The official site of author Ed Lin.

My Life in “Community” Service, part 3

Posted by on Jan 20, 2010 in Asian American, Ed, Journalism | 6 comments

Me in 1991.  The other Ed took my picture against a Mr. Softee truck to soften my image.

When I was finished with college in 1991 and had finally secured my mining-engineering degree, I went about doing what I really wanted to finish – my literature-writing degree.

It wasn’t so much that I wanted the degree itself.  I was reading and writing a lot on my own.  But I needed that degree because I wanted to go to journalism school.  An engineering degree alone wasn’t going to cut it for admission.

I also needed an appropriate internship.

Back then, several fledging Asian American publications were floating around New York City and while nearly all of them would gladly take submissions, there were basically no staff positions.  Late that summer, I wrote to a newspaper that I’ll call Super Asian News and asked if I could intern there.  It was based just outside of Koreatown, which at that time was only one block on 32nd Street between Fifth and Sixth.

This woman I’ll call Jane Lee called me a few days later and asked if I wanted to come in for an interview.  The office of Super Asian News was at the top of a straight walkup – one could look directly up at the four flights of stairs that reminded one of my friends of the end of “The Exorcist.”

Jane Lee regarded me with a small smile as I trudged up the stairs.  When I got closer I saw that she was in her late 40s.  I don’t remember what we talked about but the next day, and many days after, I would ascend those very steps to the humble offices of Super Asian News.

I was being paid a certain amount of money, but nothing to write home about, mainly because it would barely cover the postage.

The office was about 20 feet by 20 feet – big enough for several desks, a phone and some file cabinets.  But there were no computers or printers.  Where was the rest of the staff?  Well, it was just Jane and me.

Jane had planned a nearly complete outsourced business model.  All the writers were freelancers, as were the designers and production side.  Considering the state of journalism today, one could say that that was rather forward-thinking.  Super Asian News was a 16-page monthly, and Jane had planned to handle all the advertising and marketing herself.  Apart from being a freelancing line editor, I was going to handle the editing.

My first project was taking a monstrous, book-length manuscript written by a friend of Jane’s and cutting it down to sections short enough to run in serialized form.  Although the manuscript was a memoir of the Korean War, it was contrarian in that it was boring and academic.

In fact, most of the stories in the issue I started with (I think it was the fourth or fifth issue of Super Asian News) were from professors of Asian descent from New York colleges. We were also set to publish two or three “I can’t believe that racism still exists!” essays from young writers still in college or just out.  And almost everything we were about to publish was just terrible.

Let’s put things in context, though.  At this time there were two nationally distributed Asian American magazines, both glossy.  One always ran cheesecake on the cover and praised Asian business owners in its editorial content.  The other magazine not surprisingly had “The Sex Issue” every third issue and included dumbed-down content (I recall a personal essay in which Asian women were praised as being perfect Southern belles by virtue of their small waists.)

My big problem with the magazines was that upfront, on the editor’s page, there was talk of fighting stereotypes.  But out the back door, their pitches to potential advertisers totally played up the model minority crap – Asians are well-educated and have more disposable income than any other group, including whites!  Perhaps most disgracefully, both magazines ran ads for eyelid surgery.

So Super Asian News wasn’t that bad a place to be.  Sure, the content sucked, but at least we presented the same face to our readers and advertisers.

Oops, what advertisers?

Although the one issue I saw before I joined was full of ads, none of them were paid ads.  Jane merely took the ads from the Daily News or The New York Times and reprinted them to give us more prestige.

We outsourced the layout and production to this woman who would do it in her apartment.  Jane didn’t trust her to do it on her own, so she sat next to the production person at the computer for the several hours over several days that it took to lay out.  Why did I have to be there, too?  I guess Jane didn’t trust me alone in the office.  For one thing, someone was using Super Asian News’ phone to place long-distance calls.

Super Asian News didn’t pay for its office space.  It was donated by some guy who had planned to live in the space, but couldn’t get the building rezoned for residential use.  This guy would still sneak on the weekends and take showers there.  Jane suspected that he was using her phone, so she would unplug it and lock it in a file cabinet when we left for the night.

Enter the Other Ed

The September issue came back from the printer the first week of that month. One of Jane’s friends had a van and we drove around Manhattan and Queens, dropping off bundles of newspapers at the student centers of colleges.  We also gave them away to newsstand owners to sell.

The next week, Jane took her phone out of the file cabinet, plugged it in and waited for it to ring. Surely, college students, professors and newsstands would be clamoring for Super Asian News.

Unfortunately, the calls were few and even those were along the lines of, “Can we get a discount for our college?”  The subscription was only $20 a year, or 12 issues, but then again, 1991 was a tough year!  The economy was in the tank, layoffs were pervasive and many who had graduated with me headed to grad school to avoid the fruitless task of trying to find a job.

One caller was another guy named Ed.  He was a few years older than me, and was anxious to come work for Super Asian News.  Jane hired him to be my boss.  I was a little annoyed at first because here was this dude just walking in and now I had to take orders from him.  But I grew to really like Ed a lot and enjoy working with him.  In fact, because it was he and I doing everything, he was a co-worker and not a boss.

He really knocked my socks off by telling me he had written two novels.  After college, he got a night job behind the desk of a hotel in Atlantic City and spent the days writing.  Ed said that nearly every night he saw the same scene at work: somebody on the lobby payphone making a collect call, sobbing, “I lost it all. . .”

One of Ed’s novels was influenced by things that happened at the hotel.  The other was something he’d been cradling since college and had been written on a typewriter.  I freaked out when he told me that.  I insisted that he back it up by typing it into a computer, but he said it would lose flavor by being in electronic form.  “Advancing the roll is a labor of love,” he said.

He invited me over to his apartment to check out his books.  Ed lived in an apartment on Avenue D, and this was back when it was still called Alphabet City.  It wasn’t as rough a neighborhood as it used to be, but there were still signs of the violent past.  His building entrance had a bullet hole through the glass window.

Ed’s apartment was small but bigger than mine.  I sat on his couch and he got a Coke for me.  I set the can on the floor and picked up his typewritten manuscript.

“Ed,” he told me.  “Don’t put your soda on the floor.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Last time I did that, I took a sip and then I had something chewy in my mouth.  I spit it out in my hand and I saw it was a cockroach.”

“That’s fucking disgusting, Ed.”

“Yeah, you know I just put it back in my mouth and ate it.”

“Are you nuts?”

“I figured I already ate half of it already, so it didn’t really matter.”

I picked up my soda and cradled it.  I knew I had to protect it.  I also knew that Ed wasn’t as stable as I thought.  He told me that he was so fed up with the country under George H.W. Bush that he had quit his job in Atlantic City and was going to Paris to write.  But a week before his flight, he had gotten in a bad car accident and was in a near-coma for several days.

That was a few years ago and things still hadn’t come back together.  Ed was also planning to apply to journalism school after the Super Asian News stint.  Now I was mildly annoyed.  If we applied to the same schools – including my top choice, Columbia – they might take my “boss” instead of me!

How could I read his manuscript now?

When I left I picked up a few almanacs to read through.  The Columbia current events and writing test was coming up in December and I’d be damned if he was going to do better than me.

Nothing but Worries

I was more worried than I had been in a long time.  I have never been one to struggle with self-doubt.  Yet at the time I was terrified that Coma Ed was going to do in my plans for journalism school.

I still had three more classes to finish my literature-writing B.A., but I knew that that wasn’t going to lead to a job.  I needed that journalism degree so I could do that reporter-by-day-novelist-by-night sort of thing.

(One of my writing teachers at Columbia shook his head sadly when I told him of my plans of mixing journalism and creative writing.  “You’re trying to get on board that old American hang-up,” he said.  Years later he declined to blurb my first novel Waylaid – in fact, he declined to even read it.)

But now my plans and ability to execute on them were in jeopardy.  Let’s say you’re the admissions officer of a graduate journalism program.  You have two applications from two Asian American applicants.  They both work at the same newspaper.  Hell, they’re both named, “Ed.”  Who are you going to take?  The “Editor” or “Assistant Editor”?

I’m pretty good at overthinking any situation and freaking myself out.  I bought three different almanacs of the last year to bone up on the current events and essay-writing test Columbia Journalism was administering in December.  I kept one on my bed, one in my bag and one. . .oh, no, where the hell did it go?  Damn, now I was down to two!

It was now October.  I worried every moment I was awake.  I wrote short stories with much unease (one was published in the first issue of the Asian Pacific American Journal put out by the one-year old organization, Asian American Writers Workshop). I watched TV with one of the Almanacs in my lap, reading during commercials and unable to find anything I saw funny.

During my fortnightly calls to beg for more money from my parents, they were bugging me to come home and work at the family business.

Journalism?  What’s journalism?  It’s not medicine.  It’s not law.  Why do you want to do it?  What kind of career are you going to have?  You want to write books?  Become a doctor first and then you can write books at night!

Despite my parents’ growing impatience as I progressed to complete vagrancy, I still managed to hold my parents to the terms of a deal.  If I got into Columbia Journalism School, they’d help pay for it.  If I didn’t, I’d come back and work at the family business for XX years.

I ended calls with the customary recitation of the deal, and my father would close by growling, “You’d better not get in!”

Pow!

What was that?  The sound of one or both of my almanacs sliding off of my chest and onto the hardwood floor of my crappy little studio. I’d fallen asleep again on the couch that I bought for five dollars from a homeless man in the street.  After I had paid him for the couch and dragged it several blocks, another man chased me down to tell me that I had paid the wrong guy.  But I pulled out my empty pockets to show him I didn’t have any more money – not even a wallet.  He shook his head as he walked away.  I heard change jingling in his pockets.  He had more than me.

It was a crappy couch, but it worked.  You could actually sit on it.  Or fall asleep on it after reading almanacs on it from beginning to end, trying to cram the equivalent of Wikipedia in my head.  Shit, are there going to be questions about the turmoil in the USSR?  Now I’d have to read the newspaper every day, too!  The things a journalist has to do. . .

The Minuses of Ad Sales

By the middle of October, Ed and I had expanded our repertoire to selling ads for Super Asian News.  Door to door.

Jane had informed us one day that she had run out of money.  The October issue was saved on a series of floppy disks, but she didn’t have enough to actually print them.  Because our office was on the border of Koreatown, Jane sent Ed and I to solicit the local businesses to take out business-card-sized ads at $10 each.  That seemed cheap enough.  All we needed was 100 of these mom-and-pop businesses to buy in and we could send this thing off to the printer.

Two major holes in the plot: Neither Ed nor I could speak Korean, and nobody wanted to advertise in an English-language publication, even if it was called “Super Asian News.”

Jane herself could have come with us, but she refused.  She had to wait by the phone.  There were a number of potential investors who could swoop in at any second.

When I think back to the week or so that Ed and I walked around Koreatown methodically (and yet, aimlessly, as we couldn’t read signs or communicate with people), it all comes back as a silent, black-and-white film in my mind’s eye.  I see two sad clowns walking up and down the endless stairwells of Koreatown.  I see looks of puzzlement and annoyance from businessmen and businesswomen who are having a hard enough time during the recession.

There aren’t any stunts from Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd to leaven the misery.  There’s no bum who shows up with the fortune he’d squirreled away to save Super Asian News.

By Thursday Ed and I agreed to split up to cover more ground.  He went to cover the western half of Koreatown and I went to Electronic Boutique in the Manhattan Mall to check out the Sega Genesis games I couldn’t afford.

We met up at a bulletproof-glass Chinese place for pitiful pork-fried rice ($3) and compared notes.

“What did you do, Ed?” he asked me.

“I didn’t do shit,” I said, popping open a can of White Rock cola (50 cents).  “What did you do?”

“I went to that really nice Chinese restaurant by Penn Station.  The one with chandeliers and tablecloths.  I went in after the lunch rush and managed to corner the owner.  I showed him Super Asian News and he sat down with me at a table.  He pointed to the rugs on the floor and the rugs on the walls.  ‘Look at this place,’ he said. ‘Do you really think I would advertise in a newspaper like this?'”

“Oh, man, that’s fucking cold!”

“I just realized right there and then how shameless a salesman has to be in order to get the job done.  And I knew that I was a man who felt shame.”

We didn’t say much else.  As we ate, I kept my head down, watching grease drip from the corners of our fried-rice boxes onto the cut-up cardboard on the floor.

Ed didn’t come into work Friday.  Jane sighed heavily as the hours went on.  I was busy editing articles for November’s issue so that when the money finally came through, we’d have two issues ready to run on the presses.

Ed hadn’t called in, but Jane also refused to call him.  It was a standoff: Exploited and young Asian American idealist versus Asian (not American) businesswoman wannabe.

“This is not how you quit,” she told me several times.  “Not this way.”

Later, she told me that the Moonies had offered her money to keep Super Asian News afloat, but Jane had refused on principle.

I wondered how the Moonies even got in touch with her.

I wondered if there were in fact Moonies who had gotten in touch.

I wondered how long Jane could sit like that staring off into nothing.

I wondered how much longer I could stay at Super Asian News.

Testing Time

I took the Columbia Journalism School test on a cold morning in a room with 50 other people.  We all sat at computer monitors bathed in a sickly green glow.  I craned my neck before the test started to look for Ed, but I didn’t see him.

I typed in answers even though it didn’t seem like I was sure of anything.  The essays I was writing didn’t make sense when I reread them.

I felt numb when I was done.  I had no idea how I did.

I walked down Broadway and stopped at Mama Joy’s for a pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk.  I started eating it in the street before I got back to my apartment.

I was terrified that I was going to be heading to my parents’ house in rural Pennsylvania.  Well, if that was going to happen, then I wasn’t going to bother reapplying to journalism school.  I had only applied to Columbia in the end because, hell, it was in the middle of the media center of the world and had connections to every news organization.

Now, as I crunched chunks of black and white chocolate, I collected my thoughts.  My mother was right.  I always could write at night.  In fact, I could probably start putting short stories together and then start submitting them to all these journals.  In a year, I could even have an agent and a book deal.

I continued to eat ice cream as I entered my building and opened my apartment door.  When I was done with the pint, I took a shower and went to sleep.

Jane seemed a little bit happy when I told her I didn’t think I did so great.

“You could always keep working for me,” she said.  That was funny because she said that starting in January, she couldn’t even pay my pitiful salary anymore.

The fact that Ed was gone hadn’t made the finances any easier.  Despite his higher title, she hadn’t been paying him anything.

After a wonderful holiday with my parents, I called Ed to see how he did on the test.  He probably kicked ass.  He was much more well-read than me and probably had magical essay-writing powers gleaned from the typewriter method of writing.

“I didn’t bother take the test,” said Ed.  “I just said, ‘Fuck it.'”

“Why, man?  You already paid for the application.”

“I just thought about it and I don’t want to go back to school.  If you really want to be a journalist, you should just start freelancing and build up some clips.  Most journalists want to eventually become freelancers, anyway.”

“Maybe you’re right.  By the way, Jane was pretty upset about you quitting.”

“I didn’t quit.  I just never came back.  What’s the point to it?  Super Asian News is done.”

“But all we need is some money and we can print the October issue.  We can even change it to October slash November.”

“Listen, Ed. Get out of there!”

“I’m not giving up on this.  The community needs something that isn’t that stupid Sex Issues Only Magazine.”

“Don’t be stupid!  It’s not a movement you’re taking part in!  It’s a business, and you’re working for an owner!  And it’s a badly run business, too!”

“But we might get some money from the Moonies.”

“You’re on a trip to the Moonie!”

I kept going in, but Ed had gotten to me.  I was trying to imagine how I would spend my days if I weren’t at Super Asian News.  I wasn’t sure quite how I was going to quit, though.

One day, Jane asked me to go to RadioShack to get something, I think it was a phone part, and she gave me a five dollar bill for it.  But then the thing cost two dollars more and I had to use my own money for the difference.  That really pissed me off.  Not only was I donating my work to Jane and Super Asian News – I was paying to work there.

I got back to the office and showed her the receipt.  She got all huffy herself and threw me two dollars.  I don’t think we talked the rest of the day.

I spent that night thinking of what I should do.  In the end I wrote, by hand, a note: “I can’t work here anymore for you.”  I mailed it, along with a bunch of floppy disks of the early December issue.

I started going to meetings of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, this fledging little group that met up at the battered folding tables in the Asian American Arts Alliance on Lafayette Street. I got Ed to join me there, too, and pretty soon we were both cranking out short stories.

It was an early start to that collection of short stories.  You know, for when I got rejected by Columbia Journalism School and had to head home.

Applicants were supposed to hear back from Columbia in late February or March.  I held my breath every day before checking my mail.

There was usually nothing.

Incredibly, I was already receiving solicitation letters from Columbia (the undergraduate school), even though graduation was less than a year ago.

When it hit April, I was pretty frantic.  I was too scared to call the admissions office, afraid that when they realized that no one had rendered a decision on me, the immediate reaction would be to reject.

In late April, I opened my mailbox and saw a fat manila envelope curled against the back wall.

I exhaled slowly and reached out for it.

I grabbed one edge and pulled it back to read the return address.

It read, “The Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University.”

I did it.

6 Comments

Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Superha

    You’ve come a long way, Ed-y!

  2. taiyeezy

    wow, you were so skinny!

    i’ve read this before, but it was nice reading it again. history!

  3. hannah

    And what happened to the other Ed? Are his stories out that we can read?

  4. grace

    miss that mad hair, Ed!

  5. dav

    Journalism + Creative Writing = GOLD. Late to the party but glad I made it!

  6. Wanda

    So, so proud of you. Didn’t know about how you got into Journalism at Columbia University. Now I know. I always thought you were a very confident young man with strong self-esteem. Guess all of us have self doubts…. Look what you have already accomplished! Your parents should be very proud of you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *