August 1, 1976
TO THE NOTICE OF NOBODY IN CHINATOWN, MY PARTNER AND I climbed out of a manhole on Bayard Street close to the intersection with Mulberry. It was the third storm drain section we had checked out that day.
I sat on the back bumper of our Con Ed truck and Vandyne joined me there after pulling out two cold cans of Coke from the cooler in the front seat. I wiped off the Tiger Balm from my upper lip and nose onto my sleeve. We were smelly and exhausted. Ghosts swam by in the humidity.
We pulled the tabs off our Cokes and flipped them into the open manhole.
“I feel like I just climbed out of the Poseidon,” I said.
“I remember seeing white girls in shorts climbing ladders, but I don’t remember any of the Chinese people making it out,” said Vandyne.
“I would have followed Gene Hackman. He was in The French Connection. He knew his stuff.”
“That was an okay movie. But considering the number of shafts there were in The Poseidon Adventure, how come Shaft wasn’t in it?”
“I’m sure he was holed up somewhere with some lady.”
I wiped my forehead with the cold soda can. I pointed to the open manhole.
“What do you think?” I asked Vandyne.
He shrugged. “How about we close up and take the truck back? We’ll talk in the truck.”
“Let’s do that.”
We finished our sodas and chucked the cans into the open manhole. They made no sound.
“Hey, Chow, can you get that cover back on?” Vandyne asked.
“Because you’re good at it and I have seniority.”
“Is this in my job description?”
“Just remember one thing, partner. You signed yourself up for these assignments. You wanted it.”
I folded up the orange gate that had blocked off traffic and put it in the truck. Then I grabbed a crowbar and dragged the manhole cover back on. The late-summer sun reflected off a windshield directly into my eyes and I had to keep my head down.
I threw the crowbar into the back of the truck and slammed the door shut. Vandyne started up the engine before I jumped in on the passenger side. I reached over and cranked up the AC.
“That starts blowing cool pretty quick,” said Vandyne. We wound our windows up.
“There were people down there,” I said. “Maybe like a week ago, judging by the footprints and other garbage.”
“You’re right. Probably twenty people.”
We both had field experience in Vietnam. Even though we had been back to the World for four years, our memories were still fresh. Too fresh.
“But no shells, no bodies, no blood,” I said.
“The tourists said they heard gunshots and yelling coming from the gutter.”
“Maybe it was kids who were lighting up firecrackers and dropping them down there.”
“Personally,” said Vandyne slowly, “the worst thing I saw down there was all the congealed grease lying around. Made me think about fat clogging arteries.”
“All those Chinatown restaurants have to pour their crap out somewhere. Why not down the gutter? It’s right there and you don’t even have to pay someone to dispose of it.”
There was a loud honking behind us. A noodle truck didn’t have enough room to squeeze by. The guy in the passenger seat stuck his head out and saw in my side mirror that I was Chinese. He jumped out and charged up to my window.
I cranked the window down so he could yell at me.
“You guys are the worst!” he started. “Lazy! Stupid! Greedy! You keep raising your rates and now you want to take over the streets, too! Get out of my way, already, or is the black boy too stupid to know how to drive?”
I looked down at my reflective orange vest and my Con Ed patch. I pushed back my hard hat and said, “Eat shit, fuckface.”
Vandyne eased the truck away from the curb. “What happened?” he asked me.
“He lost his cat. I told him where to find it.”
We went through a police checkpoint before getting onto the Brooklyn Bridge. A cop came up to the window. He looked in at both of us, nodded, and waved us through.
I leaned back in the passenger’s seat and turned to Vandyne.
“I never thought New York would see so much terrorism,” I said.
“Me and you both.”
The latest bombing by the group FALN, which sought in de pendence for Puerto Rico from the United States, had blown up a phone booth outside of 1 Police Plaza. Two people were lightly injured, but the indignity of having a bomb go off right under our headquarters lit a fire under the ass of the NYPD in general and the Fifth Precinct in particular, because it happened inside our boundaries. All precinct detectives were dispatched full-time on destroying the FALN except for Vandyne, who was the least se nior detective, and me, because I was only on detective track. Unlike Vandyne, I didn’t have the gold shield yet. I was Encyclopedia Brown with a gun.
“Terrorists only harm their own causes and shame their own people,” said Vandyne.
“We’ll get those sons of bitches,” I said.
I picked up the Chinese papers from the floor.
The Communist-biased newspaper had an editorial about how U.S. Representatives John Young, Wayne Hays, and Allan T. Howe—all recently embroiled in separate sex scandals—were emblematic of a corrupt capitalist society ready to collapse shortly after turning two hundred years old.
The Hong Kong–biased newspaper congratulated Trinidad and Tobago on gaining in de pen dence and joining the Commonwealth.
“Anything good?” asked Vandyne.
“Naw,” I said. I put an eight-track of Innervisions into the player.
“Normally, I don’t like synthesizers,” Vandyne said. “But this is all right.”
“This is what Stevie hears in his head,” I said.
For a year, from 1974 to 1975, Vandyne and I were partnered in a sector car for the Fifth Precinct. I could not have asked to be paired up with a better person—a fellow Vietnam vet and someone else who had also killed a little boy there.
Then right before the layoffs and cutbacks from the city’s financial crisis kicked in, we lost our car. Vandyne picked up investigative assignments while they had stuck me on a footpost.
They also made me attend community functions in Chinatown so when the pictures came out in the Chinese newspapers there was me in a uniform saying, “See, the NYPD actually hired one of you people!” They were putting the one Chinese cop they had in the most visible position possible.
Sitting at these dinner events depressed me even more because as much as the NYPD was using me to establish legitimacy with the Chinese, the various community leaders were using me to boost their own profiles in Chinatown.
I drank until I forgot everything: frustrations with the job, jealousy that Vandyne was getting ahead, Nam flashbacks. But when I woke up and remembered again, it was always worse.
That was all behind me now, but I still shuddered when I thought about those days.
I folded up the Chinese newspapers and shoved them into my right armpit.
We showered in the Con Ed employee facilities.
“I can’t believe how clean this place is,” I said. “They give you clean towels, soap, and shampoo.”
“We’re in the wrong line of work, partner,” said Vandyne.
“It’s like a country club.”
“This is no country club! I bused tables at a country club one summer outside Philly.”
“What was it like working for the man?”
“Well, the worst tippers were the Chinese people.”
“Chinese people don’t join country clubs!”
“I think one of them was named ‘Robert Chow.’ ”
“See, there you go. ‘Robert Chow’ is not a Chinese name.”
“No. It’s an American name.”
We got back into our street clothes. Vandyne dressed in khakis, a dark blue buttoned shirt, and a Mets hat. I had on a pair of jeans and a rugby-styled shirt that my girlfriend had paid way too much money for.
We went into the underground parking and got into the unmarked car.
“So very recently there were about twenty people down there,” I started.
“The information we got was good.”
“The information was old. Where are those people now?”
“The smugglers must have moved them.”
“One other possibility,” I suggested, “is that those people could have settled their debts all at once and been released. But that’s not a likely scenario.”
“What else could have happened?”
“The only possibilities are that they paid up, were moved, or were killed.”
“Well, they weren’t killed. I don’t think they’ve paid up. So where have they been moved to?”
“That’s today’s bonus question.”
“These people who get smuggled in, what keeps them going to work and coming home to the safe house?”
“Chinese people freak out about settling debts. It’s shameful to have one, no matter how evil the lender is. Besides, if they tried to run away, they’d probably be killed.”
“How much is the smuggling fee?”
“Several thousand dollars.”
“Several thousand!” exclaimed Vandyne. “That’s a lot of money to just see the Statue of Liberty.”
“You have to give it to the illegals, they’re the huddled masses. From what I’ve read in the Chinese newspapers, smugglers can even charge ten grand per person.”
“How badly could you want in on this country?”
“You know what it’s like being stuck in Asia, Vandyne. When you were in Nam, what would you have paid to come back?”
“Wouldn’t have paid nothing. A ride back was the very least they owed me. A ride back on a plane.”
“These people are paying smugglers a thousand-dollar deposit for a ride in a freight container from Hong Kong or Taiwan to San Francisco and then a train across the country and finally a bus or truck to New York City. Then they’re basically prisoners until they pay off their debt in a sweatshop, factory, or pross house.”
“How long does it take to work off nine thousand dollars?”
“A couple years. More if they lie to you.”
We watched two Con Ed trucks drive into the garage and park. The workers shambled out.
“I have a new respect for these guys,” said Vandyne. “Who else would be willing to put in forty hours a week down in hell?”
“Yeah, let’s think about that when we’re writing the monthly check for the next rate hike,” I said.
We checked the shields in our wallets and our guns.
“Time to get you to the store, right?” asked Vandyne as he started up the car.
“Highlight of my day,” I said.
I kind of meant it, too. Ever since the midget bought the toy store and hired my roommate, Paul, to work there, I had been dropping by informally for the last half hour or so that the store was open. It gave people in the neighborhood a chance to talk to someone in law enforcement without stepping into the police station.
Chinese people are far too superstitious for their own good. They think that if you go see the doctor for a checkup, you’ll get cancer. If you buy life insurance, you’re going to die. If you visit a police station—for any reason—you’ll be thrown in jail.
I’ll never understand how people from the great civilization that advanced humankind with the inventions of paper, gunpowder, and chow fun could still harbor so many stupid ideas.
When I walked into the toy store on Mulberry Street, the midget was dealing with a kid who couldn’t make up his mind over which kung fumodel he wanted. The midget was wearing a collared shirt and had his shirtsleeves rolled up, exposing surprisingly muscular biceps. His combed and side-parted hair was shiny like licked black licorice and he kept his face unshaven, I think to distinguish himself from his customers.
The midget’s half-closed eyes regarded the boy at the counter with bemusement and annoyance.
The kid was chubby and you could see that at some point, maybe a few days ago, he had smeared his Fudgsicle-covered fingers across his Shazam! T-shirt. His watery eyes were contemplating two figures in the case behind the cash register. He sucked in his upper lip and spat it out a few times.
“Which one is better?” he asked the midget. “The guy throwing a punch or the guy with one leg up?”
“Honestly, they’re both exactly the same, kid,” said the midget. He saw me and winked.
“They’re doing different things, how can they be the same?”
“They both cost me the same price, they’ll cost you the same price, and I’ll get the same amount of profit on either one. There’s no difference.”
“They look different!”
“People look different, too. But they’re also all the same.”
I went down an aisle that featured paints and balsa-wood sheets and sat on a step stool in the back corner. I nodded to the kid with the broom sweeping up. He grunted something.
I had worked at the toy store after I had come back from Nam and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was an old friend of the prior owner. But how the midget came to own the store is too complicated to get into now. In other words, it’s a story in which I don’t come out looking too good.
I tightened my right shoelace and by the time I put my foot down the first person of the night was at my side.
She was an older woman with pinched-in cheeks and a dry crust of a mouth.
“Detective Chow,” she started.
“Just call me Robert here,” I said. I got tired of explaining that I was only on detective track and not actually a detective yet.
“Yes. I . . . I’m scared. I need my landlord to fix the stairs in my building. It’s not safe.”
“Mrs. Yung,” I said. “You live on the first floor.”
“It’s just not safe, Robert! There are kids who live in that building!”
I touched her gnarled hand and felt a soft pulse amid the bones.
“You shouldn’t be out this late,” I told her. “You should be at home.”
“Not you, too,” she said, moving away.
Two men in their fifties wearing sagging tank tops came up next, looking as glum as the bratty kids they used to be.
“Officer Chow, this guy stole my watch!” the bigger one said.
“Nope,” said the other, who had his hands in his pockets past the wrists. “You lost it in a poker game.”
“But I need that watch! I can’t work properly if I can’t keep track of time.”
“Should have thought about that before putting it into the pot.”
“Can I see the watch?” I asked.
The smaller guy sighed and pulled out his hands. One wrist had on a cheap wristwatch with a fake leather band. His other hand held on to a Timex with a steel stretch band.
“You’re keeping his Timex even though it doesn’t fit you?” I asked him.
“No, because he’s so fat,” the smaller guy said.
“I got muscles in my wrists!” said the bigger man.
“Look, how much money are we talking about?” I asked.
“Five dollars,” the bigger man said. The other guy nodded.
“Just give him his watch. He’ll still pay you the lousy five bucks, all right?”
“It’s not right,” the smaller man grumbled, although he handed over the watch.
“Hey,” said the bigger man. “It’s not wound up! It was running when I gave it to you! Officer Chow, make him wind it for me!”
“Wind it yourself!” I said. “You’ve got muscles in your wrists, right?”
They both walked off muttering and I wondered why I bothered to do this until a young woman walked up.
Her eyebrows were thin and yet incredibly bold above two black satin eyes. She had a pixielike expression that was blissfully unaware of her own beauty, except for her mouth, which was twisted a bit to one side.
“Is the madness over yet?” she asked.
“For tonight, yes, I think,” I said. “How was your day, Lonnie?”
“Very, very tiring.” She put out an elbow and slumped against a rack of comic books.
“Hey, Sis!” yelled Paul, putting his broom aside. “Don’t wrinkle those comic books!”
Lonnie straightened up and held out a paper bag to Paul. “Gee, I guess you don’t really want these leftover pastries, then, huh?”
“Aw, I’ll take it,” said Paul, grabbing it.
“More studying tonight?” I asked Lonnie. I stood up and kissed her on the cheek. Chinese people aren’t very affectionate in public. They don’t even hold hands in the street, though that’s also because the sidewalks in Chinatown are too narrow to go down side by side.
“I still have to finish that book about mass media,” she groaned. I didn’t know how she worked her day job as a low-level manager at Martha’s Bakery and still studied at night. Actually, I never really knew how people studied at all. But hey, I made it through high school without trying too hard.
I got up and walked out with Lonnie, intending to see her to her parents’ door. “Paul,” I said, “I expect to see you back at the apartment soon.”