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ONE MAN'S MIRACULOUS JOURNEY IN THE HEART OF THE CITY
By ROGER HUANG
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Roger Huang
All rights reserved.
San Francisco, 1983 He spoke to me. It was clear and graphic.
Breaking down in San Francisco's Tenderloin district is not the best way to start the day. But this is the place that God has chosen to speak to me.
Of course, I don't know this as I make my way up the trash-littered sidewalk toward my car. No one in their right mind would go to the Tenderloin to hear God speak. And if my car's flat tire is any indication, it seems like God isn't taking much notice of me at the moment. A broken-down car is the last thing I need. Rubbing my forehead with a tired hand, I look around, taking in my shady surroundings. The Tenderloin is San Francisco at its seediest, where bad things happen and corruption wreaks havoc. A place where you hold your breath and your wallet and try to get out as fast as you can. I'm not thinking about God or listening for His voice as I kneel down to look at my tire. I just want to go home. The rim is almost touching the ground. I let out a huge sigh and glance around for a pay phone.
Looking up Turk Street, I see a crowded city block full of dirty, worn-out buildings. Broken bottles pool around an overflowing trash can. A trickle of homeless people shuffles down the sidewalk. Small pockets of thrill seekers mill around the doors of a bathhouse. A drug dealer, baseball cap pulled down low on his head, bends toward the window of a blue car near the intersection. I spot a phone booth by a run-down liquor store as I head up the street toward Parc 55, the hotel I work at.
Making a wide circle, I step around a strung-out young man propped up in the doorway of an empty storefront. Greasy locks of hair peek out from under his knit cap. He clutches a ratty blanket around his shoulders.
The unpleasant smell of rotting produce assaults me as an older lady with yellowing and gray hair and a baggy pink dress sidles up to me. "You got something for me?"
"Sorry. Not today." I shake my head and brush past her. Get me out of here. I glance back over my shoulder toward Union Square. Maybe I should have just gone back to the office. It smells a lot better there.
San Francisco is a patchwork of rich and poor districts. High- and low-class neighborhoods butt up against each other. The fact that the posh hotel where I work is a few blocks from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city just makes it easier to find affordable parking.
Knowing what I know now, I should have paid to park in a garage. But this is one of my first days on the job as an auditor for Parc 55.
The hotel is a dream. All plush furniture and chandeliers and class. Like the people who stay there. Newly opened, the opulent hotel was built by a rich, young Asian businessman. His dream hotel takes up an entire city block.
I thumb through the phone book and find a nearby towing company. Waiting for the company to pick up, I think back to the day I had interviewed at Parc 55.
Straight off the night shift at the Crowne Plaza in Burlingame, I'd rushed home to shower and put on a fresh shirt. Maite (pronounced My-tay) was in the kitchen pouring milk into her steaming cup of coffee. The older kids, Marie France and Phil, were already at school.
The little ones, Michelle and Christian, were still asleep.
"Where are you going?"
Looping my tie around my neck, I paused to kiss my wife. "I'm going down to Parc 55 to interview."
Her eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Roger, people slept all night in line out there. Don't bother going."
I threaded the tie end through the knot. I knew what I was doing. I could feel the excitement building in my chest. This was the type of hotel where I wanted to work. I liked large hotels with lots of rooms and lots of class. The bigger the better, and this one was the newest crown jewel of downtown San Francisco. It was my dream job.
"It's all right. I'm going to check it out."
She smiled. "You have two auditing jobs already. Do you really need another one?"
Brushing back a wayward strand of her dark, curly hair, I pecked her on the cheek and grabbed my suit coat. "Don't worry about it."
I closed the apartment door behind me and jogged out to my car. The city was coming alive in the early morning hours. Storefronts were rolling back their gates and unlocking their doors. Commuters headed into car parks and pushed through the doors of their glass-fronted office buildings. The usual symphony of car horns and muted sirens filtered through the wispy, fog-filled air. I threaded my way through the traffic congestion that was hedging its way around Union Square and parked only to find the entire block was cordoned off. There were a lot of other folks who wanted jobs at Parc 55. The line stretched down past the hotel, snaking its way around the corner.
I drew in a deep breath. This was going to be a long wait. A long wait. As I headed past the gleaming front door of Parc 55 toward the back of the line, I made eye contact with the doorman. To my surprise, he nodded and smiled, opening the door for me.
"Thank you," I said, as I stepped inside.
"Yes, sir." He smiled at me again.
Maybe he thinks I am the son of the Chinese millionaire who just built this hotel. Maybe that's why he let me in. I'm not telling him any different.
I grinned to myself, thankful for my good luck, and looked around. The lobby was wide and lit with sunlight. A murmur of friendly voices filled the room. Men in sharp business suits were seated on luxurious sofas and sleek chairs. A large crystal chandelier sent a soft, filtered light cascading down. People at the front desk readied papers and chatted brightly. This was going to be big. Huge. A brand-new modern hotel in the heart of Union Square. I wanted in. Not wanting the doorman's mistake to be found out, I slipped through the lobby to the restrooms. I waited there until I heard them start calling names for interviews.
Three days later I had the job.
Three weeks later, I'm here, stuck with a flat in the Tenderloin. There's nothing classy or plush about that.
With a click, the ringing stops and a lady with a nasal voice picks up. The tow truck will be here in twenty minutes. I make my way back down the street.
A barker hawking a strip show steps in my path. Nodding toward the blinking neon sign he is standing under, he tells me, "We've got a lot of pretty girls.... It's a good time."
"No, thanks." I push past him.
"You're missing out!" he yells after me.
I kick a stray beer can in my path toward the curb.
A group of teenage gangsters clustered near the stoplight on the corner jostle each other and call out, "Hey, baby! Why don't you come over here?" I follow their shouts and line of sight to a young woman in a too-short miniskirt on the opposite corner. All I want is to get home to my couch to take a nap.
I pop open the door of my car and slide into the front seat. Shaking open my newspaper, I try to take in the headlines. News. Politics. Sports. The 49ers are on top of the world. You can't walk anywhere in the city without hearing the names Montana and Lott spoken in reverent tones. This city bleeds red and gold.
I suck in a deep breath and roll my shoulders. Breathe. Just breathe.
I settle in for the wait. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a commotion on the sidewalk. The cluster of teenagers on the corner have moved their attention to a younger boy who is standing next to the front door of a run-down high-rise. Surrounding him, they circle like predators. His head is bowed with fear, and his narrow shoulders are hunched forward. I hear their muffled words through my window.
"What do you got in here? Can I have some?" A skinny boy with long black hair grabs at the boy's pockets, pulling at his frayed pants.
A round-faced teen with a red denim jacket pins the kid against the wall as the others take turns swatting at his face. "Let me go! Let me go!" he cries.
Immediately, my hands go slick with sweat and a wave of nausea sweeps over me. I touch a dry tongue to my lips. Violence always has this effect on me. It is not foreign to me. I grew up in a country where cruelty and bribery were the daily currency. I hate violence with every part of my being.
I watch as the boy bends beneath their rough hands. A sense of revulsion roils in my stomach as the teenagers' laughter and curses puncture the air.
I tear my eyes away, focusing on the paper. I can sense the hopelessness in that boy as if I am pressed against the wall next to him, as if I am feeling the blows and the fear that cramps his body.
Where are the police anyway? What kind of neighborhood leaves its children out on the streets alone to fend off drug dealers and cruel bullies?
I feel sick seeing someone get hurt, but I know enough about this neighborhood to not get involved.
A knock on the window startles me. "Are you the one with the flat?"
The face of the mechanic fills my window. I roll it down. "Yes! Thank you so much for coming."
Within minutes, I am headed home. Smooth, tall skyscrapers and corner grocery stores replace rickety buildings and barred tenements as I follow the streets back to our apartment. The afternoon sun warms the inside of the car, releasing the scent of newsprint and air freshener.
I push Fleetwood Mac into the tape player, attempting to calm my uneven breathing and the pulsing headache that is coming on. Music is my escape. I turn it up in an attempt to rid myself of the images that are flooding my mind. The words and melody fill the car, chasing away the hopelessness that crowded my mind a few seconds earlier. At least it does for a moment.
Somehow that scene, that boy with his sad eyes and his face full of fear, keeps coming back to me. Pictures of him flash like snapshots through my head. His hands in front of his face. His jacket twisting around him as he tries to break free from their grasp. His frail body pressing up against the grubby building.
I rub my forehead with a shaking hand and try to turn my thoughts toward my wife, Maite, and the kids. Her infectious laugh. Their smiling faces. The small pieces of joy they weave into my life each day. In these moments of trying to forget, it happens. A single riveting thought clears every image from my mind: What would you have done if that were your son? The thought is as clear as if someone were sitting in the passenger seat next to me, speaking to me.
My gut clenches in a visceral reaction as I imagine Phil and Christian at the mercy of a bunch of thugs. No one lays a hand on either of my sons. I would have helped him. Protected him.
In a bright moment of clarity, the next thought pierces me with a swift and sharp conviction: They are all the same to Me.
I have never heard God speak to me before, but I know His voice in the way a child recognizes his father's. He is sharing His heart with me ... and it is broken.
I can barely see well enough to make it home. Tears blur my vision, and I draw in a ragged breath as I open the door to the apartment. Maite is standing by the kitchen sink preparing dinner. One glance at me, and she puts the vegetables she is chopping to the side.
"Roger, what's wrong?" She knows the ins and outs of me and my moods.
I walk over and grip her in a fierce hug, holding her tight. The scent of her, the warmth of her arms, unleashes a torrent of sorrow that has lived in me for so long, I can't contain my tears. Head cradled against her shoulder, I can't utter a word. The cotton of her shirt is soaked as I cry against her neck.
"What happened to you? Are you okay?"
I am sobbing—deep, gut-wrenching sobs. The Holy Spirit is at work, shifting things in my spirit, touching me, speaking to me in a way that He never has before. Loosening my hold on Maite, I turn to the sofa.
"Roger, you have to talk to me. Tell me what happened." She follows me to the sofa.
Pressing my knees to the floor, I kneel by the sofa. Tears of regret and sadness just keep coming.
She sits on the sofa, a warm hand resting on my head. "Please talk to me, Roger, so I can help you."
Lifting my head to look at her, I press the heels of my palms into my swollen eyes and try to speak. My breathing is labored and cut with sadness. The story comes in fits and starts. Slowly I tell her about my morning and the scene unfolds. I watch as Maite's face mirrors my own pain. Tears slip from the corners of her eyes as she pieces the story together. The bullies, their cruelty, and the fear of the little boy.
"Roger, what happened to the boy? Is he okay?" Her forehead crinkles with concern.
"I don't know," I whisper. "I didn't help him. I left." I see disappointment cloud her eyes. "And then on the way home, this thought, this voice asked me, 'What would you have done if that was your son?' and I said I would have helped him...." A sob rips through my body.
Lifting my eyes to meet hers again, I say, "I said I would have helped him. And then the voice said, 'They are all the same to Me.' They are all the same to Me. It was God, Maite. God spoke to me."
I have been praying for months, years even, asking God to speak to me in a real and clear way. I can't believe that this is the moment He has chosen to speak, and it's because I've broken His heart. At this thought, every last bit of composure drains from me, and I collapse, full-length, on the carpet.
Maite sits next to me. I know she is crying with me. Body heaving, I weep as I have not wept for years. Not even when I was fired a few years earlier and had hidden in the bathroom to cry so Maite and the kids wouldn't hear me. This is different. There is no fear, just a building ache inside of me for the boy who was hurt and for all the children who had ever felt the pain of abuse and neglect. My pain cannot be formed with words.
Years later, I would know this as the pivotal moment where God began to reshape my thinking and my life, changing me from the inside out. But in this moment, I can only think that I have failed God, that little boy, and myself.
That boy, that poor boy, with his hands covering his face and fear bending his body, is God's boy. His child. No different to God than Philip or Christian are to me. And I turned away from him. I read my newspaper and drove away, leaving him to his misery. I groan. A fresh wave of grief rolls over me.
The carpet is damp beneath my face. I cry, knowing I have forgotten that God loves the least of these and that I have let Him down. I cry, realizing that I am not the man I want to be. I cry for the little boy I left hurting in the Tenderloin. I cry, because I hadn't run to his rescue and saved him from his attackers.
And I cry for another little boy I once knew. A frightened little boy who knew the pain of blow after vicious blow, who knew the sharpness of cruelty and the sorrow of never being rescued. I cry for myself.
Pressing my hands to the sides of my head, trying to will the inevitable to stop, a thousand dreaded memories wash over me, and I am back in the corner of a darkened room in Taipei.CHAPTER 2
Lost and Alone
Taipei, 1966 How do you mend a broken heart?
The room is muggy with the damp air of a summer night. A cricket sings on a tree somewhere. A yellow slit of light from the hallway squeezes under the door. I close my eyes tight—so tight that I cannot see the light. If I close my eyes tight enough, maybe I can be somewhere else. Be someone else. My palms ache and pain shoots up my knees into my hips. My arms and shoulders sting from the reddening welts that mark them. I am on all fours, naked, in the dark of my room. I can hear my brothers breathing heavily in the dark next to me. They are older than I am. They can kneel longer than I can. My legs usually start to shake after the first hour.
Our two younger brothers and sister are asleep down the hall, oblivious to our midnight torment. There are six of us children total, but only we three older boys bear the brunt of our father's anger. We don't know why. It is just the way it is.
One of my older brothers snickers. "I hope he fell down and knocked himself out."
"Shhhh! He'll hear you!"
"I don't care."
I feel the tears gathering against my eyelids, pressing their way through my lashes. "Please," I whisper, "be quiet. Don't make him come in again." I am desperate for them to be quiet, trying to hold back the inevitable. I don't know why we are being punished, but I know if I just wait, it will be over soon. I have trained myself to wait for the end.
When we make him angry enough, the beatings can stretch into one seemingly endless, terrifying night.
The door is flung open, and the blinding light from the hall frames our father's silhouette in the doorway. He is a giant. A monster. We can't see his face, but we have memorized its angry lines and cruel contours.
Excerpted from CHASING GOD by ROGER HUANG. Copyright © 2013 Roger Huang. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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