The mean and the angry. A short story

A provocation on the Beijing subway

I’ve often been struck by the small eyes of mean people. They are not actually any smaller than normal people’s, of course, just narrowed in perpetual suspicion. But it does render them conspicuous, alerting us to their presence, while the blank inscrutability they adopt in compensation only calls greater attention to themselves. Other things give them away, the unwashed face, the haphazard, functional clothes, the same Walmart jeans and T-shirts or sweatsuits their mother picks up for them as they outgrow each pair. Alternative forms of dress never occur to them, unless a girlfriend happens to slap on a new idea that sticks.

Stereotypically, the mean are identified with the educationally disadvantaged from the ghetto. We‘re not talking about the apparel of the ‘hood—the baggy jeans hanging off the ass, the chains and jewelry and luxury sneakers. Those are fashion statements, and not all their wearers are violent or disadvantaged. Enamored of the idea of violence but averse to it in practice, they play symbolically with it, skirting its edge, and only get tripped up by accident. Their stylized clothes are as immaculate and spotless as military uniforms. Gangstas and fashionistas value life and aesthetics too much to flirt with chaos. They want a place on the map.

The mean, in contrast, all look alike. It’s not just ex-slaves; their former masters resemble them as well.

I recall a hot summer night walking down a Chicago sidewalk on a trip home to slaveholder land. Three young slaveholders came my way. The tallest one, muscular but lithe, magnetically beautiful but for the boyish clothes, destined to be a panther in his next life for his misdeeds in this, spat some curse at me. It was all too momentary and I scarcely remember how I reacted, whether with my eyes or a word of hedged acknowledgment. How should one react? We don’t want to engage them, but neither do we want to elicit, by seeming to ignore them, a dreaded “Hey! I’m talking to you.” I certainly did nothing to provoke him, whose fury would have known no bounds. I continued on without incident, chilled by eyes the color of bone.

It’s not cultural but universal. Back in famine land too the mean can be spotted in the same obscure clothes, the same vacant eyes. I was in a taxi one evening on Beijing’s Third Ring Road when a car veered into our lane and cut us off. My driver swerved back at the car in annoyance and then got a closer look at the occupants. At the wheel was a shirtless man with a shaved head and a boyish face. Galvanized and yelling, he lurched haywire at us. We slowed down and turned off at the next exit. “That car will follow us if we stay on the expressway, and I don’t want any trouble,” said the driver. I didn’t protest the detour.

Now the angry, on the other hand, are an altogether different breed. Whereas the mean tend to be locals and misfits, the angry are likely to be waidiren, or outsiders, people who flock to Beijing from the surrounding countryside or other provinces to get a foothold in the center, where a better life beckons, half a million of them pouring into the capital every year. Most outsiders are mingong, the “floating” population of the skilled and semi-skilled working in construction and factories, the service industry or sex work, who have ventured far from their rural hometowns. But there are also many outsiders who don’t make it, disillusioned by the long hours and harsh conditions of work in the big city, who quit or get fired or lack hirable skills altogether and are too proud to acquire any. Whereas the mean are highly employable as freelance workers in petty crime or the scam industry, the angry are more likely to be unemployed.

Both are fond of the subway, the Beijing subway in particular, which counts among the cheapest in the world, with its fixed fare of 32 US cents for unlimited riding along 300 miles of track. The mean put their time to good use. They might be found standing next to the escalator during rush hour, snatching an iPhone out of a lady’s hand after she has stepped on and is trapped by the people behind her; or they might be on the crowded train itself groping female protuberances. The angry ride the train because they have nothing else to do, where they can glare at the privileged, not those who no longer ride the subway because they’ve acquired a car, but the minimally well off with at least a job or a family. The angry are transparent, openly brooding at rather than stealing flesh, but they might rape if provoked. The mean are elusive and if caught in the glare of light, expressionless; the angry are full of expressiveness. Yet one must admire their self-control. If someone succeeds in mastering his impulses 99 times out of a 100, shouldn’t we give him credit for those 99 victories instead of blaming him for the one time he lashes out?

The Beijing subway is the most crowded in the world and beyond the comprehension of those who haven’t experienced it. Beggars know not to work the subway during rush hour. You have to stand in line and wait for several trains to come and go, so packed only a handful can squeeze on at a time. Compounding this problem is the panicky surge of passengers who want to get off the train. A struggle ensues at the doors as people try to get on without allowing anyone off. There are also those who congregate at the doors when they don’t need to get off anytime soon. Accounting for this is the apparent lack of the concept of public space. Any space you occupy is automatically your private space, and you don’t give it up lightly. Chinese traffic jams are often the result of a stationary car obliviously obstructing everyone else; many die in ambulances heading to the hospital, sirens squealing but blocked by cars, bikes or pedestrians refusing to give way.

There are those who congregate at the subway door even when there are few passengers and there is ample room in the car. Some do this heedlessly, but I have noticed more and more of the angry doing this on purpose. So with some passengers blocking the entrance because they need to get off soon, others doing so absentmindedly, and still others doing so deliberately, it can be quite an ordeal nowadays to get on, and not just during rush hour. The curious thing is that most are barely aware of your exertions in pushing past them and no feathers get ruffled, though caution is advised when forcing yourself past the angry.

One sympathizes with their need to maintain a veneer of dignity and their poignant desire, in the absence of any actual power in their life, to command a small patch of territory. It’s more difficult to do this out on the street than down in the subway, where by blocking the door they can control and regulate the flow people on and off the train. They remind me of those quixotic homeboys in imaginary bearskins and epaulets stationed at elevators in Chicago housing projects, deciding who can enter or not and exacting fees at will. Still, force yourself on you must, not that one wants to cross them, as difficult as they’re going to make it for you.

I recognized his type at once, the tall, beautiful body, the boyish clothes, the steely rage in his genuinely small eyes. The train was fairly crowded but there was space behind him. Though penetrating his defenses would be awkward, I was confident he would cease to be aware of me once past him, his reality defined by the comic-book dimensions in which he was stuck. Unless, that is, I glared or snapped at him. That would be crossing the line. That would lose his face. And that is exactly what I did.

“You called me what?” he shouted.

“I said let people past, motherfucker.”

The release of his coiled energy sent my Kindle and me onto the floor. The Chinese do not as a rule aid the stricken but yield to the spectacle. Like a flock of birds alighting in unison, they opened up the whole space of the car for us. The former transportation vessel was now an intimate theater. The fact I was a laowai only made them the more aghast and fascinated. Not that it would have mattered to him, for whom all of us on the train, city people and the odd foreigner alike were the hateful privileged, discounting of course any angry others present (the mean by contrast are attuned to the presence of foreigners, avoiding them as risky criminal targets or singling them out for that very reason).

I don’t know how long he pummeled me, as I forgot what happened afterward. I woke up in the hospital badly beaten. They said I was found unconscious on the street. Nobody knew how I got there. I have a fractured recollection of leaving the station but no idea how. Would station security have helped me out only to dump me at the subway entrance? I suppose I staggered out of my own accord and he followed me, escorting me or perhaps even carrying me out, in order to finish his business at ease outside in the relative darkness.

Unlike the mean, the angry are not as a rule interested in theft (or they forget to steal in the heat of the moment), and though my Kindle had disappeared, he took neither my cellphone nor my wallet, containing my insurance card and preferred hospital. Luckily so, as Chinese hospitals are known to refuse treatment to those who cannot present evidence of the means to pay. The police will clarify these details later, if I don’t get to watch myself on Chinese YouTube first. Strangely enough, I do not recall my thrashing nor am I in pain now, despite being bedridden with serious injuries. On the contrary, I feel quite refreshed and at peace.

 *     *     *

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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