The name of our housing project, North Beach, was misleading. North Beach was up the hill. We were closer to Fisherman’s Wharf. Our backyard was Alcatraz, crab stands, and sea lions down at the pier sunbathing. A salty breeze wandered our streets. Right smack between the two blocks of our housing projects was a cable car terminal, its tracks humming nonstop. A horde of tourists would gather, cameras dangling from their necks. They’d stroll through the middle of our turf like it wasn’t shit. Our buildings didn’t intimidate, just three floors high. Across the street from the terminal were four-star hotels. Tourists were an occupying army, dressed in shorts and long socks, armed with maps and smiles. We’d launch water balloons at them from the walkways, aiming for the ones with a camera.
Dickson Lam’s Paper Sons combines memoir and cultural history, the quest for an absent father and the struggle for social justice, naming traditions in graffiti and in Chinese culture. Violence marks the story at every turn—from Mao to Malcolm X, from the projects in San Francisco to the lynching of Asians during the California Gold Rush. After one of his former students at the June Jordan School of Equity is gunned down on a street corner, Lam is compelled to tell a mosaic of stories.
Once in a while a tourist would get robbed. We’d stumble upon an empty suitcase near a stairwell. Pizza delivery guys, after getting stuck up, would refuse to deliver to our doors; we had to meet them at the corner. They’d keep their engine running, windows rolled up. When I’d walk up to the car, they’d scan around to make sure it wasn’t a setup. Not because I was imposing, but because I wasn’t. Sending the innocent-looking one was the oldest trick in the book. They’d lower their window, and I’d slip them bills like a drug deal.
Each project building had a similar layout, comprised of three sections that surrounded a courtyard and a parking lot that opened up to Francisco Street. All the windows on the first floor had burglar bars that formed concentric diamonds. On the raised curbs that led into the parking lots, old men would sit and drink out of a paper bag. Or sometimes they’d sit out there just to sit. It was their porch. One with a graying beard, who’d limp around with his cane, had a dog, a Jack Russell mix who’d bark at me from a block away. Hanging out on the sidewalk would be younger guys, at the same spots day in and day out, spitting on the ground to pass the time. Sometimes it might be one dude by himself, lingering for hours, as though he had a phobia of home.
My project building was on the far end, the only one without a parking lot, a larger courtyard in its place. Unlike the other project buildings, none of our front doors faced the courtyard. We all had our back to it. And that’s what we called the courtyard: the Back. My apartment faced Columbus Avenue. Across the street were Tower Records and the Consulate of Indonesia. A few feet from my doorstep was a community garden, and in that small space in between, that’s what we called the courtyard.
In elementary school, I’d walk from my house down Francisco Street to the school bus stop and back after school. In third grade, I’d begun doing this alone. My brother was in middle school, and sometimes my sister preferred to travel on her own from school with her friends.
One day I was walking home by myself from the bus stop when some kid about my age with shiny, curly hair came straight up to me and punched me. I pushed him away but not with much strength. He laughed and raised his arms in victory, strutting over to his friend standing nearby. Another time, a teenage boy grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me towards a girl, pretending I was a stuffed animal that he wanted to give her. The day the basketball court opened after months of renovation to the playground, I was the first to show up but was soon crowded off by a large group of kids. One of them punted my ball over the chain-link fence. He didn’t take pleasure in it. More like he was doing me a favor. Better the ball than me.
There were as many Asians as Blacks in our housing projects, but it hadn’t seemed that way growing up. If you had driven by, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone hanging out who wasn’t Black.
I began to act like a tourist, wary of Black kids. I swore that I wouldn’t be caught off guard again, but this was no solution. Say the next time a kid tried to bully me, and I was ready for it, what was I really going to do? I was too proud to run, too cowardly to fight.
One afternoon, I was coming home with my sister Ga Jeh. As she was opening the door to our apartment, we heard kids singsonging our names—“Dick-son-and-Cin-dy, Cin-dy-and-Dick-son.” I saw the tops of two heads on the second floor walkway hiding behind the concrete railing. They reminded me of dark roasted coffee beans. It was Abdullah and Sameerah. They lived two doors down from us. They were much smaller. Ga Jeh was in the fifth grade, and I was in the third, but ’Dullah was only in kindergarten, and his sister was a year younger, though she was much taller than him.
We went inside, and I sat down to take my shoes off. No one else was home. Our dad was at work, our mother was probably doing some grocery shopping, and my brother Goh Goh was just now getting off from school.
My sister leaned back against the front door, her hand on the doorknob, her lips pressed tight. She wore overalls, and her bangs fell below her eyebrows. ’Dullah and Sameerah were still singsonging our names. Ga Jeh didn’t lock the door. We had four locks, including two chain locks, which my father Bah Ba had installed, one high, one low. It was also Bah Ba who’d installed the wire mesh that guarded all our windows, as if the thick steel bars weren’t enough protection. “A burglar will need weeks to cut through,” he’d told me. I wondered how we’d escape in a fire.
Ga Jeh opened the door and stepped out into the courtyard. “Sa-meer-ah and ’Dul-lah, ’Dul-lah and Sa-meer-ah!”
The two of them upstairs erupted in laughter, and my sister slammed the door.
“Let’s go in the living room,” I told her. I figured the best thing to do was ignore them.
Ga Jeh stomped past me to the sink and reached behind the cutting board, thick and circular, a piece of wood that seemed sliced directly from a tree trunk. My sister held my mother’s cleaver.
“Grab a knife!” she said, raising the cleaver in the air as if it were Excalibur.
She was nuts. My mother wouldn’t let me handle a steak knife.
“You’re going to be a scaredy cat your whole life?” she said. She got in my face and gave me an eye-level glare.
I saw myself in her dark brown pupils, trapped in their spheres.
“Pick. One. Up. Now.”
I proceeded to the dish rack—my mom always told me to listen to my Ga Jeh—and found the chef’s knife in the back. My image was distorted in the blade as I flipped it back and forth.
Ga Jeh shook the cleaver at me. “After this, they won’t bug us.” She was too small for the knife, which only made her appear more menacing. She wasn’t unfamiliar with knives. My mother let her help in the kitchen, chopping garlic or vegetables.
“They’ll run,” Ga Jeh said. “Watch.”
I tilted my knife up.
“Look crazy. Like you’ll really do it.” She stuck her tongue out and made an ugly face.
I narrowed my eyebrows, trying to slant them like the angry faces I doodled in class.
She looked confused. “Just stay behind me.”
It was hard to act wild carrying the knife. My clumsy hands would knock over glasses of soda onto the living room carpet. I didn’t want to slip with a knife while I was pretending to slash someone.
Ga Jeh put her hand on the doorknob and turned back to me.
I nodded, tightening my grip on the knife.
She yanked the door open, and it banged against the wall. She burst out of the kitchen onto the courtyard. Her ponytail flapped behind her. I leaped through the door, stumbling forward when I landed.
Ga Jeh waved the cleaver toward the patchy sky. Sunlight gleamed off the knife. ’Dullah and Sameerah leaned over the railing on the second floor, but they didn’t flee. They observed us from above like we were animals in a zoo, so focused on us that they hadn’t realized we were racing to the staircase at the end of the floor to confront them. From their vantage point, it might’ve appeared we were about to run past them.
My sister let out a high-pitched shriek. The force of it sent them running. I screamed, trying to match my sister’s intensity. She was sprinting, but the point was to frighten them, not catch them. I didn’t recognize this volatile Ga Jeh. I thought of her as more Hello Kitty than anything else.
I realize now that this took place after the abuse began. It could have been my father that sent my sister charging, knife raised.
We skipped steps up the staircase. The plastic beads in Sameerah’s hair clicked as she ran. She trailed behind ’Dullah. Years later, me and ’Dullah would run after buses we’d just missed. His face would harden and nothing seemed more important than his next step. We’d catch up with the bus, and tourists would clap when we got on.
They jumped into the stairwell that led to the third floor. We followed, though our mother had warned us not to wander around in our building. I smelled urine trapped inside the stairwell. A dried up stream snaked down the steps. The words “North Beach Posse” were written in a block font on the wall.
The third floor presented three choices. North Beach was a labyrinth. One path led to a walkway wrapping around our side of the projects, another to the next project complex, and the last walkway led to a dead end around the corner.
“Which way?” I asked.
Ga Jeh ran toward the next project building, and I tried to keep pace. Shards of glass peppered the floor, broken bottles. My sister peeked over the railing when we reached the next building. A steady stream of cars flowed below. I looked into the stairwell. No sign of our prey. Mission accomplished.
When we came home and returned the knives to the kitchen, I remember thinking that my sister had discovered the secret of life. When you get picked on, grab a knife. Charge after your tormentors, and they won’t do it again. It was a simple recipe, except we didn’t count on their mother.
Cassandra pounded on our front door. “Open up!” The walls shook with each thump. I felt the vibrations against my chest. We hid in our parent’s room. Lights off. Door locked. The knocking would cease for a minute or two only to begin again. “I know you’re in there!”
When the knocking eventually stopped, Ga Jeh and I remained still, worried it was a trap. Silence offered no comfort.
Header photo by Mimzy, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Dickson Lam by Lisa Keating.