the staff. If I were to be cliché I might say that the crew is big picture people – but since I am never cliché I won’t.

One of the five classes that I have been teaching is an ESL (English as Second Language) group. I’ve gained an affinity for ESL kids. Maybe it’s all the international travel the last couple years – I know all too well what it is like to be a somewhat intelligent and passably articulate person rendered beyond functionally illiterate by circumstance.

There was the time I was momentarily and most disconcertingly lost in Shanghai.

One of the joys of working with international schools is one immediately has an advocate in a new and foreign place. The teachers working there have got all the scoops on restaurants, sightseeing, bargains and local specialties - all that good stuff and they enjoy sharing this hard earned data with visiting authors. Shanghai has an incredible fabric market.

Imagine the biggest farmer’s market you have ever seen. Think of that layout stall after stall after stall. Now instead of fresh vegetables the stalls are packed with fabric – all kinds of material on bolts and spools, half finished jackets, skirts, blouses, boxes of buttons and snaps and men and women with cloth tape measures draped around their necks like sauna towels. Now remember, you were thinking of the biggest farmer’s market you had ever seen? Now multiply the size by at least a factor of twelve, okay now make this entity eight stories tall and recall the feel of the 1982 movie Blade Runner. Now you’re getting the idea. You don’t shop at the Shanghai fabric market, you assimilate with it.

We got turned on to the fabric market by a student’s mother who visibly began to vibrate when I asked her if the story I had heard about the affordability of having clothing tailor made in the city was true. “You want clothes made?” She was beaming – “Sweetie, you asked the right person.” And we had. This mom took us to and safely inside the death star sized Shanghai Fabric Market and introduced me to her husband’s tailor then she and Sara disappeared.

I got measured for and ordered two jackets – both a cashmere tweed material, one darker one lighter, that I picked from spools in the cubicle – then I picked the silky lining material. The tailor promised that the jackets would be ready for a fitting in three days and I think I paid something like fifty bucks apiece for them. Not bad for completely tailored sport jackets. I called Sara and the mom with the cell phone provided by the school and we joined forces again.

Three days later true to promise my jackets were ready. Sara and I were on different schedules and she had already finished her day and was at the fabric market with some other teachers picking up some stuff she had made and enjoying browsing around without me not understanding what the difference was between this hound’s-tooth and that. The plan was for me to take a cab there after school and meet up with them.

So, I ask the guy at the desk where we are staying to write a note for me to give to a cabbie instructing the hack to take me to the fabric market. He says Okie Dokie and fills a half piece of notepaper with Chinese characters and hands it to me with both hands smiling and a little bow. To this day I have absolutely no idea what was written on that paper.

At the time that we were in China one could ride a cab seemingly for hours and the fare would amount to about a buck twenty five. The ride from the hotel near the school to the fabric market was going to be almost an hour. I handed the cabbie the note the concierge had given me and looked at him like – “does this make sense to ya pal?” He gave me an affirmative grunt and I blithely leaned back in my seat and took in the scenery as we whizzed along. For all I know the note included instructions for the minimum amount of miles between the separate bridges my head and torso were to be dropped from.

We ride along for about an hour and a half and I am starting to get a little worried. I’m trying to mime to the rearview mirror anything that might approximate - Are we there yet? The cabbie smiles and nods nonchalantly passing cars via the sidewalk. Twenty minutes later we pull up to a hulking building that I do not recognize. I rationalize that we may be on a different end of the giant market. Had I any sense I would have asked the driver to circle the entity. Instead I made a fatal traveling faux pas; I paid the dollar and a half fare then got out of the safety of my cab without being absolutely certain where I was with nobody I knew in sight.

I wandered into the building and while it did bear a bit of resemblance to the fabric market it just didn’t feel right. There were stalls filled with fabric on the ground floor but there were also floors with electrical goods, window mount air conditioners stacked like firewood. Another floor, the size of the bargain basement at Macy’s was full of live finches sounding like a test facility for doggie toys – I think I would have remembered that floor. So there I was – lost in Shanghai, a city whose population equals that of the entire state of Ohio. I can barely operate the cell phone, pretty much relinquished to dialing one of the three numbers programmed into it and nobody is answering. I wander out onto the street and head to a corner it seemed like the thing to do. I stood around and watched people go by and looked around for maybe a place to grab something to eat. Strangers are always more friendly if you are spending money in their midst.

Then my phone rang!
“Where are you?”
“Are you in a cab?”
“Why’d you get out of the cab?”
“Because I’m an idiot.”
“Hang on.”

I can hear the conversation going on amongst the folks on the other end. He’s lost – Did he get out of the cab – why’d he get out of the cab – he shouldn’ta got out of the cab. A new voice comes over the phone.

“Michael, get into a cab and hit re-dial on your phone, give the phone to your driver and I’ll have my tailor talk to him.”
“How do you flag a cab?”
“You’re gonna have to figure it out.”
“Okay, bye.”

I scan the streets – there isn’t a cab in sight as far as I can tell. There are whole bunches of slick haired hipster looking young men lounging about on various makes, models and vintage of motorbikes though. In Vietnam there are many entrepreneurial motorbike pilots who operate as gypsy taxis. They are he quickest way around in the over congested streets albeit not for the faint of heart. I walk up to one of the Vespa hepcats pointing at his bike and blurt “Taxi?”

He looks at me, points over my shoulder and replies, “No, that’s a taxi.”

Sure enough over my shoulder is a checker cab that could have been dropped via black hole from Lakeshore Boulevard in Chicago. I jump in the backseat – the driver looks a little startled – I think he was off duty having his lunch. He’s an older guy, bald and liver spotted with wisps of white hair around his incredibly large ears. I dial the phone, hand it to the driver and soon he and the tailor are laughing heartily giving me a good view of his missing and nicotine browned teeth. He talks to the tailor and scopes me in the rear mirror – talks a bit more – laughs one more time – then he clips the phone shut like he was a lobster snipping his claw - hands it back to me followed by a thumbs up.

One learns a bit of humility when one doesn’t speak the language.


smith said...

enjoyed this.
i would have gotten out of the cab too.

michael salinger said...

well that makes both our judgement suspect then, now doesn't it?