(#9 in the Annie series)
Moving day. And not just a small move, a large one involving getting a kid and her wheelchair and all our belongings to a train station across the city and into a crowded station, negotiating obstacles like escalators because this part of China is rarely accessible, and boarding a fast train to Guangzhou, Canton, hundreds of miles from Changsha. Neither Nikki nor I know how many miles, but traveling at 200 mph for a good three hours would probably reveal the distance if I’d ever figured out how to do word problems. But I didn’t, and it doesn’t matter. It amounted to a very long afternoon in a hot, muggy train station that tested the patience of all three of us.
Translator Wendy came by before we left with Annie’s final documents, including her Chinese passport with her visa for her journey to the U.S. We knew we’d miss Wendy. She was an excellent translator and of great help to us at some difficult moments. We wanted to take her with us, but left her with chocolate as a thank you for all her assistance.
Then we boarded the now-familiar van with its kind and gentle driver for one last trip to the Changsha train station where we emerged, as expected, into the wall of heat that we’d experienced when we arrived.
We waited in a section of the Changsha train station covered (oddly, we thought) by a huge expanse of glass ceiling, which, of course, turned the place into a greenhouse. Annie was a good sport for quite a while, though we felt so bad for her, withering in the heat. On the one hand, you’d think she’d be more used to it than we are, which she probably is. But given the logistics, the bumping around, the noise and all the people—chaos like she’s probably never seen—it was traumatic.
And an hour after we arrived, when we learned that our 3:15 p.m. train had been delayed but no one could say how long, Nikki decided to go trade our tickets for another train bound for Guangzhou.
The problem was that Nikki couldn’t get us tickets on anything before a 6 p.m. train, which meant an even longer wait. And, to add insult to already sweating misery, the train we were supposed to be on did show up about 45 minutes late, and we could’ve been enroute by 4 p.m. Nikki was kicking herself for trading in the tickets. “The lady I talked to didn’t want to trade them, but this is China, and I thought we might be waiting all night here,” she said.
That would have been bad since we had a 9:30 a.m. meeting with the translator in Guangzhou for Annie’s medical appointment. That’s a must-happen, a deal-breaker if it didn’t, because that would mean no U.S. visa in Annie’s shiny new red Chinese passport. No visa, no U.S. entry.
So we relocated to the slightly cooler end of the station—the part not under high glass windows where the sun was beating down—and found seats in the less crowded area. And that’s when Annie lost it. Great big wails of discomfort and unhappiness. Nikki and I wanted to wail, too, but we’re the grownups, we reminded ourselves. We’d had not a little frustration and teeth gnashing the day before, listening to Annie rage as her little heart broke with the realization that she wasn’t going back to the orphanage where her friends and her ayis were, that she was stuck with these two crazy white ladies who were taking her God knows where, even though one of them kept trying to tell her things in bad Chinese, and the other lady was just unintelligible (what was that gobbledygook she was saying?).
Nikki sprung Annie from her chair and, as I unfolded the changing pad on the train station floor, Nikki set her on it, hoping she’d be more comfortable there. Annie was having none of it. She wailed and thrashed her stiff limbs, furious, and our blood pressures rose and none of us wanted to be there, but we were stuck until that train came.
None of us had had lunch, and while still in her chair, Annie’d eaten the yogurt and the applesauce Nikki’d brought, but that wasn’t a proper meal. And it didn’t seem to make her feel better.
So there we were with a hot and upset child when it occurred to me to do something I never do at home anymore—I ran to the train station McDonald’s and, in a rare moment of independence in a place where I have very little Chinese, managed to order two meals by pointing to the numbers of the meals on the menu—one double cheeseburger and one Chicken McNuggets. And Sprite because it comes with crushed ice you can trust, Nikki says, and I hadn’t had anything resembling ice for more than a week in the hottest conditions I’ve ever encountered. (Have I mentioned that it’s generally been about 95 degrees with 80 percent humidity and little to no breeze?) I drank a bit of the soda—again, something I never do at home anymore—just for the cold of it.
I brought it all back to where Nikki was trying to comfort Annie—which still wasn’t working. People were walking by staring at this kid with the twisted limbs like gnarled tree roots on the floor, probably wondering, “What the heck?” We’d had a lot of stares, which we expected, some of them hostile, which didn’t help. We hadn’t yet encountered so much stink eye, as they say in Hawaii, in a single day. But we also got looks of sympathy, and one young couple handed me a small wrapped piece of candy as I desperately fanned Annie with a folder I’d brought with me. (There were no foldable, paper fans for sale to be found. In Changsha. And I’d been looking. No fans. Don’t they come from here?!)
I sat on one of seats where we’d piled our belongings as Nikki sat on the floor with Annie. I ate the double cheeseburger, surprised at how good it was. When I’d walked across the station to McD’s, I employed a little walking meditation with a lot of helpushelpushelpus, asking for any available miracles the companion spirits might be able to bestow. Now would be good, I thought. One was, it turned out, that I was able to order food in a country where I don’t speak the language and actually find a young man behind the country who tried his best basic English on me. Never have I been so grateful for English language learners.
But we still needed another miracle… fast.
After I gobbled my burger and fries, I urged Nikki to eat, which I knew would be difficult, since she was so upset. So I said, “I’ll sit with Annie,” and we traded places—me on the floor and Nikki on the seat also holding one of our backpacks. I thought to grab my new iPad, which I had loaded up with music the day before I left home. I’ve been singing to Annie, and I tried again with our Top 6 Annie Hits: “Tomorrow,” “The House at Pooh Corner,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Mother Duck” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” She seems to like my singing, or at least be amused by it. This time my singing brought a momentary cessation of tears, but not good enough, Aunt Jan.
And then I thought of Antsy. I had maybe nine songs on the iPad by Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours, including such hits as “One Less Trailer Here in Pine View Heights,” “Living the Dream” and, oh, yes, “When You’re Laughing.” Which turned out to be the perfect song for the occasion.
As soon as I hit “play” and Antsy’s resonant baritone came out of my iPad, tears sprang to my eyes. It must have been hearing a familiar voice when I needed one. Antsy has become a good friend of Dick’s and mine. He and I edited (and he designed) a magazine for his fans called Enjoy the Ride, which was a lot of fun.
I needed that happy Antsy song with a catchy tune and good beat. I didn’t much care if the song did anything for Annie; it was all about me in that moment. But (whaddya know?) we got our miracle. Within seconds of hearing his voice, Annie’s tears stopped, her eyes were riveted to the iPad, and a small smile began to creep across her face. Then a grin. Then an Annie chortle. I sat there on the floor of the Changsha train station, boogie-ing from the waist up, singing along with Antsy:
Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages
May I have your attention—here it is for all it’s worth
Life is a circus—it’s crazy, outrageous
It’s the greatest show on earth
Three rings are goin’, there’s always somethin’ happening
Acrobats and jugglers and a human cannonball
My face is painted; I’m here to keep you laughing
Helpin’ you smile through it all.
The world’s a brighter place when you’re laughing
I love to see your face when you smile
A stranger’s just a friend waitin’ to happen
Inside us all there’s a wide-eyed child.
She loved it. I played all the Antsy songs I had on my iPad, and Annie was riveted to the screen, fascinated by his voice. I tried other music, but her favorite was the guy with the fabulous pompadour and the goofy glasses (James Taylor came in second place, but it was a distant second). So I played Antsy over and over for a good 45 minutes, until it was time to load Annie into her chair and head to the train platform.
It turns out that Nikki had seen Antsy and the Troubs when they played the Palms Playhouse in Winters. And Dick and I had, just two weeks before I left for China, gone up to the Troubs’ annual camping extravaganza, Woodflock, in Red Bluff, California (aka one of the hottest places in Northern California that now doesn’t seem so bad to me]. I did a writing session there for 37 Flamingoheads, as his fans call themselves, and people wrote and read like angels on a hot day, which, given what I know now, barely tips the heat meter of the world. But oh, they were on fire, and it was a beautiful thing, listening to all those words that flowed out of people.
I thought of those people and their good writing after we put Annie in her chair. That made me smile. We still had some time (our 6 p.m. train didn’t arrive till 6:30), and Nikki had the brilliant idea to try ice cream from McD’s, with strawberry, Annie’s favorite flavor. So she headed over there and brought back a cup of the cold stuff. I spooned it into Annie’s mouth as fast as I could, and she loved it.
She also loved her first train ride. (I loved my second fast train ride in China, too.) Who doesn’t love watching the world whizz by in a blur of color and images, all of them new to you? Though exhausted, Annie took to it like a trooper before Nikki pulled Annie out of her chair and let her lie across two seats, where she fell asleep.
We didn’t get to Guangzhou till 9:30 and then had to find a driver, who turned out to be a sweet, skinny man with a mini van who barely got Annie’s chair into the back and had to tie down the door with a piece of flimsy looking string. Annie had to lie on the back seat with her head in Nikki’s lap and I had to ride in the front seat with my eyes closed because, even at that hour, with less traffic than during the day, it was a bit of a wild ride. We got into our room a bit before 11, which meant we could make the medical appointment the next day. We were all beyond spent, but we made it.
Here’s the thing: We got several miracles that helped on a difficult day, including McDonald’s (something I never thought I’d say) in Changsha and a resourceful man and his mini van in Guangzhou.
The biggest miracle, though, came from a songwriter who really did grow up in trailer parks and later became a fine painter and a songwriter. His sweet songs calmed and amused a little girl he may never meet, and she, like so many other fans, was captivated by his voice, his energy, his kindness. Antsy has five kids of his own and a grandchild; this guy understands kids, even if his music is (sorta) meant for grownups.
I hope to always remember this moment: Antsy’s voice floating from an iPad to Annie’s ears. One of his songs is “Time Is a Westbound Train,” a wistful ballad with a lovely metaphor. Once we were on the train, I set the iPad on Annie’s wheelchair tray and played it for her. She squealed and grinned as she watched the world whiz past the big windows, though we were heading south. Didn’t matter. Time is a southbound train, too.
For the record, Annie also really likes Antsy’s song, “Living in Aluminum,” and when she understands English, I’m gonna teach her Antsy’s Aluminum Rule:
Thou Shalt Enjoy the Ride
Despite the bumps life has thrown at her, I’m pretty sure she already is.
Shameless plug for my friend: Here’s a video of Antsy McClain performing “When You’re Laughing” with tuba player Josh Cutchin at a performance in Davis, California, in May 2008. If you like the song, you can buy it on iTunes or at your favorite online music retailer. It’s on the “New Good Old Days” album. You can learn more about Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours at www.unhitched.com.