Chair #6

Billy

Billy worked as a forester at the Agricultural college in Heilongjiang province, where his father had worked before him. He planted trees and dug trenches, maintained the flowering borders and unclogged the fountains. He enjoyed his work and adored his wife and always made time to play with his son. In short, he was one of the very few real men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in my life, and it was good to see him again after all these years.

I’d mentioned over breakfast that first morning back that I wanted to find some old woodworking tools, and Billy had said he knew of some places we could try and that he’d take me in his car. He said he’d been meaning to go himself for a while now and look for old pieces of iron. Pulling on his boots, he’d then hurried out the door with a smile and a wave. I wondered what he’d meant about finding some iron. Iron? 

Mokefu

“Mokefu is a Christian,” Billy had said on our way to pick him up. “He rescues cats.”

Mokefu did indeed rescue cats. He had six of them in his shop where he repaired remote control cars for a living. He was just as tall as Billy was short, and I liked him instantly. He was very serious and quiet, which is normally my job, and so I’d taken to acting a little immature around him and being overly talkative, saying things I hoped might amuse him enough to make him laugh. But he had absolutely no sense of humor, and so all I ended up doing was either shocking him or else causing him to get confused and question his English, which was excellent, by the way. 

“Let’s go,” said Billy, ushering us out the door. “Zou ba!”

I gave Mahjong, the pawless little ginger, a parting scratch under her chin, and we set off.

Mao

China claims to have a recorded history that goes back five thousand years. That may well be true, but in many ways it is the youngest of all the countries I’ve visited. The cultural revolution forced people to tuck a lot of things away, and so it wasn’t easy finding stuff from the past. It was there, sometimes right under your nose, but still very easy to miss. The trouble was all the modern distractions, so many shiny new things to see and buy, for cheap. The old stuff meanwhile remained hidden away, forgotten at the back of old dressers and basements and down hidden alleyways in Daoli. And if you did manage to find something genuinely old and in good condition, you had to be prepared to pay good money for it. Vintage didn’t come cheap. 

We arrived at a small flea market just outside of town. Billy had seen tools here before. He said this was the old people’s market and you never knew what you were going to find from one week to the next. Rows of blankets had been set down on the pavement, all of them heaped with stuff. Some of it genuinely old and some of it just made to look old, along with the usual piles of clothes, books and boxes of broken keyboards and cables that no longer fit anything. Some of the blankets, however, were better curated than others. On these, one could find old coins, Fang Zhen watch faces with working mechanisms, faded green PLA caps with the red star still shining brightly on them, vintage leather holsters, pocket-size Manifestos and plenty of propaganda–those little booklets and fliers with young healthy men and women on their covers dressed in Sun Yat-sen suits, their fists raised high as the bold rays of a setting sun shone brightly behind them. Meanwhile, Mao’s face seemed everywhere to peer out at us. Mokefu shook his head and made a sucking sound through his teeth. He didn’t approve. Still, he acknowledged the old man who ran the stall, teetering opposite us and dressed in the navy blue zhifu that had been a symbol of proletarian unity and which the street sweepers still wear today, complete with short brimmed cap and flat soled slippers. 

There was undeniably plenty to look at, but not a single old tool to be found anywhere. Billy saw the disappointment in my face and gripped my shoulder. “Zou ba?” He asked. “Let’s go.” 

We hit up another couple of flea markets, as well as the basement of a department store and even a salvage yard. Nothing. Billy would not be defeated, however. I was going to find my tools and he was going to find his pieces of iron and then we’d all celebrate by having a big dinner somewhere. Too bad we were hungry right then and there, and so we’d found a halal place nearby, marked by the usual pair of big blue lanterns hanging out front, and settled for a medium sized lunch. 

The food was good and we’d sat and talked for a long time and no one had drank any beer. Our fun little adventure was beginning to feel like a chore. But Billy had one more place he wanted to try, and so he called for the check as we all groaned to our feet. Of course he refused to let anyone chip in. We tried insisting, but it was no use. It was never any use.

Billy had gotten fed up with driving, so we hopped on a bus and stood, holding on tight to the overhead rail as the bus lurched along. There was a single empty seat but none of us wanted to be the one to take it. Billy tried forcing me, but I had begun losing my patience with his unique breed of hospitality and had given him “the look”. He’d merely shrugged his shoulders and remained quiet the rest of the way, dragging me off the bus when the time came.

The Old Men

A short walk from the bus stop and we were in Lao Dao Wai, the old town, built by Russian Jews during the turn of the last century, back when the Chinese Eastern railway was being built and they’d been allowed to open businesses as shopkeepers and contractors. The buildings were made of brick and were very European looking, each one overflowing with old world charm. Only a few blocks had been restored and occupied by businesses. The rest had been left to fall to rubble, and many of the buildings even had small trees growing out of their upper windows.

A few turns and we came suddenly upon what seemed a promising sight. Here, the long street had been blocked off to traffic and stalls set up along the sidewalks and down its middle, each overflowing with prayer beads and Buddhas, good luck coins and jadeite bracelets. Items big and small. From very fine purple clay teapots and travel sized bamboo pouring trays to great big stone slabbed tables.

Billy led the way, keeping close by my side for fear that I might be pickpocketed, or worse. I didn’t enjoy being chaperoned, but it was in his nature to be protective, just as it is now in the nature of his four year old son, who loves to play rough, but not before first setting up cushions against the wall. I told myself it wasn’t anything personal. Never once in my four years of living there did I have any problems, or even that sudden uncertain feeling on a dark night that something unsavory was lurking around the corner. The most dangerous thing was, to my mind, the uneven pavements and maybe some of the night markets, where it could sometimes get a little rowdy, usually because someone had had too much to drink and voices had become raised over who was going to be allowed to pay the bill. Admittedly, I had once seen a man pick up a meat cleaver and start waving it around until he got his way.

The further we walked, the lower my spirits had become. We’d long since left the covered stalls behind and were now back to blankets on the pavement and the usual flotsam and jetsam of your everyday street market. Oddly enough, I did manage to find someone making finger planes. He sat on a low folding stool, whittling them out of a hard pinkish wood. The ones he’d finished, maybe four or five, were set up on the curb. No blanket. No fuss. I picked one up, turned it over in my hands a few times. Cute. It was maybe three inches long with a flimsy piece of metal jammed down into the sole. I figured it’d keep it’s edge for a few swipes before needing to be resharpened, that’s if it worked at all. Still, there was something about it I liked and so I gladly paid the ten RMB for it, thanked the man and headed back up the other side of the street. 

Oh well. At least Billy had found his pieces of iron, two hefty lengths of small gauge railroad track. Over a hundred years old apparently. Even Mokefu had found a computer cable he liked the look of, along with a box of miniature screwdrivers. In all, it had been a good day, but we were feeling pretty wiped out and suddenly a little chilly because the sun was going down and a cold wind had started to blow. That would be the last day one left home without a coat, the last day before autumn was officially turned off and the coal furnaces switched on. You could feel the coming ice in the wind, the approaching months of sub zero temperatures and snow so cold and dry that it remained a fine powder and swept down the streets in waves like sand blown across a desert.

Back where we’d started, though now on the opposite side of the street, we came upon a pair of old men who were making low wooden stools. They sat on the sidewalk, surrounded by wood chips piled so high and wide that it looked like a plush yellow carpet. The old man nearest me used a hatchet to rough out the legs for the stools while the other sawed tenons. Both of the men were barefooted and had cigarettes dangling out the corner of their mouths. Both wore clean white button down shirts and slacks with a smart belt. In fact, the only difference between them was that the one with the hatchet was thinner and had a fresh haircut. 

They worked quietly, their few tools peering out from the shavings: a mitre saw with a plastic handle (the kind you’d find in any hardware store), a big old rusty mortising chisel, a clawed hammer and a rhasp. It was the hatchet I was most interested in, how quickly and seemingly haphazardly the old man used it to fashion the legs. He worked intuitively, pausing only long enough to eyeball each length for square.

I watched them build an entire stool, from start to finish, then I squatted down and watched them start in on another. The old man nearest, whose arms were thin and ropey as braided steel cables, passed me the hatchet. He could tell I was interested, that I was taken aback by his use of such a seemingly clumsy tool. I expected it to be sharper, much sharper. How it worked as well as it did was a mystery. And then it dawned on me that my search that day hadn’t been for tools so much as it had been for trophies. My hunt for quality old tools, tools that were somehow imbued with the intention of the craftsmen who’d once used them, had more to do with vanity than it had with finding tools I could use to improve the quality of my work. The truth was, I already had everything I needed, and then some.

I’m ashamed to admit that I pulled out my phone to show the first old man a few pictures of my work. He was very complimentary and had offered me a cigarette, a gesture I hated having to refuse. He scrolled through the pictures as my hands began to sweat. I admired the old men greatly and their approval meant a great deal to me. They were the kind of men most of us hope to become like when we reach a certain age. Again, I was offered a cigarette and it pained me to refuse him a second time. 

“How much?” I’d asked. 

The old man shook his head and handed me the stool I’d just watched him build.

“No, please. How much?” 

He shook his head again and for a third time offered me a cigarette, enticing me to stay a little while longer. I’d have gladly given him everything in my wallet, bought all the stools he’d made that day and passed them out to everyone I knew, even those who didn’t think they wanted or needed such a stool, especially those who didn’t think they wanted or needed such a stool.

I cannot honestly recall whether he took my money or not. I suppose it is my mind’s way, or my heart’s way, of protecting what it holds to be a sacred memory. 

The stool would not fit in my suitcase, and so it sits to this day in Billy’s spare room, awaiting my return.

~ by calebnrogers on February 3, 2021.

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