UNDERGROUND VOICES: 2013 PRINT ANTHOLOGY
LEARNING TO DRIVE
My dad had gotten rich selling liquor on Olympic Boulevard, opening shop when I was five. After that, a small bodega in Van Nuys. And it wasn’t long before a chain of Red Moon Liquor stores thumb-tacked all of East L.A. If Randall Pak wasn’t selling booze to penny-thug addicts, he was teaching his son how to “drive”—behind a counter. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was riding shotgun, studying for the SATs from behind one of dad’s counters, his store in Cypress. Straight-A student plucking index cards from a black plastic box, cash register to my right.
“If someone really wanted to steal from you, Joel, you’d know it the moment they walked in.” Dad was hanging phone cards on the wall behind me. “You learn to see that.”
For dad, the cameras took the edge off. No good. They blunted that healthy pang of paranoia every merchant needed when he faced his daily man. Customers, in for the ride.
He was hovering over my work now—taller—no matter the concrete platform beneath my feet.
“Study this instead.” He closed the box lid and put his arm around my shoulder. “A test of the eye charts.”
He pointed to some men inside.
Gripping a Sharpie like he was hammering nails in mid-air, dad pointed to a customer in the third aisle: “Drunk from the norae-bang, that one. No good.”
These were dad’s impromptu size-ups—dissecting people from twenty feet away. It was the discernment he’d need to separate the customer from the shoplifter, and if the rumors were true, drinkers from gamblers, the loan-shark borrower. Downstairs client.
I hung my head, rubbed the side of the file box until three words I’d scrawled in pencil smeared off: Red Moon District.
Dad lifted my chin with his palm and motioned over to the sparkling white wines, second aisle. “And look at him, touching, touching, but won’t ever buy. He’s just here for the cigarettes."
“Cards and cameras can’t teach you that,” he said with a tap to his temple.
I’d heard it all before, dad’s sermons—how “a moving lens was no match for good instincts and a Colt .45”; how recorded surveillance was “the pussy machine hovering over a blind shoulder”—I thought a lecture for sure when I clicked open that box a second time. Cards to learn. Instead, dad jerked the box from my hands and stuffed it in a slot, beneath the register.
“I’m putting you on the overnight.”
I stood there, behind the counter; saw dad unplug a grey ATM by the entrance. “It’s for your own good, son.” The fluorescent lights were flickering above him. “The night goes by, you begin to see with your own eyes,” he said with a tap—on a stiff brow this time. I panned across the aisles and froze at the beverage coolers in the back: a Bud can loosened from its six-pack. Then he held it open, the front door still, and turning around one last time: “Invisible, Joel, you just blend in.”
Behind a counter, he was teaching his son how to drive; a place where he left me, not a .45 in sight.
That summer overnight, I saw how ten inches of cinder-block platform could sink; the Pak name thinning down to a stack of I-cards in a plastic shell box: Intimidated, Irrelevant. Front doors swinging open. Filipino boys play-shoved their way to the potato-chip rack; whispers of “padre” and “puta” by the newspaper trays; and my camera would focus: on magazines missing from stands; six-packs turning into fours; blue bandanas; white napkins falling off their front counters, always by “accident.” For six long hours, I stayed invisible inside a Red Ghost Liquor store. Squirming. Turning napkin into rope.
But then May stopped bleeding, and the new nights arrived; and men along with them: guarding outside, planning, to plan it downstairs. And two weeks later, the red vials, heavy briefcases carried down to a basement floor. I learned the new words during the month of June: confab, recalibration, diversification; made steady gains, real progress with my vocabulary: extortion, trafficking, racketeering, coercion; and across the known street, a black Lincoln Town Car watched over the store, and I pictured two cranky Chicanos sipping a flat forty and complaining—Why we gotta watch that pendejo inside?
Things just clicked, boxes shut. I discovered my optimal study routine in July: I swept the floors, shuffled the cards, counted the money; I crushed a line of NoDoz and sniffed, peeled off the porno plastic—to think; and when that Lincoln outside would sleep, so would I. Then on an August night in 1993, a girl tiptoed past her mother to the front of the line, and with her chin on the counter, asked, “Are you that Chinese boy? That crazy nigga’s son?”
Come September, I covered up lenses, unplugged plastic vials. I’d tweezer-in a white-pebble promise and breathe, bubble-in the answers until my cinder-block platform floated sixty feet above linoleum floors and Scantron sheets. I dreamt for the first time.
The next morning, dad brought me down to basement earth. He closed the door and walked to his metal desk.
“Here. You passed,” he said. “You don’t need to work here anymore.”
Dad threw a stack of clean twenties at my chest, heavy as a paperback.
I closed the door on my way outside. Walked out of dad’s liquor store carrying a 4" x 6" file box and a clear plastic vial. Short sleeves, sprawled out on a bus bench, I rubbed my eyes and squinted past lamp-post rings to sky, and a mail-slot of morning light; and across the empty street, two men stirred drinks in Styrofoam cups, leaning against a black Lincoln Town Car. Guardians of the Liquor Store blowing on coffee, whispering mist to the side.
One of the men waved.
I looked down instead, at the open box on my lap. Later, the ground: hundreds of words I needed to learn.Jamez Chang is a poet, writer, lawyer, and former hip-hop artist living in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in FRiGG, Prime Number Magazine, Boston Literary Magazine, The Sim Review, Subliminal Interiors, The 22 Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Marco Polo, and the anthology Yellow Light. After graduating from Bard College, Jamez went on to become the first Korean-American to release a hip-hop album, Z-Bonics (F.O.B. Productions, 1998), in the United States. Jamez currently works in the video game industry in New York City.
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