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I’m at a pizza place in Beijing, maybe somewhere else. It doesn’t matter where. It’s in China so I usually get the same thing: pepperoni, sausage (if it’s homemade), mushrooms and/or onions (depending on spontaneity), and always extra cheese. Sometimes I do half and half, like a Margarita on one side and more loaded on the other. But this type of order invariably confuses the waitstaff, most of whom are conditioned to the prescribed titled options, like “Meat Lovers,” Quatro Formaggi,” and so on. Anything customized tends to rattle them, requiring a slow and deliberate explanation. In some cases the manager or chef is involved.
It has usually worked out in the end, and even when it doesn’t I’m still happy. Aptly written on a bumper sticker I once saw, “Pizza is like sex. When it’s good it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.” I’m a New Yorker after all, which makes me a venerable pizza junkie from birth. And while the bar for good “zah” has been set to the highest of Queens standards, I’ve years ago forgone any snobbery for a quick and easy fix.
But the last few years things have changed as a direct result of the growing prevalence of the cheese crust. The problem with the cheese crust is it doesn’t have enough flavor. So the logical and, from my upbringing, obvious solution is the addition of a simple side-dish of pizza sauce. It is upon this innocuous, if even harmless, request when the pizza situation goes pear-shaped.
The server is usually baffled, if even speechless, or at least floundering for words, in English in Chinese, it makes no difference. The sauce thing goes far beyond their training, far beyond the comfort zones of expectation. They have no idea what I’m talking about or what to do. And exhorting that I’ll pay extra for the pleasure only compounds complications.
I’ll call another passing server to come over and assist. While the original waiter still bumbles with inaction, the new one listens intently. This one scurries off and as quickly whizzes back with one hand proudly toting a bottle of grated parmesan.
“No, no, no. The TOMATO sauce the CHEF uses to MAKE the pizza.”
The first waiter finally speaks since taking my order, and he confesses that HE doesn’t know how to make pizza. While an incredulous reply, anything, after all, is possible with oft exception of the most obvious. So here I am, teaching THEM the basics on how to make pizza.
Luckily, I have an iPhone to assist in the crash course, and I’m Googling for images of pizza sauce, pizza, anything that might help. But the connection is too slow and besides, none of us has much patience. The waitress buzzes off again and soon reappears hopeful with a bottle of tabasco sauce. This is nothing new, I’ve seen this before.
A third person, a manager type-of-sorts, enters the scene. With optimism anew I extol my desire for dipping the cheesy crust into flavorful pizza sauce. She listens intently with the trained ear of one who’s ambitious for more authority. I ask if she understands, the flavor thing, does she get it? Does she eat pizza, does she even know how to make it? Reluctantly but with a disingenuous smile she noncommittally shakes her head denying all knowledge.
With the iPhone still in hand something occurs: a stroke of genius. I have a pizza-making app on the phone. My four-year old son loves playing it. It’s called “Pizza Party” or something. I open it with haste and hope, and the three of them huddle in. I select the make-your-own pizza game option, not the timed game where you have to make the pizza they choose.
I hurriedly get through the first stages: with an index finger I chop a pepper and click “ok;” now onto spreading the dough into a gooey amoeba shape. The accompanying sound effect of slurps goes unappreciated, even by me. And then onto the grand finale, and the very purpose of this entire song and dance: the sauce!
I excitedly finger the screen in circles showcasing the red splotch and reveling from the epiphany.
“Ketchup?” she bleats.
It is always the same: nonsensical and hopeless.
But the culinary dream is within reach, it is just a matter of endured passion, a matter of going the extra mile. It is not for lack of language nor of reason. And if I knew it were my only play, I would even march right into the kitchen with the three of them surely running after me and grab the pot of sauce in triumph.
But the inexplicable goes beyond understanding. Butterflies flap their wings. Brains fall apart.
I go into auto-drone: “pizza sauce, pizza sauce, pizza sauce?” I say it over and over. This is a desperate tactic, and they know it. I suggest someone asks in the kitchen. A simple favor. One of them goes, I think, then comes back. It is irrelevant.
On this occasion she returns and finally utters the magic words, “Pizza sauce.” She says them cooly and matter-of-factly as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had just transpired between us. She even confirms to my amazement that what I want is some extra sauce they put on the pizza, after the dough and before the cheese, the pizza sauce, yes, she knows now. But there is a problem, there is a catch, a caveat if you will. It couldn’t have been this easy. The issue at this juncture is the pizza sauce is cold. It is cold, I see, and so they can’t serve it this way. She is worried, at an impasse. She/They can’t be responsible if I get sick.
Though I would have never seen this coming it is still a step in the direction of progress.
“Heat it up. Put it in the microwave. I’m not going to get sick. It’s pizza sauce! I absolve you and your franchise of all responsibility.”
I raise my voice in case other patrons should bare witness. I again offer monetary compensation for the unusual provision. Harmony seems to have been restored, my chosen lunch order finally recorded.
Twenty minutes later the pizza arrives. Two waiters dutifully bring it over, one making a clearing on the table and the other presenting it. The manager comes stomping from the kitchen behind them with a smaller tray holding an elongated lasagna dish. It is empty accept for a thin layer of pizza sauce spread across the bottom. They couldn’t have gotten it more wrong than if they brought me the open can.
And the pizza sucks. The sauce instantly goes from microwave-piping hot to cold and congealed. I just want to cry, but I acknowledge the achievement with obligatory thanks, and I devour the sad pie and scrape the lumpy crust through the barely edible paste. I have long ago relinquished the bar on good taste. I am as happy as a pig in shit. And this story, this routine, in one iteration or another, would be entirely uneventful and unworthy of note were it not for the bizarre fact that I have lived it, as if through quantum parallel universes so often a time: the craving, the quest, some sauce on the side.
It’s 6:45 on a humid Sunday morning in Wuhan. The sticky asphalt and crumbling pavement secretes the soot and refuse from the night market vendors whom have just vacated the alleys. After one, maybe two hours of sleep, after a night guzzling the local formaldehyde-laced beer and befriending self-proclaimed criminals and out-of-work whores, sweating in the rancid early morning filth my taxi grumbles and squeaks at the rendezvous where I await true hell.
I’m about to be piled onto a minivan for four-hours of bumping and weaving along the Yangztee River to the Three Gorges Dam. But I won’t see the dam. In fact, I’ll be lucky to get more of a glimpse of the City of Yichang, though with a bent back and craned neck from aboard the short bus or possibly through an open sliver in a bathroom window at the conference hall while standing to take a piss. The aging venue will no doubt be sparkling in tacky grandeur, with worn upholstery and marblesque tiled corridors that waft of spilt Chinese spirits and unplumbed urine. And before I alight from the taxi to wake up to my nightmare, I remind myself of the treacherous return to Wuhan that night. At this point in the morning, however, the totality of the exhaustion and sensory dullness is just too insufferable to bear.
I contort myself exiting the taxi to avoid muddying my pants in the doorway, and this invariably causes my leg to cramp. Still reeling while the muscle throbs and sets, a woman in her sixties eagerly approaches as if waiting for my arrival. She is oblivious to my shattered state and animated to the point of offensive. Fervently, she accosts me at the curb and draws me onto the pavement. I am unable to acknowledge the gaggle of her young associates huddled outside the van, who seem sour and vague, and suck into pursed lips or through straws unrecognizable breakfast snacks that steam from sundae cups or plastic bags. The morning industrial traffic thunders close behind.
She does not introduce herself. Instead she forcibly launches into an unprovoked tirade about how Chinese are smarter than anyone else. “The Chinese are the best at math, and they’re the smartest people, much smarter than Americans!” As if hearing these words for the first time she bursts into laughter. “Chinese work so much harder, and I should know, because I was a middle school English teacher for over 30 years.” “Don’t you think Chinese are the smartest people?” she rhetorically exhorts. “We have 5,000 years of history. We can do anything. We are the smartest ethnic group in the world, even smarter than the Jews!” And she repeats these last two points twice.
I’m too riled to reply, too beaten to engage. The others waiting for the bus are too blasé to take notice. Their generation aside, I doubt their opinions would differ. Were they not so aloof to take notice, they might even find her behavior amusing, if not endearing. But this is irrelevant. My discomfort does not even cross her mind. And if it does, she could doubtfully comprehend her inappropriateness or simply wouldn’t care.
Hours later he would still brood over it, as if he had misplayed something, as if he should have said this or that, and he promised to get the words right next time. And there would always be a next time. More than a decade in China had taught him that. And the more he thought about it the more it infuriated him.
In the weeks that followed teaching at Mr. Yang’s school, it soon became apparent that he had a penchant for drugs. And he wasn’t discriminating, gobbling into his pie hole the rainbow’s spectrum from hash to heroin. But his poison of choice was Chinese ecstasy, or “head shaking fun” as it translates. For what these multicolored tablets lacked in MDMA they compensated for in amphetamines, rendering Principal Yang throughout the day both pasty and agitated and constantly grinding his teeth.
Another treasured side effect of the “head shaking fun” was an unending battle with impotence. This became particularly tiresome as hookers and drugs are as inseparable as chopsticks from rice. On one occasion Mr. Yang called me to his apartment in the middle of the night. One of the whores let me in and led me through the haze and din to an open bathroom where Mr. Yang was naked and leaning over the toilet. With the full weight of his torso pressed against the porcelain bowl as if body surfing, another prosi was crouched on the cold tiles and sodomizing him with a condom wrapped around her fore and middle fingers. Like a deer caught in headlights, Mr. Yang gormlessly peered up at me with his tinted glasses.
Mr. Yang tried to counter the impotence by munching imitation Chinese Viagra. He chomped them by the fistful like candy pez, reeling through the classrooms by day with a sustained and shriveled erection, but come the witching hour was still annoyingly unable to perform. This proved particularly irksome for his then girlfriend, a homely, overweight student turned school receptionist who had relocated from the countryside to Mr. Yang’s lair of vices.
One afternoon after classes Mr. Yang confided he had a problem to discuss, and he clawed me into the privacy of his office jittering and smacking his lips. His girlfriend had become testy with all his shenanigans, so he had reasoned were she more sexually gratified that this would give him the necessary license to continue on his rampage. His proposition was to pay me to fuck her, and he offered the confines of his office as a convenience. My dumbfounded reaction must have triggered this notion to be out of the question. But unwavering in his determination, he proceeded negotiating fellatio in place of intercourse. Upon again not being up to the bargain, Mr. Yang raised his price to $150 pleading, “Won’t you just please let her suck your cock.” After my sustained reluctance the bid became $200. By this point the mere idea was so outlandish that I almost relented, though in the end I never did let him pay me to have his girlfriend suck me off.
Mr. Yang’s trajectory soon went on a tailspin. One night during another ecstasy fueled orgy I peered into a room to find him tripping his nuts off while a hooker administered a clear bag of liquid into his arm through an IV. I did a double take not only due to the severity of what I was witnessing but also because it was the first time I saw Mr. Yang without glasses. His eyes were small blackened nuggets, and he gazed at me momentarily without reserve.
The last time I saw Mr. Yang was after he phoned to summon me to the Sheraton Hotel. I was with another foreigner at the time but he said it was okay for both of us to come. On the second floor lounge were seated the same group of men I had seen at the bathhouse nearly a year before. Mr. Yang offered us drinks and we all sat around quite civilly on the open sofas. I soon noticed while talking with my friend that everyone else was uncomfortably yet intently watching us. I pointed this out to my companion in a way they wouldn’t catch on, and we pretended not to take notice while continuing to be engaged in over-animated conversation. It was then I realized they were making sure we weren’t listening. Mr. Yang quietly told one of the men they could have his car, to which another man laughed, and after again glancing in our direction to check our ears, said that they had plenty of cars and didn’t need anymore. Mr. Yang also shifted his gaze upon us, though I told my friend not to break from our feigned chatter, which by now we had convincingly managed to disassociate from theirs. Mr. Yang offered the men his apartment, and one of them sighed with disappointment and said they already had enough apartments too. I was witnessing a mafia shakedown. Mr. Yang had obviously borrowed money to start his school from these men, from his childhood friends turned gangsters, and he was now being asked to pay the piper. Mr. Yang had called me to the hotel, to a public place, which in his mind must have somehow ensured his safety were things to get out of hand. After all, nothing defused an uncomfortable tension better than a pair of dumb foreigners.
A few days later I went to teach a class and learned that the school had closed. Mr. Yang had fled the country. One of the staff surmised he had gone back to Canada. His girlfriend was also gone, having presumably legged it back to the countryside. I never saw Mr. Yang again. He owed me $200 in unpaid lessons.