People, Pillows, Water


Further investigation reveals that the drinking water in Shanghai comes from the Huangpu River.

Tomorrow my wife and I leave for Shanghai, to join our daughter, her husband, and two kids for a few weeks.  I keep thinking: This is what going to camp must have felt like.  The nerves.  The harrowing uncertainty.  All those people I won’t know.

I’ve been putting certain big Shanghai concerns out of my mind. Air quality, for example. I asked my wife the other day, Do you think we’ll have good pillows?

I give pillows a potato rating: mashed (P4), whipped (P3), scalloped (P2), raw whole unpeeled (P1).  For each rating I can think of a hotel. P1, Hotel Fontana in Venice. Great location, a view of San Zacharia; terrible pillows. P2, a flophouse I slept in, for $12 a night, divided three ways between me and the two Rames boys, in San Diego in 1974. The pillows felt like folded throw rugs.  I woke up feeling crooked, thinking I might be paralyzed; we stayed one night. P3, a hotel in South Beach a few Januaries back. The pillows were buoyant, weightless. Think of feathers as water, your head afloat, gently bobbing. And P4, a W hotel my wife and I slept in fifteen years ago in Chicago. A benchmark P4.  I have always loved mashed potatoes.

At home we each have a synthetic concave pillow, which, I know, sounds dreadful. So inorganic.  Rather like laying your head on a large baked potatoesque hors d’oeuvre. Or on a long oval platter, and your head is the large baked potatoesque hors d’oeuvre.  Anyway, the pillow works for us. No potato rating.  It’s off the charts.

The one summer I came perilously close to going to camp I got a last minute medical deferment. It came in the form of ringworm.  Our son had no such luck.

“You’re going,” I told him. He was eight or nine.

“But I don’t want to go,” he said.

“It’s three weeks, half days,” I said.

“I stay for lunch.”

“You have friends who have to go to sleep-over camp.  Some for 4-6 weeks. This is a walk in the park. You come home, sleep in your own bed.”

I wasn’t using the potato scale yet. If I had, his pillow would have rated a comfortable P4. I doubt he would have been swayed by the argument. He just wanted to stay home, sit on the couch, and watch Indiana Jones movies. For him summer camp, when he was ready, would involve adventure, require a whip, a pistol; travel to some far-off land.

lao che

“What about water?” I wonder out loud to my wife.  It’s a few days before departure.


“In Shanghai.”

“I’m sure there will be filters,” she says. “And bottled water.”

She’s Italian, frequently on the bottle. They’re all on the bottle over there.  I, on the other hand, grew up in the pre-bottle, pre-Evian, pre-San-Pelligrino Midwest. I’m a tap man.

Our son ended up in the jungles of Manhattan, staying five years, a place that offered, against all odds, delicious drinking water at high pressure, from the tap. What odds? Start with millions of people, consider the surrounding waters, and New Jersey, whose rusty, grimy, mutant fields and oily, graveyard waterways we drove past on a number of occasions.

jersey water

And thence to LA, our son went, where he made a life for himself, closer to the origins of Indiana Jones.

“No,” he says on our first visit to Marina del Rey, “we don’t drink the water.  It has chromium in it.”

How’s that taste? I wonder.  Does it smell?

For kicks I do a little research.  How bad could the water possibly be? I learn about ppb (parts per billion), rendered intelligible by these illustrations: equivalent to one second in 32 years, one pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips. So: I doubt we can taste the chromium. The acceptable level, established by I’m not sure whom, is .02 ppb. Above that, you’re magnetic or glow in the dark, just daring death.  Where my wife and I live, chromium tests at .143 ppb, 7 times the allowable value; in LA 1.09 ppb, more than 50 times the safe standard.

How’s that taste? I wonder.  Does it smell?  If you grew up on the dioxin flood plain of the Tittabawassee River, there is inevitable curiosity.

“Wait until you see Chinese infrastructure,” my brother, who has been to China, tells me.

Just wait.  Everyone says.

And lately, all this talk in the US about infrastructure.

We first think roads and bridges, but what’s more infrastructural than municipal water? Some years ago, I remember Terri Gross on Fresh Air talking to a scientist about fresh water. A singular achievement of the 20th century, he observed, was the delivery of safe potable water to virtually every household in the US, free of water-borne pathogens.

We get texts from our daughter after their arrival in Shanghai.  The baby’s hair, she says, shampooed in Shanghai water, looks great.  Fluffy.  Full-bodied.

Further investigation reveals that the drinking water in Shanghai comes from the Huangpu River. Warnings about Shanghai water include this colorful detail:  “The incident of dead pig carcasses floating down the Huangpu River in March 2013 not only raised questions about food safety in Shanghai, but also about water quality in Shanghai.” More than 20 percent of Shanghai tap water comes from the Huangpu.

How’s this for funny: Beijing residents can enjoy free smokes (cigarettes) just by going outside and breathing; Shanghai residents can enjoy free pork soup just by turning on the tap.

A recent Guardian article title:  “In China, the water you drink is as dangerous as the air you breathe.” No word about Chinese or Shanghai chromium. If it’s there, they’re keeping it a secret.

Talk about bad water.

flint water

It may be bad over there, but we’ve got Flint. The whole world now knows about Flint.  I used to meet my parents for lunch at the Bob Evans on Miller Road, in Flint, where I happily swilled the water.  Now I go further north, to Birch Run.  Land of Sky Blue Water.  Where was that? Was that Michigan?

A day after they arrive my daughter sends me a picture of her three-year-old, sitting in the pilot’s seat on the 777, wearing the pilot’s hat. It’s just before they take off from Detroit. The boy’s face is hard to read.  Like he’s going to summer camp, far far far away. He looks worried.  Maybe about the air, the water.  Maybe about all those people. Maybe about the pillows. It’s the beginning of an adventure. We’ll be fine. We’ll learn some new words, do some arts and crafts, get lots of exercise. Marvel at the infrastructure.

little pilot


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