It was bar number four. She was tired, and had a quizzical look on her face, "Did you ever think -why are we here right now- in this place? Is it fun?" I was impressed she was having this thought at 24. Ten years older, here I was in a cramped, smoky space in the small hours of the morning. I looked around at the drunken, dancing crowd. A Radiohead song set to a techno beat was unexpectedly brilliant. But fun or not, it was too late. Especially for the rapidly-approaching-middle age crowd.
We came down the stairs into the nightime cold. The street, an alley behind Sanlitun's main bar street, was the hub of passable nightlife in Beijing. It was filled with the drunken, the begging and the drug-dealing. We found ourselves in front of a vendor's cart and peeked over. The cook slapped a battered mixture against a sizzling grill. Jian bing guozi, something between a fajita, a crepe and an omlette. How much for one? she asked. One point five yuan, came the answer. Between 17 and 18 U.S. cents. Okay, two, she said.
I looked at her as we waited. She'd been here for two weeks now, and her presence was like a candle in the darkness. If all went well, we'd leave the following week for a month in Thailand. But then I'd come back alone to Number 2 Village of Happiness, with it's stagnant elevator and scarred and filthy walls, and spend another four months in the dark, waiting...
A man with a cane and an enormous grin approached us at a bracing hobble. The grin revealed just one tooth. In near perfect English he said, "How are you?" and said something in garbled Chinese. She teased him: "Oh my God, your English is so good, where did you learn?" But it was all he knew. He repeated his garbled message and pointed. "He wants bing, not money?" I asked. Actually, I knew I knew what he wanted, but couldn't believe it; I'd never seen a beggar here actually want anything other than cold hard cash.
When it comes to begging, I fall to the right of Rush Limbaugh jacked up on pain killers. I am a total Nazi. If you are walking and talking, you can do something other than beg, even if it is put on some kind of performance to try and earn money. The last time I gave money to a beggar in China was in 2003, when a homeless female child begged her way into a few kuai. As I took out the money and handed it over, out of nowhere a swarm of 10 to 15 beggars swarmed and pulled and prodded and wouldn't let me leave. It was the last time I ever took out my wallet.
But the old man wasn't interested in money. He wanted food. It was different. Let's order another one I said. Yeah, okay, she said. The first one was ready; in a little plastice bag, folded over and over again, heavy in its own grease. I handed it over. He tucked in immediately, but somehow the big grin was still obvious as he shuffled off.
I thought over where we'd been. We'd started the night at Bed, our constant hangout, with its traditional Chinese beds on which you sat and drank, always reminding me of a slightly more cavelike and dark Roman banquet. On to the Stone Boat, a tiny little place in Ritan park, by the lake. It'd been packed, which I thought was great, but the Chinese students I'd invited, professionals working in the city, hung awkwardly in the corner and left early. The rest of us, five or so, decided upon venturing into the infamous Maggie's on our way out, where middle-aged foreign men engaged in "cultural exchange" with local and Mongolian women half their age, as one of the local magazines put it.
Maggie's was worse than I'd imagined. Prostitutes dripped off high-backed chairs, alone or in groups of three. Bloated white men in their 50s stumbled around, looking to put their hands somewhere. On the dance floor, what looked like a group of American college freshmen in matching t-shirts whooped it up. We didn't stay long.
We'd made one more stop, at a new club called China Doll, with huge paneled pictures of Chinese models, semi-nude in flowing poses underwater. Now out on the street and waiting for a three am snack, I rubbed my hand over my face and wondered when I would stop having nights like this.
Just as the next bing was coming ready, an elderly woman with a clearly mentally disabled and partially blind son appeared. She said she wanted something to eat. One more, we said to the man cooking. She thanked us and handed the food to her son.
A few minutes later ours come ready. But the price has changed- now 2.5, not 1.5 kuai. She looks ready to argue, and I say forget it babe, it doesn't matter. There must be something in the air tonight, I never let things go this easily. We dodge the waiting taxis and young drunks, scarfing the smoking bing as we walk. I'm glad I've not made a fuss over the extra money; altogether four people were fed. It cost one-and-a-quarter U.S. dollars.
As we leave, the old, one-toothed old man hobbles back toward us. Great, I think, this is where he hits us up for more. But instead he grins at us, and rubs his stomach, and says with the uniquely Chinese repetition of three: thanks, thanks, thanks.