Let’s face it, finding a rotting foot in an old running shoe is a shock. It all came about because The Kokuho Rose, Terri Burger, and their dog, Tiger, were rooting around the sand down by the beach near the Marina in San Francisco. They often went down to the Bay shore to rake the beach sand for lost coins, jewelry, anything of value. Money was tight, the rent was due, and the old Toyota needed fixing. They found a silver bracelet once and hoped they might get lucky again.
Terri Burger is “Hapa”, in her case Jewish and Cantonese, from New York City. She was top of her class at the NYU law school. Then she came to the Bay area on a vacation a few years ago, took a local Yoga class, and decided to never leave. She was surviving as a florist’s assistant when she met The Kokuho Rose. You know they say that “Birds of a feather,” well, Terri Burger and The Kokuho Rose fit that description. The Kokuho Rose is a fourth generation California Nikkei. She carried business cards that read, “Tarot Readings and Pet Grooming.” They are the kind of women didn’t care for conventional jobs and so survived by wit and opportunity.
Image from Puppytoob.com by Henry Steinman.
The pickings were always good right after a King Tide. That’s when the sun, the moon, and the earth align and produce a massive tide. When it recedes, all kinds of good stuff wash up on the beach.
Tiger started barking at an old sneaker that was lying on the shore. He grabbed it in his mouth and started to play with it like a bone. Worried that he might get sick from mouthing a dirty bit of flotsam, The Rose ran over to get it out of his mouth. When The Rose tried to take it away from him, he thought it was a game and he just wouldn’t let it go. She kept shouting at him,
“Tiger, give me that boy, c’mon good boy, give it to me.” When the dog finally let it lose, the shoe came away in The Rose’s hand and something fell out of it. It took a moment for the Rose to recognize it for what it was, a decaying human foot. She dropped the shoe like it was a live wire and called out to Terri,
“Terry, come here right now.” Terry jogged over, thinking some guy was harassing The Rose. When she reached the spot where The Rose and the dog were standing, she looked around but nobody else was nearby.
“What’s going on?” The Rose made a tortured face and pointed to the object that had fallen out of the running shoe. In one voice they said,
‘Eeeeee Uuuuuu!” Terri held her nose, bent forward and asked,
“What the hell is that?”
“I think it’s a human foot. I’m going to be sick.” While the Rose walked several yards away from the spot for fresh air, Terri looked around the area carefully in case there were other body parts. The King Tide had washed up little piles of debris and seaweed all up and down the beach.
Aquatic Park Cove, San Francisco.
“Maybe there’s more parts around here. Let’s look around.”
“Terri please don’t touch anything! Let’s get out of here, now.”
“No, we must report this. There could have been a murder.” The Rose walked over slowly to inspect the foot again. She held her hand up to cover her nose and her stomach muscles convulsed a few times and she had the urge to vomit but she controlled herself.
“Terri, this is too weird. Did somebody kill a person and cut them up? What the hell is going on here?” Terri was already using her phone and explaining to the 911 operator where they were and what they had found.
By the time the police arrived, The Rose felt better and was becoming curious. Terri had mixed feelings.
“Who was it? How could this have happened?” A female officer with the police investigating the scene stopped for a second and suggested,
“If you really want to know, go see Dr. Tim Leong Chow the coroner. After he takes a good look and runs some tests, maybe he can explain. O.K?” The Rose stood still staring at the spot they found the foot for a few minutes. And then Terri pulled her away to their old Toyota.
One day later, Terri got a call from the coroner.
“Are you Ms. Burger? You left your phone number and told the patrol officer you want to know about the foot that you found at the Marina. “
‘Yes, I’m just curious.”
“If you can come in, I have some time after 1:00 PM today and I can try to answer any questions you have. Ask for Doctor Leong Chow.”
“No problem.” An hour later Terri Burger and The Kokuho Rose were in the San Francisco General Hospital morgue. They filled out some papers and answered a few routine questions about how they found the body part and then begged Doctor Tim Leong Chow to tell them what had happened. The Rose pleaded,
“We didn’t know her, but we feel responsible in some way because we found her corpse, or at least part of it anyway.”
Tim took off his mask and rubber gloves and invited them to sit on a hallway bench.
“Well, we get a few of these feet, maybe six or seven every year.” The Rose’s eyes grew huge, and she gripped the arm of the bench tightly.
“What? A year? How does that happen.” Doctor Leong Chow leaned back and explained,
“Every year people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. When they hit the water from that height, it’s the same as being hit by a speeding car. If they survive that, and most don’t, then the freezing temperature of the water causes them to drown. The coast guard usually gets to most of the bodies but some of them go unnoticed. Like people who jump at night.”
“What about the foot in the shoe?” He nodded and went on
“When a body hits the water, the impact can crush the internal organs. The body may float for a while or sometimes may sink. As it sinks, it settles to the bottom of the Bay. There it decays, fish and small sea creatures eat the remains, but when the foot breaks away, and if it’s in a running shoe that has a foam rubber sole, it will eventually float to the surface and get washed ashore. A big storm or a King Tide can bring the shoes up and then deposit them along the shoreline.” Terri and The Rose nodded with understanding but had a question. Terri put it into words.
“Is there no way to find out who she was? Maybe we find her family and tell them what happened? “Doctor Leong Chow understood,
“I understand how you feel. This last couple of years has been very bad. What with the pandemic, people losing their jobs, it all adds up. Some desperate and lonely some people just decide to end it all.”
“Is there anything that can be done?”
“Oh yes, there is a hot line and professional help that is available. The number is 1 800 273-8255. It’s open 24 hours a day and there are people who also speak Spanish.
Rendering of Golden Gate Bridge safety net. Photo from GoldenGate.org website.
And there are things that you can do if you’re depressed. Sometimes just simple things like volunteering to help those who are worse off then you are, going to fun events, keeping a circle of good friends, learning to relax. In some cases, attending a spiritual ritual, like a church, temple, or synagogue helps. All these things can cut through the loneliness and sense of emptiness. No matter how lonely or depressed you get, there’s always somebody who will listen and help you through it. In the meantime, we’ll do a DNA check. If the foot matches anybody missing, we’ll let you know.”
“A week later, Doctor Leong Chow called Terri again to say,
“We discovered who that foot belongs to. Come on in, we have some information for you.”
Terri and the Rose visited Doctor Leong Chow’s office. He was writing at his desk and indicated with a hand motion that he would be with them in a moment. He finished, put the papers into a file and turned in his seat to talk to the Rose and the Terri.
“The foot you found belong to a young woman named Carmen Tsai.”
“How do you know?” The Doctor explained,
“The foot’s DNA matched a family named Tsai in Palo Alto. Their 18-year-old daughter has been missing for four months. From what the mother said, it was a very rough time for the kid. The father was very strict. Her parents were always hovering over her. She had to take to ballet lessons, learn to play the cello, study French, all of which she hated and said so, she had to bring home a report card with only A’s and A + on it. She was not allowed to have her own phone, to go to the mall, to have any friends over to visit, and most certainly no boyfriends. I don’t think she ever had a moment to herself. The father told her repeatedly the only thing that mattered was school and her getting into the right university. They put an immense amount of emotional pressure and guilt on the girl.
Several months ago, the girl started to fall apart. The daughter first started being careless about her appearance. One day, while cleaning Carman’s bedroom, the mother found a hidden bottle of vodka and what she thinks was a marijuana cigarette. The parents become frightened, and the things got worse. Her behavior changed again. Carman began to wear makeup and more revealing clothes to school. She began to have episodes when she shouted obscenities at her father. Her father decided to punish her by forbidding her to go to the high school prom. The night of the prom, Carmen had an episode, she started to spit out her food on to the floor, she threw the dishes and bowls of food against the wall and began screaming she would rather be dead.
This behavior frightened her parents who believed that Carman was going insane. The parents gave her an ultimatum, if she didn’t correct her behavior, they would send her to a private hospital, where the doctors would make her “normal” again. That night they locked her in her room, but she jimmied the window open, crawled out, and disappeared. They say they had no idea where she went. They put out flyers and set up a site, even gave DNA samples to the police, but the girl was never found.”
Doctor Leong Chow rubbed the back of his neck and took a deep breath.
“I don’t have to tell you what kind of pressure parents can put on Asian kids when it comes to education. Most kids can handle it, some maybe not so well, and some collapsed under the pressure. It looks like Carmen was living a dismal life, without emotional outlet, without friends, without any fun, and late one night, just decided to go San Francisco and jump from the bridge.” Terri Burger and The Kokuho Rose took a long look at each other. They both knew all too well what he was talking about.
“Thanks Doctor Leong Chow, we appreciate you taking the time.”
As they left the medical facility, the Rose turned to Terri and asked,
“What shall we do tonight?” Terri smiled and answered,
“For Carmen’s sake and in her memory, let’s get our hands on a bottle of Beaujolais, toast a glass or two to her, smoke a little Mexican laughing grass, and watch that DVD old movie called “Now Voyager.”
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).