Sunday, July 07, 2002

Busy Sidewalks

Maybe it's old age racing up into my face. I am not sure. But I do know that something about... No, almost everything about walking on Hong Kong's sidewalks, gets to me. Bess says I am having trouble adjusting. I think everybody is. Not everybody else, mind you.... Everybody. Yesterday I thought I would pay special attention to try and figure out what the problem might be. I have, unlike my usual self, made an outline of what I have seen.

A. Crowded. The sidewalks are extremely crowded. I remember how crowded the sidewalks used to be in Shanghai, when I visited there on occasion. But in Shanghai, they just put a fence or two in the street and extended the sidewalks out another 10 feet into the road on both sides of the street. That helped a lot. Also, in Shanghai, a tall American was enough of a novelty that people stopped to stare and even backed up for a full view. Thus, the crowd was often parted for my regal estate to pass in a manner much to my liking.

B. Busy. Now here one thinks that the author has begun repeating himself. While this is often the case, it is not so at this time. Yes, the sidewalks are busy with pedestrians, but it is another busy to which I refer. Persons stand on these crowded sidewalks to do their business. Most often it involves the passing out of pieces of brightly-colored paper covered with Chinese Characters (but it might also be a name card with the owner wanting you to draw nearer so that he can whisper in a confidential tone what he is offering, knowing full well that should he speak in a normal volume, he would be swamped with buyers). Because of the Chinese characters, I have no idea what the written messages are. They might be, "Pay to the bearer...", but I don't think so, because even those who read these characters just keep on going, the extended arms of the distributors swinging like turnstiles in the entrance to a ball park. And then there are the street vendors with carts, large carts, the size of ping-pong tables. These carts are covered with garments usually. Maybe underwear or designer-looking clothes. Sometimes with fake watches or purses and pocket books. These are not sales persons waiting for the customer to bite. They are rather, aggressive individuals who nearly stop you with their shouts and clapping and incredible prices. (10 Pair of underwear, $5.00!) But then, how about those selling toys? It might be something innocent (in a child's bedroom) like a ball on a string. This ball is thrown into the unsuspecting crowd, string still attached.

Suddenly you realize that you not only have bodies to avoid who are moving all around you, but there is a kind of unbreakable spider web that you must now hurdle as well. And, the ball will return. There are 747's whose batteries allow them to start out slowly and pick up speed as they take off down the sidewalk and then stop, aborting their take off no doubt because of the pilot's seeing that there are several hundred people on the runway, and that they are all much larger than the aircraft. These aircraft then turn and come back to the seller, who controls them with his hand held device.

C. Dangerous. Yesterday I found a child whose father was teaching him to ride a bicycle down the sidewalk. When one lives in an apartment on such a street in Hong Kong, that's the only place to learn, I guess. But, is it the only time? What ever happened to the concept of children learning to ride bikes at 3:00 am?

D. Pathetic. Beggars realize that if you are going to beg, you need to go where the action is. They do not, as in some places, just sit against the building with an outstretched hand. Here they are much more dramatic. A beggar will lie down with his feet (or foot, if that is his affliction) against the building and body stretched out directly across the path of those walking down the sidewalk. He often knocks his head on the pavement showing his absolute homage to those with coins. In front of him is a hat or cup or bowl into which a few cents have been tossed. If a limb is missing, the clothing is arranged in such a way as to give full view to the deformity. Fathers sit with small children, usually a normal father and normal child. The father looks down, showing his humility and abject hopelessness. The father looks around wondering who everyone else is going somewhere, and they are just sitting there doing nothing. The sympathy for these silent types is not too generous.

E. Challenging. Planted in the sidewalk are numerous objects that have to do with the function of a city. Like just ahead is a fence. This is because that intersection is not a good place to cross. Or, some of the largest fire hydrants in the world. They are not tall, but squat and as big around as the spare tire for a greyhound bus. I fell over one yesterday. The Chinese have been given while in the womb, the ability to glide past these without giving evidence to those of foreign extraction, that danger lurks. A thousand persons can walk ahead. No indication is given that a great obstacle lies in the way. I glance into an open shop and then find myself in the very next instant lying on the paving with lumps on my shins.

F. All Wrong! In Hong Kong, the traffic drives on the left. One would then think that persons would also walk on the left. They do, but only when forced to do so by escalators. Until they board the moving stairs, they walk on the right. When they reach the upper or lower floor, they again revert to the right. There is therefore much confusion at both ends of an escalator, as persons are crossing over, kind of like changing the wheels from narrow to wide gauge on the trains when crossing the border between western free and eastern communist Europe. There is the sense that the body is conditioned to drive and walk on the right, naturally, and that something British in the past of Hong Kong has confused Mother Nature herself.

G. The Oblivious. There are countless persons allowed to walk freely on the streets of Hong Kong who are oblivious to all else. They are those who seem to have some disorder which requires frequent stopping. They sometimes stop while walking down the sidewalk as if they just remembered that when they walked out of their apartment they remembered seeing an open flame on the sofa or somewhere. Where was it? Or maybe they are quicker of wit and remember immediately where it was. These just turn around while walking, continuing to walk, but having just done an about face. Those behind them must know without warning that this is about to happen. I have not yet divined the method of discerning the probability of an about face, and often do a full frontal body with persons who I have never seen before, nor am likely to again. Still others are attracted by something being sold on the street or in a shop. So attracted, that they cannot go another step. They just stop. Or maybe they have had some invisible wand passed over them that has turned them to stone. One that I dread, but which happens quite often is those persons who get to the top of the escalator and upon reaching terra firma, just stop to chat with a friend who was with them as they ascended. The crowd behind them, of course, cannot stop without a power outage. Bodies tumble and scramble around them. They give no attention whatsoever, but continue to visit casually until that special moment has passed and then they saunter on.

To give you an idea of what these obstacles do to the flow of foot traffic, I have sent a picture of a busy sidewalk to my website. The address is Look at the picture and imagine any one of the above. But to get the real picture, imagine all of them at once.