Author's Note: This is dedicated to "Joshua," "Tanner," and all the South End Kids that told me their stories hoping they'd be immortalized in a horrible book.
Warning: features general hoodlum bullshit. Ensemble cast, slice of life.
Dim Sum Loans
Pall Malls and Dumplings
He sighs. A deep inhale followed by a sharp exhale. The air is toxic and does nothing to ease his frustration. He can taste the cigarette smoke the man next to him puffs out into the smoggy city streets. There's no need for him to look, he knows that disgusting smoke is from a Pall Mall. He hates the stench and taste so much he contemplates pulling out one of his own cigarettes and offering it, just so the lingering pollution isn't as horrendous.
Behind him he hears the sound of fist meeting flesh, the grunts of pain, the sound of a body being beaten. He gives a quick glance over his shoulder. The alleyway is too dark and the angle he's at too skewed for him to get a good view of the roughing. It makes him even more anxious. He shoves his hands in his pockets and rocks back onto his heels. Another sigh.
The scuffle behind him stops. A set of footsteps scurries away, shuffling quickly in a limp, growing more distant every second. Approaching him are two sets of feet, idly trotting down the dark alleyway without concern. The man next to him flicks the nasty half-smoked cigarette onto the street as they both turn to greet the intruders. Aside from the bruised knuckles, spit on their shirts, and blood on their shoes, there's no sign they've been in a confrontation.
"He didn't have any cash. Just this," one of the men says, holding out a thoroughly used credit card.
The Pall Mall smoker snatches the card and immediately bats the presenter in the back of the head several times. He curses at him in a foreign language. The card is snapped in half, part of it flying and striking the man in the face. Our protagonist watches this exchange and sighs for a third time. This is just how his luck goes.
He watches in disinterest as the Pall Mall man orders the thugs away. His eyes follow them as they disappear down the alleyway, treading after the victim they had just robbed.
"Fuckin' idiots," the Pall Mall man curses and spits. "He had a wedding ring and nice watch, yeah? We'll get that instead. The fuck did they think we could do with a credit card? Idiots." Aggravated, he digs into his jacket and pulls out a pack of Pall Malls. Placing a smoke between his lips, he asks, "Haven't seen you in a hot minute, Soái ca. How've things been? How's Jenny?"
Soái ca, who hates that nickname more than the horrendous taste of Pall Malls, watches in disgust as his friend lights a cigarette and savors the nasty taste. Instead of giving a direct answer, he says, "You should visit sometime, Heo."
Heo is in the middle of taking another puff, so he gives a nod for an answer. He lifts his head up and blows the smoke toward the street, knowing full well Soái ca can't stand his choice in smokes. There's words on his tongue, perhaps a justification for his lack of visits or promise that he'll stop by, but he's silenced before a single word leaves his lips.
A shrill siren interrupts them. They know that sound better than most. A panicked glance between themselves is all that's spared before they take off sprinting full speed down the street. They're side by side, not even an inch of space between the two, when Heo suddenly snags Soái ca by the shirt and forces them both to a halt.
The next thing Soái ca knows a fist is colliding with his cheek. The hit is so precise and strong it knocks him to his ass. As he cradles the damaged cheekbone, he strings together curses like a rap god. Once more a single set of footsteps are scurrying away while two more approach.
A firm hand grabs his shoulder as he's rocking back in forth, still cursing. "You okay, kid? That piece of shit assault you?" a gruff voice asks. He doesn't answer; he never talks to cops. The officer assumes his hunch his correct and says, "Don't worry, we'll get him. Sit tight we'll get a statement from you."
Soái ca is grimacing through the sharp pain in his face as he watches the cop that stopped to check on him take off. The two partners are chasing after Heo, but they'll never catch him. As the duo disappear around a corner, Soái ca scurries to his feet and takes off in a mad dash across the street, into a thin alleyway, and over a six-foot fence. This run continues for a few blocks before he slows down to catch his breath.
Once his lungs have been replenished, he picks the pace back up. He ends up in a steady jog, knowing full well the danger is behind him but still in need of places to be. It's well past dark, well past working hours, and the streets are sparse. Regulars from this dinky neighborhood greet him as he passes. He spares them nods and waves but nothing more.
Finally, he arrives at his destination. It's a side street so narrow is might as well be an alleyway. Only one car could possibly fit through. Here he feels safe, so his jog turns into a crawl. A 24-hour laundry mat on the first floor of a decrepit brick building blasted with chipped white paint is calling for him. He slides inside, the shoddy door nearly falling off the hinges when he opens it.
Navigating to the back, he sneaks through a wooden door that requires a strong kick to open. This leads to a dimly lit hallway the reeks of mildew and urine. The walls are a god-awful paled teal, with notices, stickers, graffiti, and posters plastered precariously all around. Reaching a staircase, he stops long enough to make sure his breathing is even, and then he bounds upward, skipping steps two or three at a time.
At the top he reaches another hallway. He takes the first door on the left. A sign that reads, "Loans" greets him.
Popping the door open, he is met with a shout, "Hey! Konnichiwa, Soái ca-san!" It comes from his boss, Brian, who doesn't even look up from his computer. There's only one person expected this late at night.
"That's Japanese, dipshit," Soái ca says as he takes a seat at his own desk. He doesn't need to explain the origin of the annoy nickname. Everyone knows why his friends call him that.
"My bad, Mister Choi. Whoa! What happened to your pretty face?" Brian asks.
Joshua Choi, better known as Soái ca, doesn't answer right away. He's too pissed off to speak. A tissue box on his desk becomes the target of his frustrations as he rips several out. Without regard to how much it'll hurt, he rubs the blood running down his cheek away and then presses on the laceration brought about by Heo's ring.
Before you ask, he's very aware of the ridiculous fact he's a Korean-American with a Christian name and Vietnamese nickname.
Things are complicated in the South End, none so much as the neighborhood of Brickstone Beach. He never understood why they called it Brickstone "Beach" when there wasn't a waterfront in sight for miles; there's nothing but run-down shops, street vendors, homeless kids, and immigrants here. He had to assume it was due to the countless brick buildings that were crumbling onto the street.
In his father's youth, the Asian community was divided by their nationality. The Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Chinese laid claim to streets and fought violently over territory. At some point they had formed an uneasy alliance, but certain boroughs were run still dominated by certain groups. In this case of Brickstone Beach, the Vietnamese owned the streets. Thus, despite his Christian name and Korean heritage, he was bestowed the nickname Soái ca – handsome guy, pretty boy, prince charming.
An ice pack is presented to him. He follows the offering arm upward to find himself staring into the concerned eyes of Kayla Carpenter, one of about three white people in the tri-borough area. He takes it with a, "Thanks," and replaces the bloodied tissue with the cold-sting of the new ice pack. Kayla shuffles back to her own desk and he watches her, wondering why the flying fuck she ended up here in this hood.
"I thought you went to collect on Li's loan and grab us a pizza, homie. Did scrawny ol' man Li kick your ass?" Brian asks.
Soái ca lets out disappointed sound and mutters, "I forgot about the pizza." His voice raises a notch as he explains, "That's what I was gonna do. I ran into Heo," he's interrupted by various noises of disapproval before he continues, "And the shithead sent some of his boys after Li for me. All he had was a credit card. Cops showed up and Heo sucker punched me like a pussy."
Brian takes a long drink from his soda. Soái ca knows its from the dim sum restaurant on the corner, because it's the only place that still uses Styrofoam cups and plastic straws despite the city-wide ban on both. Silently he questions why he needed to get a pizza if they just went to the dim sum place without him.
Finally, the cup almost depleted, Brian sets his soda down. "You sure those boys didn't just take the cash for themselves and lie to you?" he asks. When Soái ca hangs his head in defeat, Brian can't help but laugh. "No sweat, boy. No sweat," he assures him.
Soái ca has always liked Brian and considers himself fortunate to have a "job" that places him under the care of a down-to-earth boss. Both he and Brian come from the street. Although Brian has never said as much, Soái ca assumes his boss sees a reflection of himself in the young Korean-American.
They come from different eras, different boroughs, and different gangs. Even their race is different – Brian is African-American – and their family lives are polar opposites. Brian is more than a decade older and comes from the 3rd Street Dimes of the Capital District. Sometimes Soái ca wonders what caused the well-respected gangster to leave that life to resettle in the South End and switch careers.
The building they're in is partially owned by Brian. The laundry mat downstairs is his, as is the office space they currently occupy. This shoddy building rests on what the locals call "Dim Sum Street," named so because of the delicious restaurant on the corner of the alley-sized street and the main road. Thanks to this, everything – regardless of its real name – is called "dim sum." It's the "dim sum laundry mat" and they work in the office of "dim sum loans."
"But man, your face. Not so cute now, are you?" Brian laughs.
Soái ca hates his face. He hates that it's "soft." He hates that at twenty-two, he's still ID'd when he tries to buy smokes. Sometimes he wishes a rival gang member would just gauge a knife into his face so it wouldn't be the center of attention. He's sick of having to fight twice as hard and act twice as tough as all the other boys from his hood. Everyone doubts him. No one takes him seriously.
He pulls out his phone, turns the camera on and switches to selfie mode. He's admiring the damage done by Heo, the way the ring cut a trench about a quarter of an inch into his skin just below his eye. The swelling has been pushed down by the cold pack but it's still obvious. Discoloration mares his cheekbone and is moving toward his eye.
"He hasn't been cute since he started growing out that hideous thing he calls a mustache," someone says. That "someone" is the fourth person in their foursome, his older sister Jennifer. She's the one who introduced him to Brian and the reason he has this job.
His attention turns to the faint hairs adorning his face. He's been trying to grow out a mustache and beard for a few weeks now, but to no avail. The hairs above his lip are spotty and thin; the little scruff that's formed on his chin could be counted in one sitting. He checks his cheeks to find that aside from the hair on his head being a tad longer, he has no sideburns.
"Hey," Jennifer calls out to him. He looks over at her, at attention. It's not until she's confident he's listening that she says, "Forget Heo. Stop associating with assholes like him."
Hearing such things come from his sister is sobering. He feels like he's being scolded. His voice comes out softer than he intends when he tries to defend his decisions. "He and the boys are my family. I can't just stop being friends with them."
"Whatever. And shave. You look like a child molester."
The first thing he does the next morning is shave.
Tossing on basketball shorts, a hoodie, and a dirtied ballcap, he slips his sneakers on and heads out. He lives in the same hallway as that loan office, a little room that was originally meant to be a storage closet. It's not ideal, but it's a lot better than an underpass or jail cell. A bathroom is right across the hallway, which is convenient. Unfortunately, the plumbing is atrocious. It's not uncommon for the water to suddenly shutoff or the toilet to backup. This morning, while brushing his teeth, he had the misfortune of losing water. It's not a big deal, really. It just means the next person to use that bathroom will be met with his spit in the sink.
Avoiding the office, he travels down the creaky stairs and sprints through the stench of the dirty hallway. He doesn't have to sneak through the laundry mat this time because it's regular business hours, so he trots to a door that leads straight onto Dim Sum Street.
Outside he finds himself in the midst of a steady rain. He flips his hood over his hat, shoves his hands in his pockets, and jogs across the street to the dim sum eatery. On the door a sign reads "CLOSED" but he pushes it open. Bells jingle to signal the arrival of a patron.
"Oh, Joshua!" an older woman calls from the kitchen.
"Good morning, Māmā," he calls out. Everyone on this street calls Lin Huang, co-owner of the dim sum restaurant, Māmā, or "mom" in Chinese. She is, in many ways, everyone's mom on this little block. No one ever goes without, thanks to her. Her generosity and kindness know no ends. He feels a little guilty constantly receiving her blessings.
She calls for someone from upstairs, where her family resides. Her youngest daughter, Mei, descends the stairs. Upon seeing Soái ca she smiles; he gives her one of his own and a wave but doesn't greet her verbally. As Mei disappears into the kitchen, a head sticks out from the window. The man offers a smug, open mouth smile as he wipes his hands clean.
"Oh, Soái ca! Your ugly ass is here late! Your breakfast is cold!" the chef says to him. He manages to put a serious face on long enough to ask, "Did you finally get a housewife that'll cook for you and your dog face?" Then he's laughing hard, like he said something clever or amusing.
"Shut up, Jian," Soái ca throws back.
Māmā's angry voice can be heard shrieking from behind Jian, "Quiet! Stupid boy! I wish my son was handsome like Joshua, not a fish like you!"
Jian makes an exaggerated face with puffed out cheeks, showing he is neither amused nor upset at the remark. Jian is Māmā's oldest son and the head chef of this famous dim sum restaurant, although that isn't all the serve. Regardless the jabs they throw at each other, Soái ca is rather fond of Jian, maybe even jealous. Jian is known not for his looks (they're average), or his reputation (he's mild), but for his food, allowing him to stay hidden in the kitchen slaving away at his craft. The chef has never been in trouble with the law or had his name slip through strangers' lips in the form of rumors. What he has done, however, is always treated Soái ca like a little brother; he accepted him before anyone else and without question.
"Hey, Soái ca, open up!" Jian yells. In his hand is a what appears to be a small round piece of deep-fried dough, but he's so far away Soái ca can't be certain. Still, he opens his mouth wide and prepares for the oncoming assault. "Kobe!"
Soái ca barely has to move for the piece of dough to land in his mouth. The two are cheering in celebration over the perfect shot when Māmā comes out of the kitchen yelling, "You want to choke?! Huh?! This is how you choke! Stop acting stupid!"
Jian snickers as he retreats into his lair. Soái ca is in the process of swallowing the half-chewed dough when Māmā thrusts bags of food into his hands. Somehow, despite the food that's halfway down his throat, he chokes out, "Thank you, Māmā."
"Give the soup to Brian, I know he still is not over that cold," she tells him. Her eyes spot the bruising around his eye and the small bandage covering the light cut. There's concern in her face but she doesn't have the heart to confront him on it. Instead, a small envelop is shoved into his hoodie pocket. He's about to fish it out when Māmā stops him and says, "For Jenny." A gentle pat on his hand is given as a goodbye, and Māmā leaves him.
Mei is waiting for her mother to move so she can over the four drinks she's been holding. Unlike Māmā, who shoved the goods into Soái ca's hands whether he was ready or not, she waits until he's extended his arm to accept the gift. "Thank you," he says.
Soái ca thinks Mei is cute, and every time he sees her, he thinks to tell her but never does. People can talk all they want about how "handsome" Soái ca is, it does nothing to boost his confidence. So, like usual, he settles on a wordless smile that he hopes conveys the fact he thinks she's pretty charming. Based on the shy smile she gives him return he thinks she understood – well, at least he hopes so.
Departing from the restaurant, he treks through the rain trying to balance the tray of drinks and bags of breakfast. Somehow, he's able to make it through the door, down the hall, and up the stairs without dropping anything. Using his foot, he nudges the door to the loan office open.
Inside Brian is speaking to a new client. Soái ca listens in on the details as he distributes the food.
"So the collateral, we got that down here. That's not a big deal, okay? We have leniency period of a month before we start to worry about that. Minimum – that's the least amount you can pay – that's just a hundred bucks a week for the first three months…"
He reaches Jennifer's desk and presents her with a warm cup of tea, a takeout box with "Jenny" scrawled on it in sharpie, and the envelope. The envelope slapped hard on the keyboard she was typing away with. "What is this?" she asks.
"From Jian," he answers and moves on to Kayla.
Jennifer snags the envelops and huffs before marching out as dramatically as possible. Soái ca tries to ignore the sound of the door slamming behind her; the sound it loud enough it causes Kayla to jump and splash her newly acquired tea.
By the time he's finished handing out the food and sitting down to eat, Brian's client has left. He munches on the fresh dumplings as he watches Brian file paperwork. Curious as to who the new client is, he mulls asking but stays focused on his breakfast.
Someone enters. He expects its Jennifer, so he doesn't bother to look up. It's not until he hears Brian go, "Hey-eyy! What can I do for ya, boss?" that he glances over.
A skinny white kid, dressed in an Old Navy button up and Levi jeans, dirty Vans on his feet, cautiously enters the office space. Nervously he looks around the room, eyeing all the occupants with unease.
"Um, I heard you do loans?"
"Yeah, yeah we do. Sit down, boss, let's chat," Brian offers, pointing to the chair at this desk. The young man seems to be a little more at ease given Brian's hospitality. Brian's an easygoing guy. There's nothing about him that seems uppity or intimidating. He's got a smile worth a thousand bucks that shines in his eyes. He never dresses too formal or too trashy; there's a ballcap for a basketball team that's left town years ago he never takes off, a comfortable-fit tee and pressed jeans. The only sign of his wealth is the gaudy watch on his wrist.
The kid sits down where Brian pointed, still somewhat defensive. "Name's Brian, what's yours?" Brian asks as he extends his hand in greeting.
The new client accepts and again opens up a bit. "Tanner," he says.
"Tanner, cool. What can we do for you, Tanner? You need a loan, obviously, but whatchu need a loan for?"
"I'm going to go into business," he says.
"Cool, what kinda business?" Brian asks. He's only half paying attention; he's more focused on digging out the proper paperwork he's going to need. When he looks up, it's to try and gather intel on this weirdo. What kind of money does he come from? What kind of trouble might he be?
"Uh, pharmaceuticals," Tanner answers.
There's a hitch in Brian's movements as he processes what's just been said. It takes a few seconds before his body returns to normal functions. He doesn't want to ask any more than necessary.
"What's… what's the maximum I can take out without collateral?" Tanner asks.
Again, Brian can't help his body when it freezes in some of shock. He thinks on it before answering, "Well, I'll tell you Tanner, I'll give you a deal. Where you from, Tanner?"
"Okay, alright. I only like to do ten grand without collateral. But seeing as you're from the nice hood of Belltown, I'll make an exception. We'll call it the Tanner deal. I'll double it. Double that ten grand. That's twenty grand cash. But here's the hitch, you listening, Tanner? Okay. Your interest – you know how those loan sharks like Money Bush do interest, right? It's absurd, man. Like ninety, ninety-nine percent. I normally do only forty-percent. That's less than half. You can keep the forty-percent discount interest. Okay? And that interest, the first week, that first week – no interest. If you pay back the twenty-grand in the first week, you don't owe me anything."
"Of course, Tanner, we're partners, you feel me?"
Soái ca chokes on his dumpling. This kid is an absolute dope. Nothing about what Brian is offering is good. No one that needs twenty-thousand in cash is going to be able to pay it back in a week.
Brian continues, "Now, after that, to keep up with the principle and the interest, you need to make payments of a thousand a week, okay? Can you do that, Tanner?"
"Oh, yeah, definitely," Tanner says. His voice has gotten louder. He's excited. He's convinced he's in a good place.
Who the hell can pay a thousand a week? thinks Soái ca.
"Okay, now, if you miss a payment, that's okay. But if you miss two payments, that's when we have problems," Brian says.
"We won't have any problems, sir. Trust me, I'll be making a grand a day after I get started," Tanner assures him.