Chinky Smith

By: kmarulis

Apr 03 2010

Category: 1

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*Author’s note:   While some of the terms and nicknames used in these stories from my youth may seem derogatory and while many of the situations have a propensity for violence and tragedy, this was, according to my memory, the way it happened. To deny history  would be unendurable. 
  To Chinky, 
We called him Chinky. Everybody called him that but only a few insiders knew that his last name was Smith and fewer still were aware of the reason behind his unusual moniker. 

In the pre-civil rights movement of the 1950’s, a black person growing up in a New York City housing project might consider a vision of future prospects as dim and the possibility of rising above the station of life into which you were born as non-existent. The cards were stacked against you. 

True, the cards were unfairly shuffled against all of us who rubbed shoulders and shared our youthful lives, but to have the perceptibly synonymous burdens of poverty and an unacceptable pigmentation of the skin precede your every introduction would seem as insurmountable obstacles. You would learn, at that moment of lost innocence, of your place in the world. Anger, confusion and shame and a dream shattered. 

Although I did wear the sign of poverty around my neck, I’ve never walked on the earth wearing the dark skin of a1950’s American negro. I cannot fully understand the implications nor judge another’s reaction to the realization that, for the rest of your life, you will travel the world at an unfair disadvantage. 

Chinky couldn’t admit to what anyone with eyes could see. He denied the skin he was born into and told everyone that he was Hawaiian. Ours was a racially diverse group of kids who were born to people from many parts of the world. We had Filipino, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Irish, Greek, African-American, Puerto Rican, etc., etc. 

So, when he denied himself, the reaction from his peers was one of a humorous derision. Everyone began calling him Chinky. If someone knocked on his door to come out and play, they would ask his family for Chinky. To this very day I cannot recall his true name. It should be noted here, lest the uninformed get the wrong impression, that to receive a nickname was a sign of acceptance and affection. Your name became Chinky and you were part of our fabric and lore. 

Chinky became a burglar. At least that’s what I was told and I knew he’d spent some time behind bars paying for his crimes. Years later, during the civil rights era of the sixties, I encountered his younger brother, a racially aware and tough kid who did not appear to share Chinky’s denial of his heritage. I knew Chinky was in jail but I still had affection for an old friend and so I stopped to inquire into his well-being and whereabouts. Upon mention of the name “Chinky” I could see an immediate glare from this younger brother who wasn’t about to put up with my honky crap. He didn’t like this nickname we had given his older brother and I thought for a moment that we were going to get into a fight. His mood quickly changed however, as he realized the sincerity of my inquiry. He knew I cared about his brother and we ended our conversation by sharing pleasantries along with what little information we both could offer. 

Chinky was about five years older than I, and as I had previously stated, he was a burglar. One of my earliest recollections of him was when I was about eleven or twelve years old. Chinky had donned a scoutmasters uniform and had showed up at my sixth floor apartment doorway and announced that he was taking our scouting troop on an overnight camping trip. Being so long ago, the particulars of this negotiation between my parents and Chinky are now forgotten, but that evening found me and my older brother and a few of our friends camped out behind a neighborhood billboard and not within the safe confines of a boy scout camp, as my parents had thought. 

I was young, and I was naïve and that night I slept soundly behind that billboard amidst discarded washing machines, broken bottles and other human household refuse. While I was sleeping however, things were happening, and the scoutmaster’s plan unfolded under the stealth and cover of darkness. Chinky and the rest of his troop, all of whom were older than I, headed off to Saint Lucy’s Grotto. 

St. Lucy’s was one of those places where creatures of faith would bring the ill and incurably infirm to pray and partake of the holy waters. If you were to visit this grotto in the Bronx you would perhaps be awed by the numbers of crutches hanging about as testament to the faith and miracles of those whose beliefs had enabled them to walk away from this holy place upright and to leave behind the walking crutch that had brought them there. 

Okay, so Chinky was a burglar and here was a grotto’s waters filled with thousands of coins and here too was his entourage of dumb young cohorts willing to take a swim on a hot summer night. 

As the story goes, while my soul was being preserved by sleep, the rest of the troop returned, booty in hand and buried the bags of loot with the plan of retrieving it all at a later time. Well, we can forget those inferences about honor amongst thieves because somehow all those coins disappeared before it could all be equally shared. I can only surmise of course, but to look back at this plan hatched by Chinky to rob St. Lucy’s, and to put together a labor force(free), and in the end to abscond with the proceeds. Very creative thinking. 

There was another time though, when neither youth nor sleepiness could save me from Chinky’s cognitive thought process. 

About two years later, when I would have been approximately twelve or thirteen years of age, Chinky came up to me and told me that he was locked out of his apartment and could I help him get in? So, being both dumb and naïve, I agreed to hang by one hand from the roof of an eight story building and grab onto an open bathroom window and then lower myself into the opening, all the while dangling high above a certain moment of concrete death. Things turned out okay and I am still here to tell this tale, but it wasn’t until years later that my mind returned to that moment with the thought that perhaps that wasn’t Chinky’s place after all. 

I lost touch with Chinky after a while and I didn’t see him until years later when for a brief moment we joked and tussled good-naturedly for the last time. He seemed a bit disheveled then and perhaps he was on the run from the law. 

There wasn’t much that was enigmatic about Chinky. He was simply a talented guy and a victim of circumstance. I really cannot fault him and the path he took. It could just as easily have been me.-End

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