Saturday, February 20, 2010

Behind the motorbike (A Loo Story - 1)

I passed a motorbike - completely concealed under a cover - in the middle of a sidewalk in my neighbourhood the other day. You don't see a great many of them around here. (I think they're supposed to be banned within the 3rd or the 4th Ringroad, although there's not much effective enforcement. I suppose motorcycle owners just don't like to park them out on the street, if they can help it.)

I was reminded of "the motorbike" - a key component of the mythology of my first year here, part of the legend of the Three Amigos and the "Legitimate Businessmen's Club". In those impoverished early days, my two inseparable drinking companions were two of my British teaching colleagues from the loathesome private college where I found myself working; and our regular resort - at least 4 or 5 nights out of every 7 - was a small restaurant a few hundred yards down the street from that college, a place where we rarely ate, but loved to hang out drinking cheap beer and watching the colourful local characters..... often until the wee small hours of the morning.

Like most small bars and restaurants of this kind, 'The Legit' had no bathroom facilities of its own; we were expected to use a public toilet. The nearest one was about 100 yards away, down the alley immediately alongside the restaurant. That might not seem like such a great distance, but..... it was a brutally cold winter that year; I think still the worst I've experienced here. And, as newbies, we hadn't yet got used to the Beijing climate. Moreover, the cold weather started uncommonly early, before the mid-point of October. At this stage (having received only one month's wages - with a lot of inappropriate deductions made - to see us through our first two months in China), we were all too poor to buy decent winter coats. So, stepping outside at all was a painful and unappealing prospect. A 200 yard stagger in sub-zero temperatures was definitely to be avoided, if at all possible. But, such is the acutely diuretic effect of the local beer, that - once you've "cracked the seal" for the night - a toilet break becomes inevitable at least once every hour.

However, the street this restaurant was on was not very busy at night. And it had very limited street lighting. And the building next to our favourite restaurant was set back a few yards further from the road, and was fronted by a bare wall with no windows. There was a small patch of bare ground between it and the sidewalk, and it was fairly well cloaked in shadows. Only two yards from the restaurant door, this was a very tempting spot to take a surreptitious piss in public. And yet - prim and proper Englishmen that we were - we would probably still have endured the icy walk down the lane to the public toilet, because of the risk of being spotted by a passer-by on the street (probably way more embarrassing to us than to them; peeing in the street is very common in China, even when there are public toilets nearby). Luckily, there was almost always a big motorbike - shrouded in a tarpaulin - parked on this patch of empty ground, leaving a gap of just a foot or two between it and the windowless wall; this provided enough cover to make us feel safe from prying eyes, to reassure us that we could take a piss against the wall without attracting unwanted attention.

And so it became one of our great catchphrases of that long, cold winter: "Excuse me for a moment, please, gentlemen. I need to go behind the motorbike."

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