Stick and I went to look at a possible new apartment in a hutong. We met with the rental agent at the subway station, and he led us down a maze of twisty little passages, lined with stands selling beige mugs of suan nai (sour yogurt), veggie sellers with crates of produce and that spicy skewered food we call boiled barbecue. Bikes are everywhere, moms with little ones on board, in various degrees of safety and comfort. Bikes loaded with recycling, with more boxes of veg, with deliveries. Bikes locked and parked, or haphazardly propped against the brick walls.
There is a smell of cigarettes, sweet incense and overripe fruit, stronger than the constant smell of Beijing drain. We are turning down smaller and smaller alleys, and I lose track of which doorways with peeling paint and potted plants we’ve entered and which we’ve passed. This is the China of my imagination, centuries of Beijing families living in these homes, conducting their business in these tiny active streets. I imagine great intrigues of concubines and inheritance occured just inside these courtyards.
“Where are you from?” the rental agent asks me.
“New Jersey,” I say, figuring there’s no way he’s familiar with the Garden State, and about to I tell him it’s a small state next to Niu yue shi (New York City).
“Oh, there is a famous singer from New Jersey!” he says, “Do know you Bon Jovi?”
Of course I know Jon Bovi! I’m from New Jersey!
“I like Bon Jovi very much. I also like Poison.” he tells us.
“Poison?” Stick asks. “How about Motley Crue?”
We turn down an alley between two brick, one-story homes, with corrugated roofs and flowers in ceramic jars, still talking about hair bands.