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Shanghai Story 1: Johnny Goes to Work

Johnny Goes to Work

Outside, another grey day has broken through the night sky. The air is a particular shade of grey today tinged with yellow and resembles a mud puddle in the sky. It’s a typical Shanghai sky for another typical Shanghai day. Johnny raises his sleepy head from the pillow and rubs his strained neck.

“I’ll have to remember to sleep on my back tonight”, he mutters to himself reaching for the alarm clock to silence the bird being eaten by cat or cat being eaten by bird sound emanating from it. He’s not sure which, but it is a fitting sound to start a Shanghai day, by which end, he’ll probably prefer that sound to most others emanating from the battle hardened ayis he’s sure to encounter.

Horns are blasting at the intersection outside his bedroom window as people try to make the transition from ignoring the traffic signals, a common nightly occurrence, to half-assed obeying them as they do in the lighter hours of the day. Relieving himself in a toilet that always seems to become soiled too quickly he wonders what’s cleaner, his piss or the bowl of water it is pouring into. Finished, he makes his way into his cramped kitchen.

“Coffee” he grunts to his cat. “Time for coffee”. He fills the kettle with tap water ignoring the stench of chlorine that pollutes it, kidding himself that boiling it really does help.

“Damn!” he stammers having opened the coffee tin to find it bare. Instant will have to do. He spoons out a heaping mound of Nescafe into a cup covered in tribal warriors and misspelled English phrases that don’t mean anything at all. “The only thing we want to do is go along with themen we love and binge together”, the cup proudly proclaims. Johnny chuckles. This shall be the highlight of his day.

After downing the cup, of what turns out to taste more like mud than coffee, he shuffles into the shower, turns on the water and waits. The water heater in the kitchen kicks in and within a moment the water is scalding. He turns on the tap in the sink to siphon some of the hotness away and climbs into the shower relishing the solitude that starts his day.

Shower finished, teeth brushed, hair combed, and clothed, he checks his watch. “Fuck”, he’s 10 minutes late. He grabs his jacket and bag and is out the door with a slam having forgotten to leave some food for his startled cat. Locking the door and popping a cigarette in his mouth he heads for the elevator. It’s on the first floor so he decides to smoke while he waits, lights up and fills the hallway with rancid smoke that only Shanghai Tobbaco can produce. The elevator arrives and he rushes in narrowly missing the pool of most likely baby piss in the center of the lift. Luckily though, it is empty and he can smoke in peace. Arriving at the ground floor he attempts to exit only to be rammed by a cleaning ayi and her dirty mop and bucket making a mad dash in the door. “Jeezass”, he mutters squeezing past.

The day is greyer than he suspected upon waking and he regrets having not taken his umbrella, but he’s already late and there isn’t time to go back. Rushing across the courtyard for the nearest street exit he becomes the focus of attention for a bunch of old ladies doing their queer Chinese dances there. Not so quiet comments of “laowai” follow him to the street as the security guard stares him down in passing.

Walking to the corner, three taxis pass him which is not a good sign. If too many taxis are seen on his way to get one, it usually means he’s in for a long wait as he’s off their mysterious secret schedule. Walking a few meters out into the intersection, the only way to get a taxi to see you in this city, he’s in luck. There’s a cab waiting on the red. The lights go green and he hails the cab but it sails past, the driver not even turning his head. “Shit!”

After ten minutes and countless near misses with the yahoos cutting the corner, he is rewarded with a can ride. The cab comes to a stop and he climbs into the front seat. “Detianzhan” is all he says and the taxi is off.

Although it is only two kilometers to the metro station, he has no less than three near death experiences as his cabby tries to save valuable tenths of a second passing on the double yellows, tailgating, and making a wild left turn on the red narrowly being missed by a fully laden bus doing at least 30 km/h above the posted limit. But what does he care, he’s there and still breathing. He pays the driver and joins the throngs of locals elbowing their way onto the escalator only to stand there like dumb cows. “Get out of my way for fuck’s sake” he says to himself though remains silent and motionless and wonders if anyone else is thinking the same thoughts as him.

Having made it to the top he is once again on the move dodging his fellow subway users who never seem to be able to keep an eye on where they are going and subsequently walk like they just finished a forty of vodka for breakfast. But that’s silly. He knows none of them have had breakfast yet. That’s what the coming train ride is for. Arriving at the entrance gate, he does his best to avoid the eyes of the arm swinging “check your bag” guy and jostles his way to the front of the turnstile queue. “Shit!” The woman in front can’t get her card to scan through her cheap fake LV bag. Three, four, five tries, finally she is through and now he is too as a couple wadiren duck under the exit turnstile next to him and enter for free.

Taking the stairs rather than joining the “cattle” resting on the escalator Johnny sprints to the top hoping against hope that a train will arrive when he gets to the top. No such luck. The platform is packed and outside it is starting to rain. People start pulling out their umbrellas as when it rains outside the station so too does it inside. “Fuck”!

The train comes and he attempts to enter only to be rebuffed by the swelling horde therein. The beeps start and Johnny is flung backwards onto the platform with the doors shutting in his face. “Fuck, damn, shit!” he curses louder than he notices.

Forced to wait for another train he contemplates the ide ahead. Forty-five minutes of being jammed inside like sardines in a tin. Five or six people around him will be eating various crap that smells like spoiled cat food… “God dammit. I forgot to feed the cat!” bursts through his rattled mind.

After visions of people eating, faces smeared with greases, crumbs falling on the floor, and the accompanying smacking of lips and slurps, he recalls the odor. The odor of Chinese people in spring with their damp smelling clothes, breath that resembles the stench of dead fish, armpits reeking of days old sweat, asses stinking like seven forms of olfactory hell as they save two fen on toilet paper, and heads of dandruff and oil hanging inches below his too sensitive nose…. He feels like vomiting. For five years he’s endured this hell, this trip to work, and for what? Mao money that depreciates faster than his salary increases. He starts to sweat wondering if he’s having a heart attack. “No, not yet forty, it can’t be that” he thinks to himself as a whistle sounds and a train speeds into the station as cramped as the one before.

The crowd surges behind him and he can feel the mob pushing him to the edge. The train is just a couple meters off and… “Fuck it!” Johnny jumps…

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