Stars above Detroit
It was a cold and snowy December when I was handed the address of a “crack house” in one of the deserted and boarded up Detroit neighborhoods once inhabited by happy families whose sustenance was provided by good paying manufacturing jobs. The closing of the automobile plants made the neighborhoods ghost towns. A significant percentage of housing parcels in the city are vacant, with abandoned lots making up more than half of total residential lots in large portions of the city.
They call me “Mr. X” around the office because it’s my job to “tag” deserted homes for demolition by spray painting a large red “X” across the front of the homes. It’s my first job since graduating with a degree in drafting. The City of Detroit hired me because I grew up remodeling homes with my father and I knew building materials. My official title was “Building Safety Inspector” but my work had nothing to do with building safety. The City was broke and sent me alone, armed only with pepper spray, into the blighted neighborhoods to identify homes with valuable building materials like copper, used brick, marble, or fine woods, the City could sell before bulldozing the home. My work was dangerous because poking around deserted homes; you’d never know what you’d find. I’ve been chased away by crazed drug addicts, packs of wild dogs, or the stench of decaying human corpses who were drug addicts or sadly, the elderly owners of the home who died silently and forgotten.
The address led me to a boarded up Victorian mansion which was the largest home on the block. My instincts told me it would be a treasure trove of valuable building materials which might earn me a raise or promotion. I didn’t realize the old mansion was occupied, but decided to assume the role of a homeless man, hoping the occupants would permit me to stay long enough to assess the value of the building materials. Besides, I was single, and alone in Detroit without family to spend Christmas.
Winters are a blessing and a curse in these blighted neighborhoods. The winter cold brought paying “lodgers” like me in off the streets. Ice is plentiful permitting the preservation of food and water for drinking and bathing. There are no utilities to the house. The toilets were removed exposing the sewer pipes permitting direct deposit of feces and urine. Fire for cooking and heat was from wood siding poached from nearby homes. Ride share and taxis won’t come into the neighborhood. The nearest shopping is four, long residential blocks away on 7 Mile, consisting of a discount retail store, independent market, and a few fast food joints. Downtown Detroit is about fifteen miles away.
Nobody asked me any questions other than telling me the rent was $5 per day, which provided a roof over my head, along with a blanket and a place to sleep in the hallway amongst junkies. I did my best to hide my red paint colored index finger. Despite the bleak environment, it would be a Christmas I would never forget.
It costs a heroin addict $150-$200 per day to support a habit like Roxie’s. It was a long night for Roxie when I encountered her returning home from working as a prostitute. I offered her a cigarette and told her I had just “checked in” as a “lodger” which put her at ease. She told me she made her “bank” and I could tell she was eager for her fix which would anesthetize her throughout the long, dreary, winter day until she would regain consciousness, and prepare for another evening “on the stroll”. Roxie was no older than thirty. She was a beautiful woman born to a Puerto Rican mother who was a prostitute. Her father was a mixed race “John”. Roxie inherited a beautiful exotic face, and an attention-getting curvaceous body, permitting her to earn top dollar from the businessmen traveling through Detroit. She was taken from her mother as a teenager and placed into foster care where she was molested by the husband, and thrown out into the streets when the wife found out. She never reunited with her mother. Roxie’s quite the entrepreneur cultivating a loyal network of hotel concierges, bartenders, and limousine drivers who handed out her business card to Johns in return for her gratuities.
We heard a helicopter and Roxie ran to the boarded up window peering through a knot hole to see a fire department helicopter, its spot light trained upon the fully engulfed home down the street. 911 won’t send the fire department, cops, or paramedics into these abandoned neighborhoods because it’s too costly. In the case of fire, it’s less expensive to send the helicopter to assess the need for further action. Most of the time, the helicopter determines the home is vacant and lets it burn to the ground. Even if the fire department wanted to extinguish the fire, the water from the fire hose would freeze up in the winter cold. A man shouted, “Get away from that window girl! If that search light catches your cat eyes we’ll be thrown out of here!” Roxie quickly took her beautiful eyes away from the peep hole. Samuel placed his frail arm around her in an attempt to comfort her, whispering, “Don’t fear the spotlight, child. It’s a reminder the bright, lonely. little star will soon reveal itself, and shine down upon us all”.
Samuel was a tall, lanky, balding, black man with a scruffy grey beard who was pushing eighty. He was once a headliner in the best jazz clubs in the States. He became a junky, which ruined his musical career as a tenor saxophonist. Although he kicked the habit decades ago, he’s was an alcoholic, finishing off a fifth of cheap whiskey each day. He sometimes rode the bus into Detroit with Roxie at night where he ‘busked”, playing on street corners for change. His old tenor sax lost its luster, but like a fine wine aging graciously over time, the music coming out was sweet as ever despite the arthritic fingers squeezing out the notes.
I slept against the wall in a dark hallway with a few other guys wrapped in blankets. They snored, moaned, and jerked. In a far off corner of the old mansion, a tenor saxophone whaled. The notes invited memories of saying goodbye to somebody you love for the last time. I felt privileged to hear such beauty amongst the desolation. When the tenor sax stopped, I heard the musician, who sounded like Samuel, recite the following,
“Come out bright, lonely, little star.
Don’t fear the dark clouds, the cold of winter, or the pain below you.
Bless us with your divine rays of hope, warm our spirits, and guide us to a peaceful world where every man, woman, child, and animal lives in dignity and happiness.
Come out bright, lonely little star. Don’t be shy. We’ll accept you as you are and take you into our hearts.”
I drifted into a deep sleep as if being read a lullaby. I awoke to an obese, seventy something, black woman extending a cup of coffee to me, saying, “Hello lodger, I’m Queenie. Follow me down to the kitchen and let’s talk.”
I followed the old woman and noticed she had difficulty walking given her age and weight. Her feet were swollen and I suspect she suffered from diabetes. We entered an expansive kitchen found only in mansions staffed with butlers and maids. It was spotless and hadn’t changed since its construction sometime in the early twentieth century. Its walls were lined with sparkling lime green tiles, matching counter tops, butcher block tables, and vintage kitchen appliances with manufacturer’s labels marked, “Dutiful Brand”. There was a breakfast table in the corner of the kitchen where Samuel was sitting, smoking a cigarette, and sipping his coffee. I was invited to sit by Queenie who struggled to sit. Samuel rose like a gentleman and aided her. Queenie reached for my arms and examined each for needle punctures remarking, “You’re not a user are you?” I nodded in agreement saying, “No ma’am. I’m not.” Samuel took a drag of his cigarette, blew the smoke into the air, and agreed, “Yeah, his eyes are clear and he doesn’t have the shakes. He looks clean to me. What’s your game young man?” I nervously replied, “I’m down on my luck and just looking for a roof over my head for Christmas, Sir.” I heard somebody walking swiftly down the hallway and a young man entered the kitchen pulling up a chair. Queenie sternly remarked, “What do you say first thing in the morning, Rascal?” The young man respectfully replied, “Good morning”. Queenie smiled like a proud grandmother remarking, “That’s a proper mornin’ greeting. Let me get ya’ all some oatmeal.”
Rascal was a white man in his early twenties, about six feet tall, razor thin, tatted up, pierced, and missing some front teeth. His face was showing the ravages of meth use scars. He was wearing low hanging faded jeans, old sneakers, and a “Red Wings” hockey hoody. Rascal extended his hand to me and we shook. Samuel looked Rascal up and down like a grandfather, scolding him, “Pull your britches up boy! Why don’t you clean up and make something of yourself.” Like a doting grandmother, Queenie defended Rascal, “Leave him alone, old man! Why don’t you clean up and make something of yourself playing that old sax for big dollars at weddings and Bar Mitzvah’s instead of busking on dirty, cold sidewalks. You still got it, old man. Use it!” Samuel stared at the ceiling as if looking into the past, and angrily replied, “Stay out of my business, woman.”
Queenie gave each of us a piping hot bowl of oatmeal she prepared atop a butane fueled hotplate. Rascal immediately rose to help her sit. Rascal sat, devouring his oatmeal, washing each mouthful down with a glass of milk. Queenie finished a silent prayer and began to eat her oatmeal with etiquette seeming out of place, given her station in life which made me curious about her background. Queenie spoke with reverence about Samuel, “Back in the day, Samuel was kickin’ it with the likes of Duke, Ella, Basie, Miles, and workin’ the best clubs in the Country. Show ‘em that Downbeat Magazine cover with you on it, Samuel!” Samuel shook his head as he slowly ate his oatmeal, his hands trembling from the effects of alcoholism, and old age. Rascal finished his oatmeal, wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve out of sight of Queenie, rose from the table, and placed his arms around Samuel boasting, “It’s true, man. I saw the magazine cover. Samuel was a cool young dude on the cover of a sixties Downbeat Magazine. In big letters above his photo, it say’s, New Tenor Sax Virtuoso Makes the Scene. All right folks, got to start my day dumpster divin’. Nice to meet you, Sir.” I was impressed with Rascal’s manners and replied, “My pleasure to meet you Rascal. Good luck out there!” Rascal kissed Queenie on the cheek before exiting the kitchen from the boarded up service entrance. I caught a glimpse of him retrieve a shopping cart hidden within some bushes. In a hushed voice, Queenie remarked, “Rascal was thrown out on the streets by his folks. He came from a good family with parental expectations he couldn’t live up to but he seldom mentions his family. I treat him like my own grandson. He has a sweet temperament but slips into a dark hole of depression, so he self medicates by shooting up. If only he could kick the junk, he still has time to make somethin’ of himself.”
Queenie slowly rose from her chair, gathered the bowls and cups, and rinsed them in a bucket. She placed them in a dish rack to dry, took a deep sigh, and said, “Well, it’s time to start my day. I got to hit the food pantries first thing this mornin’. Between Rascal and me, we’ll gather all the fixins for a proper Christmas Dinner. Pay $5 dollars a day room and board, lodger. Leave the money with Samuel. Anything you need to know, just ask him.” Queenie reached for her winter coat hanging on a hook, draped it on, grabbed her hand bag, and headed for the door. Queenie dressed nicely for a homeless woman. My heart was heavy as I watched her slowly walk up the sidewalk, her feet swollen, and her joints aching.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a twenty dollar bill, handed it to Samuel, and said, “It’s the 24th today. I’ll be out on the 26th. Keep the ten dollars change. I’m certain the house can use it.” Samuel rose from his seat and placed the twenty dollar bill into a drawer saying, “Thank you, young lodger. This ‘ol man got to get to sleep before headin’ out tonight but maybe you can help me with a chore, first?”
Samuel reached for his tattered pea coat and struggled to get into it. I helped him get into the coat saying, “I’ll be glad to help you with the chore.” We exited the kitchen through the boarded up service entrance out into the cold, sunny day. I followed Samuel into the expansive former back yard of the mansion, now overgrown with weeds, shrubbery, and tree branches. He led me to a baby Christmas tree about three feet tall, alone, in the corner of the backyard. He kneeled next to it as if it were a child saying, “This little tree sprung up out of the ground last spring. I saw it grow inch by inch throughout the springtime. It wanted to survive even amongst all this squalor so I started to water it and it grew faster. It withstood the scorching heat and humidity of summer, the chill of autumn, and here it is in the dead of an icy winter, still alive. It ain’t a big tree but it will make a fine Christmas tree. I’d like you to help me dig it up, pot it, take it inside, and we’ll give it a home for Christmas. It won’t end up on the trash heap like the others. No, Sir! After Christmas, I’ll plant it a couple of blocks away in the City Park so if this old house gets bulldozed, this tree will survive. Will you help me?” “Of course I will, Samuel”, I answered. Samuel retrieved an old spade, pick axe, and a pot filled with fresh potting soil. We carefully dug around the roots of the tree beneath the stare of the boarded up mansion. I asked, “What’s Queenie’s story?”
Samuel turned towards the mansion pointing with the spade, saying, “Queenie was the maid for the family who owned the mansion. She lost her son in Vietnam and her job when the owners of the house moved away in the seventies. She drowned her pain with alcohol, struggled as a hotel maid, couldn’t keep it together as she got older, and ended up on the streets. Even though she’s a big woman and sick with the diabetes, she has the grit and determination to be the first in line at the food pantries walkin’ on those frozen, swollen feet”
We managed to carefully remove the small tree from the frozen ground. Samuel placed it in the pot and assured the roots were securely planted. As we walked back towards the mansion with the tree, Samuel continued, “Queenie reveres the old mansion like it’s hers. It was owned by a fine family, manufacturing durable stainless steel kitchen appliances used in the finest homes, restaurants, and hotels. The company was called Dutiful Manufacturing and their blenders, mixers, and toasters were called Duty Brand with a reputation for reliability and dependability.
Check out the library upstairs and you’ll find a stack of old catalogues showing the history of the brand. Start from the bottom of the stack and it will read like a history book.”
We entered the kitchen, removed our coats, and Samuel retrieved a spray bottle of water to tenderly irrigate the potted tree. I asked, “What happened to cause the home to fall into disarray?” Samuel continued, “The business was handed down to a no count son who succumbed to thieving Wall Street bankers convincing him he could make more money by manufacturing with less steel and more plastic. The appliances became shoddy and less reliable. Sales plummeted and the once proud company name became tarnished. The only people who made more money were the Wall Street snakes. When the company went bankrupt, only the brand name had any value, and was sold to a company in China who never used it. The patriarch of the family, and founder of the business, died from a heart attack in the library, pouring over the original blueprints for the “Dutiful Deluxe Blender” when he learned his son bankrupted the company. The family history mirrored the history of Detroit. With each decade, the Dutiful family and Detroit’s manufacturing jobs grew smaller, eventually to the point of extinction. Our little family is like the Dutiful Company and these blighted neighborhoods. We’re threatened with eventual extinction. Those large red X’s spray painted on the houses signify they’re scheduled for demolition. Every day, I see more red in the neighborhood and know it’s a matter of time before we’re extinct!”
I roamed the mansion alone. I found the basement, revealing what appeared to be miles of copper plumbing and copper wire. The library, dining room, and most of the house was paneled with fine woods. Marble was abundant in the bathrooms. I was fascinated with the library which was the repository for the manufacturing catalogues of the business, appliance blueprints, and photographs of the family. Samuel was correct. The catalogues read like a history book about a fine, Detroit manufacturing family of a bygone era.
I joined Samuel for a cup of coffee in the late afternoon before he and Roxie would catch the bus to Detroit expecting downtown Christmas Eve business to be brisk with travelers and last minute shoppers. Queenie arrived home with a cooked, sliced ham. She had bags of potatoes, a pumpkin pie, vegetables, and fruits. We rose from the table to help the tired old woman carry the groceries inside the kitchen. She was breathing heavy, wiped her brow, and said, “Whew, what a day but I sure did score a fine Christmas dinner for tomorrow night!” Queenie began to wobble on her feet as if passing out. I quickly grabbed her and helped her sit. Samuel brought her a glass of water. I heard high heels hurriedly coming down the hall and Roxie entered the kitchen, dressed to kill, and ready to catch the bus to work. Queenie remarked, “Girl, you ain’t out hustling yet. You’d better get to the stroll while you can sell that pretty face and hot little body before age and the horse catches up with you.” Roxie looked into the glass pane of the kitchen cabinet, primping herself, answering, “I got to buy my fix, first.”
Queenie knew the drug dealer would be stopping by shortly to deliver Roxie and Rascal’s heroin. Queenie lamented, “I guess that nasty, no good pusher, Wrangler will be showing his ugly, hillbilly face soon!” We heard Rascal’s old shopping cart with bad wheels approaching the kitchen. Rascal came into the kitchen beaming with pride because he had a great day dumpster diving exclaiming, “Check it out, Christmas ornaments!” Rascal found discount store price tags cut into the shape of stars in red, green, gold, and silver inside a dumpster. Despite the word, “Discount Price” printed on each card, they were beautiful. Rascal also scrounged some plastic Christmas bulbs with the name of the discount store printed on them. He dangled one, asking,”Did you dig up the Christmas tree, Samuel?” Samuel replied, “Me and the lodger dug it up and it’s sittin’ in the livin’ room ready for the ornaments”. Rascal made a dash with the ornaments towards the tree but was stopped by Queenie, pronouncing, “Not so quick, Rascal. We’re decorating the tree tomorrow night, together, like a family.” She tried to get up but fell backwards, sighing, “I sure did wear myself out today.”
There was a hard knock at the back door and a man with a stern voice, announced, “It’s Wrangler.” Roxie opened the boarded up service door and Wrangler came in. He was a forty something, medium build, Caucasian man with a menacing look, shaved head, diamond ear ring, and handle bar moustache. He wore a leather jacket and jeans. I noticed his shiny cowboy boots were rattlesnake and his briefcase was genuine alligator. I caught a glimpse of a pistol he had hidden inside his coat. He looked me up and down and I knew he was suspicious of me when he said, “Who’s the other dude?” Queenie was annoyed replying, “He’s our lodger and you pay him no mind. I don’t want you pushin’ your junk in my kitchen. Go do your business in the library.”
After Roxie, Rascal, and Wrangler left the kitchen to conduct their “business”, I lamented, “I hope I didn’t scare their pusher away.” Queenie answered, “I never liked that ‘ol redneck. We call ‘em Wrangler because he rides the horse which is slang for the product he’s pushin’, heroin! I’ll bet his grand daddy was lynching Black folk down South.” Samuel piped in, “Now woman, don’t get carried away. Wrangler moved to Detroit with his parents from the South when his daddy got a job at the auto plant. Don’t blame him for not losin’ his Southern drawl. He’s just tryin’ to survive in Detroit like everybody since the auto plants closed down.”
Wrangler finished his business and entered the kitchen to leave by the service door saying, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” He turned to leave and Queenie shouted, “Join us for Christmas Dinner, Wrangler. 6pm sharp.” Wrangler’s business of dealing death was a lonely business, and an invitation to join even a ragtag family for Christmas dinner, was a special invitation. He paused as if thinking about the many Christmas dinners he had missed over the years, and gratefully accepted, “Thank you. I’ll be here at 6pm, sharp”. He hurriedly left to deliver more “holiday cheer” to his eager clientele.
I helped Queenie in the kitchen prep the Christmas meal. I peeled potatoes, cut string beans and did whatever was asked of me. Samuel prepared a layer of charcoal atop tin foil in the vintage oven which would warm the ham wrapped in aluminum foil. I spent the remainder of Christmas Eve alone in the library, pouring through product catalogues and imagined the cheerful Christmas holiday’s inside the mansion during the heyday of the family business.
On Christmas day, Queenie had the meal fully prepared and cooking. Roxie prepared the makeshift dining room table with the paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper cups. I produced crystal champagne glasses I found in the basement which would do justice to the champagne Samuel had purchased.
We all retired to the living room to adorn the tree. It was eerily silent as each member hung a star shaped store tag or plastic bulb on the little tree. I suspect each person was remembering happier times with family. Our efforts produced a magnificent Christmas tree. Samuel planned a surprise. He removed the folded up Downbeat Cover from his wallet revealing a handsome young musician, and tacked it above the fireplace. He handed us copies of his poem and asked us to recite it slowly while he played beautiful notes on his tenor sax which he retrieved. Each note conjured up reminiscence of a beautiful lullaby spoken by loving parents to children eagerly waiting for Christmas morning. We held hands and recited,
“Come out bright, lonely little star.
Don’t fear the dark clouds, the cold of winter, or the pain below you.
Bless us with your divine rays of hope, warm our spirits, and guide us to a peaceful world where every man, woman, child, and animal lives in dignity and happiness.
Come out bright, lonely little star. Don’t be shy. We’ll accept you as you are and take you into our hearts.
Come out bright lonely star, you won’t be judged nor shunned
Just loved and adored atop our tree of many beautiful lights
Revered and respected for whom you are
Beautiful and original as you were created to be
You’re a loving reminder that we all have self worth.”
Samuel’s beautiful melody triggered memories and painful introspection. It particularly affected Rascal as he appeared to be slipping into his emotional dark space. He rubbed his arms indicating he was in need of a heroin fix. Queenie wiped a tear from her eye but woke us from our dreams of happier times, exclaiming, “My man, Samuel, still has the magic touch. Thank you, ‘ol man. It’s time to eat. Everybody find a seat at the table in the dining room.”
Wrangler showed up on time with a bottle of wine and sat next to me at the makeshift dining table. He put his arm around me pulling me close, and whispered, “I saw the red paint on your index finger in the kitchen. You’re “Mr. X”! Leave this old house be so these people can be left to live the small family life they made for themselves. This neighborhood is known to swallow people alive. Strangers come in and never leave if you know what I mean.” I knew it was a veiled threat but Wrangler didn’t know that during my secret inspection of the house, I was able to determine that it qualified as a “Historical Preservation Home” and with a simple check of the box on my inspection form; the mansion would be entered into the city database of “Historic Homes” which couldn’t be demolished.
Queenie and Roxie returned from the kitchen with the Christmas dinner, carefully placing the ham, mashed potatoes, vegetables and pies on the table. It was a magnificent feast and the look on everybody’s face was happy and ravenous. Roxie stood and helped Queenie sit, and took her chair at the table. Queenie pronounced, “Everybody take a moment and say a silent prayer of thankfulness.” I looked around the room and everybody, including Wrangler, bowed their head and mumbled a prayer. Queenie was the last to finish her prayer, and gleefully exclaimed, “It’s time to eat, brothers and sisters. Pass the food around family style.” For a moment, I wasn’t aware that we were dining in a boarded up deserted mansion. The food was bountiful, delicious, and the table setting, albeit picnic style, was beautiful.
Roxie sat across from Queenie, next to Rascal, saying, “I met an interesting trick last night. He didn’t want to go to the room but paid me to have dinner with him. He’s a big shot talent agent in Hollywood who scouts rappers and R & B talent.” She pulled out a business card, handing it to Queenie, who handed it to Samuel and said, “Go on girl. Keep talkin’. Roxie continued, “I told him about Samuel and the dude lit up saying, Sam is still alive! The man is a living legend. Can I meet him?” Samuel wasn’t flattered saying, “Man, I don’t want to waste no time recounting my past with nobody! I’m retired!” Roxie was persistent, “He said he can line you up with steady, studio work!” Rascal was elated, “That’s fantastic, Samuel. You got to meet this dude!” Roxie continued, “That ain’t all. I mentioned you, too, Rascal. He said he can hook you up as a roadie, and, if you want to learn to drive a truck, he’ll get you into the Teamsters Union as a truck driver with full benefits and great union pay!”
Rascal and Samuel were dumbfounded. They had both lived lives of false promises and rejection but this felt real to them. They needed to ponder the reality that their lives could change if they had the motivation to get sober. Queenie was interested in the trick’s motivation asking, “You think this man is sweet on you, baby girl?” Roxie was embarrassed but replied, “Yeah, we kinda have a thing brewin”. Queenie lit up, “Well good for you, girl! You hooked a big fish. Reel him in slow, the traditional, romantic way. Got it, girlfriend?” Roxie had an expression on her face like it was the first time she might be in love answering, “I got it, Ms. Queenie. He wants to have dinner with me, Samuel, and Rascal the day after Christmas.”
Roxie made good money on Christmas Eve and was generous. She gifted a pair of orthopedic shoes for Queenie and a set of cashmere gloves with the finger tips removed permitting Samuel to play the sax more comfortably in the cold weather. She bought Rascal a new hoodie and pair of trendy sneakers.
During Christmas dinner, Rascal descended deeper into a depression, as thoughts of missing his family weighed heavily upon him. I saw a fresh puncture mark on his arm and knew he shot up before dinner. Rascal was struggling to stay awake. Queenie remarked, “If you’re tired baby boy, go take a rest. It’s ok.” Rascal’s eyes rolled back into his head, his mouth began to foam, and his face fell into his plate. Wrangler shouted, “Get ‘em off the chair and flat on the floor.” Rascal’s lips were blue and his breathing was barely noticeable. Wrangler went for his briefcase, hurriedly opened it, and its contents looked like a salesman’s sample kit of drugs. Samuel shouted, “Shoot ‘em with the Narcan, quick”, Wrangler reached into his briefcase and produced a two pack of “Narcan” nose spray, tearing one dispenser from the package, and pumped the contents into Rascal’s nose. Rascal didn’t respond. Wrangler yelled, “He’s not helping. He doesn’t want to come back. I’ve seen it before. Wake up, Rascal!” Queenie was beside herself with fear but impressed by Wrangler’s fervent efforts to revive Rascal. She placed her arm around Wrangler, whispering, “So, you have a heart after all!” Wrangler replied, “He reminds me of myself when I was young.” Wrangler tilted Rascals head up, placed the second plastic syringe into his nostril and released the spray with a forceful pump. Rascal slowly opened his eyes. Roxie cried tears of joy watching her “brother” of sorts regain consciousness. In all the commotion, nobody had noticed Samuel was slumped against the wall holding his chest and gasping for air. Queenie screamed, “Don’t you die old man! I can’t run this household myself. Please, dear God, let him live!”
We huddled around Rascal and Samuel trying to render comfort and aid but there was nothing anybody could do for them in a blighted neighborhood on Christmas, except me. I carried a small flip phone hidden within my jeans. I knew that when I called 911 and identified myself as a City Building Inspector, medical help would arrive swiftly but break up the family, forever, placing each within the penal or the inadequate social services system. The old mansion would be locked up by the cops.
I speculated that if given the choice of dying or permitting Queenie and Roxie to go on living in the old mansion, Samuel and Rascal would have elected death, but not calling for help and letting them die, was a choice I didn’t want to make. Samuel’s beautiful notes resounded through my memory of saying goodbye to somebody you love for the last time, and, Wrangler’s admonition to “leave this old house be” were clairvoyant. It was the City of Detroit which led me to the old mansion but it was a loving, flawed little family, who extended their hospitality to a stranger, inviting me to share their love and kindness on Christmas. I looked at my paint stained, red index finger, and knew that I couldn’t be responsible for the “extinction” of the family. I was certain my call to 911 would be a final goodbye and never reached for my phone. I prayed for Rascal and Samuel to recover.
It was a sleepless night for everybody but the following morning, Christmas delivered a gift of life to both Rascal and Samuel who were resting comfortably, lovingly tended to by Queenie, Roxie, and Wrangler. I gathered my possessions and discretely removed the little Christmas tree from the living room. I placed a note alongside the Downbeat cover reading, “Tree at City Park”. I left the mansion without saying goodbye, not wanting to interrupt the family in their time of need. It was my hope Roxie would find true and lasting love with the talent agent who would make good on his promise with jobs for Samuel and Rascal. It would be up to Samuel and Rascal to treasure the gift of life and seize any opportunity extended to them. I knew of one certain outcome. As long as Queenie could draw a breath, I knew her love, strength, and inner beauty would hold the family together.
Although I found the house to be a treasure trove of recyclable building materials, the most valuable contents were the people who created a loving family despite the bleakest of conditions. I would never forget them. I threw my can of red spray paint in the trash. I left the mansion with the potted Christmas tree which I would plant in the City Park as Samuel wanted. The evening sky was turning to daybreak and I gazed upward finding the lonely little star shining brightly.
Angels of Tiburon
I gently brushed my hand across the Chinese calligraphy on the marble tombstone spelling out the name of my beloved grandmother. Her name was “Lao Lao” meaning, “maternal grandmother”. The art of writing Chinese characters is called “calligraphy” which dates back about 3000 years. I was melancholy knowing that Lao Lao would never know her great granddaughter soon to be my first child. Judging from the swift kick within my abdomen from my daughter, she, too, was disappointed not to meet her great grandmother. I would make certain the gift of cultural pride instilled in me by Lao Lao would be passed on to my daughter. As I traced the lines of her name, I was reminded of a cathartic moment in my life occurring not too many years ago.
I leaned over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge staring at the choppy waters below and wondered about the many poor souls who jumped to their deaths and tried to relate to the pain they suffered. I was disappointed knowing that all my hard work didn’t result in my admittance to any of the professional schools to which I applied. It was the first time I knew failure but it wasn’t worth jumping to my death.
I looked to my right towards San Francisco and imagined the many opportunities the beautiful city would afford me if I had achieved my professional school dream. I looked to my left towards Marin County admiring the comfortable homes of its educated population to which I may never become a member. My position in the middle of the bridge, deciding whether to turn back to San Francisco or travel to Marin was a metaphor for my straddling two cultures, Chinese and American. My thoughts were interrupted by a family of Chinese tourists speaking Mandarin Chinese to me but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Only through hand gestures, could I figure out that they wanted me to take a picture of the family on the Bridge with the Bay in the background. I obliged. Afterwards, a little Chinese boy, in perfect English, said, “My parent’s thank you for taking the picture and hope you visit Angel Island and learn the history lesson of Chinese immigrants there!” He pointed to the small island adjacent to Alcatraz and just off the coast of Tiburon. I decided to check it out needing a distraction from my disappointment and sorrow. I left my BMW on the San Francisco side of the Bridge and walked across to the Bridge dropping me in Sausalito where I summoned a ride share to take me into the town of Tiburon where I’d catch the ferry boat to Angel Island.
Just an hour before arriving at the Bridge, I was presiding over the “Senior Awards Brunch” I organized at the beautiful “Claremont Hotel and Spa” in Berkeley. As President of the Sorority, it was my responsibility to organize and officiate at the awards brunch honoring the senior class for their four years of hard work at the University of California, Berkeley which included mention of their post graduate plans. I was the only Asian member of the sorority and the first Asian President of the elite sorority house which was comprised mostly of the Caucasian daughters from Bay area elite families. I felt a responsibility to my sorority and never shunned requests for tutoring from my sorority sisters. Over the previous four years together, my sorority sisters and I partied hard but while my sisters slept, I kept the “midnight oil” putting in the lost hours of study time. I successfully completed a double major in U.S. History and Biology at Berkeley and set my sights on a career as a patent lawyer specializing in medical related intellectual property. My father was a physician and mom was a patent lawyer. Both my parents graduated from Berkeley. Completing both law and medical school would make them proud of me. Berkeley is a competitive and rigorous university where “A’s” are awarded sparingly. My guidance counselor assured me that my GPA of 3.95, LSAT, and MCAT test scores placing me within the 95% percentile were consistent with admitted students to the professional schools I was applying. I completed applications to the prestigious law school at Berkeley known as “Boalt Hall”, Stanford Law School, and Stanford Medical School, in addition to the other schools comprising the top ten law and medical schools in the United States. It didn’t matter to me whether I was accepted first to law school or medical school. I would complete the degree of the first school admitting me. As I read the names of my sorority sisters, I was surprised to learn of their post graduate plans. Brenda was the daughter of a Silicon Valley tech giant founder who had been accepted to Stanford Business School. I was surprised she was admitted to Stanford because Brenda slept in rather than attending the grueling courses associated with an economics major at Berkeley. I was always happy to lend Brenda my notes and tutor her on the nuances of supply and demand curves although I’m not certain she grasped the concepts. Jacqueline’s father was president of a pharmaceutical company. She was beautiful and a member of the cheerleading squad. Jacqueline’s premedical courses always took a back seat to the demands of cheerleading. Jacqueline was my lab partner and I was always ready to complete her lab work when the demands of cheerleading called. She was admitted to Stanford Medical School where her father had a research laboratory named after his company. Amber was an ambitious, hardworking, African American girl from Oakland who beat the odds of her tough neighborhood and was admitted to Berkeley. Amber’s goal was to attend Harvard Law School but needed a top notch senior honors thesis which would make her application to Harvard stand out. Over the course of our senior year, I spent hours with Amber honing her thesis topic which centered on the stereotypes of upwardly mobile minority groups and the discrimination they encountered. The honors thesis was awarded Summa Cum Laude honors. Amber was accepted to Harvard Law School. When it came time to announce my name, I was humiliated to say, “Amy Lum, undecided” which the sisters knew was “code” for didn’t get accepted to the schools of my choice. I was rejected from all of the professional schools to which I applied. My guidance counselor was surprised and suggested that I may be the victim of admission discrimination against the large number of highly qualified Asian students applying to professional schools. As a history student, I studied the discrimination Jewish students encountered as they applied to Ivy League colleges in the twentieth century whose schools intentionally limited the number of highly competitive Jewish students seeking admittance. I never knew failure and refused to believe the rumors of Asian discrimination at top graduate schools was possible in the twenty-first century. Instead, I accepted the fact that “I didn’t try hard enough” or “I wasn’t good enough”. My parents suggested I try again in a year after an internship at mom’s law firm or dad’s pathology lab, where they would arrange for glowing recommendations from my mentors. I believed reapplication would be futile and was humiliating.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the sisters gathered in cliques and I felt shunned by them. I remained stoic and congratulated each of them before discretely exiting the ballroom and summoning my BMW from the valet. The BMW was a gift from my parents and my pride and joy. It was white with a tan interior. The personalized license plate read, “Amy No1”. I drove towards San Francisco wanting to leave the pain of Berkeley behind me. I drove across the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco. Just inside San Francisco, I pulled over and cried. I wiped the tears from my eyes, looked up, and saw the familiar Golden Gate Bridge. I drove towards the beautiful landmark. I parked my car on the San Francisco side and walked across the Bridge. I thought about calling my boyfriend, Teddy, but knew he wouldn’t be in the mood to hear his girlfriend cry so I would wait for him to call me.
I grew up within the affluent city of Burlingame on the San Francisco Peninsula about twenty minutes from downtown San Francisco. I was the only daughter of successful Chinese American parents. Both parents were over-achievers and expected the same from their daughter. I didn’t disappoint them. When I set a goal, I never failed to attain it. I felt invincible and believed anything was possible if I put my mind to it. I was a leader of my Girl Scout Troop earning more badges than my fellow Scouts. I was class officer in both middle and high school. I attended the Burlingame primary, middle, and high school where I was a standout student, valedictorian, captain of the badminton team and debate teams. My high school yearbook named me, “Most likely to succeed”. I was one of only a few Asian students within the prestigious primary and secondary schools of Burlingame. I made friends with the children of the affluent from Kindergarten through High School and wanted to fit in with my Caucasian friends. My friend’s mothers were affluent “stay at home” moms despite holding prestigious university degrees. They chose to stay at home to devote time and energy to their their daughters after school activities. Because my parents were managing demanding careers, my grandmother, Lao Lao, was always eager to pick me up and deliver me to school or play dates. Lao Lao was my most loyal fan. On more than one occasion, I was asked, “Who is that funny looking old Chinese woman who comes to watch you, Amy?” I sheepishly answered, “She’s my grandmother”. At times, I would get upset and tell Lao Lao to “stay home” but Lao Lao simply smiled with love, pride, and admiration for her only granddaughter.
Teddy was my childhood friend. He was a natural athlete and enjoyed baseball. Teddy developed quite a fast ball, change up, and curve balls making him a standout baseball recruit by colleges. Teddy’s family was old San Francisco wealthy. His father and grandfather were partners in a prestigious law firm. We were cute toddlers sharing play dates. Teddy’s parents often referred to me as, “Teddy Bear’s cute little Panda cub playmate”. Teddy and I became sweethearts in high school. I never understood why the gracious invitations to visit Teddy’s beautiful home stopped and Teddy’s was “never home” when I called the house. My parents told me it was likely Teddy’s WASP parents could accept a cute Asian play date for their son but wouldn’t tolerate an interracial romance. I refused to believe them. My family embraced Teddy as a “good boy from a good family”. Lao Lao also embraced Teddy; telling him stories of China and preparing Chinese food for us. Teddy loved her Won Ton soup.
I was admitted to my first college choice, Berkeley. I joined an elite Sorority, “Chi Nu Album”, also known as “CNA” which consisted of the daughters of Bay Area elite. I was a devoted and reliable sorority sister rising to a prominent position of President within CNA because I always got things done.
CNA was instrumental in welcoming me into the privileged Caucasian lives of my sorority sisters which made me distance myself from my Chinese cultural roots. It may have been self loathing but I just didn’t want to feel different.
Teddy earned a full athletic scholarship to attend Berkeley and play baseball. He was a member of a fraternity who enjoyed playing frat boy more than studying. We dated and were study mates. Teddy wasn’t my intellectual equal and relied on me for tutoring. It was his goal to attend Bolt Hall Law School at Berkeley like his father and grandfather.
My rideshare driver to Tiburon was a student from South Korea who was driving part-time while studying full time at San Francisco State to become an engineer. I didn’t have to work as an undergraduate and couldn’t imagine working part-time while completing my studies. I admired his resolve. I arrived in Tiburon and boarded the ferry. I looked towards San Francisco and imagined the immigrant experiences of my parents, George and Margaret, who were first generation Chinese whose parents emigrated from China. George’s parents owned a hand laundry frequented by the housekeepers delivering the fine garments and linens of the San Francisco’s elite. George and his parents lived in a two bedroom apartment above the laundry. Margaret’s parents, Lao Lao, and my grandfather, who died when I was a child, owned and operated a neighborhood market on the same block and also lived above the market. Margaret and George were prodigal children working within their parents businesses after school and weekends while studying profusely. Both of my parents graduated from high school and attended Berkeley where they were standout undergraduates. George went on to graduate from Stanford Medical School and became a renowned pathologist and clinical professor of Pathology. Margaret graduated from Berkeley’s prestigious law school, Boalt Hall, where she was on law review. She joined high powered patent law firm representing Silicon Valley’s most famous tech giants. My parents married after completing their graduate studies and I was born two years later. Lao Lao moved in to take care of me after her chain smoking husband died from lung cancer and she sold the laundry. George’s parents were deceased. My parents were caught up in the grind of daily life of American professionals and abandoned their cultural identity, unable to pass on Chinese traditions to me, leaving it to Lao Lao. They felt guilty for being too busy to be hands-on parents and showered me with gifts and money to assuage their guilt.
Growing up, I was embarrassed by Lao Lao’s thick Chinese accent and difficulty speaking English. Lao Lao was an excellent cook but I was reluctant to invite my friends over to visit because of the strong aromas filling our home. My friends teased me for smelling like “garlic” and always rejected Lao Lao’s gracious invitations to join our family for dinner. I grew distant from Lao Lao. My parents were aware of it as was Lao Lao but they remained silent attributing it to “growing pains”. Lao Lao always attempted to engage me in conversation but I sat silently staring at the television, my cell phone, or lap top. I felt like an American kid and wasn’t uninterested in Lao Lao’s stories of growing up in China and immigrating to the US from Shanghai as a young newlywed. Lao Lao cultivated a small group of friends who played mahjong once a week. She was always talking about her beautiful and brilliant granddaughter with her friends who were always eager to see me. They were old and very Chinese. I didn’t want to spend time with them. She attempted to instill in me our rich heritage and teaching me to speak Chinese. I didn’t understand the language and the traditions were strange and unfamiliar to me so I gravitated away from my heritage, choosing to “fit in” with my Caucasian friends.
The ferry arrived at Angel Island and I got off the boat following the signs to the “Immigration Station”. I enjoyed a panoramic view of San Francisco and the East Bay. In the distance, I saw Sather Tower on the Berkeley campus which made me depressed. I began the scenic walk up towards the immigration station buildings. Between 1910 and 1940, approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants passed through Angel Island under the “Chinese Exclusion Act”. It resembled a detention and deportation center as opposed to an immigrant processing center. The barracks was a prison-like atmosphere where the Chinese immigrants were detained for weeks, months or years. Daily life was humiliating and demoralizing. The immigrants lived in crowed barracks of about 1,000 square feet with one hundred immigrants sleeping in bunk beds placed three high in columns
Inside the barracks, I received a text from Teddy. I was eager to hear from him, hoping we would be meeting soon, and I could seek solace from him. His text message read,
“Thank you, Amy. I couldn’t have done it without you! You’ll always be my panda cub. Let’s stay in touch.”
It was a cruel blow to my heart after a terrible day. I felt rejected, stereotyped, and reduced to a cartoon caricature. I learned Teddy was admitted to Boalt Hall despite having inferior grades and test scores to mine. My parents weren’t surprised and told me Teddy was“legacy” admittance; a privilege of having a father and grandfather who attended Boalt. I looked out the window and saw Asian people of all nationalities sitting underneath the flag pole enjoying the beautiful day with the American fly proudly blowing in the Bay breeze. I wondered what their immigrant experiences might be. I was a privileged child of Chinese parents who were professionals and pondered the experiences of these immigrants from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. I was disappointed by the cultural insensitivity of Teddy and his parents who were educated people still harboring stereotypes. I found a concealed place within the barracks, buried my head, and cried myself to sleep. I awoke to hear the Park Ranger shout, “Locking up. Last call for the ferry!” Before I could gather my belongings, rise, and head for the exit, the door slammed shut and was locked. Fearing I broke the law, I refrained from calling for help. I would stay the night until the doors were opened in the morning.
I was frightened being in the dark, cold, barracks overnight. I heard creeks and imagined the barking of the guards frustrated with not understanding the language of the inmates. I imagined the weeping and hustle bustle of the barracks. I walked throughout the barracks and came upon poems written in Mandarin which were carved into the wooden walls by the detainees. I ran my hand across the intricate carvings of Chinese calligraphy. I was nicknamed, “Always ready Amy” by my sorority sisters because I was always prepared. I kept a cell phone charger in my purse which enabled me to use the phone’s flashlight and browsing features throughout the night. I was able to find the translations to the poems which spoke to the feelings of the detainees,
There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my daily needs
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early.
This is a message to those who live here not
to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast your idle worries to
the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.
I garnered strength from the words of the detainees and was indignant at their treatment. Their optimism in the face of their brutal conditions made my disappointments seem shallow in comparison. I began to formulate a plan for my future when the doors opened in the morning and I could return home. I spent the remainder of the long night reviewing photos and videos of my family stored on my phone. Virtually every photo and video showcased Lao Lao beaming with pride and happiness for being with her beloved family. I began to ponder the journey of Lao Lao from China to the United States and wondered about the trials and tribulations she faced along the way. It couldn’t have been easy leaving China for San Francisco as a young wife. I was resolved to make amends with Lao Lao and soak up as much of my culture as she could teach me.
I was awakened in the morning by the sounds of the Park Ranger opening the doors and turning on the lights. I immediately dialed my parents both of whom were readying themselves for work and didn’t answer their cell phones. I was cold, hungry, and homesick. I phoned the land line to home and Lao Lao answered. I cried, “Grandma, please come get me. I spent the night on Angels Island!” Lao Lao didn’t ask questions. Without missing a beat, she said, “Don’t worry my dear granddaughter. I’ll be on the next ferry to pick you up.”
As the ferry arrived, Lao Lao was at the front of the boat with my down jacket and holding a familiar childhood thermos I knew was filled with my favorite hot cocoa. She also held a bag of Chinese pastries from the bakery we frequented when I was a child. I ran to greet Lao Lao who was helped off the boat by the Captain. For the first time in years, we hugged. No words were spoken. Love and appreciation were communicated between the two hearts generations apart. Lao Lao and I sat closely together, covered by a blanket, as the Ferry left the pier and headed towards San Francisco. A flock of sea birds flew over the ferry boat, and Lao Lao said, “Look my dear granddaughter; it’s the Angels flying over to say good bye and thank you for visiting.” I thought to myself that perhaps the sea birds were the souls of the immigrants I had spent the night with. As the ferry boat moved further from the island, I looked towards the Golden Gate Bridge knowing I no longer wanted to straddle two cultures. I would embrace my Chinese ancestry with the help of Lao Lao.
I began spending more time with Lao Lao who taught me our family history, Chinese culture, and Mandarin. I was resolved to use my time wisely and not let my academic disappointments frustrate my new found purpose. I gained strength and determination from the immigrants I met on Angel Island. I found a position as an intern at the “Asian Pacific Islander Law Center” where I quickly rose through the ranks into a paid position after devising a student outreach program for Asian students without a connection to their culture. I wanted to preserve and protect them from assimilation. I enlisted Lao Lao and her friends to be guest speakers which gave them a new found purpose and pleasure in sharing their experiences. I was a fervent fund raiser soliciting prominent Bay Area companies including Silicon Valley behemoths. I completed an evening law school program at Golden Gate University Law School and was the Editor of the Law Review. I rose to become Director of the Law Center and mingled with politicians and the City’s elite. At a fundraiser, I was tapped on the shoulder and the voice was familiar. It was Teddy who had less hair, more of a waistline, and wasn’t sporting a wedding band. Teddy asked, “Hi, Amy. I thought you were a partner by now at a big shot law firm. Where did you end up going to law school? It’s nice to see you again my little Panda.” He leaned into kiss me but I pulled away sarcastically remarking, “Let’s stay in touch”. The uncomfortable meeting was interrupted by the Mayor of San Francisco saying, “Come with me Amy. I want to introduce you to your United States Senator.” Teddy headed for the bar, alone.
I’m grateful to the proud souls who shared the evening with me on Angels Island. Our Law Center arranges tours for young people throughout the year so the immigrants are never forgotten. I’m certain they would be proud to know their suffering was not in vain but a valuable teaching opportunity. Although I can’t retrieve the many years I ignored Lao Lao, I’m grateful for reuniting with her. Before she passed, we shared several happy years’ together learning from each other. What appeared to be a life changing setback for me as a young college graduate was actually an invitation to learn my heritage and discover my life’s purpose. Every year on the anniversary of Lao Lao’s death, I visit her grave, place my arms around the tombstone, and say in Mandarin,
Wǒ ài nǐ de zǔmǔ
(I love you grandmother)