Only Love Can Break Your Foot

by Matthew Lyon

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When I moved to Shanghai, a friend suggested I learn to enjoy the fight. He did not mean bar brawls, but the consistent day-to-day battles in a dense megacity—like jockeying for position on the subway, upstreaming people for cabs, and arm-barring graceless grandmothers cutting in queue. I took this advice seriously, and practiced the art of obstruction and physical advantage. It was essential to create personal space by all means. I also got my chance, however, with the more traditional variety of fighting. One night, a cab driver attacked me with a tire iron, and there was no choice but to kill him. Or at least consider death an option.

He had tried to fleece me with a roundabout fare, and I was too stubborn to back down. I was full of ego, out late on a first date with a hairdresser who gifted herself with the English name of Coco—I never had the steel to tell her it was a name better suited for a show dog or a hooker in Oakland. After arriving back at her apartment, she claimed the fare was largely inflated. It was a small sum of money, maybe five dollars difference, but the idea that a foreigner could unravel his scheme enraged the cabbie, shooting him into a violent frenzy—not an easy task in Shanghai, where theatrical verbal disputes can last hours, but rarely dissolve into fisticuffs.

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Street arguments in China, often the result of a minor bicycle collision, draw impressive neighborhood crowds.  Old men gather patiently with their hands crossed behind their backs, contemplating justice and social ire, bubbling to the city surface in odd shapes. They will discuss among themselves, as a powerless jury, what fair compensation might be for the supposed victims. Onlookers don’t often get involved, they let the shouting continue until one party either loses his voice or the other realizes he is late for work. The Chinese men from the countryside boast of more manly conflict resolution for no better reason than saving time. They insist the Shanghainese are a soft breed, pushovers in the hierarchy of bicycle battles. It was true that I saw more fights end in smiling embraces than true hostility.

But the rules of confrontation change with foreigners, especially when coupled with underpaid, overdressed taxi drivers. With my remedial Mandarin, a classic verbal sparring was impossible. My date (whom I could never introduce to my friends as “Coco”) looked tired and merely annoyed. She thought a Kung Fu scuffle in the dim neon night was unlikely, and did little to ease the tension.

The driver stepped from the cab in a shabby black suit, heavily blanketed with smeared cigarette ash and soup stains. He opened his trunk and grabbed for a steel tire iron, still wearing his white driving gloves. The cheap, shapeless gloves, always some degree of soiled, are a common accessory to the Chinese taxi uniform. With weapon in hand, they could have given another man a menacing, capable air,  but the gloves made this driver look like Mickey Mouse on some feeble heist.

His black tie, long ago loosened, swayed in time as he took his first steps toward me. The cuffs of his pants hovered high above his cracking black loafers, revealing five inches of sagging white gym sock. Short in stature, badly postured and slumped forward, his eyes leveled with my nipples. It occurred to me that he might be bluffing, hoping I would cave with the threat of a street fight. Curiously, I was not frightened by his advance; I had some booze in me and besides, this was not my first physical altercation with a fun-sized Asian chauffer. One night in Korea, I had faced off with a taxi driver, also complementing a ten-dollar suit with an unshaven scowl.

I stood ready. I heard Coco gasp—a huffed, sexy little squeal. She scurried, a rapid tippy-toe dance, toward the safety of the sidewalk. It was all up to me. I had to enter into this contest on our first date and stand heroic. I thought to myself, In the shadow and glow of dubious massage parlors and crawfish eateries, this is how foreign love is born.

In slow, exaggerated form, the cabbie wound up and swung the bar overhand. He missed wildly, awkwardly, and fell toward me. In no impressive athletic fashion, I secured a headlock, taking the tire iron out of play. An amateur wrestling match ensued with body blows and curses exchanged. With control of his head, I got a closer look at my match. A few lucky whiskers, intentionally uncut, hung from his upper lip. He reeked of cigs, motor oil and garlic, the typical aroma in a Chinese taxi, his person as pungent and microbial as his vehicle’s sticky vinyl seats. The shoulders of his coat were dusted evenly with large specs of dandruff, the thin flakes floating a ring around his matted hair like a powdered halo.

I knew it was absurd to risk a clubbing over five dollars, and had I been intimidated in any way, I might have acted sensibly. I was handling this man, however, like a teenager tormenting his little brother. Effortlessly, with youthful delight. He still gripped his tool, and since I couldn’t reason with the man, I dragged him to a roadside fence and rammed his head three times into a wooden placard advertising a new development.

Short on air and shaken, the driver finally dropped the iron and stumbled backward. He caught himself before falling, and hobbled quickly back to his cab. Howling something indecipherable, I reached for the iron. It was incredibly light, like a tin can, I thought. I whipped it sidearm toward the taxi, bouncing it off the pavement and hitting the back bumper with little dramatic effect.

At last, the driver pulled away noiselessly and left me in the street with a galloping pulse. Coco stood horrified on the sidelines, shivering, her hands clasped between her legs in the folds of her summer skirt. I took her hand and addressed her as if the last few minutes never occurred.

I had a great time tonight, I said, Let’s do it again. I thought for a moment that I might be invited in for a drink or bubble bath; the girl would be either terribly frightened of me, or impressed with my resolve and apparent physical prowess. In the very least, I proved myself superior to a rampaging, badly-tailored dwarf. She nodded, wide-eyed and speechless, slipped into the gates of her apartment, and forever into the pathless smog of the city.

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Sometime during the bout, I bashed my foot against the curb and broke a small bone. Even heroes take bullets to the chest! I almost lied to my doctor about the incurred trauma and said that I stepped in a hole on the sidewalk—not unlikely in Shanghai where pedestrians must also navigate around piles of poodle shit, uncovered manholes and motorcyclists who commandeer city footpaths. When I told the doctor the truth, he stared at me quietly for a moment. You know that’s a difficult task, he said, To engage the Shanghainese in violence. Congratulations for that. Fortunately it’s only your foot. Here’s a boot and metal crutches to protect you against future assailants, he said. See you in six weeks.

March, 2011

Shanghai, China

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