Excerpt from a Texan Gunshow #2

A quick stroll down an aisle at a gunshow reveals a surprising spread of retail: homemade jellies, stun guns, night scopes, machetes, IV bags, freeze-dried organic quinoa, 9mm pistols, brass knuckles, antique coins, solar panels, leather belts, and more. Bumper stickers quoting Joseph Goebbel – "Truth is the greatest enemy of the state" – are on sale at one booth; stickers of Hello Kitty at another. There are signs advertising everything from free hugs to free guns, legal advice to bush knife sharpening. 

“It’s better than Walmart,” says John, Henry's booth-mate.  

“Same crowd though,” Henry observes. He grins at me, leaning against the table with his arms crossed. His right fist is closed and hidden against his chest. When I shook his hand in Mesquite last weekend, I felt the thick, round knuckle where his pointer finger used to be. 

“Did you cut yourself welding?” I asked.

“Nah,” he dismissed.  “But it’s simpler to leave it that way.” He plucked at something on the table – a miniature blade shaped like a shark fin. Minutes earlier, he was showing me how to open cans with it. He cranked it around his Big Red soda can, severing the metal top in seconds. The cut was smooth, seamless. He ran his finger around the edge, laughing when I winced, anticipating blood. 

“I don’t have fingers and I can do it,” he challenged, handing me one.

Henry and John work at gunshows around Texas. They sell knives, gas masks, fake grenades, flame-resistant camo, and other odds and ends like smokeless fuel and flashlights. Most of it belongs to John, who started collecting army paraphernalia when he was twelve. Every weekend, he parts with a little more of his collection. He calls it “reverse-hoarding.”

“Collectors go back to ancient times,” he told me in Mesquite. “The Egyptians would strip the bodies of the Heddites. Collecting goes back as far as you can imagine.” He chuckled. “I’m sure Cain stole Abel’s staff.” 

John has a deep reverence for the act of collecting. He disdains certain collectibles – “I don’t collect coffee cups,” he scorned– but will consider anything touched by history. “After I left the army, I shoulda went to college,” he said, his Brooklyn accent bending the vowels. “I guess I’d be a professor now, teaching history or something, ‘cause that’s my passion.”  

Hunched over on a metal folding chair, John reminds me of an old bear – thick limbs, wild hair, pulverized back. In Vietnam, he was catapulted out of a car and broke four vertebrae. “My hand’s all smashed up,” he told another vendor. “I feel like I got a knife stuck in my back. I start getting shaky ‘cause the nerve system’s all messed up.”

Henry's the active one, helping John load and unload merchandise every weekend. “I like to stand,” he defended, when I offered him my chair. “Otherwise, I’ll get stagnant.”

Excerpt from a Texan Gunshow #1

Henry's gun – a slim Smith & Wesson 500 – sinks into my hands, seven pounds of heft squeezed into a long-barreled pistol the color of liquid chrome. It gleams under the showroom lights. I imagine him shooting it under the sun, a blinding flash of silver caught in his hand.

“I got a tiny gun,” he warned me earlier. He used his forefinger and thumb to suggest a gun the size of a thimble.  

“Is it a Derringer?” I teased. “A two-shot gun?” 

Last weekend, a vendor pulled a Derringer out of his left cowboy boot at a gunshow in Glen Rose. He reached deep inside his shoe, past intricate curlicues sewn over his calf, and fished out a small, silver gun. The tiny revolver fit snugly in his palm. Loaded, it would hold two rounds. Not one to be outgunned, he had another revolver in his pant pocket ("That'll sting,” he said), a third tucked under his belt, and a semi-automatic pistol hanging in a leather holster under his arm.
I hand Henry’s gun back. “This is not a tiny gun,” I inform him.
He laughs. Palming the grip of the pistol, he raises the muzzle. A knife vendor across the aisle watches us, eyeing the red-zip tie that runs through the barrel – proof of an empty chamber. Henry leans forward, aiming at something in the distance.

As usual, he’s wearing an olive-colored do-rag that drapes delicately over his shoulders. When he used to weld, it stopped him from burning his hair. He kept it long in those days, flowing down his back. It’s all gone now, but the do-rag is still there.


Archived: June 2015

Today, while crossing the Puji bridge, I saw a heron flying over the Suzhou Creek. Nearby, a field of wild grass and scrub was quietly taking over a deserted lot. No one had touched the land in months - kind of a miracle in a city that erected 200 skyscrapers in one year

The field was surrounded by crumbling cinder block walls. Someone had painted a warning by the entrance where the blocks were tumbling down:

A thick slab of metal weeping rust on the roof of an apartment building. -   somewhere near the Suzhou Creek, Shanghai

A thick slab of metal weeping rust on the roof of an apartment building. - somewhere near the Suzhou Creek, Shanghai

Evil is stirring; it is on the move. It is organizing.

Graffiti is rare in Shanghai. And ephemeral. Unless it's part of an official graffiti wall, like M50's 'Great Wall of Graffiti', graffiti typically disappears overnight, scrubbed into oblivion.

A friend once described Shanghai as 中国的客厅 or China's living room. "That's where you bring your guests," he explained. "It's clean, it's tidy. It's what you show other people." This explains Shanghai's enormous force of street sweepers, who roam the city block by block. Littering doesn't matter because everyone knows there are people dedicated to making trash disappear. The same goes for graffiti.

I snapped a photo of Evil is stirring. The message sounded a little too doomsday - especially on a bright afternoon, under a deep, blue sky - but the serendipity of finding graffiti compelled me to preserve it. By tomorrow morning, I know it'll be gone.