It just so happened that I took the call in my car, in an empty gravel parking lot in an abandoned warehouse area on the south side of Milwaukee.
“Would you like to do it?”
“How many words?”
“Five hundred dollars.”
“When do you need it by?”
“I’ll take care of it.”
It was a funny, short conversation, so abrupt and to the point that it felt like I was being hired to do a hit. Payment in small non-sequential bills. I hung up and was tempted to spin out in the gravel and hit the pavement screeching my tires. Ever since I declared myself a freelance writer — and that’s really all there is to it, just say that you are — I’ve been somewhat amazed that I can earn a living at this. And the passports, the plane tickets, the one-night in and out of town, oddball last-minute hotels, overnighted visas… it can feel like some cool sort of espionage. Money shows up in my account, often without me ever having spoken to, let alone having seen, another human being.
I was heading back into China. Beijing. “I will meet you in your hotel lobby at 3:30 with your money and the magazines.” Messages were always simple, to the point. I’d write articles in English and they’d either run just like that or be translated and appear in a bilingual form. But because I didn’t have the right bank accounts back home and I wasn’t about to have the meager sums for my work dinged on both ends by wire transfer fees, I chose to collect my money in person. “So, next time you’re in Beijing, Kevin…” But as ridiculous as that plan seemed, a client kept sending me to China once or twice per year. And the editor of a Chinese travel magazine would come to my hotel with a fat envelope full of cash, a few magazines under her arm. “Please sign here.” And that was that. No cops. Over the years we added a friendly chat as I think she thought this was as amusing as I did.
But the well ran dry, and the English articles were discontinued. So it was time to settle accounts. This time the editor had a business trip and couldn’t make our lobby meeting. The instructions came in an email. “There will be a package waiting for you at the front desk when you check in. Take it. Inside will be some magazines. Be careful to find an envelope in the magazines. Inside the envelope will be a bank card. Take this to any ATM and withdraw your money. The sum will be X yuan. The pass code for the card is XXXXX. When you have your money, sign the paper in the envelope and express mail the card and paper back to the address on the original envelope.”
The envelope was wrapped with tape and had the shipping label laid over the tape to prevent any sort of manipulation of the tape. The envelope inside was stapled shut, again to prevent or at least reveal tampering. I imagined a couple of fake passports tumbling out and hopefully a key for a fancy sports car in the parking lot with coordinates to my next job saved on the GPS.
I had to go to the bank and ask for them to withdraw the balance as it was not cleanly divisible by 100 yuan bills one gets from an ATM. The teller, behind a thick pane of glass, slid the card into a reader and checked the information on her monitor. She frowned. “Er, sir… this is not your card?” No. My employer. “Your employer? You work here?” Not exactly. “What is your address?” I don’t have one. “Where are you staying?” I just checked out but it was here. I handed her my If Found Return Me to This Hotel card from the front desk. I signed a couple papers and that was that. I took my new stash of RMB and headed to Bank of China to change it to US dollars. Mission accomplished.
If China started using PayPal, it would eliminate such complications. But then this wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.