Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Boxer

Many songs take me back to a certain place and/or time when I hear them.  None more so than “The Boxer.”  When I was growing up my bedroom was in the basement of a small old house.  The walls were cement and the ceiling was just over 6 feet high.  I thought the room was big but that was just relative to the other rooms in the house.  There were three small windows that I covered up with aluminum foil so the room would be completely dark at night.  I had taken over the family’s stereo record player and set it up in my room.  It folded up so it could be carried like a suitcase.  The speakers could be detached so they could be moved far away from the turntable.  We only had a few records that I had any interest in, two Bill Cosby records, The Monkees and four Simon and Garfunkel records.  By the time I was about 12 I had lost interest in the Monkees and Bill Cosby records.  There’s only so many times you can listen to Chicken Heart and I’m sure I exceeded that.  That left only the Simon and Garfunkel records.  Every night I would stack two or three (sometimes all four) Simon and Garfunkel records on the turntable and listen to them as I lay in bed.  One by one they would drop and play.  I rarely fell asleep before the music stopped.  Often I would flip them over and listen to the other sides too.  This was a nightly routine for me.  When I was 14 I won a Kiss album from a radio station and I was given Aerosmith’s first album for my birthday.  That was the end of listening to Simon and Garfunkel for many years.  You might guess hearing “The Boxer” takes me back to my dark room where I must have listened to that song hundreds of times.  Nope, “Sounds of Silence” does that for me (Hello darkness my old friend...).  “The Boxer” takes me to the kitchen of a 4th floor apartment in the Sung Shan area of Taipei at 6:45 a.m. on a June Morning.    

The old man's oven and shoa bings (燒餅).  The best I've ever had.
Twice I spent the summer break in collage in Taiwan.  I was taking Chinese classes as my fun classes while earning a degree in Chemical Engineering.  My first summer in Taiwan I needed to extend my visa after two months so I found a couple of people I could teach English to so I could claim I was working and get my visa extended.  I was a terrible English teacher.  I tried to prepare and do a good job but I had no training and could do little more than talk to my students in English.  I taught a lady that lived about a mile from me twice a week at 6:00 a.m.  I didn’t like waking up that early but I did enjoy walking to her house early in the morning.  The sun comes up very early in Taiwan in the summer and back then the city seemed to sleep in.  It was always pretty quiet.   Very few cars were out and the busses weren’t running that early.  I always walked by an old man who was out preparing his oven which was an old metal 55 gallon drum that had a domed insert welded into it with a hole at the top and a little door on the side to put charcoal in bottom.  He baked green onion rolls (a type of shao bing 燒餅) in it by sticking the dough onto the inside of the drum through the opening in the top.  I always said good morning to him and let him know I would be back in an hour to buy a few.  

This lady had a number of books she was using to learn English and she would have questions about vocabulary and why we say things the way we do in English.  Seems I never had good answers as to why we say something a certain way and when I did think I knew some grammar rule she would find exceptions and I wouldn’t know what to say.  We would sit at her kitchen table for 45 minutes going over her books and questions.  At 6:45 her radio alarm clock would go off letting us know lesson time was over and she needed to get ready for work.  It always came as a big relief to me.  One morning at 6:45 the clock clicked and “The Boxer” began to play right from the start.  It was perfect, I hear the click then the first note of the guitar intro began.  I hadn’t heard the song for years and wanted to stay and listen to it but the lesson was over, she was in a rush and showed me to the door.  I walked home with the song in my head.  Of course I bought some green onion rolls on the way home.  I always did.  

The north part of Zhoughau Road between the train station and Xīméndīng.
Like most days during my summers in Taiwan I had no plans and it was still just 7:00 a.m.  I decided I would try to find a Simon and Garfunkel cassette tape with “The Boxer.”  I thought this would be easy.  I was always looking at cassette tapes for sale in Taiwan.  They were everywhere, even the morning markets had vendors selling cheap pirated cassette tapes.  I mainly looked for Taiwan singers and bands but I saw a lot music from the US for sale there too.  I first went to the local morning market and checked out cassette tape vendors but didn’t see any Simon and Garfunkel tapes.  I took a bus to the old Taipei train station.  
There were plenty of street vendors and shops that sold tapes in that area.  I worked my way from the train station down Zhounghau Road to Xīméndīng (西門) with no luck.  I decided to try the big department stores around Xīméndīng.  They always had a good selection of American music though they were more expensive (they were not pirated or at least higher quality pirated).  I still couldn’t find any Simon and Garfunkel tapes there either.  The longer I searched without success the more obsessed I became with finding the tape.  I went to the Zhoungshan (中山) area.  
Looking down Zhoughua Road towards Xīméndīng.
There were fewer places to buy tapes but there was more American stuff in that area but I found nothing.  I went to Gonggwan (公館) a market near National Taiwan University and again found nothing.  I searched with no luck until about 4:00 in the afternoon.  I was running out of places to look but was determined not to give up.  I remembered a bookstore at Shīdà ( National Taiwan Normal University) that I had been to a few months earlier.  It didn’t have many tapes as I remembered but most of the tapes were from the US.  I took a bus to that area and walked a short distance to the bookstore.  There in the small rack of cassette tapes I found Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits.  

Taipei has changed a lot since that day and the world has changed even more.  Is there a collage student that would spend a day looking for a song?  They would just find free wifi somewhere and download it.  I’m not saying one way is better than the other, just different. 

Every time I hear “The Boxer” I picture that morning at the kitchen table when the radio alarm went off.  I picture the fold-up suitcase type displays of pirated tapes in the Taipei markets, the ladies in the department stores searching though their racks trying to help me find what I was looking for and the feeling of success of finding Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in the bookstore at Shīdà.  I’m glad I had to search for it. 

What songs take you back to a special place and time?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Found Money

An Australian one dollar coin found in Pemberton, Australia.

I pick up pennies when I see them on the ground.  I don’t do it for good luck and I don’t spend them either.  Not sure what people think of me when they see me picking up pennies out of the dirt but I guess I don’t care.  I take them home and put them in a jar.  Of course I pick up nickels, dimes, quarters and any other money I find.  It all goes in the jar.  Many years ago my dad started doing this.  Not sure why he started doing it but I’ve associated “Found Money” in jars with my dad for as long as I can remember.  

When I was young I spent the money I found.  The first money I remember finding was a $10 bill on my way to school when I was in first or second grade.  I took it to the school office and turned it in to lost & found (even though I found it far from school).  They said I could have it if no one claimed it in 30 days.  I couldn’t stop thinking about that, it seemed like so much money.  No one claimed it and I used the money to buy an HO race car at Sage’s in San Bernadino so I could race on a big track one of the neighbors had set up in their garage.  

When I started traveling on my own I remember saving the money I found to give to my dad as souvenirs of my travels.  Later I started saving it all in a jar like my dad.  My brother and sisters did too.  Many years ago I proposed we have a contest to see who could find the most money each year and the winner could pick a charity to donate everyone’s “Found Money” to.  For many years my dad and I would each find between $25 and $50 a year.  I never donated the actual found money.  We always donate more to the chosen charity than was found anyways.  I keep all my “Found Money” for each year in a jar.  I have a lot of “Found Money” jars and I have no idea what, if anything, I’ll ever do with them.  

We don’t find as much anymore.  Maybe it’s the economy and people are more likely to pick up the change they drop.  My dad doesn’t get out as much as he used to and his eyes aren’t as good as they once were.  I don’t stop at convenience stores and grocery stores as much as I used to so I have fewer opportunities too.  Still wherever I go I’m always on the lookout for “Found Money” and pick up all that I see.  Not because I need it nor because it’s for charity.  I do it because it reminds me of my dad.  
My 2012 "Found Money."  By far the lowest total since I've been saving it in jars.