Much of Aristotle’s complex physics rests upon the simple postulate that nature abhors a vacuum. Scientists today, of course, pooh-pooh the notion as absurd, but after Qin-shi and I make several swoops down Clement Street in search of that most prized of urban vacuums, a parking place, I wonder if they haven’t been too hasty in their dismissal of the old philosopher.
Her eyes light up at the sidewalk displays, the piles of lily buds and lotus root, dried bean curd skin, winter melon, star anise and thousand year eggs, the crocks of Tientsin preserved cabbage and Guilin chili, all the many things, unavailable or exorbitant in the hinterlands, which we’ve driven several hours down windy, wintry roads to procure. Her lengthy shopping list rests on the dashboard. The windshield reflects the ideograms. If I were a Leonardo da Vinci and Chinese, and if I had a mirror, maybe I could read it.
She rolls down a window. The pungent aroma of garlic and ginger frying drifts from various eateries. Our mouths water. We left home without eating, and during the latter half of our journey visions of dim sum have been dancing before our eyes. I double back towards the ocean, peering left and right down side streets. We cross the boundary between the outpost of the Middle Kingdom and the Russian neighborhood along Geary Street. Here, too, cars are double-parked, people thronging about on the sidewalk near the Cathedral of the Mother of God, its gold onion bulb domes gleaming in the sun.
It’s Russian Advent. Just when Rudolph with his nose so bright has finished his annual sleigh ride through the heavens and the three kings of the Orient bearing gifts from afar fade back into their carol for another year, the Russians are getting ready for Christmas. They may be greeting capitalism and democracy with a bear hug, but the calendar on the post-glasnost hermit’s wall hearkens back to the time of the czars.
As far as I know, there are no standing room only republics in the United Nations. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, chairs in the august assembly have been provided for the convenience of deputies from Moldova, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the like. If only the city of San Francisco had foreseen the need for more parking places after the break-up of the American nuclear family, when mom and dad, occupying separate dwellings, would each require a vehicle to ferry themselves about town, my stomach wouldn’t be rumbling and the car would already be packed full with cloud ears, red-in-snow, fermented black beans and the fixings for mo-shu pork.
Parking wasn’t always such an impossible task. I remember thirty years ago, when I lived on Sacramento Street a few blocks west of Chinatown. My car at the time, a Volkswagen Beetle painted taxicab yellow, suffered from some sort of untraceable aneurysm in its wiring. Every battery I put under the back seat died in a matter of days. As a result, to be sure of a rolling start so I could pop the clutch, I had to find a spot facing downhill, in a place where nobody could park in front of me. Intersections were obviously handy for this. But there had to be a lamp post or a phone pole nearby. I couldn’t park the canary colored bomb in first to hold it because the transmission had the annoying habit of jumping out of gear into neutral, a perilous condition exacerbated by the fact that the emergency brake was senile. A rusty anchor from a marine salvage yard and some steel link chain solved the problem. As soon as I’d curbed the wheels, I’d hop out of the car, wrap the chain around the bumper and attach the anchor to some fixed point on the sidewalk. Next morning, heave-ho and away we’d go, mateys.
Back in those good old days, even parking a full-size pick up presented no great challenge. More often than not, my boss Sasha pulled his rig, loaded with lumber and tools, right up to the job site. Sasha was a stair maker. He never learned to read or write properly, and drank enough vodka to keep the Potemkin and all its mutinous sailors afloat, but he’d been building steps for sixty years and knew all their wiles and secrets. Outdoor staircases and landings were his specialty. Any number of the city’s brightly painted Victorian ladies owed their fetching come-hither fronts to his talents.
“Building stairs is like playing chess,” he instructed me on my first day at work. “You make a move, air makes a move.”
The packing crate he set up on the pavement was just large enough to hold a chessboard, a white tin of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, a quart of vodka and two shot glasses. According to Sasha, stairs were a dancing partner. You had to stay loose if you didn’t want to step on her toes. I don’t recall ever seeing him sober. On the other hand, I never saw him drunk, either. By the end of our workday, the bottle would invariably be empty and I would be in checkmate.
“Your young stairs should be as silent as butter. When they age, they’ll find their voice. The creaks and groans. The squeaks.”
He attributed his own remarkable longevity, his ability, at the age of eighty, to hammer nails and instantly spot a queen’s gambit, to his daily ritual of vodka and Balkan Sobranies.
Qin-shi squirms and points at a miracle—a parking place, blessedly unmetered. A few moments later, I’m leading her by the wrist up the steps into the Cathedral of the Mother of God. She frowns and shakes her head in disapproval. The Russians, who probably learned about tea from their neighbors in Cathay, apparently haven’t learned a thing about feng-shui.
“I want to give thanks for the parking place,” I say.
Worshippers mill about in the lobby, many wearing coats too heavy for even the coldest of San Francisco days. It’s as though they’ve brought the winter of their motherland along with them, as though the mere memory of blizzards on the steppes is enough to set teeth chattering. At a counter beside the entrance to the interior of the church, I buy a two-dollar candle.
An unaccompanied hymn washes over the crowd inside the sanctuary. There are no pews. All are standing or walking about, murmuring prayers, lighting tapers on little stands devoted to various saints, kissing the icons, leaving them messages and requests in Cyrillic letters. Portraits of saints cover the walls. Candle smoke and incense fumes float into the upper reaches. So many saints. I wonder which could’ve been Sasha’s favorite, the one he would choose for the candle and the little blessing I plan to say on his behalf. I wander around with Qin-shi at my side, in search of an inspiration.
The choir grows silent. Hundreds of pairs of eyes turn to the altar. From behind a pair of swinging doors not unlike those in boomtown saloons comes an impressive figure with a white beard big as an apron. His vestments sparkle with gold thread, the silver clasps of the book he lugs in one arm gleam in the candle light. This priest is no pantywaist. The tome is enormous. It must be heavy as an anvil, and nearly as solid. I assume the book must be the Bible. No doubt he knows the whole thing by heart, for he begins chanting in a resonant bass voice without opening it.
“Forget about blueprints,” Sasha used to tell me. “They’re like musical scores for the tone-deaf. Never measure anything longer than your arm, use the plumb bob, and don’t forget that the stairs up are also the stairs down.”
The priest chants and chants and chants. The worshippers begin moving about again. I’m still clutching the candle, and Qin-shi’s fingers. She tugs on my hand to get my attention and nods, wide-eyed, in the direction of what turns out to be another miracle. A burly fellow dressed in the garb of a muzhik or a Volga boatman, the tops of his black felt boots rolled, hat in hammy fist, has draped himself over a glass case. He bangs his forehead on the glass cover, then kisses it passionately, groans, then bangs it again and kisses it again, his lips leaving smears on the clear surface.
I gape. I gulp. There’s a man inside the glass case. A dead man, naturally. The case is a transparent coffin, a glass sarcophagus like the one in Red Square which holds the remains of Lenin. The relic’s hands are folded together on his abdomen, much in the manner of a plump fellow feeling his paunch after a satisfying supper, except these hands are bony and the wizened face and stringy neck emerging from the corpse’s priestly robes hardly suggest the gourmand.
“Is John,” says the muzhik, as though even with his back turned he’d sensed our astonishment, our wonder, our heathen ignorance. “Great podvizhnik, how you say, worker for God. Bishop Shanghai and San Francisco. Many miracles.”
Flashing us a big smile, he begins a litany of them. This Saint John could do without the sleep that refreshes ordinary mortals. For forty years he never had to make his bed because he never laid on it. He also eschewed food. Perhaps once a day, around midnight, he might have a light snack. Throughout much of Lent he survived on a sanctified wafer or two, and during the first and last weeks, he didn’t eat at all. This gave him the power to see into the future, to predict the hour of death, and he used the money he saved on meals to establish an orphanage in Shanghai.
Qin-shi tosses me a furtive glance, one eyebrow raised. I know what she’s thinking. If we don’t hurry, the dim sum parlors will be closed by the time we get to Clement Street. She runs a long fingernail over a crack in the milky green jade bracelet on her wrist. The crack annoys her. She’s always saying the jade is going to snap apart some day. I realize for the first time that I’ve never seen her completely naked, without the bracelet, not in the bath or in bed.
“Example. Once he gives last prayer to woman dying, bit by dog, how is it said in English?”
“Yes, rabies. Very contagious, very dangerous. Foaming at mouth. Woman has fit, foaming at mouth, spitting up all kinds things. John, he knows even this mess is gift from God. Picks them up, swallows them. Woman recovers!”
Bells ring as the muzhik launches into another of John’s many marvels. Old men, silver censers of smoking incense dangling from their arms, emerge from the swinging doors, followed by boys in white robes bearing baskets of warm bread. Many worshippers, after making the sign of the cross, reach into the baskets for one of the perfectly browned little rolls, but I don’t see anybody actually chewing on one. Maybe they’re supposed to be taken home. Maybe they’re fake, like the plastic chow mein and beef in oyster sauce gracing the windows of some Chinese restaurants.
The muzhik stops. He eyes Qin-shi carefully, squinting, as if she were miles away. He laughs.
“Ah. You hungry? Me too. Come.”
With that, he hustles us out of the sanctuary and through the lobby into the brilliant sunshine, down the steps of the cathedral, around the corner to a basement, to a hall more crowded and much noisier than the church itself. People seated at folding tables are attacking paper plates piled high with blini, with pirogi and rollmops and stroganoff, thrusting spoons into coated paper bowls brimming with borscht and shchi. Women in babushkas are ladling out the goodies from a long steam table. Qin-shi, who is excited now, wants to know about every dish, but can hardly make herself heard above the din.
“And that?” she shouts, pointing at neat triangles of translucent dough wrapped around what appears to be a filling of ground meat.
“Pelmeni,” announces our self-appointed guide. “Russian ravioli. Russian won-ton. You like? You make? Fill stomach.”
Nature abhors a vacuum. The stairs up are the stairs down. I’m sure that Aristotle and Heraclitus were staretsy, wise elders, utterly unknown to Sasha, but he was nevertheless in complete agreement with them. I stick his two-dollar candle in my coat pocket. It’s clear that I’m going to need both hands to carry away the food that’s being heaped on my plate.