FACES TELL ALL

Harold at Kung Fu Palace

        Back in his apartment, Harold was enjoying a year-end vacation day and a modicum of satisfaction that people were approving his ideas. Respect from others was important, but he had to make that final leap from self-doubt to self-confidence.

        Sitting at his desk, he pored over a subway map: the Broadway local from 23rd Street to 42nd, and then the 7 train to Flushing. The House of Kung Fu, on Northern Blvd., he estimated to be only a few blocks walk from the elevated Main St. station.  Dressed in street togs, he packed his knapsack with his workout gear, Nikon camera, Scotch Tape, a Magic Marker and the two Times newspaper articles dealing with the subway murder—the initial one and the follow-up which provided background on CAM, plus a short history of gang violence in Chinatown. Exactly how he would confront a possible Tong warrior, Harold wasn’t sure. But when the moment arrived, he knew he wouldn’t flinch from his self-appointed mission to defend the noble arts. If not do battle directly, then at least deliver the strongest possible message.

        It was early afternoon when Harold descended the stairs of the Main Street Flushing station. His stride was deliberate and unhurried, eyes serene and trained on a distant point as if in a trance. Rounding a corner, he was startled by a flaming red neon sign wrapped around a four-story, ultra-modern commercial building. On it, gold metallic letters spelled House of Kung Fu, with accompanying Chinese characters.

        Coming closer, Harold was stirred by the splendor of the building: panels of jade-like ceramic alternated with those of chrome and stainless steel; floor-to-ceiling glass walls revealing brilliantly-lit interior spaces, populated by men and women in various martial arts uniforms and poses. Harold thought, the building’s appearance and its purpose formed an organic unity—Yin and Yang.

        Inside, a few people, mainly East Asian, waited to register at a polished granite counter. A semi-circular lobby, resplendent in green marble, opened left and right to corridors lined with overhead banks of blinding white-fluorescent lights. Walking down the right corridor, he could see training rooms and people that had been visible from the street. Harold found the intense light bewildering. He was confused about what to do next. Was he going to ask for a challenge match with someone and ask if they had gang connections? Don’t be absurd.

        Feeling self-conscious, although none of the few passersby seemed to notice him, he removed his Columbia Lions wool cap, took off his backpack, and began to shuffle through its contents. Facing the wall, he was relieved to see a glass-encased bulletin board on which to focus his attention. Prominently displayed were a dozen or so headshots of uniformed martial arts champions wearing medals. He thought, these are all powerful warrior faces. In bold type above each were their club names: Dragons, Eagles, Shadows and so forth. Harold’s eyes flitted over to an adjacent magazine spread pinned to the corkboard. The article featured photos of some of the same champions and was headlined:   

        “Tong thugs or martial arts heroes? Many “reformed” Chinese gangs have changed their names— from Ghost Shadows to Shadows, for one—but have they changed their games? Some of New York Chinatown’s martial artists are national champions but time will tell whether they become real heroes to neighborhood Chinese-Americans, their former prey. Certain elders of the Chinatown Benevolent Associations—who wish to remain anonymous—are skeptical….etc, etc.”

        Feeling a rush of excitement, Harold tried to appear calm. He composed himself by reading the entire four-column article over the next minute or so. Finally, he slowly looked around and noticed two groups of people in the corridor who were absorbed in their own conversations. He pulled out the two newspaper clippings about the subway murder and quickly taped them to the glass next to the magazine articles. Magic Marker in hand, trembling slightly, he strained to write legibly on the paper: Kung Fu heroes don’t murder! Another glance around confirmed that he was unobserved. He raised the camera to the glass over the magazine article and depressed the shutter. The flash briefly blinded him as it reflected harshly off the glass. Turning around, he saw others looking in his direction. Harold felt a stab of fear in his abdomen and a prickly feeling around his scalp and neck. Turning, he saw out of the corner of his eye another bright glint—all too familiar—the lens of a scanning camera.

        He couldn’t resist looking directly at it. A flutter of panic in his chest rose to his throat. He gasped and coughed to clear the airway.

        He thought, oh my god, what have I got myself into, trying to play the big man. Harold controlled the impulse to run, so as not to draw further attention. But he was distraught, looked it, and people began to stare.

        He tried to smile and walk casually toward the lobby but his face felt frozen and his legs stiff as if constrained by elastics. He found the presence of mind to slip on his backpack with its belongings inside and placed his Columbia cap back on his head.

        Harold became acutely aware of his rising heart beat, took a deep breath, backed against the corridor wall and closed his eyes almost shut, remembering a Shaolin training meditation: upright relaxed stance, eyes and mouth eighty-percent closed, inhale through nose, exhale through mouth, left palm over right across the abdomen. Almost immediately, he felt tensions lessen and his breathing normalize. Blinking his eyes fully open after a few seconds, he found his path blocked by two grim-looking men wearing black martial arts tunics imprinted with Shadows in white stitching. Both moved toward him.

        Harold would remember the next sequence as a blur although several seconds passed. He dropped into a one-legged crouch, the other leg and an arm extended for balance and whipped the elevated leg around in a high arc, his shoe just missing the heads of the Shadows men. They backed way and Harold took advantage of the opening between them to bolt toward the front door. From ten yards away, he saw a man exiting, accelerated into full sprinter’s mode just as the door swung open and brushed past him. A glance back told him he was being pursued by one of the black-clad men. He also saw he had dropped his Columbia cap. Harold thought he’d never run so fast in his life—at least in civvies.

        Over the next couple of blocks, he was apparently outdistancing his pursuer—not hearing footsteps—but realized that reaching the station he might still have to wait for the train, and be caught.

         Luckily, a vacant New York City cab, roof light alit, was cruising slowly just ahead of him, on Northern Blvd. With a burst of speed, Harold reached it and rapped on the back window. Panting and perspiring heavily, he had to catch his breath and haltingly gave the cabbie his home address. Sitting back, he felt the frenzy and fear dissipate, only to be replaced by a wrenching bitterness and despair. He had failed to really confront anybody—verbally or physically. He had run. Maybe he had discovered a hangout of gangsters, maybe not. But in trying to beard the lion in its den he had proved to be a coward. So much for self-respect and self-confidence. These self-inflicted blows of defeat hurt deeply. How could he find the intestinal fortitude to go on from here? How indeed? Exhausted, he dozed off and awoke suddenly clear-headed just as the cab was emerging from the Manhattan side of the Queens Midtown Tunnel. As if guided by an unseen hand, Harold reached for his cell phone and found the number. Surely he’ll see me in an emergency. I hope. He punched the number displayed for Alvin Farkis, PhD., Psychotherapist.

 

Dr. Philip Wolfson

Author, Face Tell All