I knew Severin Knowles was bad news from the first email, but this didn’t stop me from accepting sight unseen his dubious offer of housing, flight reimbursement and airport pick-up as part of a package employment deal with the English language newspaper he published in Beijing.
The last promise made was the first he broke. My plane landed at 8, but it was close to midnight when I finally got through to his mobile phone. After I reminded him of our agreement, he drunkenly slurred directions to a bar called Glass Onion off Third Ring Road.
“Why didn’t you meet me at the airport?” I asked when I finally found the place. “I don’t know my way around Beijing.”
“I had an important business meeting.”
The next promise to fall by the wayside was the flight reimbursement, the “cash in hand” mentioned in our e-mail agreement.
“Cash flow problems are common in the newspaper business,” Severin said, handing me a lit pipe. After several pulls of black Xinjiang hashish I felt better. But as any drug user will tell you, such harmony is transitory.
“This is the last of the hash,” he told me, suggesting we get more soon.
I agreed wholeheartedly. We were responsible for putting out the finest English language weekly in China. Hashish would keep us productive.
I was writing my first feature story for the paper the next evening when Severin came over to my desk. He looked over my shoulder and nodded approvingly.
“Way ahead of deadline. Let’s go score hash.”
He didn’t need to tell me twice. I threw some reporter gear into my messenger bag, and together we lit out through Beijing in his white Toyota SUV. Passing the Gate of Heavenly Peace, he lit a fat joint.
“Last of the hash…” he said.
By the time the joint was gone, the only man-made light came from burning trash cans. We were on a street that seemed to have been demolished. Piles of brick and rubble 200 feet deep were on either side of the road, beyond which lay some dilapidated housing. We were deep in Beijing’s Muslim ghetto, a place Severin called Uyghurville.
This was a neighborhood not marked on tourist maps, a part of Beijing where few Han Chinese lived and police ventured tentatively and in large numbers.
“Who knocked down the buildings?”
Severin arched an eyebrow. “Don’t you read People’s Daily? These structures were illegal. They were knocked down for the happiness and safety of the people.”
The SUV slowed to a crawl on the potholed avenue. Severin seemed to be looking for someone amidst the milling crowd of men in earth colored gowns and round knit caps roasting bread and meat over open fires. The drugs in my brain did not mix well with the Beirut ambiance. I felt extremely conspicuous in our milk white SUV and pink skin.
“Look how happy and safe they are,” Severin muttered as he parked next to a tall man cooking over a metal trash can. “Let me do the talking.”
A banging from behind made my head jerk violently. A bearded Uyghur in snow white robes was smacking our vehicle with the business end of a large cudgel.
“Don’t talk to this guy,” Severin ordered through a mouth full of bread. “He’s an asshole.” But the man with the cudgel would not be ignored. He tapped the window again, yelling in toneless, staccato Mandarin.
“Ni-yao-du-pin-ma? Wo-you! Hen-hao! Hen-pian-yi!”
(“You want drugs? I have. Very good! Best price.”)
Severin cracked the window.
“Let me see it.”
“You give money. I bring back.”
Rolling up the window, Severin went back to his bread. The rapping became more insistent.
(“I am friend! Not cheat you!”)
“Fuck this guy.” Severin swallowed the last of his bread. “We’re going to have to find it ourselves.”
Severin parked next to a debris filled lot, across from which stood a part of the neighborhood that the bulldozers hadn’t yet reached. Leaving the vehicle’s relative safety, we headed into what was left of Uyghurville.
Walls of red brick and mud rose around us as we walked down a crowded alleyway and into a neighborhood with all the hallmarks of a place where people went to disappear.
“Don’t talk to anyone,” Severin instructed, pace quickening, eyes darting left and right.
Feeling a tug at my bag, I jerked and whirled around and spied slim fingers on my camera case. I zipped the bag shut, clutching it to my chest. Fingers and owner receded into the crowd.
When I turned back, Severin was nowhere to be seen. My heart rate shot up. I thought of yelling his name before realizing this would be a bad move. Instead I continued on through the narrow, crumbling alleyways as several hands tried to pull and otherwise lure me through darkened doorways.
Smile politely, I thought. No sense in getting a knife in the kidney over a cultural faux pas. What the hell was I doing in a crumbling ghetto peopled by a resentful minority group whose oppressors I identified culturally with?
I was no longer looking for my new employer. I was just hoping for a glimpse of familiar rubble, something that would get me back to the SUV when an old man put his hand on my shoulder and spoke in gentle, halting English.
“You friend, he very worry. He say go car, wait.”
The old man pointed down a dark, narrow alley.
I thanked the man and walked quickly in the direction he’d pointed, reaching the rubble strewn clearing where we’d entered. Severin stood next to the SUV in loud negotiation with Cudgel Man and a small group of other men. He unlocked the door and told me to get into the car.
A few minutes later Severin got back in the vehicle.
“I told you not to get lost. These guys pulled me into a doorway and tried to sell me heroin. Now this asshole says he’s got the hash on him.”
Standing next to the driver’s side window, Cudgel Man produced two wadded chunks of tin foil from inside his robe. Severin handed them to me.
The first rock crumbled into dirt and cumin at first touch. I handed it back to Severin, pronouncing it worthless. Severin tossed the lump back to Cudgel Man.
The second chunk was the genuine article, black and sticky, about half an ounce. It was what we’d come for.
After much gnashing of teeth, beating of breasts, random threats and flattery from both sides, a price of 500 Yuan was agreed upon. Mission accomplished, we were now free to get stoned in a better part of town.
But something inside my new employer had snapped. Some piece of his ego had been taken from him, and he was not prepared to leave Uyghurville without it.
Severin parked the car 20 yards away from the spot where we’d just scored our drugs and stared out into space.
“There’s a good lamb place in this neighborhood.” He said, finally breaking silence.
“You’re joking, of course. Can’t we get lamb in our own neighborhood?”
Severin gripped the steering wheel tightly, and when he turned to face me his eyes shone with sad, eerie light.
“Look man, I’ve been in Beijing since before Tienanmen. This is my city, including this neighborhood. If we let ourselves be intimidated, the fascists win. You can understand that, can’t you?”
Before I could say another word, Severin had exited the car and was walking back through the rubble.
Soon we were pushing through the crowd in a darkened alley, Severin whistling in the dark for us both, chatting up the restaurant’s famous roast lamb and homemade bread. Black eyes stared at us as Severin poked his head into various doorways before pulling me through an unmarked wooden door into a smoky, crowded little restaurant with six tables and a TV.
We were handed a menu and steered towards a table close to the entrance. Severin grabbed the seat facing the door leaving me with my back exposed and my eyes on the television. Princess Pearl, a popular soap opera, played without sound. Severin ordered for both of us, barking imperiously at the waiter while I glanced around the room and tried to avoid meeting the gazes coming from all corners.
To our left sat a table of men in Uyghur dress scanning People’s Daily. The cover showed a photo of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, bombed by America the previous week. The headline read, “All of China is united against American aggression!”
“I hate this show,” Severin whispered, staring at nothing.
Nobody in the restaurant was watching the television except for me.
Our meal arrived, slabs of bloody meat served with charred black pita bread. Too nervous to eat, I ordered a Pepsi. Everyone stared as Severin wolfed down his food and I anxiously sipped my soda. Severin asked for the bill and slowly picked his teeth at the table until it arrived. All eyes remained on us as we exited back into the dark alley.
We got back to the car without incident, and soon enough we were driving through the more comfortable Han Chinese heart of Beijing. We parked in front of the office and I got out. Severin handed me the whole ball of hashish.
“An advance on your first month’s salary.”
“What about your half?”
“Don’t need it,” he said, pulling away from the curb. “I’ve got plenty left at home.”