The official site of author Ed Lin.

My Life in “Community” Service, part 1

Posted by on Aug 22, 2007 in Asian American, Ed | 5 comments

I haven’t written a blog entry in a while, partially because I’ve been sorta tied up and also partially because I’m so tickled by the “To Hell With Williamsport, Pennsylvania!” headline on the last entry! That should be up at the top for, like forever!

Anyway, I’ve been thinking back to my first job in “the community,” working for a not-for-profit Asian American organization that I’ll call AC.

It was the summer of 1990, and I met the head of AC, a woman I’ll call Shoe, at ECAASU, which stands for East Coast Asian American Students Union. It’s an annual intercollegiate meeting with workshops, panel discussions and parties galore.

In any case, Shoe was looking for a summer office worker in New York City and I was totally psyched to be working for “the community” after working for “the man.” Of course, at that time, working for “the man” meant my work-study job in the maintenance office at 118 Hartley Hall, working the wet-vac half-asleep at some dorm room’s overflowed toilet.

Shoe was a middle-aged Chinese woman with a big mouth, big teeth and zero tact. She offered me the job on the spot after a clumsy interview that included her musings about how Chinese people view sex as a soup that shouldn’t be cooked until after marriage.

After ECASU was over, I boarded one of the buses that went back to New York. I ran into this guy I had met earlier and told him that I’d be working at AC with Shoe.

“Oh. . .” he said slowly. “I shouldn’t say anything. I don’t want to say something bad.”

I’m the kind of person who sees negative signs and keeps barreling forward. I want to see how bad things could possibly be, convinced that the situation is not that terrible or that everything is fixable.

On the first day of that job, sometime in June, I found myself standing on the roof of Teachers College on 120th Street. I didn’t know the elevator went to the roof or that the university rented out space to offices that were accessible only on the roof. There was a young girl there, I’d say about 16 or 17, who had the keys to the AC office.

The lock always gave her trouble and she had to fiddle with the keys for a few minutes before the door would finally open. Maybe having the cylinder lock exposed to the elements had something to do with it. In a few days, I’d start praying that the door would never open, but it always did.

The young girl said that Shoe was her aunt, which probably just meant a family friend and close enough to get the keys. Shoe never gave me a copy of the keys the entire summer.

The young girl’s job was to unlock the door and study. Also, I guess she was supposed to keep an eye on me, in case I tried to wheel the computers out the door.

The office was fairly big, about 1,000 square feet, but a lot of it was crammed with boxes and legal files. Several desks sat along the walls, but only two of them were inhabitable. The girl’s had a lamp. Mine had a computer and a phone.

I had thought that I’d be sitting with Shoe, doing important “community” stuff. Instead, my job was stuffing envelopes with propaganda about the need for funding Asian-American community groups and sending them to members of city council. Shoe rarely came into the office. She had a full-time job elsewhere.

One time I had to write a cover letter for a report on anti-Asian violence in the city’s schools.

Shoe had called me from her job to read her the cover letter I was writing. I had originally asked her to write and fax me a letter that I could type up, but she didn’t or wouldn’t.

So I started, “Dear Councilman. . .”

“What! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! You start it with ‘Dear’! Are you some kind of idiot?”

Then she slammed her phone down.

I tried calling her back at work, but she wouldn’t pick up. I couldn’t do anything else without that letter, so I started going through file boxes, making the high-school girl think I was working. I came upon a cache of large (five-inch diameter) almond cookies sealed in plastic.

“Can I eat these cookies?” I asked the girl.

“They’re left over from the Chinese New Year banquet. They’re not going to use them again.”

Cookies can last a few months, can’t they? They tasted stale but they weren’t horrible. I sat down in a chair in the sunlight and ate a cookie while I waited for Shoe to call again.

As the summer went on, I realized that Shoe could work herself into a frenzy with no apparent catalyst. Once she started, it was off to the races. Then her phone would slam down and I would reach for an almond cookie and wait. I ate a lot of cookies that summer.

It would take her about half an hour to collect herself and finally call back. Maybe the realization that she was paying me by the hour ($8, I think — not too bad for 1990) brought her back to her senses. I would read her the cover letter/fax/report that I was working on — the same exact words — and she would never fail to tell me that what I had was fine.

Maybe she only called me when she wanted someone to yell at.

One day, I came into work to find the office door already open. Who was in but Shoe and she had brought her son in, also. He was about four or five and very excited about talking.

Shoe told me to take her son out on my lunch break. It convinced me that one had to be extremely patient to be a good parent, a value that I didn’t have in college.

That goddamned kid never shut the fuck up. He read everything out loud — labels, signs, expressions on passersby — with no apparent need for acknowledgement. But just when I would tune him out, he’d suddenly barge in with a question and repeat it louder and louder (“What time is it? What time is it! What time is it!!!”) until I heard him and said something in response.

Then he would go back into his extroverted autistic state and babble on and on. I brought the kid back into the office and handed him over to his mother. She pointed to some things around my desk and then left with her son. I went over and had a cookie.

I think my breaking point was when she told me to hand-deliver an envelope to some place in Alphabet City. It was a major pain in the ass to get there, transferring trains three times from the upper west side of Manhattan diagonally to the lower east side. Getting there and back took about three hours.

When I came back there was Shoe sitting in the office, complaining about the amount of time it took for me to get there and back.

“It would have been cheaper if I had just hired a courier!”

It was time for me to leave for the day, but Shoe handed me a stack of envelopes she wanted me to bring to the post office.

They ended up in the trash instead. I don’t take shit from anybody on a hot, humid day.

My last day there, Shoe came in and begged me to stay and work through the school year.

“There were times I didn’t treat you so good,” she said, shaking her head. I said I couldn’t because I wouldn’t have time with my heavy courseload for my custom mining engineering/literature writing double major.

She told me she’d have my last check in a few days and that I should drop by to pick it up.

I didn’t bother and by the time half of the fall semester was over, this sophomore who knew me came up and explained that she was now working at AC for Shoe.

“You have to come by and pick up your last paycheck,” she said.

“Why? Can’t she just mail it to me?”

“She wants you to sign something. And we need you to come in soon. We’re closing the bank account and your check is the only thing that’s holding it up.”

“Oh, really?” I asked, intrigued. Screw something up for Shoe by merely doing nothing? Surely that was worth more than the $50 or so that my last check was for.

I never went back. A few more times during the year, the sophomore — looking ever more defeated and tired (but from dealing with Shoe or me?) — reminded me about the check.

It was the best check — but not the last in my years of service in “the community” — that I never cashed.


Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Eileen

    Ha! Awesome.
    To Hell With Shoe!

  2. Doris

    Hey, Ed,

    You never told me about this! WTF?! That 5 year old son is probably in law school now.

    Gotta love “the Movement”!


  3. Denise

    You are pretty funny. Not pretty funny like you have nice hair and teeth and symmetrical features but more like you make me laugh and are way more than passingly humorous.

  4. Dino

    Hey Ahhh Stupid! Your Mother with a banana!

  5. D. K. Cheung

    Your settled humor made me laugh!

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