It is perplexing that despite the lengthy and pervasive legacy of expletives, certain populations or environments prohibit their utterances. At this point, it is almost inconceivable that an individual could actually take offense to such a generic, ubiquitous word as “fuck”. It is obvious that those who take offense are foolish, as they are partaking in a delusional exercise of superficial superiority. Any utterance of the word is an excuse to be offended by their brutish company, as the refined literati have no use for such vile speech. This is one of the many, many telltale signifiers of ignorance, and is apt to incite much frustration.
Often overlooked, however, is the symbiotic necessity both parties have for one another. Without the snub-nosed, rigid-spined people to take offense, expletives are stripped of their potency. And without the swearers, there is one less thing to savor being offended by.
I ran deep into Bedstuy. Eight miles in the grayness and cold rain. With each block east, with each block south, you follow the degradation and abandonment. Elevated subway lines are veins that breathe life onto the sidewalks in their shadow. Away from the veins, things rot and rust. Fried chicken stands and cell phone accessory shops are supplanted by vacant lots with tall grass tangled in chain-link fence. Grocery stores are supplanted by food charities with lines out the door, down the steps, and to the corner. The throng wedge their metal carts through the door. Frantic and fragile, they snatch and pile cans in their baskets. I ran down Fulton past two teenage girls who looked like they had been poured into their jeans. “Woooo! Slow down suga!”
Fulton is a main drag. The side streets are all residential. The hunched brownstones alternate the colors of dark and milk chocolate. I leapt over a curb puddle sparkling from drizzle. Three terse explosions popped forty feet to my right. Up the side street between apartment steps and parked cars, six young black guys dispersed and ran. When I saw them sprint, it forced the uncertainty of the explosive pops (firecrackers? engine backfire?) to congeal immediately into the shriek of some demonic machine. One is well-acquainted with the crack of gunfire from the modern lore of television, but there is a murderous difference between war and a painting of it. Body.
Me, I might as well have been fired down the block by that very gun. My legs pumped until a deep negligible nausea appeared in my thighs. One of the six rounded the corner and sprinted with me in stride. Both of us gasped and clawed desperately at the air ahead of us, trying to propel ourselves forward. We dodged the sidewalk gauntlet of terrified faces, all examining us as heralds freeing them from the limbo between what they heard and what they fear they heard. After two blocks, the kid fell behind and stopped running. I turned back and we exchanged a look. In that fraction of an instant, I asked him if what i think happened, happened, and he told me with watery eyes and a countenance still reverberating with the last image he saw before he ran: yes.
Yes you can. Unless, of course, you aspire to eliminate all discomfort, variety, and dynamic from your life. Seasons are a time reference. Without them, before you know it you are 42 with color-leeched tattoos and a blond ponytail yelling “yeah! perpetual summer!”. I was weaned on the colored seasons and cold coasts of the East. I inhabit four places every year. I know my home through the filters green and white and blue and amber. Each filter brings different features of my environment into focus. The perfumes of a budding forest and savoring reacquaintance with the sun. The sound of summer canopy drunk with rain. A field before a wood, all dressed in white, sinless, pure, and blank.
As a child, when people would say it was “so humid outside”, I misheard them as saying it was “so human outside”. A “human” day meant that it was going to be oppressive, sweaty, and sticky. Being the shy, nervous child that i was, this expression made sense to me.
Guangzhou, known to the west as Canton, sits at the mouth of Pearl River delta in Southern China. It houses anywhere from 8 to 14 million people, depending on how you delimit the city, and whether or not you include migrant workers. Guangzhou is a vital import/export ventricle for the industrial heartland in which it lies. The orange haze that hangs above the buildings makes edges murky and leaves a gritty sweet taste on the back of your tongue. Neon lights get caught in it at night. In Winter, the eastern half of China is covered by an even gray smog-blanket that blots out the sun. For lack of a more potent phrase, it’s polluted as fuck. Of the world’s 30 most polluted as fuck cities, China responsible for 20 of them. But I read that even for China, Guangzhou was exceptional. It certainly tasted that way. Weeks later, a Spaniard named “Bictor” would tell me that it was common for foreigners to start losing clumps of hair after several days in the city. Chris and I only stayed for two. We unknowingly selected a hostel in a swanky neighborhood where the hostel staff was strict and robotic. We checked in around 9am.
An hour later, this:
The maid enters the dorm and I smile at her politely from up in my bunk. She spots the towel I’d snatched from the linen closet draped over the railing of my bed. She runs from the room. She returns with an unamused man in a suit and glasses. They yell at each other in Cantonese, fitfully glancing at me while I pretend to read. The man walks over and inspects my bunk. I had hidden the towel, suspecting it may have been the reason the maid had scampered off, though I really had no idea. The man looks at the bed frame, the two yell some more, and he leaves. What the hell was that. After Chris finishes his shower, the man returns and approaches us.
“You take my tour,” he says.
“You take my tour today,” he insists.
“We didn’t sign up for any tour.”
“You take my tour. 9:30. Half past 3.” He is getting frustrated.
“No, we’re leaving the city today. We can’t do that.” We are trying to be courteous, but the last thing I wanted to do that day was wait around for a compulsory tour of this creepy hostel.
“You take my tower!” he shouts.
“take…your tower?” I am thoroughly and genuinely confused.
“TOUR! T-O-W-E-R!” His face is red.
“YES!!” He’s fuming. “MY TOWER!!”
“What?!” I had no idea what he is talking about and he was just getting louder. He started to rouse the other guests still asleep in bunks around the room. There is no way I could have taken his tower. He had clearly mistaken me for somebody else who could pull off such a feat, like David Copperfield, or David Blaine, or David Schwimmer. Amidst the yelling, I started to wonder, could this be a historical grievance? I began thinking that perhaps he wasn’t berating me merely as suit-man to travel-boy, but as China to America. I started scanning the shallow recesses of my knowledge of Chinese history, searching for what atrocious event he could be referring to, involving America, China, and a tower of some significance that was… taken… ??