#24: James of Little Vietnam

June 22nd, 2012

Heavy and hunched and with a face like a chipping wax statue, James walked up and told me to recycle the books.

The books in question were piled in four boxes left out for free on the sidewalk outside the Chinese Mutual Aid Association’s office in Little Vietnam (I know, I know). They were of various languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, English and C++.

There was a 1995 directory of Chinese-owned Chicago businesses, a 2003 guide to QuickBooks, a parenting guide endorsed by Leeza Gibbons and novels in all the languages but the programming ones.

As I decided whether to take the copy of Alexandre Dumas’ “Ba Chang Ngu Lam Phao Thu” or leave it for a Vietnamese person who might want to read about the Musketeers, James sidled up to me. He had a cane, fisherman’s hat and black T-shirt from a defunct South Side pub named after an Irish lady-pirate. His teeth were as awkwardly spaced as the genders at a junior high dance.

He said I should recycle the books, make a lot of money. He was very insistent.

“Feel that paper,” he said midway into his spiel.

I obliged, fondling a page of something Chinese and blue.

“That’s good paper,” he said. “That’s how you turn that paper into green.”

Little Vietnam is a slip of the North Side Argyle Street in the larger Uptown community. It’s a comforting hodgepodge of Southeast Asia where you can get Vietnamese pho soup at one shop and top it off with Thai pastries a few doors down. The streets are lined with Vietnamese signs for shops, grocery stores, travel agents, cell phone stores and the other businesses it takes to run a small expat/emigrant community.

But, being in Uptown, the streets are also lined with dozens of wandering homeless. The smell of lemongrass and fish sauce from inside the small restaurants competes with the smell of urine from outside.

And James told me to recycle the books.

I listened, nodding, not wanting to tell him recycling centers don’t really pay as much for paper as he apparently thought. We each seemed to think the other was foolish but pleasant.

When he was about to walk on, he gave me a fist bump. It turned into a handshake after I asked his name.

“James.”

“Paul.”

“Good name,” he said. “You remember the Last Supper?”

I nodded, not wanting to tell him Saul of Tarsus’ conversion came after that.

“Not bad name yourself. You got two of them,” I said, referencing the Apostles James the Greater and James the Lesser.

“I’m a little grayer now,” he said, stroking his beard.

We shared a laugh, neither of us with a clue what the other was talking about.

As James walked away, he repeated “You get out of trouble!” several times, eventually calling it to me over his shoulder from about 30 feet away. I guess he meant “stay” or “keep” out of trouble.

There’s no real point to this story other than it happened and it made me feel good. I liked James. He was a nice crazy man, even if he wasn’t the most reliable on catechism or recycling codes.

I went to get Vietnamese soup. I didn’t take Dumas.

Written June 2012

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