August 30th, 2012
I was recently reminded, indirectly, that this happened eight years ago. Clearly the older you get, the slower you move, because time has perceptibly sped up. It was not long after we moved to Tongzhou. I got home and my wife said, “I finally found a good restaurant in the neighbourhood!” Our first experience of restaurants in the area had been being told to bugger off because they were closed for the afternoon. Great way to run a business. But this place she had just found was really good. We’d show up at any reasonable time and be fed. They were friendly. When business was slow they’d sit and chat with us, and not just “polite, meaningless words”, to rip Yeats’ phrasing way out of context, but chatting like we were actually friends, because we were friends. We could sit there for hours if we wanted, just passing time, as you do. Then one day after spring festival they were closed. The next day open. Day 3, closed, but them all hanging around but expressions as closed as their restaurant and as cagey as a third-rate crim caught in the act and trying to weasel out. Eventually, just closed. Gone. Who knows where. Never came back, at least, not while we were living in the area, or not to that area.
A few days ago I went off for a walk. I strolled through a neighbourhood I often stroll through up to their north gate. Something had changed, drastically, but drastically in a way that made me stop and look. Two rows of shops on either side of the lane just inside the north gate had vanished, to be replaced by gardens. I wondered if it had really been that long since I’d strolled through the area – well, yeah, it had been, for a variety of reasons – the business of the end of last semester, summer humidity, travel, and so on, the usual list of excuses why I hadn’t been through. I used to always stop in one of those shops to grab a drink on my way out or back. Vanished, struck on the head with the magic wand of some malevolent old hag of a fairy tale witch and transformed into rather mediocre, already tired-looking gardens.
Today I was off to get some takeaways for lunch. Ma had put some rice on, but there was precious little else at home to eat. The campus muslim restaurant, the closest restaurant, still hadn’t opened. Around the corner, grab a newspaper for the wait. Bumped into the boss of my favourite local restaurant. Again, a very friendly guy. Happy to chat, asks after the family, plays with my daughter when I take her there, super proud of and caring for his own wee girl, as soon as I walk in he plonks a cold Yanjing on the table, he knows perfectly what I like to eat, just one of those beautiful, genuine souls who’d take good care of anybody who happened to stumble his way. “I just closed my restaurant” was the first thing he said. What?! “Yeah, I closed it up, it’s going to become an Old Beijing hotpot place and I’m going home to Henan to do business there.” His daughter, who’s nearly a year younger than mine, gave me a big, sweet smile. He said he’d be back in Beijing fairly regularly and would call me when he is here. He offered to buy me lunch, but I said no, I’ve got to take it home, and went off to look for an alternative. His restaurant wasn’t just closed, the new owners had already gotten a decent start on the renovations.
See, I’m a creature of habit. Human, in other words. But here’s how it works for me: I like to cultivate shops and restaurants and so on. If I get good, friendly service one place, I’ll go back, and keep going back so long as it lasts. I let them get to know my particular foibles. I take my wife and daughter along. I let the owners and/or staff (as the case may be) get to know me and I do my severely introverted best to get to know them. I like walking into a restaurant and ordering a dish only to be told, “No, you don’t want that, the broccoli’s got bugs in it.” See, that’s good business. When they tell me that, I know I can trust them, I’m going to be back. This gets us to a point where, if I’m short of cash, I can tell them so and say I’ll just pop over to the ATM and be back in 2 minutes, and they trust me. This is the way it should be.
But my buddy Mr Zhang has shut up shop and will soon be leaving town.