The hawkers’ cries herald the beginning or the winding down of any given day here. Now it’s half past five o’clock p.m., and the sound of their sonorous voices as they walk up and down Peaceful Quiet Street stretches into its forte.
"Buy a newspaper!"
"Need your shoes cobbled? Need them polished?"
"I can fix your computer, your refrigerator, your microwave!"
"Sharpen your knives! Fix your broken porcelain!"
"I’ll buy your recyclables!"
With their old P.L.A.-issued green canvas shoes firmly planted to the cooling cracked pavement, they sing their promises to the skies. From where they stand, it is possible to hear, from the windows of the apartment buildings above, the sound of garlic hitting the oil, but the sharp smell is first to descend. The chopping sound of knives on innumerable cutting boards ring throughout the neighborhood as though yet another construction project was underway. On the neighborhood playground, more than a dozen children in brightly colored clothing play. Some also sit on its surrounding stoops, looking with wonder at their new summer sandals that have yet to be broken in.
On Victory Road, which connects this tiny neighborhood street to the rest of the city, the traffic gears itself up for the rush home. The rumble of buses, the squeak of horns and the buzz of construction coming from Victory Road provide the backdrop for the children’s screams and laughter. The rush of traffic almost sounds like a steady wind or a rain. The constant presence of anything makes it a natural one.
One of the hawkers, Aunty Wang, an old widow, has made enough selling recyclables and sharpening knives during the day that she may buy a slice of watermelon at the neighborhood fruit stand. She sucks the juice with a ferocious enjoyment and chats with the fruit seller about the price of eggs. It seems things get more expensive every year, she says. It must coincide with our China’s development. She is glad, she tells the fruit seller, that her children are already full grown with families and that they are able to take care of themselves. The fruit seller, a woman by the name of Mrs. Liu, the mother of a 6-year-old boy named Long Long, agrees that parenting is difficult work. The two lose themselves in silence as they watch the people coming home.
With bags of vegetables and boxes of milk, people parade up this street that winds its way up a mountain like a thin black dragon. Women clutch mobile phones to their ears, men cigarettes to their mouths. The sky has been overcast all day, as though it will rain. The air is cooler now than it was during mid-day. The smell of ozone, the gray skies and the humidity seem to absorb the clarity of the evening’s activities. The moist air smudges words on their way as people call out greetings:
"Have you eaten yet?"
A waiter and a waitress who work at the restaurant next door to the fruit stand take turns kicking a plastic bottle up the street where an old Muslim couple’s grill emits a great fume of gray smoke. The portly Muslim wife turns the skewers with one hand as she sprinkles fennel with the other. The lamb fat’s juice dribbles onto the coals, and she squints and purses up her mouth. Waiting customers quietly speculate among themselves in quick whispers whether she does this because the smoke bothers her or whether it is due to her confusion with Mandarin Chinese, as she is from a far off province with a separate tongue. The sweet, slightly pungent smell beckons a young high school couple wearing matching t-shirts and track pants to stop and buy a few skewers. They do not join the conversation or seem to take notice of the other people waiting. In the meantime, the waiter has kicked the bottle clear from the street, and the waitress laughs as he runs to fetch it.
A young boy, Xiao Li, 10, has brought his soccer ball out to play. Unfortunately, the other children of his age on the playground are all girls, wearing delicate little shoes and lace lined dresses. The only other boys wobble on yet unsteady legs.
"Babies," sniffs Li.
Down the street, Mr. Huang, a middle-aged man with a middle-aged girth, has just finished his dinner at a street side café. He pushes back his empty bowl and picks the cilantro out of his teeth with a toothpick. Soon, he must get back into his cab to cruise for straggling post dinner passengers. He slaps his belly before rolling his t-shirt up over it. The air-conditioning in his cab has been broken, and he suffered in the stuffiness of its interior all day. According to his wife, air-conditioning is adverse to good health anyway.
"I’ll have one more beer before I go," he tells the owner of the restaurant.
The hawker and the vegetable seller turn their attention to the small boy, Xiao Li, kicking his ball repeatedly against the wall of an apartment building parallel to their tiny street. It hits the plaster peeled façade with a dull thump before half-heartedly rolling back to him. He received the ball for a birthday gift, and over the course of the months that have followed, it has been well loved, or at least well used.
"No one to play with," says the old hawker.
"No one to play with," repeats the fruit seller.
She looks at her own son, curled up on a sofa that stands outside the shop. He intently reads a comic book. Long Long is a quiet little boy, bird-boned and brooding. She believes he is far too serious for a boy so young, but her attempts to bring him out of whatever little place that his mind goes have all but proven futile. For some time his father maintained it was a matter of him eating too much fruit and not enough meat, but the child stubbornly resisted any change to his diet.
"He’ll find a way," the fruit seller says quietly, turning back towards the little boy playing soccer.
"Kids, they always find a way," says the old hawker. "He can play all by himself quite happily. Look at him kick that ball."
The waiter descends the hill alone. He sports one of this year’s fashionable hair cuts – short and spiky in the front, long and smooth in the back. He walks with the sort of confidence young men have when a woman loves them for the first time.
"Where’d your girlfriend go?" Yells the fruit seller.
"She went home," replies the young man, smiling puckishly.
"She doesn’t work tonight?"
"No, she doesn’t work tonight. She promised her mother she’d call home tonight."
Looking toward the old hawker, the fruit seller quietly says, "She’s from outside of the city. Some village town. A country girl."
In the meantime, the young man has focused his attention on Xiao Li, whose resigned kicks demonstrate that he has already grown tired of playing with the wall.
"Hey little friend," he says. "Mind if I kick that around with you?"
Long Long doesn’t look up from his comic book to watch the young man and the Xiao Li pass the soccer ball back and forth. He has arrived on page 60, in which he will finally discover exactly who tried to poison the young emperor’s food. He nestles back into the old sofa, which smells of mold and grapes and brings the book closer to his narrow brown face. His mother has said to his father she has suspected for some time that he needs glasses.
In her apartment at the top of the mountain, the waitress discusses with her four roommates whether it is the right time to tell her mother that she has a boyfriend and they hope to marry. They sit on their bunk beds and work over the possibilities while they eat their dinner of instant noodles. Before she calls, she pours herself a glass of boiled water and unbraids her long thick black hair. Tonight is her only night off, but if she were back home, she wouldn’t even be afforded this luxury. She brushes her hair with the tiny wooden comb that her boyfriend bought for her, and she chews on her bottom lip.
When he is angry, Mr. Huang’s mouth gets tight. His mouth is tight now.
"Why do you charge two yuan for rice," Mr. Huang asks the owner of the café. "Every other place charges one. It’s unreasonable."
His face is red, partially because he is angry, partially because of the two bottles of beer that he drank with his dinner.
"Watch out!" The fruit seller yells at the young man and the little boy. The soccer ball has been kicked into her fruit stand, tumbling over a cardboard box of oranges and taking a few pineapples in its wake. "People are trying to make a living here!"
The young man rushes over, apologizing profusely. The little boy follows with his head down. They help clean up the fruit.
"Well, it seems there’s no damage here," the fruit seller says. "But be careful. Otherwise I’ll tell that girlfriend of yours that you’re no good."
She laughs, and the young man and the Xiao Li head down the street farther away from the fruit stand to resume play.
"We have to be careful of the cars here little friend," says the young man. "They come fast off that big street sometimes."
The little boy solemnly agrees, eyeing his soccer ball with great concern.
"Yes, my parent’s gave me this ball for my birthday."
"Mama?" The waitress breathes a little faster. "I have something to tell you."
Huffing, Mr. Huang starts up his cab in a fury.
"All people care about is money these days," he says aloud to himself.
People who work alone all day become accustomed to talking to themselves.
"No culture. No respect for human beings."
One of the little girls has brought her pet chick out to play. The other little girls on the playground pull the ribbons out of their hair and make a leash for its neck. It peeps frantically as they pull it up and down the length of the brick walk. They giggle excitedly, and their hair wildly falls around their flushed faces. The sun has begun to set, and the sky is a brilliant hue of pink.
"Finished!" Long Long says aloud to no one in particular, putting his comic book down in his lap. "But who could have thought that’s the way it would turn out?"
The little girls use a red ribbon to tie the chick to the teeter-totter and pump it up and down. A toddler holding his mother’s hand looks on with fascination.
"That’s a chick," the mother instructs her child.
Up the street, the Muslim man fans his fire. The bulk of their customers come around eight or nine p.m. after they’ve been drinking beer for a few hours. They don’t have long to wait. His wife sets more meat on the grill.
"Perhaps one more slice," says the old hawker, fiddling through her pockets for change.
"Of course," says the fruit seller, handing one to her and one to Long Long who has already begun to reread his comic book from the beginning.
The soccer ball rolls slowly across the street as Mr. Huang swings his cab onto it. The ball bursts with a tiny explosive sound, but Mr. Huang, in his fury, hears nothing and races on, looking out for people with a hand up for a ride.
"Two yuan for rice," he continues to mutter.
Xiao Li’s face registers the event with a quiet mouth and big eyes before he turns to run home.
In the distance, an electronic version of Beethoven’s Fifth rings from a mobile phone.
The young man picks up the ball and turns it over. It looks completely unsalvageable.
"Fuck. What a waste," he mumbles under his breath.
He looks after where the boy has run, but Xiao Li is already out of sight. He walks across the street and places the ball on the steps to the playground. The little girls continue to entertain themselves with the by now subdued chick. He lights a cigarette, takes a look at the hazy pink sky and sets off down the street.
Neither the fruit seller nor the hawker says much about the little boy and his ball. So many sad things in life aren’t really worth discussing.
The waitress hangs up the phone, and walks to the window. From here you can see almost the entire street as it winds down from the mountain. People are going out again to take a stroll. The quiet chatter of darker hours has commenced. The waitress can hear someone crying, but she cannot make out whether it is a child or an adult, a man or a woman. When people cry, they almost all sound the same. Laughter, on the other hand, has a more individualistic imprint.
The children are called in to bed. They pull the limp chick behind them on their way. A truck full of migrant construction workers rattles by on Victory Road. The breeze picks up. The darkness falls. Two young women on the playground swings pump their plump legs back and forth as they hum pop song melodies. From the Muslim couple’s grill, men’s voices laden with heavy sailor’s accents intermittently rumble amidst the clink of beer bottles. It is nearly nine o’clock. If someone watches carefully, it is possible to see the lights in the thousands of apartment building windows on Peaceful Quiet Street slowly going out, one by one, like stars. Sometime, deeper into the night, the rain falls.