Before I went to live in Changchun, China, what I knew of thronged street life derived from a few gyrating days in Manhattan. On Garfield Avenue in my hometown of Des Moines, the only crowd—if it could be called that—gathered on 10 consecutive August nights, drawn by the first booms of fireworks that concluded the grandstand show at the State Fair nearby. Mostly mothers and children, we watched the colors spray and then droop into heavy-mops of smoke over the poplar trees, the women talking in the quiet interludes between displays and for a few minutes after the finale, parting, at last, to put the younger children to bed.
Other than this—and a few porch sitters and occasional barbecuers—my best friends Sam and Lou and I were mostly the street life of the neighborhood. We delivered morning and evening newspapers, often camping out in each other’s backyards in summer or mapping elaborate projects around the pot-bellied stove in our clubhouse converted from a gardeners shed. We lounged on the curb in front of Andy and Bill’s Grocery, hungry for its racks of fruit pies and 16-ounce Cokes opened to us at 6 a.m. We bombed buses with snowballs and shot baskets in slushy twilights. We nursed soda fountain cocktails at Strait’s Pharmacy, eager to be teased by our half-dozen idols who gathered there after their day shifts at factories, each of them coolly 21, getting laid and making payments on cars that could put down rubber in four gears. Adventurers in smuggled six packs of warm beer, we knew in the dark the whereabouts of every clothesline and merciless watchdog for blocks in all directions.
The only other person with whom we truly shared the territory was Mrs. Whittenhall.
Most mornings here, a young man in an olive greatcoat practices his trumpet. On the broad sidewalk in front of the main building, legions perform Tai Chi at dawn, and stooped ancients chat, hands folded behind their backs cradling a loud transistor radio.
Yesterday, the rationing of cabbages for winter began. Floods, I’m told, reduced this year’s crop, yet most people can still afford to buy supplies beyond their government allotment. On corners around the city, people queue before green heaps, leaves splayed and twisting this way and that. Rumpled women in white cotton caps weigh each party’s load, which is then strapped to the back fender of a bicycle or stacked on a push cart. Everywhere the chosen stalks lie side by side on the pavements and roofs and garden walls, the heart of each pointing in the same direction, a pale green root in pale autumn sunlight.
The women weigh all day long, though the wind stings cheeks and temperatures dip into the 50s. They wear white smocks and the customary five layers of underwear, standing in the street with hands on hips or sitting down with legs flat out, leaning with their tea against the cadre’s wall next door. Their faces are worn but not brittle-looking like the women selling tofu in the street market, women who stand outside winter or summer, sounding more hoarse each day.
And then a young woman arrives—one of the new, fashionable women with long, curled hair and earrings dangling; she’s outfitted in stubby-heeled shoes, black stretch-pants, the ubiquitous dull brown blazer (but taken in more daringly at the waist) and the equally ubiquitous black silk gloves, too thin to provide much warmth but elegant, sexy—and incongruous, gripping the handle of a cart empty but ready for greens.
Once in the morning, once in the evening, Mrs. Whittenhall walked the six blocks from her house on Dubuque Avenue to Andy and Bill’s Grocery. She purchased a few items—a bar of soap, a loaf of bread—and always a large bottle of Pepsi, which she sipped on her walk back. For the neighborhood, this routine was as much a gauge of the hour as sunlight on leaves. Dependable, too, were her sweat-darkened, floral dresses, her slippers, and the windbreaker she wore only on the most frigid days. A blocky, ruddy woman with long, straight, graying hair, she always clutched a round, styrene plastic case in which you could see a swaddled Barbie doll—her child who had died years before, it was said.
My friends and I called her “Smiley,” but it seems now that her unvarying expression was more of a wince stalled at its inception. She seemed always to be looking ahead, which made passing her on the sidewalk more excruciating. Once, without provocation, she said “Hi” to me. A soft, tight bleep, it shook and baffled me like a door in the night blowing shut.
She lived alone in a small white house nested in high weeds replete with butterflies. A man who said he was her husband once stopped me on the street to inquire about subscribing to the newspaper, but I never saw him again. When I passed her place on my paper route, I wondered what she did during all the hours she wasn’t going to and from the store. I wondered what her house looked like inside. Someday I would have to find out.
We wandered into a restaurant a few blocks from the Chang-biashan Hotel and found ourselves opposite three round tables occupied by a wedding party. The bride and groom, probably in their 30s, were dressed in blue Mao suits. The bride wore earrings and makeup, both of which suggested how plain she must usually look. On the back of the grooms head, a half-erect cowlick wagged. All through his and her hair multi-colored confetti glittered. Though only 11 a.m., he grinned a little wider from toasting with bai jiu (white spirits), and he insisted that Monica, Doug and I smoke with our lunch. We accepted the lights, though Doug has taken three puffs in his life, and I’m still nursing a burned epiglottis. Another man about his own age kept sweeping the groom away from our table with the arm-around-the-shoulder technique. I kept watching the bride, who would have seemed homelier had the groom been more handsome. Traditionally, the daughter-in-law occupied the most tenuous position in the family—subordinate to husband, father and older women. Unless she came with a dowry, she was an extra occupier of space and a belly, and had to earn her way doubly. She sat at the end of the table with the other women and all the children.
We finished our meal with only a few more interruptions. Another drunken reveler showed Doug how to use chopsticks to eat the large biscuit Doug had been holding in his hand. Certain foods are too large to manage with chopsticks, this biscuit among them. Doug listened as the man held the biscuit gracefully betwixt the sticks. To eat with the hands, say the Chinese, is vulgar. When one sees the state of most hands here, one must agree.
Later, on the restaurant doorstep, Monica found the red ribbon worn by the groom. Heading the list of embossed characters on it was the sign for “double happiness.” Monica decided to save it, a little bit of life in a stranger’s pocket.
We backtracked to the compound along the trolley lines, the bar that connects the trolleys to the hot wire above sometimes flashing, the trolley’s horns piping at intersections with the pitch and timbre of an empty quart bottle, Doug said that the cobblestones and the chilly, wet weather (the second wet day in six weeks) reminded him of his days in Berlin and the Italian woman there he had to keep away from.
Remembering the regularity with which I saw Mrs. Whittenhall, I wonder how much I really see now of my five-minute commute to and from work along Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, where I live now. One of my friends declares that a few weeks of driving the same streets to the office and she feels ‘‘wildly trapped” by the repetition. She then changes her route. But why should a known way, a routine way, be any less new and full of possibility than a path on which one has never ventured? I like to believe that imagination nudges repetition into gratifying deviations. I like to believe that when I notice Hillsborough Bay is a powdery brown tipped with silver—like the color of mink fur—I’ve recognized the constant change, the inimitable condition of each moment among our shifting continents. Of course, this strategy aims for the same state of expanding potential, of collectable experience, that my friend craves when hysterical. It’s only another wish to be immortal.
One of the beauties of sojourning is that in just walking to the post office and back, day after day, one can feel how fleeting things are, and are not. In Changchun, I could see a man on a street corner holding a chest X-ray toward the sun, a large pentagon shadowing the left lung. I could see a boy, alone on a soccer field at dusk, kicking a ball through eight inches of fresh snow. I could see a woman wearing a sweater with the word hovering woven across its front. Though I often roamed Changchun for hours, I just as often followed the same paths. Perhaps this gave me the same comfort Mrs. Whittenhall took from her walks. It echoed those pleasurable family trips down Highway 5 from Des Moines to Pershing, Iowa, my mother’s hometown. Highway 5—that road I knew best as a child.
It was always late spring or full summer on Highway 5 because our family went to Pershing on Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and for an occasional reunion picnic. A two-lane road through corn fields, it was uneventfully straight except for several hills and dips—and a few sudden, pinched curves that elicited from my father a repeated diatribe on dangerous attempts to pass farm vehicles and the sadism of highway planners. A passenger, I could stare out the side window at the power lines rising and falling hypnotically as we passed pole after pole set along the shoulder. Cows and sheep and hogs in barnyards seemed still as statuary. A pollen-heavy haze hung over the crops, and the wind pulled my hair back flat and made such white noise that any remark from my parents in the front seat startled me.
The Chinese now welcome Japanese capital and technology, though a collective hatred burns under the surface, at least in this part of the country. We visited the provincial museum today specifically to view the wing devoted to maintaining the memory of Japanese atrocities during World War II. In housed in the former palace of Pu Ye, the last Qing Emperor who was deposed and then made the puppet monarch of the Japanese-controlled state during the ‘30s. Young girls in white cotton dresses oversee each room of memorabilia, and through one of the windows we watched a man whack a horse in the belly repeatedly with a pipe because it couldn’t pull the overloaded cart out of a rut. This was after he’d whipped it and then pounded its flanks with a long, heavy-gauge wire. Inside, as I strolled past photos of severed heads dangling from spikes, and skeletons in mass graves, past models of detention camps and the diorama depicting a Japanese soldier breaking a peasants leg with bricks, I could hear the cry of the Jews, “Never again!“
Cottonwoods—planted by the Japanese occupying Changchun during the ’30s—now broadcast their seeds, making the central part of town into a nau-seatingly languid snow-scene. This “June snow” gathers in the gutters, and I saw a small boy pile it up and put a match to some fist-sized, gauzy pyres. The stuff is a curse now not only for the memories it brings. It so suffuses some avenues, you can hardly breathe without whisking the air. Many women wrap their hair in sheer nylon scarves, but the flakes still catch.
Changchun’s life is in its trees. Its willows are beautiful but more well-known for their strength which is attributed to difficult winters. And its poplars, slim, straight, were planted after the decimation of nature during the Communists’ various programs to modernize, trees planted because they are quick-growing, trees that are now young, like most of the population.
I believe I knew every tree and gas station along Highway 5. The electric power plant with green windows overlooking the Des Moines River; the Knoxville high school mascot—a black panther— painted on a yellow watertower; the Uncle Sam mailbox post at the head of a dirt road winding to a white farmhouse: Each thing I remember now seems a monument animated by desperate nostalgia. Highway 5 was a world dependent on our passing through for its orderliness—right and rhythmical, even in its contingencies.
For instance, no matter how agitated or uncommunicative the family might be, we nearly always came together—leaning up in our seats and looking forward—as the car glided down a long slope a few miles beyond Knoxville. At the bottom, a narrow, metal suspension bridge spanned a creek. Given the traffic, we wondered if we would be forced to pass an oncoming car or truck on that bridge. My father, however much he abused alcohol, refused even a drop if he was to have the family in the car, but he seemed harried by the vision that a drunk driver would kill us all. Perhaps it was that the driver would be like his veering, lesser self that made him especially vigilant at the narrow bridge. As a camper or tilt-cab semi approached and the gusts of the non-collision rocked our car, my mother’s lined cheeks plumped into daubs of white shortening. She always exhaled quietly, packing away fear with a curt clearing of the throat.
Beyond the bridge, the road ascended a long slope bordered on both sides by woods uncharacteristically dense and large for championship farm country. Halfway up, no matter how hot the weather, we passed through a zone of utter, sweet coolness—always a forgiving shade. There, below the south side of the road, stretched a glade in which stood a sizable, shacky house propped on blocks and sided with fake-brick asphalt panels. A fern of smoke rose from its chimney, and a creek wound past its front porch—past the gravid clothesline and the chopping stump and the junk cars. We seemed to sail through this “cool spot,” always marveling at its dependable grace. It made us agreeable; our hot weather subsided for a moment, and the narrow bridge lay behind. That is probably why we named the place and looked forward to it, and why it is symbolic to me of those unburdening places we come to with others. In those days, I imagined that the people who lived there were happy, that they had peace, if nothing else. At the top of the slope—as the road flattened and the woods retired into distance—I sometimes would gaze unblinkingly into a cloudless sky until snake-like blotches seethed and whirled before my eyes, images that only I could see, that I believed were atoms.
Sun flickers through yellowing leaves. The flies have slowed down. An indistinct voice blares at the sports field two blocks away. In the street nearby, the junkman, seeking bottles, bangs his cymbals and yowls. Later, a man cranks an iron cylinder on a spit over hot coals until the temperature is just right; then with a bar, he pops open the end of the cylinder: BOOM! Basins of fluffy corn or rice blast into his mesh trap.
With three balls, three bowls and weary patter, a small, grubby boy performed tricks for a crowd in front of the No. 5 Department Store. A girl performed excruciating backbends. A boy wound a heavy-gauge wire tightly around her neck. In one motion, he wound it and she turned toward the crowd with her hands cupped, outstretched in supplication.
I asked an old man in front of the Changchun Restaurant to pose for a photo. With his cane, he pushed another old man—twice—out of what he determined would be the area within the picture. The other fellow, purple-red in the face, grinned—a single safety pin laced through his breast pocket and a white wicker basket full of scavenged beer cans. I took pictures of each.
In one, the pushed man stands with the white sun casting a metallic sheen on his eyelids—like eye shadow.
In the other, the shover grins, his teeth so many scattered nubs they look like blisters on his gums, his beard a triangular wisp that seems glued to his chin.
Were these their first photos alone, or at all?
Named after the World War I general called “Blackjack” Pershing lay at the end of an asphalt strip branching from Highway 5. Its grid of a dozen tromped-gravel streets still constitutes the remains of the somewhat larger company-owned mining town that flourished during the earlier decades of this century when, presumably, demand made it more profitable to burrow under the land for soft coal than to farm. Legend says our family started there in the late teens or early ‘20s when my grandfather, Albert Marshall, gave up a shot at pitching in the majors to marry my grandmother, Fay Cauldenburg, and work in the mines. The reason given for his choice is the same my father gives for exchanging his theatrical ambitions for a steady spot on the assembly line: He didn’t like the travel and the being away from home.
Growing up, I often believed my father regretted his decision, that he felt he had betrayed his dream by forsaking it before it might have proved beyond him. My grandfather—who died just before I was born—appears to me in a single photograph, clad in a baseball uniform, the shade from the bill of his cap shadowing his eyes. Through my mothers reverent taciturnity, he speaks only in calm, patient tones, and I imagine her—a middle child of eight—loving him from her place among the faces. I once believed that because he and I were left-handed and I was her first born, I was her favorite child. He died of heart disease no doubt encouraged by the same coal dust that sometimes befogged Changchun like gaslit London. Perhaps his forsaken major-league prospect is a soothing substitute for talent, or possibility. I can only verify that my mother—who looks like her mother—could throw a baseball, and she taught me how.
Pershing could be roamed like the streets I shared with my three best friends and Mrs. Whittenhall. There, my cousins and I whipped Nazi commandos in Dracula Woods and careened at the steering wheels of cars rusting among weeds. On trampolines sunken like swimming pools in a lot called “Recreation Center,” I bounced and romped until the glands in my throat ached. Using a ditch, I learned one day how to get on my cousin Jim’s 26-inch bike—and rode and rode and rode, proudly waving at my relatives as I pedaled past on another town circuit, weary but perplexed as to how to get off the thing without injury.
During one family reunion, I watched men somehow get into the casual play of secretly passing around a twisted, muddy, bald baby doll. On finding it in his front seat or on his dashboard, each man would avenge himself by putting it on another man’s hood or in his tacklebox, or in his cooler-—where the latter would surely find it and pass it on, hoping to spy the next man when he discovered it.
That night, back home in Des Moines, my father found the doll as he unpacked the station wagon. He chuckled like a mother bewildered by a made-up game in which her children have included her. He took it into the house, and nothing more was said about it until one winter Sunday when he opened the sewing machine. He cleaned and straightened the doll’s limbs and dressed it in a smock and bonnet fashioned from remnant satin. With rouge and mascara, he gave it back its eyes and the flush of infant health. He also transformed it in some other way I may never be able to articulate. Now, I see the doll as having suffered more than the men through whose hands it had passed, the doll as the unfortunate world into which we press our imaginings—another case of making too much of things.
In a box outfitted with supple white paper, my father sent the doll back to one of my uncles in Pershing—no return address, just a note pinned to its smock, “I’ve come back.”
Pershing smelled of well water and blacktop. Its residents then, as now, went off to work at the VA in Knoxville, Rollscreen in Pella, or Maytag in Newton. Mustard jars and bread-wrappers and stacked plates cluttered its kitchen counters, and a sun-bleached plastic deer stood shyly in the yard. Pershing was my Aunt Myrna wet-nursing all of us kids—she had so much milk. It was vast husbands with deep bellybuttons recumbent in the shade, sipping Grain Belt beer and smoking Camels. Land of the double negative and the double entendre; of my cousin-in-law Walt plucking a string bass propped on a long, rubber-tipped screwdriver; of a fast-pitch Softball team that in night games played rival towns: Attica, Bussey, Lovilia. Pershing was pride and formidable limitation, farm-pond fishing, and the dowdy gray stone my Uncle Tony broke open in his rock shed to reveal to me its glittering crystals.
Most of all, for almost two decades, Pershing also seemed a place of immortality. No one in our family there died, and few went away—until recent years.
I sometimes hear my fellow provincials wish aloud for more street life in their cities, for places where one could promenade, or linger safely, and regard the day or night abounding with strangers. The summer sunlight in Tampa—which can split dashboards and jab the brow like a searing spike—discourages outdoor cafes, though they are now coming into fashion in some quarters. The city has its joggers and dog-walkers and lunch-hour strollers, but like most North American towns—Des Moines included—the people who spend real time on its streets are mostly homeless, insane or for sale. Our only crowds near the size of street-market throngs in any provincial Chinese city gather for annual parades, sidewalk art festivals or musical beer bashes sponsored by local radio stations. Otherwise, we teem in enclosures.
Some years ago, in suburban New York state, I was dismayed to see parents shepherding their costumed children around shopping malls on Halloween, rather than around their neighborhoods, as was common when I was a child. For an ancient celebration acknowledging the darker spirits, these children dressed as cartoon versions of those monsters their parents took them to the mall to avoid. The treats dropped into their bags from the chain stores and anchor stores and food courts would contain no razor blades or poison, only positive community images, which is good for business.
Undoubtedly, this is one more sequestering from the immediate environment, one more exposure to the seamless display of the market. But then, what is the immediate environment? It was once common to refer to something that seemed wholly false as “plastic,” as in, “This place is plastic.” But isn’t plastic just as much a real thing as any other thing? Isn’t it “real” plastic? Only someone, I think, who is surrounded by too many goods rather than too few—someone not from Changchun—could see this as a crucial question.
Though the media in China never missed a chance to show disaster in the States, the Chinese I met who thought America a dangerous place pointed to the images the U.S. exports through popular film, which encourage visions of shootouts on every street corner, like gas stations and fast food. I also found a number of Europeans who wanted to believe in this violence, partly to stem their envy generated by the glamor of American publicity.
I am awakened occasionally by the newspaper’s plop! on my porch at 3a.m., a newspaper now delivered by an adult in a car. I sometimes lie in that dreamy darkness before receding into sleep and remember how 25 years ago, I walked my summer route, smoking Swisher Sweets, majestically nocturnal and somehow feeling in charge of the landscape.
Two old men, near the Stalin monument, play checkers on the curb until midnight, several other men squatting around them and smoking cigarettes, looking on.
Barbells and guitar-strumming in a dim alley.
Lovers in a dark lane, one couple in each space between a row of lilac bushes.
Nearby, trunks of trees are whitewashed around their bases. “Socked trees,” my father called them when I was a boy. “They are considered beautiful in China,” he said, painting the elms in our back yard.
My neighborhood was safer then, I imagine, than now, but how much? Once, just after picking up my papers at the drop point on East 33rd Street, I noticed a distant figure backlit by the glow from Strait’s Pharmacy. It approached at a stroll; then it spied me and started marching faster. No news-carrier bag hung over its shoulder, so I turned and began walking in the opposite direction. I glanced back. It was charging after me. I raced around the corner, my load banging wildly against my legs, and had just enough time to scramble among the bushes in Mrs. Gardner’s dark back yard before the figure appeared and sauntered up Dubuque Avenue, fists at its sides, searching.
It was Wendell Wallace, one of the tree-service Wallaces from the semi-rural area beyond the end of my route. In Andy and Bill’s lot at the close of a summer day, you could find Wendell and four or five of his grimy brothers draped on the bed of a tree-trimming truck, sipping Cokes, slit-eyed like cats facing a wind. He was 16 or 17 and had been in my eighth grade algebra class, intermittently, the year before. “Fuck” was the mortar of his speech, slapped between each block of three or four words. One time, he’d walked out of woods behind the softball diamonds at Stowe School, asking to join our pick-up game. Within minutes, he’d slugged Sam, one of my best friends, and was baiting Sam to retaliate, so he could hurt him. Sam, who grew up to be a platoon honor man in the Marines, was no coward, but he was no fool, either. He gave Wendell no eye contact and no excuse to do more. He knew Wendell liked to hobble dogs and hang kittens.
From the bushes—perhaps the only time I can honestly say I held my breath in fear—I watched Wendell pass. Recognizing me must have spurred his pursuit. Had he found me, I’m sure I would have learned something new about my will to survive. Who knows what fuel burned in Wendell?
I let him get far out of sight before emerging, and I waited until near daylight before finishing that part of my route near his turf. I never saw him again—which was fine—and several months later I heard that he’d blown his head off while cleaning a shotgun. The papers called it an accident.
In the years just after I left Iowa for good, I sentimentalized it as vigorously as I’d vilified it in order to leave. This response was like the mirthless grin we North Americans pony up for snapshots— believing as ever in packaging as content—not thinking that by this we forgo all the expressions that make up our faces for the meager record of a single gesture. I pinned that false smile on my neighborhood, on Highway 5, on Pershing and the rest—-just as I affixed the nickname “Smiley” to Mrs. Whittenhall.
In China, I often found myself in public, smiling dumbly, reaching for the faith in universal gestures. I finally stopped. It seemed condescending to all that transpires between people, between our narrow bridges and our cool spots. I look back on the foreseeable routes and wayward wanderings of my sentences here and think of the palm-size notebooks in which I tried to “get everything down.” Entries like / walked with an anguished and ecstatic heart and Monica looked celestial, panicked gain no accommodation under the obligatory smile. It imprisons our fairer history. Like our disposable horror at each day’s headlines, it excuses us falsely from all we are and do.