John Tang


Posted in Short Stories and Excerpts by Jt's Item Roster on June 19, 2011

This is another story about San Francisco State University. My goal here is to develop his values so we can understand why he has those thoughts in the end. I think I have to develop the relationship with parents if I want a more dramatic experience of the reader. I let the story settle too long in my backpack.


Donating forty dollars to Japan’s relief fund, for an earthquake had occurred in April, David had his father in mind, who lead and generated a group of donators for the typhoon that had swept Philippines in a fifteen-day flood.

In front of the student center, also known as the Ceasar Chavez, students from the Japanese club stood together at the long tables. There two boys holding a white banner with red lettering which read “Ganbate” in English letters, while the girls and other members were accepting donations in plastic bins. They worked under the stretch of fog over the campus. Another rain might fall for its third day in spring. By now David was on hill, walking beside the fence where the university was building a new library. He made an effort not to look back at the Japanese club. He wanted to keep his mind away from money, or as the business class might called his emotions, Buyer’s Remorse (he wasn’t sure if it applied now. What did he buy?); it didn’t matter though, for he knew somehow he could justify forty-dollars would pale in light of all the supports he received from his parents and work.  He could remember, as a child his dad would always drop a hundred yen in the man’s hat, the thin Japanese man who cross-legged sat under the bridge. He was dingy, skin brown as a Filipino. This was when he lived in Okinawa on the military base, and the very bridge was right offbase on Gate Two. In the mind of a child David could remember in its fantasy his father made the moral code: You have to practice how to let money go. Maybe, David reasoned, that was because his dad calculated math easily. How did I know what was in his bank?

He lugged his bag up the hill. He saw 19th street on the horizon; it was clear of cars, Munis, and bikers, all of which that made the morning feel slow. His mind felt so vague he had to simplify the day. He imagined studying and napping in his room, perhaps find some coffee shops on Ocean Ave later. If only he could capture San Francisco’s every movement into meaning, he thought of as an expression rather than a political claim. Just then he wondered if he had work tonight, but after a few minutes in silence he assured him he wasn’t scheduled. His mind still wandered further as he imagined folding shirts three o’clock in the morning, the pressure of his performance review (for he was temporary), then waking up five hours later for Japanese class in the morning. Why did I take the job? He concluded and readjusted his tasks into one objective: Go home.

Spread out on the hill there were students in sky-blue shirts with prints of pine trees asking for donations. Thankfully many of them seemed busy with their prospects, already, sharing their binders and offers of an opportunity at achieving an excellent life-accomplishment at young age—to be a part of something greater than one’s self. To be safe, David stayed on the far right of the hill where the cherry blossoms and their white petals were blooming; as if he kept his head down, he focused on the curious growth of the petals, a thought shallow as ocean’s spume—like, how a tiny pod carried so many colors in one space in time—just when a voice called out to him.

“Hello, hello!”

David heard someone as he turned away from the petals.

“Sorry.” David was sure he said to the man. “Not today.”

The man stepped closer to David’s side. David had glanced, said hello, “I’m fine,” but again, wasn’t heard.

“We are from the Sierra Club.” He introduced himself. “Your clean air; the laws that protects them. That is what we do for you. You’re a smart man, I take it: If you love Golden Gate Park, you’ll have to love we do for the community…”

“I’m sorry.” David said. “Not today.”

But the man had kept talking about his group, opening his binder where in the pockets there were brochures. He was able to slip one into David’s hands because his mind hasn’t cleared since he finished class and has lost consciousness, idly waiting for that right pitch in his voice, an inflection, surmising his community, his benefits, his goals, into question of either no or yes.

“Look at the kind of programs we have here.” He pointed at the page. “You’ll be helping us have these laws protect nature. Have you heard of the law that’s going through congress right now?” As his fingers slid over the brochure, he read the law code supposedly about clean energy passing through congress which David could’ve read himself.

“I’ll take a look at it when I go home.” David said.

When the dark man stepped in front and blocked David him from seeing 19th street, David laughed to himself (and the humor showed in his smile): What an asshole. The man was black, tall, thin, in a dark pea-coat, wore a moss turtleneck underneath and a pair of khakis, with brown loafers; his eyes were white as his gapped-smile; his hair trimmed and shaped neatly to the hairline.

“What we have…” he leaned closer, pointing in his binder. “If you sign up you will have the benefit of joining other members on camping trips, while advocating for a laws in support for nature. What do you say about signing up now?”

“I wish.”

The dark man could see David’s skepticism as he took back the brochure.

“Sorry. I just donated fifty dollars to the earthquake in Japan.” David tried not to pay attention to why he lied about the dollars. “I know how hard it is to live overseas.”

“That’s good.” He said. “Now you’ll have the opportunity to help again.”

Did this man know I have four-hundred dollars in my bank right now? David thought, yet he didn’t want to personalize the argument, staying within “boundaries.”

“I’m saying I don’t think I can,” said David. “I know how hard it is to rebuild after an earthquake or a typhoon. I lived through them.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Why am I lying? David questioned himself. He tried to clear the last statement by saying he lived in a military household, overseas, and knew how a typhoon could cut the power off weeks and shatter windows…

“This is what I’ll offer.” The dark man changed the subject. “You can donate fifty dollars, and you don’t have to sign up. There is no commitment there.”

“I donated fifty dollars,” said David. “You know, all my money goes into my tuition.”

“Well, I’m not asking for tuition.” He said. “I’m not asking for a pay check.”

“Also, I don’t feel comfortable donating without a job.” David said. “I have one, but it’s temporary.”

“You are giving me a job right now, a man like me, a job!” He didn’t have to remind us the economic burden in America. His second point about being a “man” could refer to his African American background and their adversities in America.

“Well then, what can you donate?” He said. “Thirty dollars? That’s all I’m asking.”

“I don’t think I can.” David said. “Even twenty dollars is two days of food for me.”

“Ten dollars?”


“Why not?”

“Now you’re just asking me to check my fiscal responsibilities.”

David was unsure what he said himself. Fiscal responsibilities? It sung as if it was an advertisement for a debate on the economical crisis. There was a moral and immoral way you must feel about the issue.

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry, I just can’t afford to…” David tried to explain.

“Thank you. Go now. Have a good day.” The man shut the binder, smiled and looked away.

Appreciating my time, he didn’t mean it. David thought. A fucking asshole. That’s what I should’ve said. You’re a fucking dickhead. David imagined the solicitor’s black face, round, glistened like slate in the warmth. Get the fuck out of my way, I should’ve said that first right after I said I’m sorry, not today. I’ll bet he didn’t even understand “fiscal responsibility”; that I’d bet would be way beyond his vocabulary. So now am I a racist? Those guys are all fucking assholes. David imagined a can cornbeef cooking slowly over a short candle stick, held by a metal ring, as he listened to the typhoon finally coming to an end that one morning, but it was only an eye for thirty-six hours: You guys are all fucking assholes.

He was exhausted, regretting he put so much thought into money. On 19th street there was a wave of cars in the distance, a Muni unloading people across the street, and bikers turning into the campus. The day was slow, David thought, as he stepped on the street before the signal. It was good the day was slow.



Everything You have is Lights

Posted in Short Stories and Excerpts by Jt's Item Roster on June 10, 2011

For an exercise the story took too long to finish.  My goal was to find the character’s flaw, find an opportunity where he needs to confront it; the trouble, however, is the ending doesn’t deal with the issue directly and rather sounds didactic. I might not know Sylvio well enough, and for now, too focused on the narrator’s thoughts.

Everything you have is Lights

Over lunch, Stephen said I was too nice. He was alluding to an experience from my work at Macy’s; (so we could understand the determination to share his wisdom, we need remember Stephen was once the master of retail): “Man, you’re giving discounts left and right. I’d bet if someone punked you, you would give him eighty-percent off.”

“I don’t mind manipulating the system for a customer.” I said. “You want an associate do that for you when shop, right?”

Stephen paused, eating a spoonful of curry with white rice. The sweet, spice aroma brushed my nose as I pushed plate aside.

“The problem is you will always have the same customer coming back to you,” said Stephen. “There was one woman who’d always look for me back at Banana. Worse is she told her friends about me.” Stephen parodied the friend in a soft, childish voice: “Oh, you helped Keri. Can you give me the same discount? They wanted to use discounts on damaged merchandise on top of clearance—I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“What did you do?”

“I was stressed, man,” said Stephen. “I called my manager. Asked her: Does this look damaged?”

“What happened?”

“Didn’t give her the discount. Hell no. It wasn’t damaged.” He said. “Do you want the same people coming back to you?”


Later that day I woke up on Stephen’s carpet after a cup of warm tonic we chased down our heavy meals with, a slow roasted mocha made through a drip method and tea-spoon measurements of sugar to a perfect blend. My thoughts amidst a fog, I remembered I needed a bike; Stephen and I discussed this before—perhaps one time we’d bike three miles on the Golden Gate Bridge which has a bike trail that spirals down to the coast. Stephen was already on his computer, and he checked two websites he had saved as his favorites: Ebay and Craigslists. For a road bike, the kind you saw on the streets of San Francisco, the average price on Ebay was five-hundred dollars. Too expensive. On Craigslist, Stephen seemed to have more faith in its offers as he carefully pared down the selections to include mountain bikes in the search, and only searched for sellers who were selling bikes a hundred and fifty dollars or below.  While so, he was schooling me how to properly buy something from Craigslist, a bike especially. You want, for example, to only look through ads with photos (“There is why they don’t post any pictures,” Stephen warned me. “They don’t want you to see a rusty break, for example”). There was a bike and the buyer was from South City, San Francisco, close to my house.

“How about you buy this one?” Stephen asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You’ve been talking about it for months.” Stephen reasoned. “You’re never going to do it if you don’t do it now.”

I paused and said to myself: “Am I being impulsive?”

“What are you worried about?” He was genuine in solving my problem. “Money, that’s the issue.”

“Do I have any plans for the summer?” I questioned myself. “Are there any events happening?”

“Most of the places you go are in the city.” Stephen said. “Think how easy it would be, how much money you’d save from driving, if you biked around.”

“I would…” I’d like to buy the bike. It was a speed-bike I remembered a friend of mine bought for five hundred dollars before, and now it was available for a hundred. “My head is just foggy. It feels better if my head was clear and I wanted it. I hate being wishy-washy.”

“What is there to worry about?” Stephen repeated. I felt Stephen was annoyed, that he could see I was now making excuses. I knew logically nothing could prevent me from buying the bike. It was close to home, and I had a car; I could visit the coffee chop on the beach without driving;

“Let me withdraw money, first, then I’ll call him.”

“Don’t forget to ask if he’s flexible with the price.” Stephen added. “Maybe you could get it cheaper. Just ask: Are you flexible with the price? Tell him you are student, working, and need something to help reduce the cost and to get around.”

I withdrew the odd amount of a hundred and thirty-seven dollars from the bank. I called the owner of the bike, Sylvio, yet I had left a message. He didn’t call me that night, either. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to have the bike.


Ten o’clock this morning was foggy when Sylio called my cell phone, interested in selling the bike. He said he was looking out the window, that the weather was “beautiful” down there: “It’s the perfect time to come now.” I was alone in bed, just woken up, and I tried to buy an hour by reasoning I had work at two o’clock. I also needed directions.

“You know,” said Sylvio, “Just research the direction online, now.”

“My internet is down.” I said. “It’s been happening every morning for the past month.”

“That’s okay.” He said. “The directions are easy: You drive…you’re from Holloway, that means you take Nineteen. It turns into 280; take 280 to 380 until you hit 101. You take 101, then you will drive down and you will see Oyster Point Boulevard. It splits into three streets when you reach Gull Street—but you don’t take Gull Street. There will be a Y at Oyster, and you want to turn onto Marina Ave. Go all the way down Marina Ave. and stop at Suite B where I’ll be with the bike outside. I know it sounds complicated, but it’s real easy, you know; it’s a fifteen minutes drive.”

I managed to scratch down the main streets like they were talking points in a debate. How long was the drive? I wondered, for I needed a bolster of time if I got lost. If we were still in south city, it’d take, I could imagine, ten to twenty minutes.

“So you come down?” He asked.

“I have work at two o’clock.”

“Two o’clock? I can meet you at two o’clock.” He misheard me. He had a German accent, bright and loud, enthused as if I was removing thorns from his hands.

“Okay. How about at twelve?” I offered. It was the first number that came into mind; I planned last night I’d take an hour nap before work.

“So you’ll be here now?”

“Give me like thirty minutes, sir.” I said.

“I will see you in thirty minutes.”



I decided there wasn’t enough time for a shower. I put on a yellow, dull hoodie and sweatpants; brushed my teeth and spread a lather of deodorant under my arms. I was as if prepared to exercise at the gym— a self-consciousness shadowed me closely as I searched for my body for odors in the silence of my room. In what seems like gym-clothes, and keeping my breath and arms concealed in freshness, I found a comfort to be in the public—maybe I would jog later in the park today, I thought. Who’d know?

280 to 380 was easy to find, since I passed by the exits driving to work. I had just passed under the overpass. I saw 101 in the distance—however, the freeway seemed to split into north and south. Did Sylivio say north? I searched in our conversation from earlier. I couldn’t find the answer, hence I searched into the confinement of my knowledge that was logic: Did south city include Daly City and Millibrae (I knew San Jose was absolutely too far to be a part of a twenty-minute drive)?

I was looking for the card where I wrote Sylvio’s address and notes for the road, but it fell on the side of the car seat. The tip of the card stuck out by the car door. Each glance I made, I reached for the card. I swerved several times on the road, grew afraid and focused on the overpass coming up when a yellow bus sped on the right side to exit 101 South, forcing me to take 101 north.

Shit. I said in the car. I was driving down now, could see a plane fly over me. There were industrial buildings off the side, like design corporations, delivery trucks, pharmacy plants, sitting quietly by the violet ocean. I knew this road would take me to the airport somehow or back to Sacramento (to be safe).  Shit. I knew should’ve reasoned more with Stephen. I’d imagine moments when Stephen made excellent talking points yesterday, from one stone, leap, step to another: The weather would be clear in the next week; if I didn’t buy the bike now I would never have bought one; you could go anywhere and save gas; you’ve been talking about buying bike since you moved to the city three months ago, if you didn’t buy a bike now you would never buy one—the last of his bullet point could only be resolved by me, that was the issue there.


My head was drained as yesterday. I didn’t have breakfast yet and drank only a glass of water to keep the metabolism up. I couldn’t reason why 101 North was the right exit in this state of mind. I was more familiar with the south exit; I have friends who resided in Daly City and Millibrae, there was Stanford University in the valley, and my brother who lived in San Jose. I wanted that kind of familiarity with the northern road.

I told Stephen having a clear mind was important. If my head was clear, I’d be open to choices rather than having conditions shape my answers. There were better questions I should’ve asked Stephen. Thinking about the quality of the bike now, I should’ve asked Sylvio more specifics about the bike: The size (How about for someone who five feet nine inches), the year (Can the bike shift gears), and if it was even a road bike (How light was the frame?). I tried to remember yesterday, and all I could see in my mind was the photo on the computer—and I based my decision on the image of a brown bike with curved handles that justified a road-bike.

I wanted to call the Slyvio, but the turn under the bridge was too sharp and the overpass was too steep. I was looking for the next exit as I heard another airplane tore the sky above me.


I passed abandoned buildings, their symbols crooked on three nails. I was afraid I’d find myself in the heart of the city where I’d drive in the against the said-direction on the one-way street, never anticipating where I want to be on the grid, even after making squares; then I imagined Hunter’s point on the map of San Francisco sat on the lower east coast somewhere by the ocean. One midnight my friend rode the Muni there because he fell asleep and missed his stop fifteen block ago. A dark man sat by him in a green pea coat with a blade innocent on his lap. He kindly asked for my friend’s cell phone and wallet. I was searching for boards which read Fourth Street, Fifth Street, and Hunter’s Point (Didn’t know if exits shared the same name as the districts).

I didn’t recognize the name of the first exit but I took it. I was relieved cars slowed to a stop at the street light. This street (the one paralleled to the freeway) had to guide me to an overpass, I reasoned. Now west or east, which direction should I drive in? Just then I saw in the corner of my Oyster over the freeway in plain, white lettering. It said about a mile and three-fourths further. I saw you could make a u-turn at the stoplight.


Exiting on Oyster into a neighborhood of industrial buildings, quiet, still, enormous, heavily fenced in, all the way down the stretch of cement road and healthy grass, I followed the path to Gull street where a Y split down the slope which Sylvio said was there; further down there was a harbor with boats laying softly on the ocean by the Yacht Club and the Bait Store. There were old couples walking on the dirt path, older men on mountain bikes riding on the edge of the sandy causeway. Where were the houses? I wondered. Why did he draw me to the remote side of the city? If there weren’t people around, I would’ve thought there was plot in the scene.

In the empty lot I parked beside the trailers. After a while of slowing my thoughts into breathing fresh air in the car, I called Sylvio on my cell phone.

“Do you know where Bait store is?” Sylvio asked. “Go there, please. I will be there with the bike, sir.”

“I know where it is.”

“Go there, sir.”

The street dipped into the ocean where a paunchy woman in a plum blouse waved at me. I asked if people lived here? When she said yes, I thought I’d further ask if she knew a man named Sylvio. She said yes: “He’s on his phone right now. I saw him this morning. Wait for him.” She pointed to a wooden gate with blue tortoise-shell eave. It had metal bars and had an electric security pad.  There, a tall man was coming down with a bike by his side (I couldn’t see him clearly because of the bars). The gates opened. He brought the bike down the handicap slope, and I got a clearer look at him: His red hair was out of control, he had a handle-bar mustache, glasses sitting crookedly on his aquiline nose which had a wart on the upper corner by the drip of his lower eyelid. He was still on the cell phone scheduling a time to meet with “Bill.”

We met at the dip behind the Bait store. While I waited for him to finish his conversation, I saw the bike by his hips. It was a road bike, like what I saw in the photograph. If you stared long enough into the golden flakes on the frame, you’d know the bike was once a Schwinn. The spokes and rims had a touch of rust on the bolts and wires. By the shine on the nose the leather seat seemed to be hard. The only thing that visually seemed fit was the steel chain and the gear-shifter. Could I ask for a lower price? If I only knew more about a road bike, I thought.

“Nice to meet you.” Sylvio hung up the phone. “Sorry, I have to see another man tomorrow.”

I shook my hand and introduced myself.

“Do you like to bike?”

“It has been a while since I rode.” I said. “I usually ride mountain bikes.”

“This bike you will usually see in the city people ride on.”

“Oh.”  I knew that already; that was why I considered a bike outside of my knowledge. The air was cool, thin. The land dry and made for a quiet run for you and your footsteps and breathing. I couldn’t hear any trucks for miles, nor people talking, nor the boats floats on the ocean. I didn’t want to think about the bike anymore. Rather I wanted to ride against the wind. At the moment I further chased my wonderment, asking myself how a man lived in this kind of solitude. What did this man find so appealing when he said today was “beautiful” when there was overcast and a slit of orange light peeling from under the earth? Somewhere in me I knew the answers but somehow I asked him: “So you live here?”

“It’s the only way to live, sir.” He said. “I come out and the air is clean.”

“We’ve been having showers lately.”

“Yes.” He said. “Are they your first out here.”

“My first, yes.” I said, thinking he could probably warn me for hours about the weather, and so I asked something interesting. “How often do you visit the city?”

“Never.” He said. “It will be there when I want to go.”

“As long as it’s there,” I finished his thought in English, “you don’t worry about it, right?”

It’s too long since we talked about the bike, and I was here under compressed time and for business.

“So the rust,” I said, considerate this was a used-bike. “Can I just clean it?”

“You can buy a…not wool…a sponge, one’s with the rough layer, some soap, and clean it; the rust will come right off.”

“May I ride it first?”

That’d give me the real answer we’ve been looking for. Leaning the bike to its side, I spun the petal to the top, and rested my leg on the petal. The first push was then easy on the stony street, and it helped me find bStephence as I turned the handles left, then right, grinding the rubber tires. It has been eight years since I rode a bike and felt this was my only means of traveling; there was a bus, but it was hot in the day from body sweat after being under the dry sun for fifteen minutes. Also, you might see a trail or a garden you might want to walk through, but couldn’t because you were secured in the velvet seats. I knew my home city on a bike, the street by the penitentiary where people raced their cars, the playground where children drank and had sex in the warm nights, all my friends’ homes that traced the rim of the yellow valley.

I rode behind the Bait store, and coming around the wooden stairs there was the dip again. I rode down the fall. Following the curve of the street, fighting through the influence of gravel on a slit of rubber, I inhaled some of the rush until I rolled for a while. I stopped and parked the bike between me and Sylvio in the shadow of the Bait store.

“Are you from here?”

“Came here from Vacaville for school at SF State.”

“Welcome, sir.” He said. “How long have you been here?”

“One semester. You’re looking at three months.”

He didn’t seem interested in school as if heard it for the first time, and plus, every state has its own college. I understood his common knowledge would take care of his curiosity about me.

“You’re from Vacaville, you said?” He smiled. “We had our puppet tours at the Onion Festival.”

“I heard it used to be called Onion city or something with Onions.” I said. “So what, you had a theater company? When did this happen?”

“My God, place your mind in the 60’s. I will die in the next five years.” He laughed. “Our last stop was always in Vacaville, our tour usually for children.”

As he explained, I imagined his golden stage, violet curtains closing on a moral note; the Czech craft in the silver strings hovering and eclipsing one another, with the paint flaking off the deadwood—he said he shaved the paint with a box-cutter. “Why doesn’t your generation have a sense of intuition for the things they buy,” he said. “You’re generation doesn’t have that kind of entertainment anymore, to listen to someone. Everything you have is lights, you know. If it flashes, like a silver spoon on sand dunes, you would reach for it.”

I didn’t want to steer too far away from business, so I clarified the features of a road-bike or a bike in general: How to remove the wheels and tighten the breaks.

“Can this fit in the car?” I asked.

“Yes, sir.”

He followed me to my car. Sylvio removed the front-wheel as I opened the trunk and set the backseats down on their faces. The car neatly fit inside, with the wheels by the window and on the frame of the bike the chains faced upward. I closed the trunk, and we leaned against the car waiting the brush of wind to fallback, which I knew was marker of the last exchange of words.

“Can I have it for a hundred dollars?”

“I cannot sell it to you for that, sir.”

“It’s in the car, already.” I said. “There was rust on the bolt, the name was coming off, the breaks were loose.” Some of the details I said outside what I’ve seen must’ve been true, for he seemed to ignore them. By the look of his hard face, he didn’t seem to be upset but in thought. I further fed him the other conditions of my life: “I’m a student, working in retail to pay for college. And all I have on me is a hundred dollars.” I opened my wallet in his line of gaze. Aside from a hundred dollar bill I showed him the depth and space inside the leather casing.

“It is in the car; that is true, you know. It is all there like your reasons.” His eyebrows furrowed to the street. “The message you left seemed like you wanted the bike. You were so detailed in your thoughts, sir, with the frail pitch in your voice.  I know, sir, you have the thirty-seven dollars—that is the problem there. But I will not ask you to complete the payment. No, no.” He paused. “I could do about anything to compensate thirty seven dollars; dent your car, use this box-cutter I have in my pocket and slash your tiers, ask my neighbors to close off the parking lot. But, no, I won’t have that fall on you. You just stole from me and you’re leaving freely with a good bike. I can’t have ill fall on you. You’re a college student, you know. They teach you well how to justify everything, including your own self in the world. I won’t stop you from you discovery.”

With my justifications in mind, the rust, the conditions of school and all, I thought he acted absurdly as if I didn’t pay anything (a hundred dollars was more than sixty percent of what he was asking for). He just didn’t understand my conditions were true. Turning away from me, he said many more wise things under his breath, his hands holding each behind his back. This conversation we’re having, I wanted to tell him, was going pass by next week. The threats, the guilt, the fear, were only passing stones in my head. A couple nights of sleep wash them away; I knew some of the conclusions would be, the bike was something from the 60’s, it wasn’t a mountain bike, the tracks on the tires were worn. So what I did was fine. Also if I could remember clear as the air I breathed in, Sylio would die in five years—he said that! I was trapped in a short gaze when I thought these things needed to be said, yet Sylvio has passed the gate and his thin body floated down the harbor.

The wind blew hard as the overcast approached the coast. A drizzle sprayed on my face, a fog was veiling into the industrial buildings in the eastern distance. Perhaps this why people cleared from the sandy pathway. I got into my car when the rain began, and remembered I forgot to ask how to out of neighborhood and back onto the freeway. The truth was, I said to myself, he was the one who’d have to deal with the storm. I felt a little better.