“The saddest thing happened today,” she said, remembering something.
It was 9 or 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, a day we normally get together with other friends at our Bible study, but that had been moved that week. In lieu of it: dinner at my place. Something from earlier in the day came back to the top of her mind.
“What??” I asked.
M, who just finished an AmeriCorps term supervising post-Hurricane Sandy house rebuilds in Far Rockaway, NY, had been out by Prospect Park in the middle of the afternoon. There’s a big thoroughfare called Eastern Parkway that lines the park’s northern border where the Brooklyn Museum sits, and where M saw a teenage boy standing further up ahead on the sidewalk. He was probably about the age of her little sister, she estimated. I had met M’s little sister when she came to New York from Ohio for an internship a few months ago: a sweet and soft-spoken 15-year-old girl with whom M is adorably close. Young. Mid- high school. I can’t help it but say this: I think of Taylor Swift’s song “Fifteen,” because apparently that’s the soft-serve ice-cream, cotton candy kind of picture that comes into my head for that age.
It was bright out. There weren’t many other pedestrians around.
“Do you have time?” he asked her as she approached.
M stopped to ask him what he was there for, before spotting over his shoulder a clipboard with dollar signs, suggesting he was probably asking for donations.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said. She started walking away.
“You chinks are all so cheap,” he said to her.
M jolted. …What? She turned around to face him. “What did you say?” They were standing a few feet away from each other now.
“You heard what I said, Chink. You’re all the same. Chinks. Cheap Chinks.”
He looked at her directly, clear-eyed. Whatever hate looked like in physical form, she could kind of sense it coming at her, full frontal. She didn’t experience this often.
“What organization are you working for?” she pressed, looking for context, some background–anything more about this singular person in front of her.
“Oh, you’re interested now, are you? Chink.”
“There was no shame in his eyes,” M said. “It wasn’t even about me. He was so young.” As young as her little sister. I watched her face as all of these observations came back to her, like separate beads of data pooling into a weird blob of an event. This wasn’t a synthesized analysis. She was simply recalling.
“Wait, and what was he?” I asked, this piece of missing information suddenly relevant. M, for the record, is Korean.
“He was black,” she said.
Just then, a woman, white, maybe European, walked by. It seemed like she had seen the exchange.
“Disgusting,” she muttered at the boy without stopping.
I literally shivered in my seat at the whole thing unfolding in our minds and over the dining table. “Chink” is a slur that shocks me for how retired it feels, like a relic out of an earlier era, namely the Vietnam War or, actually, movies that open with CCR’s “Fortunate Son” and a loud helicopter landing over a rice paddy. Then, if anybody needed a refresher on what a slur is, the woman perfectly personified it with such open, raw disdain for someone she didn’t know.
M continued walking, in the same direction as the woman. The boy had started shouting. A block away, he was still shouting after her.
Well, I wanted to copy what M told me, largely because she really did just… tell me rather than enlist me. There was no bad guy to this experience and she did not start hating anyone. She admitted she was mad in the beginning but, as she walked home and “accessed the event more,” realized it had nothing to do with her. Yet, the strongest and most permanent impression on her is remarkably deep concern for the boy with the clipboard. I think this is what compassion looks like–raw and unpoliticized–and for some reason it felt precious.
Published gratefully with M’s corrections, revisions and permission.