Back in 2000-2001 I worked at a restaurant that turned into a dance club at night. It was trying to be South Beach in Michigan. Decorated with lots of flowing white breeziness. Upscale but fun. Proper entrees in the evening, fancified bar food served all night. Big-time DJs played there. The chef was a close, longtime friend of Eminem’s lawyer. Rude Jude, a guy known nationally for making stupid appearances on talk shows, worked there as the bathroom boy. One of those guys who offers you a towel and toiletries and shit.
I made salads and desserts. I had restaurant experience but I suspect they only hired me because I was good-enough-looking and was a DJ. The people there were fashionable party people, except for the cooks. The servers, bartenders, managers, hostesses, and even the busboys were all living it up.
Deep down, I knew something wasn’t right with this picture. All these nothing-special restaurant people having money for no clear reason. They were always blowing money on expensive drinks, and more, out at bars and clubs several nights a week. It seemed like every idiot had money but me, without doing much more to get it.
A gay server had a house party one night that it’s not a stretch to describe as opulent, despite it being in a modest house. He and his boyfriend set up multiple large tents with tables and chairs in the backyard, and nice ones too, not some plastic yard furniture. The tents were made of nice, colorful cloth. Torches and candles gave everything a comfortable glow. The multitude of tents made everything seem greater than it was, by creating nooks, crannies, and corridors. They had given their suburban backyard mystique.
And they had placed thoughtful, well-made snacks and lots of drinks and mixers everywhere. It must have cost a fair amount, even if they had used some tasteful “Queer Eye” frugality.
There was a bartender who said “Fred Durst is my hero.” He said it without any hint of knowing how stupid that is. He was driving me to my place after my car broke down in the parking lot where he lived. He looked in the rearview mirror and adjusted his baseball cap. “I wear my hat just like him.” Sure enough, he did, I realized. He always had on a red cap, backwards.
He had a decent car and his place was expensive. It was a condo or large apartment with a winding staircase and balconied upper level. His girlfriend was this outrageously hot server from the restaurant. They’d had a party at the place the night before.
Bartenders can make good tips at a busy nightclub. He also did web design from home. But was he really making so much that he could afford that place and his dimwit party-guy lifestyle? Could a person who let such words come out of his mouth pull this off without help from parents or taking on debt?
There was a server who was also a DJ and fairly well known in the Detroit techno underground at the time. He worked during the day as a mortgage broker. He didn’t have any training in finance. Those places were hiring anyone back then. I know this because that’s what he told me, excitedly one night while waiting for his food order. He said it was easy money, and anyone could do it. Just processing loans. They couldn’t get people fast enough.
I thought about doing it myself but it didn’t make sense. He’s bullshitting or there’s some catch, I thought. Turns out, it indeed didn’t make sense. When I saw “The Big Short” so many years later, those Florida douches made me think of him. He wasn’t douchey like them, but he did have the same message about making tons of money for doing nothing.
A year later, I dated a reporter who had a big new house in a cookie cutter subdivision still under construction at the time. Reporters don’t make that much money. Here she was with this spacious place, drinking red wine on the balcony, spending money on gas for the long commute downtown every day. This was on the outer edge of the urban sprawl, right in the target zone for the collapse that would come six years later. I heard she did in fact lose the place because she couldn’t keep up with the payments.
The restaurant was open for precisely one year. 9/11 came a few months after that. The web bubble had burst and then Bush and 9/11 came along and made certain that the revel years of the nineties were done for good. The housing bubble economic boom of the noughts didn’t have the same feel as the nineties, and we know why. It was false.
When that one burst in 2008, I’d had a feeling something wasn’t right and realized it went all the way back to this boujie restaurant. “I fucking knew it.” Only, I’d far underestimated how bad it was. I thought people just had gone too deep on credit cards or were using up parents’ money or had some other source I didn’t have. My family is lower middle class at its best times. I wasn’t in the habit of questioning why other people had more money than us. They always did. My whole life I’d been broke.
I didn’t realize everyone was living a false life funded by loans against their homes. No wonder they had all this shit. Brand new trucks and SUVs. Nice clothes. Out at the clubs. Horfing down pills. Taking vacations. Fucking vacations. These were people in their twenties. I never had any hope of a true vacation, as in taking trips to the beach in Florida or Texas and all that spring break shit. I knew people who regularly ran off to multi-day techno parties in other states.
Looking back now, this South Beach-wannabe restaurant club and the people there arise like the last outward expression of the sunny nineties, an extension of that era’s impulses. They, we, were still carrying it on, and expecting it to lead to even greater times. But whatever took its place felt different. The boom of the noughts came with a sickly feeling.
But for the time being I was down there in the basement kitchen preparing froufrou salads and creme brulees, my brain stewing in hangover gases and all the unrequested other-worldly thoughts they bring. “I’m gonna try to come up with the most difficult thing to say,” I said to Aunch the Raunch, my work partner. “A chunky, physically hard to say string of syllables.” What came out of my mouth was “boste yone bene yern.” It turned out to be all too easy to say, as I learned. It’s been going through my head ever since. I mumble it around the house without thinking about it. If a song’s lyrics can be replaced with it, I sing it that way. With variations on syllables this becomes all too easy. It was only in the middle of this year, seventeen years later, that it began to subside. But it’s still around. I tried to stop it years ago but failed totally. I didn’t even put in much effort. It was clear from the get-go there was no stopping this. It was too powerful, an overwhelming force. Even this year’s respite must be on uncertain ground. It came about because of a personal crisis so thoroughly distracting that it finally got blasted it out of there. But with disturbing origins, the peace is uneasy.
A semantic virus.
My brain was on fizz.
Aunch readily picked up the phrase and we were off to the races. I was dating her even though she was living with her boyfriend. We’d get lifted on psychedelics with her stripper friend. A few week later, we three got high on ketamine and acid, spacing out on acid on a blanket in the basement of the boyfriend’s unheated house in Detroit winter. He had some fool notion of rehabbing and selling it even though it was in a hopelessly shitty neighborhood.
He was out of town. We laid out a blanket and created a sanctuary amid the filth and mid-construction destruction of this house. “This is our barnyard.” I told them. “We can’t leave the barnyard.” Somehow from this, in our drug wonderment there on the basement floor, boste yone bene yern turned into post your own barnyard. Posted up on the blanket, hiding in our barnyard, posting barns. Something like that. “We gotta post our barnyard. We gotta boste our barnyard. We gotta boste our bene yern.” They were keen on it and embellished the theme for hours, rarely leaving the square.
Every year people say, “I can’t believe it’s already been that many years since 9/11.” But try to remember life when 9/11 and then the Great Recession hadn’t happened yet. Now that seems like seventeen years ago. More than that. It feels like it was never real.
This is how I was spending the months leading up to what continues to feel like the unrelenting slide that has followed. Life has never been quite as buoyant as then. Down in those basements with Aunch. On the cusp. It all might as well have happened in another dimension.
I bought my first cell phone a few weeks before 9/11. I entered senior year of college. I graduated into a thickening Michigan economic malaise.
A staffer returns with my hotel bucket of ice. I fix myself a drink from the mini-bar and sit down in the cushioned chair of the living room area. A spacious hotel room. Astor House Hotel, built in 1846, first and oldest hotel in Shanghai, says the hotel information booklet on the desk. President Grant, Charlie Chaplin, and Einstein stayed here. I had no idea of any of this. Not as expensive as the finest hotels in the city now, but well-maintained and right on the Bund. Through the window I can see the whole length of the strip before me. Stick my head out and look to the left and there’s Pearl Tower.
About $500 for three nights, tax included. A great bargain. I’d rather be here than somewhere newer. I settle into my chair and my drink and feel like I’m in 1930s Shanghai. A Western traveler living it up, getting into mischief in a foreign land. I wonder what these walls have seen.
I spied a bistro around the corner in the same building on the way in. I head over there for some food. Sashimi is what I want but it’s too late for that. Only pizza. But it’s good pizza, with some kind of fancy Italian cured meat sausage on it. Pizza will end up being mostly what I eat, in Shanghai. Shameful.
I need to get some woman action while I’m here. I haven’t done much on that front since moving to China four months ago. Too busy getting adjusted to the new life. Every facet of it different, from paying utility bills to taking on a new job. Every time I get a chance to take a breather with a few days off, I end up too drunk to enjoy it, shaking off some near-miss, shuffling off back to work, tail between legs and brain on mush.
I fire up the WeChat messaging app’s “People Nearby” function. All I have to do is open it, and within minutes I’m getting women contacting me. In Beijing, they are a mix of regular women and prostitutes, as near as I can tell. I’ve only bothered to meet one so far. She came by the neighborhood bar I was at. It was a rollicking night. I put my arm around her, as she exclaimed pleasant surprise at my looks. She went home after a while, and I stayed at the bar, getting acquainted with new local expat friends. That’s as far as that went, except the next morning she called crying because some “bad man” had killed her cat. She was devastated. I felt terrible for her and consoled her. But we haven’t contacted each other since.
I get bombarded with women contacting me. I try to manage them but now the bar owner is chatting me up though his English is sparse. I can’t concentrate on both so I pay the bill and head outside to focus on the phone.
I’m standing on the corner. An old lady approaches me, selling some laser-pointers. I brush her off. But she persists. They aren’t little toy laser-pointers. These things look like heavy-duty flashlights, albeit smaller. She shines one at the top of a skyscraper that must be at least a mile away. The green dot hits it like it’s right next to us, and it’s a pretty big dot, for a laser point. This thing must be illegal.
I say I’ll take one, but not at the 500 RMB she wants. That’s nearly $100. I offer 20 RMB. We settle at 50. Around $8.
Back to it. I’m honing in on one woman who seems to be less prostitutey when another woman approaches me on the street. She’s selling sex too. Not for herself but as a go-between. A pimp, I guess.
“You can have a woman for 300, or she go to your hotel room for 600.”
I hem and haw because this is not what I’m aiming for here. But it’s Shanghai and adventure, and, increasingly in my mind, the 1930s. She’s right here in front of me, whereas the women on the phone may never work out. I relent.
“OK. I’ll go with the hotel for 600.”
“OK! First we have to go so you can choose one. You like tall? Small?”
“I don’t know. Small.”
We walk several blocks away. She’s talking the whole time, half English, half Mandarin. We go into a brothel. She ushers me past a front desk where two dudes smile at me. I smile politely and wave.
She puts me in a room. She says there will be a few rounds of whatever I want. She says it will cost me 300. I pay up. She brings in a woman who gives me a handjob.
“What about sex?”
“After this we go another room, two more times sex, another woman if want.” She smiles and asks for a 100 RMB tip. I give it to her.
Immediately afterward, my pants still down, enters one of the dudes, who closes the door. I instantly see where this is headed. “Here it comes,” I think.
“You might have already paid for the woman. But you need to pay a room fee.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes. You must pay for the room. We don’t know that woman you brought here. ”
He’s got his serious face on. Grimming me hard. Doing a laser stare at my eyes and furrowing his brow. Trying to rattle me. But he’s trying too hard. I ease back in the couch after gathering myself, fold my suit jacket in my arm and sip on the beer can one of the women set out for me.
“And just how much does this room cost then?”
“10,000 RMB.” That’s over $1,600.
“That’s not going to happen.”
I’ve been in enough ridiculous situations to know not to lose my cool. I’ve been mugged by a crackhead, watched a crack dealer draw a gun on a passenger in my car, gotten arrested in front of a five-star hotel, been sued twice, and had countless run-ins and fights with hoodlums growing up.
“You think the woman works with us but we don’t know her. She just brings you here. We are a business too. This room is not free.”
He won’t shut up. Part of his strategy is to wear me down through words. So he goes on and on. I occasionally counter just to signal that my position hasn’t changed. “You’re full of shit. She works for you and you know it. I’m never going to believe you. You’re never going to get that money from me. It’s just not going to happen.”
I get up to leave and see what he’ll do. He blocks the door. He’s smaller than me. I could fuck him up. But the question remains, who’s on the other side of the door?
I go back to my couch. “Are you going to fight me?”
“No. I don’t want to fight. You are older man. I respect older people.”
I hold my beer can, imagining the single motion I’d need to hit him in the face with it. If the need comes. Don’t initiate violence if it can be helped. Don’t escalate.
I lean my head back and close my eyes. Sip my beer. Bring my head forth and belch loudly. “Oh, excuse me.” Don’t escalate. Offer instead a confusing mix of rudeness and politeness. I couldn’t give less of a shit and am not at all ruffled, pounding though my heart may be.
“Do I need to call the police?”
“Maybe we should call the police on you. Huh? You brought a woman here.”
“Can I get another beer?” Incredibly, he gives me one without hesitation. Cracks the door and yells out.
“Listen, I’ll give you 300.”
He scoffs. “No way.”
“That’s all I have. And the woman did say 600 at first so it’s still in the realm of what I said I’d pay. Now that was supposed to be for a hotel visit, but…”
“That’s not enough.”
“Well, I guess you’re fucked.”
I pull out my wallet to show him the three 100 bills. Maybe the sight of the money will inspire him to get on with his night.
I look in the wallet. There’s only two bills. I have to laugh. This won’t help my case. “Hey, man… I thought I had 300 but I only have 200. So that’s what you can have. That’s it. 200, or go fuck yourself.”
“No. We say 10,000 and you say 200?” And he’s off babbling again.
I lean head back and close my eyes again. After a while I pretend to be asleep, with a little snoring.
“You are an American? You come here to Shanghai and think you can do whatever you want? You always go around to clubs and cause trouble?”
“I’m not some tourist. I live in Beijing.”
“I don’t care about Beijing. This is Shanghai.” Shanghai people are notoriously snobby. They look down on Beijing.
“I work for the government.”
He pauses for a split second. I see it in his eyes.
Don’t elaborate on the job, hope he doesn’t ask. I don’t want these guys contacting my employer. I’m bluffing that they’ll be too concerned about their own situation, about how they’re doing something illegal.
“I don’t care you work for government. You have to pay for the room. We don’t know that woman…” and he off he goes again, repeating the same lines.
Meanwhile, I take my phone and put a lock on the screen. These guys could use it to transfer money to them using one of China’s many payment apps. But he thinks I’m trying to contact someone.
“What? You have some network? Some government friend?”
I glance at him, say nothing.
“You have government friends. We have friends too.” He goes on. The word “gangster” is mentioned.
While I’m at it, I look for the emergency numbers I put in my directory months ago. There might be one for English-speaking police. But I see the signal’s very weak.
At one point early on, when the handjobber was still in the room, I’d tried to check my phone for something and noticed I had very little signal. Odd for downtown Shanghai. The woman noticed my confusion and said something about how there’s no signal in here. I could tell by the way she swirled her hand in the air and looked upward, as to indicate the wireless network.
“Are they jamming the signal in this place?” I think now. So no one can ever call for help?
He goes out and comes back with a piece of paper. Little piece with Chinese handwriting on it. “Sign this, we let you go.”
“No way I am signing that.” His next trick has fallen flat on its face. Not one twitch of a reaction from me. It’s starting to get amusing. Comes in with this, expecting my eyes to widen and wheels start spinning in my head. “What do I do?? Should I just sign it and get this over with?” Instead he gets an utterly dead reaction.
I can see he’s growing more desperate. He’s sitting there grimming me, the minutes clicking by as I sit there, unmoved like a fat rock.
He leaves and the other guy comes in. He’s bigger, about my size, glasses. Less intense look in his eye. I give him the same airs as the first guy. He offers me a cigarette. I shake my head. Then, “Oh what the hell. OK.” Calm my nerves.
“How long are we gonna do this? I can sit here all night. I don’t give a shit.”
“I no English,” he says and takes a drag on his cigarette. He’s just babysitting. This can’t be how these guys want to spend their night. I see this is a stalemate and this is far as they’re willing to push. They don’t know what the fuck to do. We’ve been at this for at least an hour.
I pull out my phone again to kill some time by sending a message to a friend back in the states. I’ve been sending him updates on my trip. “Trapped by hooker into place that shaking me down for money.” The message sends successfully. Must be some amount of signal in here at least.
But I’ve alarmed my babysitter. He opens the door and calls out to his friend. I hear him use the Chinese word for “WeChat”, the messaging app I’m using. He seems to think I’m sending a message to a friend here, possibly a government coworker connection of some sort.
As I fumble in my coat to put back the phone, I find that laser pointer I bought earlier. “Hey, check this thing out,” I tell the guy and start pointing it around. Lighten the mood. A distraction. Part instinct, part experience tells me introducing small new elements like this can change a situation’s dynamic. It works precisely because it seems so inconsequential.
I adjust the filter on the end that splits the laser beam into a dazzling pattern. The man expresses some interest in the shiny lights.
The other dude comes back. “What is that? Some toy?”
“A laser pointer. Cool, huh?”
“How much did you pay for that toy?”
“20.” I lie. I don’t want him getting the idea I habitually overpay for things.
He scoffs. Not sure whether it’s because he knows I’m lying or because he thinks I overpaid. “OK. Give me the 200 and the toy, we let you go.” He thinks I’m showing off this thing as a bargaining chip, sees it as a face-saving way to get out of his jam. I should have exaggerated the toy’s price.
“No way. The 200 or the toy. One or the other.”
He lets loose a look of exasperation. “OK, OK. Give me the 200.”
I hand it to him. They open the door. I walk through the dirty, shabby hall and front room. This place appears to be a former karaoke business.
Dude No. 2 opens the door for me. I pull out my government-issued “Foreign Expert Certificate” from my coat and flash it at him. “Be careful,” I tell him as I exit. He spits and throws his cigarette lighter on the street hard enough to shatter it.
I let out a satisfied breath. Invigorating. Belched in that fucker’s face. I thought they were going to take me out back and pummel me.
Just when I thought my shenanigan days were well behind me.
The night air is warm and clean. December in Shanghai.
I walk to the Family Mart I spied on the way to the brothel an hour or two hour ago. “I haven’t been to a Family Mart since Korea.” I buy three tall cans of beer and go back to my hotel.