Excerpt from Southern Rain: Chinese New Year’s Day

An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar. 

It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.

Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.

In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.

Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.

Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.

Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West side, Part IV (Conclusion)

We arranged for her to come over at one in the afternoon. I spent most of Saturday morning cleaning, and then I ate a light lunch. Trying not to plan seduction scenarios or to think of anything at all besides getting my hundred dollars back – about the only thing I could really count on – I found an Orioles-Yankees game on the cable and watched and waited.

At one forty the doorbell rang and I buzzed her up. She was wearing jeans and a low-neck, black shirt, a rust-colored leather jacket, and her Greek fisherman’s cap. The two latter articles she removed and placed on a chair, and she also took off her boots, in gracious conformity to my no-shoes policy. She was sweetly-smiling and a little nervous.

I made a bit of conversation from what I’d been watching on TV, saying that the Orioles were almost a religious thing for me. She said she felt the same way about the Cardinals, and there it rested.

For our date, I’d selected the French diving movie The Big Blue. I switched off the baseball game and loaded the tape into the VCR. I asked if I could sit next to her on the couch, and she was OK with it. There was no other place for me to sit anyway. The bowl of popcorn I’d set out remained untouched.

As the movie progressed, I asked if she liked it a couple of times, and she said she did. She seemed caught up in the story and in the big blue cinematic visuals, even on my little TV.

About halfway through, I put my arms around her and kissed her on the cheek, marveling at how smooth, young, and firm it was; I bit it with my lips. She was amenable but passive. When I turned her head toward me with my hand, to kiss her lips, she complied and kissed back until I was finished, and then she went back to watching the movie. Three or four such closings and partings took place.

Then I did something I’d never done before and have never done since, with anyone: I rested my head on her chest. I knew nothing (and still know nothing) about breasts or bras, but whatever she came with, it was enough to support the weight of my noggin for the rest of the picture. I curled my legs on the sofa and nestled into her like a pillow. As comfortable as I was, I wanted to switch places on the couch; being left-handed, I would have felt better postured with my left ear to her heart. But I didn’t want to break whatever spell had been cast, by voicing such a request. Besides, she had yet to accede to anything I’d explicitly asked, for the whole of the afternoon, and I couldn’t risk it.

At the conclusion of the video, with neither one of us, perhaps, feeling that we’d gotten our money’s worth, I set up my old turntable and played “Ask Me Now,” the second to last track on the album Solo Monk. I wanted to share something very personal and intense with her. All I could do, though, was to say something cerebral like “This song is the musical equivalent of a Vincent van Gogh painting.” She said she felt the same way about John Coltrane, and so we had a brief discussion about the relative virtues of the piano versus the saxophone.

In connection with her interest in music (just not my music), she mentioned that she wanted to work in a recording studio on the side. I seized the opportunity to pursue one last transaction, telling her that my friend Bob ran a recording studio and giving her his phone number. “And now that I’ve helped your career,” I said in ironic seriousness, “you have to let me lie on top of you for one minute.”

She did. We kissed a bit more.

Of course, I asked her to spend the night, promising that “nothing would happen” except more cuddling, but she said no. Her parents were coming the following morning, in advance of her upcoming graduation.

Speaking of which, I congratulated her, and then she left.

Returning to the living room, to unplug and store the turntable, I noticed the hundred dollar bill on the coffee table, where Lucy must have placed it when I wasn’t looking. I left it there, thinking that I would re-deposit it in the bank on Monday; but as it turned out, I forgot about it, and soon it got mixed in with some junk mail and other papers on the table. A couple of weeks later, I realized that I’d thrown it away.

Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West Side, Part III

Saturday at noon, Lucy was late, and I waited in the unsympathetic company of Lajos Kossuth for her to show up. The usual resentment began to build up in my oft-stood-up heart; but I was pleased to note another advantage of jetting: It mitigated the risk of being bailed on, for even the most unreliable date had a financial incentive to show up. Sure enough, I soon espied Lucy crossing Riverside and waving at me.

She was not wearing her purple tights (I’d have to take that up with Ephraim) but had pulled on some kind of shiny black trousers. Black also was her moleskin jacket, but at least it wasn’t leather. She sported a Greek fisherman’s cap (oh God, isn’t that what Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman?), and her hair was curlier than I remembered from the party. She wasn’t particularly ecstatic to see me, but her disposition was sunny, and she struck me as a friendly “girl next door” in a family-channel TV movie. Her slight nervousness was charming in flat-affect Manhattan, and it peaked when, soon after arriving, she asked for her hundred dollars.

Having paid her, I conducted her to a bench overlooking the Hudson, because, after all the negotiation and research I had put into our date, I really wanted to talk to her. She was a Columbia undergraduate (we grad students called them “undies”), now a senior, majoring in psychology. She hailed from St. Louis and returned home each summer to work at her dad’s veterinary practice. She was going to head home for good in a few weeks, after graduation, and resume her customary off-season employment, before beginning a M.A./Ph.D. program in psych right there at Wash U. She would stay at her parents’ place and commute to school.

In my mind, I began to spin a narrative of how she’d bitten off more than she could chew in New York and now wished to retreat to a simpler place, but I was probably just projecting my own experience onto her. In fact, she proved rather unresponsive to my follow-up questions, as I fished for evidence of dissatisfaction – with New York, with men who weren’t me – which was how I sought to identify promising women in those days. Far from evincing any intriguing discontent, she betrayed a singular lack of profundity: It wasn’t that she avoided my attempts to steer the conversation into deeper water; she just wasn’t keen to go there – not with me, anyway, not for that first few minutes, as we sat watching the River.

Thinking that I could enliven our chat by asking “All right, so who the hell is Ephraim?” I was told only the basic facts about him, too. Ephraim had been her head resident during her freshman year, and they had remained friends ever since. He’d escorted her to a few parties over the years, and the role of jetting pimp was easy enough for him to fill, when the fashion caught on. I said something about how quickly she’d sent him over to me at the party and asked whether she always moved that fast, but the subject felt awkward, and she shied away from it.

I would have liked to go walking in the downtown direction through Riverside Park, but we began to notice crowds of people tromping north, and soon a parade began to move up Riverside Drive. Apparently, Grant’s Tomb was reopening after a months-long remodeling, and we had stumbled into the rededication ceremony. Lucy’s interest kindled, and I discovered that she was fond of history, even Civil War history. That sort of enthusiasm counted for a bit, I reckoned, even if it wasn’t quite as attractive to me as existential angst. We enjoyed the parade, and I suppose the experience was romantic, despite the lack of intimate conversation. The high point came when a group of reenactors marched by in black hats and Lucy and I simultaneously identified them as the Iron Brigade. Maybe another history geek would be the perfect girl for me, I thought.

After the parade, I suggested we go someplace for lunch, but she said she’d already eaten and had to study for an astronomy final. Having learned to keep expectations low, in dating and in everything else, I nodded the usual “I see.” I held out no hope for a return engagement, even, for our date, though not unpleasant, didn’t seem exciting enough to warrant one. I wished her luck on her test and was prepared to head off to lunch alone, when she suddenly grew coquettish and asked if I was busy the next Saturday. When I responded with a “What did you have in mind?” she cocked an eyebrow and said in a stage whisper, “Would a hundred bucks get me into your apartment?”

To be continued

Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West Side, Part II

I spent the intervening week trying to learn what jetting was. I only owned a Macintosh SE back then, and so I had to go to the Columbia campus to access the Internet on a school computer. Expecting my Yahoo searches to drag up a lot of sleaze, because prostitution, or at least the trappings of prostitution, seemed to be involved, I was surprised to see smiling, well-groomed, and apparently law-abiding faces on photos among the “jetting” search results. As I came to understand it, “jetting” was an ironic takeoff on “jet set,” a term from the seventies that had denoted the young nouveau riche, also known as “go-getters,” who were often pictured in magazines getting into their private jets or reclining on the decks of their yachts, with gorgeous smiles on their faces. The fact that the members of the jet set were usually shown cavorting in unmarried pairs introduced a sexual element to their joie de lucre, suggesting a unification of romance and materialism. The nineties term “jetting” was a comment on this mixing of love and money, presumably a mockery of it. It followed the American pattern of satire in that it advocated indulgence in something – the commodification of companionship, in this case – as a means of ridiculing it. (Think “Stupid Pet Tricks” on the David Letterman show.)

As I dug deeper, I discovered more about the New York jetting scene which, of course, had surrounded me all along without my being aware of it. The satirical meaning of jetting, I gathered, had over time given way to a social one: It was now used to formalize the dating process, to give it a little structure. Dating in New York had always been a high-stakes game, with success or failure, pleasure or pain, influenced by dozens of variables related to differences in personality and seriousness on the part of its players. Jealous of his (or her) time, the New Yorker worked as quickly as possible to gauge his compatibility with his opposite, determine the type of relationship that was most feasible, and decide if it was worth pursuing. It had always been very businesslike, in other words, and sentiment, as our New Yorker would say, only fucked things up. Live adult chat, speed dating, and, eventually, online dating were then becoming fashionable, each tending to heighten the sense that the individual lonely-heart was but one item on an ever-refreshing menu, like a roasted chicken going around on a rotisserie.

Jetting imposed order on this free-for-all. It established the principle of “pay-to-play,” disqualifying the unserious; and it added a layer of emotional protection, taking love out of the equation, leaving things “just business.” Moreover, it helped daters to rediscover their own value. By saying, “If you want to go out with me, you will have to put up some money,” the jetter refused to be cheapened. This last advantage struck me as especially poignant, for whereas prostitution commonly implied degradation, the simulated prostitution of jetting was actually designed to restore dignity.

Having grasped the generalities via my Internet research, I still needed to know how jetting worked in practice. I queried a few of my New York friends, and they informed me that the one hundred dollar price for a date was de rigueur. However, I would probably not have to forfeit the money permanently. Unless I proved to be an utter lout, my date, Lucy, could be expected to propose that she, in turn, engage my services on a subsequent occasion for the same one hundred dollars, effectively returning her original fee. This custom, I noted, relieved jetting of the opprobrium of sexism, because men and women ended up employing each other. It also guaranteed a second date, giving the parties more time to become acquainted or at least to feel less like the aforesaid rotisserie chicken.

On Friday, I withdrew a one hundred dollar bill from my account at the old Republic National Bank on 96th Street. On Saturday, before noon, I headed to Riverside Park.

To be continued

Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West Side, Part I

I lived in New York for three years in the mid-90s and sucked at it. I just had no idea what the rules were.

One Saturday night, my friend Lori invited me to a party on West End Avenue and then blew me off to hang out with her ex-boyfriend down in the Village. Having no other plans, I decided to go to the party without her, even though I was unknown to the hosts.

Upon arrival, I noticed that in lieu of the usual vintage punk, some kind of spa music was playing on the stereo, which filled me with the hope that I would be able to converse with someone without shouting. Immediately, I focused on a girl with auburn hair and purple tights, who stood out from the other guests, all dressed in the obligatory black leather. I caught her looking at me too and thought I detected a familiar, searching vulnerability in her eyes. In spite of how often my instincts had led me astray in the big city, I surrendered to them one more time: Across the room I went.

“Hi, what’s your name?” I introduced myself. (New Yorkers are supposed to like directness, aren’t they?)

She said her name was Lucy, conjuring in my mind a replay of Charlie Brown charging upon the football. I began calculating the advisability of sharing this thought as an icebreaker, but as I did so, I broke off eye contact, which, at this early stage of the conversation, was a fatal mistake. Lucy promptly cast her own attention elsewhere and before five seconds had elapsed mumbled a “Glad to have met you” and retreated in the direction of the kitchen, where she commenced an enthusiastic dialogue with a tall young man wearing sunglasses.

I looked out the window for a minute or so, my no-big-deal smile becoming wooden until it hurt, and then I sat down on the sofa. Only a fresh start in conversation could have saved my spirits, but I was now too gun-shy to initiate one, and nobody came to rescue me. Soon I’d become the proverbial turd in a punchbowl.

I craved escape. I hadn’t lasted ten minutes, a new record.

Just as I was rising to leave, the sunglass guy came over and bade me to sit back down. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. Probably, he was Lucy’s boyfriend, come to warn me away from his girl. I considered dashing for the door but didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself. If he was going to chew me out, at least he would be discreet.

“I’m Ephraim,” he said, with his hand on my shoulder.

“Ah, Ephraim,” I answered, girding myself with sarcasm. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Don’t tell me: You’re Lucy’s boyfriend.”

Ephraim grinned. “Not really. I’m just looking out for her.” He was channeling every baddie from the movies.

“Well, you’re doing a fine job. One can’t be too careful these days. Lot of creeps around here.”

He grinned again. “But you like her, though, don’t you?”

I threw up my hands. “Yep, you got me, Ephraim. Guilty as charged.”

What’s it going to be, Ephraim? I thought. Just go ahead and say your piece, and then I can get out of here.

He kept toying with me, though. “She’s cute, isn’t she?”

I said nothing. I wasn’t going to play this game.

“Don’t be shy,” Ephraim drawled. “If you want something, all you need to do is ask.” He glanced left and right, before fixing his eyes on Lucy, still standing in the kitchen doorway. She smiled back, as if in anticipation.

“In fact,” said Ephraim, intoning his voice upward, “For a hundred dollars, you can do whatever you want to her.”

“What!” I blurted. I exhaled in despair, with my hand to my forehead. A confused tornado of emotions and instincts churned inside me. Desire was a part of it. “Do whatever you want to her” was an arousing set of words; but it was a twisted set of words, enmeshing my desire in wretchedness. One of the worst things about living in New York, I later realized, was just this tendency for the simplest, most natural behavior to be viewed with suspicion, in the most uncharitable light. For instance, when leaving the city by rental car the previous summer, I’d spotted my classmate crossing the street and beeped my horn in greeting. She pretended she didn’t hear me. I beeped again. She ignored me. I beeped again. She ignored me again, by which time I felt like a dirty old man, harassing a pretty co-ed. Here at the party on West End, all I’d done was to say hi to a girl in purple tights, and next thing I know, I’m wenching. I hated the degradation, especially considering how pathetic I felt to begin with.

Now feeling more indignant than guilty, I would have been justified to leave in a huff, yet something changed in Ephraim’s expression, compelling me to wait a bit. He seemed to break character, as though I’d just flubbed my part in an onstage dialogue and he was signaling me with his eyes to get me back on track. As disconcerted as I was, I managed to observe that he didn’t look like a typical pimp. His spiked hair, stubble, sunglasses, and obligatory leather jacket could not conceal – indeed they advertised – his bourgeois background. I pegged him for a barista from Michigan (which is exactly what he turned out to be).

“Take it easy,” he said. “It’s just jetting.”

“It’s just what?”

A couple of tall young women, overhearing this exchange, turned in our direction with knowing smirks.

“Jetting,” Ephraim repeated, the sinister overtone now gone from his voice. “Don’t freak out. Just go with it,” he whispered. “If you want to see Lucy, you can.” He cleared his throat. “All you need is a hundred dollars. Bring it and hand it to her at the beginning of your date. Tell me the time and place, and I’ll arrange it.”

The word “date” calmed me down, somehow.

“Next Saturday at noon,” I said. “At the Kossuth statue in Riverside Park.”

“What do you want her to wear?”

The idea of ordering my date’s costume threatened to rekindle the feeling of degradation, but I bit the bullet.

“Purple tights,” I said.

To be continued

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

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