The official site of author Ed Lin.

My Life in “Community” Service, part 2

Posted by on Oct 14, 2007 in Asian American, Ed | 1 comment

It’s the summer of 2002. Waylaid has been out for a few months. It’s getting some pretty good reviews and I’m receiving some weird emails from people who have somehow found me.

My old Web site,, has already gone belly-up but thankfully our parent company has survived and very graciously has chunked in several months of severance in our last paychecks.

I’m trying to finish up what eventually became This Is a Bust. It’s not going so well. I’m not good at writing during the daytime. In fact, I’m like Sonny Rollins. I get hot around 3 a.m. or so. In the morning my wife goes off to work, I make a pot of coffee and shop eBay all day. I’m finding some amazing stuff and the classic Macs and Atari cartridges are piling up in the house.

My old pal Jake drops in to tell me that the grant writer at his non-profit organization has just quit.

“You’re a writer — can’t you write grants?” he asks me. Jake’s the number-two guy at the organization, which provides after-school services (nice vague description, Jake!) to kids in Chinatown.

I cross my arms, put my feet on the coffee table and pause “Spartacus” on the DVD player. I’d be giving up a lot to start working. Apart from unstructured days in which showering and dressing are optional, I’d also have to cut off the $405 (pre-tax) that comes rolling in every week from unemployment.

But what the hell. It would be my first paying job in Chinatown and it was literally around the corner from our apartment. I wouldn’t even have to cross a street to get there.

I go in for an interview with the director (whom I’ll call Pop) of the organization (which I’ll call SIS). I’m a little surprised that the man is Italian American and even more surprised that I can barely understand him. He sounds like a smoker who’s had his voice box cut out, but in fact his neck doesn’t bear the tell-tale hole from such an operation. I can’t help but stare at his throat as he croaks on in administrative-speak about helping the kids.

“What should I pay you?” Pop grunts.
“The going rate,” I say.
“Naw, that’s not enough. I’ll give you $15 an hour.”
“All right.”
“You know I was born in this area. Before it was Chinatown, a lot of Italians lived here. Then you guys took over.”
“Well, you guys stole pasta from us.”
He smiles, but it’s a sore point. He doesn’t like the idea that pasta came from Chinese people. He probably doesn’t even like Chinese people.

Turns out that these “after-school services” include letting the kids play table tennis in the basement of SIS’s tenement building or goof off on the Internet on the computers on the upper floors. What are they doing up there? I’m not sure because when the kids hear me walking up the rickety stairwell, there’s a buzz of activity and they’re quietly doing something else by the time I hit the room.

My first day at SIS, I came into the office around 10 and found only one other person there, the accountant, of whom Pop had already told me was “on the verge.” Jake wasn’t in yet and neither was Pop. I said hello to the accountant but she barely acknowledged me. The brief glimpse of irrational hate in her eyes made me wish there was a metal detector at the door.

I got on the PC set up for grants and poked around. Pop had mentioned that a prominent grants organization had already expressed interest in visiting SIS to see how badly the tenement needed repair. It was in pretty bad shape. Bad enough so that I had to keep both feet on the floor, otherwise, my swivel chair would roll to the other side of the room on the tilted floor.

They had sent letter after letter to the grants organization, but apart from the initial feedback, SIS hadn’t received a reply.

I picked up the phone and called. I got to the secretary of one of the top executives at the grants organization. She even scheduled a time for the man to visit that week. Yeah, sure, he’ll show up, I thought.

Around 11 Jake came in.

“What time does Pop come in?” I asked. He laughed.
“You mean what day,” said Jake.
It turned out that Pop, the executive director of SIS, only came in two or three days a week, at most.

Later, at lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant, I asked Jake who takes care of business when Pop was out.
“Nobody,” he said.
“I have enough things to take care of, I have to deal with the whole bureaucracies of the schools.”
“Pop told me the accountant was ‘on the verge.’ I thought that meant she was incompetent and about to be fired, but apparently, it means she’s ready to crack!”
“It could mean both. A lot of people at SIS are ‘on the verge.'”

I met the other people who worked at SIS eventually, including a Catholic nun, a frazzled young woman from Taiwan who seemed to be out of her depth, and a hard-boiled counselor who dealt with at-risk youth.

Pop finally came in on my third day, the day the grants guy was supposed to show up. I told Pop, and also told him that I wasn’t sure if he really was. His eyes lit up like Christmas that there was a chance the guy was coming in.

Shockingly, the guy showed up. He was a dignified man in his early 50s and looked amazed at the state of disrepair the building was in, just from where he stood. I stepped into Pop’s office and introduced the two. I was about to leave when Pop asked me to take the man on a tour of the building.

“It’s my first week here, I don’t really know the place well,” I said to both men, apologizing.
“Please, just take this gentleman around the building,” croaked Pop, his eyes bugging out.
I didn’t know it then, but Pop had problems going up and down stairs. Jake wasn’t around that day, for some reason, otherwise I would have begged him to do it.

So I took the grants guy first — at his request — to the backyard, an area I had never been to. For some reason, some old PCs were sitting on the ground among the weeds. There was an entrance to the building’s crawlspace that the guy ducked into. There could have been a body in there and I wouldn’t know. He came out nodding.

“The foundation has seen better days,” he said.
“That’s one reason why we need this money so badly,” I said. We were asking for about $2 million to renovate the building. I was hoping he wouldn’t ask me anything deep about SIS, because I simply didn’t know.

I took him upstairs to the computer room and even stopped by the nun’s office, hoping that they’d get in a long, involved conversation that I could slip away from. Unfortunately, they had nothing to say to each other.

I took the grants guy into Pop’s office and sat back at my desk. I trolled the Internet for grants. It’s mostly a useless exercise. I’ve received no training and Pop has never given me a comprehensive history of SIS. He doesn’t even have copies of the grants my predecessor had sent out.

Nearly every grant application asks for a detailed history of the applicant, including breakdowns of past budgets. I’ve asked Pop several times, and he either demurs or claims that I haven’t looked through the files enough.

My file drawers are crammed with irrelevant documents, including books of pictures of past parties at SIS. Pop sure used to smile a lot. Even the kids are smiling. Now they just shuffle somberly past the office doorway before running up the stairs to the computer room.

Without the relevant information, it has become useless for me to even fill out grants. Three weeks in and I had fallen into this routine of coming in late, going to lunch as soon as possible with Jake, and then looking at pictures of old SIS parties.

Speaking of which, I actually did set up a fundraising dinner party for SIS. I trudged around all of Chinatown to all the other organizations that we apparently had a past relationship with and got them to buy tables for the dinner. As I went from non-profit to non-profit, I felt like I was getting a glimpse at the dirty heart of the less-credible world of community service.

A lot of these organizations had similar-looking boards of directors and were aligned according to allegiances with different members of the city council. They also used that old trick of Shoe’s — Pop apparently had a job at another non-profit, one reason why he wasn’t in every day.

I also gave brief interviews devoid of any real information to Chinese-language newspapers, in one sense being a Robert Chow-type, but in text.

When September rolled around, a number of colleges around the country contacted me to do readings for their Asian American group or multicultural literature class. (Some of these would go a little rough, but hell, maybe one should read the author’s books before inviting him.) I started taking time off from SIS to travel.

That was the beginning of the rot between Pop and I. With me not there every day, phone calls would go unanswered and the buffer zone between Pop and the accountant was now gone.

One day, I was trying to put together another hopeless grant application and as usual, Pop wasn’t helping me at all. I left the application on his desk. It was due in a week and I wouldn’t be there.

When I came back after a few days off, he tried to chew me out for not getting the grant done and blowing the deadline.

“I sense a lack of urgency about you!” he croaked.
“I’m just imitating you from a week ago, when I tried to get these numbers from you!”
“You show no initiative whatsoever!”
“Oh yeah? I quit!”
I went to my desk to get my jacket.
Pop popped out from the back.
“Hey, I was too hard on you,” he started. His rasp never sounded so mournful.
“This is a job for someone else,” I said.
I waited until I got home to call Jake and tell him the news.

One Comment

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  1. Allen

    This was the first thing I read by you and I love it – left me breathless at the end. I’m glad I found out about you. Gonna go buy your books now and read more of your blog later.

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