I’m not a food blogger, and have no desire to be. While in China, I only took two photos of food. But, because the food was so amazing, I feel I have to say something about it.
I expected that the food would be good. Here in Portland there are several very good Cantonese restaurants, that serve actual Chinese food and not Chinese-American food. I imagined dumplings, dimsum, noodles, crazy vegetables, weird meats, all of which we found in surplus in China.
But where China really exceeded expectation was the quality of the food, not just the content. We ate like royalty in China, thanks in part to a favorable exchange rate. (Our roast duck meal, one of the most expensive, cost about 30 USD for the two of us.) But it didn’t matter if we were out for duck, or eating at the corner place in the hutong. The food is overall very simple, and yet immaculately prepared. Everything from the main ingredient, to the side vegetables, to the garlic was cooked just about exactly right. It comes out fast, and before you know it the table is covered with dishes, and you can’t eat it all even though you want to. I’m not sure what the secret is to this culinary skill, other than that there are tons of hungry people in Beijing and the restaurants are crowded from ten in the morning until past midnight. But after 25 days in China, I had exactly two disappointing meals in China, and both were because the food was only standard.
I’ve been missing it, and dream of soup dumplings at night. As a way of coping, here are my favorite dishes.
Note: I’ve been a vegetarian for the past ten years. I went on a meat vacation in China, because simply the term “vegetarian” does not have a Chinese translation. Sure, you can get vegetarian food there (I went to a couple of Buddhist vegetarian restaurants that were exquisite) but if trying to eat at an average restaurant, you’re out of luck. Even a dish called “tofu and vegetables” invariably has bits of pork or chicken in it. Since I speak nearly no Chinese, I decided to be realistic, and just eat the food without worrying about it. Now I’m back on the wagon. Going back and forth is actually really easy: once you actually know how to eat vegetarian (read: you’ve moved past veggie burgers) it’s like eating French rather than Italian.
Soup Dumplings – These are not your Trader Joe’s potstickers. They are so tender, so perfectly formed, and then when you bite into them you suck out delicious broth like a vampire biting into a moody teenager. If you do it right, you don’t scald yourself. You also roll them in vinegar and pepper oil first.
Green Vegetable and Peanuts – Most Chinese menus have pictures (thankfully for me) but not just for tourists. The descriptions are always vague, and the locals like seeing what they are getting as much as someone illiterate in the Chinese language. This dish, normally called this, is some sort of green kind of like mustard greens or sweet chard, that is cooked in a wok just long enough to be wilted, with peanuts and a vinegar sauce. I could eat this at almost every meal.
Some sort of vegetable pastry – No idea what these are called, but they were sold out of a window around the corner from our hotel. After we tried them, we ate them almost every day. They have a thick doughy pastry, fried into a disc on a waffle-press like cooker (though without the waffling). Inside are vegetables, which changed every day, but was either the greens (like the above) or cabbage and onion. They cost one yuan each, which is somewhere around 15 cents. If you can’t wait to eat them because they smell so good, you can burn your face, because they were always made about five minutes ago.
Hot Wok Flaming Food – The contents vary, but it comes out on a mini-wok with sterno fuel burning underneath, and it is delicious. Two of the better ones I had were are follows: 1) tofu triangles and sprouts, with fresh onions tossed underneath right before they brought it out, simmering in a thin brown sauce. My face was full of frying onion smoke the whole meal, and it was awesome. 2) Pieces of what I think were chicken, in an oily pepper soup with the requisite onions and sprouts. You didn’t drink the broth as it was very oily, but the meat was so, so tender, it fell off the bones.
Roast fish – As in the photo above. It’s a river fish, on a bed of some sort of soy-based gelatin/aspic cubes, and broth. Once you figure out how to strip the meat off the bones with chopsticks, its amazing. By the end, I had refined my technique enough to go in and pull out the entire cheek in one, wet, tender, meltingly delicious piece.
Other Asian food – Chains from all sorts of countries are all over China, especially in Shanghai. A couple of the more interesting ones were a Korean place that brings a red-hot iron bowl to your table, and throws vegetables, meat, and an egg in the bowl and stirs it up for you. At a mall. Also, a Japanese-Taiwan mix place called Ramen Play, (kind of sounds like a sexual sub-culture, or something) that does the ramen thing, with crazy toppings, extra noodles, etc.
Noodles – I thought there were be tons of noodles in China, but both noodles and rice are kind of minimally eaten. I think the deal is that they are filler food, and people prefer to eat the meat and vegetables whole, and maybe have a little bit of noodles or rice if they are on a budget. Still, they were amazing, as in the case of a dish of squash greens and glass noodles, a seafood dish with fried noodles, and noodle soups with fish pieces.
Barbecue skewers – Big street food. At the window they have the skewers loaded up, simmering in sauce. When you tell them the ones you want, they throw them on the flame. At the big tourist street, they have the skewers with all the weird stuff on it, caterpillars, scorpions, etc. But no one really eats that stuff. I had one with a whole squid, and frankly I’ve had much better squid: this one just had the head and suckers visible, to please the tourists. At the more legit places, the lamb and the chicken wings are really the best. We went to an Uighur restaurant, and they had this dry rub on the lamb with cumin that I really can’t tell you about, because it makes me start to drool just thinking about it.
Shrimp Cupcake Dumplings with Sprinkles – Photo above. Okay, I don’t even know what this is. We saw sprinkles in the picture in the menu, and so ordered it. It is a little bit of cake, with frosting, with a piece of shrimp on top, the whole thing fried, and then dipped in fried potato shavings, and then with sprinkles on top. So weird. Very good, but after we ate the plate of them, it was exactly enough, and I don’t think I could have had another. Just too bizarre.
Other weird things that I ate that weren’t quite so good but were weird:
Donkey Meat – It tastes like gamey corned beef. People like this, and it’s pretty popular. I liked it, but I didn’t really see what the excitement was.
Intestine – I really can’t think of many foods that I actively dislike. But, this I did not like. It’s not gross really, but… okay. Let’s just say there is a little bit of an aftertaste that reminds you what part of the body you are eating.
Duck Feet – I was eating fried duck pieces, and didn’t really know what I was eating until I was crunching it up. Chicken feet are very popular in China, even sold at convenience stores individually wrapped like beef jerky. Not sure about the appeal. They are easy to crunch, kind of like cartilage. They do fry up well, kind of like chicken or duck skin, so that part is good.
Duck Brain – The head came with the Peking-style duck, and so bravely I went in. Not really much to say about this. Tastes like the duck, but is soft and fatty. No real feelings either way.
That’s about it. I could have been much more adventurous, but as I said, a chicken wing is a little adventurous for me, so I didn’t feel the need to push it. I’ve never really seen the point of the sort of food tourism that likes to eat weird things, though I’ve willingly eaten my fair share of eels, bugs, odd organs, and assorted sea invertebrates when they’ve been offered to me. From the way the food merchants in the tourist areas yelled, “Snake! Snake!” at me, apparently a lot of Western guys like to eat snake. Maybe it’s a ego thing, or something. I’ll take flavor over adventure any day. And in China, there’s plenty to be found everywhere.
Posted: August 2nd, 2011
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And here is where we put our money in our mouths. In exchange of course. The market-substitution metaphor takes the money from your possession and substitutes physical food. You paid for the food, you are not literally eating the money. Let’s not play verbal games here. Except, that you are indeed putting your money in your mouth. You are taking it out of your wallet, so that you might satisfy the eternal hunger, and then putting sustenance directly in your mouth. If you were shopping for your weekly groceries, or perhaps, investing in corn oil and pork belly futures on the Chicago Exchange, you might be doing something so complicated as buying food. But to satisfy the hunger, we are just going to stop and grab something quick, we are going to swipe our debit cards without even getting out of the car, take the bag, put at least a little bit in our mouths before we step on the gas, maybe take a little sip of water and corn syrup, the hydrocarbon of humanity, and then zip off to rejoin the rest of the species on the freeway, moving in the same direction, encased inside similar assemblages of metal and plastic, each of us slowly but surely getting hungry again at the same rate.
A grocery store, or a farmer’s market, or a stocked pantry shelf, or even the freshly slaughtered carcass of an animal, those strips of flesh only recently converted by symbolic knife stroke into cuts of meat: these are places where we go to find food. These are the components of nutrition. The brick and mortar of the proverbial food pyramid. These are the ingredients we combine with alchemical precision, with the mystic-mechanical sculpting of thermodynamic processes, acid-base reactions, and even the harnessed life-cycle of animate life-forms that are equally the radical form of our life and an element in its continued sustenance and evolution. This is not to refute the restaurant process—the social experience of dining aside, there are plenty of restaurants who catalyze the elements of food as well or better than any of us could, and the item descriptions on menus alone may be educational pamphlets to those of us whom, for whatever reason, never learned the magical art of cookery ourselves.
But there are other places where sustenance can be had, and yet the mechanics are quite different. Here food is only symbolized, in Technicolor images of synthetic food stand-ins, meant to semiotically stimulate your desire-for-appetite more than to advertise any actual product for sale. The process revolves around the orderly exchange of money for a reduction in appetite, and maybe if you are lucky, a saturation of the gustatory organs at the same time. Colloquially, we call this “fast food”, and yet the process is not so much about reducing time as about removing a stage in the process. The preparation, the cookery, the reaction, the production: all of it is removed. In other words, excising everything that makes a food really a food. The exchange is expedited, so the connection between the food-labor and the product is alienated. The money is paid, the hunger is satiated. Did you eat? Does it matter, as long as the void that stimulated the desire to eat is removed? Hunger is the negative, food is the positive. If you remove the negative, who is to say that the positive was ever needed at all? Unable to provide Jetson-esque “cube meals”, technology, instead, replaces whole foods with a most apt and fluid metaphor. This is the “feeding tube”. A feeding tube sustains life; but it does not provide food. The act of feeding it provides is to remove the need to actually eat. The term “fast food” finds its metaphorical connection to technology through routed speed. From the manipulation of actual objects, to a mere regulation of a tube’s flow. A shortening of the production, a reduction of desire. Minimization, and therefore, maximalization.
This is all very interesting. As you move across the country, you begin to see entire districts set up for this sort of procedure. It’s as if there are giant, stationary herds of people sucking on the fast food feeding tube, and you are merely migrating through them. They call it the commercial district, or the strip mall strip, or the Business Route x (the x replaced by the designation number of whatever lonely freeway the main artery of the tube snakes out from before looping back dutifully to return your automobile to its forelorned interstate road). It’s a rural thing, and yet it isn’t, because they are everywhere. They are themselves an urbanization by proxy, a built up-ness of areas that would not city-ify themselves. It is capitalist irrigation. Without these asphalt conduits, the cash and people flowing out over the parched earth, and the single level buildings on major intersections serving as the ionic pump houses driving the intake of sodium, corn sugar, and saturated fat, why, this would be just another open piece of the country.
The most excellent of all feed tubes is not so much a tube as a giant rectangular prism, reminiscent in their own way of the cuboid meals produced by Rosie the Robot (you burnt the toast, Rosie), but from an alternate and more realistically unpredicted futurism. A future in which the food size inflated rather than concentrated. to such an extent that this American staple gave birth, or at least synthetically incubated, the term “big box store”. This tube among tubes, is Walmart. The logic that would remove the entire production process from nutrition and turn it into a infantile negation of desire finds its home on those hallowed, endless shelves.
Nothing makes sense in a Walmart. Or it does, but it does so on terms of its own devising; it is a Wonderland or an Oz-logic, where both the resident mythos and meta-satire subject is America. Already re-branded countless times in that confusing eternal renewal of Newspeak permanency that a brand image is supposed to provide (we have always been at war with high prices/those bourgeois city folk/terrorism), the current incarnation of our formerly smiley-faced god is now a silent asterisk footnote, a sibylline future-echo of what we will be some other time’s history; the super-novaed remnants of the pre-black hole, what was once the solar light of the American Dream; and the cartoon diagram of an asshole (cf. Breakfast of Champions)–nothing more profane than this orifice, through which we encourage ourselves to forget is the root of all of these illusions, the fundamental concept of the store, the management strategy of its employees, and that pocket-full-of-naughty-holes that is us. The asterisk marks the eclipsing of the Luke Helder emoticon (look him up), and the dawning of a new star not only in the East, but over nearly any city with a population of over ten thousand. In short: Walmart puts the “*” in “What the fu*k”.
All of these explicit invocations you have probably heard in one form or another, or could have readily assemble yourself if you are the sort of person who would be reading this essay. But here is something you might not have known: you can camp in a Walmart parking lot. Did you know this? The folk-beliefs behind this fact vary. One story said that Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, was an avid RVer, and wanted to spread the love. The more materialist explanation is that inviting RVs to their parking lot is a clear attempt to sell more barbecue briquettes, hamburger patties, ice, bottled soda, etc. After sleeping the night away, you can enter the store to stock up. And there are moral explanations as well. These don’t necessarily explain how this fact occurred, but this particular strain of Uncle-Samism gets very worried that there are a growing list of Walmarts that don’t allow camping, and blame this decline on the poor behavior of certain “lot rats” that overstay their welcome, and promote a sort of karmic list of best-practices for “guests” in order to help the gift of free Walmart camping to continue and grow, and in this way justifying its existence. It’s a kind of “freedom isn’t free”, negative theology of corporate alms-giving.
As one who has actually confirmed the belief by camping in a Walmart parking lot, I can tell you a certain number of things. The “allowance” of camping stems directly from the fact that nearly every Walmart is open twenty-four hours a day, and thus, there is no period of the day-night cycle at which it is not permitted to park there. Employees cars are there for about eight hours at a stretch, so if you were there for a similar length of time, no one would even be able to tell the difference. You do see a number of RVs staying over night in Walmart parking lots. As all that is really required for an RV occupant to camp is the ability to stay parked for awhile, and therefore, Walmart camping is easy enough. When I was a guest at Chez Sam Walton, we slept in the back of a station wagon, and thus our camping footprint was a similar four stopped tires. I have no idea of Walmart’s policy or individual locations’ attitudes towards the stringing of clothes lines, the pitching of tents, or say, camp fires. My guest is that this would be pushing the envelope of this un-official camping site pretty far. On one morning, we had a wake up call from a local police officer, who seemed friendly enough as we noticed his obviously watchful presence nearby as he ran the license plates from our car. We proceeded to excuse ourselves at a reasonable pace. In other locations, we had a bit of attention from private security that was patrolling the parking lot, but other than that sort of uncomfortable “hard glance” which I normally get in places that are not coastal cities, we were never specifically rousted. Another common rumor I have heard is that while Walmart does not stop campers, certain towns have passed ordinances against various technical aspects of sleeping in cars or parking in one spot for too long, and earn a certain amount of revenue from transient Walmart campers unwittingly unaware of these local statutes. So, let me say and in doing so excuse myself from any sort of culpability for the potential variances or vagrancy citations of your future camping experience; dear reader: I found sleeping in the parking lot of various Walmart’s across the country to be a doable endeavor, but you should obviously only do whatever your own will and reason prescribes for you.
But let me tell you something else: there is something deeply uncanny, and even more disturbingly oracular about the experience of sleeping in Walmart parking lots than the uncomfortable godly-erotic implications of Walmart’s logo. In addition to the experience of going to sleep in a parking lot and waking up in a parking lot. In excess of what it is like to open your eyes in a succession of departures from sleep, the segmentations separating them being of unknown length, and see the blurry sky beyond the fogged windows gradually lightening and changing in color from the all-night glow of white floodlights to the white-cloudy sunlight of an apocalyptically wintered Great Lakes city sky, like the spectrum steps of a paint chip in the home improvement section. Beyond the sensation of your glass, steel, and plastic bubble enclosing you from a vacuum of continental vastness, each early morning shopper’s car that sizzles past on wet pavement sounding like more and more spaceships stretched out in an endless convoy of interstellar trade, passing by our society’s closest excuse for hyper-sleep, easing the pain of aging during travel. Besides all of this: you are sleeping in a Walmart despite what misgivings you might have about its capitalistic position in society, because it is free. It is the easiest way of reducing that desire for rest and for sleep–not exactly being well-rested, but staving off the need to close the eyes, that heavy weight that is so willing to let your car drift from the lanes of the late interstate night, and end your life in a flipped coffin of metal and flame. Sleeping an a Walmart parking lot is the easiest and quickest. It is the feeding tube of rest, the little death drive of tiredness pushing off and at the same time pulling towards the single, endless, infinite death at the end. You are glad to see Walmart. That mystic asterisk becomes the symbol of your release and relief.
You wake up, and you find your shoes, and you roll out of your vehicle. You pad across the macadam, wrapping your coat against the cold in a way not at all like a bathrobe or piece of sleepware. You enter the Walmart, blink at the light. The greeter says hello, never good morning or good evening. The bathroom is always in the same place. There are only ever hand dryers, and not the paper towels you need to wipe the secreted oils from your face, eyes, and ears. You look like shit in the mirror. So does everyone else. And you start to realize, as you try to remember what state you are in, that this could go on forever. The ruins of America are yours today, and they look like the Walmart in Maumelle, Arkansas. Or the one in Fairfield, California. Or the one in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I can’t remember which.
Once the feeding tube is inserted, it is hard to pull it away. Our relationship to our desires, both the presence of desires and the temporary resolution thereof, is one a hairsbreadth away from the unhealthy condition of behaviors known as addiction. Feedback loops are of the essence, in today’s world. Every action perpetuates something. The rut becomes everything, a smooth plateau as wide as the parking lot. As all encompassing as the triple-wide big box of the modern, re-branded Supercenter. And as the hunger and tiredness fades once again, you can see a glimpse of our future, spread out in front of us. From no bigger a point than the human act of eating and sleeping, we see a portion of the exhibited evidence of our species on display. I envision a future in which squatters camps surround Supercenters. This gray asphalt area gathers, as all cities do, around the centers of economic activity. Armed greeter guards check your remaining credit limit before you are allowed into the temple proper. Teenagers with hacked RFID credit tokens shoplift organic produce, buying only the cheapest of gift cards (I imagine the amount equally about 50 cents in 2011 dollars) as a cover for their crime. At night the lights shine on, and everyone sleeps, eats if they can. Whatever it was we used to do when we “went shopping” will seem as foreign as “cooking”. And we all get a little older. Why not? It could be our present some day. It’s not less possible than nuclear war. The mushroom cloud has only been re-branded. We’ll have to see. The mechanics of what we will in the future systematically streamline, efficiently reduce, and eventually lose are the mundane tasks of the present. Who is to say in what orifice they will plug the feeding tubes into tomorrow. And where we will line up to receive this treatment.
On Wednesday I will plug the feeding tube into our crotches, and thread it all the way into our genome. Follow my instructions to enter the Museum of Cultural Speciation, and don’t forget to clean your orifice port well before hand.
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I could not tell you what he was thinking when he reached to pull the pear from the tree branch. He stood and reached upward with a certain slowness, suggesting to me that there was something on this man’s mind keeping him from moving through the particular task with typical deft finger work innate to our species. He was not picking fruit, but picking this particular pear, and I’m think of the word for it, but I cannot find it in the mazes of my mind. He stood still with feet planted in the sparse grass beneath the tree while a little sunlight filtered through, holding the pear in his fingers, rubbing the pads slowly over the bruised and blemished skin of a typical piece of produce from a suburban fruit tree growing in a man’s front yard. He must have been studying this fruit, but I believe he was no connoisseur of such growing things; rather, his reflection was of something else weighing heavily on his mind, metaphorically dragging him down, you understand, like the laden boughs of the pear tree bending low towards the sweet rotting flesh surrounding on the grass and sidewalk, late summer as it was.
It was held before him in hand at face height, much as I hold him before you now, spinning it round in the fingers, showing it off to himself. But for this man, this fellow with loose, white skin suiting flopping in the space between his fingers, he was considering something I imagine to be particular, and certainly something unrelated. He couldn’t have ignored the fruit, and its earthen smell, and the bounce of the tree limb as it rebounded from the release of the tension as he plucked the pear, and the sweet alcoholic rot on the ground around him, and the hot air, and his summer suit, and his neighbors around in the yards, and his nakedness under his clothes, but all the same, there was something unspoken and unavoidable in his life.
Just then, a small girl child with a tricycle rode along the sidewalk steering her front wheel through the squished pears, swarming with ants and with flies and with bees, and she stopped by the man, looking up at him. I am not sure, but I would be willing to say that he did not see her at all. He kept looking at the piece of fruit as he brought it close to his face, closer and closer to his cheek. His eyes locked on it, finally, it and only it, and as the flesh touched his clean-shaven face he bore down hard upon the small yellow lump, squishing mashed, sweet, fruit all over his face, quite ripe as it certainly was. And the juice ran down his neck and darkened the white collar of his shirt and the white label of his suit, and his elbow pivoted as he smashed the pear all over the one side of his face, closing his eyes now, pushing back against it.
* * * * *
He had brought the bag and showed it to her guiltily from behind his back. She brightened and smiled, pulling him into the house and closing the door. He asked her if she wanted to right now, and she screamed yes of course with the excitement of a school girl, and she ran into the bedroom, with him chasing after. She had removed her shirt and bra already by the time he entered, and threw herself back upon the bed wearing only her skirt. He opened the bag and poured the plums over her, bouncing and cascading down onto her legs and chest and neck, and she laughed as she held up her arms because even though they were small plums, they still hurt a little when they impacted her body.
The shirt and his pants still covering his body were coming off, when I assume her more reasonable thoughts overcame her excitement for a moment, and she pulled the comforter and blanket off the bed, raising it like a tarp to roll the plums onto the white sheet covering the mattress. The bed was now naked and he was naked and so was she, their bare flesh remarkably similar in coloring for a trio in this day and age, and she lay back down while he held two pieces of fruit in his hands and pushed them together, only instead of rebounding as they did off of her they combined, and the clear juice flowed out like water with only a slight tint of redness, falling onto her breasts and her hips and her thighs and neck. She gasped at the sensation, and he took her into his eyes, no doubt glad he had paid extra money for the fruit even though they were out of season and shipped at cost from a warmer location with more annual precipitation. He bent over her, and began to kiss and lick the sweet liquid from her skin, while she encouraged him in all sorts of ways, which I do not really know about, but of course which I can readily imagine, as well you might.
I think it was probably another twenty or thirty minutes later, when the mashed fruit was everywhere, on their skin, in their mouths, and also on other orifices specific to sexual pleasure, when he finally entered her, amid torn purple skin, and warmed, soft, sweet pulp, and of course, running drips of juice staining through the sheets to the mattress. Around three pits in her mouth she was sucking greedily, and between his kisses and all the other noises, she giggled and said to him that she was so glad that he had brought the plums, it was even better than she had imagined. And she said she had suggested this strange fantasy to her last lover, and he had called her strange. The lover above her now laughed out loud and from his mouth loudly dripped a few drops of juice onto her forehead. What was the matter with him, he asked. Well, he’s gone and missing out on all these delicious plums now, he said. I’m willing to believe he continued his motions forcefully, with a renewed interest in making it the best she had ever had before, to try as hard as he could to effect this, if he was able to manage it.
* * * * *
It was cloudy and it had not begun to rain yet, but the desire of the clouds to do so was reflected in most people’s moods. They were walking down the street, a few blocks from the main drag with the shops, and I could tell at some distance what sort of kids they were. The tight and ill-fitting clothes, the shape of the hair and the colors as well, the bright, shiny sneakers bought from a mall or a mail-order catalog showed them to be the resident representatives of the current black-clad counter-culture, and they walked befitting their station of course, all over the sidewalk and into the street, naturally in a number no less than five, which is enough to make them a menace to certain sorts of people. I suppose this is the key to the ideas of such a fashion as that they observed.
There was a way of walking among them that sent them oscillating forward and backward in waves, never walking in pairs or in threes, but always galloping ahead and then falling back, changing order like spinning ropes and gears, and revolving wheels. Their laughter was loud and they swung their bags around them, plastic sacks filled with heavy, dense collections of something, pulling them outward as they spun around, twisting up to their fingers and back down again, smacking into the backs and the legs of each other. The bags held peaches, not very ripe, which I saw when one of the older male members reached into one of the girl’s sacks, and pulled out a peach, and bit into it hard, the unripened crunch visible in his black-clad and thin shoulders.
As they approached a construction site vacant for the day, and because the fruit was clearly not ripe enough for his impatient distaste, he launched it up over his head, sending it up high, high into the dark clouds lowering over us all. Some of the others noticed and watched, but others were too distracted by their own doings, continuing to talk and to chatter and to move all around the sidewalk on their way to wherever they were going with such fruit, or perhaps, I suppose, on their way from wherever from they were came. The fruit arced high, and then came down inside the construction site’s chain link fence, getting further and further away from them as it fell, until it contacted with something deep inside the unfinished building which was not visible to anyone. There was a defiant crash of broken glass or other light masonry, and they all recognized the sound and the guy who had thrown it took off running. They all followed, yelling and cursing and laughing and swinging their sacks full of peaches around them. I don’t know why they were running because nobody of any authority was around. I assume all the bags were all full of peaches, because all of them looked the same.
* * * * *
The man walked in the broadest of strides, taking up a good half of the width of the sidewalk with the alternating march of his giant feet. The feet were shod in white leather loafers, polished and cleaned to a brilliance, reflecting light to the surface of the curb as each landed flat to the cement. I imagined them to be the solid base of his fashion, leading upwards from this foundation to the pale yellow slacks, each hemmed immaculately and just barely skimming the tops of the shoes. Though he was a large man, the trousers fit very well, held just below the rim of his stomach with a narrow brown belt. His shirt was a seasonal patterned affair, blossoming with blooms in yellows and greens, but just shadowed ever so slightly by his white sport coat allowed to hang open in the seasonable warmth of the late morning. Above the layers of broad collars there was a neatly trimmed beard, the shade of which was almost perfectly matched to the belt, I would say. On his wide head was a white trilby, with a yellow and green striped band, as wide as the day. Certainly a way of dressing few practice today, though I would say the man was overwhelmingly normal despite his appearance.
He made a great show of checking his watch a number of times as he made his way along the sidewalk through the center of town, heading to an appointment or at least carefully managing his free and unassigned but no less valuable time in the constrained space of a weekday. But I guessed he had managed it well, because in sighting an unoccupied bench he stopped to partake of its respite, seating himself directly in the middle, leaning back, first widening the gap of his jacket’s lapels around him, then tipping back his hat, next removing a thin cigar from his coat pocket and wetting the end with his wide, red tongue and lighting it, taking a puff or two, and smiling to himself, confirming its quality in his own mind. Time and schedules and the observance of clocks are a strange thing to a great many people, which I don’t conceit to understand. Then, he reached into the outer pocket of his jacket and removed a small, flat package.
The outside was cellophane and he unraveled it, and the next layer was waxed paper, which he unfolded using the tips of his fingers, though his digits were wide and flat like short tongs. Underneath he dexterously parted a sheet of paper towel and revealed four neat slices of pineapple, each cut from the entire fruit, but cored and skinned carefully. Holding the cigar in the far hand out to the side, he used two fingers of the other to loop a slice of pineapple, and then he leaned over the wrappings resting on the bench to his and gobbled it down quickly as if racing against the time it would require to drip juice down his chin and onto his fancy clothes. His massive mouth made little work of these succulent bits of fruit, and before two minutes had passed, if I were to estimate the time, he had consumed the lot. He picked up the paper towel and reversed it to the dry side, wiped the corners of his mouth. Replacing it, he folded up the whole excessively sanitary package, and set it next to him. He took another two slow puffs of the cigar, savoring the sweetness and the bitterness of the tobacco smoke. Then, with a tiny glance of his eye towards the leavings, which he hid from obviousness to have an alibi of forgetfulness if anyone mentioned the trash, though of course none would, he left the wrappings sitting just where it was, and continued down the sidewalk in his large, all-encompassing manner, checking his watch once again, and enjoying more puffs on the cigar.
* * * * *
A little girl on a red tricycle with red hair and red overalls rode down the sidewalk with her handlebars swinging back and forth with the effort of her pedaling, because this is how a small tricycle moves with the pedals attached to the front wheel. The sidewalk was wide and bare, though the concrete rose and fell where the tree roots grew underneath it over the years. She was big enough now to get over the stones herself with some effort, and her parents allowed her to ride as far on the sidewalk as she wanted as long as she stayed out of the street.
She stopped near the far corner of the block where the sidewalk ceased to be, and reached around to the basket on the rear of her seat. There was as small box made of clear plastic, and inside there were ten bright red strawberries given to her by her mother earlier that afternoon. She had loaded them onto her tricycle, thinking it would be fun to play as if she were riding off on a picnic, even if she could only go as far as the corner. I only call it playing, because I’m not sure how a child would really describe it. Somehow, it seems to me that she would think of it more as if she were really going on a picnic, though she would naturally be aware she was only riding to the corner with some strawberries in her basket. She opened the box and fished out a berry, and put it in her mouth, enjoying the nubby skin of the fruit as much as the sweet juice bursting out when she cut it in half between her tiny teeth.
She came to this corner because across the street there were men working on a tree. They had begun early in the day with ladders and handsaws of various sizes, and they had climbed to the top and started removing branches as if they were undressing it. They cut off all the small branches and put them in a shredder. Then they used loud roaring chainsaws to take the biggest branches, and these they also put in the shredder. They were almost done now, and all the branches had been put in the shredder, and only the tiniest twigs that had broken off in the process remained on the ground. As the little girl ate her strawberries she wondered what they would do with the trunk, standing naked in the blue spring sky. Maybe they would chop it down with an ax, like lumberjacks. Maybe they would leave it alone. Maybe they would pull it down with a rope like on TV. She put the box back in her basket and dismounting, turned her tricycle around with her arms, dragging the handlebars slowly in a circle, because the sidewalk was too narrow to turn around without a flat driveway free of parked cars. She rode back down toward her own house. The strawberries were gone except for a little bit of juice around her lips, which as I know very well, always gets on children’s faces when they eat fruit, as if the inside of the mouth extended out to the lips.
Posted: May 17th, 2010
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