Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Son Also Rises/Smuggler's Blues

Photo by Ty Hart
It was about 10.30am Saturday in Hong Kong when my cell phone rang again for about the eighth time that morning. I sighed. "Another call from the piano smugglers," I thought, almost reflexively handing the phone to C, until I noticed that it was an unknown caller.

For readers faithful enough to recall niggling details of past posts, C's desire for a piano has never abated and to make a long story very short we were due to take possession of one on Saturday, a free(!) 12-year-old English made standup courtesy of a charitable expat pal whose 14-year-old daughter had foresaken it and Chopin in favor of Internet games like Smart Anime Mania's "Lupin the 3d" and "Virtual Joyce's" Lover Personality Test. "Thank you, Jeebus!" I babbled at the time. "You've saved our relationship!" He pried me from his ankle and wiped my drool from his otherwise spotless deck shoes. "Just get it moved, pronto," he replied.

Only one hitch. After several calls to legitimate moving companies I found it's illegal (and prohibitively expensive) for a foreigner to move furniture from Hong Kong to Shenzhen/mainland China without documents that I don't possess nor could ever come by easily. And apparently it's illegal for a Chinese citizen -- i.e. C -- to import furniture from Hong Kong, period. So, C found some piano smugglers in Shenzhen. Initially, the price was right and no paperwork needed. At least that was the initial play. Suffice to say the piano is currently being held hostage in a Hong Kong/Shenzhen border warehouse in the New Territories. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This began as a tribute to my son.

The smugglers had been calling every 10-15 minutes since 9am with excuses with why they couldn't make it on time (or at all). I'd spent the time listening to C forcefully shout, cajole and threaten them and wondering if it would all eventually result in a story reading: "The dismembered, partially decomposed remains of an unidentified foreign man and a Chinese woman were found stuffed in an abandoned, damaged piano in a New Territories warehouse Thursday after nearby residents complained of an 'inauspicious smell'..."

So it was with some trepidation I answered the phone only to hear my sister calling from a Des Moines, Iowa hotel room where it was about 9.30pm Friday and graduation eve for my son, Julian, at Drake University. A mixture of pride, love, shame and melancholy swept over me. I had no financial means to be there and it seemed only a day or so ago that he and I had been at the Drake new student orientation, with me shortly to decamp to Shenzhen for a three week gig; one which has turned into four years.

In the meantime he's gotten a journalism degree which he's about to transmute into a pr writing gig with a Major American Beer Company. I used to look down on pr gigs, especially with mainstream corporate America. But times have changed while I have essentially remained in a state of arrested emotional and professional development, circa 1972. Which is why he's on the way up while I'm without a retirement plan of any kind, semi-employed in a foreign city to which I owe massive back taxes and am worrying about smuggling pianos and writing crapola for hire. My next thought was of me begging him for a job writing press releases for Duff Beer.

"I dunno, Dad," he says in the fantasy. "We do have an opening for an under assistant fork lift driver on the 11pm-8am distribution shift in the Fargo warehouse. Tuesdays off."

Damn. I can't take credit for much good in my life, but raising him is the best thing I've ever done and I wished badly at that moment I'd been in Iowa to see another turn of the wheel instead of sitting out the 6-Party Sino-Hong Kong Piano Removal Talks. I thought about the best - and a couple of the worst - times with Julian. None were exactly Hallmark or Kodak moments, mostly just goofing on the couch as we watched The Simpsons, The Critic or King of the Hill. Or younger times, nursing him through a kinghell migraine, pushing him on swings on an cold, clear and quiet Colorado autumn afternoon, or teaching him the words to The Byrds' Chestnut Mare or Aretha Franklin's Respect. "R-p-e-c-s-e-t-t!" he'd chant, 5-years-old, squeaky voiced and off-key to Sister 'Ree.
I ached. I put down the phone after talking with him, my father, sister and after C had taken her turn.

I went into the bathroom, shut the door, turned on the water and began crying a little. The phone whooped again and C squabbled with the piano mafia and then shouted through the door that it was all a go. I wiped my face and came out sniffling some.

"What's wrong?" she asked. "You're crying?"

"Nah," I said, "Just washed my face. Allergies, maybe. C'mon. We've got a piano to smuggle."

Happy graduation, Julian. I love you. I miss you.
Beautiful writing as always Justin. Grats with Julian’s graduation here from Denmark.
Julian out of college - I remember when he was a tiny little sprog.

Ah we get older and older! Its like Vicki turning well (er ... older) this year.

Justin - I can't for the life of me find your email address. wanted to get more info on Julian since I consult to the PR departments of all of the major beer companies.

Drop me a line k

Justin, Congratulations on your son's graduation . . . and his employment on the "dark side." Having been on that side for 23 years since we worked together at the paper, I can tell you that it's not so dark, and can be quite rewarding for those not bent on "changing the entire world." I appreciate your emotions for wanting to be there, and am sure your son appreciates them, too. If he's half the writer his dad is, I look forward to reading his press releases, and sampling his products.
Congrats to your boy, Justin. A good post, that reminded me of that specific type of Zhongguo homesickness.... It's sick that I'm actually a bit nostalgic for that feeling.

Now -- if you can make it through the month without having that "inauspicious smell" premonition come true...
Congrats to both of you. If the writing gene is as strong in Julian, we may see another Twain yet.

Think Colorado Yankee in Shenzhen Court or something ....
Thanks all for the good wishes and nice words.
Chuck, I've lost your email address (John, I've sent mine and Julian's to you) and I think the last one you had for me was when I was at The Standard. Can you email me at average underscore guy26 at yahoo dot com with yours? I'd like to stay in semi-regular touch. BTW, I do have an interview soon for a "dark side" gig at a HK university...
Julian loves an misses you. Don't worry about the conventional wisdom of "PR" "Kodak" and "Hallmark." You were a great dad. Having known Julian since Kindergarten, I know that he has the utmost respect for you. Something that was re-enforced when we cleaned out your Louisville Apartment.
And good luck with the piano. Keep rocking your half of the Universe.
Wow, piano smugglers... there's a great novel in that somewhere.
Does your son get free beer with the PR gig? And can he ship some to China?
Congrats on Julian's graduation. A PR gig with an American Beer Company? What could be better? You've done well, Justin. Congratulations
I've spent some time with Justin and Julian and I don't know a better pair. CONGRATS Julian, and Justin. Wow, it does seem like yesterday that you two stopped to visit en route to a visit to Drake.
Love you both.
I just finished reading this post to Julian in Colorado 12:05am his time. He asked me to leave a comment to tell you that he loves and misses you.
Hey Whitney,
Thanks so very, very much. Good to hear from you and the little dude in one whole swipe. I hope all is warm and well with both of you.
Best regards from your scary-psuedo-would-be-father-in-law --
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