Life at Sloane House YMCA


Coming Up: June 4th of 1989

I was in New York City during that time. What was the impact of that Event to me? How history should judge that event?


A New Job

To prepare my trip to New York City, I borrowed $35 US dollars from the Foreign Currency Control Bureau from the local government. Before I got to New York City, I made a brief stop, arranged by ICYE, at Chicago and Cleveland. By the time I arrived at Sloane House, I only had $2 left in my pocket.

The agreement between ICYE and China was that exchangees were provided with room and board. Sloane House gave me a room and weekly stipend for my meals. I was hoping to bring back some US dollars home when I finished my one-year program. $80 a week was barely enough for me to get by. So I decided to try to something outside Sloane House. But in order to do so, I had to be quiet about it. I did not want to be caught for working illegally. So the best place to work was the Chinese restaurant. One day I was having lunch with Karl Kennedy at a Chinese take-out place on 8th and 28th street. I walked up to the restaurant owner asked her if she had openings. Lucky for me, the restaurant delivery boy just left for Hong Kong and the restaurant needed someone to fill in. The restaurant owner told me he would pay me three dollars an hour, 3 hours a day during week days. I happily accepted the offer. I had never worked for a business before and certainly didn’t know what a food delivery job was. But I wanted to experience it. First day on the job, the owner showed me all the routes as well as tips on how to avoid bad areas in the neighborhood. I anxiously waited for lunch to start. 12:00 sharp, the phone rang. My boss answered the phone and I sensed my job had just begun.
My first delivery was to a place on 28th street. “Right down the street.” My boss told me as she was packing the order for me. I picked up the bag and hastily made a right turn at 28th street. Distracted, I realized I had gone too far when I reached to the corner of 28th Street and 9th Ave. I started running back, towards 8th Ave. I couldn’t help but shaking my head when I found the place: it was the Korean grocery store right by the corner, 20-feet away from the restaurant! When I handed the bag to the guy behind the counter, he was obviously annoyed that it took longer than usual. “No tip for you!” he shouted at me. What a way to start a new job!


My Field of Dream

One day we were told there was a big softball tournament going on in New York City. Hundreds of teams would compete in the tournament. The championship game would be played at Yankee Stadium. My friends and I were all very excited about this news. We knew we were a good team and we believed we had a very good chance to play the championship game, which meant we would play at the Yankee Stadium.

We indeed had a very good team: Howie was the best short stop, Jason was a power hitter at 3rd. Raul of professional caliber played outfield. Danny the “George” (he was like the twin brother of character George in Seinfield) played second base. I was the best pitcher at Great Lawn... After our team finalized the roster, I told my teammates I would take them to Chinatown for dim sum on game day. We gathered at Howard’s apartment on 21st and 7th and took the N train to Chinatown at 10:00 that morning. We could not stop talking about how we would play at Yankee Stadium, especially those who were Yankee fans.

I took them to Silver Palace at Bowery Street. My friends loved dim sum! I ordered all the dishes for the group and they tried every one of them, except for one: chicken feet in black beans. I told them they were not really having dim sum if they didn’t try that chicken feet dish. Howie and some brave ones reluctantly tried it at the end of our brunch. But right before we were leaving Silver Palace, some of them started running to the rest room. I didn’t know what was going on and just as I was wondering, they had that discomfort look on their face when they came out of the rest room. They said they were having diarrhea. "It must be the chicken feet!" they said. But I was fine and I ate the most, I told them.

We had planned to have some warm up games before the game, just to make sure we were all still fresh for the game. But we had to cancel them due to this unforeseen event. Luckily the game would start until 4:00PM. So we had enough time to wait for our team mates to recover.

3:30pm, we made it to the field. It was at 53 and 10th. It seemed my team mates all had recovered. Game started ata 4:00PM sharp. We found our opposing team had a celebrity: Bill Evens, the Channel 7 weather man. We were even more convinced that we would match to Yankee Stadium without problemo, even playing with diarrhea. Because we had never seen those people at Great Lawn before and we knew how good we were. It was not if we would win, it was how bad we had to beat them.

The first pitch I threw was a fast ball. It was my signature pitch: inside fastball set up by "Taxas" Don, the catcher. Usually batter would get jammed by the pitch and popped it out in left. The first batter from the opposing team was frozen by my pitch and didn’t bother to swing the bat. I knew I had my stuff that afternoon. The empire, however, came to the mount after that pitch, telling me I had to pitch a certain way during this match. To be precise, I could not pitch fastball like that. "It's illegal. " he said. Well, basically my fast ball was too fast for this tournament. So in stead, I had to lob the ball to the plate. The requirment was when the ball came out pitcher’s hand, the ball needed to be at 10 feet high and dropped slowly at strike zone. Hitters would have to wait till the ball dropped then hit. Great Lawn softball was a competitive softball. Many of us played in an organized league. The “best pitcher” crown was earned. Batters gave me a great deal of respect. Lobbing the ball to the plate was neighborhood, street corner type of soft ball, not Great Lawn softball, I said to myself.

It turned out our first opposing team was our only opposing team. I got hammered and had to be relieved at the end of 2 innings. It was the first time that I was relieved during a softball game. Well, reliever Jack wasn't any better. We didn't just lose the game, we were completely humiliated. At the end of the 6th inning the mercy rule imposed. Our dream of playing at Yankee Stadium was crushed. Afterwards my teammates blamed on the chicken feet they ate at Silver Palace that morning. Even today they still blame me for losing that game.

Years later my wife wondered why I did not want to join the softball league in our little town. I didn’t bother to tell her the truth: I saw the guys played in the field right cross my house. They played lobbing, slow-motion softball game, the type of softball only guys like Bill Evens would play. There was no chance that I would be part of that. Whenever Bill Evens makes comments about playing softball on the air, I would grind my teeth and switch the TV station quickly. Obviously, the wound inflicted from that lose hasn’t healed completely.


Becoming a Great Lawn Pick-Up Game Junkie

It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like without Mets baseball. Lucky for me, I became a huge Mets fan soon after I came to New York City. And Tim McCarver had a lot to do with it. His simple, clear yet masterful baseball analysis was and still is the best way to learn baseball. He is Master McACarver! In the middle of August, only 2 weeks after I came to Sloane House, Mr. McAfee gave me a baseball ticket. “It’s American sports. You have to come.” Mr. McAfee had worked abroad before he became Executive Director of Sloane House, so he knew the thought process of people like me. All international staff felt very comfortable with him. Mr. McAfee took all of us to Shea Stadium. It was between Mets and Cubs that night. None of the international staff really knew anything about baseball rules but we all enjoy the game. It was YMCA night and everyone from YMCA got a Mets Year Book. Mr. McAfee pointed one player and said to me: “This is Ron Darling, the only Chinese American playing baseball. He is doing many good things at Chinatown YMCA.” I did not remember who the Mets pitcher was, but I sure remembered the pitch for Chicago: it was Rick Sutcliff. I was impressed by his poise when he walked off the mount after each innings. Towards the end of the game, there was loud chanting from the audience “Darryl, Darryl…” The chanting was for a player called Darryl Strawberry. I thought it was beautiful but a strange name, a name after a fruit. Mets lost the game that night. But from that day on, I gradually became a Mets fan and was hooked on baseball. Tim McCarver was and still is the best baseball play-by-play TV announcer. No one can explain baseball rules better than Master McCarver. Besides Mets games was my first baseball game, this was another reason why I became Mets fan: Ron Darling. How could I not be a Mets fan when it was the only major league team that had a Chinese American in it? Well, he was half Chinese.

Tii left Sloane House two months after I got here. Gary from Student Center on 3rd floor filled her position. Gary was a true New Yorker. He was loud and funny. Part of me like him alot and part of me just wanted him to stay away from me. But overall he was a likable person, if all this makes any sense. One of his “missions”, he said to me, was to teach me to play softball. “Knowing how to play softball will Americanize you faster.” He said in a cynical way. But I didn't care. I appreciated his effort in helping me.

I was athletic. So it didn’t take me too long to learn playing the game. On the weekends he took us to softball fields in Central Park by 63rd Street entrance. But it was hard to sometimes to get a field to play. So we moved to a less grassed and less crowded fields at Great Lawn.

Right under Shakespeare Castle, there were 6 playing fields. Field 6 was always occupied by CPAH players from 11:00 Saturday morning to 6:00 Sunday afternoon. CPAH stood for Central Park Ass Holes, a name we gave to those guys. They were intense and completive softball playing people. They had played with each other for many years and they would not let anyone else get in the game. Once in a while, they would agree to play with us. Not that we wanted to play with them. But their arrogance and their superior attitude towards us that made us want to beat them badly. I was a pitcher, hitting was not my game. So these guys would intentionally move in from the outfield, just to mock my hitting ability. One day I hit the ball real hard and it sealed over the center fielder’s head and kept rolling and rolling…I had a base-clearing, Great Lawn-type of home run. It drove these guys crazy and we all enjoyed it very much. We were laughing and talked about every details of that home run on our way to McDonald’s after the game. But I gave them credit, the center fielder, who made fool of himself for coming in so much to cause that home run, came to shake my hand to congratulate me for a solid hit after the inning was over. That was Great Lawn spirits.

Some fields reserved by some corporates for their employees recreational purpose. So most of the time there were about 3 fields left for pick up games. With limited fields available, winners stayed on. Losers took a seat and had to wait for next game. From time to time, people who were waiting in the long line for the Shakespeare plays would join us for a game or so, just to make the day pass by easily. I studied Shakespeare’s at college. It would have been a dream came true for me to see Shakespeare plays in Central Park. But Great Lawn softball pickup games were priceless for me and nothing could come between me and Great Lawn softball pick-up games. There were drama and unpredictable endings in each game and best of all, I was on the center stage. I was the most winning pitcher from our “league”, if you could call it. I became a “legend” for pitching a one-hit game. Eddie, the third baseman for that game told me he had never played a one-hit game, nor had he heard of it, ever since he started playing softball at Great Lawn. Given his age, I think I had made a “history” at Great Lawn. Since I was not much of a hitter, this was the only thing I can brag about it to my “teammates”.

Eddie was a unique person. He always wore that same 60’s hippie style t-shirt every weekend. I could spot him miles away. At age 50 or so, he was the best 3rd baseman in the game. But that’s not the reason I remembered him. What impressed me was his porn collection, his knowledge of porn stars: a couple of times, he brought his porn collection to the ball park. The collection was a thick, 3rd grade notebook with glued cut-outs of the porn videos. I don’t know if he knew who the president of the United States was but he could tell the names of every porn stars and their specialties in that notebook. But more bizarre thing was his girlfriend sat right next to us when Eddie was flipping the pages and boasting his collections. Showing off your knowledge of porn is one thing, but doing it while your girlfriend was right next to you? I think there was a serious self-esteem issue. Well, who is the judge for that?

Another unique character was “Little Ricky” His name was not “Little Ricky”. We called him “Little Ricky” because he was 5.0’ and always wore his clean Ricky Henderson’s full uniform every weekend. Not only he dressed like Ricky Henderson, he even imitated how Ricky Henderson caught fly balls. The funny thing was he dropped most of the fly balls in the outfield. If you couldn’t steal the base (not allowed in softball), unable to catch a fly ball, and couldn’t get on base, a right minded person would be subtle about his demeanor and style. Real Ricky Henderson was not known for humbleness in Major League, nor was our “Little Ricky”. He didn’t care much about anyone’s comments or chuckles. He came to Great Lawn weekends after weekends, with the same attitude, the same clean uniform and just enjoyed the game, even he was not good at it. Everyone of us had been made fun of by the crowd, but who cares? That's the spirit of Great Lawn softball.

There was no Great Lawn Spirit without Diego. A son of a well-known political film maker of Argentina, his mom took him to the US when he was 4, after his dad was murdered by Argentine police. Ever since then, he hated police. He was one of the least “talented” players in the game, but we all liked him. His fun in the park was hanging out under the sun every weekend, making joints in between innings, or games, get stoned and be mellow the entire day.

Playing softball pick-up games at Great Lawn was the most relaxing time I ever had since I came to America. It was the fun, the openness and freedom Great Lawn gave me that no other place could offer. I went there every weekend religiously. It was quite therapeutic.

Die-hard players like me played from spring till the end of summer, without taking a day off, not even when it was 100 degree humid July 4th weekend. We would play from noon till dark, then get a bite at McDonald or a pizza place nearby for dinner to mark the end of the day. For us, Great Lawn was not just a playground for softball games. It was an emotional sanctuary. There was no prejudice, no repercussions, no harassment, no worries, no guilt, no responsibilities... just grass, fresh air, blue sky and softball. It was pure joy and laughters. It was pure excitement and enjoyment. As if I was in another world when I stepped on the grass of Great Lawn. It enabled me to forget my loneliness, unhappiness, homesickness. Great Lawn has its own culture. it is the best place on earth, if you can play softball in the summer.


Drag Queens and Transvestite

There were no private showers, except rooms on the 2nd floor at Sloane House. Showers and restrooms were in the hallway. This caused lots of problems: Sloane House had to change shower curtains in the men’s room almost every other week. Someone slashed the curtain right in the middle, making a cigarette box sized, 90 degree cut. So while you were taking a shower, someone could see your private part without you seeing him. It was creepy. We never caught the people who did this.

Freshly coming of the boat (my friends at the Y used to joke about me until I figure out what it meant), I had no idea what homosexual was. When I was in college, my English teacher from Virginia told us of her observation when she first arrived at our campus: she could not get used to girls holding hands and locking arms while walking together. She said this behavior was considered quite homosexual in United States. We were not sure what she meant at the time because we simply didn’t know the word “homosexual” meant. We were English students and were considered in the fore front in trends and fashion and all. So it was not hard to imagine what entire China was like on the subject of “homosexual”. I sure paid the price for being ignorant.

One day I was doing my laundry in the basement. There were two young black students there, a male and a female. It was sort of a slow day in the laundry room. I usually had to wait in line for hours because there were not enough laundry machines for the residents. Through conversation, I knew they both just came from Detroit to attend a school in NY. I offered my help and gave them some pointers as where they could go for NY adventures and where to get food at affordable price. After 3 hours laundry, we became friends. They came to Club34 later that night. I had lots of sympathy to young kids who just came to New York City. I knew how tough it was and how helpful it was to have someone give them some help. I told them they could come to me anytime they needed help. They both were very appreciative. After I closed the club, it was 1:30 in the morning. I was exhausted and ready to crush. When I opened my door I noticed there was a note on the floor. I opened unfold the note and started reading it. My hands were shaking while I was reading it. It was a full page love letter from the guy I met earlier in the laundry room! I was mortified and panic, not knowing what to do. I had this fear in me and just wanted to get out of my room. For some reason I was afraid he would come to my room at any moment. Gina was not in her room. I ran to Liz’s room. I told her the whole thing and showed her the letter. Liz had never seen me scared like this. I stayed in her room for about an hour. After Liz calmed me down a bit, I went back to my room and didn’t sleep that whole night. Nobody knocked on my door that night.

The guy came by the club the next evening. I said hi politely and did not look at his direction after that. He must have sensed he made a fool of himself and stood up and left. I never saw him again.

Dawn’s next door neighbor was a tall gentleman from New Zealand. He was 6.0’ tall, in his 30’s. He was one of residents at Sloane House who I considered a gentleman. He was soft spoken and very respectful. He was a student from New School. One day, after tired of listening Dawn’s complaining about her trouble finding "a few good men", I told her she should hook up with her neighbor. “He seems a great guy.” I said to her. I was hoping she do find someone so she would not have to bother me all the time. She gave this Are-You-Kidding-Me look, and paused for a second, to see if I was indeed humoring her. After realizing I was nothing but serious, she gave me this Get-Our-Of-Town look and said: “He is a good guy alright, but he likes guys.” “What are you talking about?” I asked her, couldn't believe what I was hearing and looked at her to see if she was making this up. Right away, she leaned her head towards me, looked around the room and lowered her voice: “You think I am wild, he has more actions than I do. He has guys in his room every night. He is like a man whore.” I was speechless, totally in shock and disblief.

One day I was working at the front-desk, a group of gorgeous, well-dressed, voluptuous ladies came to me for directions to second floor lunge. Admiring these beautiful women passing by, I turned my head to Bobby, singling him to pay attention to these ladies. He was standing there, staring at me (surprisingly!), with a look on his face as if to see how long I would continue with my admiration. The moment the ladies were out of the sight by the stairs to the second floor, he burst out loud with a laugh and started banging the counter. I did not know what was so amusing. The more I looked perplexed, the harder he laughed. “What’s so funny?” I asked him. “Peter, you need to change your glasses. They aren’t no girls. They are men! Didn’t you see the big Adam’s apple under their chin?” Chin was not my focus, I thought to myself. He told me these girls were drag queens. The Latino transvestites of New York City rented our lounge for their annual convention. There were about a hundred of them, all dressed beautifully. I knew Bobby would never lie about something like this to me. I felt like a stupid donkey. But I was so curious about the whole thing and I wanted to check it out myself. So I went to the second floor, peeked through inside the conference room through the door. And I still couldn’t believe they were men. They all had heavy make-up and a beautiful pair of boobs. They sure fooled me.

Later that night, Bobby told me this story: a few years ago, there was a tall, handsom looking Turkish student living on the 5th floor at Sloane House. He was a playboy and got all the girls all the time. One night he spotted a girl at Club34 and at the end of the night, she was in his room. When he reached his hand into the girl’s pants, to his great surprise, the girl was a man. Much like the movie of The Crying Game, except the guy, Bobby told me, was a mess afterwards. He saw him in the street a few months after that incident. The big, tall handsome Turkish student was no longer the same person. He told Bobby he was so ashamed of himself that he couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t bear the thought that he almost had sex with a guy. It was a no-no in his culture back in Turkey.

Gradually I learned if a person dressed too lady-like and walked too girly in Sloane House, most likely it was a he, not a she. In America, women were losing their feminine side (due to woman’s right movement?). The flip side was that they were more confident, independent and assertive than girls back home, especially when it came to sex. It was quite different from where I came from, where a girl walked like a girl and a man walked like man, well, for the most part. What surprised me was the amount of cross-dressing people living in Sloane House. It didn’t bother me. They were the friendliest people you could ever meet, except for one.


Thief of Sloane House

I lived on the 7th floor, facing west side, a corner room that was much roomier. Normal room was 6 x 10; my room was 7 x 12. It was considered a luxury room on the floor. It used to be the room for the student who had call girls before. When he moved out, I asked for that room right away and Sloane House let me have it.

One night I was woken up by the light on my eyes. It came from the hallway through my door. My door was opened. I was very suspicious since I clearly remembered I left the door chain on before I slept. I sensed someone had broken into my room while I was sleeping. I took the knife from under my pillow and walked out of the door in my pajamas. I saw a guy with a bag in his hand, entering Sonya’s room. I usually knew who Sonya was dating, but I didn’t recognize him. As I approached to Sonya’s room, Gina came out of the elevator. I asked her to keep an eye on Sonya’s door and I pickup the house phone calling front desk. By the time the night shift staff answered the phone, Gina signaled to me that a guy came out of Sonya’s room. I pulled out my knife and asked him what he was doing in Sonya’s room. He dropped the bag in his hand and started running downstairs through the fire exit. I ran after him, with a knife in my one hand and holding my pajamas with the other. I lost him as I came down to the second floor. Gina and Sonya came to the 2nd floor a few minutes later. They were more afraid that I got hurt. Sonya said she was in the shower when all these happened. The guy must have waited until Sonya started shampooing and just took the room key without Sonya noticing it. Since the key had the room number on it, it was easy to find the room. Cases like this had happened before, but it usually involved tourists.

Tish was on duty that night. Tish was promoted to new security chief after Big John retired. I told him the guy was still in the building. Tish wanted to search the entire building and asked me to help him since I was the only person who could identify the thief. Gina and Sonya tried to persuad me not to do it but I was on fire and fearless at that moment. I felt I was being violated and had this urge for revenge. It was always dangerous when man reaches that point, a point of losing reasoning and commen sense and on the verge of being violent. Tish grabbed his gun and I pickup a baseball bat. Two of us started searching from the roof.

We searched every bathroom and door way on each floor. As we came to the 6th floor, it was almost 4:00 in the morning. Suddenly we heard a female screaming from the floor below us. We rushed to downstairs. The scream came from the 4th floor. We found the student in the lady’s room. She was shaken up with a terrifying look on her face. She told us while she was about to take a shower, a man came out of one of the 3 shower curtains and ran away. Tish and I ran out of the building, tried to find him. He got away.

Two weeks after this incident, I spotted him in the lobby, standing not too far from the check point. I quietly phoned security guard, asking him not to alert the guy and pretend to be a routine, casual check for his room key. I knew he was standing by the check point, waiting for the right moment to sneak in the building. But surprisingly, he pulled his room key from his pocket and showed it to the security. I couldn't believe it when the security guard told the thief had a room key. Right away I called my manager and explained the situation to him. The manager checked his name in the computer. His name on the ID did not match any names in our computer. So the mangger asked him to surrender his room key. The thief had this what's-going-on look on his face, pretended to be clueless. In the mean time. The security guard and I went to his room on the 14th floor. The room was full of stolen goods. There were hundreds of item, piles of walkmans and all kinds of clothing. I found my walkman and a pair of pants. I took back my walkman but throw away the pants. We did not have the authority to arrest him and management did not want to bother with it. So we had to let him go. I was wondering how in the world he got a room in the building. Each day the computer genereted a occupancy report. If certain unoccupied rooms had no keys, our engineer would changed the lock the same day, to prevent things like this. A quick thought came to my mind that there may have been a mole inside Sloane House, working with this thief. But I got rid of this thought quickly. It was not my responsibility and besides, there were enough things in life that I had to deal with at the time.

A few weeks later he was caught again by a French tourist on the 5th floor. The French tourist came back from shower, wondering where his key was. His door was shut so he stood by his door, waiting for security guard to open his door. Suddenly he saw a guy came out of his room. Surprised at first, he then saw this guy had his belongings in his hand. Right away he realized he was robbed. The French tourist knew "Kong Fu" so he nailed the guy easily. The security guard and the French tourist took him to the police station on 35th Street. The security chief asked me to go to the police station to help identifying the guy. For whatever the reason the police said they had to release him within 24 hours if not found guilty. I was furious. Back home if things like that happened, the guy would have no chance of getting away. He would be "taken care of" very well in the hands of policemen. Police back home were always on the victim’s side. This was not the case here, the land of the law where a person was presumed innocent- even he got caught right handed. I still have a tough time to understand this logic.

Nothing I could do to change the mind of the world’s finest. I was frustrated.

Realizing he could get away easily, he came back a few more times. One day I was passing the cafeteria that connected to back doorway, I saw him running to the back door. I sensed he just stole something from Sloane House so I started chasing him. The back door was on 33rd Street side. He made a left turn after getting the door open. The back door was locked from outside. People could not open the door from outside but it was very easy to open it from inside. It was our "underground railroad". My friends often used this door to "smug" a person from outside. He ran toward 8th, and made another left turn at the parking lot between 33rd and 34th street. He seemed surprise to see me right behind him and fearing of being caught by me. Well, he knew I was about to choke him at the police station and I guessed he was kind of scared. So he threw something on the ground in the parking lot. I was no match for him no matter how fast I ran and nobody on the street even bother to stop the guy. So I stopped and picked up the stuff he left on the ground. It was a stack of traveler checks. I took them back to the front desk and asked a casher to check if the person on the check was Sloane House resident. Just as we were checking on the computer, a female student came to the front desk and told us frantically that someone had just broke into her room and stole her checks. I showed her the check I just recovered. She was very happy to get her checks back but didn't bother to ask how I got them.

My room got robbed 5 more times. Only then I finally realized how this theif broke into my room: my room was a corner room, slightly bigger than the rest of the rooms on the floor. But right next to my 9th Avenue-view window it was the hallway window. The distance of the two windows was about a foot and half. Although it was dangerous, it was possible a person could climb into my window from the hallway window. There was no other way he could break in my room. He could get killed if he slipped. Having seen the thief up close myself in police station, I knew he could easily do it, if noone else could. I decided to do some preventative work: I placed a bottle behind my window curtain, so it was not visible from outside. But if the thief attempted to climb in to my room from the hallway window, he would knock down the bottle and I would be waken up before he got in my room. Hopefully he was still in between my window and the wall. I would run to the window and shut it right away, smashed his two hands on the edge of my window and he fell off the building, all the way on the ground, from the 7th floor. There was no he would survive the fall. I would just say "woop, poor guy! He slipped and fall. I wonder what he was doing.", if any one asked. I can't help it. He took all my possesions. One time he even cleaned my piggie bank. Lucky for him, he didn't get caught and my fantasy was just a fantasy after all.


Death and Drugs

Because of the varieties of people living in Sloane House, there were many crimes. I had been a victim numerous times. Big John was the security chief when I started. He was in his late 60’, a retired New York City policeman. There were not many expressions on his face. But he was a kind man. Every morning he would say hello to me with his deep but clear Irish accent. With 3 grand kids, he was about to retire again, he told me. But one evening, around 7:00pm, I got a bad news: Big John was in a serious condition at St. Vincent Hospital. He was stabbed while he was making his daily routine checking in the basement. I couldn’t believe it. There were only a few days left before his second retirement and he was so much looking forward to that day and now this. I didn’t know where the hospital was so I took a cab to St. Vincent Hospital. When he saw me, his face lit up. He didn’t expect I would be there. It was heart breaking to see him lying in a hospital bed with the bandage on him. He almost died of the stab wounds. Big John recovered slowly. He came to Sloane House say goodbye to us when he was able to walk. He finally retired from his job. How safe could it be when your security chief almost got killed? That was the situation at Sloane House.

Just a few months after I started working behind the Hospitality Center, one morning, a group of tourists angrily cornered a Jamaican guy. It was a big scene so I went over to investigate. It turned out this Jamaican dude pretended to be a student at Columbia University and befriended some tourists. All of them happened to be Europeans whom I could not say were street smart people. After a few drinks, he would say he needed a favor from everyone. He owed some tuition to the University and his family was wiring it to him. But the school would kick him out if he didn’t have the money by next day. He needed to borrow some money so he would remain in school and he promised he would pay them in two days when the wired money arrived. Otherwise he would be out of school. His story was so convincing, everyone opened their wallet to help him out of sympathy. Little did they know this dude disappeared in next few days. Believing these tourists would be gone then, he re emerged. But to his surprise, they were still here and wanted their money back…

Realizing there was no way out, he just sat there, lowering his head to avoid any eye contact with the angry crowd. The tourists asked me to call the police and I did. Ten minutes later, two policemen came and they questioned both the lending party and the borrowing party. Half an hour later, they came to the conclusion that they had to let the guy go. I was very shocked at their decision. How could they let the criminal get away? He cheated people out of their money! He should be locked up until he re-paid the money back. The police patiently explained to everyone including me that the lending party was a willing partner in this transaction. The guy did not force them to lend the money to him. He did not commit any crime here. The way they explained it to me demonstrated their knowledge about the law and they executed it flawlessly, at least in this incident.

One night, around 11:45pm, I was getting myself ready to close my shift. I heard some sirens and ambulance right in front of the entrance door. I tried to run out and a police blocked the door from outside to make sure medical staff and the ambulance complete their work. I went back to the front desk and wanted to know what happened. Ten minutes later, a policeman came in and told the manager and I that a man had jumped out of the window and landed on the ground in front of the building. The victim’s head hit the flag pole before his body reached the ground, killing him instantly. He showed me the picture ID of the dead man. I recognized the man: I had just checked him in at around 10:00pm for a room on the 14th floor. He was a young man, in his 30s with a nice jacket. It shook me up. I sat there quietly for about half an hour, wondering what had happened that he had to kill himself.

The 4th floor was designated for students who did not belong to schools like SVA or Parsons who had a long term contract with Sloane House Y. Dawn and Lily both lived on this floor. Some of my other friends lived on that floor as well so I came to this floor often. The odor on this floor was a bit strong to me in the begining, but gradually I got to know that a certain section of this floor was a drug zone. Each night there were some activities going on. One evening, after dinner, I went to the 4th floor, visiting Dawn. Her room door was open. Her boy friend, the art student was in her room. He usually was a quiet guy. But that evening he was erratic. He uncharacteristically laughed hysterically all the time and making unfriendly comments on just anyone walking by the door. I asked Dawn what was going on. She told me he just smoked marijuana. I didn’t know marijuana had such effect on people. I couldn't help but shaking my head wondering if my fellow countrymen like this during the Opium War a century and half ago. For this very reson, Chinese (well, most of us) would stay away from drugs. We knew the consequence of being addicted to drugs.

When I was in college back in China, our campus was on the outskirt of the city, next to a farm land. A few farmers lived in a farm house right by the entrance of our college. One day our new English teacher, a lady from Wisconsin walking with us after a class in the afternoon, suddenly stopped with her jaw wide opened, as if she just discovered a new continent. She was looking at cannabis sativa growing by one farmer’s fence. We didn’t know what the excitement was about. She pulled out her camera and started asking us to take pictures for her standing next to the plants. She said growing marijuana in America was illegal. We didn’t understand the fuss. I told her when I was a kid, my buddies and I usually played hide-and- seek in cannabis sativa field, and using the seed as baits to catch birds. Farmers were not happy about it and they would chase us out of the field. They used the plant to make ropes in the fall. I had seen farmers harvesting the plants and left them in the pond for days before they peel the skin off for rope making. But I had never heard or seen anyone smoking it.

Big John never told us what exactly happened to him the night he was stabbed in the basement, but it was rumored that he was stabbed for busting a drug transaction there. Because of this, I didn’t like these people. I tried to stay away from them as much as possible and they did the same.

One spring morning-it was raining outside. I got to the shower room down the hallway, just about to get ready for the day. I heard some noises coming from the court yard side of the building. I stuck my head out of the window to find out what was going on. I saw a few more heads sticking out of the window. Without my glasses, everything was a blur. I could not see anything. I asked a guy from other side of the building what was going on. Recognizing I was the staff of Sloane House, he pointed his finger at something in the courtyard, telling me there was a woman lying on top of the second floor roof, facing down half naked. “Looks, she is dead!” he shouted to me. Right away I yelled out loud asking people to call police. Realizing I might have to face police and my manager about the incident, I thought I might as well just finish my shower. I finished my shower quickly and ran down stairs front desk. I was told the police already left with the body. I never heard anything about this case afterwards. Nobody even bother to ask me about it at all. Sloane House did not want to make it a big deal for obvious reasons.


Kate Who Dwarfed Me Intellectually

If you like to be entertained with a few laughs, you would like to hang out with Kate. Things came out of her mouth that would make you spit your beer out of your mouth. She was funny and you never knew what she would say next. It could be anything. If you like attention, you would like to hang out with Kate as well. She was a magnet for stares coming from the street, or anywhere she went. When we walked along the streets in the city, everyone would turn their heads. She was an intelligent, humorous and foul-mouthed girl from Belgium. She was a fascinating girl and if you think she sounds like the most perfect girl on the planet, you are right. The only thing was she was 1 foot tall and her head was half the size of her body. As she could not stand up, she rode around in a battery-powered wheelchair. Like everybody else in this world, I did not know how to react when I first saw her. But soon we became good friends.

Kate came to Sloane House YMCA with the same exchange program as I did. She came to New York City a few years earlier. In the beginning, ICYE staff placed her under Carla’s care. Carla was one of ICYE’s early exchangees to Sweden. (She became my host when I arrived in New York) Other ICYE exchangees would stay with their host family. Exchangees in New York City like me would stay at Sloane House for an obvious reason: nobody from IYCE’s hosting network in New York City had enough living space to offer for exchangees. Carla lived in a small studio apartment on 25th Street between 9th and 10th and the building had no handicapped facility. So it was not an easy thing for Kate to get around. Carla had to carry her out of her wheelchair whenever Kate needed to be in and out of the building. Kate had to rely on Carla and others to get around the city and since she loved the city very much, she wanted to go out a bit more. But she hated people who patronized her. She hated people who show any sympathy towards her. She believed they pitied her. So there might have been some misundersanding between Carla and Kate after a while. ICYE program staff had to find her a place that better fitted her. Sloane House YMCA was a perfect situation. Kate lived at Sloane House and worked as the Hospitality Center staff. She liked her situation so much so she decided to come back to Sloane House every summer to work at Hospitality Center and enjoyed the city at the same time. Before I met Kate, Carla warned me about what to do and what not to do in regards to Kate. The message was: Kate disliked people in general.

Carla was half right. Kate liked men. She liked to flirt and enjoyed the attentions from men, especially the good looking ones.

One evening, Tii invited her staff to her apartment at Lower Eastside. We took a bus across town from 34th Street to 1st Avenue and walked to Tii’s apartment. It was a long walk but walking in Manhattan was a treat. when we got there, I did not what to expect at Tii’s party. But Tii was one of the kinds. She just knew how to make a new comer feel comfortable. We all had a good time that night. On our way back I found something strange about Kate’s behavior. She was mad as hell, cursing all over the place and she sure had great commend of English curse words. I had never seen anyone could curse in English and Dutch so effortlessly. I soon found out from others that it was Kate who introduced her friend Jeff, another fellow ICYE exchangee from Switzerland to Tii. Jeff quickly fell in love with Tii and they got married soon after. Kate felt Tii betrayed her friendship and stole the love of her life. Any rational person would think differently, but Kate was not always rational when it came to man.

Kate and I usually took a walk together along the 9th avenue and enjoyed a few laughs together at Empire Dinner on 10th Avenue. We would be voluntary commentators on people passing by the dinner. She would flirt with the waiters there and giving hard times to the waitresses. She had this devilish mentality towards women and I felt her hostility came from her realization that no woman in the world was as half smart as she was but she could not enjoy man physically as they could. Somehow you just knew Kate was balancing herself psychologically. Usually at the end of the conversation, she would always say the waiter was gay. I couldn’t tell.

Kate hardly talked about herself and her family. But occasionally, after a few good laughs and a few sip of beer, little by little, she told me her hardship while growing up. Her father was not a loving dad, to say the least, because of Kate’s physical condition. She was regarded more like a burden to the family. So she became more and more independent, mentally and physically. I sensed the psychological wounds never healed. She did not want people to remind her of her physical situation because it painfully reminded her of reality and her unpleasant childhood. She wanted to be treated just like any other person. That was how I treated her and that was the reason we became good friends and it was a privilege of knowing Kate and be close to her.

Like every European, she loved New York City but despised the rest of America. She believed Americans were condescending and ignorant. Right or wrong, I learned to appreciate America because of her. She would tell me there was no place on earth that she would rather stay than in New York City. Because New York City was the most exciting city in the world and the attentions she got were mostly positive ones than negative ones she received from other places. It was a convenient metropolitan city for physically challenged people like her. She could go any places as she pleased. One year she visited New York City again. After a night-out, we went to Port Authority to wait for the bus. She stayed with her friend who lived in Hackensack. I was amazed that a NJ transit bus came to the terminal to pick her up. A whole, empty bus just for her, in the middle of the night! What a great country! What a privilege to live in this country. How could you not love America?


A “Freedom Fighter” or Just a Humping Dog?

A Middle-Eastern looking man lived on the 5th floor. He was about my age. He was odd but always with a big smile when he looked at you. He liked just hanging around with the crowd at Club34. Because they both spoke Arabic, Talla became friend with him and he introduced this Middle-Easter man to me. The young Middle-Eastern looking man told me he was a member of Mujahidin from Afghanistan. The US government helped him and some of his friends come to America to raise funds for their fellow Mujahidins who were still fighting against Red Army back home. One of the things they were doing was selling gem stones. They were “freedom fighters”, fighting for a cause and they were all over the news. I had read about them. Those were brave men. And now I couldn't believe a real "Freedon Fighter" was standing right in front of me. Like everyone else, I liked the under dogs. He gave me some of the gem stones he was selling. These stones were dark blue-colored beautiful gem stones you could only find them in Afghanistan. He became a regular with me and Talla. One incident, however, completed changed my opinion about him.

One night, Talla, the Mujahidin and I went to Palladium. The place was packed. We started dancing with a group of girls on the floor. There was a beautiful blonde in the group. Mujahidin, the "freedom fighter" showed his not-so-noble behavior. He started flirting with her. For whatever the reason, a few minutes later he and the beautiful blonde disappeared and re-emerged soon after. The girl’s facial expression was as if she just experienced something disgusting. She disappeared in the crowd quickly. The Mujahidin was smiling and boastful. Talla asked him what he was doing in the dark with the blonde. He was not sure if he should tell at first, but within a second he told us he ejaculated in his pants while holding the girl. I tried not to picture it, but it was impossible. I didn’t know what to say to him, except shaking my head in disbelieve. It was disgraceful to say the least. The Mujahidin continued dancing away the rest of the night with his wet pants, as if nothing had happened.


Sloane House Triangle

Things changed a bit at Sloane House YMCA when Laura came to Sloane House. Who was the “bitch”, as Dawn called her. Laura was the ultimate girl who every man dreamed of: she was 5’11”, a long-legged blonde beauty from southern California. She was dead gorgeous. There weren’t a lot of girls like her at Sloane House…there weren’t a lot of girls like her anywhere. Needless to say, she attracted a lot of attention. I even sensed some jealousy from my culturally-enriched French girls.

There was a compelling reason why Dawn didn’t like Laura: Laura “stole” her boy friend Talla, according to her. But nobody at Sloane House believed this was the case. Talla quickly had a change of heart when he laid his eyes on Laura. You could sense there was a silent race among the students at Sloane House for Laura.

Laura was astonishingly beautiful and you wondered why in the world she worked at Sloane House. She could get any job anywhere! Mr. McAfee walked to the counter and pointing to Laura half jokingly said to me: “Peter, I want you keep an eye on Laura for me. Make sure don’t let the boys near her.” Laura was a daughter of Mr. McAfee’s friend. She worked part time at Hospitality Center so she could stay at Sloane House for free. People treated her like she was the Princess of Sloane House and she acted like she was. She has a sense of entitlement. I am sure we all have seen one, or more in our lives. Hence she didn't have friends, or a friend. We got along well. Whenever she was behind the counter, every male friend of mine in Sloane House would come to the front desk, pretending to have a chat with me, just so they could get closer to Laura. Who could blame them? In that regard, Talla had a huge advantage. He would stop by every day. Soon enough, Talla and Laura hooked up. Talla was the envy among Sloane House male population. When he and Laura stood next to each other, it was beauty and beast up close. That broke Dawn’s heart. Whenever she saw Talla and Laura hanged out at Club34, Dawn would make a quick exit.

One day I was doing laundry in the basement. The laundry room was “L” shaped. I always chose the one load at the short end. It had more room to spread out my laundry and the wall provided some privacy. Dawn came down to talk to me. It was more like tracking me down. She hadn’t been at the lounge much lately, to avoid unpleasant scene I guess. So I knew she wanted to talk to me badly. She sure did not waste any time and began venting about Talla and how suddenly he stopped seeing her because of Laura. I did not mind listening to her complaining. Because doing laundry was the least favorite thing I like to do. Having someone kept me company in the laundry room was better than alone. 2 hours later, after I finished my laundry. Dawn left and I was ready to go to bed. There was a knock on my door. It was Laura. She looked very serious and I couldn’t tell what was going on. She told me she heard every word of my conversation with Dawn in the laundry room. I was surprised and wondering how she could hear my conversation. She told me she was doing her laundry at the other side of the laundry room where neither Dawn nor I could see her. I felt I was living in a soap - Sloane House Style. I was embarrassed and shocked at the same time that she would eavesdrop on me. Thank goodness I didn’t say anything stupid. She was furious about Talla and questioned me the nature of Talla’s relationship with Dawn. I wanted to protect my friend so I answered her with bunch of bull. She left half an hour later. I warned Talla about my conversation with Laura as soon as he got back. No drama afterwards. Laura continued seeing Talla after that night, until she met a wealthier person while working as a make-up consultant at Herald Square Macy’s. A smart blonde!

Short-lived fairytale of beauty and beast played a joke on Talla. It was his turn to have a broken heart. It was brutal to see how Talla tried to hang on with hope that someday Laura would come back. He dragged me to Macy's where she worked almost everyday, hoping he would see her. By the time Talla realized his hope was just a wishful thinking, he went back to Dawn. But Dawn already moved on, seeing a young art student living on the 5th floor. Talla, on the other hand, did not waste his time either.


Lily and Dawn

Bobby called Lily and Dawn “Peter’s wives”. "Peter" was my English name. Bobby was the late shift manager for both the cashiers and Hospitality Center. He was one of my favorite people at Sloane House. In fact he was everyone’s favorite. Bobby was a worry-free spirit with a big smile on his face and a heavy Barbados accent. He was in his 50’s. He was the coolest 50 year old man I had ever met. One day I asked him where he got his jeans. He told me he got it from V.I.M.. I went there and got a pair the next day. It was my first jeans in America, also my first major purchase. Girls loved him and he loved girls too. It was almost a treat to see how smooth he was when he talked with the girls. A few young women would always make a special stop before going upstairs at the end of working day, just to say hello and get a smile out of Bobby, as if the day would not be complete without. He always said this to me: “Woman makes me happy. Treat them well and you will be a happier person. But if you can’t handle them, don’t bother with yourself. It wasn’t worthy it.” It was "grasshopper" moment. He made time went by quickly.

Lily came from Boston area. Like many others living in Sloane House, she came to the big apple to look for her opportunities. She was a dancer and had a few try-outs with City Dancers at the Garden. Lily told me Sloane House gave her space and freedom she never had. She was not just physically attractive, she was the closest thing that I could relate to at Sloane House: she was the only Chinese, or Chinese-American who lived here as a long-term student. She grew up in a very strict, old-fashioned/traditional Chinese family. i can imagine how suffocating it must be. Worse to that, she seems escaping her true fear - her boy friend. I knew how hard it was to start a life in a new environment, so I introduced her to my friends. They all like her. For whatever the reason and gods knows why, I felt like I became her surrogate brother figure. She would complain to me all the time about her obsessive, jealous, hot-tempered boy friend and how she wanted to break up with him and couldn’t. She introduced her boy friend to me when he came down from Boston to visit her in the beginning. He was the type who could blow your brains out with a gun and stick a knife in you if he found out you fooled around with his woman.

Lily was lonely for a brief period. She hooked up with a white American kid who was living on the same floor-4th floor. Her boy friend sensed something and came down to Sloane House a few times. Lily nervously told me not to tell him anything. I told her to break up with her boy friend. She shook her head with the look of nothing-I-can-do-about-it. I understood her fear: with his temper and size, he could hurt her badly.

Dawn was kind and a wild girl. Came from Buffalo New York originally, she was a fashion student. When there was no school, she worked at a fashion show room in the fashion district nearby. When night came, Dawn would always be my first customer when I open the door of Club34. With a full glass of ram coke in one hand and a pack of cigarette in the other, she was ready for the night. When Lily came, they became friends quickly.

Dawn would sit on the stool in front of the counter and telling me everything, from how many guys she slept with to how she could not get along with her boss because she was Polish and her boss was Jewish…non-stop. It didn’t take long for Dawn to hook up with a student from Kuwait – Talla, who happened to be my best friend.

I was promoted to be the manager of Club34 on the second floor during my second year at Sloane House. I worked at the front desk during the day and at the lounge at night. Keeping myself busy made me forget my guilt and loneliness. I missed my family terribly. I missed my father, my brother, sisters and my friends back home... but I didn’t want to go back, simply because I didn’t feel I accomplished anything, not academically,not financially. Back home fulks respected guys with a degree earned from colleges in the US, or a color TV bought with American dollar they earned. I had nothing to show for. How could I face my family and friends with empty hands? So I asked Mr. McAfee for more work. I worked on every holiday. What else could I do? Sitting in the small, cell-sized room would make things worse. And I did not want to spend the money I saved for any out of town sightseeing.

Lily and Dawn hung out at Club34 or the lounge next to it every night. They kept me company. They became friends because I was friend to both of them. They hung around with me no matter where I was working, the front-desk or Club34 on the 2nd floor, like my shadow. That's why Bobby called them "Peter's wives". What he meant was that the two girls like nagging wifes, following me around. They didn’t seem to mind. They liked the humor in it and even joke about it. I enjoyed their company from time to time. And I don't know how to say no to them.

One slow evening, it was close to midnight. Only Lily and Dawn were there with me in the club. I was about to close for the night. Two guys came to the lounge. I had never seen them in the building before. They might have been government voucher holders. What is government voucher? These are the people who are in need of help, due to various reasons: housing issues, suffering from domestic violence, drug rehab... Most of them stay on the 5th floor. They started flirting with Lily. In the beginning it was controllable. After a while, these two guys would come on to her aggressively and Lily wanted to get away from them and not sure how to handle it. So she just stood by my desk. I stepped in, telling them to take it easy. Two guys did not bother with me and we were very close to a physical fight. A security guard came up and broke up the alteration. These two guys were very angry at me and threatened to take me down outside. I wasn’t foolish enough to take their challenge since there was only me and the two girls in the club. Three cleaning crew came in through the lounge. The chief crew told the two guys to get lost or they would kick their ass. The two guys stared at the chief for a few seconds and left. I was touched. This cleaning crew was from Mexico and I got to know them through Gina. They were a quiet bunch and sometimes I hardly notice them. For them to even make a gesture like that I knew I was ok in their eyes.

One day it was 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. I was about to leave my work at the front desk. Dawn came to me. Uncharacteristically, she was wearing sunglasses. I sensed something had happened. I asked her what’s up. Suddenly she was in tears. I saw her eyes were all red and puffy, seemed she had been crying for a long time. I took her to Cheyenne Diner just around the corner. She told me she was raped by a man she just met the night before and she was not sure what she should do. She told me the detail: after hanging out at the lounge, she went back to her room, without noticing one of the guys she was with earlier followed her into her room and raped her. He threatened her not to yield for help. She was frightened and cried the whole night after he lef. I was so shocked and enraged that this could happen to my friend. I told her I would go with her to the police station and have that man arrested. Right away she bagged me not to. I was surprised and asked her why. Her reason was if the police came to Sloane House to investigate the rape, everyone in Sloane House would know this. Worse yet, the management of Sloane House would find a reason to kick her out, since she hadn’t paid the rent on time lately. She told me the best thing I could do for her was to keep quiet and make sure that guy would not come near her again. She was scared. We stayed at the diner until 7:30pm and I took her to Club34 with me. Later that night she made a hint to me about the guy who just came in the room. I had a few friends at Sloane House, but I couldn’t tell them about this. So I knew there was nothing I could do in this situation, except hoping the guy would realize Dawn was not alone. He moved out the next day. But this incident bothered me a great deal. I felt guilty that I couldn’t do anything to protect my dear friend from being harmed and I felt angry that I couldn’t do anything to help her. Dawn was like a sister to me, a helpless sister. I really wanted to beat the crap out of that guy.

Dawn seemed got over it quickly. I thought it was because there was not a second soul knew about this. I wouldn't know how she felt being a victim. Dawn was a mirror of many who lived at Sloane House. There were many students like her who came to the city with a big dream, tried to make it, only to painfully find that there was a price they had to pay. For some the price might be too high. I saw many students at Sloane House moved out and moved on with their lives. Watching them moving their belongings out of Sloane House with big smiles on their face was hard for me. I was jealous of them. I wondered what kind of life they would have, hoping I could do the same some day. I enjoyed my life at Sloane House, but after a while, I worried about my future. I knew this can not be my life if I decided to stay in America. I had to do something to change, for the better. I dreamed someday I would be able to move on with my life, like those students, beyond Sloane House.


My Sloane House Family-Members of Hospitality Center

There were many young students working at the Hospitality Center when I arrived at Sloane House. Most of them were college kids from Europe. They wanted to spend the summer in New York City and working at Sloane House was the best way to do it. After the summer, they all went home. So it was just Gina, Sonya, Liz and I. Gina came from Mexico, Sonya and Liz were French. We became close friends. There was no choice for us. We were family to each other in this new land. Sloane House itself was a new world to all of us. Gina lived just next door to me. With naturally curly hair and a pair of eyes as big as the moon rimmed with a dark eye liner, she was a passionate, hot-blooded Latin girl. She was very sisterly and always watching over me, making sure I would not get myself in trouble and I trusted her with everything. From the very beginning, she was amazed about how I handled my job. She would hold my cheek and say: “Pedro, I was at the Y in Iowa and I met guys from China there. How come you are so different from them? They were very shy and quiet. Look at you. You hang out with us and have a good sense of humor. You have our Latin blood in you.” She said so proudly and lovingly, as if I was her little brother who suddenly grew up. I said to her “I’ll do whatever I can to liberate my countryman from the dull image you have upon them and I am a fast learner.” She liked me the moment she came to Sloane House. I was kind to her and she felt at ease while working with me. We had a lot of fun working together. We had a lot in common too: unlike Sonya and Liz, Gina and I were both from a 3rd world country and came to America to look for a better life.

Like everyone at Sloane House, I liked Sonya the first time I saw her. She was warm and kind. She was 5’2”, blond hair with a sophisticated, flirtatious smile and a very heavy French accent. She was the darling of Sloane House. Liz came to Sloane House in the spring of 1989. Like Sonya, she had the French charm and she was a beauty. She had a long dark-blondish hair with deep, hazel colored striking eyes. Her father was French and her mother was from Iran. She inherited both cultures, a passionate French woman with a deep sense of cultural knowledge.

One night Sonya and Liz, I call them my French girls, invited me to the Island Club. It was located at down town area, close to Cannel Street. When I got in, it was filled with marijuana smoke. It was a reggae club, naturally everyone, except me were smoking marijuana. The French girls surprised me with their fond of marijuana. At that time, reggae was not my thing, so I left early. I became a fan of reggae music soon after.

Both French girls were happy souls and they enjoyed every moment living at Sloane House. They loved New York City and would go out every night. They also taught me their rich French culture etiquette whenever we went out for a drink or just hung out, from how to pour wines, to use hand gestures to make a point (extend the middle finger was one of them), or to poke fun at myself, or be sarcastic. I learned quickly, but I would jokingly say to the French girls, “You are wasting your time. You are dealing with a guy who worries about what to eat for his next meal.” The French girls made a long, exhausting working day easier.


Talla - A Student and A Playboy from Kuwait

Talla lived a few doors next to me. He was a dark-skinned student from Kuwait. He introduced himself as “Ted” to girls who did not know him. It took him 7 years to complete a 4-year course. So he was not the good student by any strech. But he was smooth when it came to girls, especialy blondes. There was something about Arab man and their facinations about blones. Our friendship started with a misunderstanding of a personal hygiene. Every morning, I saw him came out of restroom with a one-gallon water bottle in his hand. At first I thought he used it to water his plant, flower or something. So one day, seeing him walk out of restroom with that water bottle in his hand, I said hello and mindlessly said to him: “Water these flowers again?” “Water what flowers? I don’t have flowers!” he answered, seemed perplexed by my question. I asked him what he was doing with that big water bottle every morning. He smiled. He said he never used toilet paper whenever he went number 2. Water was the cleanest way after a shit, he told me. I was so amused. I had never heard of such a thing. I laughed so hard. I then told him what I thought he was doing, he laughed too. We became good friends ever since and in many ways he was more of a brother to me in this new land. However, I always reminded myself not to shake his left hand.

Being a student from Kuwait was the best life a student could ever have: Kuwaiti government subsidized full tuition and some stipends, plus his family sent him money every month. There was no pressure to finish school for Talla. Why bother? Money would never run out and if he failed one semester, there was always another semester and more excuses to stay in the States. So chasing girls, to be precise, chasing blondes was his hubby. A year later, Iraqi invasion changed everything, however.

At the end of the summer of 1990, I moved out of Sloane House to an apartment in Queens. Iraq invaded Kuwait that summer. Talla was in California enjoying west coast blondes at the time. He phoned me when the news of invasion broke out. He told me he was in financial trouble. He could not get money from Kuwaiti government. His family escaped the invasion but they could not send any money to him for the time being either. So he moved in with me in a basement apartment in Queens. A couple of month later, Kuwaiti embassy in Washington D.C. started enlisting all Kuwaiti students in the US to get military training in an army base in New Jersey. One night he called me from the training base and told me that he just completed the training and within a day or so he would be heading to Saudi Arabia where ally troops and Kuwaiti government stayed, ready to liberate his country from the Iraqis. I wished him luck and told him I would look after his belongings and looked forward to seeing him back soon. The next day, however, when I came home from work, I saw 2 military bags lying on the living room floor. Talla and another Kuwaiti student were in his room. I was very surprised to see him and I could tell he felt somehow awkward when he saw me. He told me he didn’t want to fight and left the army training facility with another Kuwaiti student the night before their deployment. I didn’t know what to say. I was happy to have my best friend back, but at the same time I felt sorry for the solders who risk their lives for him and his country.


A Young Kennedy and His Trouble

One Sunday afternoon, after finishing playing softball at Great Lawn in Central Park, I walked towards the exit at 72nd street and Park West. I was mindlessly walking, slowly. For some reason I felt people started looking at my direction with a strange look, a kind of look I never experienced before. I felt quite awkward. At first I thought something I wore caused the stare or something on my face that I wasn’t aware of caused the commotion. I quickly checked myself up and down, but soon realized people were not staring at me. They were staring at the person walking right next to me. I turned my head slightly to my right and recognized him right away – it was JF Kennedy Jr. He was wearing a sunglass with his baseball cap backwards. He just finished playing flag football with his friends and walking out of the park. When I told this encounter to my colleagues the next morning, Margaret, a city girl with her usual wit said to me: “You should have made a good use of your baseball bat. Hit him on the head and drag him to my apartment.” I knew she was a die-hard Republican through our political debate within the office. So I said to her: “I guess Junior’s charm can make a woman change her heart” Without a beat, she replied this to me: “Who said I am going to be a Democrat. Spent a night with me, I will make a Republican out of him…”

The beloved Kennedy Junior was not the story I want to tell. It was Karl Kennedy, a 19-year old kid from Ireland in the summer of 1989. Working as a Hospitality Center staff, he was 6 feet tall, with a messy, short blond hair and a boyish-looking face. I was an old-timer then when he arrived. He was a good kid, but he could not get along with Ron, our unionized cashier. Cashier’s job at Sloane House was a powerful job: they entered the check-in cards into computer system. Since this job was a union job, Hospitality staff was not allowed to touch computer keyboard. So if there were any problems with the room, residents would come to the Hospitality Center first and the Hospitality staff would have to go to cashier to check the nature of the problem. The way the cashiers protected the keyboard made you believe they were guarding a nuclear warhead launching keys. Keyboard was the symbol of power. They felt they had seniority over the international staff of Hospitality Center. Hospitality Center staff would have to wait for cashiers until they wanted to deal with the situation. It could be a while and often residents or tourists would be furiously and helplessly waiting until the cashier got up from his/her chair. It was even worse when there were more cashiers working. They would ask you to go to next cashier and next and go back to that cashier again. I understood the union cashier wanted to protect their job, I did not understand why they were mean to Hospitality staff. There were exceptions, not all of them were bad. Depending if he liked you or not, Ron would be the nicest cashier or he could make your life miserable. He was 6’5” tall, a long-legged black fellow from Brooklyn. His shear size was quite intimidating. He always worked at night shift. One night he was so irritated by a guest they started to exchange insults with each other. 2 minutes later, Ron jump over the counter started to threaten the guest. Mr. McAfee was still in his office that night. He came out and Ron backed away immediately. Mr. McAfee did not like what he saw; he called Ron to his office. I thought Ron would get fired. But McAfee didn’t fire him. Ron was very thankful for that and I noticed whenever he talked about Mr. McAfee after that incidence, he always showed his respect. Ron was a cool and loyal guy generally speaking. If he felt you respected him, you could do no wrong and he was your best ally. Otherwise, you were in big trouble.

The young Kennedy got a wrong footing with Ron. One night he got into a nasty shouting match with Roy and Roy wanted to take him out. The young Kennedy was hot-blooded too and willing to go out with Ron. Young Kennedy would not be a match for Ron. I had the responsibility to protect the young Kennedy, so I stepped in, not to help him, but to persuade Ron not doing anything foolish. Rony respected me, somewhat. He cooled down and had a talk with the young Kennedy outside the building and settled it peacefully. From that day on, the young Kennedy took me as his best friend. He would tell me everything. One day he asked me to take a walk with him. From his anxious and uneasy eyes, I sensed there was something serious he wanted to tell me. He told me he was seeing a girl and not sure how he should handle his situation: girl was a stripper working at the Show World on 42nd Street, just across Port Authority Bus Terminal. They had unsafe sex and that worried him now. He was afraid he might attract AIDS. He was fearful and had tears in his eyes. I didn’t know what to say to him, because I simply did not know much about AIDS. I just told him to find a place to get a test. I didn’t know then young Kennedy was also dangerously in love with the stripper.

One night I was woken up by the phone ring at 3:00 AM. It was the night shift manager at the front desk. She told me I needed to pick up my friend Karl Kennedy at the police station on 35th street. She told me briefly about what happened when I got down stairs: the young Kennedy came back late and was so drunk that he went to the girl's bathroom on the 10th floor, the student floor at 1:00 in the morning and he verbally abused a female student in girls's bathroom . The poor girl was so terrified she screamed for help. Floor RA called the police and police came quickly and arrested the young Kennedy. This was serious: only a handful of staff from Sloane House was allowed to go to student’s floor. These student floors were for SVA and Parson students only and the schools had signed long-term contracts with Sloane House. Mr. McAfee and Sloane House would sure have earful of complains from these schools. So I knew this was a bad situation for young Kennedy. I rushed to the police station. 35th Street police station was just a short block away from Sloane House. The police officer was very cordial with me when I told him I was there to pick up young Kennedy. I later realized the young Kennedy couldn’t possibly have had a tough time in the police station: he was a young Irish kid with a Kennedy name and got drunk. How anyone from the entire police force in New York City could have given him a hard time?

At 5:00am he emerged from the back room. Sobered and a bit embarrassed when he saw me. We went to Cheyenne Diner at the corner of 9th and 33rd Street for breakfast. He told me the story behind the story: while he was visiting his stripper girl friend, he saw she was having sex with, you guess it, another man. He was in such a rage that he lost his senses and went to Twins Pub across the street from Sloane House, drinking all night. He said he started hating every woman. At the end of the night, he came back so drunk and went to the wrong room at a wrong floor. He thought the girl's restroom was his room and wondering why a girl in his room. He started yelling at the girl and threatened to beat her. I couldn’t imagine how that poor girl felt at that moment. At the end he said whatever the police gave him to get him sober was the most disgusting thing he ever tasted. I said jokingly that I hoped this was the last time I had to pick him up from a police station over a stripper. He smiled. He was just a kid making a kid’s mistake. Turned out it was the last time. Mr. McAfee fired him right away when he heard this in the morning. He had no choice. He needed to protect Sloane House reputation and the long-term contracts from these schools. Young Kennedy got a job as a paddy at a private golf club somewhere in Pennsylvania after this. He came visit me a few times. He would tell me people at the club were lousy golf players with a bad attitude. When the summer was over, he went back to Ireland. A Kenney is always a Kenney: trouble with booze and woman.


LimeLight and Sloane House Club34

Thousands of backpackers from all over the world stayed at Sloane House each year. Summer was the busiest season. At one point the check-in line was so long that it extended to the outside of the entrance. I had never seen anything like this. Each day hundreds would check-out, hundreds would check-in at the same time. Night clubs in Manhattan knew this was the place to get these young traveler’s attention. Vice versa, the young travelers wanted to explore New York City’s famous night clubs: Palladium, Tunnel, Shout and the best of all - the LimeLight. Located at the corner of 21th street and 6th Avenue, it was once a church. Many people said to me it was wired to see a church turned to a sin-filled night club. It didn’t bother me one bit. There was a reason I liked LimeLight so much: Every Friday afternoon a lady would come to the front desk of Sloane House dropping some club passes. Generally, Sloane House management did not like Hospitality Center counter got cluttered. So others working behind the counter would give her some hard times, especially the cashiers from time to time. I always tried to help her to place the passes whenever I could. She was a quite and elegant woman and I sensed dropping passes for the night club was not her profession and she might do it just to make a living. I guessed it was because of my kindness, one day she pulled me over and handed me an Executive Pass for LimeLight. All club passes were made of thin cardboard, but the Executive Pass was made of credit card-sized thick plastic. She told me that I could get in LimeLight for free. She said she really appreciated that I made her life easier. “You will like it.” She said at the end. I sure did. I didn’t realize it was one of the most amazing gifts in my life until I used it the first time: it was a Friday night. I got out of work and went to LimeLight with Talla. There was a long line. People had been waiting for quite sometime. LimeLight bouncers stood by the entrance door, were screening people, making sure there were a good ratio of boys and girls in the club. I walked over and showed my card to the head bouncer. He signaled to let me in right away. Just like that! I could hear oohs and ahhs from the crowd waiting in the line. It was awesome! I loved it. I would go to Limelight every weekend, until Limelight changed management and my Executive Pass was expired by default.

Night life at Sloane House was exciting too. When night came, you could smell the excitement: everyone wanted to go out and have a good time. I did not go out as much as the others in the beginning, mostly due to financial reason. There were lots of actions in the building as well, particularly on the second floor lounge. The main attraction was Club34. Club34 used to be a barber room for building residents. Not sure when it was converted in to an activity room, but there were still two old-fashioned barber chairs standing in the middle of the room. It was such a novelty that everyone would sit in these chairs for a minute or so, just to feel what was like. It had two pool tables, a foosball, many video games and all kinds of board games. There were movies twice a week. I charged $1 for the movie and unlimited re-fill of popcorn on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Next to Club34 it was a large lounge, used to be the bible study room when it was built. Next to the lounge it was the conference room that Sloane House YMCA rented it out occasionally.


Life at Sloane House - Coming to Dream Land

In the summer of 1988, as one of the first 2 exchangees of ICYE (International Christian Youth Exchange, an exchange program founded after World War II) from China, I was placed at Sloane House YMCA in New York City. It was a one-year program. ICYE sent 2 exchangees from the US to China and China sent 2 exchangees to America in the same year. I could hardly control my enthusiasm when I thought of coming to New York City. I pictured it thousands of times in my head while preparing for the trip: it was a beautiful, exotic and adventurous place where the whole world evolved around it, where everyone dreamed to come to.

United Airline's 747 was packed. The flight was long and exhausting. When the plane approaching San Francisco International Airport, I watched the landscape of this beautiful city. America, the land of Beautiful! The sky was clearer and air was fresher.

After a brief orientation at Cleveland, I boarded the flight heading to New York City. I arrived at JFK Airport at 3:00 in the afternoon on July 29th of 1988. ICYE headquarters staff picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to Sloane House YMCA. While in the car, my heart was beating hard, eyes wide open and my breathing was heavy. I was just too excited about everything in my sight: the airport, the people, the bridge, and the skyline. I was the luckiest person in the entire population in China! Statistically, I had a greater chance of winning lotto than living and working in Manhattan, given the size of the population, and you can’t be luckier than that.

Built in the early 30s by William Sloane, a wealthy man at the time I was told, Sloane House YMCA building’s neo-gothic look had its New York-style charm. It was located at the southeast corner of 34th Street and 9th Avenue. Tii Carol was the first person I met at Sloane House. She was a former ICYE exchangee to then West Germany just a few years before. She was now the manager of Hospitality Center at Sloane House YMCA. She was waiting for me in her office. At that moment, neither she nor I had imagined our friendship would last our life time. She became one of the most important people in my life. She greeted me and handed me a key for my room on the 7th floor. Holding my key in my hand tightly, as if it would slip away, I was excited to get upstairs. The elevator seemed took forever to get to the 7th floor. I opened my room. It was 7 by 10, a box-size room had one small bed and a tiny standing closet and a desk with a TV on it. It had one window facing Westside. I quickly unload my luggage and went to the lobby area where Tii was waiting for me. She took me to a TGIF at the northeast corner of 8th Ave and 34th Street for a welcome dinner at 5:00 in the afternoon. When we were seated, I didn’t know what to order. It seemed everything was too expensive and I didn’t want to offend Tii, so I ordered a burger. That was my first restaurant meal in the United States. It was also my first taste of the wealth of this country. I could not believe how much the dinner cost: $50 for 3 people! I said to myself afterwards I would never be able to afford nor would I want to spend this much for a meal as long as I was in America. $50 equals 190 Yuen! The exchange rate was $1 to 3.8 then, a 3-month salary for a “middle class” professional and I didn’t even remember what it tasted like 5 minutes later! For the next two days, I would go to McDonald’s at the corner of 10th Ave and 34th Street with the coupon Sloane House Y provided me. It was part of the agreement: Sloane House provided me with room and board and weekly stipends and I worked full time at the International Hospitality Center, a front desk function. The value of the coupon was $3.50. Since I had yet received my stipends and only had two dollars in my pocket when I arrived at the Sloane House, my order could not exceed the coupon value.

McDonald was my gateway of realizing the wealth gap between China and America. This had nothing to do with the quality of the food at McDonald’s nor had anything to do with the taste of the food on the menu. It was the little things that I was in awe of: you could just pick as many well-packaged little bags of sugar, salt, pepper and ketchup as you pleased for your meal! I got slapped on the head from my father for eating a spoonful of sugar when I was a kid, not because it was unhealthy for me to eat sugar like that, but because there was not enough to last the whole month if I ate it like that. Everything was rationed when I grew up. I could not help but thinking what my dad would think if he ever saw life in America. He worked all his life just to make sure there was enough food on the table everyday. Unfortunately he did not have the chance to come visit America. He passed away a few years ago.

MY first night in Manhattan was one of the most memorable nights in my life. It was a humid hot summer night. fortunately Club34 on the 2nd floor was air conditioned. So I came down quickly after left my luggage in the room. It was a movie night. I stayed till midnight to watch the movie. it was Clockwork Orange. The only thing I could comprehend was freakiness, weirdness, bizarre and violence. I was too excited to sleep that night, not because there were ambulance siren sounds all night. The following day was Sunday. I was up early and ready to go. My work would not start until next Monday. So I went to Greenwich Village on foot along 9th Avenue. It was the daytime so I did not see as many people I expected. Posters were all over the place. I was drawn to an album cover in a window display of a music store: The singer in the picture was half naked. I could not tell if it was a man or woman. It left me such a strong impression. Years later, when I gradually broadened my cultural senses, I realized it was a he and his name was Prince.

For the ensuing days, before I received my first stipend, food coupons were my only currency. I would either eat at the cafeteria on the first floor or at McDonald’s. Finally pay day came. It was Thursday. It was surreal when the accountant handed me the weekly paycheck - $80. I was overjoyed! I determined to save every penny I earned and bring them home to share with my family and friends. I was very proud of myself and I knew my family would be proud of me too.

My first purchase was a loaf of bread. I wanted to taste what it was like to eat a piece of bread with my own money. It was also the cheapest thing in the store. The very next day when I came back from work, I found there were bite marks on my bread. I did not think much of it, other than thinking it was a bit strange. It did not occur to me, or put it this way, I did not want to think that it was a mouse that had eaten my bread, until I saw one running out of my room the following day. I was shocked and in disbelief. There were mice in the building! There are mice in America? Mice only exist in places that are dirty and poor places. Slums I lived in back home didn’t even have mice. Nobody had said a word about mice in America before I came. It never crossed my mind that there were mice in America, the dream land. Only later I realized New York City was the world capital of mice and rats. Many times, while I was on duty during the night, tourists, especially girls from European countries, would frantically call front desk about sighting a mouse in their room. The girls at the Hospitality Center would not do this part of the job. But it didn’t bother me one bit. Digging mouse holes and catching mice in the farm field was part of my childhood fun with my buddies.

Sloane House was the center of universe. Some of the world famouse land marks were just a few blocks away: world largest deparment store - Macy's was at 7th Avenue, Penn Station was at 33rd and 7th Avenue, world famouse arena - Madision Square Garden was at 33rd and 8th Avenue, world biggest post office - James A Farley Post Office was next to it, world largest convention center - Javis Center was at its west and most of all, Empire State Building was 5 minutes away. Many travelers liked the idea that they could just walked to Sloane House, even though telling them how to get here was a pain - many spoke little English.

It was a big building even by Manhattan standard: it had 14 floors and 1,500 rooms. Entering the building, there was a large lobby area. Two offices were on the right side of the it. One was a student center and the other was Tii’s office. On the left side of the lobby area, it was Hospitality Center and cashier section. Behind Hospitality Center, it was the reservation office and management office. Sloane House provided lodgings for a wide variety of people: Floor 11, 14 and 15 were part of International Youth Hostel program that provided lodgings for world young backpack travelers. Rooms on these floors had a bunk bed. Floor 8, 9 10 were for students from Parsons and SVA (School of Visual Arts); the 4th floor was for long-term residents and for students who were not part of the schools that had contract with Sloane House YMCA. Some of those long term residents had lived here for more than 20 years. Sloane house also accepted people with government vouchers and the rest were for other students from nearby colleges like the New School and walk-in visitors. The floors for students from Parsons and SVA were watched by security guards Sloane House provided and administered by the floor RAs. These floors were somewhat insulated from the other elements in the building. Sloane House YMCA did not house people with New York City IDs however, except for voucher holders. Who were those voucher holders? They were government sponsored drug-free program recipients or prosecution witnesses. There was also some young, want-to be actors living at Sloane House. Once they got their feet off the ground, they moved out of the Y and moved on.

Two days into work, before I even got a chance to see much of the city, I dove in right away and quickly became an expert on New York City’s hot spots and subway system. I had to be. Each day there were hundreds of tourists asking about where the Hard Rock Café was, which dance clubs they should go, how to get to Chinatown. I was telling people to take certain train lines from A to B before I even took the subway. Many appreciated that I told them about the Staten Island ferry boat tour. It was the best way money could buy to tour New York City, a round trip at just 25 cents.

Part of the responsibilities of Hospitality Center was answering the phones. The phone rang off the hook during summer time. Nobody wanted to answer the phone. The main reason was Hospitality Center did not take reservations and it was difficult to explain this to people over the phone, especially if they were Youth Hostel travelers. IT was frustrating on both ends. At first I was very intimidated by answering the phone. I could not understand what people saying and if I did understand them, I didn’t know what to tell them. I simply knew little of anything. But soon I overcame the difficulty.

My major was English. One of my goals coming to America was to learn English: learning English in a land that speaks the language. I wanted to speak English as fluent as an American. Very quickly, however, my hope was crushed. New York City was the worst place to learn how to speak English. Shakespeare and Canterbury Tale style of English I learned from college were useless when I arrived at Sloane House. Ronny, the front desk manager spoke Barbadians English, Maurice, the security guard spoke Jamaican English, Roy spoke Brooklyn English and the rest of the international staff spoke English with their accents (including the Irish). I was the only one that had the classic English training and spoke “proper” English (excluding the Irish). I was very disappointed and worried that I would not be able to learn a thing when I went back home. People had high expectations for guys coming back from America, if they ever went back. You were considered the luckiest of few and you supposed to know everything about America and the language at least. I mentioned this to the shop owner on the first floor. He was an old Italian man. He laughed: “If you truly want to learn English, get out of New York City. Nobody speaks English here. It’s a shame.” I started to learn how to speak New York English. Maurice and Roy were very enthusiasm about teaching me. I learned to say “I’m chilling”, in stead of “I’m fine. Thank you” when people greeted me with “How’re things?”

Thank goodness for TV sitcoms like “Three’s Company” and “Cheers”. It took me a while to understand half of its humors in Cheers though.


A Tale of Sloane House at W34th Street

On November 24, 1993, Real Estate Weekly had this news blurb: “The YMCA of Greater New York, Inc., has retained Sheldon Good & Company of Chicago and Edward S. Gordon Company, Inc. (ESG) to offer for sale the 14-story, 266,315 square-foot Sloane House YMCA branch al 356 West 34th Street, Manhattan, and an adjoining two-story former city YMCA headquarters building at 422 Ninth Avenue, it was announced.”

Sloane House, once the largest YMCA residence in the United States, was converted into a high-rise a few years later. Few people know the history of this building. It housed thousands, if not millions since it was opened on January 1st of 1930. It was a magnet of drawing young travelers from around the world visiting New York City. It witnessed many events and touched upon many people’s lives. I lived and worked in this building from 1988 to 1990. In these two years I have met many people and experienced many events that shaped my life in America. There were murder, attempted murder, rape, robberies, suicide, betrayal, sex and drugs in the building. It was a reflection of New York City; it was a part of history of New York City. It now quietly stands in the shadow of a few modern high rises around her...