September 11, 2009

Holden Caufield

I wake up. The shower pulls me up from the bottom of the ocean, into the crisp cool air. I breathe deep and feel better, my capillaries taking the oxygen to my tissue, my body reacting slowly at first, then more noticeably. I finish my shower and shave without toweling off, letting the hot air work in tandem with my body heat to evaporate the moisture on my skin. Immediately I start sweating again, and I am beginning to learn that sweating is a fact of life in Taiwan. I try and kill some time by listening to music, then by reading, but I am too distracted by my upcoming day to really enjoy either. Finally, after what seems like hours of sitting around, I fix my hair with little effort (what do Kindergartners care?) and put on shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops, making sure to grab my wallet, phone, and keys. "Okay, I am ready." It is 7:00. Damn, I am going to be early. I turn off all the lights and close the door behind me, turning the deadbolt as I do. Today I will be walking to school for the first time.

As I ride the elevator down to the "lobby" (which is really just a reception desk and stairs leading towards heaven), I regret that I did not give Princess Peach a proper goodbye. She was such a good little scooter, and somehow managed to keep me alive for five whole days. Now I will no longer have the pleasure of her company, or feel her tiny, blender-sized engine struggling beneath my 175 lbs of bones and skin. Hopefully someday we will be reacquainted, and I will once again be able to tear around town, a blur of pink, black and white; a true statement of masculinity. I am also regretful because now, with no scooter, all I have to get around are my legs, which have become quite lazy due to the relative amount of inactivity they have enjoyed these last few days. "No more Mr. Nice Guy" I think to my legs as I exit the elevator and walk out into the daylight. "Time to earn your keep, you worthless excuse for appendages!" (If I said even HALF of what my brain thinks out loud, I would be committed by the end of the day).

The sun is bright today, but it is not the warm, friendly sun that sleeps in the blue summer sky and wakes the spirit and soul. No, this sun is harsh and blinding, transfusing its abrasive light throughout the entirety of the white sky. The world looks like a room covered completely in florescent bulbs, humming and dragging shadows out from their hiding places to be executed. I squint against the pale light and feel the heat hit me like a wall of water. (This is my body's cue to start sweating even more). Damn, I should've brought a change of clothes. I turn right on the sidewalk, and walk past the maternity store where mannequins are adorned with strange underwear and strollers are displayed in the windows. Next on my right is the pet store, where animals sleep behind think glass, wishing their homes were anywhere but here. In one of the windows I see a small, white, rodent-ish looking thing curled up in his food bowl. What IS that thing? I have never seen anything like it. Maybe I'll go in a check it out later. The very last window has a black dachshund who appears to be suffering from severe depression. He is not asleep, but unblinkingly stares into nowhere, his head on the ground, wishing to die.

I continue walking past a bank, the cracked, uneven sidewalk turning to neatly well-kept bricks beneath my feet. A 7-11 follows it, and inside I see people sitting at the counter by the window, reading the morning paper, drinking coffee or tea, eating breakfast. I decide to go in to kill time, and end up standing in front of the beverages, reluctantly skimming over the bottles, trying to decide which decision I will not immediately regret. I end up choosing a bottle that says "Milk Tea" in english, and paying $17 NT for the risk. I open it as I exit and take a drink, tasting first the sweet condensed milk, then the bitter finish of black tea. It reminds me of coffee with cream, but is very cold and makes the morning heat seem more bearable. Here, the sidewalks ends and I take the street, the morning commuters blasting past me on Zihyou Road, their exhaust hot against my exposed feet and ankles. I walk past a gas station, where attendants busily fill up scooters and cars for motorists - I am told that most gas stations in Hsinchu are full service, and tipping is not required or expected.

I pass a nice looking building with a decadent looking lobby, a giant sign above the door has a enormous picture of a foot on it. This must be a massage parlor or acupuncturist; it certainly isn't a pediatrist. I cross a busy street even though the angry looking red man on the crosswalk indicator is telling me not to, and come to a park. On the corner a man is selling some sort of fried dough from his blue street stand, and across the overgrown grass of the park I see a large gazebo where old women sit with large hats and gloves on, silent and stone-faced, repelling the heat like they have done for years and years and years. The street here is lined with trees, huge gnarled limbs and trunks give the impressive of ancientness. I like these trees, and stop for a minute to wonder if Hsinchu has any city ordinances against climbing trees in public parks. "Another day my friend" I think, and keep walking. I cross another street, past a hotel and some unmarked shops where ladies and children sit and eat breakfast with chopsticks. I glance to the other side of the street and see the tiny shop where David and I ate breakfast my first morning here. That seems like ages ago. Time has managed to stretch itself into weeks in the last five days. I am on my way to immortality.

Eventually I come to Connie and David's street, Minzu, which T's into Zihyou Road and, if taken down far enough, will end around the City Circle. Ahead of me looms the bridge which crosses the train tracks and, from where I stand, seems like an impassable obstacle. The bridge is close to a half mile long, and has four lanes of two-way traffic plus two scooter lanes on each side. From what I remember, a portion of the bridge has a sidewalk, but I can not see it or figure out how to get to it without first walking halfway across the bridge in the scooter lane, which is probably a popular way to commit suicide in Hsinchu. (Hypothetical: "Dave had a really bad day in the Market today...think he might walk the bridge later...poor guy"). I stand at the entrance to the crossing, carefully weighing my love of fully functional limbs with my urge to take unnecessary risks, and eventually opt for the small side street that runs parallel to the bridge but connects instead with the street running under the bridge. This street is narrow, and walled on one side by the rising bridge and on the other side by, well, a concrete wall. The only space left for pedestrians is a tiny sidewalk similar in width to the ledges one might find on the outside of hotels in spy movies. Therefore, whenever a car or truck comes - and they do often, usually not bothering to slow down despite the danger of sheering off their rearview mirrors on annoying objects such as PEOPLE - a lowly walker, such as myself, has no choice but to cling to the graffitied concrete wall, toes hanging over the side of the busted sidewalk, and watch as parts of the vehicle come inches from my chest or face. After a few of these encounters, I think I would've been better off taking the bridge.

Finally, I make it to the road that runs under the bridge (and with all body parts intact). On the other side of the road are buildings, and past these, the train tracks. Under the overpass I see a food stand which has attracted considerable attention, and to my right are stairs, which come as a relief. My gamble has paid off; these stairs lead to the bridge and to the sidewalk, which is my only hope for crossing the train tracks. The stairs are wide and look like they belong in a big city, the metal handrails chipped, the steps littered with small pieces of paper and trash. I climb both sets, counting 21 stairs in each set, and arrive on top of the bridge, safely on the sidewalk - thank God.

On the bridge, the temperature feels 20 degrees hotter. I am now fully exposed to the sun, there is no shade and no relief from the heat that attacks from the sky above and the street below. I walk quickly, but keep my eyes wide and take in everything I can. The view from the bridge, while not spectacular, is still quite a sight. From here I can see much of the city, and I smile as it unfolds before me like a pop-up story book. To my right, perhaps a mile away, is the Ambassador Hotel, dressed in browns and blacks, large and expensive looking. Ahead of me, three miles away, is the green mountain of 16 Peaks, stretching out in either direction. To my immediate left is a golf driving range, and beyond that the Southeast side of the city, with tall apartment buildings sprouting up among the urban residences. I look over the railing and see the train tracks, which is actually more of a train YARD. Ten or more tracks lay side by side, with hundreds of box-cars waiting to be filled and taken around the island. Construction crews are busily working, apparently construction some kind of depot. I walk the quarter mile of sidewalk quickly, and my eyes are like black holes, sucking in visible light and all the images that are possible because of it. Time slows down in my two black holes - I see the city in slow motion.

I am sweating heavily by the time I make it to the set of stairs at the opposite end of the sidewalk; now I have another dilemma. Should I risk taking the stairs down without fully knowing the conditions at their landing, or should sprint the last 300 yards to the base of the bridge, hoping that I am fast enough to make it to safety before the next wave of scooters and cars overtakes me and I am crushed to death 'neath a stampede of unrelenting rubber. My brain tells me to sprint, but my choice of footwear today (flip-flops) disagrees. The decision is made. Down the stairs I go, this time down four flights, down past the construction crews, down down down. On the wall next to the stairs someone has spray-painted the word "Love", and right next to it someone has answered "Fuck you". Ah, yes. The dichotomy of good and evil is alive and well in Hsinchu. Zoroastrianism. I think of the passage in The Catcher in the Rye when Holden Caufield says that he wants to scrub all the "fuck you's" off the city walls so the children won't have to see them. He wants everyone to be able to remain innocent forever. But he can't; we will all lose our innocence, we will all have to grow up and see the worst of the world. I want this so badly. I want to see the most horrible things in this world, as well as the most beautiful. Only then do I feel like I can decide if I believe this world is inherently Good with Evil in it, or if it inherently Evil smattered with Good. I think this is an important question and we must honestly ask ourselves, outside of doctrine and religion, what we truly believe. I don't know exactly why this is important to know, for it surely won't change my actions. I feel like God's face is in questions like this. I want to see Him and know truth. I want my piece of the fruit.

At the bottom of the stairs I see what I had hoped I would not see. Apparently, this is where a major trash-collecting center of Hisnchu is, and everywhere are men in light blue shirts talking, getting in big yellow trash trucks, or sitting on one of the many pieces of beat-up furniture that litter the area. I do not want to attract any unwanted attention so I walk quickly, head down, over the dirt ground and through the smell of day-old rotting food and garbage. No one seems to care about the white kid who looks nervous and out-of-place, and I am relieved when I reach the road and the smell begins to leave my nostrils. At this point, at the far end of the bridge, Zihyou road comes to 4-way intersection. I have to take the road to the left, and to do this I must cross the street. I wait for an opening, then jog briskly across the road, resuming my walk along the left side of the street, looking into oncoming traffic. I prefer this. At least if I am going to be smashed, I will see it coming.

I walk uphill and on the road because there are no sidewalks. I pass a small house where a man with no teeth sits surrounded by coconuts. I pass several mechanic shops, all filled with scooters and tools, all smell like gasoline and hard work. After a few hundred yards I come to an open-air fruit stand, where I decide to check out the local produce. Most of what I see I can not name. There are a large variety of large melons, and many smaller fruits that have strange textures and unfamiliar shapes. I finally find the apples and bananas, pick one of each, then go to the counter and wait for the young fruit-market lady to check me out. She rings me up, says something in Chinese that I do not understand, and I give her a $50 coin. She gives me back $17, bags my fruits, and nods as I walk out from under the tent and back down the street. I have just purchased breakfast. It costs me $33, or exactly $1.00 US. I am very pleased with myself, and think that I will probably stop by the fruit stand every day from now on.

The rest of the walk is mostly uneventful, though long, and scattered with oddities along the way. I walk past a "cafe", which is actually a giant tent with men sitting under it in folding chairs drinking tea or coffee or possibly something stronger. Above the tent are affixed oscillating sprinklers which spray water down on the tent and over the sides, giving the impression of raining. It is odd to me that the owner would waste so much money on water, but I suppose it keep his customers cool. I walk past a large hardware store on my left, the B&Q, which I am told is exactly like Home Depot, right down to the orange and white trademark colors. Finally, almost to the school, the sidewalk reappears and the neighborhood improves. The businesses become nicer and the stores look cleaner, more professional. I cross a street and turn left, only a few hundred yards away from the Kindergarten center. Several small eateries line the street, and one in particular, "Fresh", serves Western-style breakfast and the menu is in English. Another small coffee shop has five or six women sitting around talking while a lap-dog naps on the floor at their feet. Now at the entrance to the school, I look across the street and see a tall building with two walls made completely of glass, allowing one to see the elevators and offices inside. In the lobby of the office building a massive piece of corporate art flows up and through the center of the building, standing fifteen or twenty stories tall. It is beautiful in a cold, corporate sort of way. I take of my shoes and slide in through the sliding door. My second day.

The trip, I estimate, is about 2 miles and took me, with stops, about 40 minutes. I will walk this route home today, and twice every day until I either procure some form of transportation or get killed on the bridge...whichever comes first.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, would like to stop by a fruit stand every morning, but the fact that I don't particularly enjoy fruit causes a problem. I'll eat a cherry and a strawberry here and there, a slice of orange, maybe some watermelon, but, really, that's it.

    Also, there are no fruit stands.