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Thursday, September 01, 2005

What's It All About?

The boy looks the same, hasn’t changed at all since I first saw him — what was it, 17, 18 years ago — walking toward me in the same attorney room at the county jail.

Back then I had the usual creeping sensation up my neck, the familiar shock to be suppressed when meeting a new client who had killed and who might well be condemned to die on my watch.

He was barely 18 when I first introduced myself to him as his public defender. He was just a skinny, shy, Chinese kid with glasses, who looked about 14. His face was hairless and already jailhouse waxy. His grasp of English was so elemental that he seemed younger still. At the arraignment, the hard-nosed head deputy D.A., Dino Fulgoni, had cracked, “Jeez, it’s gonna take a real S.O.B. to put this kid in the gas chamber.” They tried their best to do it, too.

He smiles as he sees me and walks toward my stall. I move out of the room onto a row stool so I won’t have glass between us. He’s doing okay, and I tell him so am I. He says I haven’t changed, but I correct him. I know my own face, my gray hair, I feel my age. I’m 62, he’s 37 years old now. A man, but he still looks like a kid. There is no hardness to his face, nor in his eyes. His English isn’t much different than it was back then, and his manner is just as respectful, diffident, polite.

He’d cooperated, confessed 4 times. After he’d shot the two men, after the car chase, after the car and he’d been shot full of holes, after his companions had been killed. He’d been taken to the e.r., gave a “dying declaration” before surgery. Confessed again to a faulty micro recorder and then again to help out the embarrassed interrogator, who was so grateful that he felt sorry for the kid who’d killed two cops. A couple of days later he confessed again to an F.B.I. agent, who didn’t feel sorry for him and did his best to finish him off.

The scars are still there, on his forearm, his neck, and his jaw where the bullet went through his face. He’s been to Pelican Bay, The Shoe for 10 months, Calipatria, Corcoran, Susanville - High Desert. He’s worked in the kitchen, then as a barber. He’s learned how to avoid trouble, but its hard in Level 4 institutions. “There’s a lot of trouble going on,” he says with his characteristic understatement, a little half-smile, mostly keeping the joke to himself, a bit embarrassed that he made one.

For his first 18 years, he’d known his grandpa’s home in Taiwan, a restaurant kitchen in Kansas City, his stepdad’s home in Monterey Park. He was used to keeping a low profile, keeping his eyes averted. He’d spent his childhood that way, the family’s forgotten kid, who never asked for anything.

He tells me his grandfather - the one who’d raised him after his father and mother had left him (and each other) for the U.S. - died. That was hard. He hears from his sister, his mom, his dad. His dad, whose been very ill, came to visit him now in county. They get along better now, but don’t say much to each other. Everyone asks if he needs anything, but he tells them he doesn’t, thinks “they ask to be polite.”

I tell him, “Hey, let them help you. It’ll help them more to know they can do a little.” He nods, but I don’t think he will. I ask him the big question, the reason I’m there after so many years. “Was it worth it? Are you glad I saved your life so you could spend the rest of it behind bars?”

He hesitates, been thinking about it, too, I think, maybe a lot more than I have. “I don’t want to depress you,” he says, ever the considerate kid. “But I think maybe I wish not.”

I try to say something profound and uplifting about hope and the future. He sees the look on my face, lets me off the hook. “Maybe I’m depressed. Here, I see my family and it makes me sad and ashamed.” There’s a bit of feeling in his eyes behind his glasses. We’re both embarrassed and I didn’t come to make him feel sad.

We talk about other things, how maybe I can help a little now. My neck and back are hurting after an hour. I stand up, extend my hand. He shakes it with a little smile. He thanks me “for everything.”


  1. Wow, great piece! The Existentialism here is overwhelming, as is the pathos. His politeness contrasts with the violence of his past exploits - what is the original story? What was his motivation all those years ago? Very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  2. WOW, indeed. that is simply remarkable. beautiful and sad. i'm eager to hear more about this.