Sunday, December 11, 2016

At the Edge of the Middle Kingdom

What would you expect from a city that sprang from a small town back in 1982? Thirty-four years ago there was a sprawl of military structures on the border. Today Shenzhen is rumored to be the richest city in China; “If you want to feel poor, go to Shenzhen” is the ending or a modern day proverb. It stretches for over 700 square miles and is divided into ten districts, four of them recently added.
There are two central business districts, one which has supplanted the original. There are beaches (one of them four miles of white sand) and mountains and what claims to be the world’s largest bookstore. Although geographically in Cantonese territory, Shenzhen is a Mandarin-speaking city with a trilingual subway system. Citibank ATMs are found in 7-Eleven and Starbucks isn’t hard to find.
Two of its beaches are a little over 800 feet from one of my favorite Hong Kong islands, Peng Chau. A subway whisks travelers from the airport to the border in an hour, which is about what it takes to go from JFK to Manhattan. Trains leave every twenty minutes to Guangzhou and the journey takes an hour--no reservations necessary.
Zara provides clothes for well-padded Western women, just like in Bangkok, but Cantonese food is harder to find than the cuisine from other parts of China. Food streets are common.
The Shenzhen Library has a black granite waterfall wall that can be seen from the second floor and a collection of books in English on the third. Western magazines are easily bought, except for The Economist and those of that ilk, and there is an English language newspaper that costs one yuan, which is I think somewhere around fifteen cents.
I began to write down places I wanted to go and how to get there in a notebook and had to stop after an hour. This city is going to be as surprising to me as Bangkok ever was, and probably every bit as frustrating. It even has illegal taxi drivers for that ultimate blood pressure elevator.
I can’t wait.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

One Man, One Act at a Time

Yesterday I went to Chinatown and as I walked through it, I saw a small Asian woman carrying a black garbage bag across Jackson, with no regard for traffic lights. A huge collection of bags and a heavily laden large wheeled suitcase waited for her at the curb and she was rather small. After I went to the bank, she had brought everything to the opposite corner of the street and was carrying it, a bag or two at a time, down to the bus stop at Bartell Drugs.
That was my next destination and as I followed in the woman’s wake, I saw a tall familiar figure walk toward me, pulling a very large, very deep black wagon. “Marcus, how are you? And shouldn’t your wagon be red? Tis the season after all.”
“I bought it for her,” Marcus replied, stopping near me and the mountain of bags. He upended the wagon and drained the rainwater that had dampened it on his walk. “She carries those bags around every day so I went down to Home Depot and picked one up.”
“You’re a good man,” I said and he answered, “Making up for past transgressions.” The small woman had returned for more belongings and Marcus said, “Here. Put them in this.” She swept past him without slackening her pace and walked back with another burden of bags.
“This is for you,” I said, “he bought it for you.” I reached out to touch her arm and she spat “No!,” like an angry cat. As she walked away, I said “I can’t speak Chinese,” and Marcus said “She speaks English.”
“I should leave you alone. She knows you and maybe she’ll listen,” I said and Marcus’s response was “No. Don’t go.”
He is a tall man in his midyears and although his smile is contagious and his voice is gentle, he takes up a fair amount of space and he is black. “Maybe she’s frightened,” I told myself, “Maybe having a woman with him will make her more at ease.” I stayed.
After minutes of quiet persuasion, finally she stopped, turned in Marcus’s direction and responded to him. “I can’t get that thing on the bus.”
“Yes, you can,” I argued, “it’s like a wheelchair. You can put it on the ramp.”
Marcus held out a new red rucksack that Santa might well envy. “This too,” and he dropped it in the wagon. “And here. I just found this on the street. It’s not mine. Take it,” and he held out a folded, obviously new, bill, its denomination carefully hidden.
“Please take the wagon. You’re a little woman and this is all so heavy,” I said as softly as I could. She glanced at me and then back at Marcus. “He is a good man,” I told her and she nodded almost imperceptibly.
Her eyes assessed him and were met by that glorious smile. “Take it,” he repeated in a tone you would use with a frightened child. He put the money in her fingers and she didn’t drop it. When Marcus picked up some of her bags and put them in the wagon, she didn’t object.
I left them and went on to finish my errands. When I walked out of the drug store some minutes later, there was a red wagon, filled with bags, a red rucksack still empty, and a large wheeled suitcase, all belonging to one of the figures that leaned on a metal bar that served as bus stop seating.
One man, one woman, a cold street, and possessions that once had obviously known a place to hold  them--I walk past this almost every day and do not help. Marcus didn’t only help; he looked, found a solution, and didn’t step on that woman’s dignity. And although I may not find his grace within me to conduct  that same sort of action, I know I have to try.
I hate the term angel when applied to humans, and saint is not in my lexicon either, but I know goodness when I see it and from the first minute I saw him, Marcus has radiated nothing but good. He was sitting on the landing of the International Apartments when I first moved into the building and introduced himself with that radiant, sweet smile. We found that we share a passion for travel and had chats in the hallway based on that.
He invited a friend who had recently gone off drugs and needed a home to stay in his apartment while he was on a journey. The man took everything Marcus owned and broke a window before he left with the last of the loot. “He even took my leather jacket,” Marcus told me, “I had just bought it. It cost me 400 dollars. I hope I don’t see him because I want to kill him.”
I had just returned from Asia with an editing payment and it was Christmas. I put 100 dollars in a card, wrote a little note, and left it with the building manager to give to Marcus when he saw him. He returned it with thanks.
And after that, several times, a bouquet waited for me outside my apartment door, from Marcus.
Still my neighbor, in a neighborhood that is still mine, this quiet, kind, compassionate man is a signpost without noise, goodness without stint.