After thirty years of working at the Gatlin, Georgia Feed Mill, Hank Bittle decided to take his first vacation. The boys were both on their own, Lucy was gone for over three years now. Hattie, the waitress at the Cozy Café in town, suggested Hank take a trip, maybe to Hawaii. Hank agreed with the idea but he didn’t want to go someplace where they didn’t speak English, so he decided on the city of San Francisco. He remembered that an Italian fellow sang a song about it. It was a good song.
Hank’s first airplane ride was a hoot. They made you squeeze into a narrow seat and everything they gave you was tiny. Tiny food with a tiny knife and fork, later, even a tiny pillow. They didn’t let you open the windows but you could see out of them. Being above the clouds made you feel like you was half way to heaven. It kind of made him think about Lucy.
They landed at the SF airport and it was like what Disneyland must be like. Everything was shiny and modern. They even had a sidewalk that moved so you didn’t have to walk. You just stood there until you got to the place where you wanted to get off. They had restaurants and cafes, gift stores and places to buy souvenirs. He picked up one of those Tee shirts with “Inmate of Alcatraz” written on it. The gang down at the garage would get a kick out of that.
A cab took him to the hotel where he had reservations at, but when he paid the taxi driver, the man seemed peeved and said,
“What about a tip?” Hank was not accustomed to giving people money just because they were doing their job. He read the price on the meter and that’s exactly what Hank handed the driver. He wasn’t going to be taken like some hick hayseed. His hotel room was nice, though whoever was there before him had forgotten their shampoo and soap bars, they were still on the shelf in the bathroom. Hank made a mental note to return them to the front desk in case the previous guests wanted them back.
Photo by Shaunak De on Unsplash
After putting his grip beside the bed and looking over the magazines the hotel had left on the night stand, Hank was ready to see what they called “Bagdad by the Bay.” As he left the lobby, a man by the front door in an impressive military uniform smartly saluted Hank as he stepped into the street. It’s just a shame, thought Hank, he must be another veteran like Jimmy Tolman back home. It’s been years since Jimmy came back from that war, but he still wears that threadbare uniform every day. Folks in town make sure he gets enough to eat, and Fred Holder lets Jimmy sleep in the shed behind the firehouse. Most sunny days Jimmy takes to marching up and down Main Street and shouting orders to imaginary soldiers, yes it was just a shame.
The San Francisco weather was mild and the street was busy. Everybody seemed to have someplace to go. Most of the young women walking around were half naked. They were showing their bare legs all the way up to their keesters and their shirts barely covered their chests. Hank tried not to gawk, so he kept looking away.
What he did see amazed him. He wandered all around the city. In a fancy department stores in Union Square, a woman he didn’t know, sneaked up behind him and sprayed him with perfume, he went to the Golden Gate Bridge, but he saw that it was actually more red than golden, and those cable cars, just like in the commercials, a dinging their bells, leaping anacondas, there was nothing like this in Gatlin, Georgia. No sir. He took a cable car from Market Street to Powell Street and got off to look down at the Bay from the top of hill. Those little white sailboats on the blue water, it was pretty sight you had to admit. He looked down the street and noticed it was filled with Orientals. He was in Chinatown. Being on vacation and made bold with a sense of freedom and adventure, Hank walked down the steep hill to Grant Avenue. He was mesmerized by the gaudy trinkets and strange smells and sights. He inspected the roast ducks and chickens that hung in the store windows and wondered what some of the seafood items were. None of them looked like the kind of fish he caught down at Turkey Creek.
Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash
Hank tried to reckon where about he might be by using a little tourist map, but all the store signs around him seem to be in that squiggly Chinese writing. He turned down a street labeled Jackson and saw a bar. It said “Ted’s Place,” on the outside. It seemed to be O.K., so he walked in. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. There were a lot of red decorations with Chinese writing and even the bartender looked oriental. Hank found the only empty barstool, asked the bartender for a beer, and looked around. There were about 10 other people in the room. He realized then with mild surprise that he was the only White man in the place. There were about five young oriental boys who were seated at the end of the bar and looking out the front window. You couldn’t tell how old they were by looking but Hank reasoned, they must be old enough to drink. Hank sipped his beer and tried to start a conversation.
“Any of you boys talk American?
The one closest to Hank ventured a statement.
“Yes, I’m Eddie Chan, I speak American.” Well that was good. At least one of these boys could translate what Hank said into their lingo. Hank spoke slowly so the oriental boy would understand,
“You tell them fellows I’m here for Gatlin, Georgia, and I say Howdy.” The boy who called himself Eddie spoke to the others in that sing song language and they all looked at Hank, and slowly smiled. They all seemed amused but they weren’t laughing. After a second, they all turned back to look out at the picture window. Hank tried to be friendly.
“So all you boys from China, or are some of you from around here?” The one near him nodded, the rest probably didn’t understand what Hank was saying so he let it go. He tried being friendly again.
“Tell me buddy, it there any good Chinese restaurants around here?” The man who spoke English, smiled at the others and replied,
“Well just about any restaurant in the area is a good one.” Hank was grateful for the information. He wanted to try that Chicken Chow Mein he had heard about.
“Say listen pal, it’s Eddie right? Mind if I ask where you eat?” The fellow seemed to be searching for the right words and answered,
“There’s a good place over on Grant Ave. Just ask anybody on the street where the “Hong Kee” restaurant is.” Hank was relived, at least this one seemed to neighborly. The others were still staring out the window. Hank also looked out to the street but didn’t see anything but tourists and delivery trucks. He asked out loud,
“Mind if I ask what you boys looking at?” The friendly one whispered out of the side of his mouth.
“It September 21.” Hank was intrigued.
“What’s that?, some kind of holiday?” The whole group turned to look at Hank and the friendly one said,
“September 21 is the day he gets out.” The other boys nodded slowly and turn to the window again. Hank wondered what was going on so he asked the obvious question,
“When who gets out?” The one called himself Eddie, turned back to face Hank and explained,
“It was twelve years ago, right here at Ted’s bar, Willie, The Hatchet, Soo Hoo, killed a man that insulted him. The man was sitting in Willie’s regular place and didn’t get up. They had a few words that led to blows and the next thing you know, Willie pulled a hatchet from the back of his belt. He chopped the man’s head open like a melon, there was blood everywhere, and then he took his time cutting the man down into little pieces. The police came and Willie boasted he hacked the man to death and he would do it again. They gave him twelve years in Chico State Prison for that. Before they sent him away, Willie made a promise he would come back to Ted’s bar someday, and do it all again. He made that promise to the bartender, right Chuck?”
The bartender stopped in the middle of making a drink and nodded with a serious face to confirm the story,
“Today is the day he gets out, September 21, we’re all waiting to see what Willie is going to do.” The hairs on Hanks neck were all standing up and his eyes grew big as dinner plates. He gently asked,
“Which seat was it?” Everybody at the bar, even the bartender, grimly lifted a finger to point at the barstool that Hank was sitting on. Hank was frozen to the spot and didn’t know what to do. Just then a big shouldered Oriental man walked in and the others shouted greetings of,
“Willie the Hatchet, wha’ sup? Where you been Bro? Long time no see.” The man dismissed the cat calls with a throw-a-way motion of his hand. He took a look around the room and complained,
“Jesus, what’s a guy got to do around here to get a drink? Chuck, give me a shot of Wild Turkey with a beer back. Say any chairs left?” Everybody in the room turned slowly to stare at Hank. Hank tried his best to look smaller, he slid quietly off the barstool, put a ten dollar bill on the bar, and walked past the new comer with a sort of crab side step. Once outside, Hank began to briskly walk, as best as he could figure, in the direction of his hotel. Quite a few times, back at the Cozy Inn café in Gatlin, Georgia, he would tell the story of how he barely escaped with his life from “Willie the Hatchet” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As you might suspect, everybody at the Cozy Inn made him tell the story several times.
Photo by Grant Cai on Unsplash
The big shoulder Chinese man who had entered Ted’s bar curiously watched Hank run out of the bar and down Jackson Street. Then he turned back to the others and asked,
“Who was that?” Everybody smiled, a few of the boys quietly laughed. Willie shook his head. Nobody had called him “The Hatchet” since he played forward tackle in college.
Willie was too tired to demand an answer. After a long day at the office, he needed time to relax. He sat down, took a sip of his bourbon, and then like the others, he leaned forward to hear what his cousin Eddie Chan, had to say. Ever since they all met at San Francisco State University, everybody loved to listen to Eddie. You see, Eddie Chan had a gift, he could make up a funny story about anything, right on the spot.
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).