SECRET AGENT MAN Copyright 2005, Michael LaRocca
Today's mission -- smuggle a contraband calico cat from my flat, past security and a few hundred tenants. Find a taxi. Explain to driver that we're going to Hong Kong SPCA even though I don't speak Cantonese and driver probably can't speak English. Get cat vaccinated. Find another taxi. Return home. Smuggle cat past security again.
I began by carrying Picasso, in a cat carrier, past security guard. As usual, he looked other way. There must be hundreds of dogs living here, in spite of rules. Every time a dog is taken for a walk, he rides in a lift with a security camera. A guard sees him on monitor. He doesn't care. Then dog is walked past a second guard, who also doesn't care. So really, this isn't a problem.
The fun begins when I get in taxi. There's always one waiting by exit, it seems. I told driver "Wan Chai." That was easy.
Then I said "Wan Shing Road." He didn't understand. Cantonese is tonal language, and I always butcher tones. Plus I've never learned how to say "Road."
I said "SPCA." That was English, but I don't know how to say it in Cantonese. He still didn't understand.
In a flash of insight, I realized that SPCA logo on side of carrier was in both English and Chinese. I pointed to it and said "This place."
The cab driver laughed. "I understand. Cat?"
He laughed again. "Is she a good cat?"
"You are lucky." He laughed again. Then he looked at box and said "Meow!" Then he laughed yet again. He's quite happy in mornings. "Is she Bossy Mouth?"
"How big is she? This big?" He put his hands far apart, as if perhaps I had a Labrador retriever in tiny box.
"No, this big." I tried to show him with my hands, but my memory's shot at that hour of morning. Along with rest of time. "She's very young."
"Ah, I understand." He paused to look at where he was driving. "Is she cat daughter?"
"Yes," I agreed, and we both laughed.
It didn't occur to me until later that he never saw cat. He just guessed "she." Likewise, she never made a sound during cab ride. He just guessed "bossy mouth." Maybe he has a cat daughter of his own.
In case you couldn't tell, I really liked this guy. Was his English any better than other cabbies in Hong Kong, or cashiers at grocery stores, restaurants, or 7-11s? Probably not. But he spoke with confidence, and when I didn't understand what he said, he repeated it until I figured it out. He wanted to communicate. I loved that.
Finally we settled into journey. He drove through absurd early-morning going-to-work traffic while I read my newspaper. When we reached Wan Chai, he attempted another conversation. I was slow picking up on this one. He repeated what he had said, verbatim. His vocabulary was a bit limited. I caught on at last. This was a sales pitch. He wanted fare back home as well.
He gave me his cell phone number. He made absolutely sure that I wrote down his cab number. He told me to call ten minutes before I was ready to leave, and he'd be there. How could I resist this smiling, friendly, charismatic old cab driver?