David Sedaris Essays Rooster

Six To Eight Black Men

by David Sedaris

I've never been much for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in a strange American city, I normally start by asking the cab driver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don't really care how many people live in Olympia, Washington, or Columbus, Ohio. They're nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn't tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.

What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon, and if so, under what circumstances? What's the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I've learned from experience that it's best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small space. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I've heard, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. They must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but still, it seems a bit risky. You wouldn't want a blind person driving a car or piloting a plane, so why hand him a rifle? What sense does that make? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that's become so homogenous, I'm reassured by these last touches of regionalism.

Guns aren't really an issue in Europe, so when I'm traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. "What do your roosters say?" is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark "vow vow" and both the frog and the duck say "quack," the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty "kik-a-ricki." Greek roosters crow "kiri-a- kee," and in France they scream "coco-rico," which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says "cock-a-doodle-doo," my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.

"When do you open your Christmas presents?" is another good conversation starter as it explains a lot about national character. People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It's nothing I'd want for myself, but I suppose it's fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.

In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.

One doesn't want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn't use to do anything. He's not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate's all wrong, and people wouldn't appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn't have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit, he'd most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn't speak Spanish. He knows enough to get by, but he's not fluent, and he certainly doesn't eat tapas.

While our Santa flies on a sled, Saint Nicholas arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I'm not sure if there's a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want.

"Is it just him alone?" I asked. "Or does he come with backup?"

Oscar's English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement.

"Helpers," I said. "Does he have any elves?"

Maybe I'm just overly sensitive, but I couldn't help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. "Elves," he said. "They're just so silly."

The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as "six to eight black men." I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always "six to eight," which seems strange, seeing as they've had hundreds of years to get a decent count.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as "the small branch of a tree."

"A switch?"

"Yes," he said. "That's it. They'd kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him back to Spain."

"Saint Nicholas would kick you?"

"Well, not anymore," Oscar said. "Now he just pretends to kick you."

"And the six to eight black men?"

"Them, too."

He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it's almost more perverse than the original punishment. "I'm going to hurt you, but not really." How many times have we fallen for that line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain, old- fashioned fear. What kind of Santa spends his time pretending to kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of course, you've got the six to eight former slaves who could potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on.

"Six to eight, did you say?"

In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it's not much different from hanging your stockings from the mantel. Now that so few people have a working fireplace, Dutch children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator, furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At this point, I guess, they either jump back down and use the door, or they stay put and vaporize through the pipes and electrical wires. Oscar wasn't too clear about the particulars, but, really, who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He's supposed to use the chimney, but if you don't have one, he still manages to come through. It's best not to think about it too hard.

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you're bad, he leaves you coal. If you're good and live in America, he'll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."

This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution—so what's not to love about being Dutch?

Oscar finished his story just as we arrived at the station. He was a polite and interesting guy—very good company—but when he offered to wait until my train arrived, I begged off, saying I had some calls to make. Sitting alone in the vast terminal, surrounded by other polite, seemingly interesting Dutch people, I couldn't help but feel second-rate. Yes, it was a small country, but it had six to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter, and was edging toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off into the Michigan forest. He might bag a deer, or he might happily shoot his sighted companion in the stomach. He may find his way back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before stumbling through your front door. We don't know for sure, but in pinning that license to his chest, he inspires the sort of narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American.


From Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris, © 2004 Little, Brown. Permission pending.

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Audio from David Sedaris Live at Carnegie Hall, © 2003 Little, Brown. Permission pending.

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back to Netherlands

"I have to go to China." I told people this in the way I might say, "I need to insulate my crawl space" or, "I've got to get these moles looked at." That's the way it felt, though. Like a chore. What initially put me off was the food. I'll eat it if the alternative means starving, but I've never looked forward to it, not even when it seemed exotic to me.

I was in my early 20s when a Chinese restaurant opened in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was in a new building, designed to look vaguely templish, and my mother couldn't get enough of it. "What do you say we go oriental!"

I think she liked that the food was beyond her range. Anyone could imitate the twice-baked potatoes at the Peddler, or turn out a veal parmesan like the Villa Capri's, but there was no way a non-Chinese person could make moo shu pork, regardless of his or her training. "And the egg rolls," she'd say. "Can you imagine!"

The restaurant didn't have a liquor licence, but they allowed you to brown bag. Thus we'd arrive with our jug of hearty burgundy. I always got my mother to order for me, but when the kung pao chicken was brought to the table, I never perked up the way I did at the steak house or the Villa Capri. And it wasn't just Raleigh's Chinese food. I was equally uninterested in Chicago and, later, New York, cities with actual China Towns.

Everyone swore that the food in Beijing and Chengdu would be different from what I'd had in the US. "It's more real," they said, meaning, it turned out, that I could dislike it more authentically.

I think it hurt that, before landing in China, Hugh and I spent a week in Tokyo, where the food was, as always, sublime, everything so delicate and carefully presented. With meals I drank tea, which leads me to another great thing about Japan – its bathrooms. When I was younger they wouldn't have mattered so much. Then I hit 50 and found that I had to pee all the time. In Tokyo, every subway station has a free public men's room. The floors and counters are aggressively clean and beside each urinal is a hook for hanging your umbrella.

This was what I had grown accustomed to when we flew from Narita to Beijing International, where the first thing one notices is what sounds like a milk steamer, the sort a cafe uses when making lattes and cappuccinos. "That's odd," you think. "There's a coffee bar on the elevator to the parking deck?" What you're hearing, that incessant guttural hiss, is the sound of one person, and then another, dredging up phlegm, seemingly from the depths of his or her soul. At first you look over, wondering, "Where are you going to put that?" A better question, you soon realise, is, "Where aren't you going to put it?"

I saw wads of phlegm glistening like freshly shucked oysters on staircases and escalators. I saw them frozen into slicks on the sidewalk and oozing down the sides of walls. It often seemed that if people weren't spitting, they were coughing without covering their mouths, or shooting wads of snot out of their noses. This was done by plugging one nostril and using the other as a blowhole. "We Chinese think it's best just to get it out," a woman told me over dinner one night. She said that, in her opinion, it's disgusting that a westerner would use a handkerchief and then put it back into his pocket.

"Well, it's not for sentimental reasons," I told her. "We don't hold on to our snot for ever. The handkerchief's mainly a sanitary consideration."

Another thing one notices in China is the turds. "Oh please," you're probably thinking. "Must you?"

To this I answer, "Yes, I must", for if they didn't affect the food itself, they affected the way I thought about it. In Tokyo, I once saw a dog pee on the sidewalk. Then its owner reached into a bag, pulled out a bottle of water and rinsed the urine off the pavement. As for dog faeces, I never saw any trace of them. In Beijing, you see an overwhelming amount of shit. Some of it can be blamed on pets, but a lot of it comes from people. Chinese babies do without diapers, wearing instead these strange little pants with a slit in the rear. When a child has to go, its parents direct it towards the kerb or, if they're indoors, to a spot they think of as "kerby". "Last month I saw a kid shit in the produce aisle of our Chengdu Walmart," a young woman named Bridget told me.

This was the seventh day of my visit and so desensitised was I that my first response was, "You have a Walmart?"

There are the wild outdoor turds of China, and then there are the ones you see in the public bathrooms, most of which feature those squat-style toilets, holes, basically, level with the floor. And these bathrooms, my God. The sorriest American gas station cannot begin to match one of these things.

In the men's room of a Beijing subway station, I watched a man walk past the urinal, lift his three-year-old son into the air and instruct him to pee into the sink – the one we were supposed to wash our hands in.

My trip reminded me that we are all just animals, that stuff comes out of every hole we have, no matter where we live or how much money we've got. On some level we all know this and manage, quite pleasantly, to shove it towards the back of our minds. In China, it's brought to the front, and nailed there. The supermarket cashier holds out your change and you take it thinking, "This woman squats and spits on the floor while shitting and blowing snot out of her nose." You think it of the cab driver, of the ticket taker and, finally, of the people who are cooking and serving your dinner. Which brings me back to food.

If someone added a pinch of human faeces to my scrambled eggs, I may not be able to detect it but I would most likely realise that these particular eggs taste different from the ones I had yesterday. That's with something familiar, though. And there wasn't a lot of familiar in China. No pork lo mein or kung pao chicken, and definitely no egg rolls. On our first night in Chengdu, we joined a group of four for dinner – one Chinese woman and three westerners. The restaurant was not fancy, but it was obviously popular. Built into our table was a simmering cauldron of broth, into which we were to add side dishes and cook them until they were done. "I've taken the liberty of ordering us some tofu, some mushrooms and some duck tongues," said the western woman sitting across from me. "Do you trust me to keep ordering, or is there anything in particular you might like?"

I looked at her thinking, "You whore!" Catherine was English and had lived in China for close to 20 years. I figured the duck tongues were a sort of test, so I made it a point to look unfazed. Excited even.

When I was eventually forced to eat one, I found that it actually wasn't so bad. The only disconcerting part was the shape, particularly the base, from which dangled tentacle-like roots. This reminded one that the tongues had not been cut off but, rather, yanked out, possibly with pliers. Of course the duck was probably dead by then, wasn't it? It's not as if they'd jerk out the tongue and then let it go, traumatised and quackless but otherwise whole.

It was while eating my second duck tongue that the man at the next table hacked up a loud wad of phlegm and spat it on to the floor. "I think I'm done," I said.

The following morning, and with a different group, Hugh and I took a drive to the mountain where tea originally came from. It was late January, and the two-hour trip took us past countless factories. Mustard-coloured smoke drifted into the sky and the rivers we passed ran thick with waste and rubbish. Eventually we hit snow, which improved things visually but made it harder to move about. By the time we headed back down the mountain, it was almost three. Most restaurants had quit serving lunch, so we stopped at what's called a Farming Family Happiness. This is a farmhouse where, if they're in the mood, the people who live there will cook and serve you a meal.

One of the members of our party was a native of Chengdu, and of the five Americans, everyone but Hugh and I spoke Mandarin. Thus we hung back as they negotiated with the farm wife, who was square-faced and pretty and wore her hair cut into bangs. We ate in what was normally the mah jong parlour, a large room overlooking the family's tea field. Against one wall were two televisions, each tuned to a different channel and loudly playing to no one. On the other wall was a sanitation grade – C – and the service grade, which was a smiley face with the smile turned upside down.

As far as I know there wasn't a menu. Rather, the family worked at their convenience, with whatever was handy or in season. There was a rooster parading around the backyard and then there just wasn't. After the cook had slit its throat, he used it as the base for five separate dishes, one of which was a dreary soup with two feet, like inverted salad tongs, sticking out of it. Nothing else was nearly as recognisable.

I'm used to standard butchering: here's the leg, the breast, etc. At the Farming Family Happiness, rather than being carved, the rooster was senselessly hacked, as if by a blind person, a really angry one with a thing against birds. Portions were reduced to shards, mostly bone, with maybe a scrap of meat attached. These were then combined with cabbage and some kind of hot sauce.

Another dish was made entirely of organs, which again had been hacked beyond recognition. The heart was there, the lungs, probably the comb and intestines as well. I don't know why this so disgusted me. If I was a vegetarian, OK, but if you're a meat eater, why draw these arbitrary lines? "I'll eat the thing that filters out toxins but not the thing that sits on top of the head, doing nothing?" And why agree to eat this animal and not that one?

I remember reading a few years ago about a restaurant in the Guangdong province that was picketed and shut down because it served cat. The place was called The Fangji Cat Meatball Restaurant, which isn't exactly hiding anything. Go to Fangji and you pretty much know what you're getting. My objection to cat meatballs is not that I have owned several cats, and loved them, but that I try not to eat things that eat meat. Like most westerners I tend towards herbivores, and things that like grain: cows, chickens, sheep, etc. Pigs eat meat – a pig would happily eat a human – but most of the pork we're privy to was raised on corn or horrible chemicals rather than other pigs and dead people.

There are distinctions among the grazing animal eaters as well. People who like lamb and beef, at least in north America, tend to draw the line at horse, which in my opinion is delicious. The best I've had was served at a restaurant in Antwerp, a former stable called, cleverly enough, The Stable. Hugh was right there with me, and though he ate the same thing I did, he practically wept when someone in China mentioned eating sea horses. "Oh, those poor things," he said. "How could you?"

I went, "Huh?"

It's like eating poultry but taking a moral stand against those chocolate chicks they sell at Easter. "A sea horse is not related to an actual horse," I said. "They're fish, and you eat fish all the time. Are you objecting to this one because of its shape?"

He said he couldn't eat sea horses because they were friendly and never did anyone any harm, this as opposed to those devious, bloodthirsty lambs whose legs we so regularly roast with rosemary and new potatoes.

The dishes we had at the Farming Family Happiness were meant to be shared, and as the pretty woman with the broad face brought them to the table, the man across from me beamed and reached for his chopsticks. "You know," he said, "this country might have its ups and downs but it is virtually impossible to get a bad meal here."

I didn't say anything.

Another of the dishes that day consisted of rooster blood. I'd thought it would be liquid, like V8 juice, but when cooked it coagulated into little pads that had the consistency of tofu. "Not bad," said the girl seated beside me, and I watched as she slid one into her mouth. Jill was American, a Peace Corps volunteer who'd come to Chengdu to teach English. "In Thailand last year? I ate dog face," she told me.

"Just the face?"

"Well, head and face." She was in a small village, part of a team returning abducted girls to their parents. To show their gratitude, the locals prepared a feast. Dog was considered good eating. The head was supposedly the best part, and rather than offend her hosts, Jill ate it.

This, for many, is flat-out evil but the rest of the world isn't like America, where it's become virtually impossible to throw a dinner party. One person doesn't eat meat, while another is lactose intolerant, or can't digest wheat. You have vegetarians who eat fish and others who won't touch it. Then there are vegans, macrobiotics and a new group, flexitarians, who eat meat if not too many people are watching. Take that into consideration and it's actually rather refreshing that a 22-year-old from the suburbs of Detroit will pick up her chopsticks and at least try the shar pei.

I'd like to be more like Jill, but in China something kept holding me back. In clean, sophisticated Japan the rooster blood, arranged upon a handmade plate between the perfect, tempura snow pea and a radish carved to look like a first trimester foetus, would have seemed a fine idea. "We ought to try making this at home," I'd have said to Hugh. Here, though, I thought of the sanitation grade, and of the rooster, pecking maggots out of human faeces before being killed. Most of the restaurants in China to me smelled dirty, though what I was smelling was likely some unfamiliar ingredient, and I was allowing the things I'd seen earlier in the day – the spitting and snot blowing, etc – to fill in the blanks.

Then again, maybe not.

While on our trip we ate at normal, everyday places, and sometimes bought food on the street. Our only expensive meal was in Beijing, where we went alone to a fancy restaurant recommended by an acquaintance. The place was located in an old warehouse and had been lavishly decorated. There was a wine expert and someone whose job it was to drop by every three minutes and refill your water glass. We had the Peking duck, which was expertly carved rather than hacked and was served with little pancakes. Towards the end of the meal, I stepped into the men's room to pee and there, disintegrating in the western-style toilet, was an unflushed turd, a little reminder saying, "See, you're still in China!"

Back at the table I asked for the bill. Then I remembered where I was and amended it to "the check". In France, you can die waiting to pay for your meal, which is something I've never understood. "How can they not want me out of here?" I'll think. Ten minutes might pass. Then 20, me watching as the waiter does everything but accept my goddamn money.

I'll say that for China, though – offer to pay and before you can stab a rooster with a rusty screwdriver someone has taken you up on it. I think they want to catch you before you get sick, but whatever the reason, within minutes you're back on the street, searching the blighted horizon and wondering where your next meal might be coming from.

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