“Memories. You’re talking about memories.”

I’m looking forward to seeing Blade Runner 2049 this weekend, but I’m also more haunted than ever by longing for the gone world of 1982 in which I saw the original. It’s not that the film blew my mind, exactly, but simply that it entered my mind, my life, and stayed there. It was an ever-present part of my youth.

I remember being intrigued by the trailers, but I think it was my dad who rounded us up to see the film, shortly after it came out. His New Yorker friends were in town, and I suppose he was under some pressure to show that we too had good movies despite living in provincial Baltimore. I had just gotten my learner’s permit, and so I drove everyone, in my mom’s Buick Century station wagon, to Timonium (now there’s a name with a lot of associations), where I had a little trouble parking, despite the four adults’ helpful assistance, rendered all at once. I actually don’t remember the impression the film made on me, but I was conscious that it gave the grownups something to talk about, in the Chinese restaurant to which we repaired after the film. The New Yorkers could tell right away that the voice-over didn’t really belong and must have been added in some kind of acrimonious editorial and marketing dispute.

I saw the film at least twice more during its first run, and its style, if not its substance, began to grow on me. Soon, I had selected a favorite line, the ridiculous “It’s too bright in here.” My friend George’s favorite line was “I don’t know much about bio-mechanics, Roy; I wish I did,” and actually it was George who began taking Blade Runner rather seriously. He started coming to school dressed as Deckard, with mismatching plaid shirts and ties, under a grey raincoat. When I asked him why he chose such a wardrobe, he said, “Because the word is as dark and messed up as it is in the film.” I wasn’t sure I agreed, but I had to have an opinion. Blade Runner had become such an important part of our adolescent culture that our reactions to it said a lot about our crystalizing personalities. Largely on the strength of his remark, I decided that I could not match George for pessimism, and we began drifting apart.

My relationship with Blade Runner was more intellectual than psychological. Through the Eighties, it was often shown at the Charles, invariably in a double feature with Road Warrior, and I enjoyed wondering why. Perhaps both films premised the same present from which could spring two alternate futures: one in which today’s world hardens into a dystopia (Blade Runner) or one in which it collapses into anarchy (Road Warrior). The Eighties was also the age of the VCR, and I watched Blade Runner on the little screen countless times, enough to spot details like Pris’s incept date, which was a pastime.

Then I went to Taiwan for four years, and Blade Runner stayed mostly in my mind, but it was also a point of reference for what I saw every day with my own eyes on the streets of Taipei: rainy, neon, teeming, urban labyrinths. I speculated with another American, also named George, as to how Taiwanese people would view Blade Runner. Would it look only like a day in the life of Taipei? “They can’t appreciate that the film is supposed to be a nightmare,” George said.

Back in the States, with youthful enthusiasm displaced, with a belated vengeance, by a crate-load of adult cares, I saw the 1992 director’s cut at the Uptown in DC, with friends who were four years ahead of me in their careers. I realized for the first time how beautiful the film was. The Coke commercial on the skyscraper made me cry, as did the shot of three police spinners flying abreast. Was I crying for the images or for my lost youth?

Of course by now, poised to take in the sequel, which may or may not appeal to millennials in their culture, the question is closed. I am a jowly gray-haired man.

Or maybe I just think I’m a jowly gray-haired man. What if, instead of waking up this morning, I was booted up, and all my memories of the Timonium, the New Yorkers, George, the Charles, the VCR, the Eighties, Taiwan, George, the Uptown, and my wife, children, and career are just implants, not my memories, somebody else’s?

It doesn’t matter. Either way, Blade Runner is the movie of my life. When I get to the ticket counter for the sequel, I know just what I’ll say to the poor millennial working there: “I. Want. More. Life.… Fucker.”

How I Got Kicked out of the Christian Science Reading Room

It was during high school. Having recently acquired my driver’s license, I was learning how to navigate the streets of Baltimore, when I passed the Christian Science Reading Room, near Hopkins. It looked like a comfortable place, with plenty of big leather armchairs. How generous of Christian Scientists to give people such nice places to read. I filed it in the back of my mind: The next time I happen to be in the neighborhood with a book, I thought, I’ll certainly come here and read it.

The opportunity presented itself a few weeks later, when it suddenly became necessary for me to get out of the house (ah, adolescence!). The image of a leather armchair appeared in my mind as a place of refuge. I took up my copy of Moby Dick, got into my ’75 Buick Apollo, and made my way from the suburbs all the way to Homewood. I parallel parked on the narrow Charles Street service drive, strode into the Room, smiled at the desk assistant, climbed into one of the soft leather seats, and opened my book.

Just as I settled in, I noticed the desk assistant looking at me quizzically, and he walked over.

“I’m sorry. You can’t be here.”

“I can’t, like, read here?”

“The Reading Room is for people who want to do research.”

“But no one else is using it. Can’t I hang out with Moby Dick, until someone comes in to do research?”

“I’m sorry, no.”

And so I was evicted, after less than a minute, and stood blinking on the sidewalk.

I got kicked out of the Christian Science Reading Room for reading.

Tales of Old Taipei: The Fake Rolex Man

My Taiwanese employer would frequently open its doors to a variety of hustling salesmen and invite them to peddle their wares to the staff. By far the most popular of these characters was the fake Rolex man, who graced our workplace every couple of months.

The rapturous tidings “The fake Rolex man is here! The fake Rolex man is here!” accompanied by eager foot beats, would herald his arrival. The honored huckster would set up shop in the conference room next to my boss’s office, and I was able to observe the stream of breathless coworkers, arriving singly or in groups, carefully appreciating the counterfeit treasures and, more often than not, emerging with small handfuls of them, grinning proudly. Returned to their desks, they enjoyed much celebrity, as others of their departments gathered around to marvel at the loot before succumbing to envy and hurrying over to see what bargains remained. It was all very amusing to me and broke the monotony of long afternoons poring over telexes.

One afternoon, on the day after a visit from the fake Rolex man, my boss, whose English name was William, took me aside.  He put his arm around my shoulder.

“You know, ah, we’re very concerned about you,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Is everything all right?”

“Yes, William. Everything’s fine.”

“Are you homesick? You’ve been away from your own country for a long time.”

“I’m not homesick…  Have I made some kind of mistake on the job?”

“No, that’s not it. You just don’t seem to be fitting in very well.”

“I don’t?”

“No,” William said, and then he grew even more serious. “For example: Yesterday, the fake Rolex man was here, and you didn’t buy anything. You didn’t even take a look.”

“Well, I don’t need a watch. I already have one.”

William tisk-tisked. “But surely you sometimes need to give presents. Don’t you have a friend who would like a nice fake Rolex?”

“Why would I give a friend a fake Rolex?”

“Harry, Harry.” He looked around to ensure that no one had overheard my sacrilege. “The fake Rolex man is here to help,” he said. “You should take advantage of every opportunity to obtain good fake merchandise. If you don’t, you’re just… It’s just not healthy.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Promise me you’ll take a look next time,” he implored. “You really owe it to yourself.”

I promised, but I was bummed. The watch I wore every day was an art-deco knockoff I’d picked up in Gongguan for twenty-five cents, and it kept perfect time; but did anyone notice? Did anyone give me any credit?

Everyone always assumed I was the maladjusted foreigner. I was tired of it.

 

Taiwan Journal: Youth in the Rain

August 23, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

An interesting set of people at the bus stop shared the thirty minute wait for the 0-East. One, of course, was a very poised woman. She smoked a cigarette, and once, when our eyes met, she smiled naturally and pleasantly. There was also this guy who I’d seen before. He had thick glasses and was kind of fish-eyed and muckle-mouthed, probably not very popular at school. I found myself trying to avoid looking in his direction, for some reason, until I noticed something unusual about his t-shirt. It was a political shirt, bearing the slogan, “You have the right to reject this Taipei.” Suddenly, I seemed to understand him, as though I recognized the same pattern in his life that I’ve seen in the States: Cast out of the crowd by forces not in anyone’s control, the outcast studies alienation itself, turning inward and moving out, trying to return to the scene armed with the ideas of exile. I lent him my umbrella.

The ensuing rain blossomed into a true thunderstorm while I sat in the front of the bus watching. It was a heaven-sent washing. Raindrops on the puddles in the street seemed to suggest a soft meadow. There was a mellowing of light and sound, under the auspices of a friendly patter of droplets, the splashing of tires, and the creaking of wipers. The rain tames us.

 

August 28, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

I had an interesting experience today worthy of a French movie. As I hopped off the 0-East at the Nanchang Street stop, I noticed a high school girl in the green blouse of the elite First Northern Girls School, braving the first drops of a downpour. After the usual hesitation, I offered her my umbrella, and I found her to be both easygoing and serious. She said right away that she too had not eaten, and we soon found ourselves in a noodle shop, under the leering gazes of the cheap girlie posters that papered the walls, discussing history, Taipei, the USA, the mainland. There wasn’t any tension at all. I didn’t get her name.

Tales of Old Beijing: The Modern Plaza Incident of 1999

The Modern Plaza sits across the street from People’s University and is accessible from it by footbridge. Its most significant architectural feature (for our purposes) is the fact that its second floor is bigger than its ground floor, creating a covered area in which temporary sales or exhibition tables may be placed.

One day (August 9, 1999) I left campus, crossed the footbridge, and made for the Modern Plaza, to pick up a few sundries. As I neared the entrance, I noticed that a special sale was indeed in progress under the overhang. About twenty high school girls had been engaged in the campaign. They wore identical corporate t-shirts and were hawking what appeared to be cosmetics. The energetic young ladies beckoned me over, but I held up my index finger, signifying that I wished to complete my indoor shopping first but would be right back.

When I reemerged with my newly-purchased sundries in hand, I dutifully returned to the little bazaar, to see what the ladies were selling. It turned out to be a sort of eye-relaxing gel in little blue tubes. The merchandise had obviously been acquired in bulk and was now being unloaded at a bargain discount. Moreover, an enticing promotion was in effect: If you bought even one tube of gel, you would be given a free “eye massage machine,” while supplies lasted. Apparently, the gel worked best in combination with the machine. Although I had never heard of either product, I found myself that afternoon with not much else to do, and come to think of it, a little something for tired eyes just might be the ticket. I volunteered for a demonstration.

I sat down on a little stool, and a slightly more mature  young lady (college age?), who, I hoped, had taken the five-minute course on how to apply the stuff, sat likewise on a stool, directly in front of me and actually between my legs. She directed me to close my eyes, and after my lids were shut, she began to apply the gel with her fingers to the outsides. The substance did seem to have a cooling effect, and the overall experience was quite relaxing and a little hypnotic. Then the young optomasseuse announced that it was time for the machine. Her fingers withdrew from my eye sockets, and I heard her flip a switch. A little motor began buzzing, and presently I felt a pulsating plastic globe gently kneading in a circular motion upon my closed eyes. I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed it or not; I liked her fingers better. At any rate, she kept it up for only a few minutes, and then the buzzing stopped, signaling the end of the demonstration. She wiped the residual gel off my eyelashes with a Kleenex. Of course, I bought a tube of the gel and took possession also of the “eye massage machine,” which the optomasseuse showed me before putting into its box. It was a five-inch wand, battery powered, with about four or five interchangeable heads, such as smooth, rough, and ribbed. For some reason, it had a Playboy bunny symbol etched on its surface.

I thanked the optomasseuse for everything and rose to leave, but at that moment the sky opened up and it began pouring, very heavily for Beijing. There was nothing to do but to wait under the overhang, and the little sale area became an even friendlier island of refuge in the storm, as nothing brings strangers together better than a little shower. The gaggle of high school girls became especially peppy, and one of them sidled over to me. We exchanged light pleasantries, but almost immediately, she began telling me about her boyfriend. I was not unprepared for this sudden revelation, for one of the graver responsibilities of an American man in China is to serve as impromptu confidante, counselor, and confessor for Chinese womanhood.

“Do you love him?” I asked, cutting to the heart of the matter. It seems I was always asking women “Do you love him?” back then.

Naturally, the girl didn’t know. I studied her carefully. She was no dope, bright and venturesome (she had, after all, come right over to me), just inexperienced.

Suddenly, I wanted to be in a French New Wave movie. “You see that white van in the parking lot?” I asked her. “Let’s run out, touch it, and run back.”

I’m sure she had never received such a proposal before. She beamed at the novelty but wanted to make certain what I was asking. “You mean that white van?” she pointed. “You want to race me through the rain, touch the van, and run back here?” She used a different word for “touch” from what I had. I’d said peng (碰); she said mo (摸), which sounded to me more like “stroke.”

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s run out and stroke the van and run back.”

Without another word, she screamed and took off into the deluge, and I followed. It was like a whirlwind, as we sprinted with the rain flying off our faces and pelting my freshly-massaged eyes, nearly slamming into the van, stroking its slippery surface, then stomping through lake-like puddles and back up the steps to the Modern Plaza, where everyone was cheering (if this happened today, all phones would have been on us) and marveling at the American graduate student and his dashing ideas. The girl and I were both soaked, her corporate t-shirt most of all, and people gave us towels.

We dried off, still panting; but there was a certain let-down of excitement, after the exploit. The other stranded shoppers turned away, and the distance reestablished itself between me and my running mate. The downpour soon passed, and I bade her safe travels, took up my shopping bags, and returned to normal life.

For the next week or so, I continued to use the relaxing gel and the “eye massage machine,” before I realized that it was a vibrator (duh) and felt silly prodding my eyes every evening with a vibrator. I don’t think any of the high school girls at Modern Plaza that day knew what they were pushing, and their ignorance contributed to my obtuseness, for, since no one was behaving as though they were trafficking vibrators, I never saw that they were. If I were to chance upon a group of people talking into bananas, I would assume that they were telephones.

I donated the “eye massage machine” to a female friend who could make better use of it. I kept the gel… and the memories.

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Passages: From Love in a Bottle, by Antal Szerb

“Do you love me?” I asked doubtfully, and stupidly.

She burst out laughing — with the same unfathomable drunken laughter that had so charmed me earlier. It did not charm me now. Back on the veranda, that earlier laugh had somehow soared into the summer sky, an endearing cry for help addressed to some far-off Dionysus. But now she was laughing at me, and into me, the way any woman might laugh at any man held in an embrace of perhaps half an hour. It was a common, rather vulgar, laugh, an utterly godless laugh, one that could have been heard a thousand times at that moment in any of the parks of Paris and the banlieue — and how was I any different from the thousand other poor wretches who at that precise moment were preparing for the stereotypical games of love?

— from the short story “A Garden Party in St. Cloud”