Monday, May 14, 2012

No Kong Shins on the Southwest Side

A friend introduced me to her friend Jill. Jill was a tall and strapping lass with a five o’clock shadow.

Jill wore a dark gray women’s business suit, like an assistant principal. Her ruffled blouse was of the style my mother wore.

Jill’s voice was a man’s voice. Baritone. “You don’t remember me, do you?” Jill asked me. I decided not to even pretend I did. She said a few years back I interviewed her for a position as one of my pit crew.

Funny how I didn’t remember her at all. I wanted to ask Jill if she was Jack at that time. Because surely I would remember her as Jill. And I would have been strongly inclined to hire her. Because I’m partial toward hiring the kind of people that I never would have met on the southwest side of Chicago. I feel like those who’d shake them up on the southwest side are of my tribe. I meet someone like her and I place myself in the living room of my boyhood home in the 1960s and ‘70s, looking out the window. Would anyone like Jill walk by? Hell no! And if she did walk by, somebody would have called the cops! Because the southwest side was fiercely homogenous. Only sturdy, common-sense people lived there in sturdy, common-sense houses. They were people that could be trusted, like firemen and cops and butchers and upholsterers. They were all Christians and carnivores. The southwest side was like an elephant’s tusk—pure white through and through.

Cripples were even too skewed to fit in completely on the southwest side, or on any side of town for that matter. We couldn’t go to the school around the corner like everyone else. So they bused us out to one of the cripple schools, where white kids like me were only about 20 percent of the student body. My sister came home from her first day of cripple school kindergarten stunned and perplexed. “I saw a chocolate girl!” she declared.

So in that one regard, my segregated education was accidentally liberating. It forced me to mingle with the chaff. It unintentionally taught me to feel solidarity with the skewed.

I do remember when a guy named Kong Shin answered one of my pit crew ads. He showed up for the interview wearing a somber, gray robe. His hair was cut sort of Hare Krishna style. But other than that he looked and sounded like your basic white guy American in his mid 20s.

His real name was Bob, he said, and until recently he was in the advertising business. It was vicious and cutthroat and he was in up to his chin, he said. So he chucked it all and joined a Buddhist monastery. Chicago is peppered with such “monasteries,” which are basically like just three-flats mixed in discreetly with all the other three flats on the block.

I never saw anyone like Kong Shin on the southwest side either. Somebody would have called the cops on him, too. He might have gotten beat up.

Kong Shin said he needed a part time job that wouldn’t cause him any moral conflict. I really wanted to hire him. But apparently his monastery was of the hard ass, Buddhist boot camp variety. There was a strict 10 p.m. curfew. So screw that. In order for him to get back to the monastery in time to avoid turning into a pumpkin, I’d have to live my life on central standard nursing home time, going to bed before sundown.

He said he changed his name to Kong Shin because it means “empty mind.”

“That’s a compliment, right?” said I.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s the highest state of consciousness.”

“A lot of people accuse me of having an empty mind,” I said. “But I don’t think they mean it as a compliment. “

Kong Shin didn’t laugh.