Wednesday, May 4, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 124: "I'm still in the same place."

Sunday, May 4, 1986
Kammy Chan was a friendly little man who worked in the Pioneer Market, La Honda's small grocery store.  If Kam wasn't at the store, he was wandering around the strip mall that is downtown La Honda: the restaurant, the post office, the realtor.  Or he'd just be sitting on a curb staring at the redwoods and smoking a cigarette.  He seemed to have no home.  More than once I asked him, "Where do you live, Kam?"

He'd smile vaguely and say, "I'm still in the same place."

Eventually I figured out where he was sleeping.  Eventually, everybody figured it out.

Bob Cook was the owner of the store, and he'd call me from time to time to patch his decrepit electrical system.  At the deli counter he'd cut me a thin slice of Swiss cheese and say, "Here, try this.  You've never tasted something this good."  Bob was a friendly, hardworking, great big guy from Texas.  How he came to be running a small grocery in La Honda, I never asked.  Many who settle in La Honda come here on the way to something further and then discover that La Honda is the something further. 

One day, April 13, 1986 I went to the store for some milk, and Kammy was gone.  Deported.  Bob was distraught.  He was so upset, I was worried about him handling that big knife at the butcher counter.  I walked him outside.  There were tears in his eyes.  And he told me the story of Kammy Chan:

Kam came to the USA legally with his family.  With some partners in China, Kam's family ran an export business in San Francisco.  Then Kam's parents died.  The partners booted Kam out.  He was a young man from Hong Kong all alone in the USA with an expired visa. 

Somehow, Kam came to the attention of a man who worked as an exterminator.  The exterminator offered Kam a sanctuary in his remote La Honda home.  The sanctuary came at a price.  According to Bob, Kam became a virtual slave for the exterminator and his realtor wife, caring for their children, cooking, cleaning, and doing household chores.   They threatened to report him if he misbehaved.  They gave him a mat on the floor and not much else. 

Eventually Kam got free of this couple and started working in the Pioneer Market.  Bob said, "We figured out butchering together.  We'd cut up sides of beef and see what went wrong.  We learned from our mistakes.  Kam did a day and a half's work in a day and slept in the back of the store, but nobody knew."  (Actually, everybody knew.) 

Okay.  I've heard other versions of Kam's origin.  In one version he came to the USA legally on a student visa, which expired.  In another version Kam's family was mixed up with Hong Kong mobsters who killed everybody else and were searching for him.  I believe Bob, but whatever the version, a kid from Hong Kong ended up in a tiny town deep in a canyon in the redwood forest.

Kam spoke passable English and excellent Cantonese.  According to David LeCount, La Honda's resident China scholar, Kam "wrote good characters," which implies at least the equivalent of a high school education.

David used to joke with Kam, saying there were three Chinese expressions that could be used to answer any question.  In English, the answers are:

"Who knows?"
"It's better than before."
"Right now, it's difficult to say."
Kam took those non-answers to heart and made up some of his own, such as "I'm still in the same place."  He was a master of the vague smile.

After 16 years in La Honda, Kam somehow came to the attention of the feds.  Bob Cook  blames the exterminator.  This man got into disputes with everybody, and inevitably he got into a dispute with Bob.  Bob believes the exterminator reported Kam just to make trouble for the grocery store.  Instead of coming after the store, though, the INS came after Kam, demanding documents.  

Everybody who knew Kam described him as "sweet."  He was too trusting.  People took advantage.  A woman who drove a big rig truck offered to marry him as a way to legalize his status.  It was strictly a financial arrangement, and Kam was the loser.  He moved in with her in an attempt to make the marriage look legitimate, though nobody in town believes it was ever consummated.  When the ruse failed, the woman dropped him but ignored his request to annul the marriage.

The town got involved.  Petitions were signed in support of Kam.  Bob Cook hired an immigration lawyer.

But nothing would move the INS.

According to Bob, part of the problem with Kam was: "He was secretive.  He never filed any paperwork, whether out of fear or ignorance.  There was an amnesty, but he missed it.  And he trusted the wrong people.  Except for that bogus marriage, Kam never spent money."

The end came suddenly.  Three black limousines pulled up at the Pioneer Market.  People in La Honda believe it was no coincidence that when those black limousines pulled up, Kam's old nemesis, the exterminator, was standing there, watching.  The INS agents pulled Kam out of the store and whisked him away.

Bob Cook and his lawyer went to San Francisco for Kam's hearing.  According to Bob, he and his lawyer thought they had prevailed.  They were talking to Kam outside the hearing room when three INS agents tackled Kam.  Bob jumped in.  So did the lawyer.  It was a melee in the hallway.  Bob, the lawyer, and little Kam were no match for the three INS agents.  They handcuffed Kam and led him away. 

Bob would never see Kam again.

A few weeks later on May 4, a Sunday, Bob called me to the store for an emergency.  A water line had broken, flooding the deli area.  As I worked on pipes, Bob ran the cash register and mopped the floor and made sandwiches to order, sorely in need of another worker.  He told me to look at a postcard on top of the deli counter.  It was a picture of Hong Kong at night.  On the back Kam had written, "It's expensive to live here.  I'm homesick."

So Kam did have a home.  Of all this big planet, from his birth in Hong Kong he had found a home in the little strip mall of La Honda, sitting on a curb smoking a cigarette and gazing at the redwoods, or sleeping in the back of the store. 

He can never come back.

Now, 25 years later, Bob Cook has moved on.  The Pioneer Market changed hands, fell into mismanagement, and changed hands again.  It is now called the La Honda Country Market, and it is a wonderful store.  The exterminator died several years ago.

Kam remains in Hong Kong.  By now, it must feel like home again, like another something further.  He has two children though he can't legally marry the mother because he is still, on paper, married to somebody driving a big rig truck somewhere in the USA. 

Who knows what might have happened? 
Perhaps Kam's life is better than before. 
Right now, it's difficult to say. 

Or as Kam might put it: "I'm still in the same place."

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