Wednesday, January 12, 2005

House Rent Blues
There was a BB-size phlegm ball bouncing around my respiratory tract – tilt one way, even slightly and like a pinball it would trigger some kind of hair-trigger nerve which in turn would send me into an uncontrollable coughing spasm.
As such, I was trying to maintain a precarious balancing act aboard an early morning MTR train surrounded by other sleepy nervous commuters at-risk for catching whatever gunk had gripped me. Don't move, don't shift, don't breathe lest the hacking begin and dozens of Sars/avian flu-panicked eyes widen and then squint and avert their collective gaze in fear and disapproval. Unclean! Unclean!
Despite the rush hour crush, though, one seat on my immediate right remained vacant through seven stops – not unusual, though, for a foreigner sick or well on a Hong Kong bus or MTR. But on my left was an intrepid Good Samaritan who would not be denied.
"You are sick," he observed astutely. "Oh yes, very sick."
I nodded. I knew I should have been in bed or at a clinic rather than trying foolishly to make an emergency run to Shenzhen at the behest of my girlfriend who had phoned in a panic the previous night to say we were being evicted from the Lucky Number by the landlord who had apparently invoked clause 7a, subsection b of the 23-page Chinese language contract that clearly stated he could move his brother-in-law's third cousin into the space with no notice.
The Kowloon Tong stop was announced. "There is a hospital here," said my Chinese Florence Nightingale. "You must be to it post-haste."
"Not-my-stop," I wheezed before collapsing into another hacking spasm. "Prin, Prince ... Edw..."
"Two tablets," he replied, sounding something like a Shao Lin sage. "You must take two tablets. There are many tablets at Kowloon Tong."
I had taken two tablets of something, though not from Kowloon Tong but I lacked the strength to reassure him so I simply held up two fingers and nodded.
''Mmmm," he said solemnly. "You are not healthy. Not happy or healthy. You must have two tablets to be healthy and happy."
Prince Edward slid into view.
"Sounds-good," I gasped. "Will-do, my-stop, thanks-bye-bye."
"Remember two tablets!" he shouted as I stumbled out the door while remembering to mind the gap. "Remenber-the-Alamo!" I replied foolishly before another spasm hit me.
Thankful that the temperature scans weren't operating at the Hong Kong or Shenzhen border crossings I left the health questionaire blank except for checking the "no fluid exchanges with rabid civit cats" box and put on my best "I'm a glowing bundle o' health just here for a short holiday" smile for the passport inspectors before collapsing in a sweat-soaked heap in a taxi to my soon-to-be former digs.
There I found my girlfriend "C" amid a pile of half-packed boxes and debris. C had done well and found us another apartment in the same building in an amazing 12 hours but there were some small details that still hadn't been ironed out – like getting the deposit back from the man she and I now referred to as "the evil landlord."
And there was my condition. I could no more lift a simple cardboard box and haul it than I could recite the periodic table in Esperanto and it also became increasingly clear that returning to Hong Kong and clocking in for work was not an option. All I yearned for was a short, blissful coma.
Movers were found at bargain prices – two strapping young men plucked from the street who began efficiently lifting and toting while C supervised and I lay on the bare bed moaning. I overheard the two laughing as they picked up a Chairman Mao picture and a small Mao statue that had decorated the place in an attempt at kitsch.
"What are they laughing about?" I asked.
"They said these Chairman Mao pictures make the apartment look like their grandparents'. They want to know why you have such things."
"Tell them I'll give them some Nixon pictures for their place if they'd like."
Next stop was Shenzhen's finest hospital to see what condition my condition was in and – most importantly – to get a piece of official paper with a stamp saying I was too sick to work; kind of like getting a note from my mother excusing me from school except my mother never told me that I needed to be hooked up for 90-minutes in a grimy waiting room to an IV with a reddish drip that she couldn't identify.
"It is medicine to purify you," was all C could explain. "Chinese medicine. And the doctor says you need to come tomorrow for more."
I demurred, pleaded in vain for codeine instead and finally obtained the excuse slip and we began the hardest task – getting the deposit refund. Landlords were once No. 1 on a list of China's eight primary social evils and I see no reason why that list should not be reinstated.
C did the bargaining at the old place while I hacked and sweated six floors below awaiting a verdict. She returned and said the evil landlord claimed that a refund was impossible because I had lost my copy of the contract. The fact that he couldn't produce his, either, seemed to make no difference. I was wrong and he was right.
Pure, clean inspiration suddenly shot through my mucus-clogged self. The evil landlord knew I had worked for a Shenzhen newspaper and now had powerful Hong Kong press connections.
"Give me your camera," I said. "We're going to do a 60-Minutes press ambush on him."
"A what?"
"Never mind. I'm going back with you. When we go inside I'll shoot his picture quickly and then you tell him I'm doing a story on corrupt, cheating landlords with him as the primary subject. His sorry mug will be on Page 1 of every paper in the Pearl River Delta by the time I'm through with him."
We knocked, entered, smiled politely at one another and then I raised the camera while trying not to cough it out of focus. "Say cheese!" I wheezed as I squeezed the button.
He began shouting as the flash exploded and even put his arm up in the classic "shamed criminal" or "naughty film star" vain attempt to conceal his identity. C never had to say a word. He knew the deal and 10-minutes later we were at an ATM machine where he withdrew our deposit in exchange for deleting his picture.
He muttered something as he watched his startled visage vanish into the digital netherworld.
"What did he say?"
"He said it was a bad picture and that he remembers that you were also sick the day you signed the contract."
"Tell him that I'm feeling better already."

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