Thursday, December 10, 2009


        We’re on the bus, and Will is reading.  Will, he of “Blew-27-strawberries-all-over-Mommy’s-car” fame, Mr. Can’t-keep-his-lunch-down-over-a-speed -bump.  So, of course, we ask him to put the book away.  And he does.  Sort of.  Well, not really, but he puts it on top of his backpack, and that’s the same thing, right? 

Except when the book slides off the backpack, and disappears into the bowels of the bus.

And Will forgets about it.

And so do we.

Until we get back to the flat. 

Fortunately for us, this isn’t the first time we’ve left something on the 26.  Indeed, one might argue we’ve become a family of losers:  at least twice now Ellen has even left the bag containing her wallet, her ID, her credit cards, her maps, her—well, everything.  Each time, we asked our upstairs friend Valerie, who’s a native Hongkonger and can sound impressively intimidating in any language, to call the bus company.  And each time, shortly thereafter, we’ve received a phone call from the Security Office on campus, telling us that a driver’s just dropped off Ellen’s bag—or the stroller, or the milk, or Jamie, or whatever—for us to come pick up. 

So when we lose the book, we simply call Valerie, who calls the bus company and does her usual sailor-in-need-of-a-caffeine-fix imitation.  Then we sit back, and wait for the call from the Security Office.

Only it never comes.

Now, there are a few things you need to know.  For one, this isn’t our book.  Books were too heavy to bring over from the States.  No, this book belongs to my host university’s library, which has the most astounding collection of children’s literature you’ve ever seen.  And man, doesn’t the library know it.  Seriously, you’re only allowed to check kids books out for a week.  And four days after you check it out, you get a “Friendly Reminder” via e-mail telling you that, yes, you may have just borrowed X book titles just a few days ago, but if you don’t return this book in three more days, the library will own your butt. 

And they’re not kidding about the own part:  I’ve always complained that the Lexington VA library is fine-happy, desperate to supplement the pathetic budget the city council allows them by nickel-and-diming every six-year-old who keeps a copy of See Spot Run half a day too long.  But at least in Virginia, it literally is nickels and dimes you’re fined.  At my Hong Kong university, you’re fined HK$5 per day.  Now granted every US dollar equals 5 HK dollars, but if you do the math, this still means that you owe roughly 70 cents per day for each book that’s overdue.  And when you consider that we have three kids of three different ages and that it’s not unusual for us to check out 10 books per kid per week, well—one day’s worth of overdueness for one week’s worth of books, and there goes college for the kids. 

Second, I should mention that this is a hardcover book.  Which are expensive, of course.  Third, it’s a hardcover book in English.  Not surprisingly, English text novels are not actually printed in Hong Kong.  Which means, of course, that it was shipped over from the US or Canada or England or some other native-English-speaking country.  Which means, of course, that this book likely costs roughly the same as my Mac, my VW, and our house.

Okay, maybe not that much.  But seriously, it’s the sort of thing where if we made Will pay us back by giving up his weekly allowance, he’d be sending us HK$20 checks long after Natasha Obama finished her third term as President of the United States of America and the Mars and Venus Annex. 

The next week, we ask Valerie to call again.  She does, then shrugs.  “I guess someone must have took it,” she says.

Ellen and I look at each other.  We’d planned on spending the Christmas Holiday in Vietnam, but now we’re wondering if we need to cancel that and put a second mortgage on our house. 

After Valerie leaves, Ellen says, “I wonder what happened?”

“Someone must have looked at it, figured it was only a book, and threw it away.”

“It has the name of the university on it.  Maybe they returned it to the library.”

I think about this possibility.  The thing is, the Security Office is right next to the bus stop.  To drop something there, the driver only needs to walk two dozen paces.  The library, on the other hand, it halfway across campus.  As far as I can tell, the drivers barely have time for a quick pee before they need to get back on the bus and start their route all over again.  I’d never seen one eat lunch, have a drink, or even smoke a cigarette.  So sprint a quarter mile across campus to hand deliver a book some idiot kid left behind?  Not hardly. 

Then I think about my own suggestion:  I see someone picking up the book, glancing at its scuffed appearance, the Dewey decimal band on the spine, the dull picture on the cover.  I see them thumbing the uneven pages, glancing at a chapter or two.  Then I see them toss the book sideways into a rubbish bin.

“No,” I tell Ellen, shaking my head.  “We’re screwed.  It’s a book.  They know it’s not ours, not a personal item.  No one cares about stuff like that.”

After that, we did what anyone would do in similar straits:  we hired a computer hacker to break into the library system, erase our names from the borrowers list, and expunge any clues that the book at ever existed.

Okay, no, we don’t.  But starting on the 22nd of November, the book’s original due date, we keep renewing it faithfully every seven days, in hopes of some miracle—or at least the possibility that we can leave the country before the library discovers that we never returned it. 

We also stay away from the library for as long as we can.  I’m not sure why this is.  I supposed we just feel sneaky and disgusted with ourselves, like a man who gets drunk at the Christmas party and kisses his secretary, then can’t look his wife in the eyes for the next three years. 

Finally, though, Will has gone through every book he owns and a bunch that belong to Lucy that he hates—Esmeralda the Emerald Fairy anyone?—so he and I trudge down to the library and take the elevator to the third floor where you can find every series in the world ever published for kids between the ages of 2 and 20.  It’s a regular El Dorado, as far as my kids are concerned. 

The second we arrive, Will starts wandering his favorite aisle, picking out whatever catches his eye.  I move one aisle over, remembering Ellen’s idea that maybe it was time to introduce our son to C.S. Lewis.  As I’m running my finger along the shelves, trying to remember what comes first, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or The Magician’s Nephew, a vaguely familiar green cover catches my eye. 

I straighten, then bend my head sideways so I can read the author’s name. 

“Will?” I call.  No response at first, so I say, “Who wrote that book you left on the bus?”

“Erin Hunter?” he says.  You can hear just a hint of tremolo in his voice—more than once in the last few weeks Ellen and I have hinted that a few more strikes like leaving a million-dollar book on a bus, and he might just find himself being traded for a player to be named at a future date. 

I pull the book off the shelf.  The cover shows a bunch of cats looking astrophysical and other-worldly. A science-fiction book about cats?   I glance at the title:  Warriors. The name doesn’t ring a bell.

“What was it called?” I ask. 

Again there’s that pause, the mild fear almost tangible.  “Warriors,” he says. 

I flip the book over, glance at the back cover, I don’t know why.  I think about all the bus drivers we’ve encountered in the four months we’ve been here.  They’ve ranged from the indifferent to the surly.  I’m sure the pay isn’t crap, and the rumor is that the Triads still have a pretty hefty hand in the operation of this—and most other—modes of HK mass transport.  A few weeks ago, Ellen boarded the bus with all three kids and had to listen to the driver berate her for 20 minutes as he drove along, throwing glares at her through the rear-view mirror.  She never was able to figure out what she’d done to enrage him so. 

“No,” I say, out loud.  There must be more than one copy of this particular book at this particular library.  When Will had started reading Hunter, I’d Googled her just out of curiosity, and had been surprised to discover she was both prolific and popular. 

I turn to the back inside cover where they kept the check-out and return tag.  Running my finger down, I pause at the last date:

22 Nov. 2009.

1 comment:

Najmania said...

Awww! SEE!? The world IS good! And you and the family still can go to Vietnam.

Great post.