Now he is sitting in his hotel room in Beijing and the world seems far away. He flew coach and there is a pain in his neck that won’t go away. The room is small and smells a little mildewy despite being new and relatively upscale. The window is not operable. The air-conditioner purrs. The TV is on constantly. He leaves it on. The bed is the desk. Laptop and papers spread out. He doesn’t move them when he sleeps. He hasn’t changed his clothes. He has one small bag.
Every few hours he takes the elevator down, walks past the lobby fountains, the bar, the tired tourists in their shorts and caps, fanning themselves, young women standing around, pouting, waiting, looking bored, men in dark suits on cell phones. Lots of black leather shoes with metal buckles.
The overweight doorman in his baggy uniform always smiles and asks if he needs a taxi. Jintian buyong (Not today), he says. The doorman, in proper Beijing frankness, then says, Taiduo kafei buhao! He cha zuihao! (Drinking too much coffee is bad for you! It’s better to drink tea!). He gives a thumbs up.
Pangle ye buhao. (Being fat is also bad for you), he says. At this the doorman laughs and shakes his belly. Pangle jiu jiankang! (Being fat is healthy!).
The doorman knows he is going to walk across the stone plaza to the Starbucks. Xingbake, reads the sign in Chinese characters. Literally, “star”-ba-ke. He watches this routine numerous times daily. The doorman notices these things.
He gets a venti mo ka in a paper cup. They know he wants the paper cup with the plastic lid and have stopped trying to give him a ceramic mug. It’s weird, he thinks. The mugs. Must be some rule they had to conform with to enter the China market. You can do business here but you need to reduce your trash. Sometimes he sits in the Starbucks for a few minutes. After a little bit he makes the short walk back across the hot stone plaza.
Jintian he shenma? the fat doorman asks. Mo ka, he replies. The doorman makes a look of disgust and turns away waving his hand, laughing.
He walks back through the air-conditioned lobby. There is polished stone everywhere. There is a fountain and a waterfall. Landscape paintings and statues. Replicas of the First Emperor’s terracotta soldiers flank the entrance to the bar. One of them holds a menu. Happy Hour! 5:00 p.m. At 5:00 p.m. he will probably go to Starbucks again, he thinks. He is still jet-lagged. He will be up all night, go to sleep early in the morning and wake up at noon.
Things are easy in China these days. For a westerner, anyway. He used to travel hard, now he travels light, moving only when he absolutely has to, taking almost nothing, staying in air-conditioned rooms, taking taxis everywhere, being driven places, to banquets, to KTV bars, to ostentatious air-conditioned towers where he sits at glossy boardroom tables bigger than his hotel room.
In a few days he will visit the LDI to update them on the plans he has been working on. They are for a satellite city just east of Beijing. He’s been doing some sketches, mostly. He tried the internet but a lot of sites are blocked. He can’t get to his Facebook page or Twitter. He sketches and will start putting them into CAD. Or, they could do that at the LDI and he could just keep sketching, moving the pieces of this imaginary city around. Right now it is just land. No one has even bothered to go take a look because there is simply nothing there. It’s where the highway begins to die out and you start to see more dumptrucks than cars. Dumptrucks and flatbed carts laden with furniture drawn by pathetic, overtaxed little donkeys. People are moving…somewhere. Perhaps the new concrete apartment towers. Some of them are still just shells, pipes beginning to run along their exteriors.
There are hundreds of these cities going up. He is the lead designer for this one, for part of it anyway. A chance to do something interesting, he thinks. He met Steven Holl at one meeting. He’s doing one of the buildings. One time he saw Zaha Hadid on the plane flying over. She was sitting in First Class with a glass of champagne, reading The Sun.
That’s Zaha Hadid, he thought. Then a very polite yet urgent-seeming flight attendant asked him to kindly continue on to coach section, her hand out, palm facing up, perfect fingers indicating the direction where coach could be found, the rear, yet beyond Business Class. The curtain separating the classes was drawn and he never saw her again. But the word was she is doing something for the new city, too. Was he moving stuff around on his sketches that would impact her site? He didn’t know. There was no information.
So, for now, he is in his hotel room. He wondered where Zaha was staying. Probably some swank penthouse. Was she going to her Starbucks, near her hotel, too? Was she working on her laptop or sketching on her bed. Maybe sketching out some ideas the way he was? Probably not.
He had barely learned how to draw in architecture school. At the office, he still kept a mayline screwed to his desk—even though a lot of the time it was used to keep his laptop from sliding off. In this hotel room he finally feels like he can draw something.