He looked like a little man, stooped and unthreatening. He even smiled, though his teeth looked like tombstones. My daughter Victoria and I needed a ride back to the hotel after an evening of admiring snakes on a stick at the Beijing night market.
"Come on, mister. Dong real cheap. Come on tut-tut," the little man insisted.
A tut-tut is a taxi. Well, a special kind of taxi, jury-rigged from a motorbike and a few scraps of metal. It's like sitting hunched in a tin coffin strapped to the back of a Harley.
Victoria warned me, "Are you crazy?!"
"Hop on and shut up," I explained to my Stanford student.
"You must be crazy!"
"Take a chance. Live a little."
"Die a little."
Within seconds fumes filled the coffin. But we didn't care. Dong was swerving through traffic so recklessly that we were focused less on coughing and more on holding onto some of the scrap metal so we wouldn't get hurled from the tut-tut. No one has explained to Beijing's drivers what red and green traffic lights are for. Many seem to think they're some kind of annoying Western Christmas decoration that don't go away after December.
Finally, we jerked to a stop a few blocks from our hotel. I wondered, why wouldn't our tut-tut nut drive us all the way? Then Dong handed me a card with English words. It was a price list. Apparently our crosstown adventure cost 800 Yuan (about $125).
Now it was my turn to use Victoria's expression:
"Are you crazy?! The taxi that brought us to the market - a real car with four wheels and even a set of brakes - cost only 150 Yuan. Forget it. Here's 300."
I started exiting the coffin. Victoria followed. Then Dong started screaming. Frankly, I don't think it was Mandarin. I think he was making up his own language just as he made up his own price list. I just kept shaking my head and trying to shove the 300 Yuan into his palm. Then I noticed something. Dong had a big palm. He kicked open the little door and started unfolding his body and standing up. Dong was, as Victoria put it, a "giant Hun," about 6'5'' and 275 pounds.
"No," I replied.
Dong growled, made a fist, and raised it above my head. I had no fear. After all, I wrote a well-reviewed novel about boxing, and my wife knows a lawyer who knows Stephen Sondheim. If necessary, I would get back at Dong with a left hook and a dissonant rhyming couplet. But I was concerned for Victoria and figured that we'd be safer if we continued the argument in front of the hotel bellmen. So I instructed Victoria: "Run." As she whimpered, I walked deliberately back to the hotel. Dong didn't follow.
Then suddenly the sounds of a stomping Dong caught up to us. I turned back. He raised his fist again. I told Victoria to keep trotting. I looked him in the eye, spouted the only Chinese phrase that came to mind - "Hong Kong Phooey!" - and again held out the 300 Yuan. He squinted his eyes, furiously ripped the bills from my hand, and stomped back to his smoky tut-tut.
What a fool I was for: (a) not agreeing with Dong on a price beforehand; (b) forcing Victoria to ride in a tut-tut; (c) caring about the justice of a 100 dollar rip-off, approximately .01 the cost of our Asian trip. Now my family has lost all respect for my judgment. I have lost face. On the other hand, we spent the saved 100 dollars on some delicious Peking duck at a wonderful restaurant called Da Dong Duck. No relation, I hope.