Monday, June 29, 2009

Watching the Detectives

About 12 days or so ago I first noticed two clean-cut looking young guys hanging out on the second floor of my apartment. I'm in room 2008 and they didn't seem to belong to any room, though I rarely seen my neighbors and initially didn't pay them any mind. My door lock is secure (more on that later) and aside from my passport there probably isn't much anyone would care to steal even if they did break in.

But when I nearly stepped on them as I opened the door to the stairwell where they were sleeping on a shared cardboard flat one morning I began wondering who they were and why they were making themselves at home - even if conditions were cramped.
They were neatly dressed in casual summerwear and kept their staircase condo tidy -- but they never seemed to leave.

Morning, noon and night at least one was there if the other was absent, presumably making a bathroom or food run, though I had no clue where they'd find a nearby toilet and sink except in one of the apartments.

Lacking enough Chinese to ask, "Who the hell are you and why are you living in the stairwell?" I could only wonder, as well as ponder why apartment security staff hadn't booted them.

My mood changed, too, from curiousity to irritation at having my way blocked through the stairs by their dozing forms. One evening I hurled a classic Anglo-Saxon ephithet at them as I clambered past, and was met by blank stares. Then one said tenatively, "Hello?"

I laughed and asked if he spoke English. No, and that was all I would know until a Chinese pal I'll call SJ was visiting three days ago. "Hey, do me a favor and ask these guys what the fark they're doing here," I asked her as we side-stepped them coming up the stairs. "They've been here for about 9 or 10 days, nonstop. They never leave. I'm dying to know."

A lengthy conversation began, punctuated at one point by one of my new neighbors who took out a long document in Chinese with a lot of numbers on it and jabbed his finger at one of the numbers repeatedly as his voice rose.

SJ turned to me after a few minutes of conversation and explained.
"They are enforcers," she said. "To have a debt repaid." The document was "proof."
It turned out the occupant of apt 2006 across from me (whom I've never seen) had bilked someone else out of about 500,000 yuan ($73,000) and they'd been hired at 2,000 yuan ($300) apiece to squat there until they nab him and/or the money.

I kept asking questions. How did they go to the toilet and stay clean? What did the apartment staff think?

They smiled and said they used an apartment employee restroom on the ground floor and that the security and cleaning staff were sympathetic to the point that the pair were receiving occasional food handouts. Yes, it was boring. Still 2,000 yuan was a lot of money and jobs weren't easy to find in their native province, Sichuan -- home of the catastrophic May 2008 earthquake.

We shook hands and after SJ left I went down to a local shop for a few groceries and bought two cold cans of Nanjing beer for the debt collectors.

The investment paid off two days later when I came home found my key didn't work in my door. A latch was jammed, making it impossible for the key to catch and turn.
My new enforcer friends heard my curses and fumbling and emerged from their half-square meter luxury nest to see what the problem was. Thanks to them, an apartment security guard showed up, who in turn called a locksmith who jimmied the door open for 240 yuan ($35).

I paid him off, pulled two more cans of Nanjing out of my fridge and took them to the baking stairwell. "Xie, xie, thank you, thank you!" they said.

No, thank you. It's good to have connections, even under the stairs.


Brad said...

genius! you still gots it, braugh. thanks for making me laugh. keep it up!

Ben said...

Too good... It begs a movie treatment ala "Stakeout" and the thrills of being an undercover agent in China.

It's been a while Justin, but I'm keeping up with your missives. Happy belated fourth, and congratulations on being in a most-favored-nation locale...good thing you're not in England or Japan...relations might get a little frigid there soon.

Ben said...

Hi Justin,

I thought I had left a comment last week...did I not hit "publish", or as an editor did it make your skin crawl with run-on sentences, or are you being censored by the powers that be?

Anyway, great story.

Anonymous said...

Loved the story, Justin. Missing all those things like polyester suits and the sounds of people celebrating evenings with 4 kuai Yanjing pijiu. Best wishes, Paris