Haskell and the Chinese New Year
I met Adam Lewe on September 9, 1963, the day he introduced himself to our first period 8th grade history class. Speaking in a British accent, he told all of us he was half-Chinese and half-Jewish, grew up in Hong Kong, and was having a bar mitzvah that very weekend at Temple Emanuel near the Central Park Zoo. “Unfortunately, I cannot invite any of you because the social hall only holds four hundred.”
He not only had a wonderful sense of humor, but someone told me he collected sound- tracks of movies and musicals, just like I did.
After class, he scooted down the hall. I raced after him. Quite breathless, I shouted — “I’m Haskell Hodge, and I’m half-Jewish too!”
“I’d love to get together sometime! What are you doing after school? I just got a copy ofI Do I Do!”
He never even turned around.
For some odd reason, after this brief encounter, he didn’t speak a word to me, not even a hello, for three long years.
Not until today, January 21, 1966 — -when he spotted me studying in the library.
“Hey?You have Mr. Vanish for 11th grade English, right?”
Hold on a second. He’s talking to me?
“I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind proofreading this paper.”
He planted a rough draft of his Animal Farm essay on the table in front of me.
My throat tightened. I felt goosebumps on my skin. The essay was written in small, delicate, dark blue cursive.
The Themes of Power, Greed, and Corruption in Animal Farm, by Adam Lewe.
I mean, who writes on all three topics? One was more than enough for 500 words.
I pored over his manuscript.
“Hardly improvable,” I told him. I corrected a few misspellings, and I told him ‘communism’ could be lowercase but ‘Communist’ party would be capitalized.
He smiled and nodded his head. “I knew I could rely on you. You have a reputation.”
Now that we had spent fifteen whole minutes together, I figured I might attempt to finally take our friendship to a new level.
“I have an extra ticket to see Flower Drum Song. It’s a new production, off-Broadway.Want to come with me tonight?”
I’m not sure he heard me. The bell rang, signaling the end of school. He stuck the essay into a manila folder and darted toward the exit doors.
I followed him. “It’s the musical that features the song ‘Chop Suey’ and ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl.’”
I followed him out of the library, onto the cement steps facing 84th Street.
Bonvadine Academy was only twenty blocks from my apartment. I wasn’t certain where Adam lived, but every day after school, his limousine illegally parked on Lexington Avenue. Today the driver, dressed in a navy-blue uniform with silver buttons, stood beside the open door of the passenger side of the back seat.
As Adam approached the black sedan, he turned toward me and asked, “Are you asking me because I’m Chinese?”
“No, I just thought, since I have an extra ticket, I’d ask.”
“The only thing you know about Chinese people comes from that dumb musical, isn’t it?” He sounded slightly snarky.
I couldn’t believe I had said something so stupid. “Honestly, I heard you’re also a member of the Columbia Record Club, and that you like musicals. This is not their best show, but it received good reviews. Tickets are difficult to nab.”
He was precisely right. I knew nothing about Chinese culture, Chinese people, Chinese history except what I saw in The Good Earth, 55 Days in Peking, and this Rogers and Hammerstein musical. Oh, and what I learned from the placemats at the little Chinese restaurant my mom loves to go to in the Village.
I can be such an idiot. What is wrong with me?
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’m going to invite you over sometime. Give you an education.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “How about tonight? I’ll give the tickets away.”
I hope I didn’t sound too desperate.
“Got plans, kiddo, but why don’t we have lunch tomorrow? I’ll have Mom make us something special.”
The next day — in the school lunch area — he shared his mother’s delicious cold noodle salad. After we finished the meal, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked me where I had bought my orange-striped shirt. He also mentioned that he watched one of my mother’s movies on TV — “She’s not much of an actress, is she?” — but then he added — “I see where you got your good looks.”
If that’s not a come on, what is? I felt my flesh melt. I could hardly breathe. I walked twenty blocks home, taking side streets, circling Time Square a few times. I tried to convince myself that what I was feeling was not lust but envy. I wanted his self confidence, his audacity, his je ne sais quoi.
A few days later, we bumped into each other in the hallway.
I could feel his breath on my cheeks. We were about the same height, a bit over six feet tall. I didn’t work out with weights or run track, like he did, so he was a bit thicker, more muscular. His eyes stared into mine. “Haskell, I’ve told everyone else. I’m not sure I told you.”
Oh, my God! Here it comes! I felt my heart pump as if it were about to explode.
“Dad’s being transferred. We’re leaving in two weeks.”
Wis-con-sin? Be happy for him. Be happy for him.
“So, I’m having some friends over this Saturday to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Please come.”
I pretended not to be too excited, but my giggles betrayed me.
Again, I took the longest route home, feeling so hurt and angry, as if he had warmed my heart and then moments later, shattered it with a sledgehammer. We’re finally friends, and now he’s leaving town?
The party was called for 5 p.m., but I arrived at 2 p.m. I circled the block for three hours, sitting on some stoops, reading comic books at various newspaper stands. It was maybe in the high thirties, growing colder. Finally, at exactly 4:59 pm, I knocked on the front door of his posh townhouse.
Adam was dressed in a red changsha, which was basically a traditional long coat. He led me into a small den where a petite, very elegant woman, appearing not much older than my mom, sat behind a desk, wearing a beautiful red gown. Her black hair was pulled back in a tight chignon.
“Po Po, this is my friend, Haskell. Would you read his fortune for him?”
She pinched her nose and winced as I removed my overcoat, revealing a red shirt with red pants and red socks. The librarian at school had said that people who celebrated wore red on the Chinese New Year to ward against evil spirits.
“How old are you?” She asked.
“Ah, a year younger than my Adam — and what year were you born?”
Her eyes lit up. She spoke slowly, in almost measured phrases. “The year of the tiger.”
His grandmother said all this in perfect English.
“Please sit. Adam? Give us a few minutes.” She motioned for her grandson to disappear. I sat directly across from her, only a small wooden table separating us. Removing a huge bundle of sticks from a bamboo cylinder, she shook them hard until one of the sticks dropped out.
“Ah,” she said, smiling, examining the stick. “You will enjoy a life full of challenges, and you’ll face many difficulties, but you’ll also enjoy wonderful, unexpected events.”
Does this mean Adam and I will be together? That’s unexpected. Will I ever see him again? Does he know how much I’ll miss seeing him every morning when we pass each other in the hallway? Does he know I think he’s better looking than Anthony Perkins?
She nodded her head, and I wondered — was that it? I prepared a whole greeting in Chinese taken from one of my mother’s movies, Love on the Ice Mountain. I spent days memorizing each word in Cantonese, and I figured, now’s the time. I unraveled my notes. As I began reading the words, she put her hand on mine.
“Other people in your life will be easily attracted by your enthusiasm.” She squeezed my hand hard. “But there are times when we must know when we’re too much.” She grabbed the piece of paper, folded it into quarters, and stuffed it in my pocket. “In life, Happy New Year is plenty. Make sense?”
As I rose from my seat, I felt scolded and cuddled at the same time, strangely moved and uncomfortably ridiculed. Still, as I stood in line to greet Adam’s family, I figured I had worked so damn hard on that speech, I may as well recite every word of it.