several years ago–when i was still living in chicago, in fact, my friend marko zivkovic suggested to a small group of friends interested in experimental writing that we write short vignettes about fieldwork. i became a bit over enthusiastic in the mode of trying to retrain my voice after finishing the dissertation, and ended up writing several semi-fictional autobiographical stories. until recently, i thought that they had been lost on some zip drive or another….
Everyone Deserves an Umbrella
It’s been said, by one of Doestojevskij’s characters I believe, that deserving an umbrella is the common denominator of humanity. My grandmother, Reverend W’s wife, probably never read Dostojevskij, but she would feel a certain appropriateness in an umbrella centered definition of what it is to be human. More so than a briefcase, a handkerchief, or a wool blazer, the quality of a gentleman can be judged by the weight and the fabric of the tool he uses to keep the rain off of his shoulders.
Perhaps due to the virtue acquired by the piece in being carried about in a man’s right hand, the umbrella is the next best judge of character to the handshake. Both should be firm and weighty while being gentle. And of course, the umbrella should be expansive enough to accommodate one’s partner
It was with these important considerations in mind that my grandmother selected an umbrella for her eldest grandson on the occasion of his year abroad in Taiwan. An umbrella is impossible to wrap, so she presented it to me, with apologies on the lack of a surprise opening, on the going away party that approximately corresponded to my eighteenth birthday. Seeing the umbrellas that I had previously carried, none of them distinctive, she assumed that like most men (Reverend W for whom she had always bought shirts being the truest example of the species) I was incapable of purchasing those very items which are any gentleman’s essential properties. But an umbrella was a matter of utmost importance. I think that even if I were married, my grandmother would not have entrusted such a matter to someone who was a virtual outsider. After all, it was my humanity that was in question
My grandmother selected the umbrella from the mens’ department of Peeble’s Department Store in Seaford, Delaware. She would have preferred Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia, but in a pinch, Peeble’s would do. In keeping with her tastes, it was a sturdy, simple umbrella in heavy black nylon with a stainless steel tip. The handle was of real wood and not the imitation wood molded plastic most umbrellas are made of these days. As far as umbrellas go, this one was made to survive both gentle spring rains, winter fogs, and the gusty thunderstorms of august. In keeping with the occasion of a going away party, the handle was also marked with a etched brass monogrammed plate:
She assumed that this umbrella would remain with me for at least until my future wife would begin buying shirts, handkerchiefs, ties, and umbrellas. Unfortunately, her gift was stolen from me not long after I arrived in Taiwan. On one of those summer days when a Typhoon was blowing through another part of the island, Taitiong’s sky was navigated by billowing full masted clouds, which whisped toward the Central Mountain Range, where they would come aground. I had taken my umbrella just in case one of them decided to lighten its hold of rain while still above the coastal flatlands. On the way to the coffee shop where I met a friend who worked outside of the university, the clouds continued to sail along, mottling the street with lugubrious shadows. When we were about to leave, however, a sheet of water glazed the open gate of Gothic Coffee Shop’s covered patio. I walked back to the umbrella rack near the door of the coffee shop to pick up my umbrella only to find it missing. Perhaps someone had mistaken the umbrella for their own, but now there were no umbrellas matching a similar description in any of the metal compartments of the rack. I stood in the doorway and cursed under my breath as my friend, who had not taken an umbrella to the coffee shop, discretely took an umbrella from the rack. He motioned that I do the same. I gave him a scornful glance and walked out into the rain
By the time he convinced me to stand underneath his ill-gotten umbrella, I was already halfway to a midsummer fever. Instead of going to a video parlour to view a film, as we had planned, we decided to go to a nearby sauna. He fetched some dry clothes from a street vendor as I sat with a towel wrapped around me, inhaling redwood scented steam. And an umbrella from those street vendors who appear–seemingly from nowhere–at the outset of unexpected rains. This umbrella stayed with me for a week, give a take a few days, when it was stolen from another umbrella rack, this time at a karaoke. Once again, as I stood dumbly cursing at the door, a friend took another umbrella from the rack. He pressed it into my hands. “Aih…just take one,” his voice of confused impatience
Noting how routinely the umbrellas I had stolen for me from umbrella racks were stolen to be stolen once again by others who were later stolen from, I began to lose my moral inhibitions about stealing umbrellas. After all, the umbrella I stole from the rack was probably stolen anyway. I thought that perhaps I was returning the favour. Or maybe I was righting the wrong done to someone else, who after all of the umbrellas–including his own–were stolen from the rack, had to face the misery of the prickly rain that fell like so many cat hairs on those days when the sky refused to rain honestly. Or perhaps by stealing this umbrella, I was passing on the misfortune of having one’s umbrella stolen during the spring monsoons to someone who had stolen someone else’s. At least I was keeping myself dry
Sometimes, during the rainy season in particular, I would imagine that I could identify umbrellas that I lifted from an umbrella rack in a teahouse only to be stolen from me at a shaved-ice-and-fruit stand. I would look carefully at the person holding the umbrella and try to remember whether I had seen them that day, sipping at an iced taro root soup or a sweet mung bean ice topped with condensed milk. She would seem to sip innocently. But wasn’t there a certain cleverness about the way she looked at my umbrella in the inverted reflection of her spoon? She was really waiting for me to walk to the counter, when she could casually reach under the table. Only a muted popping sound from the other side of the tin roof would warn me of what I would discover when returning for my books
Not that my books got wet that day. If one was in a public place (excluding the street, where one would have to buy one) there were always a few umbrellas around. If a stolen umbrella was stolen, one would not think of it as theft, but as a circulation of all the little debts we owe one another. He sent over a glass of beer at the karaoke, and I am certain that he needed the umbrella when he left; besides, I took this umbrella from the stairwell of X’s apartment, I think it belonged to his downstairs neighbor, but if he leaves an umbrella in the stairwell, then–who is to say that he didn’t take it from someone else? With the new umbrellas added to umbrella racks throughout the island by street vendors who sell cheap umbrellas for 100 NT each time it rains, it’s not like we are ever going to have an umbrella shortage. And one should truly thank these umbrella producers and salesmen for their crucial role in protecting us all from the total anonymity of contemporary urban life. For if everyone deserves an umbrella, what could express our relationships to each other as those who share a similar human fate than the accidents of umbrellas stolen?
But a well-made umbrella is still a well-made umbrella. I returned to my family who live back of Willards, Maryland for a month or two before finishing college in Lexington, Virginia. My grandmother never asked about the umbrella she gave me as a going away present two years before, and I never mentioned it being stolen. When I told my parents that I was planning to embark for Taiwan after graduating from college, they did not decide to combine graduation celebrations with a going away party; moving my books into storage was enough to manage. I had no chance to acquire another umbrella before I left. But in Taiwan one could always pick one up somewhere
A day or two after I arrived, I bought one of the 100 NT umbrellas from a street salesman in the Kelang nightmarket amid stalls selling octopus sashimi and stringy noodles with oysters. The salesmen made brisk business in this port city famous for rain in Japanese colonial era standards such as “Rainy Night in a Harbour City”. We drove back to Taiepi that night, after visiting abandoned gold mining town of Kaohun, ever shrouded in its dull green mist. In Taipei the hum of air conditioners could be heard over the weeklong prattle of raindrops on ashphalt. One of the first Typhoons with a male name was headed for Taitang. The next day, I met two college classmates–one from Lexington, another from Taitiong–at the entrance of Sogo department store. We drove to Thohng to pick up one of our friends. He suggested a teahouse on the rooftop of a building downtown. Shoes and umbrellas were deposited at the entrance, shoes checked, umbrellas placed in a convenient rack. Many pots of tea and plates of cashews later, we put on the geta provided by the proprietor to walk from our pavilion set with others in the simulated traditional village and garden. The teahouse also provided oil paper umbrellas which could be used when necessary. Of course, one left both with the cashier
We collected our shoes to leave. It was no surprise that the umbrella I had bought the day before was now no longer in the rack. Without looking in the rack, my hand was drawn to the nearest umbrella, one with a wood handle. “Just take one like the one you lost,” I told my classmate from Lexington, Virginia, who eyed me suspiciously. “It was probably stolen from someone else anyway,” chimed in the classmate from Taitiong. That night, we all slept in our friend’s apartment in Thohng. As I carried the new umbrella inside, I noticed small engraved plate on the handle:
The engraving was worn, the brass tarnished, and a few of the spokes of the umbrella were curiously bent, but there was no doubt that this was indeed the umbrella my grandmother had given me two years before. I lost the umbrella in Taitiong, and from there it had passed through many hands. Perhaps it had been taken from the Gothic Coffee House by a real estate agent, who lent it out to a client, who lost the umbrella a week later while eating a business lunch. There, the umbrella was carried by a young woman who waited at the corner of Freedom Street for a taxi. When she arrived at her destination and the sky was clear, she left my umbrella behind. The driver used the umbrella when on a visit to his family in Lokkang. He gave it to his mother, who recognized a good umbrella when she saw one. When the driver’s mother visited her brother in Kohiong two weeks later, someone lifted the umbrella as she and her brother’s children ate at a Western restaurant. In two years, the umbrella had been carried from city to city; had been on quiet walks in the mountains; had shielded the delicate skin of a young woman who traversed the harsh white pavement of the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial with tiny, pensive steps; performed its centripetal magic, drawing many couples under its open spokes into their first, hesitant embrace; acted as an impromptu walking stick; kept a young writer’s first collection of poetry from being soaked on its way to the editor; was held at car doors by dutiful grandsons while opening the car door for Ah-Ma or Ah-kong; bumped spokes with other umbrellas in the morning rush; opened and closed between apartments, restaurants, pedestrian arcades, teahouses, coffee shops, markets, nightclubs, offices, classrooms, department stores, railroad platforms, bus stops, hospitals, haberdasheries, and temples; allowed for splendid feats of dexterity when opened by riders of vespa scooters; it had seen many a reunion, send off, and first meeting handshake. Finally, a gangster with tatoos visible through his thin white cotton shirt had taken the umbrella from a questionable piano bar a few days before. It was given to him by one of the women who worked there, who thought it made him look like a character from “City of Sadness”. When we left the teahouse, one could still hear the gangster’s voice singing drunkenly, “Tonight it still rains in Taipei”
There is a chance of rain in Chicago today, but I will not carry the umbrella my grandmother gave me in 1986. I figured that I would take it out of circulation, now that it has come back to me, with ghosts hiding underneath its spokes
[i think that this one was dated 1998 or 1999]