A northeasterly breeze chills the dawn breaking over a quiet, faintly glowing Exchange Square. In the comfort of the IFC Mall branch of Pacific Coffee, I find wild American friend Odell sitting in the hidden corner from which he likes to indulge in voyeuristic perving and where I seek refuge from the girl who reads the Bible and mentally undresses me.
I sit down and look around. Something is wrong. First of all: what are they putting in the coffee here that puts everyone to sleep? Decaf is one thing, but lacing the stuff with barbiturates is another, especially this early in the morning. Secondly, where is Odell’s usual pomegranate and organic black cumin seed latte lightly dusted with henna? And what is he grinding up with a cheese grater and stirring into a cup of hot water?
“Toasted acorns,” he tells me. “We’re, um, kinda short on cash for the next coupla weeks, so I can’t afford real coffee. Or tea, or Coke, or anything.”
“So it was you I saw outside just now rummaging through a bin and eating a discarded McDonalds hash brown.”
“Yeah,” he admits. He looks haggard. “My first food since Tuesday. We’ve got something for today, though – Mee has scrounged some neat leftovers from the Thai restaurant down the street. Oh well… Just another two weeks to go til payday.”
He pulls his iPad out of his bag and starts whirling his fingers around on the screen, magicking brightly coloured games, photos and riveting social networking apps into being. As usual, I am thinking far ahead of the slow-witted former latter-day saint. “Why don’t you take that thing to the pawn shop and get a few bucks to tide you over for a while?”
He looks at me as if I am insane. “Man, this is the reason I’m so hard up! Can’t you see? This is the new iPad! The iPad 2. I managed to get one of the gray-market triple-the-real-price ones. Look at everyone staring at me in envy,” he says, waving his arms in the direction of the unconscious customers.
So some gizmo bolted together by nimble-fingered peasant girls in a Shenzhen factory gets shipped all the way to the US to be sold at US$500, giving Apple the huge mark-up any designer label commands, then gets brought back here by some desperate under-class entrepreneur and sold at US$1,500.
“In what way is it better than your old one?” I ask.
“Well…” He looks at the contraption for a few seconds. “So far as I can see, it’s basically the same.” He lifts it up and peers at it for a few seconds more. “Except!” he blurts out, “it’s got two cameras. One on the front and one on the back. So you can photograph both sides of your head at the same time.” Then he comes up with the ultimate justification for his two weeks of starvation. “And most of all, this is a third thinner, man! A freakin’ third thinner!” He sits back with a triumphant nod at the anorexic, 7.62mm miracle of consumer technology. “I mean – jeez – can you imagine? What kinda total freakin’ loser is gonna be seen walking around with a 13.4 millimetre iPad? Huh?”
I put my newspaper on the table. “When I bought this South China Morning Post ten minutes ago I could have paid seven bucks,” I tell him. “But I didn’t. I paid twenty-five bucks for it. And do you know why?” I unfold it and hold it up for him to see. “Because it’s a third thinner!”