Introduction: We’re still reeling a bit from the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Here to put things in personal and historical perspective is Charlie Chin.
In 1961 I was seventeen and one of only four Orientals in my High School in Queens, New York City. I say Orientals because there was no such thing as Asian Americans, that wasn’t to happen for another 10 years. Queens hadn’t become the most diverse neighborhood in the country yet. At that time the old neighborhood was divided up into equal parts Irish, Jewish, Negro, and Italian. I say Negro because this was so far back in Political History there weren’t even Black folk or Afro-Americans yet. The accepted practice was they were politely called “Colored People.” My friend Chris was one of them. I liked Chris, all the guys did. He was tall and charming, but he had three problems, first he was too handsome for his own good, second, he could talk his way into or out of, anything, and third he had the moral character of a maggot.
Photo by Mohammed Ali Dahaghin from Unsplash.
Today he’d be called a sexual predator. Other African American girls in his neighborhood were often his targets. There were lots of Irish and Italian girls in our school, but they were Roman Catholic and so that meant they often had older brothers and uncles and for a young colored boy that could be very dangerous. The Emmet Till case had only been six years before. I know because Manny, the old Jewish guy who ran the local candy store, had shown us kids the photos of Emmet Till’s body the NAACP had run in Jet magazine. It might have seemed like cruel thing to do to kids until you noticed that Manny was a German Jewish immigrant and had a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm. Segregation was still the law of the land in many states and the case of Loving vs. Virginia, which struck down the ban on interracial marriage, wouldn’t happen until 1967. Many the neighborhoods in New York were “restricted” which was a code word for no Jews, Negros, Orientals, or single women.
Chris was very popular, and most girls found him attractive. He especially like to hit on Jewish girls. For other guys in High School, Chris’s sexually escapades were the source of jokes and winks in the locker room. Chris’s technique was simple, because he was tall for his age and could pass for 21, he always dressed in a suit and tie, he wore cologne, and talked knowingly of jazz clubs and Greenwich Village. Most of the rest of us were just teenagers in blue jeans and tee shirts, drinking cherry cokes, and listening to Chuck Berry on transistor radios.
On the High School campus when White girls didn’t answer his attempts at pick up lines, Chris would just say, “You don’t want to talk to me because I’m a Negro.” Most of the White girls ignored him. But this would cause some of the girls from the better educated and liberal families to protest. When they tried to say that they were not “prejudiced,” then Chris would work that opening into a long conversation and then a promise of a date the next weekend. The rest of the procedure was simple if crude. He got them to accompany him to a “party” where wine and marijuana were being passed around, when they were sufficiently high enough for him to make his next move, he simply took advantage of the girl and had sex with her, on the couch, in a bedroom, or on top of a pile of coats. I asked him once why he always pressured the White and Jewish girls into having sex right away, and he answered rather blithely, “They can’t take me home to meet their parents so why wait?” Most of the other guys thought that when it came to women, Chris was a disgusting predator but since most of us were still virgins, many of them couldn’t help but secretly admired his “success” with the opposite sex.
Northern Boulevard. Photo from New York Dept. of Transportation website.
Of course, this led to a problem, he frequently got young girls pregnant. This happened more than once. The first female was a neighborhood African American girl in Corona who was young, way too young, whom he got drunk on cheap wine and talked into have sex with him in the back alley of buildings where he lived. Some of the more morally upright guys criticize him for it. I made feeble attempts to explain Karma to him. He laughed off warnings made by his friends by pointing out that since he was only seventeen and a juvenile himself, if he was caught and prosecuted, in a year he’d be 18, his record would be wiped clean, and so in the end, he’d get away with it anyway. It didn’t occur to him that with his pretty eyelashes and handsome looks, in jail he would be a target for a different kind of rape.
The second, even more disgusting case, was young female cousin, who he pulled into a closet in his house and had sex with while his parents were out. Unfortunately, according to the morals of the day, the girls had not been technically forced against their will. He had worked his charm on them, got them emotionally confused, until they had just got in too far over their heads, and when Chris made his move, they were usually unable to make a rational decision.
Northern Blvd. apts. Photo from NYRSC website.
Then there was the case of Deborah. Of course, I’m not using her real name. A Ashkenazim Shayna Maidel (pretty girl), with her dark eyes and olive tone skin, she was good looking, even before she had the traditional Queens neighborhood nose job. She was bright, and her family were university educated. Even though I was dating another girl at the time, I liked Deborah a lot. You see, in high school, we were all part of the “smart set,” or as it pleased us to call ourselves, the “hip crowd.” We all smoked cigarettes and carelessly talked of, Voltaire, Charlie “The Bird” Parker, Zen, Beatniks, dabbled in the school Theatrical group, and were very pleased with ourselves because we were all well-read and clever at conversation.
At that time and in that place, pharmacies would take upon themselves to tell parents if their teenagers had purchased condoms, but Deborah somehow got hold of some in a roundabout way, which she demanded Chris use. He reluctantly did and so most of the time things were not that bad. But a few times, after a party or a long night, and a few beers, she succumbed to Chris’s charms and had unprotected sex. The result was predictable. She found herself pregnant.
At the time her having the baby was impossible. Her parents were progressive but having a mixed-race child out of wedlock in the sixties was out of the question. They wouldn’t be able to live with the shame. Standard practice would have been for her people to buy a tomb stone, have her name inscribed on it, and consider her “dead,” from then on.
Photo from ABC.net/ Au. Supplied by Pexel.
One of Deborah’s closest friends had a talk with me and explained that after a hurried meeting, it decided that as her good friends, we had to help. Arrangements were made though Chris’s mother. She didn’t like Chris’s reckless behavior, but she was fiercely protective of him and rationalized all his short comings. After each incident she would have him put his hand on the family bible and promise that it would never happen again, and then of course, it would. Through some of his mother’s neighborhood connections, she was able to have an off-duty nurse perform the operation. It was decided it would be done in Chris’s family living room. Deborah and her friends came up with a plan and told Deborah’s parents that she was going to spend that weekend in a ‘sleep over” at a friend’s place on Long Island. A friend whose parents were conveniently away on business, and since it was a three-day holiday weekend, Deborah wouldn’t have to be back in school until the following Tuesday. That took care of the recovery time.
A trusted circle of us, pledged to secrecy, were given jobs to do in order to cover the real story. Two of the girls were to be by her side every minute for the next three days, not just for the emotional support, but in case something went wrong, if there was bleeding that didn’t stop, or if she developed a fever, then their job was to get her to a hospital as quickly as possible and do the explaining later. We had all heard of other cases where things didn’t turn out so well. Since what we were doing was illegal, the “operation” was done on a reclining chair in the living room, it had to be done quickly, no anesthesia or pain killers, and Deborah had to be moved by cab to Grand Central train station immediately. That was my job, to hire the cab, pay the driver half the money in front so he would wait outside the house, then I was to help the girls walk or maybe carry Deborah to the cab, and have the cabbie drive the girls to the train station to catch the train to Mineola, Long Island.
My heart was pounding as I tried to act casually with the cab driver. In his eyes I saw the question, “Why does a teenager kid want to rent a tax for a couple of hours?” He looked at me sideways and was suspicious but said nothing. I had the money in cash, collected from several friends, in a white envelope.
At 10:00 AM that morning, Deborah came out of the house, white as a sheet, and stumbling. She made it down the driveway, her arms supported by her friends. Somehow, we got her into the cab. We all worried that somebody who knew about this at school would feel guilty, confess, and spill the beans. From early that morning and for the rest of the day there was a distinct taste of copper on my tongue and saliva kept filling my mouth. I suppressed the impulse to vomit with great effort.
The next three days were some of the longest in my life. The hands on the analog clock face move glacially slow. More than once my father asked me why I was so concerned about the time. I said nothing. Saturday, and then Sunday passed, while we waited for news. If there was none, if there were no frantic calls for help, that was good, and meant things had gone as planned and Deborah was O.K. If not, maybe she was dead, or unable to ever have children again.
Photo from Word & Sole website by Marisa Donnelly.
We all graduated the next year, and each went our own way. Over the next couple of years, Chris’s behavior alienated more and more of his friends until he wore out his welcome with all of them and he drifted into drugs. Long after high school, he would seek me out when I was working in the restaurant business and hit on me for “loan” of twenty bucks for old times’ sake. Because we were buddies in school, I would give him money until it became obvious it was just going up into his arm. The last I heard he was a homeless junkie and had died someplace on the grim streets of New York. Deborah went on to college, graduated with honors, and became a highly regarded psychoanalyst. After high school I left the neighborhood for other locals and the life of an artist. Over the last sixty years, I drifted into the music business, and then into the Asian American Movement, logged in twenty-five years in restaurants and bartending, got married, had a son, who lives on his own now, and so I gradually forgot about high school.
Yesterday morning, June 24, 2022, I woke up, my wife walked into our bedroom, frowned, and said, “Bad news. They overturned Roe vs. Wade.” I went to the bathroom and threw up.
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).
Wow. Charlie, that’s a lot o livin’ and dyin at such a young age. What is incredible is how deep your relationships were, how close and observant you and others were of the situations, even though at the time essentially powerless to stop the pain and distorted masculinity that arose in Chris to harm so many women and nearly kill Deborah. Beyond the crazy gender split, there’s “superficial” and “deep”. I can imagine that Chris was so afraid of vulnerability that he went into a kind of superficial grandiosity or power complex geared towards immediate gratification. Did pain and conscience catch up to him, through his veins? Addicts of all sorts typically substitute quick fixes for a lack of relationships and belonging. Experiences of relationship are protective and transformative on all levels. I’m so glad that you and others had that level of depth and relationship. I hope the next phase of American life can actually bring people of all genders together against all the ways we are vulnerable and subject to violence, and have our human dignity and choice eroded. But that’s going to take some deep caring. I wrote about the leaked Dobbs opinion here
MOSF 17.7: CAAMFest40 Shorts – Boundless Questions for Women’s Rights, Mental Health, and our Journeys in Time https://eastwindezine.com/mosf-17-7-caamfest40-shorts-boundless-questions/
So glad to share the East Wind space with you!