Some of the people I talk to most often, and enjoy greatly, are those who demand money of me. Not large sums, which is how we survive the irony, neither troubled by the transaction. They watch my scooter for 1 kuai. I, a creature of great habit, frequent few establishments but with incredible regularity.
This job, clad all in blue, slightly above street sweeper yet slightly below whistle-blowing stoplight watcher, is done by machines in the land of my birth. There are no wizened men there, sitting on the flower pots waiting for an approaching cyclist. No women swapping stories to lift the boredom in between progressing up and down their lines of scooters, cycles, oddly motorized contraptions. No one spends their days escorting, re-arranging, directing, in a twelve hour shift of two-wheeled motion. In time lapse the patterns would be mesmerizing.
Perhaps my home town lacks this service not because of the people to machine transformation of so many jobs that has granted the developed world it’s label but because of the lack of two wheeled travel. My home town has no need for rows and rows of carefully restrained and individually locked bicycles. My home town has instead towers of concrete that stack four wheeled machines, in strange and ever-more-increasingly complex patterns. Turn right to exit, turn left to proceed, do not go straight. I re-learn their mazes often.
These men and women, though, do not provide me with some over-arching insight, they provide me with a place to leave my cycle, and I know them well. The woman who watches in Hongqiao, outside Zoe’s cafe, where I eat on Tuesdays, often with a friend since moved away. In rain, she huddles under her umbrella, wondering at my soaking clothes.
“It wasn’t raining this morning, was it?” To which I nod and shrug, and we laugh. 1 kuai. Thank you. One day her friend is lounging on the planter, and observes my approach.
“He’s a foreigner,” she says, as I park and lock, “two kuai, two kuai.” Massive inflation hidden with a half-toothed grin. The parking lady waves her away.
“He knows what you’re saying, he comes here every week, stop it, stop it,” and they laugh.
“You do, don’t you,” she questions me.
This is not a foreign story. This is not a story of monetary influence. This is a story of habit, of repetition, and of small interactions that embody places.
The two men who share duties outside the ICBC in Zhongshan park are full of smiles, their spot a prime location filled with shoppers, with building guards, with hotel workers, with bank guards, never silent or empty.
One of them speaks English, a result of living in Australia for four years, he tells me. He offers to share a beer when off at eight pm, shares stories, and asks about my day each time I arrive.
His colleague, who works every other day while he rests, barely speaks. He takes my coin, gives me my receipt, and heads back to his office chair, it’s wheels long gone, that leans against the building’s wall nearby. He is rarely alone, someone else sitting on the low ledge, usually the parking garage attendant, his legs swinging idly while his friend collects my money. This man, his job consisting of twelve hours of tedious patience, smiles hugely at all times.
Parking next to a snazzy new electric cycle one week, my own a battered wreck, sans rearview mirrors, sans seat, sans locks, starter twice changed, headlight busted in, I wonder at this flashy machine’s make, and cost. The characters scrawled on it’s frame are unfamiliar, have no meaning, convey nothing. As he approaches I ask the grinning man how they are said, what they mean. He looks at me and shrugs. I ask what brand this is, what is the name of this brand, what cycle, what characters, how are they read.
He pauses, looks at them and then again at me, his smile never changing, and shrugs, and walks away, his one kuai collected, his receipt distributed. Back to his chair, and his friend.
“I don’t know how to read them either,” I say, my Chinese vague and tones wrong, and likewise turn away.