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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 197-213
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June Unjoo Yang
[Observing an Ox, I Reflect]
It wasn't the conditions of heat and humidity, peculiar to late summer in New York. It wasn't the stench of trash and softening tar that wafted over pedestrians like a sulfurous cloud. It wasn't the dilapidation of the tenement houses on the route she took from subway station to office. The sight of squatters circling dumpsters until nightfall had become, for her, commonplace. She directed them to shelters with the facility of a crossing guard. When a regular had reappeared last week as a gaunt and mottled corpse, she'd stifled the waves of horror and nausea and expertly sidestepped the police barricade. A mugging, botched. These things happen, she told herself firmly. The next morning, she was early for work.
But today was another matter; today she'd behaved badly. The boy deserved an explanation. Surely she owed him that.
They were at the community center where she'd been a counselor for about three months. Deep in the bowels of a converted church, the room that functioned as office space for Sandra and an on-site social worker was painted the flickering blue of fluorescent lighting and tiled with linoleum. Makeshift partitions separated their desks, the barest of nods to privacy. The arrangement suited the social worker just fine. Henna-haired and garrulous, she liked to regale Sandra with anecdotes about her relatives in Port of Spain. The both of us from countries no one could pick off a map. We got to stick together. Sandra couldn't find it in her heart to agree.
In the common area, assorted paperbacks with their covers torn or pages missing were crammed onto plywood shelves. A pint-sized refrigerator sighed and hummed in one corner. It was the kind stocked with miniature whiskey bottles and beef jerky in motor lodges; here, it held open cans of condensed milk, tomato soup, wizened apples for runaways. The stuffing oozed through a slash in the back of a sofa meant to suggest the center's informality to adolescent visitors. Not that anyone was duped: Sandra's clients remained wary, gravitating instead to the molded plastic chairs arrayed about the conference table in the middle of the room. There, they were forced to hold their spines straight or hunch forward with unwavering stares like green-leafed plants growing into the sun.
The young man Nano was no exception. Affecting a gait between a shuffle and a swagger, he staked out a chair during his first visit and slumped into it extravagantly, all the while darting his head from side to side as if on a reconnaissance mission. His date of birth she remembered because it coincided with the closing of banks and post offices, the gift of a public holiday. When they filled out forms together, she tried to enliven his deadpan expression with banter about hitting twenty-one. He shrugged and replied that a year made no difference since he rarely got carded at bars and preferred Olde English anyway, obtained in brown paper bags from the corner bodega. With a nice, fat blunt, he added, and offered to hook her up with his dealer. She didn't waste [End Page 197] time chatting after that; during their subsequent sessions, she listened to him with a tight, fixed smile. The day she left him, the smile wouldn't thaw.
It was an aberrant moment with a not especially aberrant client. Lord knows he wasn't any more of a burden than the others in need of family placement and drug rehab and ged classes. The story in his files was tragic: a father who refused to acknowledge the results of a one-night stand, a mother with full-blown aids. Bounced around by Child Welfare until he got too old to be placed with a foster family. Now he lived downtown in a crumbling Section Eight building with a distant uncle who was on disability insurance and prone to issuing ultimatums when funds ran low. Kid had a week, the uncle told...