Shine by Richard D. Ramsey
In nine-teen eighty-eight, the United States government sent me a check for twenty-thousand dollars. I guess they thought that it made up for all they took away from me. By that time, my children had already had children and I had already come to terms with my past. Forgiveness is a funny thing. I forgave the men that were responsible for the death of my parents a long time ago, but I guess they haven’t forgiven me. People have told my story time and time
again and as long as I’m alive I serve as a reminder that even those with the best of intentions can become their own worst enemies. Somewhere, unknown to me, somebody lied sleepless in their beds at night and felt like they had to do something. They had to relieve their guilt. After all, writing a check is far easier than letting go of the pain. I know, I’ve done both.
My daddy died when I was very young, I don’t even remember what he looked like. My mother said he was very a very handsome man. I guess I just always took her word for it; there are no pictures left for me to see. The “pea-picker” camp where we lived had no use for us after that and we moved to a textile mill in Los Angeles. The company put us up in a slum apartment with other single mothers and the children were all sent to school. Well, they called it school.
The only thing they taught us was moving bolts of linen from one spot to the other from sunup to sundown. In those pre-war days the US had started to supply the British with materials and huge factories sprung up all throughout the inner cities.
There were many other children there, children of all races. Of course, we didn’t really notice the difference. There were tales of Mr. Roosevelt trying to bring people of all colors together, but we were well beyond that. Fatherless children were a step below any type of racial disparity; we were something that even the civil rights leaders of the time didn’t want to talk about. We were already invisible and I wish I could have stayed that way, but the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything.
I am what was known as Nisei. That is to say that I am a second-generation Japanese American Citizen. My grand-parents came over to the US to find work on the Pacific Electric Railway at the turn of the century and labored themselves to death, but not before they became naturalized citizens. I had more claim to being an American than most of the Irish that worked alongside me in the mill, but that didn’t matter. The country was at war and we suddenly found ourselves the enemy.
I still remember the night the soldiers came to get my mother and I. She was sleeping on our cot and I was lying next to her. I had my head against her chest so I could feel her breathe and on quiet nights I swear I could hear her heart beating. We wouldn’t have fought them, it wasn’t the kind of people we were; but they still burst into our dorm in the middle of the night with dogs and batons and whisked us away from the mill.
I didn’t stay long in the labor camp. My mother developed a cough shortly after arriving and passed away one warm afternoon. I tried to tell the guards she was sick, but no one cared. When she took her last breath, I cried for help, but none was offered. I lied there all that night with my head against her chest until they came and took her away the next morning.
I don’t remember much about what happened between that and arriving at Manzanar, I was very young; no more than eight years old. I just remember it being a terrible place. Manzanar was where they dumped all of the Japanese orphans during the internment, Nisei or otherwise. It didn’t matter if we were Americans or not, we were “Japs” to them. They dressed us all in poorly put together uniforms and cut all of our hair in a “bowl-cut.” They called it the Children’s Village, but it seemed like the end of the world to us. It was always cold and there was nothing to do but stand around and listen to the little babies cry all day. Most of them were sick and poorly cared for.
Then, it seemed that just as quickly as the war began, it ended. The workers at the Children’s Village called us all in and told us that the “Japs” had surrendered and that we would all be relocated to foster homes. It sounded like a dream come true, but it’s really where the nightmare began for me.
We were all dressed in a similar uniform, given a bag for clothes and whisked away one by one. All of those other orphans, I still remember their scared faces as the bonds we formed were broken and we were placed on different paths. I was placed on a train for San Diego with nothing more than a bag containing an extra uniform and a note that read “Sister Gretchen.” She was supposed to pick me up at the station and place me from there.
San Francisco was a very different town from Los Angeles. Where my previous home had been mostly flat, this place was very hilly with steep roadways and alleys. The people here walked differently, too; they didn’t carry themselves with as much self-import as those in L.A. I had only thought I was sad and alone at Manzanar. This place was a different world altogether. I waited for Sister Gretchen all day. She never came. I rested on a bench that night, waiting for the
gentle rock of the passing trains to loll me to sleep.
The next morning I was awakened by a strange man with slicked back hair. It was a little wavy and thin in the middle, but well manicured. He scared me at first. Most of the white men I had ever encountered before wore something around their neck. It was either a tie or a priest’s collar, but this man had none of that. He was wearing a coat, but the neck of his shirt was open. I knew enough to know that he was not the most upstanding of citizens.
“Boy! Hey, boy! Wake up.”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
“What’s your name, boy?”
I was terrified. This certainly wasn’t Sister Gretchen. Should I lie to him? Should I tell him the truth? “My name is Kevin Fujimoto.”
“Kevin Fujimoto? What are you doing here, Kevin Fujimoto?” He rubbed his pointed chin with long, skinny fingers. I didn’t say anything else, but showed him the piece of paper I had been holding.
He studied it intently and moved his lips as he read. “You’re waiting on this ‘Sister Gretchen?’”
“She aint coming for you. You hungry?”
I nodded again. I was starving.
“Then you’re coming with me. I’ll give you something to eat and a place to sleep, but you gotta work, you understand me boy?”
I nodded again. I didn’t know what else to do. He turned and walked away but paused before he walked out of the station door. “You comin'?” I grabbed my bag and ran after the man.
That was how I met Giovanni. That’s all he told me to call him, that’s all any of us were allowed to call him. He took me to an old abandoned theater where a group of kids all my age slept on palates and were all assigned jobs. Some of the boys sold newspapers, some of them ran errands. The girls did something else entirely. I was eleven years old and far from naïve. I knew what Giovanni was doing with them. The boys worked during the daytime and slept at night and
the girls slept during the day and never talked about where he took them when we all bedded down.
“Kevin,” he called to me soon after showing me where I would sleep, “you ever shined shoes before?”
“No, sir.” I shook my head.
“You gonna be a shoe shine boy. I got a kit for you. What you do is every day you go to the station, shine shoes for a quarter apiece and bring the money you make back here at the end of the day.”
I still remember the trepidation I felt. “I don’t know how to shine shoes, sir.”
Giovanni slapped my face with his long, skinny fingers. Not enough to hurt, but enough to let me know he meant business. “Don’t ever sass or back talk me, boy. Now, you want to eat?”
I was too scared to open my mouth again, so I just nodded.
“Then you gonna shine shoes and don’t you dare come back here at the end of the day without at least four dollars. You understand?”
I understood well enough. I soon picked up on the new culture that was San Francisco and the new trade. Train stations were not too far from the theater and there were trolley depots on almost every street corner. Everywhere, businessmen came and went; always in a hurry. In the mornings, I would hit the street corners to catch them as they walked by. In the afternoon, I would scour the train stations, offering a buff while they waited for their commute home. It even
got so that I could tell who would pay for a shine just by the way they walked. Men with their hands in their pockets were the best customers; ones with hats were likely to need a polish, also. There were those that just sort of shuffled along, watching the sidewalk as they strolled by. They didn’t have a quarter in their pockets, I just left them alone.
After a year, my four dollar quota went up to five. I’d like to tell you that I made it every single day, but I didn’t. Giovanni was thankless when it came to extra coins, but he would not tolerate being shorted. One kid was beat so badly that he lost the sight in his right eye. But, for every smack we suffered at the hands of our chief, the girls had it much worse.
They would shuffle in late into the night and crawl into their palates with their heads down and their shoulders slumped. Every time I close my eyes, I can still see their faces. Bloody lips and black eyes. More often than not, I would wake early, collect my shoeshine box from Giovanni and hit the streets so I wouldn’t have to linger and hear them cry themselves to sleep.
Day in and day out for two years I lived like that. I think I shined almost every loafer, boot and wingtip in Northern California. I had plenty of time to reflect and I thought quite often about my grandparents. I thought about how they felt coming to a new town for a better life in the United States. I began to wonder if this was what they had bargained for. If a life like this was all I had to look forward to, maybe Japan didn’t seem so bad after all. I didn’t even speak Japanese, but I fantasized about running away and going to the home of my ancestors where
everyone was just like me and there were no concentrations camps or little girls sold into prostitution. Of course, I was wrong, but living a lie for so long made me susceptible to flights of imagination.
I fooled Giovanni for two years until he finally discovered my deception. It was on the day I first started my period. Back when he had called me “boy,” I had been too frightened to tell him otherwise. As he did every morning, he came strolling through the back of the theater, rattling a large metal trash can with a broom-stick.
We all woke up as the girls were crying themselves to sleep and started to rouse, all except me. My stomach was cramping and I curled up into a little ball.
He walked over to where I lied, holding my arms over my belly. “Kevin, what’s wrong with you?”
“My stomach hurts!” I didn’t know what it was at the time. I knew what a period was; I just didn’t know I was getting mine.
He pulled back my blanket and yelled out. “Aint nothing wrong with you!”
I slowly rose to my feet and we both spotted the blood stain at the same time. It was on my palate and my clothes. He reached down with his long, skinny fingers and yanked my pants down around my ankles. There was no more hiding the fact that I was a girl.
He was speechless for a moment. Then, he punched me. It was the first time he had ever hit me with anything but an open hand. I fell to the floor, pulled my pants back up and rubbed my cheek where he punched me.
“You been lying to me all this time?” He pulled me up to standing by one arm. I tried to pull away, but he was too strong.
“I’m sorry, Giovanni! I’m sorry!”
He grabbed me by the ear and drug me over to where the girls slept. “I can’t believe I let you get away with this. Well, no more!” The girls had seen what happened and were watching the spectacle with wide eyes.
“No! No!” I tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t turn me loose. I stomped his boot, but I was barefoot and it didn’t have much effect. From somewhere in his coat, Giovanni produced a straight razor and placed it against my head. “Stop struggling or I’ll cut your ear off. You’re going to make some real money for
I didn’t care. Anything was better than living like they lived. I pulled back and felt the sharp razor blade cut through my ear. The pain was excruciating, but I followed through all the same. He was left standing with a blade in one hand and part of my ear in the other. I grabbed my shine kit and ran out of the door.
I ran. I ran as far away as I could and wound up in a completely new town. I was scarred, but I was alive and my purity was still intact. A new town and a new life, but I was going to live it for me. From that day on, I was known as Helen Fujimoto, the Shoe Shine Girl of Sacramento.
I never saw Giovanni or any of the other children ever again.
Now, do you think all that’s worth twenty-thousand dollars?