As Siobhan and I crept up the gravel driveway to Ken Chang’s house, we couldn’t help but notice the multitude of very vocal cats blocking our path. They looked perturbed that a giant metal who-knows-what was accelerating into their territory, so opted to start mewing and hissing loud enough to penetrate the Talib Kweli I was bumping in the car. Siobhan quickly switched it off and the kitty protests became so loud that I craned my neck out the window to see if we were running any of them over.
“Ken Chang doesn’t like misogynistic music.” Siobhan explained, busting out a low-fat granola bar and taking a chomp.
“Talib Kweli isn’t misogynisitic.”
“He says ‘bitches.’”
“That’s jus in the culture. It isn’t meant as an affront or anything.”
“Well, that’s not how Ken Chang sees it.”
We continued to creep up the driveway, the cats irately parting like a belligerent Red Sea. We could see the house now, a large, dilapidated explosion of a structure. It looked like additions had been stapled onto the rickety, slanted building, and I could see half-completed construction in several places. It looked like the whole thing was being turned into some giant jalopy, and would one day rise off the earth and start banging down the road.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and 2009 was certainly a desperate time. Due to forces outside the workingman’s control, there was little work. Even if you had just graduated college with a degree—the piece of parchment that the entire educational complex had assured you—assured you—would instantly fulfill your every life-goal—there was nothing. English degrees got you a minimum wage job at Barnes and Noble. Hiring freezes in New York State forced young men and women with teaching degrees to work at coffee shops. Business Majors were grateful to be garbage men.
I had taken out $30,000 in student loans for a journalism degree and was the worst off. The internet was the in the midst of eviscerating print journalism, so I found myself struggling to pay rent. Bills and debts piled up. I was sweating over a pile of these one day when I received a call from a Siobhan, a friend of mine.
“Do you want a job?”
“Of course…depending. What’s the job?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Well, that could be anything. It could even be the BEST job. How can you not know, though?”
“There’s this guy, Ken Chang, up in Kingston, who helps people out with jobs and stuff. He’s actually helping me lose weight. He helped out Pete,” she said, referring to her boyfriend.
I had considered. The whole sketchy offer sounded half-cocked, but those bills were piling up…
The cats continued to bitch as we dipped into a pothole worn so deep in the dirt driveway that I nearly slammed my head on the roof. Siobhan deep-throated the last third of the granola bar in one bite.
“Goin for the health food?”
“Yeah.” She whipped out another granola bar. “Ken was telling me about how it’s not really how MUCH you eat, but WHAT you eat that helps you lose weight. So bye-bye Three Musketeers!” She peeled the granola wrapper off and stuffed it in the door with a growing mass of its brothers.
As we approached the house a burly, twitch-eyed man walked past and gave Siobhan a nod. He looked like he had just gotten out of jail.
“That’s Jamal. He just got out of jail.”
“Oh? For what?”
“Nothing bad. Drugs or something. Ken Chang hires a lot of guys that are trying to get back on their feet.”
I hopped out of the SUV and waited for Siobhan to grab a handful of granola bars to tide her over. She shoved her girth out of the driver’s seat and we walked down the narrow, mud-packed path until we reached a recently-mended front door. Someone had obviously kicked it in two from the inside—there were still splinters sticking out of the surrounding snowbanks. On top of the fracture, there was posted a hand-written sign that read:
RULES OF THE HOUSE:
..in red ink. There was only one rule below, enthusiastically exclaiming:
I snatched the stoag out of my mouth and automatically flicked it into a snowbank. Realizing that this action constituted both drug use and littering, I tiptoed to the snowbank and gingerly removed the butt from the besotted snow. Siobhan watched me with amusement.
“I don’t think he means cigarettes.”
“Oh. Well, I’m just trying to make a good first impression, y’know?” I was willing to damper my rather forceful personality for the necessity of income.
Siobhan nodded, then, without looking, raised her hand to ring the doorbell. Unfortunately, someone had removed the actual button, so she pressed a couple of exposed wires instead.
“I got shocked!”
The door swung suddenly open and I heard a voice remark:
“It’s shocking to see you too, Siobhan.”
I peered inside and saw what looked like a Rastafarian Brad Pitt. The figure had a large beard and dreads down past his waist, both blond, and was stirring a glass of what looked like hot water and mulch.
“Hey, Tree. Wass up?” Siobhan responded, rubbing her hand.
“I’m just blessing this new day with some delicious tea,” he responded without a hint of irony.
Trying to make a good impression, and having no idea how this guy was connected to Ken Chang, I stuck my hand firmly out for an introduction.
“Hi, I’m Siobhan’s friend Roger.”
Rasta Brad Pitt bowed his head deeply in greeting, but left my hand hanging.
“Sorry, I thought Siobhan said your name was Tree?”
“It is Tree.”
“Oh. Huh. Is that your real name?”
Tree gave me a look, then, with gravitas placed his hand on my left shoulder.
“A name is as real as you make it.”
“Huh. Well, Hello, I’m Roger.”
“Yes, that was a movie.”
“Have you Rogered and young lasses today?”
“That’s a thing too.”
Having exhausted his bag of disambiguation, Tree promptly turned from the door and walked into the depths of the house.
Siobhan followed him and I followed Siobhan. We stepped into a giant room with little furniture, except for a couple soiled couches and two long folding tables with a cacophony of papers, forms and printings piled and strewn across them. The sides of the room were jammed with stacked electronics, lighting cables, filing cabinets, tripods, litterboxes, looms, empty fish tanks, books, crates of gears, yoga mats, dusty computer monitors, carving tools, sewing machines…there were too many dissimilar objects to take in. My eyes scanned to the back of the room where I saw an entire plastic-wrapped pallet of tomato paste.
“What’s with the…” I pointed at the pallet.
“Oh, Ken Chang just likes to buy in bulk, Siobhan replied. “He probably got a good deal on it.”
“Yeah, but how is he going to eat all that?”
“Oh, he’s not going to eat it.” Siobhan responded incredulously, as though I had suggested that Ken Chang sodomize his tenets with it. “He’s just going to break it down and sell it can-by-can. He’s quite the entrepreneur.”
I was about to sit down when another character entered. He also had a glass, but his was filled with the opaque, neon color of strawberry milk.
“Hi Finn!” Siobhan rose to greet him.
Finn, who was Finnish, wasn’t much of a hand-shaker either, instead opting to bow like Tree.
“Are you here to see Ken Chang?” was the first question off his lips.
“Yes. I heard he has work to be done.”
“Oh, yes, oh yes…OH yes,” he added a third time. “Ken always has work to do. I’m his computer specialist. I can work on Macs AND PC’s.”
“He can,” Siobhan annotated.
“KEN CHANG is cool,” Finn ebulliently exclaimed, veering the conversation back to a subject he seemed to enjoy. “When I met Ken Chang, I had just gotten out of rehab for crystal. I had nothing. Now, I have a job, I pay rent to live in the shack out back, and I have a beautiful girlfriend.”
Siobhan stuck her head into the frame.
“That would be Diana. You might meet her.”
“No,” Finn responded. She’s down in the city. Ken Chang set her up with a gallery owner down there. She brought some pieces down and is seeing if the lady likes them.”
“That’s great!” said Siobhan. “I’m so happy for you guys!” Finn grasped her hand warmly.
I uncomfortably took a seat on one of the threadbare couches as Siobhan and Finn continued talking. The couch smelled like cat piss. The potential culprit, a small, orange tabby, sashayed over towards me and took a seat in front of my feet.
“Meeow,” the cat said.
“Hello,” I responded.
“Meeow,” the cat replied, raising its paw as though it was going to lick it.
With a vicious hiss, the cat whipped its paw downwards on my exposed ankle, drawing blood. Out of the shadows, a nimble Chinese man wearing a tasseled cowboy jacket leapt toward the cat with a shrieked oriental curse and punted it clear across the room. The cat landed upright and scrambled down a hallway.
The small man closed his eyes meditatively for an awkward amount of time, then opened them with arched eyebrows and focused on Siobhan.
“Cats are creatures of fire. They like to test limits. To control a cat, you have to give it the equal parts love and discipline. Only then will the cat be truly balanced.”
Siobhan nodded obediently while chewing, her forehead wrinkled with the exact degree of sage understanding. The small man reached his arms out with a benevolent smile and Siobhan rose to give him a long hug.
“So good to see that you are well today, Siobhan. How is Phil?”
“Pete’s good,” Siobhan corrected without missing a beat. “He’s very grateful that you were able to set him up with that internship. He’s actually out there right now.”
“That is very, very wonderful to hear.” The man raised his arms upwards like he was thanking Jehovah for giving him the 10 commandments. “Very, very good news.” He paused and turned his eyes towards me. “Who is your friend?”
“Oh! This is Roger.”
The man grasped my hand with both palms and stared uncomfortably deep into my eyes.
“I am Ken Chang.” He continued to grasp my hand: “Do you do drugs?”
“Well, I…drink once in a while and…unfortunately smoke cigarettes.” And weed, but I wasn’t about to mention that.
“Oh…” moaned Ken Chang, turning away and morosely shaking his head. “Drinking…drugs…very bad.” He sat down, leaned forward and stared into my eyes like he was trying to save my life. I could see Finn out of the corner of my eye, nodding along.
“My father…fucking alcoholic…My mother…pilloholic. Both very sad people, they fucked themselves up. They had nothing…nothing!…when they die. And they die early, both of them, when I just a teenager…Very sad.
“Yes…” It was hard to know how to respond in these types of situations.
“Yes?” Ken Chang didn’t seem like the type to question his responses. “Then you should stop drinking!”
“How often you drink?”
“A couple night a week…”
“Here’s what I’m gonna do.” Ken grabbed one of the scraps of paper that floated around the room like detritus. “You want a job, yes? Employment? Some money? That’s why Siobhan brought you here?”
“This is how I help you out. I’m gonna make out a sheet for you…not this sheet, I’ll have Finn make a nice one on a computer. You fill out how many drinks you have each day…if you have no drinks, you put a zero…you bring this sheet to me at the end of the week. If you have less than five drinks, I give you work for the week…if not, you have to wait till next week. Now, I’m a trusting person…Finn, am I trusting?”
Finn bowed his head to his liege in agreement.
“I trust people because they trust me. Do you trust me?” His eyes ticked up a couple notches to super-wide. This was a tough question. I generally didn’t trust people, but what choice did I have?
“Yes,” I responded.
Ken Chang casually stared out at me from the sides of his eyes.
“No you don’t. You’re lying to me, which mean I can’t trust you.” He folded the piece of paper in half and discarded it back to the floor.
I was startled that he could see my duplicitousness. Perhaps he was more perceptive than his blunt manner suggested. I straightened my posture for my response. Needed them dollas.
“Look:” I said assertively, “I don’t know how you expect me to trust you. I just met you. I’m not naturally a trusting person, so I don’t make a habit of trusting randomly. That’s just something you’ll have to accept. I’m a good worker and I have experience in construction. I only drink a little and I don’t do drugs. I really don’t see what you have to know past that.”
The room suddenly turned to nervous gelatin. Finn’s eyes flew to Ken Change for the response. Siobhan stopped chewing. Even the cats stopped complaining. Ken Chang’s face was placid for far too long, then broke into a wide grin. The cats started mewing again.
“Oh! That’s what I like! DIRECTNESS! I think me and you will get along just FINE!”
Siobhan and Finn laughed eerily in unison, Finn going as far as clapping his hands together in joy.
Ken Chang continued.
“That’s what I really want: directness and honesty. If I’m gonna help you out, I’m gonna need to know you, know who you are as a person. Now I know you are direct: I know you a little bit. That’s good, so good.”
I felt that, in trying to stay remote from this mad Asian, I had accidentally let him in, the little miner, and now he had chiseled away and discovered a part of myself that I had not meant to reveal. I was meant to smile. I did.
“I pay eight dollar an hour.” He raised his hand to my unvocalized protest. “That is all I can afford to pay right now. But Tree makes a delicious organic meal each night, and you are free to sit down and have dinner with all of us. Now:” He leaned forward, stuck his hand out and stared at me again. “Do you want this job?”
I stared at his hand for a moment, partially because I wanted to think for a second, but partially because I knew Ken Change would want it that way. I inwardly cursed myself for already bending to his demands, but this caused me to pause for even longer, further fulfilling what Ken Chang wanted from me. I shoved my hand quickly forward and shook.
“Good, good!” Ken smiled in a way I did not completely like, wondering if I would ever like it, or simply have to learn how to smile back convincingly.
“We get started right away.” Ken Chang rose. “Follow me,” he said authoritatively, already walking down one of the dark hallways.