Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Crossing Guards

I have a book publishing at the end of June, (Killer Summer), and because of this Putnam, my publisher, requested I autograph some pages to be tipped-in to copies, so they can ship and sell autographed books to stores and that those books will be available on the publishing date. (June 30th) Where the story gets interesting is that they asked me to sign just shy of 4,000 pages. I've done this for a while now, so again, nothing new, but it's a lot of autographs, of course. Each page is slightly bigger than the page you see in a hardcover book so they can trim it and stitch it into the book with the rest of the pages.

Where it gets interesting is that I'm in China this year, so my editor sent me a very big box of roughly 4,000 sheets of cream colored paper by FedEx and gave me plenty of time to get them back to her. The pages need to be treated carefully so they don't wrinkle or appear messed up by the time they're inserted into the final book -- no dog drool, catsup, olive oil or tears on the page please.

So I dutifully went about running through five pens and 4,000 pages of signatures over a two month period, finding hiding spots around the house as I completed a pile. (One must keep the stack flat and away from life.) I found a bookshelf, a dresser. Some drawers. Slowly, I began filling flat spaces around our small house here in Shanghai with "daddy piles" of signed pages.

Then I finished! I was exactly on time. Given the three days for shipping, I could deliver them when requested. But I needed to get the box from our lane to FedEx -- about a kilometer away. (There may be a way in China to request pick-up, but I have NO idea how that might happen.) It was sprinkling at the time. I boxed all the sheets into the padded box they'd come in, and I taped it up tight -- but it was hefty, large, and heavy. I debated a cab, but didn't want to walk the box out to the street (down several twisting lanes). So I decided to courier it on the back of my bicycle. Then came the problem: how to attach a very large, slightly heavy box (24lbs) to the back of a bike. I asked our maid in sign language and crude Mandarin for any ideas and she produced a long black rubber strap from her motor bike, and I went about lashing the box to the bike with the strap. It required three tries and several tests to make sure if I leaned, the box wouldn't slide off the back of the bike, or worse, tip me over with it. At last, I had it held down tightly, and I set off.

So picture a Caucasian, an American, out among the thousands of motor scooters, bikes and motor bikes, taxis, vans and cars, on the streets of Shanghai with a very large and heavy cardboard box on the back of his bike. The car horns, the squeal of brakes, the fog and drizzle. The incredible looks I got at each red light, being sized up for what kind of dumb foreigner rides his bike when he could take a cab. The traffic cops...

Once to the FedEx storefront I was required to cross the street to park the bike on the opposite sidewalk. It costs 17 cents to park your bike in Shanghai. So I walked the bike to the street corner... At this particular intersection there was a traffic cop, like a drill sergeant, in the middle of the area standing atop a white X, gesticulating madly (MADLY) and blowing a shrill whistle. He was, in fact, a caricature of a traffic cop. You might still see something like this in the USA. Here's what you won't see: FOUR more crossing guards who direct the foot traffic -- blowing their whistles (along with the cop in the middle of it all--so you have no idea who is blowing what whistle) to signal pedestrians back up on the curb (no standing in the street!), and when to cross. And, wait! There's more! ANOTHER FOUR crossing guards directing the bike and scooter traffic at each corner. Bringing... and I'm not making this up (a Dave Barry line)... a total of NINE people directing various forms of traffic at this one intersection. Yes: nine.

The box made it to New York safely. Autographs intact. But if you need an example of a cheap labor pool, look no further than that one intersection--one of many--in dear old downtown Shanghai.



  1. Yeow! I was waiting for disaster to strike. Glad you and the pages made it and BTW, I've never heard of this process where you sign the pages before they're put in the book. Very interesting.

  2. OMG, I laughed hysterically. One almost HAS to be an expat who has lived in Shanghai previously to really appreciate the humor of your situation. I give you kuddo's though, biking your way to Fed Ex in a busy Shanghai street. It is a miracle of negotiation and decision making in itself. Your description of the stares brought back many memories. We are presently expats in Munich and I know you will envy this; lovely bike paths everywhere! But I would give anything to revisit those wonderful "learning curve" moments in Shanghai. Seeing the Mag Lev in juxtaposition of a man toting 100 empty clear plastic water jugs on his push bike or a woman walking with a yoke on her shoulders lugging a flat bed laden with a mountain of straw brooms has only to be seen to be believed! Enjoy your Shanghai days; they fly by too quickly

  3. james O. Born4/08/2009 11:53 AM

    Government work is government woork no matter what country.


  4. I think there is a scene in a forthcoming Ridley book, the American on the bike in Shanghai.

    And when the movie is made, a confused George Clooney playing the role...