October 18, 1976
Of course, the Grand Street subway station was out of commission but luckily the uptown 103 bus on the Bowery was right there. I told Paul to get on it.
“But I don’t have any change,” he said, frowning at me. He’s a bright kid, but he’s book-smart, not street-smart. I worry about him sometimes.
“Will you just get in there? I’ll take care of this,” I said. He should have known by now that his elders would always pay for him.
I pushed Paul ahead of me. I boarded the bus and flashed my shield at the driver.
“That’s for me. I’m going to pay for the boy,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the driver.
“No, I have it.”
“You’re not taking your whole family out for a day trip in the country. This is a city bus.”
I crossed my arms and studied the driver. He was a white male, probably pushing sixty, possibly five feet eight standing, and weighed about one hundred seventy. His face was as worn out as his uniform and his dead eyes told me he didn’t care about anything or anyone anymore.
I reached into my pocket and pulled only thirty-five cents in change. Dammit, fifteen cents short. If I hadn’t bought these newspapers, I would have had enough.
The pupil fare was eliminated by the Board of Education last month, and Paul would cost the full adult fare. That decision made a lot of sense if we were looking for one more way to encourage our kids to ditch school.
Knowing enough not to bother asking the driver, I turned to the passengers sitting in the front.
“Do any of you have four quarters for a dollar?” I asked.
Two men ignored me completely. One woman shook her head.
“If you’re going to insist on paying, just put in whatever change you have on you,” said the driver. “We have to get moving now.” He slammed shut the door and we swerved away from the curb. I grabbed for the nearest pole and looked back at the corner deli.
I had been ready to step off, get a cup of coffee for the extra change, and wait another year for the next bus.
“You can pay the pupil’s fare for the boy,” said the driver. “They’ll probably change it back, anyway.”
I dropped in the change.
“There’s something wrong with you people,” said the driver.
“Yeah. You cops always want to be the heroes.”
“We aren’t heroes. We play by the book. That’s all.”
“It’s because of Serpico, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not. He made it seem like everyone with a badge was crooked, but that’s not true at all.”
“Well then, I salute you, sir.” He pulled in at the next bus stop and threw open the door.
“Thank you very much,” I told the driver. He nodded, pulled shut the door, and pulled away from the curb. “Would you happen to be going all the way up to Columbia University?”
He continued looking straight ahead and said, “Naw, you’re going to transfer to the 104 at Forty-second. That’ll take you up there.” He tore off two transfers and handed them to me.
“This country has a lot of heart, doesn’t it, pal?”
I looked over at Paul. He was holding a hand strap halfway down the bus. There weren’t any free seats, so I stumbled through the moving bus and stood by him.
“What’s wrong?” asked Paul.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“You have this pissed-off look on your face.”
“Just something the driver said.”
“What did he say?”
“It’s not what he said, exactly. It was what he meant.”
“What are you talking about?”
I didn’t answer Paul and swung through some empty hand straps to get fairly close again to the driver.
“Hey,” I told him. “I was born in this country.”
“So was I. What’s your point?”
“I just wanted to make sure that you knew.”
“Then how come you were speaking a different language with the boy?”
“It’s Chinese. Cantonese, actually.”
“How come he doesn’t speak English like you?”
We pulled up to a red light and the driver turned to me.
“I don’t even know what the hell we’re talking about now,” he said. I turned and saw two seats open up near the rear exit of the bus.
“Well, that figures,” I said, about to walk away. Paul was already heading for the seats. The driver shared a meaningful shake of the head with an old woman up at the front.
Paul and I managed to grab the two seats just before the light changed. We came up to the next stop and the bus driver put on the brakes too hard.
“What are you trying to do, Robert?” asked Paul.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I guess I wanted to let him know that people who look like us are Americans, too. Something to that effect.”
“Does it really matter what he thinks?”
“It matters what he thinks because it means he’ll treat the next Asian passengers differently.”
“You mean he won’t try to give them a break on the fare?”
“Agh,” I said, unfolding the pro-Kuomintang Chinese newspaper.
A Taiwanese official had opened up a letter bomb that blew off a hand and an eye. Somehow they caught the guy. He was an anti-Kuomintang activist who wanted to have native Taiwanese rule the island, not families from the mainland who were on the losing side of the Chinese civil war.
The Kuomintang, or KMT, hadn’t lived up to its noble beginnings. They were also known as the Nationalists, the party founded by Sun Yat-sen, the father of the revolution that ended dynastic rule in China. If it hadn’t been for him, we’d still be wearing queues down our backs to show subservience to the Manchus who ran China at the time.
But tragically, Sun died prematurely and the KMT and the Communists stopped working together. After the bloody split, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung rose to power in the KMT and Chinese Communist Party, and there was little for the average Chinese person to do for more than two decades but fight, suffer, and die.
I put away the pro-KMT paper and flipped open the pro-Communist one. The lead story was a feature on Hua Kuo-feng, who was named as Mao’s successor as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. He had already been premier since Chou En-lai’s death in January. It was a typical snow-job write-up. His latest and greatest act was signing the order to arrest Mao’s widow and the rest of the Gang of Four, who were set on sabotaging the Permanent Revolution.
The Hong Kong–owned newspaper was the editorial lightweight among the three, but it sold the most copies. Some days, half the paper was celebrity news: who was playing patty-cake with whom. But the newspaper was also fanatically pro-business and for free trade, with extensive global-market coverage and analysis of foreign-exchange rates. I guess they expected couples to buy the newspaper and split up the sections between businessman and wife.
I tore through the pages, indifferent to numbers and diet tips. The best section, in my opinion, was the movie listings. The family that owned the paper also owned the film-distribution company that brought in movies from Hong Kong to Chinatown’s four theaters. The theaters weren’t allowed to advertise in the other papers or else they would get cut off.
I folded up the paper and checked my watch.
“Anything good in the papers?” asked Paul.
“No,” I said. I looked out the window. We were only at Houston Street; we had traveled a grand total of six blocks. “I’ve forgotten how slow buses are.”
“We should have just walked up to Prince,” Paul whined.
“What if that station was closed, too?”
“Then we would walk up to the next one until we got to one that was open.”
“Great, so by the time we get there, we’re all sweaty and grimy for your interview. We might as well have gone through the scummy subway. You have to think about presentation, Paul.” I pointed at my face. “I don’t do this for just anybody or anything.”
“Thanks for shaving, Robert.”
“I’d do anything to help you. Hell, I even bled a little for you.”
“It’s all for a worthy cause. If I’m admitted to this precollege project, it could help me get into Columbia as an undergrad.”
I smiled, but inside I was worried. Not about Paul. I was sure he was going to get pretty much anything he ever applied to, no sweat. What bothered me was that I was going to be even more in debt with Barbara. I had grown up with her in Chinatown and we even had a little thing going before I got into a relationship with Lonnie, Paul’s half sister. It was a tiny thing, even microscopic.
Barbara had gotten Lonnie a job at the United Nations office of a newswire service. Now, through another connection of hers, Barbara arranged an “in” for Paul at Columbia.
I guess that when you go to Harvard, as Barbara did, you tend to pick up connections. When you don’t go to college, like me, you end up with a dumb government job that no Chinese kid wants while growing up. I sure didn’t want to be a cop, but not because I was opposed to it. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to be. Then the draft came to Chinatown and it didn’t matter if I had made up my mind or not.
I looked over at Paul. He was reading a paperback book he was holding with one hand. Now, that kid had a mind and a future. I like to think that I set him straight when he was hanging out with wannabe gangsters. He lives with me now and I’m comfortable with saying that I’m the brawn of the operation.
He was growing out his bangs too long in my opinion, but what the hell, I wasn’t his father. I sure didn’t beat him like his father used to. He was Lonnie’s father, too, but she insists he never laid a finger on her.
Paul looked up, turned to me, and said, “Please stop staring at me. You’re making me feel uncomfortable.”
“I ran out of stuff to read.”
“You didn’t read the entertainment sections. You never do.”
“I don’t have time for fun. I’m an officer of the law. I’m always on the job.” I straightened out my collar to prove it. I nodded to his book and asked, “What are you reading there?”
“Sherlock Holmes stories.”
“Are they good?”
“You’ve never read them?”
“Why would I read them?”
“Because he solves crimes!”
“Those stories are old, Paul! What do you get out of them?”
“I like them.”
“I thought you were smart.”
He shook his head and went back to reading. I looked out the window. We were stopped at a green light for some reason. I watched an elderly man in a heavy camel coat walking with a cane. He passed the bus as we remained stationary.
I picked up the entertainment section from the Hong Kong newspaper. The Rosemary Theater on Canal was going to have a bunch of old Angela Mao films, so there was an interview with the woman herself next to a page-length picture of her in a typical stance with her elbows up at right angles, hands poised to chop.
The interviewer told her that she was still beautiful even though she had just had a baby and wondered when Angela was going to leave films to take care of her new family.
I folded up the paper, crossed my arms, and waited for something to happen. I watched an open can of Coke roll diagonally down the aisle, hit something, and leak out on the floor right where people walk through when they board.
I couldn’t ignore it. I guess that made me a good cop.
I walked over and picked it up. Some drivers have a garbage pail near the front but not this one. I turned back to my seat.
“Thanks, buddy!” said the driver.
I sat down again and held the sticky can as far away from me as I could. As an added bonus, there was a big wad of chewing gum stuck near the mouth of the can.
“That’s disgusting, Robert!” said Paul. “You should have just left it on the floor.”
“So it can pour out even more crap?”
“Hey, Paul, are you thirsty?” I pushed the can toward his face.
“Get away from me!” I saw him smile for the first time today. I knew he was worried about the interview.
At Forty-second Street, I shoved the rear-exit doors open and held them for people getting off. I let them go and they closed crookedly. The exhaust pipe blew out an evil black puff as the bus pulled away.
As we waited for the transfer, I asked Paul if he wanted me to throw him some sample interview questions. He said sure.
“Well, Paul, I’m glad you could make this appointment today.”
“Thank you for having me.”
“Well, yeah, tell me which project you would wish to work on.”
“I’m interested in studying the deep-sea sediment cores with Lamont-Doherty.”
“And what are those?”
“The core samples. From the sea floor.”
“Oh, and why do you want to study those things?”
“Because I feel that environmental studies are going to become more of a pressing need, especially if there’s a Democratic administration in place next year. By looking at the fossils in the sediment, we can see what kind of life existed under varying climates over the centuries.”
“Are you sure?”
There was a pause because I didn’t know what to say.
“How familiar are you with Mr. Lamont Doherty?”
“Lamont-Doherty is the name of your geological studies extension. It’s in Palisades, across the Hudson.”
“And how do you plan to get there?”
“You have a free shuttle bus that goes there a few times every day.”
“Oh, we do?”
“Yeah, you do.”
I threw my hands up. “Okay, you did real good, Paul. One thing I have to tell you, though, is you slouch too much. Make sure you’ve got your back against your chair. Also, you don’t want to look too anxious. If they think you’re too interested, it’s a turnoff. You have to make them want you.”
The 104 came and we got on. I fell asleep early on and Paul had to shake me awake at 116th Street.
Columbia University looked like a fortress built to keep out the surrounding blocks of the city. Paul seemed to know where to go, so I followed him to the office that was handling his thing, but I let him go in alone.
I threw out the Chinese papers and picked up a student newspaper. I sat in the hallway and read it. What a rag. These pampered rich kids saw injustice everywhere and were looking for excuses to cut classes and to burn their bras over nearly anything. Even the student cartoon was too liberal to be really funny.
After about fifteen minutes, Paul came out, his face neutral. He walked down the hall toward the exit.
“Well, that was quick,” I said as I followed him. “It’s either very good or very bad.”
Coolly, he said, “I got it.”
I hugged him.
Copyright © 2012 by Ed Lin