A Family of City Skunks (Holds Strange Company)

I met a neighbor tonight. She inquired about a family of skunks that lives in and around the parking lot two doors down from our house as I was outside with my cat.

Seven years ago, on fourth of July weekend, her dog pulled her into that same parking lot, running away from fireworks. She broke her wrist and carries the scar of the dead dog with her still.

“There’s not just skunks around here,” she said. “There’s raccoons and possums — that’s what scares me.”

Years ago, “a hundred or so,” she was an art professor at Princeton, though she maintained a residence in the city. That changed when she required more room for her art studio. Still located a few doors down from us, she says the neighborhood has changed.

“Across the street, that used to be tenements, and a doctor owned your building….. I don’t trust doctors,” she continued. “My father was one at NYU, and when he died, a hundred or so years ago, he said he only trusted one doctor at the hospital,” she continued.

“I think most doctors these days only see through the eye of the needle. They’re not here to diagnose the whole body. They just isolate the problems.”

I tell her that I’ve spent more money on x-rays for the cat than I have for myself, and she inquires what the cats name is. “Goose,” I say, “after the Top Gun character.” She nods that she knows the movie, and then says that a hundred or so years ago, she once read that pets understand humans better if you speak in a falsetto voice.

Suddenly, a skunk appeared in the parking lot. Together, we attempted to call Goose out of the parking lot; her using a falsetto voice and me clapping, as Goose remained, staring puzzled at us both.

Sensing our presence, the skunk retreated back into the fenced area, and I grabbed Goose, picking him up and saying that it was time to go before we all got sprayed by a skunk.

“It was nice meeting you,” she said. And I replied with the same. We never even shook hands or introduced ourselves, but I won’t soon forget that our chance meeting essentially happened because of a family of skunks.

The Moral Instinct of a Shoulder

Yesterday morning, we decided to go to the beach. It was a Saturday. We live in the Northern part of New Jersey. And many other people in our area tend to make the same decision in regards to how to spend their Saturdays during the summer. Nonetheless, I figured 50 miles down the Turnpike and Parkway couldn’t be that bad.

I was wrong.

Our problems started just after entering the NJ Turnpike. Before we even got to the first exit, almost immediately after grabbing the toll ticket, traffic slowed to a stop, filtering down to one lane over a Turnpike bridge connecting Jersey City and Bayonne to the rest of the the Turnpike. Such was our fate. We had entered the traffic and would have to wait it out or get off at the next exit.

Then things took an unexpected turn. Instead of waiting in traffic like the rest of the traffic jam, a few cars began exiting their lanes, pulling into the shoulder lane and speeding ahead. First a few, then more. Speeding ahead as far as possible in the shoulder, then reentering proper lanes when they couldn’t proceed any further in the shoulder. I understood their frustrations; we were all in the same boat. And a small part of me even respected their decision to not let the mess of traffic beat them. But overall, it was making the traffic even worse than it already was.

Ahead of me, a woman in an SUV in the left lane put on on her directional, motioning an intent to move into the right lane. As there was nowhere for myself or the car I was driving to immediately go, I let her into the lane. But instead of remaining in the traffic, she pulled into the shoulder, sped ahead maybe ten cars, then reentered the right lane aggressively. I asked myself aloud, “Did I really just do that?”

And I did. I had extended a courtesy to a stranger that inevitably made my time in the traffic even more intolerable. And with that one simple action, the little faith I had left in humanity possibly rising to the challenge and righting the wrongs in the world slipped away just a little bit more. I suppose I could’ve let it be, but I tend to unnerve real quick, and when the next string of cars tried to pass in the shoulder lane, I pulled our car over, blocking them from passing. Cars honked, gave us the finger and generally weren’t too pleased with my highway vigilantism. This lasted for a few minutes, and it took a lot of energy, and it didn’t necessarily mitigate anyone else’s wrongs on the road that day.

After a few minutes, I gave up, pulling back into my alloted lane as Ziggy Stardust drew to a close on Q104.3. An exit for Bayonne appeared, and I jumped on it. We had traveled 6 miles in 40 minutes, and I still didn’t know how to interpret the situation. Part of me thought I was right to defy other people trying to get ahead of the pack; part of me now thought I had no right to play god on the highway; and another part of me thought I should’ve pulled into the shoulder lane and joined them.

Our detour took us through Bayonne, into Staten Island, down the Staten Island Expressway and back into New Jersey via the Outerbridge Crossing. Along the way, with a few minutes hindsight in tow, I decided to take local roads to the beach, and it was during this stretch of road when I started to think that the idea of a moral instinct died the minute humans entered into a car and let a machine dictate their actions with other humans inside machines.

Later that day, we ate at a Jersey Shore restaurant near the bay. We sat outside, next to a marina, where two seagulls shared equal time atop a mooring, going back and forth between jaunts into the water.

I thought to myself, “They got it right.”

And Now, Back to China

On our last day in Shanghai, we ventured away from the chaos of bustling city life, into a section of the city that was not yet in the throes of development. As we began our journey, we stopped for a red light at a six lane intersection. A few moments before we had arrived at the light, a motorized bicycle hauling recycled styrofoam through the intersection unknowingly dropped some of its cargo. The driver continued on, leaving a large flat piece of formerly white styrofoam in the road. As the lights changed, cars, bikes and people trampled over the discarded styrofoam, and the foam began to break apart. We waited, and watched, and after just a few minutes, the styrofoam had disintegrated into an artificial snow, covering the intersection in a haze of once-white debris. On an island in the middle of the street, children ran through the snowy haze as they waited for the light to change. And then it did. And the change was instantaneous.

One moment, we were navigating our way across a six lane mess of traffic and discarded styrofoam, and the next, we were away from everything; the traffic, the people, the noise, the smell. This was a pocket of Shanghai which had managed to escape absolutely everything about the traditional Chinese city. Trees grew along the well groomed road, maintained by a road service that rode three-wheeled motorized bikes and worked their way around bamboo brooms. Birds sang from the trees and dotted the grasslands. Fish grew in the polluted creeks along the well groomed road, and old men on mopeds squatted and smoked as they fished for dinner on the side of a quiet road of a modernized Chinese city.

A mile or so down the road, amid the silence of the road out of Shanghai, we arrived at an empty stop light, and noticed a crowd of onlookers beyond the light. In the center of the crowd was a car smashed against a tree in the middle of the road. No one was speaking, and no one seemed emotional about the wreck. They simply stared, arms folded, heads down, baffled by the strength of the tree against a demolished car. We continued on.

About 200-feet from the road, every mile or so, a new development was under construction on both sides of the road. Soon, the road would be covered with everything we had left behind in Shanghai, but for now, it was a respite from the city. Signs along the road dotted the entrance ways to the high rise construction sites, with names like “Gold Cloud Apartments” and “Apartments By The Sea,” which sat in front of an artificial lake along the road. Outside, the bus stops sat empty.

Our destination was a skatepark at the end of the road. Guarded by government workers, virtually free to enter and basically empty, the SMP Skatepark wasn’t what I was expecting when we arrived. The park was vast, expertly built and occupied by scattered groups of English, Australian and American families. No Chinese people were present at the park except for the two guards at the entrance; they also sold beer and pizza out of their outhouse-sized guard house.

Two hours later, after a skatepark session in the sun, we were ready to depart. The skatepark was limitless, and fun, and vastly overstated, just like the rest of Shanghai’s modernized construction projects. We departed. On the ride back into the center of the city, we encountered much of the same occurrences as the ride to the skatepark. Although now, we were in a different mode; a sort of “It’s so peaceful out here, let’s not forget it” air ran through us as we pedaled back down the same road. The car smashed against the tree remained, as did the government landscapers on three-wheeled bikes. I think we were the same too; the air just smelled a tiny bit better on the outskirts of the city and that did more than we probably realized. In a matter of minutes, that had changed, and we were back in the boisterous area of downtown Shanghai, surrounded by masses of buses, bikes, dogs wearing shoes and more styrofoam snow.

The next day, we began our journey home. Passing Longdong Road on the way to Pudong Airport, drinking cheap beers after making it through airport security, wondering what was next. I’ve only spent a total of ten days in China, but I’d like to go back and trace the line that leads from major city to tributary extension and back, just like we did on our last day this past June.