BOTTLES AND ME
Rudolfo Botelho must have been about 65, perhaps younger, though of course to a fifteen-year-old he appeared ancient. His white moustache bristled on an otherwise mild beige-skinned face. You didn’t notice his small size much; it was always the moustache you noticed. And the twinkle, there was the twinkle. I lived in Shanghai at the time, in 1948, a Eurasian child of an Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father and Chinese mother. My parents knew him back in the golden days of Shanghai’s roaring 20’s. I met him when he became the accompanist in St. Columban’s choir.
He took to me, and decided one-handedly that I was to be his protégée, to be someone like Dorothy Parker, of whom I had never heard (I had never seen an issue of The New Yorker Magazine, either). Moreover, he would show me a thing or two about living. I marvel, decades later in my own old age, that my parents trusted him to take me out of a night. He lingered to chat a while, addressing my father as Poldo, made a joke about the fine times they had together, as my father laughed. He said to my mother, “I will never forget your fox trotting on the Palace dance floor. Best-looking woman in the place.” He had moved in the coterie of my father’s friends at the Canidrome, the track that ran two dogs from our kennels. It was all about champagne picnics and excursions to Macao and Hong Kong and Italian club events and the businessmen’s club at the Bund. I had heard about those famous good times, which were long gone by the time the Second World War broke out. In 1948 both Shanghai’s foreign and Chinese citizens were nervously awaiting the invasion of Mao Tse-tung’s Communist army.
I am not certain if he told my parents where we were to go, but they saw us off equably enough though perhaps my mother, deferring to my father, was not so sanguine.
He settled us in a rickshaw, which pulled us downtown to the first of his favorite cafes.
The women who dropped in and out of this cafe were Russian refugees, or White Russians, as they were known in Shanghai. They made much of Bottles, their nickname for him, bought him vodka and me lemonade, kissed his head, told him the latest in their ongoing sad stories, while he steadily drank vodkas. Life was hard for these girls torn from their childhoods in the exodus ahead of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. They had had no education, sketchy family upbringing, and most made an existence out of consorting with American soldiers and sailors. And these were not going to stay around when the Communists came.
The girls listened earnestly as he dispensed advice. To one petite blond girl, he said he could place the child she was about to have with a good family, a Chinese one. Or what? she asked tearfully. Or, my dear, he said gently, I can arrange an abortion.
I was impressed. He knew what to do about everything. He knew everyone. I didn’t know much about him except that he had a son who lived in a nice apartment and someone in the family was a trapeze artist in Austria. He had played piano at various cabarets around town, but there weren’t many of those left in the jittery city. He took me upstairs to his attic flat one day and set me at his piano keyboard. There was scanty light to see by, for the only window was the skylight set over the wrong side of the room. Piles of books and sheet music on the floor leaned this way and that and dust coated everything but the piano keyboard. All of a sudden, I was shy with him and avoided glancing at his bed—a cot, really. As for the lessons, I think I was expected to demonstrate instant genius—become a Dorothy Parker of the piano. He became impatient. After a half hour he halted my finger exercises and announced we were going to a show. I was excited. Shows of any kind were a rare treat. Actually, I had never been to one.
What kind of show was it to be?
Back downtown, we entered the Starlight Café. It fronted Nanking Road, a main thoroughfare of the city. The back of it, Ah the back of it, said Bottles. Shall we? he asked the Russian café owner and his wife. They smiled and nodded, and waved us
out to the backyard. Bottles began to move chairs to the fence.
We are now going to be rabbits, he told me.
He sat down and gestured me toward the other, then leaned toward the wooden fence. I saw that the gaps between the boards had been widened with a knife. I peeked through the gaps. About 100 feet beyond a stage was lit up around the edges. People, servicemen in army and navy uniforms, were arriving to sit on benches amid laughter and talk. A band, unseen until now, struck up. The sound of it was a bit strange, uncertain and not a little off key. Bottles was smiling gleefully.
Women came dancing out on the stage, wearing shorts and halter tops. I recognized one of the girls as Bottles’ friend at another café we had visited. The audience clapped and whistled.
Then it roared and screamed as the last woman skipped out, a lovely blonde glittering all over her gown with sequins. Apparently she was a film star. I hadn’t seen recent American movies since before the war; the cinemas currently were playing movies like “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” which I thought was pretty good but made my 11-year-older sister groan.
I was enchanted with the spectacle I was watching with one eye, then the other. I had never seen anything like this, which I now know was lame because of the band music and amateur moves of the chorus. The microphone squealed during the star’s songs. She told jokes I didn’t quite understand but, like the servicemen, I didn’t care and loved it all. I think I stopped breathing.
Bottles was immensely pleased with himself, it seemed to me, as the rickshaw coolie pulled us home. I gave my parents a jumbled report about rabbits and fences and movie stars. My mother asked, to make sure, And the soldiers were on the other side of the fence?
He taught me to read music on odd days at St. Columban’s. One song, “For All We Know,” had a pretty tune and sickly romantic lyrics. Neither of us thought it odd that we were playing and singing this in a church. Or, if Bottles did, he didn’t much care. In passing, Father Murphy, who had a sense of humor, might have heard and decided to let it alone.
I received no more piano lessons. He did give me an old copy of the New Yorker Magazine. It stayed in my possession, perused so much for mention of Dorothy Parker the ink probably faded (I found none), until my family and I were exiled from China by the Communists. Bottles had departed early in 1949 ahead of the occupation and sent a letter from Macau, the Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. He wrote that he was living in a relocation camp, missed his piano, and for me to remain strong and read everything in print. At the bottom of the letter he scrawled read read read read ###