the true stories
We are all students and we are all teachers. In my experience, this is the actual adhesive which binds society together. It is, in my opinion, also the raison d'être for our existence. The process is constant, dynamic and tailor-made by the Great Spirit. The trick is in recognizing each other and figuring out when the class is over. Nothing is free and it is always wise to pay as you go.
I was one year into a two year divorce proceeding. A house I had managed to obtain a mortgage for had been liquidated. I was delivering mail to a neighborhood on the east-side. From the real estate flyers I could see that prices had somehow become quietly hitched to a Saturn Five rocket and were steadily climbing out of the reach of any normal working man.
After much soul-searching I was sure I had found a proper match for my dream of married life, thus I was already on the look out for a new house in which to raise my brood. There was a palpable undercurrent of the necessity for speed in transactions which was alien to Vancouver prior to that time.
Looking back, I can see that the first signs of pirates were already evident. Vancouver had been chosen and the boarding parties were swarming the ratlines. Peoples reactions to this were from the same playbook that hadn't changed since Manhattan was traded for a box of soap. They got by each according to their ability and resilience. They mutated themselves to fit the times rather than change the times to fit themselves.
My own mojo had suffered so many direct hits, it lay in tatters. I saw a house on my route that was perfect for my foreseeable future needs and I inquired of the price. It was a corner property and had a basement. After some calculations, I reckoned I could just manage to swing a down payment with my part of the divorce proceeds held in escrow and some other small savings I had.
I went to a bank that I used to work for and attempted to secure a personal loan for the needed sum, using the paper proof of my proceeds to come in a years time, my good reputation and steady job as my collateral. I did mention my employ with the bank and the fact I had also been a customer of that same bank since I was twenty years old. I proved I could pay back the sum I required in a year. He would, after all have the house itself to secure his risk.
The man looked at me with folded hands and lobster eyes, unblinking and glacial. He reiterated that the policy was to only lend a man fifty percent of whatever he already had after securing that as collateral and he added that surely I knew this as an ex-banker. I pointed out to him that after decades of banks having had a policy of thirty percent down payments for mortgages and other protective measures in place for the buyer such as safe ratios of available cash for other obligations before drawing up a mortgage, now the banks were throwing mortgages to people who had nothing down and couldn't possibly dream of safe ratios. The banks were now willing to include the new normals of maybe getting a foreign student to rent each empty room and maybe getting tenants in the basement as factors to qualify for a mortgage.
The man smiled and looked at his appointment book. He would be happy to give me a big mortgage for a suicidally small down payment. I smelled a big rat and retreated. It wasn't my day. That little house sold in a few weeks and then flipped like a pancake so many times I never kept track. I never saw a happy family at that address when I delivered the mail each day. I saw a succession of drawn worried faces and a new species of wide-eyed, fear-driven greed. In time I saw that it was no longer a house. It was a unit of currency. When there is a war on, a chocolate bar can get you anything you want.
Diagonal from this house was a corner store. The old fashioned kind with a living quarters upstairs. The proprietor was an old Chinese man. He lived alone and had sold candies and smokes to at least two generations of that locale. He had an adjoining room behind his till where, after passing through a curtain he could cook, eat and paint. He showed around the entire premises and when we were in his small warehouse, he showed me a variety of mouse traps he had built. He was plagued with mice and was determined to catch them all. So far one particularly smart mouse had eluded every attempt to trap it.
I cannot remember what topics I first discussed with Bing Lam but soon we held short conversations when I passed by with the mail. I began to buy my smokes and Mars bars there. My experience with my second father-in-law had taught me that there were few people on this earth as prejudicial as old Chinese men. It had also made me recognize some very formidable and universally praiseworthy traits and standards possessed by these gentlemen.
One cold, rainy day Bing invited me into his sanctum for a bowl of hot, healthy soup. I had tasted lots of tong and his was a good one. Slow-boiled pork bone broth with winter melon, green onions and his home-made won tons. While I ate he was busy showing me his ink wash paintings. He had a large table set up for this purpose and had come a long way in his self tutelage in this art form.
This kindness was repeated several times to the end that it was expected that I daily sit for a cup of tea. He placed a chair on the store-side of his curtain and it became “my” chair. The third time I took tea, Bing brought me a large old and very expensive book. It was pornography, to be sure. What set it apart was the antiquity of the drawings, etchings, oils and ink washes. They were from a variety of dynastic periods of the Middle Kingdom.
He stood clasping his hands as I turned the pages and beaming with pride for this cultural achievement of his tribe or so I thought at the time. When I got to the part where they were doing it on galloping horses, Bing clapped his hands and pointed as if to say, “Top that, Texas.” I was handed the book every day at tea until I had seen each drawing. I figured he was going to try his hand at the genre at some point in his own pursuit of art.
I was admonished to keep a sharp eye when in used book stores for any volumes such as his which dealt with Japanese, Indian or Korean works of the same ilk. The book disappeared but the tea was offered on a daily basis. We talked of many things. It was a welcome place to take my brief break each day on the Trail. I always asked if he'd caught that mouse yet. The answer was always in the negative but I would be shown the latest version of his home-made trap and briefed on the accompanying strategy employed with that device. We were like generals discussing an important military campaign.
One fine day, Bing was very excited when I arrived and proudly ushered me into the back room. There on the table was an ink wash he had been working on for a few weeks. He handed me a brush and demanded that I write an English translation to the verse in the drawing he'd made. I did as I was asked and you may see the picture of shrimp, crabs and frogs above. He told me that the shrimp were the most challenging to draw. He had made it for my two young sons of whom I spoke often. It was one of the nicest gifts I've ever received.
On the day when I brought his property tax notice with the daily mail, Bing gave me a cup of tea and solemnly looked over the notice. He cleared his throat and asked me if I would do him a little favor. I quickly said yes that I certainly would. He rummaged under the counter and pulled out a pen and scribbled a number on a scrap of paper. He picked up his phone and placed it in my lap.
“Myko, you caw taxi man. You ask why too muchee. You ask why evly year taxi go up! Too muchee! My biwding too old! Taxi too high. I got mousee, still taxi go up. No gut.”
Before I knew what I was doing, I was on the line to a representative of the municipal tax authority. I told them I was phoning on behalf of a good friend whose English was limited. I asked them to explain to me their justification for raising the tax in light of the fact that there had been no changes in the structure nor improvements to the services over the last period. I was told the usual. This is always comprised of the person answering not the question you asked but rather answering the question they would have rather that you had asked. If you pay attention you will see that all politicians are trained to do this very technique.
I hung up the phone and repeated the bullshit I had been told verbatim. Bing narrowed his eyes and poured more tea. I lit a smoke and said I was sorry for the hike in his taxes. Bing handed me an ashtray.
“Myko, you tly again. You too nicee. This tye, you no tok soff. You no tok nye. You make ass-ho tell you why taxi go up.”
A bit taken aback by this critique of my phone style, I attempted a second call. This time I did not let the ferret who answered circumvent the questions. When pinned to the wall of words, the representative basically admitted that it was robbery and snickered that there wasn't a great lot I could realistically do about it. I put the receiver down a bit hard.
“Better, Myko. You try in udder tye. You can learn,OK. No tokee soff to ass-ho, OK. Taxi man, BIG ass-ho of world.”
I thought of the bank man whom I had tried to get to loan me the down payment for the house across from Bing's shop. There would be other times, I knew. I remember feeling a mix of embarrassment at my unfinished social skills being so visible to Bing and a gratitude for his willingness to help me practice them. I also began to subconsciously wonder at why the old man was bothering with me in the first place.
The most animated I ever saw Bing was the day he announced that he had caught the mouse the night before. I was taken straight away to the warehouse and shown the trap and accompanying strategy which had proved successful. It was fairly ingenious and was tailor-made to the habits and traits of that particular mouse. Physically, the trap was constructed in such a way that the animal could see no bars nor impediments to its free travel in any direction. They were there.
It was a live trap I could see. I inquired as to the size, shape, age, sex, colour and eventual fate of the culprit. I imagined I'd be shown the dead body in the garbage bin. Instead I was ushered upstairs into the living quarters of the house attached to the store. Bing led me to a bathroom at the end of a dingy wall-papered hallway.
There in an old four-footer bath-tub which stood half-full of cold water was a plastic sour cream container. With its two little paws delicately perched on the lip of the container a wee brown mouse surveyed the expanse. Its body was rigid and its eyes were dilated with terror. The smallest movement would send it into the drink and the lip of the tub was out of jumping range on such a mushy platform. A swim was out of the question due to the temperature of the water and the unclimbable smooth wall of white porcelain yet to be scaled. The beastie was well and truly fooked, as the Irish say.
I looked at the little mammal which stood like a condemned monk in a coracle adrift in the Atlantic. I looked at Bing. I asked why he didn't just kill the mouse when he'd caught it. Bing clapped his hands and smiled.
“Myko, I kill mousee maybe tomolow. Rye now, I wan him to think about. So many het-ache he make for me. He nee to think about.”
“Bing, you wrong. Kill or don't kill. This way is no good.”
I felt the distance expand between us instantly as did Bing. He left the light on for the mouse and showed me downstairs. After that day and for the remaining years I held that route he did not look up from his counter when I dropped the mail and I bought my smokes elsewhere. That class was over. We both learned a few things.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.