The years raced by until I found myself standing on a street corner in China. I was in Xi’an, and I was in my wife’s old neighborhood. We lived in her tiny studio—a few narrow rooms, linoleum floors, hot pot and range, no oven or fridge. A plastic seat on the toilet so frangible, I broke it twice by sitting down. Twenty-first century living in yesterday’s mainland. An authentic experience in the world.
But I was out for a stroll. This is what I loved to do—walk and look around. It was hot, but the neighborhood was out and about. A crowd stood alone or congregated on every corner. Laolao and Yeye claimed every spot on rusty metal benches shaded by trees. Many more people walked in the sun. They had umbrellas; I did not.
In ten minutes, I strode around the corner and up the block. The sun’s bright rays seared my retinas. The heat beat against the pavement and splashed up against my cheeks and ears. You could fry an egg on the sidewalk. Throw it on fried rice—soy sauce on the side or at the table—and serve it to tourists as authentic cuisine.
It piqued my interest when the occasional African guy darted through the crowds of Han or past the occasional Hui or Uyghur on his way to a future. Three million Chinese were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Africans—as students or employees—had found their way to mainland China—even obscure neighborhoods of inland cities. These were thin fit guys you’d recognize right away as not from America—older but vigorous and still in shape.
These rare sightings were a certain sign that I was not the only expatriate on the scene, but my continent’s only other representative was a corner McDonald’s introducing the East to authentic processed food. A Czech teaching English and married to a Chinese woman was in the next neighborhood over, but I’d never seen another European-diaspora type in the section where we stayed. I’ll never forget the shock of amazement in the face of one of three brown turbaned fellows as they passed me on an evening stroll—the only time I saw men who could have been from anywhere between Morocco and Bangladesh.
Xi’an was a city of more than ten million, but I could manage; the crowds did not defeat me there. I could stare down, focus on feet, and mostly avoid brushing against or bumping into anyone. Many walked hunched in a bow with their hands clasped behind them at the waist. Others held leashes fastened to tiny pooches. These manicured miniatures suggested affluence, yet they were suitable size for the neighborhood’s modest apartments.
Observing tiny poodles and mixed miniatures in the heat, I found myself standing and staring at the merchandise spread over a section of sidewalk. I was boiling under the sun, and my neck would surely turn a lobster shade of red. I was spacing out, thinking my non-sequitur thoughts. I was on a crowded corner staring at socks.
Merchants squatted by blankets in the shade. They sold the same things—earphones, phone cases, bras, and underthings. The socks dealer was set up and crouching near a storefront. His sign said ten pairs for ten yuan—under two dollars American. How did that work? How did the man acquire the socks? And how could he part with them at such low prices? Any of my paperbacks would be ten times as much or more. I saw teenagers paying thirty yuan for a coffee all day long. Why wouldn’t they prefer thirty pairs of socks for that price? Were they too distracted to think?
At the corner, a long line of men on motorcycles seemed unconcerned with sidewalk retail. The sun beat against their faces and bikes. The bronze and silver gleamed. These Xi’anese were struggling to survive. They were sweating it out, wiping their brow. Alas, I was not that next person who needed a ride, but I purchased a ten-pack of socks. I’d have to do anything I could to protect the current world order because I’d never endure life as a ride-share driver under Chinese sun. I’d had it too good for too long.
Years later, I remembered those long line of motorbikes when I was back in my native Philadelphia. My marriage was over. It had ended at a rate impossibly slower than I ever imagined it could, and then it collapsed all at once. Over. Kaput. That was that. We were free—if you cared to use such a curious word. I was teaching school. Hanging on to a job I didn’t hate although at times I was certain it hated me.
The local poor here, there, and everywhere had merged. They had formed a global phenomenon. The homeless were in bloom all over the world. To own a motorbike and have a chance at rideshare fares made a man wealthy in many provinces and towns. Global poverty had reached catastrophic proportions. Or, it would be called a catastrophe if the powerful cared.
In Philadelphia, they did care. Enough so, that they had opened public spaces to house the unfortunate. Equity had won. They voted in favor of illegal ATVs screaming across the night skies—driven by humans who produced nothing but noise. As per my usual, I sought refuge in our art museum for its tall, empty interiors; it was a miracle that stood upright despite democratic trends. But it had been liberated, and they were letting everyone in. Inside with the art, the unhoused would live, eat, bathe, and sleep. Catered lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Picasso was no longer special; the Monets would make fine pillows. Duchamp’s Fountain would return to its original purpose—but for number two, not one—this time around. The regular bathrooms would remain in operation, but the Duchamp’s replica would act as a special treat for the most exploited and marginalized among us. Some insider-trader oligarch-backed politician would be pasted to the receiving bottom of the Fountain, so the satiated poor could squat and dump on the deposed kings and queens of capitalism. It would be a wingding without compare—an encore celebration! The masses would escape these times. The meek would inherit the museum. Everyone would be free.
I’d returned to be near my dying mother. She’d stayed on—a malingerer. No one else came to visit, and she’d become quite a score. To avoid her parries and blows, I’d taken to walking in the museum. This was before the unwashed had been ensconced inside. The hands dealt, the dreams dashed. I’d played my cards, and this was my life. It wasn’t easy, but I, too, stood upright; I could move one foot ahead of the other.
Now I resented the urban poor ruining my walking space. Their foul odors permeated the paths I once enjoyed. I didn’t need to see families sprawled on sleeping bags below Rubens’s Prometheus Bound or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I didn’t crave the scent of ganja from Dada back to surrealism; alcohol, bad perfume, and cigarettes throughout the armor and medieval periods; or puddles of urine in the Japanese teahouse where hastily wrapped stools met and stank. My prized possession, my flatulence, could not compete with this pungent crowd.
I did not have so much, but I was intact. I had a ceiling fan and an unremarkable kitchen. I paid rent on time and was aware of the possibility that I’d earned what I had. I had helped a child through college and a year of graduate training, a newer normal, and I didn’t like sharing my walking space with undesirables who had never supported the arts with a paid museum membership. Inhaling the foul odors of the unhoused—or even those climate zealots using God-knows-what to seal themselves to the Monet, Klimt, or Klee—would never be for me. No, sir.
And so, I came to recognize that I would no longer be striding through the museum on searing hot days. Climbing the great marble stairs would be for someone else, not for me. I would have to find another way of avoiding skin cancer while attending to my paces.
To distract myself from this grave inconvenience, I picked up a newspaper at the local stand—yes, print, please, until it no longer existed, that would be soon enough. My eyes fell on an obscure corner headline—city no longer arresting petty thieves who stole less than five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars was petty theft! Or four ninety-nine!? I examined the grim photo of the Eurasian shopkeeper standing in an aisle by his wares. What were this man’s rights, I wondered. What kind of justice was this immigrant allowed? Was this not also racism and xenophobia or at least wanton neglect—a deterrent to any newcomer who wanted to strike out on his own? Was he entirely responsible for crimes against his property? What about “Thou shall not steal?” Was there no moral teaching to be considered here? Was it only Philadelphia’s fiscal problem, and were we not encouraging an entire segment of the population to “earn” by thieving? Why, yes, I was a pretty one; a turd or a tool, term me what you will.
The weekend ended as they always did, and Monday morning in the boys’ bathroom I smelled the marijuana of youth playing hooky from multiple-choice diplomas. Why go to class if a spliff in the john presents itself? It brought me back to my halcyon college days when the pot was grown and passed among my affluent peers. Smoke filled weekend days and as often as not on weekday evenings. We were in bloom; we were happy and free. Thank God massive financial aid allowed me four years away from my destiny. Far from this decadent bliss, I was now side-stepping sidewalk decay I did my best to avoid eye contact with; like every good American, if I felt guilt pangs and needed to contribute, I would write a check. If I wanted to commingle with the unhoused, I’d volunteer at a soup kitchen. Or perhaps I’d dedicate my life to working for a proper nonprofit and write the occasional article in support of the less fortunate. That was what people did; they certainly did not smell their shit while perusing the French and Italian. Don’t touch me, please.
By Friday, I loathed myself for my wanton disregard of unhoused people. What an evil shit I was for needing them removed from my pacing route in my museum’s corridors. Oh, how I had lost my way from Xi’an’s searing cement heat to this nonexistence judging the vulnerable and poor. To make matters worse, the interminable twitching of my left butt cheek would not abate—Was it related to sewing my few spare dollars into my underthings? Was that not suffering enough?
Back at my studio and seeking punishment, I set to pricking my arms with a paperclip. But that wasn’t enough, so I picked up the next thing I could find; it happened to be my first novel. I began slamming it against the side of my head—again and again—but that was no good either. Years ago, I had been an aspiring man of the people, and I’d talked the publisher out of hardcover, so that we’d put into print a book that the masses could afford—but now this beneficence was interfering with my progress. Against my skull, I slammed an original novel unable to leave any lasting damage.
In disgust, I threw the trade paperback against my barren living room wall and searched helplessly for suitable weaponry. In polyester socks, I slid to the corner kitchenette, and before I made it to a collection of cutting knives, I turned on a burner. I dipped my head slowly toward the flame. It didn’t tickle, and then it seared my skin. My cheek was no more than eight inches from the blue and orange glow. One more inch, then another, and then my hair burst into flames. I danced and screamed; I couldn’t put it out. By mistake, I rolled on the rug, which did nothing but set the whole apartment aflame.
Before I exploded, I dashed to the bathroom and took a humungous dump—a steaming sulfuric twisted snake of pain and ecstasy; but even as I burst into flames, I saw my flushed excrement leap out of the toilet and all about the tile floor and my person. A plumbing reversal at this late hour! No, I did not drop to my knees, crawl on the floor and masticate. I was no genius gone mad; perhaps I was merely a man who loathed what he once adored. In an instant, the long line of men on motorcycles flashed before my eyes. Resilient and enduring, these men fought fate to scrape by. They boiled under the sun in an urban smog! But then, I was extinguished. My silence rose above the earth, but I haunted the planet not. To ash, I turned, before I descended. It was an escape from one hell, and onto the next.
Written by Alex Kudera