George's apartment was on the old campus of the university, so while the previous year he had taught mere feet from his bed, he was now 40 minutes away from the school and had the option of taking the 7AM-6PM charter bus, or a prohibitively expensive cab ride. So we spent the entire day at the school, and it was time to let loose in the evening. I wasn't sure how George would pull off his known regimen of booze along with such a schedule, but I was to see it firsthand.
That evening, back in Jinan, we had dinner with George's friend Jared, who had accompanied him on his motorcycle trip. Despite having the appearance of a pretty-boy, Jared was down with some intense stuff, and was mulling over an idea for spending his next vacation walking from Mongolia back to Beijing, alone. He was also addicted to prostitutes and a hypochondriac. I walked in on Jared using George's laptop at one point to see him searching for testicular cancer online.
"Whoa, Jared, do you have a lump or something?"
"Well, I am not sure. My balls have kinda hurt for the past day or so. I just got over syphilis' little sister. I think I got it from a whore, but I didn't even fuck her; I just got a handjob. Fuck, I have the worst luck."
In any case, George and I later went out to the local bars to throw a few back. We went into a pretty modern bar, which was George's favorite. He said it was the right combination of cool décor and good people. We bellied up to the bar and I proudly ordered a Glenlivet on the rocks, excited to show him that after years of taste aversion dating back to my freshman year in college, I had finally grown an appreciation for his favorite beverage. This was met with some encouraging approval, and was quickly followed by a purchased bottle of Johnny Walker Black. Mmm, trouble.
George had been hesitant to tell the story, but it came out in conversation with the bartender that something had recently happened with his motorcycle, the one he had successfully crossed the country with twice.
"So George, have you found your bike?" the bartender asked.
"Have you heard anything?"
"No," George said, clearly reluctant to elaborate.
"Have you called the police?"
"No. I don't think that'd be a good idea."
"Shit man, what happened to your bike?" I asked.
Begrudgingly, George explained to me that just a few nights before, he had been out to the bars on his bike. Somehow, a good quantity of whiskey was consumed and the next thing he remembered, he was waking up in his apartment. Nothing too out of the ordinary, for George, until he realized he couldn't find his helmet. And when he went outside, his bike wasn't there either. At some point, he did find his helmet in some bushes, but as far as I know, he never found the bike. The cheap Chinese bike that survived many more miles and much more rugged terrain than it was ever intended to see. This thing was to be a trophy for the Qingqi company! It was supposed to land him gigs in advertisements and calendar shoots! Perhaps it was stolen. Perhaps George crashed it and walked away in a stupor. The world may never know.
We saw no harm in starting the evening with a little 'hair of the dog' anyhow.
On their motorcycle trek across China and back, George and Jared had found themselves in the loneliest of Chinese towns. These tiny dustbowls generally consisted of a single dirt main street lined with a few restaurants and shops, and the occasional barber shop. Most of these barber shops had a pink neon light in the window, which indicates that they are more than just a barber shop. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a pair of shears or a razor in these establishments. The pink lights in China mean the same thing as the red lights in Holland.
George and Jared had discovered this at some point on their trek, probably quite by accident, in searching out something to occupy their time while they waited, sometimes for days, for motorcycle repairs, generally ensconced in a self administered haze of whiskey or the local swill baijo.
In such a haze, judgment is most certainly rendered useless, and in such remote locales, one never has to be concerned with one's reputation. So George and Jared took to patronizing these establishments. And by patronizing, consider that in the condescending definition more than in the acting-as-a-patron definition, as George initiated me that night.
A large portion of the pre-purchased bottle of Johnny Black was consumed the night before my last day in classes with George. A taxi was procured and George declared that it was time to see the pink. I was as of yet unprepared for what that meant.
Separated by a thoroughly scratched piece of Plexiglas, George and a cab driver got into an animated conversation where communication was slowly made as the few words George knew were understood and answered by the taxi driver. There was a palpable excitement in the air, with both men peering over the divider to share their enthusiasm at the fact that they could communicate.
The cab swung around corner after corner, tossing me playfully from side to side as I took in the spectacle of conversation in the front. Eventually the car pulled into a quieter dead-end block which was lined with four and twenty barbershop windows, and a pink neon light in ev'ry one.
"The pink!!" George declared, tossing a few kwai at the driver, who excitedly bode us farewell, knowing exactly what we were up to. Or so he thought.
"OK, these are barber shops," George began to explain.
"Do you need a haircut? I just got one before I left.." I said.
"Fuck no, dude. These chicks don't cut hair! They're whores!! Now just follow me and play along."
We walked up the steps of what truly did appear to be a barber shop. There was a red white and blue barber pole, and past the glass doors were several barber chairs, each in front of a mirror, complete with a shelf laden with products. In the back, two hair washing sinks with tilting chairs completed the disguise. And as we opened the door, four young ladies, previously lazily watching a television, sat up and took notice.
Each wearing a notably skimpy outfit, particularly considering the frigid temperature outside, they smiled, and approached us, emitting a simultaneous chorus of ni hows, a true barbershop whoretet.
Most of the conversation took place in Mandarin, with George slathering on his smarmiest charm, and the girls playing coy. I caught George's key Mandarin phrases such as "doh show chen? (how much?)" and "wo she lao she (I am a teacher)". The latter consistently used to negotiate the former, often followed by an exclamation of "wo boo sha! (I'm not stupid!)" which indicated that because he was a teacher and had been around the block, he knew the proper price for a whore.
"They're trying to take us for all we got! They say that Caucasians are too big! They think we have money, but I will break them down."
Amidst more Chinese volleys back and forth, I heard George list off Chinese provinces he'd visited, pointing at an invisible, imaginary map that floated between us and the ladies. "Shandong, Henan, Anhui, Jianxi, Chongqing, Sichuan..." George rattled off, adding even more credibility to his understanding of a fair price for a roll in a filthy bed upstairs.
The girls were somewhat impressed by his itinerary, but stuck by their guns. Prices were thrown back and forth, and when an acceptable one was finally leveled at George he said something in Mandarin, grinned, and turned to me and indicated that we should go.
"It's great man. I walk in, they get all up in arms over how much it's going to hurt when they do us white guys, I play them hard for a price, and when they finally get themselves mentally ready to take it, I say 'ok, thanks, we'll think about it' and leave!"
This was recreation in China, a game that could only be played in the present circumstances, and I gladly went along for the ride, from one shop to another.
At one shop, George negotiated hard and told me that the girls do offer a less-dirty alternative, for under a dollar at his negotiated price: a head massage. Sounded great, so we accepted. Seated at adjacent barber chairs, generous helpings of frigid Pantene were poured on our dry hair. The girls carried on a conversation with a couple girls still watching a television, occasionally asking George a question that he understood. The typical "I'm a teacher, I've been all across your country" bit followed, with some giggling from the ladies as they massaged the shampoo into a thick, rich lather.
Our massages taken care of, we stumbled through the streets, road beers in hand, kicking the occasional stones into the gutter, and talking shit. When we finally had enough, we entered another taxi, and while I was tossed back and forth in the rear of the cab, gazing at the white cones the headlights formed in the ubiquitous haze, I heard George answer his cell phone.
"Yes, Billy!" he was talking with the school's head master. "Yes, Adam is with me. Yes, he does work at a travel company. Oh! I am sure he'd love to give a speech to the whole school! Tomorrow? Ten AM? No problem! I will let him know!" Click.
"You're guest of honor tomorrow, buddy!" George hollered towards the back seat, as my natural fear battled with the head full of whiskey, and the cab flung me against the passenger side door again.